The cold wind whispered through the twilight forest, past the tracking fox, past the foraging buck, to the road where it murmured among three horses. Two of the horses carried men. Then the wind was gone, again hastening between the lofty pines. The riders paid no heed to the winds whispering, only pulled cloaks tighter against its gentle fingers. The horses listened, but did not hear, the creatures of the forest heard the wind. True animals always listen to the wind, for the old wind knows. The fox forgot her quarry, the deer his meal, as the wind split around ancient stones moved by new hands.
Miro held his cloak closed against the autumn wind. Fable walked under him, she had stirred when the wind first picked up, but now seemed calm enough. She’d been jumpy the past few days, he didn’t blame her. Stoyan sat easily on Jinx, his dusky stallion. The pack animal trailed along behind them, pots swinging from its bags. They rode in comfortably watchful silence, save for the occasional creak of leather and the touching of pots against pans, they knew this forest well. Miro had spent all his precious free time roaming these trees. They knew they were safe, but they still scanned the black-needled pines. Some habits are carved so deeply and at such a cost that they are written upon one’s bones.
The duo meandered along the road, upon seeing the old white stones crowning the nearby hill, Miro allowed himself to smile. He was almost there, almost home. “Do you think we’ve missed supper?” Stoyan asked.
“If we did, I’m sure we can figure something out,” Miro replied.
“I know we can figure something out, but I for one would very much rather have someone else do the cooking.” Miro was always amazed at this transformation. Outside the Abbey, Stoyan was more like boiled leather than a person. Hard, tough, stoic, without much personality. Within its white stones and red tiled roofs he acted more like an adolescent than the warrior that he was. Miro, even after years, still wasn’t entirely sure which one was the real Stoyan.
“We could always make another meal out of the cheese and bread in the saddlebags.”
“All we have left is the stale bread, you ate the last cheese at lunch.”
“How was I supposed to know the bridge would be out and we’d be delayed?”
“Did I bring the bridge up? No. Did I blame you for the bridge? Not even once. Did I blame you for the cheese? Yes, but it’s fine because I’ll eat the bread and you can eat your boots.” He smiled and slapped Miro on the back. Miro just chuckled as they rode. They dismounted and disarmed some distance from the structure and approached the gates.
“Stop.” commanded the outer guard, accompanied by the sound of crossbow cranks from above the wall. They halted. The guard, Miro thought his name was Kurdin, approached, gestured Miro toward him. Miro walked forward until Kurdin held up his hand. Kurdin closed the remaining distance, dual scabbards on one hip, heavy iron knife and crossbow on the other. He drew the smaller of the two swords, its silvered length etched with runes. Miro had been wearing a similar pair of weapons only moments before, now they were looped over Fable’s saddlehorn. Kurdin held the blade at guard and reached forward with his left hand until he touched Miro’s forehead with his first two fingers. Miro felt a familiar pressure at his temples and felt his blood flash to cold before returning to normal. “Good to see you back.” Kurdin waved to the guards on the wall and Miro and Stoyan walked back to their mounts. Leading the animals, they walked through the gates, into the courtyard, and toward the stables.
Havenhill Abbey was not a large compound and had never housed very many people. To call the structure lofty would be inaccurate though it did rise above the forest. The entire building was designed to endure and though the towers weren’t the most majestic feats of architecture to face the land, there was a certain beauty in purpose. The Abbey had existed before the Hunters, it had been abandoned by whoever built it untold centuries prior to being occupied by its current tenants. The building was designed to protect what it held, unfortunately, whatever that was had long since vanished, the keep’s secrets whisked away upon the winds of time. It was a jumble of square and round stone towers topped with red-tile roofs and pocked with narrow windows. Miro had spent most of his childhood inside the walls, often poking around one of the gardens or courtyards inside the compound and rarely among the black-needled pines outside.
The main stable was a large stone-walled room. The interior had been renovated by adding wooden fences to create pens and columns for hanging tackle. Stoyan and his student gave their mounts to the stablehand, telling him to put the packhorse’s bags out front, they would come and get them in an hour or two.
They placed sword belts and saddlebags on their shoulders crossed the courtyard to a small side gate. Stoyan stopped and waited outside and Miro headed in. The wall behind the counter was covered in scabbarded swords, on one end they were the shorter, silvered blades which marked a Hunter, on the other, the standard steel blades common among soldiers. Behind the counter Somov was polishing an iron knife, he smiled as Miro walked up to the counter. “Hello Mirovich, how was the Hunt?”
“It was good, how was it back here? How’s the training going?” Miro said as he unloaded his sword belt on the counter, Somov moved to the pile of equipment.
“Oh, you know. Mistress Mauser says I’m doing well enough for her, but of course, I still am having trouble with Master Ludomir’s lessons. I still need more sword practice.” Somov frowned slightly while inspecting the plain steel blade of the hand-and-a-half sword.
“I was always just the opposite.” Miro liked Somov. He was brave, dedicated and smart. He was probably the smartest person Miro knew, though he didn’t have the experience of Mauser, Ludomir, or Stoyan. He’d read every book worth reading in the Abbey’s library. His only problem was that he wasn’t a very physical person. “When are you relieved? If you have time, we can practice afterward? Or tomorrow?”
“Someone’s supposed to replace me in an hour and a half, so I think tomorrow would probably work better. Around noon?” Somov paused in his inspection of the runed, silver, short blade.
“I don’t think I have anything going on, if I find out, I’ll let you know,” Miro called over his shoulder, as he strolled to rejoin Stoyan.
“You’ve etched it,” Somov mumbled as Miro touched the door. Miro flinched internally.
“Sorry, I tried to clean the blood off fast enough. Stoyan already chewed me out over it. I expect Ludomir will want to take its cost from my hide.”
“I’ll see if I can polish it out.” the younger boy sighed.
“Thanks, you’re the best. See you around, Somov.” Miro replied opening the door and leaving unarmed. He joined Stoyan and the pair headed toward the main hall, Stoyan’s scabbards occasionally bumping together as their boot heels clicked against the flagstones. They crossed the courtyard again, opened the heavy main doors and entered the keep.
The corridors were quiet. Havenhill was emptying, fewer people chose to become Hunters. The walls were bare, with the exception of a few sparse tapestries, most often depicting geometric patterns or a landscape scene of coastlands or desert. It was clean enough, dust only piled up in the corners. Where the Uninitiated thought no one would notice. “How is Somov?” Stoyan asked as they began the climb up the stairs to the living quarters.
“He seems well. I think working in the armory has been good for him. He’s still under Ludomir, but has a chance to show some of his talents.” Somov was nearly as good with runes as Iryna Mauser herself.
“That’s Master Ludomir to you, boy,” quipped Stoyan. He paused for a moment, then continued “I think that boy will become an excellent Hunter.”
“I suppose” Miro ventured. Somov was a nice enough fellow, but more of a bookkeeper, or a clerk than a Hunter.
“I sense doubt, Hunting isn’t just about being able to kill the beast, it’s also about finding it. Somov knows so much about finding the monsters and even the best tactics to beat them. He has a good head on his shoulders, reminds me of Mistress Mauser, actually. All he needs is a chance to go out and get some real-world experience.” Stoyan’s smile almost slipped before he caught himself. Miro didn’t notice.
They had reached Stoyan’s room and this time, it was Miro’s turn to wait outside. He stood calmly in the hall as Stoyan entered. There was a thud from the room as Stoyan unburdened himself. After another few heartbeats, he came back out, sword belt on, but without his saddlebags. “Let’s get on with it so we can get some food.” he grinned at Miro “Hate for you to have to eat your boots.”
“Yeah, they’re new, I only just broke them in.” Miro rolled his eyes, accompanied by Stoyan grumbling something under his breath about youth respecting their elders.
They traveled the corridors again, Stoyan occasionally shoved Miro amiably. The floors were getting cleaner the closer they got to their destination. They passed some of the Uninitiated sweeping and dusting, this time taking care to get the corners. Miro remembered cleaning these halls, he never could do it to Mistress Mauser’s liking. “You missed an entire wall, boy,” she’d say or worse “Does it look clean to you?” there was no safe answer to that. The one time he’d tried “yes,” she told him about how much of an idiot he was, that he was blind, that if he couldn’t find dust in a corridor how was he to ever spot a stritch? Next time he’d tried “no” and she just asked why he was wasting her time, he felt even dumber that time. Eventually, he just learned to avoid her while he was cleaning. He preferred working in the gardens.
“What are you smiling about?” Stoyan interrupted his reminiscence.
“I’m just remembering cleaning these corridors. Rugs would have made life so much easier.” Miro replied.
“I could’ve pushed the dirt under them.”
Stoyan paused for half a heartbeat, “Iryna still would’ve found it.”
Miro considered this for a moment. “You’re probably right.” he conceded.
They reached the doors outside the Headmaster’s cloister. As Stoyan moved to open the door, Ludomir’s bulk exited the doorway. Miro offered a polite bow, it was answered by a nod. Master Ludomir was not a tall man. But he was very wide and thick. His arms were about as big around as Miro’s legs. His iron-gray beard moved as he spoke, “Oh, excuse me Stoyan. I’d give him a minute in there. Master Mikolov isn’t too happy.”
Stoyan pursed his lips and nodded, “Thanks, Ludomir.” Ludomir just turned around and set off toward the mess hall. They always saved enough for Ludomir. They waited a few moments after he turned the corner then Stoyan knocked on the door.
“Enter.” called a voice from inside.
Stoyan opened the door and went inside, Miro on his heels. The room was dominated by a tasteful, antique desk. Behind the desk was a high-backed padded chair, currently unoccupied and in front a pair of matching low-backed chairs. In the right-hand wall, a fire burned in a hearth underneath a well-made mantel. On which stood a bronze statuette of a stag. A tall man stood behind the desk. He had a tight face, made of planes and angles. His sandy hair was pulled back and fixed into a tail by a sable ribbon. The rest of his ensemble was similarly somber, with the addition of some minor embroidery. He dressed about as fine as a moderately successful merchant, but when he spoke, it was with the authority of a noble. “Ah, Stoyan, you are back. Good. I assume you had no trouble?”
Stoyan offered a bow, which Miro echoed, before speaking, “No great deal of unexpected trouble. Thankfully Mirovich was quick to spot the Murkling, else I might not have escaped entirely whole.” that wasn’t exactly how Miro recalled events. The way he remembered it, neither had seen it until they were already in its cave. Stoyan had gone in first and as such was assaulted first. Miro just had cleaned up.
“A Murkling you say?” he fixed his blue eyes on Miro, “I thank you for saving our friend. You have been a very able Initiate, young Mirovich. I’m glad I sent the two of you.” he looked at the wall and mused to himself, “I was worried that I was being overly cautious sending both to a Hunt which one could handle. I’m’ glad for that caution now”
“Headmaster Mikolov, I’d hate for Mirovich to miss his dinner on our account and he still must recover some items from the stables. Perhaps he may go while you and I discuss?”
“Of course Hunter Stoyan.” he nodded to Miro again, who was already bowing and backing toward the door. It still stung to be dismissed as a child, but there was nothing for it now. After the door was closed there was nothing to hear and nothing would be worth being caught eavesdropping; Mistress Mauser could wield a switch better than Ludomir could swing a sword. He sighed and headed toward the courtyard, he still had some chores left before suppertime.
“I think Mirovich is ready for advancement. And I want to tutor Somov.” Stoyan stated. He locked his gaze to the Headmaster’s eyes. Leski Mikolov was a hard man. He was a diplomat, respected people regardless of birth and capable of compromise, but a hard man and a noble nonetheless. Stoyan respected Leski more than anyone else he’d ever met.
“You think Somov is worth the trouble? Ludomir thinks the opposite and Iryna Mauser agrees.” the blue-eyed stare retorted.
“Somov is as brave as any Hunter here.”
“He’s naive. He’s never seen any monster not made of ink and paper.”
“He’s smart as silver.”
“And if I bring him out he won’t be naive anymore.”
“Did you think I was jesting when I told you that both Ludomir and Mauser think him worthless? He can barely hold a sword properly! If I let him be Lustrated he will die and that death will be on my hands! Or worse, if he doesn’t die he’ll go to fight a Murkling with his partner and they’ll both be eviscerated! How many deaths is this boy’s pride worth?” the noble’s gaze flared.
“He has no other home left to him. Where will he go?” Stoyan deflated. He’d pushed too far. Leski wouldn’t hear any more about Somov. He was probably right as well, which made it worse.
“If he chooses he may stay where he is. There are many ways to serve and being a Hunter is only one of them.” Leski was always firm and fair.
“What of Miro?”
“What about him?”
“He’s ready to become a full-fledged Hunter. I wasn’t lying about the Murkling, in fact by the time I saw it, it was already trying to pull my arms off. If he wasn’t there, I’d be short a few limbs.”
Leski Mikolov sighed and motioned the Hunter to sit down. “I agree,” he moved retrieve a decanter of amber liquid and two glasses from a cabinet behind the desk. He continued, “Miro is ready to become a Hunter, I’ll talk to Mido and Denisa” he paused for a long moment, “We’re getting old, my friend. Before long we’ll be forced to rest by the fire and let the next generation take over.”
Stoyan’s body agreed with the Headmaster, but he knew he’d never let that happen. Despite the protest of his bones, he said, “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
Leski laughed quietly, “Stoyan, I know you. If Death ever has the audacity to try and make you rest, you’ll just ignore it. A drink?” he was already pouring generously into the second glass.
“Yes, thank you,” Stoyan said as the aristocrat served him.
After sitting down in the chair next to Stoyan, Leski raised his glass, “To the cost of Peace.” the fair-haired noble offered.
“To Hot Blood and Cold Steel” replied the hardened man, completing the maxim of Havenhill Abbey.
They sipped their brandy for a few moments. After an introspective pause, Stoyan opened his mouth, “How are Marianna and Cosmina?” he asked.
“Both well, they just spent a month in Estary and are back in Sheanor. It’s nice to have letters come a bit more regularly and to have them close enough to be able to check in on them. Their letters from Estary are still catching up to me.”
“I imagine Estary is beautiful now, turned golden with the Eld in autumn. Travel by ship?”
“Yes, they did, it’s safer than going by land. And they wrote that it was stunning. They’ll be here before snowfall, just for a few days. If Marianna agrees, she and Cosmina will be living here starting this spring”
They drank in quiet for a few minutes. Both men were glad for the quiet, neither desiring conversation, neither really wanting to be alone, lulled by the crackling of the fire. Leski thought of the future, worrying about the future of the Abbey and his family’s place in it. Stoyan thought of the past, like a vulture he sat, picking at old memories and pulling at old wounds. Hoping he would forget, but forcing himself to remember.
Their quiet masochism was interrupted by distant shouts of men and screams of equine terror.
Miro walked through the corridors. He wasn’t in a particular hurry to reach the stables, but he was in a particular hurry to get some food and perhaps sleep in his bed. His mother had probably already heard that he was back and would be expecting him. She wasn’t a Hunter, nor was his father, but they both felt they owed a debt to the Abbey. So they worked as servants, doing laundry, cleaning corridors, polishing blades, making quarrels, mucking stables, cooking dinner, scrubbing pots, they were basically just Uninitiated without any hope of advancement. That was part of why he was on his path to becoming a Hunter because they felt they owed a debt. Not that he would trade the life he’d lived, the thrill of the chase, the edge of death and he supposed he did help the common people. Even if they still made signs to ward off evil when they figured out what he was. He enjoyed his life, but it might have been nice to choose it. Maybe he would have liked to be a farmer, or a hunter without the capital H. He might have made a fine soldier or a guard, maybe in a different life.
It was with similar musings that he traveled the stone hallways back to the main courtyard. He crossed the courtyard and told himself to grow up. He really couldn’t afford to be so childish, it was as Stoyan had told him, if he wanted to change how people viewed the Abbey, he’d have to change how they saw the Hunters and the only Hunter Miro could show them was himself.
He’d reached the courtyard, he spotted the pack bags piled against the wall of the stable and strode toward them. As he bent down to retrieve them, he heard the shattering of wood from inside the building, followed shortly by the screaming of the stableboy as he came crashing through the front door. Miro dropped the bags and sprinted to the door, only to have to dodge to the side as Jinx bolted from the stable. He could hear the screams of the other horses coming from the inside of the stable, harmonized with shattering wood and a prolonged tearing sound. Several more horses bolted from the stable, guards on the walls were shouting to each other, issuing orders and getting into position. If whatever was in there came out, it would be turned into a pincushion for war-quarrels.
A few moments passed, the horses stopped screaming, the men on the wall were quiet, the sound of breaking wood died down. Fable never came out. As Miro was wondering what the next step was, he heard a footstep behind him. He spun, ready to beat whatever it was, only to realize it was Somov, who silently handed him a bare silver sword and an iron knife. He was carrying an extra set. Miro gave him a hard look, Somov pointedly ignored it. He offered a barely audible whisper, “Must be some kind of shapechanger, could be clever or stupid.” Miro nodded.
“I’ll go in first, I’m betting on silver, “ Miro whispered while fixing the silver blade in his right hand, the iron knife in the other. “You stay here.” Somov nodded. Miro hoped he listened.
He took a deep breath and allowed the silver blade to drink up some of his life, just like Ludomir taught him. He felt heat on his face as sooty flames crept from the sword. This flame was nothing compared to the boiling inside him, which was likewise dwarfed from the memory of the first time he felt this dark power. His blood boiled, hotter than fire, while his bones froze, colder than wintry rivers. Fire hot enough to sear the flesh from him, ice cold enough to turn him brittle. Either one alone would kill him, together they made him alive, a hundred fold. He focused on his breath and tried to keep the war inside him from distracting him, if he lost control of what was happening inside him, he would die; if he lost control of what he was doing with his body, he would die. No matter what he did, one day, he would die. If today was that day, then so be it. He sharpened his mind, as Stoyan taught him, distancing himself from his body while being perfectly aware of it.
He moved into the stable, blade held to the side, sooty flames illuminating the interior. The lantern had been extinguished and was broken on the ground. There was a clicking, the sort of omnidirectional clicking which when heard in darkened rooms where monsters are known to be lurking sets men’s hearts racing. His focus slipped for a moment. He needed to control his mind and body. He drew a breath and fed the furnace of his blood and exhaled and added icy wind to the winter in his bones. The clicking ceased.
He saw a flash of movement on his left and felt a pain in his left arm as he dodged to the right. He growled in his throat as his blood burned hotter for a moment, Venom, came a thought from outside the calm in his mind. All he caught was a blur of milky white, about two fingers thick, retreating into the heavy shadows. A new pinpoint of light fell through the stone wall beside him where whatever the creature was, put a hole in the side of the stable. He edged closer to where the attack came from. Two more blurs flew from the dark, drilling holes into the pillar and ground beside him as he danced out of the way. He caught a vague shape this time, they seemed to be tendrils of some kind. Several tentacles whipped at him, he slashed at two of them with the sword and blocked one with the iron knife. The sword felt like he was chopping at a stone wall, it didn’t seem to cut right, rebounding against the flesh of the aberration. When the tentacle impacted knife, however, it’s skin screamed like grease in a hot pan. He eyed the still-black corner warily, “Use iron, not silver!” he shouted. He heard Somov shout his message to the courtyard. He grimaced as the tentacles began questing toward the door, where Somov called out his warning.
“Oi” he barked, trying to draw its attention and immediately had to dodge out of the way as four of the toothy limbs snapped at him, one catching his calf. As he recovered, his eyes snapped to the wall beside the door, there were three holes about the thickness of his first two fingers, through which light poured through, catching floating dust motes. He heard more shouting outside, but nothing he could identify as Somov. He cursed to himself, Somov would be fine. Probably. Even if he was hit, it couldn’t be that bad and Mauser could cure the venom, right? Right.
He nearly fainted with relief when he saw a head of shaggy brown hair peer around the corner of the doorway, he nearly cursed again. Then a voice said a syllable in a language no human mouth was meant to speak, one which he had heard many times, had said dozens, but couldn’t ever quite make out exactly what it sounded like. The stable flooded with light as Somov released his spell. In the corner of the stable was a sight not meant to be seen and one which would never be unseen.
It was the back half of a horse, but ripped open from the inside by about a dozen limbs. Most of them were pale semi-translucent tendrils with razor-like teeth embedded in them, a few were more like corpse-gray, emaciated human arms with black claws at the end of the digits. The tendrils moved fluidly, almost like seaweed, while the other, more human limbs looked like they were powered by heavy springs, jerkily moving one direction and then slamming around in another. The entire assemblage of grotesque extremities was trying to finish extracting itself from the bowels of the horse. He heard vomiting from the doorway.
He wasn’t sure what this monster was and though it was dangerous it would likely be more so after it extracted itself from the horse. Mauser would be coming to take care of Somov, Stoyan and Leski would be on their way here as well. Probably. He just had to keep it occupied until they showed up and finished it. He could do that. He took another deep breath to calm his raging mind.
He switched the knife and sword in his hands. He wished he had steel, it wouldn’t do to ruin another silver sword. Not that there was anything for it now. He then had to duck out of the way of a pair of tendrils, as he recovered he beat another one away and frisked closer to the horse carcass. He managed to cut a tendril with his knife and shortened it by a foot or so, the thing screeched. As the end fell off it writhed on the ground. He ignored it, it was much less of a threat without length or an anchor.
Still screeching the monstrosity lashed out with all its limbs. Fortunately, the arms were too short. Unfortunately, that was only three of the twelve and nine tendrils were still difficult to dodge. He managed to catch three or four (he wasn’t sure which) with the silver sword, twist away from a few more, slash one and get his thigh stabbed. He gritted his teeth as his blood scorched the venom away.
He was fairly close to the main body now. It looked like a thrashing mass of entrails glistening in the horse’s blood. He couldn’t find an opening to swing, the slashing tendrils wouldn’t give him a chance to swing the iron knife. Then the barn went dark, his burning sword the only illumination. Somov must have lost control of his spell, that was unlike him. In the flickering ambiance, it became even harder to follow the flurry of attacks. He chopped another tendril and received another minor wound, this one a graze on his right shoulder. The knife, though large, was still a knife and not designed for defense. He was slowing down, he wouldn’t be able to keep trading like this, he didn’t have enough arms. The monstrosity was still focusing on extracting itself from the guts of the horse, which gave him the chance to retreat. He decided not to take it.
"Go get Somov! We’ll take care of this.” He heard Ludomir bellow from behind him. Miro kept his eyes on the tentacles as he backed away. When he was clear, he darted for the exit. Stoyan and Ludomir each had a pair of iron knives. Ludomir’s spat oily flames, Stoyan’s exhaled a cold mist which boiled to the ground. The pair of seasoned Hunters separated and stalked toward the aberration.
Outside, three guards were positioned with crossbows and quarrels with rags on the end, one was calming down the other horses. Leski stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his face was calm. Somov was on the flagstones, ash-faced and convulsing. Apparently, the venom was bad. Iryna Mauser crouched over him, cursing loudly. Miro maintained the burning sword and his connection to the well of blood-magic in his bones. If he let it go, he wasn’t sure he could get it back and Mistress Mauser might need it.
"Get over here!"she snapped. Miro sprinted over and offered his head. She mimicked Kurdin’s earlier gesture, touching two fingers to his forehead. He felt her Dredging for a mere instant, she was much more skilled than Kurdin. "Good, you’ve still some spirit left in you. He’ll need it.”
She left her hand on his forehead and placed the other on Somov’s chest. Miro felt his blood cool, his bones ceased their icy throbbing and the pure energy he’d felt was replaced by deep weariness and an ache in his joints. She pulled his life essence, his source of magic from him and was now forcing it into Somov’s body. It would give his vitality a boost for a time before it faded, hopefully allowing him to pull through whatever ailed him unless the jolt to his system killed him first. Healing was a crude and violent work.
Somov stopped convulsing. Miro’s knees almost betrayed him, but he forced himself to remain upright. Mistress Mauser looked almost as bad as he felt, which meant she felt worse. She sighed. Miro hadn’t heard her sigh like that since he’d tried to put half-dozen rabbits in Stoyan’s chamber. They ended up roaming the halls. It wasn’t long before there were rather more than six rabbits. He spent a week chasing them. She was exasperated and disappointed. "I guess that’s all we can give,” she grunted and stood up. “Just as well, any more would probably kill him anyway.”
"Will he be okay?”
"I don’t know, not as he is. I have an idea, but we’ll see.” she turned as Stoyan and Ludomir left the stable.
"We’ll have to burn everything that’s left. The limbs don’t die when disconnected.” Ludomir rumbled.
"I surmised so when I Dredged Somov."
"What happened to the boy?” Stoyan inquired.
"It seems that the parasite implants itself in the victim’s body, where it will spread until it is ready to burst forth and implant itself in a new host.”
"But you got rid of it? You’ve cleansed him?”
"No.” she replied. Miro clenched his teeth, Stoyan looked openly concerned, Ludomir just pursed his lips.
Leski Mikolov walked toward the group. “What needs to be done now, Hunters?” he asked calmly.
“The interior of the stable needs to be cleansed with fire, we didn’t want to set fire to your abbey without…” Ludomir’s gravelly voice was cut off as the stable behind them burst into violent, sooty, red flames. The entire room was immediately engulfed, transformed into the heart of the furnace.
“What else?” the Headmaster asked, just as calm as before.
“Somov’s injury is beyond my ability to heal. He has perhaps a day before he will die.” Mistress Mauser paused for a moment to let this sink in. “I believe we must Lustrate him, or he will die.” Stoyan still looked mildly stunned, Ludomir looked angry, Mauser was cool, Mikolov nodded.
“If he wakes before midnight we’ll ask his permission, else we will Initiate him at midnight, agreed?” Mauser nodded. After a glance at Stoyan, Ludomir did the same.
The wind swept northward. The drooping willows stirred to its insistent fingers. The wind brought more than the scent of a pine forest to the Willow Marshes. It brought a strange taste as well, something ancient mixed with a little new. It reached through a clearing and into the open window of a humble cottage on stilts. It slipped through the home, touching a woman’s hair before climbing up the chimney.
She turned from her kettle, tea forgotten. There was a hint of something in the air, a taste once forgotten. She’d been taught to read omens and knew that this was no ordinary breeze. The kettle boiled over, the flames complained about the water but she paid them no mind. She tried to place this new taste in her lungs. She allowed herself no reaction when she finally remembered it. Conflict.
She turned around, upended the kettle on the flames, burning her hand as she did so and stalked out of the hut and into the Willow Marshes.
The ash trees around the dilapidated hut were silent, their voices stolen. The birds, such as they were in this place, were gone. The birds were clever.
The Hag Prince crouched in his hovel, his simian feet tucked underneath him. His collection was spread before him, no less than eight elvish molars –he used to have more, but he’d traded them– fifteen copper coins carefully wrapped in cloth, a pouch of mismatched wood or bone buttons, a crumpled pile of stained blankets, a hairless skin and a handful of toes. He smiled at his pun as he picked one up with his dextrous feet. His teeth started to grind Filthy elves. What business was it of theirs?! Stealing other people’s things, stealing my music! He caught himself before he dulled one of his teeth. At least humans are still dumb. He took comfort in this thought.