Evening, Feb 29, 708 CR
You have one chance, and one chance only. If you intervene at the wrong moment tonight, you might save him from that particular trap, but you will have no chance against what comes tomorrow. Tonight, you will have one opportunity to remove him entirely from Agemnos' reach. Until then, you must not go to him. You must work from the shadows.
Alexastra slipped backward into the darkness, letting it wrap around her like a cloak. Brick rasped cold against her wingtips. "I'm fine with that. I'm used to the shadows."
I know. The reply came coupled with a sickly green glow, faint at first but quickly growing brighter, exposing her. But do you know when to step into the light?
Alexastra lifted her wing to shield her eyes, cringing away as the brightness grew too much to bear. Searing pain flashed through her...
She woke, nose twitching. Smoke.
Drift raced down the streets of Euper at a gallop, both sets of lungs gulping air as he tried to keep up with the faster foxtaur Misha. Not that he needed the guide: the red glow over the rooftops and the black smoke racing downwind pointed to their destination like the finger of Eli himself. A flicker of firelight reached through a gap between buildings and the smell of burning fur flashed into vivid memory. He nearly dropped his ring before managing to fumble it onto his finger. Its familiar cloak of cold did nothing for the flames seared in his mind. His mouth tasted like metal, but he couldn't summon up enough spit to clear it. Misha's red fur flared as the foxtaur rounded the corner. A voice in Drift's head pleaded with him not to follow. Just keep running, run away, far away, anywhere but nearer the fire! He almost listened. Misha could handle it. Misha was the best. If he couldn't handle it, no-one could. Drift surely wouldn't be needed...
His voice caught twice in his throat and he nearly reached the corner before he finally told Xavier to hang on. At the last possible moment, he made the turn, and Xavier's claws dragged at Drift's fur as he was nearly thrown off the taur's back by the skidding, scrabbling slide. Only a convulsive heave at the end kept them from smashing into the buildings on the far side.
Xavier cursed, demanding the reason for such a reckless maneuver, but Drift didn't hear him. The red light, now unchecked, blasted everything away. He stumbled to a halt as the heat struck him: half felt, half remembered. The flames leaped and roared like an angry beast on a slender chain, and what courage remained, fled.
Wolfram vaulted from the wagon and muscled through the gathering crowd. Misha was rallying the bucket line, so Wolfram looked to the next-best asset: Xavier, who was trying to get Drift out of the street, or even to respond at all. "Can't you make it rain instead of snow?" the ram asked, raising his voice over the flames.
With an incredulous glare that suggested Wolfram might as well have asked him to exchange the sun for the moon, the weather mage speared one finger skyward. The storm roiled, black in the coming nightfall, pulsing like a living thing. It loomed over the valley from horizon to horizon, sweeping toward them like a crashing wave, ready to wipe away anything in its path. Lightning slammed the earth in great tree-rending strokes. Flying snow cut visibility, whipped by the blasting wind. It also strangely deadened the thunder, dulling the claps unless they crashed directly overhead. "Does that look like something that would take orders?" Xavier retorted.
Wolfram backed off. "Sorry. Had to ask."
The leopard huffed, raised his ears, and smoothed his emotions with visible effort. "I'll see what I can do," he said, raising his arms against the wind. "Though I make no promises." Immediately, he bent under the weight of it, but growled and fought back. Through gritted teeth, he hissed, "Help Drift!"
"I’ve got it: just do what you can!" Wolfram shouted back
over a peal of thunder. He gave the mage an encouraging thump on the
shoulder, which earned him a venomous 'quit-breaking-my-
"Drift!" Wolfram shouted, and grabbed the taur's vest, giving him an ineffective shake. "Drift, come on! Wake up!" He switched his grip to the taur's arm next, yanking on the fur. Then, in a burst of inspiration, he seized the taur by wrist and elbow and started pulling, physically dragging him around to face away from the fire. "Drift!"
Drift was slow to answer, like a diver surfacing after too long underwater. "What... what is it?" he asked, his eyes lingering on the fireglow reflecting off the buildings, the shadows dancing madly on the walls.
Wolfram wouldn't let him go back under. Insistent, he kept drawing his friend's attention away from his waking nightmare, away from memories and back to reality. Switching his grip to the taur's upper arms, Wolfram shook him until his eyes focused somewhere other than the firelight. "Hey, look at me. Don't look at the fire, look at me!" He dropped his voice to a confidential murmur. "You don't have to stay here. The wagon's dropping off some team members and then getting out of here. Go with them. Help them get unloaded."
Drift started to look away, but dragged his eyes back before Wolfram could rattle his brains again. "No..." He swallowed hard. "No. I have to do something."
Wolfram patted his friend on the shoulder. "Good. That's what I wanted to hear." He glanced around, trying to remember the layout of the town, and then pulled Drift along. "Come on, I know what you can do."
"What in the hells do you think you're doing?!" Byron yelled, the cantankerous trapmaster nearly hopping up and down on the wagon as half the team of horses shifted onto two legs and started to unhitch themselves. "You're not leaving my furs next to a fire! We have to get them out of here!"
"On level ground, we only need four to pull the wagon, and that fire needs to be stopped!" one of the horses snapped back. "So either sit down and shut up or get down and help!" Harnesses fell away with the clink and rattle of quick-release clasps, swinging down and out of the way of the four that stayed hitched. Those four started forward, the lurch unceremoniously dumping Byron over backward into his furs with a yelp. The four horses left behind snatched clothing from the wagon as it passed. "Go! Go! Hya!" the head stallion yelled, slapping the back end of the departing wagon as if to urge it on with the blow, then jerked on a pair of short trousers and ran for the fire.
Byron dug himself out of the cargo and rounded on the remaining horses with a snarl, but the profanity died stillborn as a distraction presented itself: Drift and Wolfram running away from the fire. "Where are those two going?" he wondered. "I wouldn't have expected them to bolt." Then the wagon jerked around a corner and he had other things to think about, namely staying onboard.
Wolfram had just gotten Drift posted at the nearest well, putting his strong smithing arms to use winding the dipping pail up and down to fill buckets for the firefighters, when a snow-laden blast of wind staggered the samoyed taur and nearly slapped the ram off his feet. Several blocks away, the fire roared in hearty approval, the glow over the rooftops brightening as the gust carried the fire over an intervening street to another building. Fresh prey.
Wolfram cursed. "Blast this wind! We could lose half the town!"
Handing a filled bucket to a young runner, Drift surprised his friend with a clear-headed reply. "Wolfram, Xavier is never going to be able to control this." He gestured up at the massive storm. "Ask him if he can make a bigger version of the wind shield he used back at Ice Lake. He'll know what you're talking about."
"I heard about that," Wolfram replied with a nod. "Good idea. Are you going to be okay here?"
"I'll be fine. Get me some more people to pass buckets before that boy runs his legs off."
"Sounds like a plan. Be careful!"
"You be careful! I'm not the one running back to the fire!"
snow hissed against Raven Hin'Elric's bedroom window, and a lightning
flash momentarily hid from sight the red glow over Euper. Raven paced, worry
writ large on her lupine features. It wasn't the fire that worried her-
the temple had long-established protocols for such emergencies. Merai
and Tessa, along with several healers from Coe's infirmary, had been
dispatched to aid in containing the fire and helping the wounded. Saroth
had also sent word that a lightning shield was being prepared to ward
against roof strikes across Metamor and Euper.
No. What worried her was the storm. When Saroth warned her of its approach, and with memories of Nasoj's Yule blizzard still fresh in her memory, she had immediately sought an audience with the aedra lord Dvalin. The weather god's reply had come quickly. Yes, the storm was his doing. No, Metamor had not offended him: it had merely had several mild and early springs in a row and needed the extra snowmelt. There was nothing to worry about, Lord Dvalin had assured her, so just relax, enjoy the show, and think of good harvests come fall.
But Raven did not relax. While there was nothing that she could specifically fault in his explanation, something about the Storm Lord's demeanor caused her gut to tighten. Maybe it was the extra helping of charm the opal-eyed diety had laid on, or perhaps it was the hint of impatience she detected underneath it. Or maybe it was the violence of the storm itself- if snowmelt were the only goal, then why the thunder and lightning? Raven had interacted with the gods, either personally or through watching her father, for the majority of her adult life, and she trusted her instincts. Something was going on. The Temple would stay on high alert tonight.
"That bat lady's got some serious big ones, going back in like that."
Drift's head snapped up, an icy chill running down his spine. Bat lady? "What did you say?" he asked, breaking into their conversation. "What bat lady? Where?" The sudden intensity of his gaze unnerved the two teenagers, one boy, one girl, and they both instinctively stepped back from the agitated taur. It didn't stop his questions. "What did this 'bat lady' look like? Fox face? Orange ruff around the neck?"
"Yes," said the girl. On a closer look, she might actually have been a real teenager rather than a very progressed AR. "The last I saw, she was helping the Mauses get out of their home."
The boy began to nod in agreement, but by then Drift was already gone.
The snow parted and the wind vanished at a crossing street. Drift didn't notice. The bucket line scattered ahead of his charge. He didn't notice that, either. The fire growled and reached for him. He tried not to see it. Wolfram and Misha closed in from both sides, and Xavier looked up from a strained meditation. He didn't care. His attention, his entire being, strained for some sign of his beloved. She had to be safe! She had to be! "Alexis?" he called. "Alexis!"
The name was barely out of his mouth when a scream rent the night, a heart-stopping cry of pain and fear that stalled half of the fire crews in shock. What came next was worse. With a creaking, shuddering crack, the Maus family home sagged under the fire's assault, and the high scream cut off with terrible suddenness. A white blur moved and Misha yelled. "Drift, no!" Too late. Mid-bound, the samoyedtaur shrank to dog and smashed through the door of the burning building like a catapult stone. The foxtaur gaped for a moment, amazed that such a pyrophobe as Drift would do something so rash, then spun to stop Wolfram from duplicating his error.
He needn't have worried. Crushing down his own shock, Wolfram was already turning away, rallying the bucket line with command tone worthy of a drill sergeant. The ram turned next to Xavier, asking something about a 'small storm like at the hedge maze', but was answered only with a fang-baring hiss of irritation. The wind shield, extended far beyond its designed parameters in its efforts to keep the fire under control, required all of Xavier's concentration just to keep it from collapsing. It shivered with the lapse of focus and tried again to buckle. Even that one short hiss let another strong gust slip through to the fire's roaring welcome and the weather mage scrambled to shore up against the next. Wolfram pulled back, and finally turned a desperate glance toward the burning doorway where he had last seen his friend. Could he-
Misha jerked two Keepers from the bucket line and sent them running to the mage guild and the Lothanasi. "Get help, especially mages! Hurry!" he ordered. Next, he barked, "Wolfram! Get over here!" The fox pulled a small paint brush from a pocket and an even smaller metal pot, rune-making tools he kept with him at all times. He painted a complex symbol onto Wolfram's hand with swift, precise strokes. "This won't last long," he yelled over a crash of thunder, "but it will protect you from the fire and find you good air to breathe. Now go get Drift!"
That was all the encouragement Wolfram needed. With a few quick breaths to saturate his lungs, the ram lowered his head and charged into the blaze.
Wolfram had been in a fire before. In his youth, the family farmhouse had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground. He knew firsthand just how quickly smoke and fire could fill a room. That's why he didn't question it when the black clouds and flames seemed to part before him, as if retreating from his path. He just mentally thanked Misha for an excellent spell and ran, shouting his friend's name.
Between the roar of the fire and the groans of the dying building, Wolfram could barely hear himself, much less any reply. Still, he hunted. Fire leapt at him from a side door and he instinctively recoiled, bashing his shoulder against the wall. He actually went partway through before he got his balance back, and he hastily brushed the hot coals from his clothes before they could find a niche to catch in. A faint glow around him seemed to keep the embers off, but he didn't have time to investigate. He had to find Drift and get the hell out, fast. "Drift! Where are you?"
In the fourth room, Wolfram found Drift. Back on two legs, the samoyed heaved at a fallen beam, muscles straining under his fur as he tried desperately to lift it. Beneath the beam lay a section of wall, smeared with blood from the samoyed's fire-seared hands. Beneath that... Wolfram's heart sank. "Oh, no..." A limp, three-fingered hand protruded from under the wreckage. The star sapphire of which Drift had been so proud now gleamed the color of dried blood in the firelight.
Drift finally noticed Wolfram. "Help me," he coughed. Barely protected from the heat by his ring, he had no protection at all from the smoke. "We have to get this off her." He started pulling at the fallen beam again, not waiting for a reply.
Dropping to his knees next to the wreckage, Wolfram felt for a pulse. He frowned and checked again just to be sure. He didn't want to say it, but he had to. "She's gone." Drift ignored him. Wolfram rose and shook him. Drift shrugged him off. Looking up, Wolfram saw fire eating the last two beams holding up the ceiling. They sagged and started to buckle. "Drift, she's gone!" he said, pulling harder. "She's dead! We have to go!"
Drift threw him off. "I need to get this off of her!" He hurled himself bodily against the beam, ignoring a shower of sparks and embers.
The ceiling groaned, and something crashed in the other room. "Stop, Drift! You'll bring the whole place down!"
"Either shut up and help me or get out! I'm not leaving without-"
The fallen beam shifted, lurched, and collapsed, pulling down part of the ceiling in a firestorm of debris. Drift and Wolfram recoiled, barely escaping, and the wall vanished into the flames. Drift's anguished wail accompanied it, and the samoyed would have, too, if Wolfram hadn't tackled him. The fire surged, roaring, almost gloating. Then, strangely, it subsided, revealing the fallen wall. Still intact, it lay half-buried, yet tantalizingly askew.
The two friends shared a glance, knowing immediately this was the last chance they would get. They raced for the wall. Wolfram grabbed and lifted while Drift dove underneath, reaching for his beloved. "Hurry!" the ram yelled, flinching as more debris showered down. "We’re out of time!"
Under the wall, he heard Drift whimper and try to shift something. "Alexis? Honey? We need to go. Wake up. Come on. Alex? Al-" Drift froze. "Oh, Eli, no. Not like this. Please! Not like this!" He scrambled backward, eyes wide. Too wide. Horror laid in them, far beyond what Wolfram had expected, a stark terror that sent the ram scrambling to see what had caused it.
He didn't have time. With a cataclysmic snap, the second ceiling beam buckled, obliterating Alexis' resting place. Wolfram barely rolled clear. He grabbed the nearly catatonic Drift, and ran. The room, and then the entire building, collapsed behind them.
Drift stared at his burned and bloody hands, but his eyes looked beyond them as if they weren't really there. Even the healer, extracting long splinters from his wounds, got no reaction. Drift just sat, unresponsive, as she wrapped his hands in bandages. Misha knew the look, knew it from personal experience: this was going to be bad. Still, when Drift looked up, his eyes full of a horror that beggared description, Misha found himself unprepared for just how bad.
"Her throat was cut," Drift said. "It was sliced open, Misha. With a knife."
"What!?" The fox looked to Wolfram for confirmation, but the ram was just as stunned. He hadn't had time to see for himself.
"Somebody killed her," Drift continued, his voice like shattered glass. "Somebody killed my Alexis. She went in and... and somebody killed her."
Misha never saw the punch coming. One moment, Drift was sitting down, his eyes a thousand miles away. The next, Misha was on his back seeing stars, and Wolfram was just barely keeping the samoyed from pounding him into the cobblestones. "How could you let her go back in there?!" he screamed, flailing and snarling as Wolfram dragged him bodily out of range. "Alone! How could you?! My love! My life!" An elbow to the eye snapped Wolfram's head back, loosened his grip, but before Drift could lunge again, more hands closed on him. Keepers from all around risked bites and raking claws to drag the raging samoyed down and pin him. "How could you let her go in alone!" he screamed. "How could you let them kill her!"
Misha surged to his feet, his eyes snapping with barely suppressed rage, muscles tensed for an instinctive counterstrike. "You think I let her get killed?" he snarled. "Is that what you think of me?" Feeling teeth wobbling loose in his jaw, he ran the back of his hand across his mouth, amazed that it didn't come away bloody. That had been one hell of a punch.
Wolfram stepped between them, hands held up empty toward Misha to stop him from getting any closer. "Easy, Misha, sir. He's not thinking straight."
Misha almost pushed through him, but forced himself to turn aside and pace for a few steps, trying to shake off the lingering dizziness left behind by Drift's savage right cross. He ran through an entire litany of curses as a balm for his seething temper, and it slunk reluctantly back into its cage. Finally, he turned back to the samoyed, his voice icy. "Is that what you really think of me, Drift?" he asked.
Buried under a pile of Keepers and still half-asphyxiated from the smoke, Drift's hysterical fury guttered out. Only the ashes of grief remained, and broken sobs his only reply. Misha's anger quenched. He gestured for those restraining Drift to resume their duties in the bucket line, knelt next to his friend, his brother, and gathered him into his arms. "I'm sorry, Drift," he said, gently rocking the devastated samoyed and smoothing his soot-stained fur as he wept. "I'm sorry. I didn't see her. I would have stopped her if I had seen her. I'm so sorry."
"Nothing left. Nothing left." Drift's voice, almost too quiet to be heard over the wind and flames, ached with despair. Soul-deep exhaustion dragged at him, pulled him down. Only Misha's hold kept him from collapsing completely. "Why does it always fall apart?"
Misha turned toward the voice, his one ear flattened and his lips threatening to curl, and pinned the speaker with a glare that could have peeled the pelt off a polar bear. A young girl in the garb of a court messenger, she didn't look happy at having to intrude, but she didn't flinch from his ire or from her duty. "I'm sorry, but the Duke needs to speak with you. He requests your presence immediately." Seeing that this alone was not going to get Misha's acknowledgement, she added, "It's urgent. I can't say more."
Misha scowled, but he knew he'd given all of the moments he could spare. "Tell the Duke I will be there shortly," he told the messenger. To Drift, he said, "I'll be back as soon as I can. I promise." Helping the samoyed up, he then turned his attention to Wolfram. "Take him home," he ordered.
The ram shook his head. "No, sir. With all due respect, I'm not going anywhere until I can lead a Watch investigator to Alexis' body." To Drift, he said, "If you saw what you think you saw-"
Drift growled through his tears, a sharp flare of anger. "I did."
"-then we'll find the evidence," Wolfram continued. His eyes narrowed. "And I promise you we will find the person who did it."
Misha nodded and clapped Wolfram on the shoulder. "That we will."
"We all will," Xavier agreed. He approached with a weary stagger, "Help has finally arrived. The shield is stabilized, so I've done all I can here. I'll take Drift home." Pushing back his silver hair, he heaved a sigh of relief and massaged his temples. "I believe I shall sleep for a week once this is all settled. Let me know the moment you find anything."
"Of course," Misha nodded and left. Xavier led Drift away, each leaning exhausted on the other. Wolfram took up a guarding position over the ruins of the Maus home, warning away any that approached with a stern glare. The fire, at last denied its encouraging wind, settled down and began to wane. The bucket brigade worked on.
In the shadows, a bat and a grubby urchin girl slipped away, snickering with delight. For them, at least, all had proceeded according to plan. A small black cat trailed them, careful to stay out of their sight. It paused to cast a single pained look after Drift before vanishing into an alley.
The storm enveloped them all.
Xavier paced, as unsettled as the storm that raged outside. It felt like someone, probably Saroth, was raising a shield around the Keep, drawing the lightning and diverting it away from the flammable roofs of Keeptowne and Euper. That, at least, was going well. He wished he could say the same for the rest of it all.
He had not liked Alexis. She was too wild, too forward in his opinion, even for a Metamorian. Worse, she had encouraged Drift into some of his wildest and most reckless schemes, chief among them the wing-shaped contraption his pacing took him past with every turn. Still he would not have wished such an end on anyone, and if what Drift said was true, Xavier intended the justice visited on her murderer to be swift and terrible indeed.
For the moment, though, it was on Drift that he focused, and that was more than enough to worry about. The samoyed had seemed to recover his energy on the walk home, and threw himself into drawing in his workshop. This was not the good thing it could have been. Drift's movements were jerky and broken-edged, almost spastic, as if he were leaping from idea to idea without ever managing to settle on one long enough for it to materialize. He scribbled and scratched things out seemingly at random, muttering to himself under his breath too quietly for Xavier to catch more than a few snatches of words. Most of what he did understand was 'No', just before the parchment being drawn upon was flung aside, fluttering down to join a growing pile of rejection. The nobleman winced at the expensive waste, mentally tallying the price of the reams Drift would go through at this rate and comparing it to what he knew of the samoyed's finances. Then he caught himself and scowled. Now was not the time for such thoughts.
Another barely-started drawing fluttered to the floor, this one physically torn by the samoyed's claws. Enough was enough, Xavier decided. He reached for Drift's shoulder to pull him away... and thought better of it when his approach was met with a cavernous growl. Drift hadn't even looked up. Deciding on an alternative target, Xavier seized Drift's remaining supply of parchment, but Drift's own hand came down squarely on top of his, pinning the whole stack in place.
"Leave it," Drift growled.
The growl became a snarl. "I said leave it!" The samoyed's grip tightened, painfully squeezing Xavier's retracted claws.
The leopard's eyes narrowed. Building and maintaining the wind shield in Euper had depleted his lightning rods, but with a massive thunderstorm outside, that was hardly a handicap. A strong electrical jolt into Drift's upper arm popped his hand free, and Xavier whisked the parchment away. Drift rose in anger, but stopped short when he saw what awaited him. Lightning coursed over the leopard’s dark fur like a thundercloud given flesh, and the weather mage glared with icy disdain. "Striking me," he warned, "would be unwise."
The moment stretched, thick with the crackle of electricity and the acrid smell of ozone. Then Drift sank back into his chair, as if only now realizing what he'd done and been about to do. He buried his face in his hands, ashamed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that."
"I know." Xavier set the parchment back down and dropped his lightning shield, then pulled over a stool and sat so he could be at the samoyed's level. "This isn't the first time I've seen you hurting. But you weren't alone back at Ice Lake, and you're not alone now. I promise you, we will get to the bottom of this."
"I shouldn't have left." Drift almost whispered it. "If I had stayed, they'd have stayed focused on me. They wouldn't have gone after her."
"You don't know that."
Drift's head snapped up, a flare of rage. "It should have been me! Why wasn't it me?" Rising, he stormed out of the room. Xavier caught up in time to see him screaming at the stained glass window in his bedroom, the one with the Yew on it. "Why wasn't it me? Why her? Why did you let me go to the Glen if I was going to come back to this?"
Xavier's eyes widened in shock. One did not talk to the gods like that, no matter what the provocation! Any Lothanasi could tell you that, and surely the Ecclesia's Eli was no better. This was getting out of hand! But before he could interrupt, a knock at the door distracted him. With a glance at the still ranting samoyed, he slipped out to see who it was.
"Are you sure that this is the spot?" The first time Jim Morganson had asked Wolfram that question, the Watch Investigator had been openly concerned. Now, doubt was starting to creep into the goat Keeper's tone, along with a faint hint of 'you had better not be wasting my time'. They had searched the burnt-out building for nearly a quarter of an hour now, without any success at finding Alexis' body. Worse, the snow was piling up now that the embers had been quenched, making their task harder with each passing minute.
"Positive," Wolfram replied, unflinching. He would not let his friend down, not after such a blow as this. He'd dig the entire building out by himself if he had to. Not, he realized a moment later, that he would need to. The blackened beam from which he'd just brushed snow bore Drift's bloody handprints, as well as several broken-off claws embedded in the grain. "Here," he said, beckoning Jim over. This is the place. Help me get this snow and debris cleared away."
It only took them a minute to find the fallen wall that had pinned Alexis, along with the bloody prints where Drift had scrambled under it to make his horrible discovery. Wolfram stooped, preparing to follow the same path, but Jim stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Wait. Something's strange here. Burned hair and flesh have a very distinctive smell, but..." He paused to sniff the air. "I'm not catching a whiff of it."
Wolfram's eyes narrowed, his stooped position giving him the start of a look underneath the wall. "Something strange here, too. No blood pool. If her throat was cut..." A sudden hunch curdled in the ram's gut, and he seized the wall and heaved. "This might as well have been lead earlier," he grunted, "but..." The wall lifted far too easily and fell aside with a crash. Both of them gaped. There was no body, no blood, only a strange, blackened handprint burned deep into the floorboards. The fingers of the print extended far beyond those of a normal hand, five trails of charred wood vanishing into the rubble all around.
"What the hell?"
"Where's the body?"
Xavier opened the door on a pimple-faced youth, either a boy on the cusp of the Curse, or an AR trying to be as old as possible. In either case, he was dirty and dressed in rags, and carried a shapeless bundle well wrapped in cloth. "Delivery," he said, pitching his voice low and flicking an anxious glance down the hall. "For Snow," he continued, and tried to press the bundle into Xavier's hands.
The noble leopard would have none of it. Clawtips gleamed against the wooden doorjamb as he blocked the way, his other hand keeping its grip on the door beside him, denying either entry or a place for the package. "Edward Snow is accepting no deliveries tonight, especially not from such an obvious vagabond as yourself. Leave immediately or I shall call the Watch."
A white-furred arm blurred past Xavier's nose and slapped the door from his hand, then shouldered the leopard aside with little care for courtesy. Drift stepped through the gap. Sniffing the air, he fixed his eyes on the bundle. "Jasmine. This is from Alexis." It wasn't a question. The look he then turned on the boy could have etched glass, and his voice rivaled the fierce thunder outside. "Tell me why you're here, now, or I -won't- call the Watch."
The boy's Adam's apple bobbed. He glanced down the hall again, this time looking like whatever he was wary of might be a better choice than facing the unsmiling samoyed. A small tightening of Drift's grip on the door convinced him otherwise. "T-The Lady said I should give this to you," the boy stammered. "If anything happened to her tonight, I mean."
It was the wrong thing to say, but the youth realized his danger a moment too late. Drift's left hand closed on the package as if to take it, but in truth only to pinion the boy's hand to it. Then, with a jerk, Drift pulled him in close and seized him by the neck in his strong right hand. Heaving the boy off the ground, Drift slammed him against the wall with enough force to rattle teeth. If he had thundered before, he roared now. "How long?!"
"Wh-ack!" The boy clutched at the hand around his neck with all the effectiveness of an ant trying to beat off an elephant.
"How long did she know she might be in danger?" Sensing movement out of the corner of his eye, Drift snarled, "Xavier, if you shock me again, I will drive you into the ground like a tent spike!" He slammed the boy into the wall again. "How long!"
"Drift, he can't breathe!"
With a twitch of annoyance, Drift loosened his grip, but only fractionally. The boy gasped for air. Leaning in until his breath ruffled the youth's hair, Drift dropped his voice almost to a whisper. "I'll ask you one last time. How long did she know this was coming?" Only momentarily deterred by Drift's unusual, if obviously heartfelt, threat, Xavier paused in the midst of retrieving his rapier to listen.
"I don't know!" the boy squealed. "She just gave this to me today! Said you'd know what to do with it! That's it! She always plays her cards close to the vest!"
Drift glared at him for a long time, narrowed brown eyes boring through the youth's skull while thunder cracked outside. Finally, he loosened his grip on the package enough for the boy to slip his hand free, while still keeping a hold on it himself. "That does sound like something Alexis would do," he growled. He set the boy down, his grip loosening with the slowness of muscles made sore by exertion. "Fine. Get out of here. Don't let me see you again." The boy didn't have to be told twice: he vanished down the hall as if chased by all the hounds of Hell. Drift didn't bother to watch him go. He shut the door with a negligent flick of his wrist and took the package into his workshop.
Xavier stared. He had seen Drift hurting. He had seen Drift berserk. But he had never seen Drift like this before. It scared him and, for the first time, he felt reassured to feel the weight of his sword on his hip. He followed once he'd finished buckling it on, but what he saw when he got there froze him in place. The package, unwrapped on the desk, appeared to be a rectangular wooden box. Opened, it revealed a long lutin knife, stained faintly red as if from some long-ago use. Drift leaned against the desk as if he might collapse, holding a crumpled piece of paper in a fist against his forehead. His features writhed in a dying effort not to lose control. "Damn it, Alexis," he whimpered. "Damn it, damn it, damn it-"
The explosion, when it came, was terrible. With a roar, Drift flung the paper down, rounded on his workshop, and started smashing. Work of months, shattered against the wall or pulverized beneath a hammer blow of his fist. His bat-winged glider he heaved up with both hands and slammed to the floor, breaking its back in a crash of rending wood and metal. Painstakingly shaped and lacquered fabric shredded under a stomping foot, claws ripping. Xavier tried to pull him away and wound up flattened. He had never dreamed Drift could be that strong. With barely an effort, the samoyed had bodily thrown the leopard, knocking the wind out of him on the stone floor. This would, he promised, be the last time he underestimated the smith. By the time Xavier got his breath back, Drift stood in the midst of complete ruin, chest heaving.
A flare of temper flashed across Xavier's mind. How dare that peasant strike me! He quashed the thought, but the ember smoldered on in spite of his best efforts, sharpening his tone and edging his words as he picked himself up. "Do you feel better now?" He twitched. He hadn't meant to say that. He pushed on. "Edward Snow, you're coming with me. I don't care where we go, whether it's the Follower chapel or the Lothanasi temple, but you're going to talk to someone. Preferably without smashing more of your life's work." The words hung in the air like a poison cloud, and Xavier nearly slapped himself. What was wrong with him? He opened his mouth, tried to apologize, but the words caught in his throat. He tried again, failed, and settled for looking down and away, ashamed. Finally, what he'd meant to say came out. "You should," he said quietly, "talk with the Lothanasa or Father Hough."
It was too late. He could see it in Drift's eyes. The samoyed's glare was acid. Without a word, Drift stalked from the room.
"Where are you going?"
"To the privy," Drift snapped, neither pausing nor looking back. "Can I at least do -that- alone?"
Chastened, Xavier turned away. This was beyond out of hand. This was catastrophic. What had possessed him to say such things? The leopard ran his fingers through his metallic hair, trying without success to settle jangling nerves. He wished that Wolfram and Misha would hurry. There were too many coincidences swirling about, too many wild emotions, too many secrets. He picked up the paper that Drift had dropped, smoothed it out as best he could, and held it up to the light. It was, he hoped, time for some of those secrets to be revealed.
As he expected, it was a letter from Alexis. My beloved Edward. If you are reading this... Xavier's eyes narrowed to slits as he continued down the page. "You idiot woman," he growled under his breath once he'd finished, his ears laying flat with anger and disbelief. If even half of this was true, she should never have let them leave for Glen Avery. She should have told them all, and he and Misha would have taken it to the Duke himself. A jealous business rival, corruption in the Watch, murder, attempted murder, conspiracy... It read like madness, and yet it all fit. Compellingly so. His own family had been under the thumb of a rival before, and he knew the depths to which such people could stoop. "Damn Loriod," he cursed, the memory of the fat man springing unbidden into mind. What he would have given to put his claws through that blackmailing bastard's-
Pain startled him from his vengeful reverie, and he opened a hand he hadn't realized he'd clenched. Blood stained Alexis' letter- his own. In his anger, he'd put a claw through it and into his palm. What was more, both of his hands shook, so hard that the writing of the letter blurred out of legibility. Every instinct he had was screaming at him to run, to flee for his life and not look back. In a moment of stunning clarity, he realized why, and every hair on his body stood on end as he put it all together. Greed, deception, rage... he dropped the letter as if it were on fire and backed away from the boxed lutin blade as from the Glen Avery trapmaster's most lethal creation. Where anger had edged his voice before, terror now galvanized it. "Drift! Drift, we need to leave, right now! Do you hear-"
He sensed the attack from behind a fraction of a second too late.
Drift paced in his room, his thoughts flying in all directions.
Don't think. Don't feel.
I have to do something!
Nothing left. Nothing left for me.
I have to do -something-!
Don't think about the blood. Don't think about-
I HAVE TO DO-
The image of the knife flashed in his eye. The cold of the hilt remembered itself on his fingertips. A new thought whispered into his mind.
He glanced toward the workshop. Xavier would stop him. So would Misha or Wolfram if he didn't get out of here in time. They wouldn't understand. None of them would understand. He considered the leopard-man again, this time not as a friend, but as an obstacle in his way. His back was turned...
No. His hands closed on a different weapon instead, lifting it carefully to minimize the noise. Just hold still, Xavier, and this will all be over in a moment...
Drift's only chair smashed down on Xavier with enough force to shatter it. The hidden compartment inside broke open, scattering his mother's keepsakes across the room. He hesitated.
He nodded. There would be time to pick up once he'd beaten a confession out of Arkos Linafex.
Or killed him.
Or killed him. He'd certainly dreamed of it often enough. Xavier groaned, stirred. Drift punched him. This time the leopard stayed down. It might come to killing, Drift thought, and his eyes narrowed. He won't get away again. Not this time. "Sorry, Xavier," he said aloud, resting a hand on the leopard's chest to make sure he was still breathing. He was. "You are far too dangerous for me to risk being gentle." He allowed himself a moment, over the voice's protest, to carefully prop Xavier's head with the cushion from the broken chair.
But enough sentiment. Rising to his feet, Drift first retrieved a particular vest from his workshop, then grabbed the smithing hammer from the forge. He turned next toward his bedroom... and his eyes fell on his grandfather's Canticles. It, too, had fallen from the broken chair in which it had been hidden, and it now laid splayed open face-down on the floor.
Drift walked over to it, picked it up-
There's no time!
-dusted it off-
He'll get away!
-and closed it. Setting it gently on the table, he picked up the knife instead and buckled it to his belt. Walking into his bedroom, he lifted his hammer and eyed the stained glass window that he had once loved so much. Lightning flashed beyond it. He didn't care. "He's not getting away this time," he promised. "I'll make sure of it."
The imp Miroweke paused under a shuttered window of Agemnos' palace, his ears perking as they caught a voice from within.
"What do you mean, he's gone? I tasked you specifically with keeping him occupied!" A long pause followed. Then, in a voice so tightly controlled it could carve apart steel, Agemnos seethed, "He is far too powerful a rogue element to be allowed to roam unsupervised at this critical juncture. Find him. Now."
A splash followed, as of a scrying pool forcefully dismissed, then a dark growl. "Cousin, you had better not be doing what I think you're doing."
The Snow hammer spun into the night, shards of broken glass cascading down in its wake. More followed as Drift broke out the remaining pieces of the window, then stepped up on the sill. Crouching to fit into the opening, he squinted against the wind and driving snow, planning out his path. Soundlessly behind him, a low doorway opened in the wall, and metal tapped on stone. Drift half-spun, his shocked expression matched by that of his newest guest.
Jump NOW! Don't let it stop you!
Drift flung himself into the storm, Madog's face appearing momentarily in the window before darkness and distance swept it from view. Freefalling down the side of the Keep, he waited until nearly the last moment to activate the magic of the vest Misha had made for him. Even with that precaution, the wind pushed him well clear of his intended landing zone, and he winced in pained anticipation as the Keep stables rose from the storm to greet him.
The Polygamites paused in the midst of an argument when they heard something land on the roof of the stables. Every head turned upward at the soft thud and slide of snow. "What the-" exclaimed the head stallion, and he stepped outside to see what had made the sound. More snow had drifted up against the stable door, however, and it took him a few extra moments to push it open. By that time, Drift was already gone, vanished into the night.
"Huh," the horse-man grunted and pulled the door shut again before more heat escaped from the warm stable. "Must have been the wind."
Unseen, a bat-winged shadow flitted from a nearby rooftop, disappearing into the night after the samoyed. Another followed a moment later, careful to keep out of sight of the first.
Deep in the shadows of the stable, a dark-haired man smiled, swathed in a cloak that rippled like smoke. He followed, unhindered by either the night or the snow, unconcerned by any hazard that might be hidden there. His tracks and Drift's faded away as he passed, vanishing as if they'd never been. Back in the stable, the argument faded, and for at least one place in Metamor, peace descended for the night.