His armor was heavy. The slow weight of the pauldrons pressing into his shoulders, the bite of the breastplate if he turned too quickly, the cold pinch of the gauntlets on his pale skin: this is how he knew who he was. The weight was memory, the weight was duty, the weight was home. The weight was dragging him down. He was an old man by any measure, limbs thin, his bones pressing against every line of his frame.What little hair he had on his head was silver. Gray iron, silver hair, and a white sword. The sword was heaviest of all, heavier than forged metal, heavier than Time.
He was Linus the Blue. He had been pulled back from death. Again and again and again, and each time he wept and found his memory in the weight of his armor, in the quiet menace of the white sword at his side. He had a duty, a charge that none but he could fulfill.
But it was heavy.
“The trail lead to this dock, boss,” his assassin crouched, perching on the flat circle of a nearby dock brace like a horned gargoyle. “She knocked off the bank, ran back to that attic hidey-hole, then traipsed right down here and got on the boat. I bent a few arms of the sailors around here to make sure everyone’s memory was clear. But unless the boat was an invisible boat, it’s gone.”
The orange-skinned assassin pointed at the empty water at the end of the dock. Linus sighed. His companion, Sideways, was extremely skilled and had proved his reputation and reliability time and time again. He still made Linus’ head throb however.
“What was the name of the ship?” Linus asked patiently.
“Boat’s called ‘The Cormorant’.” Sideways shrugged as if to suggest he had no strong opinion of the quality of the craft’s moniker.
Linus turned and looked out across the waves. Carroway was on the western edge of the landmass, just a few days travel south from where he had recently been reborn. The port was not as massive as some he had seen in his travel: Quorum, Parajuelego, Pice. But what it lacked in scale it made up for in variety. Carroway was a hungry city, and ships from many nations found their way to these algae-coated docks. Several of the ships bore the mark of the Seafoam Trading Company - the bulk of their trade was plied across the skies of Aufero, but they still kept a healthy interest in sea travel. They would not have booked passage on one of those - too much paperwork and chance of being discovered. A private trader or one from a less circumspect company.
“Did you learn anything of the ship’s captain?”
“Tarwell Blackberry is his name, small trader. Mainly foodstuffs out of Pice. Keeps his crew small, just a few hands and his daughter.” Sideways eyes were focused on the waves as well, following the lightning quick movement of some fish below. His squashed-coral horns angled down towards the water hungrily.
“Perfect. She chose well. A ship capable of a fair distance, but small and flying no banner. A family-owned ship is always eager for extra gold, they are the most defenseless against the vagaries of the sea. Honest enough to carry them to their destination, but crooked enough to not ask too many questions. Mouths to feed, bills to pay,” the iron-clad knight chuckled. “She tore the Waters’ bank apart at dawn and was already on the water before noon. Splendid, Doma.”
“What now? That was yesterday, she’s more than a day ahead of us. No way to know what direction she headed. I got ten different directions from the salt-dogs I questioned,” the devilkin leered and cocked his pointed orange chin at Linus. “And we can’t trust to luck this time, I think.”
Linus nodded. The assassin was right. They had been making their way south from that lonely bit of shore where they had faced the wild mage before, when they had come across a caravan of silversmiths. The traders shared news of the road, speaking only of the explosive robbery that had taken place that morning as they were leaving Carroway. Where Rime Korvanus went, explosions were sure to follow. The knight and his cohort pushed on until well past midnight to arrive at the scene of the crime. The bank’s magister had recognized his badge of office and was all too eager to enlist the Hunt’s aid.
His lips bent again into a smile. Seeing the devastation she had caused gave him a feeling almost nearing pride. It was the feeling a hunter got when he found a particularly savage griffon, or a tiger with blood still on its jaws. It made the weight worthwhile. It made it all mean something, something grander.
Linus pulled his left hand free from his gauntlet so he could rub his throbbing forehead with his fingertips. It had been many years since a sleepless night could be had without cost. I’m still weak from the sword’s...call. He had never understood by what strange power the sword could pull him back from the cool waters of death. Nor why it would wait three days before doing so. Nor how the blade could rend and erase the very fabric of any magical energy. I will need to sleep soon. Sleep soon and deeply. The white sword, all but featureless and blank, was the perfect weapon for his charge, for his Hunt. I will sleep deeply indeed when she is dead, when the sword cuts the life out of Doma Rime Korvanus. Maybe then it will let me go at last.
He pulled his iron gauntlet back on. He was too old to believe such things.
Sideways hopped down from his perch and crossed his arms, waiting for Linus’ word.
“Come. We gather nothing here but sea air,” Linus turned back towards the city. “We have resources that we must collect, and you have an errand to run.”
The gray-leather boots fell in behind the iron plate. “An errand?”
“When the Hunt was needed more often, we kept supply caches in most major cities throughout the land - never knowing where a new abomination would appear. There is one close at hand and I believe it has something that will aid us. You must go to the market and obtain some food.”
“Oh, of course! You haven’t had your breakfast, I’ll be happy to run and pick up whatever you need. Bagels, cheese? Maybe a little wine? Your color is looking rough, boss.”
Linus gave the devilkin his breakfast order and directions to the Hunt supply depot. Sideways departed with an uncomfortable wrinkle on his brow, his horns angled towards the earth.
He walked with a retinue of ghosts. It was common. As drab as the steel he wore. Familiar and sure, gray phantoms of memory at his elbows nodding and sighing like so many gulls.
Late morning sun arched over his head, illuminating the foul grey bricks of the warehouse. Linus wished he could stop and lean against them for a moment, but he kept his back straight. I’m the last. The last of the great Hunt. After me there will be no others. His stomach rumbled. He was alone in the grey alley, but all the same he was not. The ghosts stood at his elbows, all those who had fallen to the vicious power of his quarry. Friends and followers and strangers on the train, a bread-seller’s wife with her head split open by emerald fire, one blue eye boiling as she screamed - forever caught in his memory. That was the Breaker, wasn’t it? Or was it the Empty Academy? He sometimes jumbled his past quarry but could never forget their victims.
Linus and his fellow Hunters had given each wild mage an honorific - partly for quick reference, but also for the distance it allowed. It was much easier to feel heroic slitting the Breaker’s throat as he slept -- not so grand if one thought of his first name, Pelton Vail. A spindly lumberjack from the Hollow who found one day that he could command the trees to kneel, to snap their branches into neat cords and stacks - all at his will. Wild mages often started that way. A simple miracle, a grand moment, an impossible talent. But they all ended the same. Madness and blood. Sooner rather than late, now instead of then, their miracles would turn to mire. I should give Doma Korvanus a name. Linus mused as he turned the corner of the drab warehouse.
The alley before him was filled with broken crates and upended canisters that had once held some sort of fuel. He sighed and pushed his way through, feeling the sick twinge of his joints. Linus chuckled, thinking of the great power he could bring to bear both martial and magical - the armies of many nations if it came to that - but it did him little good in getting past a rotting pile of trash. The alley terminated in a brick wall plastered over with a faded poster worn down to yellow shadows by rain and sun. The hunter placed a gentle hand on the wall.
“Hello, old friend,” he blinked and saw the poster brand new - an advertisement for a traveling show, a hoary wooden galleon slipping through the clouds, a steely-eyed sky pirate hanging from the side with a beautiful blonde nobly trying to pull both the man and her decolletage into some sort of order. On the deck shadowy figures gathered, lead by a hooded figure in red. Linus blinked again and the colors drained away - the only part still clear the pirate’s hook that was drawn as if made of lightning. Linus had never seen the show - too busy. Some fantastical fluff spun from the barest threads of history; the hunter’s hand moved across the yellow parchment and pressed the hidden switch just below the red hood.
To his right there was a door. The door was simple oak, unpainted, with a brass knob. There had not been a door before he pushed the crumbling brick, but there was a door now. Linus had spent a few idle days throughout his service trying to determine the method of this cache’s hidden door, but had never proved successful. He had been tempted many times to simply march into the Archives and look up the original work order, but had determined to respect the craft of this portal with the continued unsolved riddle in his head like a canker sore. Other caches in other cities had much more mundane entrances: trap doors, toma-gates, a moat filled with rage-spelled pixies. He gave the damnable oak a salute as he passed through it, turning sharply to the left and heading down the metal stairs into the cache below. His iron-shod boots rang on the steps like vicious bells.
The interior was crammed with sleeping shadows, Linus had to rap on a few glow-globes sharply to get them to spring into feeble illumination. He glanced around watching the lumbering shadows retreat to the corners to continue their interrupted naps. The chamber was mostly round, it had once been used for some function in the city’s sewage system - a central pool had long ago been drained and filled with thick leather chairs and racks for weapons, books, scrolls. A massive map of the globe still hung taut on the far wall, ivory pins with brightly colored heads winking at him in the untrustworthy light. Old Hunts, old lives. The ghosts at his heels filed their way in and took their places in the dust-covered chairs. Linus took a long breath and braced himself as the smell took him back. Back to when his armor had felt light as copper, his purpose bright as the sun. Back before he died the first time.
“Ahem,” a very non-spectral voice interrupted his reverie.
Linus looked up the metal stairs to where his associate, Sideways stood. The assassin came down the metal stairs without another whisper, a dirty green duffel bag tied off with a cord carried over his shoulder. He placed the bag in one of the mold-eaten chairs then straightened, his eyes carefully empty.
“Your breakfast,” Sideways said.
“Not mine,” Linus sighed and strode across the dusty tile towards a metal cabinet that ran from floor to ceiling, nearly double the old man’s height. Black cables, thick and coiled like snakes erupted from one side burying themselves down into the tile hungry for sustenance. The cabinet was not locked, even during the Hunt’s height it had not been. Some weapons are their own warning. Only in great desperation would a hunter ask to employ the metal coffin’s contents - only when the trail had gone cold, as cold as a slab of gravestone. Only with careful thought would permission be granted, Linus had only seen these doors swing wide a handful of times throughout the long years. Some tools require so much wisdom and skill that only the best can be trusted with them. He paused only a moment, his gauntlets closing on the simple handles, then flung the cabinet wide. And when the cost is so high for such a tool, couldn’t the best find some other, any other option?
It sat on its haunches in the cabinet. The head of brass-etched steel lay quiet on it’s chest, a strange barrel of glass. The hound’s paws were held in a neat row as if ready for inspection. Unlike everything else in this chamber there was not a speck of dust, the glass dog was immaculately clean as if Time itself had been afraid to slip past the metal doors of its cabinet. Linus’ mouth quirked in what was almost fondness. He slid his hand free of the iron gauntlet and placed his palm on the hound’s broad forehead.
Sideways leaned so far over trying to get a better view that one mangled horn could have easily scratched his knee. Linus spared his rogue a wry glance, the green sack nearby gave a slight twitch.
The first taste must be from the Master. The knight reminded himself and carefully placed his naked hand between the hound’s steel jaws. But just a taste.
The metal was cool to the touch, but soon began to grow colder. Linus braced himself as a faint blue light blossomed in the glass chest of the hound and the head began to stir. He sagged with weariness as strength seemed to flow out of him and into the dog, the cerulean light flaring brighter. It was soon bright enough to see the ceramic shield on her chest, circular and printed with a crashing wave - the sigil of her manufacturers the Seafoam Trading Company. Linus slipped his hand free, a spike of nausea running through his gut causing him to lean on the glass dog’s shoulder for support.
The hound raised her head, eyes empty hollows of sky-blue light.
“Hello, Nora,” Linus sighed with satisfaction.
The devilkin unfolded himself and gave the automaton a wide berth as it stepped down delicately from the metal cabinet. “So this is ‘resources’?” Sideways muttered.
“It is. The mage-hounds were designed with great care, a strange synthesis of Precursor technology and some alchemical processes - I admit I’ve never grasped the underlying lore. But I am intimately familiar with the effect. With the proper resonance achieved they can track almost any type of magic - set and maintained by the hound’s core.” Linus ran a fond hand down Nora’s glass back. “Elemental, necromantic, a summoner’s forge, a druid’s roots.”
“Ah - what kind of range do they have?” the assassin’s professional curiosity peeked out.
“A few hundred miles, though it can grow complicated if there is more than one target within range, the hounds always seek the closest, strongest signal.” Linus watched as Nora took a few steps into the center of the chamber, her flat head turning back and forth like a slow metronome. “But that will not be an issue in this case. Nora is very special. She tracks only the Magic Wild, and there is only one who bears it, and that is our quarry.”
“Wait - how can you be so sure that Skinny Girl is the only one?” the assassin crossed his arms, then snapped his attention in alarm when the glass hound suddenly stumbled to a halt, the blue fire inside beginning to flicker. “Whoa, what’s wrong with your pup?”
“I’m sure,” Linus said, crossing the chamber to the green sack full of ‘breakfast’. Without ceremony he ripped the cord free and dumped the sack’s contents on the floor.
It smelled terrible. It hadn’t shaved in weeks, a mud-spotted tunic the only clothing it wore. It was human, not that it mattered. Nora whined, an almost musical thrum like a bassoon. Linus pointed at the vagrant and said, “Feed.”
Nora’s flat head bobbed with delight and loped over. Her mouth was large enough that the vagrant’s chest nearly disappeared inside. Linus saw the human’s eyes flutter open and his mouth work, trying to voice a question or perhaps cry for help. The cold of Nora’s jaws soon ended that as the human’s life was absorbed, energy to stoke her blue flame. The knight nodded, the assassin had done his job well, even though it had clearly been distasteful to him.
“We will return to the docks and pick up the trail,” Linus watched the knowledge of death pool in the vagrant’s eyes and a pitiful line of slobber pour down his lips. “Then we will book passage on a ship. A large ship with many passengers.”
Sideways nodded, turned, then stopped - shoulders tight in his gray leather armor. “Lots of passengers?”
“Yes,” Linus patted the glass dog’s head as she dropped her breakfast on the floor.