February 14, 708
He stalked his prey through the shadows, ever searching, always just a hallway behind, a corner too late. He held a lutin blade in his hand, dripping blood. "I know you're here!" he raged, echoes taunting him from the darkness. "You can't hide from me forever, murderer! I -will- find you, and when I do, I'll make you pay! Do you hear me?! I will -kill- you!!"
Drift jerked awake, his throat raw. His snarling scream still rang from the stone walls of his room. He rolled over in bed, fumbling in darkness for the bottle of cheap wine stashed underneath it. The bottle bounced off of his outstretched fingers with a clink of claw against glass, and he grumbled a curse as it rolled out of reach.
"Madog? Are you in here?" he called. Hearing nothing, he opened a small drawer in his nightstand and flicked what he found there through the doorway to his forge. Jing! Jingle-jingle-jingle! The small, round bell bounced around his forge a few times, but there was no corresponding scrabble of metal claws on stone. No Madog tonight.
Even though the bait hadn't found its target to trick, the thought still brought a momentary smile to Drift's lips as he threw the covers off and dropped to hands and knees, searching under the bed for the straying bottle. "There you are," he said when his fingers finally closed on the bottle's neck, but his smile turned to a disappointed frown when its light weight registered. He had, perhaps, sought its help in getting to sleep a bit too often lately. "I'll get more tomorrow," he muttered.
Drift climbed back into bed, bottle in hand. Outside, thin, broken clouds veiled the moon's light, making it wax and wane as they drifted past. Drift contemplated the brightening and fading patches of light as they fell across his bed, colored and divided by the panes of the stained-glass window set in the wall above his bed. The white cross in the center gleamed no matter what the light's strength, and he watched it with particular attention as the night watch called midnight.
He pulled the cork loose with his teeth and spat it out, grimacing as part of it broke loose and tried to lodge under his tongue. He fished it out and tossed it away. "A little less cheap next time," he admonished himself, working another piece out from between his incisors with his tongue before spitting it out after the other two.
"All right," he said finally, and took a careless gulp. Too careless - wine dribbled down his chin and chest. Since the Curse had claimed him, his lips hadn't been able to seal properly around the neck of a bottle, but he'd be damned before he would lap from a bowl. Blotting up the spill, he took a more careful drink and tried to set his thoughts in order.
A cold chill settled in the pit of his stomach, and he sent another gulp of wine chasing it. A lutin-made blade, if appearances were anything to go by, and hardly worthy of being called an outright sword.... and yet... Somehow, thinking of it as anything else felt strangely wrong, almost anathema. It frightened him. He scoffed at himself, a derisive snort, almost a sneeze. No, don't lie, he thought. It didn't just frighten him. It terrified him. Why? He had no idea. He had no idea why it enticed him so much, too.
Don't lie about that, either. Drift laid his ears flat and scowled. You know perfectly well why it appeals. His fist tightened around the bottle's neck as the siren's call of revenge replaced it in his mind's eye with the grip of the sword. Six years had passed since his father's death. For five of them he had been certain that, given the chance, he would put that sword though the killer's heart and to hell with the consequences. After the Yule attack and Erin and Nathan's deaths, he'd had even less reason to hesitate.
He drained the last gulp from the wine bottle and grimaced as the bitter dregs coated the back of his tongue with a gritty residue. "Yech. Definitely a less cheap one next time," he grumbled, eyeing the bottle as if it had betrayed him before setting it down. Bringing his knees up to his chest and crossing his arms overtop of them, he rested his chin on his forearms. He had reason to hesitate now. Alexis. Misha, and Wolfram, and even grumpy Xavier, too, but especially Alexis. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. He wanted to wake up to the sound of her voice, the smell of her fur, and the feel of her warmth in his arms. He wanted to make a family with her and raise their children together. He wanted the good times and the bad times, the tears and the triumphs, the figuring out each new day and facing it together. He couldn't do that chained in a dungeon. Maybe that's why the sword scared him so much; it could take all that away.
He wanted. And with the certainty of the dawning sun, he knew what he had to do.
February 19, 708
Alexastra rubbed her weary eyes and splashed water onto her face. As grateful as she was to Lady Nocturna for her protection and support, the Queen of Dreams' method of cross-plane communication left something to be desired. Certainly it saved on messengers, she thought as she eyed her dripping visage in the mirror, but even a daedra needed rest when on the mortal plane, lest she lose her grip and be swept back to the Hells, and she wasn't getting much.
The she-bat scowled at her reflection. No more whining. I will cope. I must. Scolding her complaints into submission, she shook them from her mind and the water from her fur and settled her thoughts into order. Thestilus. Thestilus and a sword. That had been the recurring theme in the dreams Nocturna had sent her. She would have to give up her close defense of Drift. It had worked well for the past five weeks, but she felt a siege building against her. Staying on the defensive now would let Lord Agemnos prepare a crushing strike far beyond her ability to parry. To be honest, she was a bit surprised it hadn't already come. Now, she needed to sally forth and strike at his levers of power in Metamor, and the chief was Thestilus. The dreams seemed quite clear to her: if she let Thestilus get too close to Drift, she would lose. Admittedly, having an imp do the killing rather than the mortal who had actually signed the contract with him wasn’t Lord Agemnos' usual style, but with only two weeks to the deadline of her wager with him, she wasn't about to expect him to stick to scruples. This was going to get ugly.
First, of course, she would need to put Linafex in a tangle to keep him busy, but after that she would hunt Thestilus until he dropped. She brushed her whiskers into place and smiled slightly. If there wasn't so much on the line to lose, she would certainly enjoy what she had planned for the wretched brat.
Wolfram stepped into Patrolmaster George's office and shut the door behind him. The room was warm to the ram's winter wool, heated by a small but intense fire. The stone floor was carpeted in rugs of woven fur, and the walls were covered in maps of the Valley and its resident cities. The ram bowed his head respectfully. "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, sir," he said.
"It's the least I could do for the grandson of an old comrade," George replied from behind his desk. Gesturing for the ram to be seated, the jackal-man leaned back in his chair. "Crazy old Hartwin Lowe. I can still recall his favorite phrase..." He lifted an invisible mug and said, "'Today we wine, tonight we wench, and tomorrow... we win!' He was a good drinker, a good brawler, and a good man to have at your side. A bit battle-mad, perhaps, from too many hits to the head, but a good man nonetheless." He chuckled. "But you didn't come here to listen to me reminisce. What's on your mind?"
Taken aback by the unexpectedly nostalgic welcome, Wolfram paused for a moment to reorder his thoughts. "I'm told," he said finally, "that my friend Edward Snow, also known as 'Drift', is being sent on a patrol to Glen Avery next week."
"That's correct." The jackal-man rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers against the tip of his muzzle, but didn't offer any more information.
"Sir, I'd like to volunteer to go along."
George didn't appear surprised. "Interesting. You're the third person to make that offer today." He leaned forward. "Why?"
Wolfram didn't hesitate, in spite of the predator's gaze fixed on him. "Because I think someone is trying to kill him."
The jackal-man's ears tipped forward, intrigued. "What makes you think that?"
"The most recent was the ice collapse accident out by the river last December. I was with him the night before, when he checked the ice for safety. I even helped him with the ice drill he used to measure for thickness. There is no way it could have thinned that badly in twelve hours, even on a warm day, which it wasn't. What's more, if I hadn't called him off the ice to give him the lunch he'd forgotten-"
George interrupted with an upraised hand. "Wait- what were you doing bringing him lunch?"
"Alexis flagged me down in the marketplace that morning and asked me to bring it to him."
The hand went down again. "So Alexis sent you," he said with a tone of subtle interest. "Continue."
The fire popped loudly, startling the ram for a moment before he resumed his chain of thought. "If I hadn't called him over just a minute before to give him his lunch, he would have been with the two that went through the ice."
"So you think that someone might try to kill him on this patrol."
"Sir, Glen Avery is where his father was killed."
"Son, if I avoided sending a person to a place where someone they knew was killed, I'd never get my rosters filled. This entire valley has been a battlefield at some time or another. But you think someone might try to make history repeat itself?"
"Tell me; wouldn't it be more appropriate to take this to the Watch than to pursue it personally?"
"I already have taken my suspicions to the Watch, sir. They're investigating, but without substantial evidence..."
"I see." George sat back, pondering. "How are you on skis?" he asked, and the shift in topic brought a hopeful smile to Wolfram's face.
"Tolerable, sir. That's how I got out to Snow's ice crew that day."
"Good. The snow's gotten too deep to get out to Glen Avery without either them or snowshoes, especially with feet like yours. See the quartermaster about issuing you a pair before you leave."
Wolfram rose from his chair, hooves clacking on a bare patch of stone between rugs. "Thank you, sir. I appreciate it."
"Don't worry, Wolfram. I'll be sending you and your friends out with a crew of my best. You're not the only one who's had suspicions about your friend's... " The jackal paused for a moment as if weighing his next choice of words carefully. "...exciting lifestyle."
Sunset shone red on Arkos Linafex' fur through his forge windows, his narrow canine muzzle pinched with concentration as he soldered the second of three arms onto a new chandelier. Business was booming since Snow had shut down his forge in January, and yet the Southlands hound was still unsatisfied. The victory was hollow at best - people still dared to compare his obviously superior craftsmanship to Snow's, and the wretched upstart hadn't yet sworn off the trade for good. Until he did, left town, or was killed, Arkos' monopoly would remain in jeopardy. The desert dog-man snorted in irritation, and then paused for a moment of welcome imagination. Given how much trouble that mongrel's family had been for so long, he didn't think he'd settle for anything less than Snow's slow and painful demise. His fingers twitched slightly, itching for the cool feel of his long knife or the gemstone hidden inside his workbench. Either would do perfectly for finishing Snow, though the gem would be more useful in the long-
"Daddy! Daddy, look!"
Arkos yelled in pain as the soldering tool slipped and scorched a shallow furrow across the back of his hand. Biting back a string of curses, he carefully set down the tool and solder, submerged his hand in the pail of water next to the forge to cool the burn, and fixed his daughter with a thin-lipped frown. "Mariah, dear, what have I told you about coming into the smithy while I'm working?"
"Not to," his daughter said, peeking sheepishly around the doorjamb with one green eye, framed in cascading black curls. "Are you okay, Daddy?" she asked, one small hand gripping the doorjamb as she leaned a little further into view.
Arkos noted with amusement the care she took not to break the plane of the door and thus not technically trespass into the forbidden smithy. She was a clever girl, as he had raised her to be, a precocious child he knew would grow into a fine young lady who could then be married into a wealthy noble family. He would make sure of that. If he could make a deal with one daedra, he could make a deal with two. He just needed the proper bribe, and he cared even less about the fate of Snow's alleged soul than he did about his own. Pulling his hand from the water bucket, he turned it over to inspect the burn and then replied, "I'm fine, dear. What did you want?"
Mariah came running, all her worries cast aside with the abandon of a six year old, and wrapped her arms tightly around his leg. "Daddy, look!" she said, smiling up with a gap-toothed grin. "Another one's loose!" She had lost her first tooth two weeks before, and now its neighbor was loose as well. She wiggled it for him with her tongue. "Thee?"
"Very good dear," he said, leaning down to inspect it with the ceremonious dignity the event deserved. "You're growing up so fast! Have you shown your mother yet?"
"Nuh-uh," Mariah replied, setting her curls swaying as she shook her head. "But I want to stay with you, Daddy... watch you work. Can I help?"
Arkos shook his head. "Now, you know I can't let you do that. It's dangerous for little girls in here." He gently stroked her hair. "Especially ones with such bright, bright futures. Daddy's going to make it all wonderful. Now go show your mother and I'll be along just as soon as I finish this piece. Okay?"
The little girl thought about it for a bit and then nodded. "Okay, daddy! Love you!" she said as she fairly flew out of the room.
A familiar voice spoke from a shadowed corner of the room. "I wish I still had that kind of energy," it said. "Oh, wait," it continued, taking on the sound of a self-satisfied smirk. "I still do. I love being immortal."
Arkos' hand closed on the still red-hot soldering iron, momentarily fantasizing about planting it squarely between the intruder's eyes. Then he forced himself to set it down again and turned. "Hello again, Thestilus. Are you here to tell me that I need to wait some more? Also, I believe I told you something about coming near my daughter."
"I didn't go near your daughter," replied the voice. "I was here well before she was." What stepped from the shadows, though, was not what Arkos expected.
"Well, well, well," Arkos said, looking the creature up and down. "Decided to go with a new look, did you? If you're hoping to be incognito like that, you're out of your mind. You are ugly as sin."
"Thank you." It smirked, a wrinkling of an already wrinkled muzzle.
"It figures that you would consider that a compliment."
"Of course," the creature replied, and then moved on to other business. "We discovered something important about Alexis Nightwind, and Lord Agemnos decided that I needed to be stronger if I was going to deal with her."
"How nice for you," Arkos replied, folding his arms in impatience. "But I fail to see how that helps me."
"Weren't you listening?" the creature responded, circling around to the forge hearth and running his hand lazily through the fire. The flames licked over long, sharp-clawed fingers without harming them, and a cloud of smoke rose from the fire when he dropped something into it. "I said that I would deal with her. An agent of the aedra like her would be far out of your league and a waste of my lord's investment."
Arkos Linafex sputtered as alarm and outrage vied for expression, fists clenching as if for a fight. "She's a what?! And what have you done to my fire!?"
"Relax." The creature turned to face him, leaning against the forge and crossing its leathery arms in an insolent mirror of his posture. "It's just a more compact version of your incense sticks. I’ve no desire to be spied upon either. Yes, she's an aedra, but there's no need to panic. My lord has it well in hand."
"I'm not panicking," the hound huffed, recrossing his arms. "I'm merely... concerned."
"Of course," Thestilus replied with a smile that made Arkos want to hit him. Hard. With a hammer. "Concerned."
A very large hammer. "Cute," Arkos snapped. "And when, pray tell, are you planning on dealing with her? When will we finally move against Snow? I'm tired of waiting!"
"Soon. Very soon."
"When?" Arkos retorted, his impatience unabated.
Thestilus smiled, revealing teeth as sharp as a razor's edge. "Let me tell you about a trip Snow will be taking this week."
Arkos listened carefully and, as the tale progressed, his smile slowly grew to match Thestilus'. Without a word, he stepped over to a side cupboard, pulled out a bottle of wine and two glasses, and poured drinks. Passing one to the daedra emissary, he raised his own in toast. "Here's to a successful business venture and the final crushing of the Snow family."
Glasses clinked. "Cheers," replied Thestilus.
February 20, 708
Xavier picked his way reluctantly amongst the gravestones of the Metamor Ecclesia, arrayed in long rows just outside Euper's northwestern walls. His breath plumed white in the morning air, and he rubbed his gloved hands together against a chill that was more than physical. As a follower of the Lothanasi faith, he had been raised with the tradition of immolation rather than burial. The thought of all of the dead bodies beneath his feet, awaiting their... resurrection? Revival? What did they call it? Wouldn't that make them zombies? The leopard-man shook himself to throw off that train of thought. It was disrespectful... and unsettling. This was not the time for such concerns, and he cast them aside with an effort of will. Finally, rounding the corner of a small mausoleum, he found what he'd been seeking. "Are you nearly finished, Drift? It's time."
Kneeling in the snow before a quartet of gravestones, the samoyed Keeper didn't look up. "Hello, Xavier." He slowly traced his fingers over the lettering of one of the stones, his voice soft and thoughtful. "I'll be done in a moment." Xavier watched Drift's lips move, whispering something over the graves. A prayer, he guessed, although he couldn't be certain. Manipulating the weather was child's play compared to reading the lips of a canine Keeper.
The leopard-man waited until Drift finished and then helped him to his feet. They walked in uncomfortable silence: the past month had seen a long string of arguments between them regarding Drift's decision to shutter his smithy.
Drift shifted the hefty traveling pack slung across his shoulders, then winced and pulled loose a tuft of fur that had tangled itself into a buckle. He let the silence linger for a moment and said, "You know, it surprised me when you'd asked to go on this patrol. We haven't exactly been seeing eye to eye lately."
Xavier took his time replying. "No, we haven't."
The leopard paused again. Then, as if to make up for the brevity of his earlier remark, he began, "I still think you are making a mistake shutting down your forge so that you can dabble at inventing-"
Drift frowned. "I'm not dabbling-"
Xavier continued as if he hadn't heard. "I also think using yourself as bait is foolhardy in the extreme. If there is a conspiracy and if they hear about it in time and if they decide this isn't an obvious trap-"
"Are you going somewhere with this, or are you just going to insult me again?"
Xavier seized the samoyed's arm in a grip that threatened to hook him with claws if it proved necessary, and pulled him to a stop. "I wasn't finished," he said. Dropping the volume of his voice so Drift had to raise his ears to hear, the leopard continued. "If they decide to strike, then I intend to be there waiting. I owe you my life, Edward Snow. I would have died on that trip to Ice Lake were it not for your steadfast loyalty." He let go of Drift's arm and started walking, looking away as if slightly embarrassed by his own candor. Somewhat awkwardly, he added, "I value such qualities." That said, he cleared his throat a bit more theatrically than necessary and changed the subject. He seemed to relax slightly as they left the graveyard. They walked alongside Euper's curtain wall rather than backtrack to a gate just to exit again further down. "We should hurry. You're not going to believe who Patrolmaster George has arranged to escort us."
The leopard's whiskers lay back, and his eyes half-lidded with the smile of a self-satisfied cat. "Let's just say, if Wolfram's jaw had dropped any lower, I could have had it used for a shovel."
"You're not going to tell me?" Drift asked, having to step up his pace to keep up with Xavier's longer legs.
"And miss the chance to see your reaction?" The leopard fairly preened. "Not likely."
Drift didn't disappoint, gasping with delighted disbelief when they rounded a corner and he saw. "Misha?!"
The battle-scarred fox looked up from rubbing a piece of wax against the bottoms of a pair of skis and wagged a smile. "Good morning, Drift. I thought I'd tag along... hope you don't mind!"
Drift glanced over at Wolfram and Xavier to make sure he wasn't the target of some elaborate practical joke. Despite having arrived earlier, Wolfram looked even more staggered than Drift, and Xavier, aside from looking insufferably amused, showed no trace of guile, which left only one conclusion. Stepping closer to Misha and lowering his voice, Drift said, "I'm really very flattered, Misha, but aren't you busy enough already? Surely there must be something more important-"
"Than helping a friend get a measure of closure?" the fox replied, fixing Drift with a warm, level gaze, not bothering to lower his voice at all. "No." Misha clasped the samoyed's shoulder. "To be honest, I'm actually a bit hurt you didn't ask me immediately. I consider you a friend. I hope you do the same."
"I do, Misha, but you're a busy man. You're an elite warrior, and you're responsible for the first line of defense for all Metamor Valley." Drift looked down, his ears dipping in a momentary hint of... shame? "It doesn't feel right asking you to take time from that just so I can take a trip to Glen Avery." Knowing Drift's upbringing, Misha had a very good idea why Drift might think that a shameful thing to say, but the samoyed turned sharply away and sniffed at the air before Misha could box his ears for being ridiculous.
"Jasmine," the samoyed said, more to himself than anyone else, and sniffed the air again to be sure. "Alexis?" he called, louder, stepping away and looking around. "I can smell your perfume. Where are you hiding?"
"Right behind you."
All four men turned toward the new voice as Alexis dropped from the crenellated wall turret. Flipping in midair, she folded her wings back into her white mink cloak when she landed, giving it a flutter to settle its edges. Even bundled thickly in furs against the cold, she somehow managed to maintain her exotic allure: earth-brown eyes set in a foxish face peeked out from beneath the cloak's hood, sparkling with characteristic mischief. The silver-gray fur of her cloak, lush and dense as it was, wasn't quite up to concealing the supple sway of her hips when she walked. Walk she did, right past an impressed Misha, a startled Xavier, and an openly admiring Wolfram before stopping in front of a completely speechless Drift. She paused as if waiting for him to say something. Her smile grew larger with each moment of flustered silence, and she flicked her ears to spill the hood artfully onto her shoulders. "They're hips, dear," she said finally, her smile going downright impish as a rampaging blush exploded across his face. "Deal with it."
"You-" Drift stammered.
Misha's smile tilted with wry amusement and he drew Wolfram and Xavier aside to give the couple some privacy. More accurately, he drew Xavier aside and then reached back to pull Wolfram along by one of his horns. "Come on, you two. It's not getting any earlier, and I still need to see if either of you can ski."
"You need to look up more," Alexis said once they'd gone, poking Drift in the chest with her finger. "Especially if you're going to be out in those woods. Misha and Wolfram both spotted me five minutes ago."
"I wasn't here five minutes ago."
Alexis rolled her eyes and smiled. "My point remains." She rose onto her tiptoes and pulled him down for a kiss, and then leaned her head against his chest. "Just be careful, okay? I don't like this idea of..." Her voice trailed off into a surprised question mark and she pulled back, leaving one hand on his chest and one on his side. "You're not soft and fluffy," she said, half a question, half a protest.
Drift smiled and gently pulled down on the collar of his coat, revealing the shiny top rim of a full-torso chest plate over heavily padded cloth. "Just being careful, like you asked."
Alexis smiled and rewarded him with another kiss before leaning back against his chest. "That's my smart and handsome husband-to-be." After a few more savored moments, her expression sobered. "Still, please be careful." She tapped her clawtips against the armor through his coat. "A good crossbow can still punch through this."
Drift glanced over at Misha and Wolfram, who were trying to teach Xavier the basics of skiing. "I know. At least if the worst does happen, I know that said crossbowman won't live to boast about it. Nobody evades Misha. Ow!"
Alexis jabbed Drift hard in the side, just below the armor. "That," she growled, "is not the right way to reassure your fiancée."
"Sorry." He kissed her. "I'll be careful."
"You do that. I love you."
"I love you, too. See you in a few days."
"Hey, Drift!" Wolfram yelled. "Quit making gooey eyes at each other and let's go! Misha says if we make good time we can get to the Glen before dinner!"
Drift chuckled, and leaned down to nuzzle Alexis' forehead. "You be careful, too, love. I'll see you in a few days. If Eli wills, I'll be able to put all of this behind me."
Alexis gave him 'a pinch for the road' and watched until they were out of sight before turning back toward Euper and her own plans. Reaching the top of the wall, she dusted herself off and straightened, then paused to shoot a steely glare at something above and to the left of her, something only she could see. Then she spread her wings, glided down to the streets below, and disappeared into the busy morning traffic.
Raucous laughter echoed off the walls of Agemnos' throne room, and the Lord of Avarice scowled at his black-armored companion as the man pounded his hand against the ruby-rimmed golden scrying bowl with enough force to bend it. "Restrain yourself, cousin," he said, his voice sharp with an exasperation he found impossible to completely control. "That is expensive."
"Bah!" the black-haired man replied, his face flushed from the force of his laughter. "You say that about everything here, you priss. Get over it." Sweeping his hand above the bowl, he reset the scry to the point where Alexastra had glared directly into it. "She's got spirit! I like that in a minion." His hand dropped to pat a spiked chain hanging coiled at his belt and his lips parted in a cruel smile. "I'd whip it out of her soon enough, of course... but not too soon."
And you wonder why you're surrounded by idiots, Agemnos thought, but he restrained a disdainful scowl. "That is competence you're seeing, cousin, not just rebellion. She spotted the scry, no easy feat, and she wanted me to know she'd spotted it." He banished the image, returning the basin to just a bowl filled with fine red wine.
"Hey! I was watching that!" the armored man protested, but Agemnos ignored him and settled down on his throne, stroking his golden-bearded chin. What had she just told him by deliberately noticing the scry? That she could have spotted it was a given- he'd trained her himself. That she would reveal that knowledge was surprising, given her habit of keeping her cards close to her vest. The only time she didn't-
An agonized bellow from outside broke Agemnos' concentration. "What is that crazed minion of yours doing now?" he asked, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice despite his best efforts.
Cocking his head momentarily for a better listen, without even bothering to look the armored man replied with the certainty of long experience. "That would be the sound of a balrog having its limbs burned off one by one, and then being slow-roasted from the inside out," he replied, his grin widening with cruel amusement and a hint of pride. "It sounds like Pyre is getting bored."
"Well, tell her to stop before she sparks a riot among the damned. It's messy to clean up and it throws off the processing schedule of the soul tar factories."
The armored man rolled his eyes in disdain for Agemnos' processing schedules, but walked over to a window and threw it open. "PYRE!" he roared in a voice that could carry over the din of a pitched battle, easily out-bellowing the suffering balrog. "QUIT TOYING WITH THAT THING AND GET IN HERE!"
"But I was just getting to the fun part!" a female voice whined in protest, but the armored man steamrolled right over it.
The balrog's last scream ended abruptly in a flash of light and a wave of heat that washed up into the throne room accompanied by shouts of alarm and pain. Agemnos rose to his feet just as the first sounds of riot broke out, but the armored man shouted again before it could gain momentum. "PYRE!"
"Make a few examples before you go." The man leaned against the side of the window frame and turned an insolent smirk toward Agemnos. "Our host is complaining about the noise."
Several more flashes and screams followed, and Agemnos came over to watch once the maniacal laughter started. "She certainly enjoys her work," he observed.
The man shrugged. "She takes after her mother."
"Ah. So she -really- likes fire."
The armored man nodded in reply, grinning with approval over the carnage below.
Agemnos watched for a while as well, occasionally waving away a cloud of ash. "As much as I can appreciate her efficiency at putting down riots, if she continues to incinerate the guards as well, I'm going to take their revival cost out of what I'm paying you for that blade."
With a sudden glower at the spoiling of his fun, the man grumbled a surly 'fine' before snarling out the window. "PYRE!" Agemnos flinched away from the bellow and grimaced, rubbing his ear. "That's enough! Get in here!"
The armored man reached out to slam the window shut, but Agemnos stopped him with an upraised hand. "Miroweke!" he called to an imp that was trying to sneak away without being seen. The imp flinched and turned, face pinched with the displeasure of knowing what was coming. His master didn't disappoint him. "Clean this mess up," he ordered, and then closed the window.
The imp grimaced and went in search of a broom and shovel. "Why do I always get the dirty jobs?" he whined, starting in on a pile of ashes nearly twice his height. It was one of many.
Pyre strode into Agemnos' throne room like she owned it. Wild gray hair swirled like a cloud of ash around a grubby urchin's face; her tattered rags the color of burnt timbers. "Why did you make me stop?" she complained. "I was having fun!"
The armored man backhanded her into silence. "Your 'fun' nearly cost me a deal. Give him the sword."
Pyre rubbed her cheek where the man had struck her and shot him a resentful glare, but she obeyed his command without hesitation. From beneath her ragged clothes (from precisely where Agemnos decided he didn't want to know) Pyre produced a wooden case nearly the length of her arm and handed it over. "Better you than me," she opined unbidden. "Swords kill too quick for my taste. They don't hurt enough, either."
"Thank you for that expert analysis," Agemnos replied dryly, but in the interest of cultivating a potentially useful tool he took the sting off the insult with a compliment. "You displayed undeniable talent out there in the courtyard. Should I ever require the services of a pyromancer, I will certainly remember your name." Pyre stepped back, mollified somewhat by the ego-soothing compliment, and Agemnos flipped the box open as an unpleasant suspicion hit him. Resting inside, nestled in a bed of red velvet, lay a faintly bloodstained short blade in the lutin style, of mediocre quality and craftsmanship and lightly pitted with age and use. In short, exactly what he had asked for. So why had the fire maniac called it-
He looked up from the blade, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Pomp and ceremony isn't like you, cousin," he said. "Why bring her instead of handing this over yourself? More importantly, why would she call it a sword when I very specifically requested a long knife with exact requirements for its properties?"
Agemnos' armored guest leaned against the rim of the scrying basin, an exemplar of unconcern. "Relax," he said. "It'll do what you want. Did you really think I'd attach my own essence to a sissy little pigsticker like that? Nah, I just limited one of my own swords and disguised it in illusion. It'll pass inspection for anything you're even remotely likely to meet up with, but it knows its owner. The illusion will drop if I pick it up again. Sure, it's not exactly what you asked for, but look at it this way: if something goes wrong with this plan of yours, you'll have extra power already there to deal with it."
Behind gritted teeth, the Lord of Avarice nearly screamed at him over the introduction of unwanted variables into his plan, especially at this late in the game. You idiot! Addle-brained fool! Imbecile jackass with half the sense of- I wanted it that way for a reason! "How thoughtful of you to prepare for unforeseen contingencies," he said aloud. "I will see to it that your payment is delivered as soon as possible." He held up a hand to stay an explosion of temper from his guest over the delay. "I would have it complete already, but the last installment is currently part of the ash pile out front." Sitting down on his throne, Agemnos relaxed into his best salesman's smile and echoed back the armored man's earlier unconcern. "Don't worry." His smile crept a fingernail's breadth up his bearded cheeks. "I'll make certain it's worth the wait."
February 21, 708
They hadn't made good time getting to Glen Avery. Wolfram had handled himself well on skis, and Drift's excellent condition saw him through without trouble, but Xavier, Misha had discovered, was softer than he thought he was and they had arrived very late. The next morning, the leopard had been so sore of leg that Misha had left him behind to recuperate while he led Drift and Wolfram out on a patrol with several of Glen Avery's scouts.
The day passed uneventfully, something Misha was prayerfully thankful for. Wolfram had soaked up instruction like a dry sponge, but Drift had often seemed distracted, oddly pensive, and had to be snapped out of it several times. As they returned to Glen Avery for the night, Misha paused in the Glen commons and sent the others on ahead, holding Drift back for a private talk.
"All right, Drift. What's going on? You've been distracted and unfocused all day."
The samoyed took a deep breath and rolled his staff back and forth between his hands. "I wanted... I just..." His ears flattened down in frustration and he ran the fingers of one hand through his neckruff mane while he tried to order his thoughts. "I wanted to... arrrrgh." His fingers clenched in annoyance as his chain of thoughts refused to settle. "Look, can we go get a drink first?"
Misha produced a small flask and proffered it.
"My own handiwork," Drift observed as he worked the cork loose. "Nice." Without another word, he tipped it back and drained it down. Biting back a cough and a wheeze, the samoyed then mopped his whiskers and muzzle with the back of his wrist before returning the flask. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Misha replied with a mournful glance at his emptied 'reserve' before putting it away. "You were saying?"
The alcohol seemed to steady Drift's nerves, and the samoyed relaxed a little. Resting Whirlwind upright in the snow, he leaned against the staff and ranged his eyes across the hearth-glows gleaming warmly among the towering trees of the Glen. The snow on the ground, thinning after a warm day, was still enough to muffle the sounds of families settling down for the evening meal, and a whispering breeze rustled through the branches and pine needles above. The smell of stew from someone's hearth fire wafted across the commons, and somebody clinked metal against metal in a small stable not far away from them. A horse inside nickered softly at whoever was making the sound and a gentle voice murmured back in tender affection.
When he finally spoke, Drift's voice was quiet, respectful of the peace around him... and even a little envious. "It has been nearly five years since my father died, under what I thought were suspicious circumstances. I still think so now. But after all that time, how many viable, actable clues do you think I have as to his death by anything other than a damned wandering lutin?"
"None. Nothing that I can take before the law and say, 'This proves that I was right, that I'm not a paranoid conspiracy nut.' Hunches? Yes. Theories aplenty. But proof? Not a lick. Every lead I've thought I'd had has turned up a blank dead end."
Misha lowered his ears. "So you're here to look again?" he asked, knowing his friend's tendency to bullish stubbornness.
Drift knew it too, and sighed. "No. And yes. It's complicated."
Drift rolled his eyes, but forged on past Misha's dry rejoinder. "I love Alexis. I want to raise a family with her and be a better father to our kids than mine was to me. So on the one hand, I could drop all of this and focus entirely on Alexis and our children. There's a definite appeal to that. I could just... let it go. But on the other hand, the dead ends I've run into have all felt almost too thorough, like somebody is deliberately blocking me. Yes, I know how paranoid that sounds. But somebody who could and would do that could be a threat to my family. I've had too many 'accidents' these past couple of years to discount it. And even if I'm just being uselessly paranoid, if I give up without some compelling reason, I'll always be looking back, wondering if I made the right choice, and that's not fair to anyone."
"Drift, you can't keep this up. It will ruin your life. I've known you for-Yashua's breath, has it really only been a year? In that time, I've watched you grow out of your father's shadow into a confident young man willing to chase his own dreams. You've got a wonderful wife-to-be in Alexis, you have good and solid friends who care deeply for you and, I believe, a promising future ahead if that ice house does as well as I think it will. But there's another side to you that worries me, Drift. You fixate on things with a tenacity that I've rarely seen and seldom liked. It's not healthy. It's dangerous, and it could cost you everything you've worked for."
"I know. You're not the first to tell me that I can get... obsessive. If I had a copper crescent for every time I've heard it from Xavier alone, well..." The samoyed quirked a wry smile. "I'd be richer than you."
Misha snorted a laugh, but his friend's demeanor, for the moment, kept him quiet.
Drift tilted his head back searching for the first few stars among the trees as the twilight faded. "Do you remember the story of Gideon and the fleece?"
"Yes," Misha replied. "Vaguely."
"That's why I'm here. I have asked over and over in prayer for some pointer to my father's killer, and have never had anything that lasted. This is the last time. I laid it all in His hands: either I find something here, a solid and unmistakable sign, or I'm going to take the silence as a sign to move on. No more looking back, either way. I can't wait any longer. Alexis is too important to me." He lifted Whirlwind and spun it once to clear the ends of snow before retracting it. Chk-shk-shk-shak! "This has to end."
"Finally I am seeing wisdom in you, Drift," Misha said slowly. "Now you can put all that behind you."
"One way or the other," Drift replied softly, watching a falling star streak silently across the sky. After a moment more of introspection, he shook himself and turned, gesturing toward the distant glow of Jurmas' inn. "That's enough woolgathering. Can we go eat now?"
Misha chuckled, then turned his head slightly to look at something behind Drift. "I think someone wants to meet you first. Hello, Charles. Your stealth skills have improved."
Drift spun, stepping back in startled alarm as a shape resolved from the darkness behind him. Not gifted with his vulpine friend's low-light vision, the samoyed sniffed the air while he tried to make out who this new person was. Balked by a downwind breeze, he then pulled a forked, leather-gripped metal rod from his belt and struck it once against Whirlwind. "Light," he said, and it sparked to life with a hiss and a bright blue-violet glow.
"Well, that's new," Misha remarked in surprise, and Drift got a good look at the newcomer as the animorph Keeper shielded his eyes against the sudden light. He held a horse pick in one hand and a hammer in the other, but something about his carriage and demeanor suggested far more than a stablemaster.
"I wasn't trying to sneak up on you," the stranger said, long whiskers twitching on a rodentine face. "Just checking out an unexpectedly familiar sound."
The newcomer lowered his hand, his eyes apparently adjusted to the bright light, and Drift startled anew. The rat's face was marred on the right side by a black scar over his eye in the shape of a twisted, long-fingered hand. He's got to be a Long, Drift thought, glancing from the rat to Misha and back. Taking his cue from the fox, Drift relaxed and started to offer his hand before remembering he still held Whirlwind in it. Tucking the weapon hastily under his arm, he tried again. "Edward Snow," he said as he held out his hand, "but my friends call me Drift."
Chuckling over the samoyed's momentary consternation, the rat clasped Drift's hand and smiled. "Charles Matthais. Interesting light you have there," he said. He then gestured toward the collapsed staff tucked under the samoyed's arm. "That, however, looks even more interesting. May I ask what it is? Where did you get it?"
Drift handed the light over to Misha with an admonishment to be careful. "Don't touch the glowing end: you'll get a nasty jolt," he warned before returning his attention to Charles. Holding the staff out level, he squeezed the triggers in the grip to deploy it. Chk-shk-shk-shak! Twisting it, he revealed the end spikes and then retracted them. "This is Whirlwind, my battlestaff." He spun it into a ready position, scattering the snow around him like a downy white halo, and his lips drew up in a proud smile. "My own design."
The rat's eyes widened as he watched, his ears following closely the whirr of the battlestaff's pierced ends. He then threaded the horsepick and hammer through his belt and adjusted his tunic and vest. At his neck, Drift spotted what looked like a curl of ivy poking above his collar. Did he have a plant stuck down his shirt? That question, though, scattered from his mind when the rat pulled out a small narrow tube of metal from his tunic and held it out in his paws. "It reminds me of something I use."
With a flick of his wrist, the rat extended the small metal tube into a large staff, with brass ferrules at either end. CH-H-AK! Drift's jaw dropped, and Whirlwind nearly followed it. Such a familiar weapon- but so much more advanced! Somehow, it appeared to be the same width at the ends as it was in the middle, and yet Drift could clearly see overlapping sections where it had to retract. The metal couldn't be thicker than a strand of fur; how could it possibly survive even a single blow?
"What is- Where did you- How does that-" The samoyed's voice tripped over itself with astonished questions before finally picking one. "May I see?" he asked, reaching out toward it with one hand and belatedly offering Whirlwind with the other with a sheepish lowering of the ears. "It's not as impressive as yours, but-"
"Nonsense," the rat replied, exchanging staff for staff. Examining the visible taper of Whirlwind from center to end, he spun it once to get a feel for its heft and listen to its whirring sigh, like wind among the trees. "You designed this yourself?" he asked, and then looked up when he heard Misha chuckle.
Drift's tail was nearly stirring a breeze, so strong was Drift's excitement as he pored over the Sondeshike, switching it back and forth between his hands to feel its weight, tapping it with his claws and listening to the sound in an effort to gauge its thickness. "How did you get this so thin and yet so sturdy? A particular alloy, or pure magic? It's so light! What are these brass knobs? I can't imagine them being purely for decoration on something this austere in design..." His mouth competed with his wagging tail for speed.
"I think he likes it, Charles," Misha opined wryly.
"Obviously," the rat replied with equal humor, exchanging the staves back over Drift's reluctant protests. Holding the Sondeshike vertically, he held his hand flat next to one side of the hemispherical ferrule. "The round shape is to focus the impact force into as small an area as possible, to concentrate it. As for the brass material..." The rat stepped back and started to spin the staff, slowly at first, then faster and faster until it looked more like a gold-rimmed silver disk than a spinning bar of metal. It hummed with the motion, loudly enough that Charles had to raise his voice to be heard over it. "It lets people know," the rat said with a hint of a smile, "where not to put their hands!"
"A wise warning, that!" Misha replied, his three-fingered right hand coming down on Drift's shoulder and pulling the samoyed back. "Still a little too close, I think," he said as he stooped to scoop up a handful of snow. "I've seen this maneuver used before, and it is definitely not one you want to be too close to." To prove his point, he packed the snow into a ball and lobbed it into the spinning disk. It didn't get there. As far as Drift could tell, the air in front of the disk shredded the snowball apart and dispersed it into a cloud of white powder, scattering it in all directions.
Drift's ears drooped along with his eager mood. Compared to a weapon like this, wielded in the hands of a master like that, Whirlwind barely rated as a parlor trick! He collapsed the staff self-consciously and tucked it against his arm. When Charles slowed his own whirling staff to a stop, Drift then bowed his head in a respectful nod. "You're very good," he said.
Charles bowed his head in return, seeming pleased with the praise. "I have been training most of my life," he explained. "It took me years to learn the Dance of the Staff, and to see it done properly, it really should be done with two people rather than one." For a moment, he looked saddened, his expression falling, but it regained its humor soon enough. "But enough of my showing off. Care to show me what your staff is capable of? I'm very curious how you made that."
"It's not as impressive as yours," Drift replied, reluctantly holding Whirlwind up again, still retracted. "Springs and gears where I could manage it, enchantments where I couldn't. I'd have preferred not to use magic at all; those can be dispelled or manipulated, and it drives some of the Ecclesia into fits, and I don't need any more help with that than I already have. Still, I wanted a staff I could use to cover my own back, especially in taurform, and then keep in a smaller form when I didn't need it. I definitely got that."
Charles had started to open his mouth to ask what Drift meant by 'not needing any more help sending the Ecclesia into fits', but the mention of taurform stopped him. "Another one, Misha?" the rat asked with a wry smirk. "I don't think you're going to rest until every animal-cursed Keeper in the valley is walking on four legs."
Misha laughed, the fox holding up his hands as if to ward off the rat's words. "Don't blame me. He figured it out by himself after watching you and me returning through the gates after your first time as a taur."
"Is this true?"
Drift facepalmed, groaning with amused embarrassment. "I'm going to need another drink if I have to tell that story again."
"Then wait here a moment while I let my wife know I'll be out a bit late tonight. This sounds like too good a story to pass up."