“Something is wrong and strange,” said Ooluk, the next morning. “The mine makes sounds like a flooding. I hear whispers through the stones.”
He was perched atop his hillock in the practice yard, his fingers buried in the ground, his ears faintly trembling. Ramdas had shouted for them all the knights to join him, and they had come running from the barracks. Now all the knights were circled around him, just as the hunters of the northern people had been days before. They hung on Ooluk’s words, their faces grim and distressed.
“And there is a cave, on the west side of the fourth mountain from that way,” The elf nodded vaguely towards the west. “Something very heavy and hard began moving in the last hour. There are sounds of flesh and metal scraping on stone. Not like mining. Clumsy, not purposeful,” he said, his face puzzled. “I cannot tell if there is one, or many. The sounds never entirely stop, but they do not leave the cave.”
Persephone turned to Helga, her gaze tracking from the indicated mountain back towards the fortress guarding the adamant mine. “Would they flood the mine, do you think? With the miners inside? If they were desperate to protect the adamant?”
Helga whistled as she considered it, her eyebrows rising in emphasis. “They would have to be very desperate, dearie. Pumping that much seawater back out of the mine would be a season’s worth of work.”
“And no care given to the miners still inside?” growled Ramdas.
Helga grimaced. “Sir, if they were desperate enough to flood the mine, I doubt they’d count the dwarven and human cost alongside. Good miners would trade their firstborn for a share of those mine profits. Empire pays a strong wage for their war materials, four times better than a diamond mine. They could replace them in heartbeats, sir. As for the miners, if they’re trapped underground, they might be whispering, saving their air. Accidental cave-in they’d tap their picks on the rock. If they aren’t tapping… it wasn’t an accident.”
Ramdas swore in a long string of fluent Venician, an irritable kick in the air by a hind leg punctuating his frustration. “So los imperiales flood their own mine, and yet they bar the gates to us. I have called up to sentries and kicked upon the gates myself, and no answer comes but arrows shot to the ground around me. We cannot enter without risk of setting the Empire against the Church.”
“So the cave then, Lieutenant?” said Heather.
“Si, we go and investigate this cave, together,” he growled. “Caballeros, prepare your horses.”
Heather smacked the handle of her mace and grunted agreement. “Let’s not keep our local horrors waiting.”
They tacked and saddled their horses, and checked weapons and armor. Ramdas clapped on plate barding for the occasion, along with his breastplate and chain. The rune-embossed steel plates hung from his body, and made his steps noticeably more labored, but the centaur offered no complaint.
Heather and Helga checked each other’s new shields, ensuring each still had firm handles and showed no cracks where a shield might split and fail under a blow later. Wards hummed with energy as each knight threw their tension into those protective marks.
Ooluk’s head came up as they stepped out of the stables. “Nothing’s changed,” he announced. “Still flooding in the mine, and still motion in the cave.”
Ramdas inclined his head. “Squire DuChamp will stay with you, Gaiman, and see to your needs while we are gone. Squire, if Gaiman Ooluk declares a danger, you are to run to the houses Goldbrace and Oiselle, and tell them an attack is imminent.”
“Understood, sir,” said the Squire. He looked disappointed to be excluded from the mission, but saluted stiffly.
Believe me, Heather thought. You’re pulling the better end of the straw, kid. She gave his pauldron a reassuring thump in passing, and he returned it.
“Don’t die out there,” DuChamp said to her. “The chow line wouldn’t be the same.”
Heather snorted, and mounted up. “You’d better learn to cook, squire. Your future wife won’t be doing it all.”
Heather’s pony didn’t frisk this time. The weight of the barding and the tension of its rider forbade it. “Ooluk,” she said.
“Yes, Knight Heather?”
“Don’t get a sunburn out here. Make sure Squire DuChamp feeds you, if we’re gone long.”
“I’ve had his cooking,” pointed out Ooluk. “Is starving to death not an option?”
DuChamp shot the little elf a look like he wanted to laugh, but wasn’t sure it was proper protocol.
“There’s some cheese, sausages, and apples in the larder. Go easy on them. I have a feeling we won’t be getting more anytime soon.”
“Thank you, Knight Heather.”
The Knights rode west from the town, the eyes of townsfolk following them in trepidation. Heather returned a short, sharp nod to the man who’d earlier accosted her in the lane. He returned her nod, eyes hurt and hopeful all at once. Last time we rode out, we came in one less. And then the Sending Gate blew up, and killed their loved ones, left their children maimed. They probably think we’re riding out to find who did it. I hope they’re right.
The tundra gave them warm welcome, for once. The day was bright and clear, the sunlight warm on their backs as they left the town, following the blind elf’s direction.
We’re too few to guard this town. If they’re smart, they’ll wait until we’re out of town to start an assault. But what else can we do? Heather thought.
“Lieutenant Pramath?” she called ahead. “Shouldn’t we warn the town by now, about the situation?”
“I’ve sent letters this morning to the Lady Laurette of House Oiselle, and the Lord of House Goldbrace, asking them to a briefing,” replied the centaur. “With any fortune, they will put aside their grievances long enough to place what few guards they have on alert. But their forces are not many, Caballero, and with the sending gate destroyed, panic is close enough at hand. We will warn the people, but first we need the fighting men of the town to fall in line, at the behest of the Houses.”
They rode on past the silent fortress, choosing a steady pace across the craggy, lichen-covered ground. The ponies and Ramdas picked their way carefully along the stones. Heather nudged her mount alongside Persephone and Helga’s, her eyes never ceasing in scanning the horizon, looking for motion.
Persephone pointed back at the fortress. “No sentries on the walls today,” she remarked. “What do you make of that?”
Heather frowned. “Nothing good. Maybe they’re bunkered inside to protect from more explosions, or they’re dealing with the mine flooding?”
“Must be something bad if they’re leaving imperial walls unguarded,” Helga said.
Heather shook her head. Nothing we can do about it right now. One mystery at a time. She turned her attention back Persephone’s way. “How’s the wrist, Lieutenant? Never did see you bandage it when that skeleton tagged you in Saint-Cielle, come to think of it.”
Persephone bared the spot where the skeleton had raked boney fingers, to show Heather smooth, pink, unblemished skin. “It’s fine,” she said, her words clipped and terse.
Helga spoke up: “She’s fine, dearie. Persephone takes good care of her wounds. Already healed.”
Heather whistled a low note, impressed. “Didn’t know you were such a deft hand at healing magics, Lieutenant. Those were some deep gouges you took. And not a lick of a scar. Never seen a quick heal from magic that didn’t scar, before. With talent like that, how come you didn’t take point on healing Alphonse?”
Persephone shrugged and covered her wrist self-consciously, and Ramdas shot back from two lengths ahead, “There’s better places for your attentions right now, Caballeros. Leave it be.”
Four mountains worth of distance meant a few solid hours ride. The state of Ramdas’ hooves and those of the horses made their travel slow and cautious. They rode in a loose cluster, weaving around the larger rocks, and walking on what thin sod there was when the land offered it.
Ramdas turned his head to Helga. “Caballero Stengrav, you’re the expert on mountains, si?”
Helga laughed softly. “Just because I’m a dwarf once married to a miner, sir?”
“Yes,” said Ramdas with a smile.
“Well, he did die in a mine. So I’m not sure if that disqualifies me, dearie,” said Helga with a pained laugh. “But aye. I know my mountains. Stones for bones, ma would say.”
Ramdas gestured along the mountain chain they were following. “What can you tell me about them, then?”
Helga pursed her lips. “Well, they’re a dormant volcano chain. Younger mountains, they’ve got sharp peaks and less weathering. Obsidian and basalt, mostly, some granite. There’ll be lots of caves in them, anywhere a gas pocket or lava tube left space in the stone.”
“Ideal hiding ground for our quarry,” said Ramdas.
“Aye, sir. You’re going to want to be careful. Most volcanic stones are very sharp when they break, and they’re especially hard on hooves.”
Ramdas sighed. “Si. I’ll need those boots, and soon. Know a good cobbler in town?”
“Aye, though her shop took a bad hit when the gate went.”
The centaur grunted. “Better the shop than those inside.”
“Aye, dearie,” said Helga.
Ramdas swatted an errant, persistent fly away. “Stengrav, are you finding things a little more comfortable between you and Persephone, with the chain of command changed?”
Heather glanced Persephone’s way, expecting to see a fierce blush or icy mask, but Persephone was simply alert and focused, watching the horizon. She’s listening, but she’s not nervous about Ramdas talking about it with Helga. I guess he’s had longer to see them joined at the hip, though. And he’d know the conditions of their transfer from Weather’s notes. I suppose Persephone knew that.
“Aye sir. Much less awkward now. Even with Blackthorne walking in on us the other day,” Helga said.
That brought a touch of color to Persephone’s face, and she looked away. Ramdas glanced back Heather’s way. “Not a problem, I trust?”
Heather shook her head. “Their relationship isn’t a problem, sir.” Persephone’s priorities might be, though, she didn’t add.
The centaur nodded. “Good. We knock, si?”
It was Heather’s turn to color slightly. “Aye, sir. Wasn’t exactly my fault. Hands were full.”
“Well, so long as all is well. I would rather we all step out into the Light as a team. Weathers had his reasons, but he kept too many secrets, I think.”
“Sometimes we keep them for a reason, sir,” said Heather softly.
“Si, and sometimes people keep them for the wrong reasons, Blackthorne. That which is classified, is classified for a reason. And that which is personal, is personal for a reason. But there’s much in-between we will need, if we’re to be a proper team.”
Heather digested that, and then spoke up. “I’m concerned about introducing bias if I let some of those secrets go, Lieutenant. I don’t work in a vacuum. Everyone here has eyes, ears, and a mind, and I need those too. Something the Major said to me, when I first came here: I need someone who doesn’t just observe, but can follow their hunches.”
Ramdas glanced at her. “And?”
“Well sir, you all don’t work in a vacuum either. If I introduce bias, I don’t get back facts. If I talk about hunches before I have evidence, then I could blind you all to what you might notice. People tend to discard their observations if it doesn’t fit their preconceptions. So I do my best to deal only in facts, and not to make my evidence circumstantial.”
Persephone shot Heather a puzzled look. “Like the red-”
Heather cut her off with an upheld hand. “Please, Lieutenant, don’t finish that sentence. That’s exactly the kind of bias I’m looking to avoid giving everyone else. I’ve got a hunch, and it’s a bad one. But I’m not talking about it because that’s a good way of making sure those around me only see what supports that hunch, instead of the unvarnished truth. So, that means I’m keeping some secrets, I guess. But if something happens to me, I promise, I’ve kept my case notes up to date. You’ll be able to use those to know as much as I do. And I promise if any of it poses a danger to us, I’ll speak up right away.”
Ramdas cleared his throat. “I think that is fair, Blackthorne. Thank you for being forthcoming.”
“You’re welcome, sir. As long as we’re shedding secrets, mind if I ask you a question?”
“Not at all, Caballero. I am an open book, as much as I may be.”
Heather gestured to the violin case on the centaur’s back. “You’re a Spellsinger, right? You curse and shout when you put your magic through your rapier. So, that violin’s more of a weapon in your hands than the rapier is, right?”
Ramdas looked amused. “It is not as well suited to parrying as my rapier, Caballero.”
“No, of course not. But it’s a great way to manifest your magic, through music. And while I don’t know much about violins, I know the way you handle it. I’ve seen-” her voice hitched at the memory of Stephen lifting Anthony, and Heather started over. “I’ve seen grown men lift their newborn sons with the same sort of reverence. Is that violin a relic, too?”
Ramdas laughed loudly this time, and shook his head. A fond smile coursed across his face as he reached back to touch the violin case. “Non. Not as such. Just for me.”
“Expensive, then?” asked Heather.
“Priceless,” he assured her. “On the open market…” he gave a frown and shrug. “At least a month’s salary, I suppose. But it was a wedding gift, from my wife. I played our wedding dance with it.”
“You’re married?” came a chorus of three startled voices around him.
Ramdas looked about at the knights in bewilderment. “Ah, si? I thought that was clear. An unwed officer of the Church, at Lieutenant? That’s a rarity.”
True enough, Heather realized. Persephone and Helga might have been married if they’d been in service in Bastia.
“Why didn’t she come here with you? Who is she?” asked Persephone.
“She was supposed to join me next month,” Ramdas said softly. “I was saving for the Gate fare, for her. Her name is Adeeva.”
A note of sorrow crept into all their expressions. We’ve all been doing our best not to think about what being cut off means, Heather thought. Merchants and fur traders have families too. So do Knights. Some of us, anyway.
Helga reached out from atop her pony, and touched the centaur’s arm. “Tell us about her, dearie?”
Ramdas gave Helga a pained smile. “She has stripes as fine as reed-grass, and hair black as that obsidian mountain. A very sweet smile, and light on her hooves. She was another foundling, orphaned in the wars. She was raised in the convent Santa Di Samenza.”
“How did you meet her?”
“When I came of age, it was suggested that a marriage be arranged, that I might be more respectable in the eyes of the people and set the better example for my peers.”
“An arranged marriage,” Helga said. “Was that hard?”
“No, not at all,” said Ramdas. “Adeeva is a very sweet girl, very comely, very kind. She dances beautifully with me, and shares poetry. She serves the convent still, in the fields and kitchens, and sometimes she weaves. Our courting was not long, her heart and mine fit well.”
Heather cleared her throat. “You’re not stuck here with kids left behind?” she asked.
“Non, mercifully. We were to try this next spring, once I had saved enough for a proper home and acreage. Our kind need more space to run, and our children would need to learn civility before I let them loose upon the world,” he said.
“We’ll get you home, Lieutenant,” said Heather.
The words came out of her solemn as stone. Ramdas took a long look at her, and then inclined his head. To Heather’s relief, he didn’t argue.
Helga pointed up towards the mountains once more: “Back to business then. We’ll want to keep our distance until we need to climb, Lieutenant. Volcanoes get riddled with caves, and bears and monsters alike tend to take up residence. Usually the bigger the cave, the bigger the occupant.”
Persephone made a moue. “Maybe with any luck one horror’s cancelled out the other.”
“I’ve seen that before,” Heather said.
“Necromancer tried to take a warren of some sort of monstrous beast. It ripped through his little pets and came running after him. He tried to pass it off as him just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, until the knights who did clear it out found the bones with runes on them. He had a lot of explaining to do. Explained himself right into the hangman’s noose, after I picked apart his story.”
Helga cracked a small smile. “Must be nice when they do that.”
“It doesn’t hurt,” agreed Heather. “Makes the prayers of thanks easy on those days.”
“What’s the patron saint for Detectives, anyway?” asked Helga.
“There’s a few,” Heather said. “Mine’s Saint Aysha, but there’s Saint Mendocino, Saint Rougemont, and also Saint Tessier. Saint Rougemont was one of the very first church detectives.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Persephone said. She drew a breath, and then reached into her coat, producing the fabric-wrapped book Heather had spied on her in the practice yard, on her second morning in Frostmoor. “Why Saint Aysha, for you?”
Heather wanted to laugh at her own answer, but wasn’t sure if the sound would come out incredulous or bitter. “She was sort of the I-told-you-so Saint. She applied logical deduction to a big problem that was killing a lot of people. And people wouldn’t listen to her, they didn’t believe her. See, it was the first time there’d ever been a recorded self-propagating Miasmer curse. So they weren’t going to take it on the word of just one researcher, even though she’d applied all the logical deduction it took to root out the source.”
“So you like that she’s an I-told-you-so?” asked Ramdas.
“No, sir. I like that she did her job, even when people refused to believe her. Her deductions were sound, her logic and observations were impeccable. She didn’t give up. And because she wouldn’t give up, the miracle she performed saved fifty people, and stopped the plague-curse. Because of her, we now have tools to recognize and fight back an entire class of criminal magic. She’s as much a patron saint of detectives, for that, as she is for healers.”
Helga glanced over at Persephone with a smile. “You should tell her the story of your first relic.”
To Heather’s surprise, Persephone laughed, a bright sound that let free a burst of sparkling, light snow that evaporated into the air. “Not while I’m on a mission.”
“Or you could tell her how we first met,” Helga suggested.
“That’s the same story!” exclaimed Persephone. A soft, puffy snowball escaped her exclamation, flying from her lips to burst into a puff of powder harmlessly against Helga’s shoulder. Persephone stowed the wrapped book back into her jacket.
Heather looked away from their smiles. Just like soldiers everywhere, sometimes. People dying and our world going to pieces, and they’ll find something to carry on about, just to keep their minds off of how bad it’s going to get.
“Alright, Caballeros. Focus,” said Ramdas. “Eyes to the horizon, but also we will watch for wildlife, si? The undead disturb them no less than us. We’ve been caught off-guard before, and it cost us dearly. This time, we will be as vigilant as Alektos himself.”
“There’s the cave.”
Ramdas gestured up to a distinct black hole mid-way up the mountain, at least two kilometers ride away.
“Big enough to park a small dragon in,” muttered Helga. “If ye can see it from this distance.”
“Big enough,” agreed Ramdas grimly.
Heather cast Ramdas a side-long glance. “You going to fight in there, Lieutenant? Tight quarters aren’t going to do you any favors.”
“Not if I can help it,” he said. “We’ll have to see if we can draw whatever is within outside, if we must do battle.”
“We could go in if you want to take up the rear, Lieutenant,” offered Persephone. “Cover our backs. You would also be in the best place to charge back out and break their lines if it turns out to be a trap, and they try to kettle us in.”
“If it’s a horror, and not just an animal,” offered Helga, but it was without any conviction. They were past the point of believing anything but the worst was waiting for them. Nobody bothered to reply.
“I could just collapse the cave,” Helga continued, a hint of asperity creeping into her voice. “Would that please ye, dearies?”
“Maybe,” grunted Ramdas. “But first we need to know what’s in there.”
“Each one of these horrors we kill, the more we learn,” Heather pointed out. “We bring the cave down on their heads, we kill a handful of them, but we might miss a clue that saves a hundred lives later. If all we needed was to bring down a cave, we could have had Ooluk do it from town.”
They climbed the spine of the mountain. The morning sun beat down on their backs, surprisingly hot despite the coolness of the air. Small black flies buzzed and tormented the horses, and Ramdas’ tail became a hazard for everyone as it whipped through the air around him, keeping the flies away.
“I feel like we’ve been cursed. Is this a natural torment?” asked Heather, as she spat a bug from her mouth.
“Yes,” replied Persephone, her face once again a cold mask overlaid across her irritation. “It’s like this every summer.”
“I thought those runes we bought at the market were supposed to keep these bugs at bay.”
“They are. Perhaps one fly in a thousand push through the wards.”
“And they’re still this bad,” said Heather, eyebrows raising.
“Yes. The come in the millions, and they’ll eat deer to the bone. That isn’t an exaggeration,” replied Persephone. “We’ve run into them before, half-mad wretches rotting on the hoof. Tough to tell, at a glance, from something undead.”
They cursed and swatted and climbed. Any chance of stealthy approach to the cave was spoiled by the lack of cover anyway, so why bother to hold silent? The hooves of their ponies skittered on rock. Periodically, Ramdas cursed aloud, stunning or incinerating some of the biting flies. There came occasional loud slaps of gauntlets on flesh, smashing bugs that had tenaciously fought through their wardings.
At least now we’re all in the mood for a good fight, Heather thought. She eyeballed the horrid swarm of black dots that circled around them, lunging in for a bite, only to be rebuffed time and again by the bug charms she’d purchased. Even so, a few desperate ones always fought their way through, and the occasional stinging bite kept Heather’s attention from drifting. She had to keep her irritation constantly flowing into the amulets she’d bought, just to keep the mass at bay.
They followed the spine of the mountain, as it offered the gentlest slope and the best view to either side. “Motion,” hissed Persephone. She pointed down the far northern slope of the mountain. “There’s a skeleton, and there’s another one.”
They were very distant, two kilometers at least, little more than bone-white dots against the rocky backdrop, and separated by about as much distance. But in the bright sun of the day they were both easy to spot.
“Too big to be a fox or hare… too small to be a snow bear. Moves like a person,” agreed Heather. “There’s something behind them.”
Ramdas reached back into a saddlebag and produced a spyglass, and peered through. “Dragging. Looks like bodies. One each.”
“We going after them instead, Lieutenant?” asked Heather.
The centaur stared through the glass in uncomfortable silence for a half-minute. “No,” he said finally. “Two kilometers out to the first, another kilometer easily to the second, we’d weary ourselves up and down the slopes for not much to show. Besides. They’re slowly coming our way, dragging their spoils towards the cave. They’re an hour away yet at least, at the pace they’re dragging.”
Skeleton’s got speed, but no muscle for loads, thought Heather. Somebody’s compromising.
Heather touched Ramdas’s arm, and held her hand up for the spyglass. “Let me see?”
He passed it to her, and she lifted it to her right eye, sweeping over the mountain and the front of the cave. It was mostly blocked from view by a ridgeline, but she could catch a glimpse of the long brown smears running along the rocks near the cave entrance.
“Lieutenant?” said Heather, feeling a familiar twisting start deep in her gut. “Let’s get to the cave. I think I know what’s going on in there.”