They walked for an hour before the first skeleton made itself known. It perched like a gargoyle atop a rocky hill, five hundred metres distant.

“Breaking the horizon,” said Heather softly. “It wants us to see it, Lieutenant.”

Si,” said Ramdas. “I saw another, to our west. They take to the peaks to watch us. And to be seen.”

A stone forty feet to their west popped out of the earth, and landed with a clack, and they adjusted their path accordingly. Every time they strayed from the path the Gaimen intended for them, one of Ooluk’s stones popped out of the earth and clattered about.

“Any idea where he’s leading us, dearie?” asked Helga, from the rear.

“He’d know all the caves there is to know,” Heather replied. “But he said something earlier, that eagles can’t see through stone. We’re being watched, from bones and sky. So let’s not talk about it out in the open. Watch the skyline.”

Snow began to drift down around them as they walked, and their breath began steaming in the air. They hunched shoulders under armor and furs against the encroaching chill. Now and then a rock would pop out of the earth, or a distant clatter of stones disturbed by skeletons would sound out from the valleys and hills around them.

“The snow’s soon going to make it tough to spot them skeletons, dearie,” Helga said. “They’ll blend in like a winter hare.”

“That’s why I said to watch the skyline,” Heather said. “Silhouette might give them away. A skeleton’s tough to spot without contrast. Skull’s the best contrast we’ll get. Eye holes, nose, that sort of thing. If we’re luckier than we deserve, it’ll be fresh ones with blood on them. The red will stand out.”

“Three or four on the ridge to our backs,” murmured Ramdas.

“I saw them,” replied Heather. “Are they still just watching us go?”

Si,” said Ramdas. “Not for much longer, I think.”

“Not with them gathering this many, and making sure we see them,” Heather said. “They want us scared. They want us to know they’re coming. And they want to keep their eyes on us.”

They marched for another hour. Skeletons were constantly visible on the horizon, the shadowy pits of their eye-holes standing out in fields of white. Ooluk’s stones led them in a winding path, always in the valleys between rocky hills. The footing grew treacherous as the day waned to sundown. Fresh snow slick on the rocks made Ramdas slip here and there, despite his new boots. Heather’s eyes scanned the path ahead of them, watching for signs of traps. Twice, the unmistakable bony footprint of a skeleton marred the snow across their path, but none presented themselves as targets.

“He’s not giving us much of a way out, that boy, if we get swarmed,” said Helga, eying the high stone slopes around them.

“I think that’s the idea,” Heather said. “If the bastards think they have the upper hand, they won’t hurry. They’ll get all the skeletons they can assemble together. Ooluk’s buying us time.”

Ramdas grunted. “Our lives are in his hands, Blackthorne. He seems a good-hearted sort, but you’re the only one he much talks to. We can trust him?”

Heather nodded, and reached up to brush snow off of Persephone’s blankets. “He’s on our side, sir. The Church has been good to him.”

A skeleton’s head popped up over a ridge-line a hundred yards away, and Ramdas drew his rapier. In a clean, fluid motion, he laid it across the back of his arm, aimed down it, and cursed. A bolt of light shot from the hollow tip of his rapier, and blew daylight through the targeted skull. It clattered as it fell.

“I think we should pick up the pace,” Ramdas said, and they broke into a slow jog.

Another stone popped out of the earth to their left, leading them down a narrow canyon in the rocks, and Ramdas snarled. “If they’re overhead, we’re doomed. Run, Caballeros!”

They ran, and somewhere deep beneath Heather’s heels, her guts began to rumble and move.

“Ooluk’s doing something,” Heather said. “Keep going.”

The canyon narrowed further, the shadowy oval of a cave opening resolving itself as they crested a rise in the canyon. A dull, deep ping sounded out overhead, and then a second and third.

“Seeker bolts!” Heather bellowed. “Helga, get your shield up!”

Helga threw her shield over her head like she was warding off rain, and Heather leapt onto Ramdas’ back and Persephone’s legs. Ramdas made a coughing sound as his legs staggered, and he wheezed once. It was too much load for him, but short of options and choices, he held his complaints. Heather rolled onto her back atop Persephone, pulling her shield up between her and the sky.

Another ping sounded, and three bolts fell like hawks from the cloud-laden sky. “They’ve got a lock! It’s on Ramdas! Lieutenant, drop to your belly!”

He did, and Helga scarcely had time to throw her shield over Persephone and Ramdas too as the bolts slapped into them. Steel tips skittered and sparked off of their shields as they deflected, curving back in the air on the ricochet. One managed to strike Ramdas’ chainmail after rebounding, but it had lost most of its energy striking Heather’s shield. The chainmail held, and the arrow stuck to it as if magnetized. Heather quickly pried it free and threw it away.

“Here they come,” snarled Heather, as a row of skulls peeked over the cliffs. More crossbow bolts struck the rocks around them, and evil-looking clouds of green vapour billowed from the cracked heads.

“Poison arrows!” Ramdas called. “Go, go!

They bolted down into the cave, ducking underneath the low overhang of the lip. The instant they were inside, the rock around them lurched alarmingly. Heather fell onto her ass as the world swung beneath her feet. Vertigo assailed her, and a loud grinding sound overwhelmed her thoughts. Rock on rock grinding loudly around the team, milling itself to flour around them as the floor began to move.

Ooluk’s magic, Heather realized. He’s moving this entire cave, underground. Like that stone we used for target practice, my first morning here.

It was too loud to think, too dark to see, and too much vibration to feel anything but one’s own bones. The world shook itself to pieces around her as darkness swallowed them, and the earth moved all around. Ramdas couldn’t keep his feet, and so he lay down on the rough stone of the cave, and they clung to him as the ground shook and rattled.

Anthony once filled a jar with rocks and rolled it around the yard. He loved that noise. Just pushed and rolled it around until I made him stop, Heather recalled. I feel like we’re in that jar, now.

The stone around them rattled on, deafening, the noise painfully loud. Heather tried to shout to hear her own voice, but couldn’t hear herself over the grinding noise of stone on stone. So she plugged her ears, hunched into Ramdas’ side, and waited out the torturous ride.

***

It was probably only about five minutes, but the assault on their ears and bones made it feel like an hour. When it finally stopped, it took Heather a minute to realize the world had lurched to a halt underfoot. Then a part of the wall broke open, and lingering daylight flooded in.

Heather was first to her feet, carefully stalking up to the newfound cave entrance, and peered outside. The cave now opened into a different path through the rocks, this one with overhanging stone along much of it.

Clever boy, Ooluk, Heather thought, twisting her finger in her ear. Her ears still hissed and rang in the aftermath of the noise.

Heather stepped back from the opening of the cave, and headed for the back of it. Cave’s about eighty paces long, sloping down to the entrance. That’ll keep the warm air up here.

She gestured to a flat span of floor at the back of the cave. “Let’s lay some furs down here, Helga, and along the walls. Ooluk’s given us a reprieve.”

“It would be bad form for us to freeze to death now, si?” Ramdas murmured, as he unbuckled Persephone. She’d wet herself in the journey, and the smell of piss rankled Heather’s nose. Helga laid out some furs, and attended to Persephone’s clothes without a word.

“Looks like he made us a hole to squat over near the entrance, Lieutenant,” Helga said. “I think we’re meant to be here a while.”

“A while, yes,” said a rock.

Heather jumped, and then barked a little laugh. “Ooluk, is that you?”

The rock didn’t move, but Ooluk’s voice emerged from it, distant and tinny. “Yes, Knight Heather. I can hear you. Can you hear me? I have never tried to talk through the earth before.”

“We can hear you, Ooluk. What happened back there?”

“I moved the cave. Then I moved the rocks over the skeletons. I think I got almost twenty of them,” the rock said, pride audible even through stone. “They do not know the lessons. Death waits by the water, here.”

Low ground is dangerous, out here, for a multitude of reasons. That’s what he means, Heather realized.

“They were already dead,” Heather pointed out, with fond asperity. “But good job, anyway.”

“Everyone is safe?” Ooluk’s rock asked.

“As much as we can be. Ears still hurt. That was very loud.”

“I am sorry. I cannot make it quieter. Other Gaimen have already sent complaint, they heard me from very far away. So I can’t do it too often.”

“Once is enough, I hope,” Heather said.

“It will not be. They are hunting you now, Knight Heather. I feel them running, slipping on snow and ice, falling in the dark. They never stop. They are searching all the low places, but they will not find this cave, not soon.”

“Pardon,” broke in Ramdas. “Everything at the town, it is fine?”

“For now, I think. But there’s already lots of talk about the food in the church.”

“To be expected,” sighed Ramdas. “Take care, and it would be best to hide yourself, Ooluk. They hunt you too. They’ll know your hand was in this.”

“They will not find me soon. I hide under the earth. It is quieter, here,” said Ooluk’s rock.

Heather drew a breath. “Stay hidden, as much as you can. You’re our best hope now, Ooluk, and the best hope of the children in town.”

“The eagle caught me once, Knight Heather. I will not give it another chance.”

Despite herself, Heather smiled. “It’s nice to hear your voice, Ooluk.”

“It is good to hear yours, Knight Heather. But I must be silent, and listen. Bones and stones move in the dark.”

“That they do,” said Ramdas softly. “Gracia, Gaiman Ooluk.”

The stone fell silent, and they gathered the furs against the chill of the stones around them.

By nightfall they had hung a fur across the entrance of the cave, and laid what they could spare down on the flat crop of stone Ooluk had provided. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was enough.

Heather took a walk back to the entrance of the cave, the deep silence of the arctic evening like a hollow echo to her ears. She closed her eyes, and strained to make out a sound that tickled on the edge of her senses.

“What are you listening for, Caballero?”, Ramdas asked.

Heather held up a hand, and touched fingers to her lips, and frowned. A sound like the faintest rustling met her ears, and she patiently waited, throwing her focus into hearing, trying to find the source. When the wind blew, she could hear where it caught on rocks and hissed snow along the stones. But the faint rustling continued, and it seemed to come from everywhere outside.

She thought about it, and then drew a breath of the air that had turned bitterly cold over the last few hours. “It’s the snow falling,” she whispered. “No skeletons. That’s the sound of snow falling. You can hear it land.”

Helga shook her head. “Nothing new to us, dearie. Every hard snow sounds like that. Muffled, until you’re sure you can hear every snowflake.”

“It’s new to me,” murmured Ramdas, as he joined in listening with her. “Such a soft and dreadful sound.”

When the novelty had worn off, they walked into the back of the cave. Wonder and relief had begun to give way to frustration and anger over the circumstances of their departure, and Ramdas channeled his lingering anger into stones to heat them.

“Go easy with that, Lieutenant,” said Heather softly. “It takes a lot of magic to make heat. If their skeletons are using magic, they’re sensing it too.”

“Aye,” Ramdas said quietly. “Just enough to keep us not-quite miserable, si?”

“Sorry sir. That’s about the shape of it,” Heather said, frowning in sympathy. “You could heat up a jar, though, if you don’t mind being the one cooking tonight.”

Ramdas snorted, but it was a sound in better humour. “You and my wife share opinions on my talent for cooking.”

He broke out a jar of whale confit, and they took turns passing it around, eating it cold. Helga spoon-fed Persephone, who didn’t react except to swallow, her eyes never opening.

Heather lit her mace up with a glimmer of anger, fed by the memory of the townspeople watching their departure. Some of them were glad we were going, was all the thought she needed, and her mace lit up as she seethed. Between bites of whale meat, she sat shaping air between her hands.

“What’s that you’re up to, dearie?” murmured Helga. “Weak flows, those.”

“Cribbing another trick,” Heather replied. She flexed her hands, and frowned as she bent air. I could heat it, but that has to be sustained. Compressing existing air, that’s hard too. But conjuring compressed air, I can just keep it at its density, holding it in shape… there we go. That’s something.

Seen between her hands, her mace came into focus, casting light across her face. Ramdas nodded approvingly. “As the wicked have done unto us,” he murmurs. “You figured that out just from watching the Goldbrace man?”

Heather shook her head. “I’m a long way from figuring it out, sir. Focal lengths and refraction, that’s tough math. I’ll be fudging that for a while. But I get the idea. Also why we couldn’t sense the bastards in the fortress spying on us. Sustaining a conjuration of mass takes so little magic, most folks wouldn’t notice until it got right in your face.”

“Mmn,” Ramdas murmured, reaching out a finger to poke at the lens. It was almost invisible, until seen edge-on. “Better than my spyglass, non?”

“Probably, but don’t throw it away yet, sir. In fact, it’s the better choice for me to try to use these lenses with, rather than trying to do it all by hand.” Heather flexed the lens, playing with the focal angle, and then let it vanish.

“Any chance you’ll be sniping their heads off like the Goldbrace man, dearie?” asked Helga.

“Afraid not,” Heather replied. “Send me to school with the Imperial Army for a few years, maybe. But they usually want Gorgons and Logicians for that kind of work.”

They lapsed into silence as they finished their supper, and huddled furs in around their shoulders and backs. By default, they ended in crowded around Ramdas, which suited the centaur just fine. The chill in the cave was nothing as fierce as outside, but the stone still leached the warmth from the air.

Helga brushed her fingers through Persephone’s hair. “Are we going to talk about all those files we burned, Lieutenant?”

Ramdas hesitated, and then reached into his pocket and twisted a button. Heather’s nerves buzzed for a moment, as the rune shorted out with a soft ‘pop!’, and the centaur shuddered in relief. “That’s better. Si. There is need to know.”

A geas rune? Heather thought, staring at the button on the jacket. No. A trigger. If something compelled secrets out of him, those runes in his jacket would trigger. Her mouth went dry. Her first taste of the agonizing runes on the jacket had been warning enough for a lifetime.

“Before you spill any secrets, is there any chance we’ll ever be issued a jacket like that, sir?” Heather asked.

“Let us all hope and pray it never comes to that, Blackthorne,” Ramdas said. “But, si. Probably. I am given the sense that Major Weathers was grateful for it. I am.”

He’s grateful to be strapped into a jacket designed to kill him – no, utterly destroy him, if triggered, Heather thought. I’m not sure I want to know what he’s going to tell me.

“Were you told, Blackthorne, that you had been requested?” Ramdas began, arching eyebrows her way.

“Yes. The Major said they’d been asking for a Detective for a while.”

“No, and yes. A detective, but you.”

Heather’s mouth had been dry before, in contemplation of the jacket. Now, though, it felt as if someone had replaced her tongue with leather and paper. “Say what, sir?”

Ramdas waved a hand. “Not by name, exactly. But they wanted a detective with particular qualifications. A specialist in necromancy, combating it, fighting it, and of flexible enough mind to observe and retain information. Specifically, Caballero, they wanted someone who can repeat the work they’re shown, without having to be shown more than once. Like your lenses.”

Heather blinked. “Well, I pay attention, sir. That’s what they taught me to do. Understand the principles behind the magic.”

Si, and that’s what they wanted. Someone with your eye for principles. Someone with a history of combating necromancy, who was ready to accept what her senses told her. No matter what common knowledge would call impossible.”

“Why’s that special from any other Detective in the service?” Helga asked.

Heather pinched her eyes shut, her ears starting to buzz. The throb and ache of the concussion she’d suffered was bothering her again. “It means they were expecting some of what happened,” Heather grated out. “They had an idea something new was coming. They needed someone like me, here.”

“No,” Ramdas said quietly. “They needed you here.”

Heather snapped her gaze up.

Ramdas grimaced. “I have read the original request. Weathers put it in two years ago, in response to information about a mole in a necromancer cell, reporting their seeking out adamant sources. What information we had was quietly fed, in confidence, to the Imperial Army’s security forces. But it’s not as if there aren’t a hundred groups who want the Emperor’s adamant for all sorts of misdeeds.  Or just for the wealth that resale of the metal could bring to enemies of the state. So it was one more warning on a pile of them.”

“But our boney bastards got through,” Helga said.

Si,” Ramdas said. “Major Weathers sent in his request, and nothing happened. The channels had been alerted, and it was seen as the army’s problem, more or less. Until six months ago, when someone further up the chain from the Major adjusted the requirements. I do not know why, but it’s very clear, without ever mentioning your name, Blackthorne, it was you they wanted. They do not say why. Do you know?”

“I don’t,” Heather said, misery in her voice. “Maybe the pottery incident? But now that sounds coincidental. Um. I’ve spent most every day in my service hunting and fighting their kind, Lieutenant. There’s the bastard that murdered my family, but I’ve got nothing I can prove that links that to what’s going on now. Suspicions of a link, but no proof. Five or six other groups and independents I’ve had to shut down before that, and I’ve nothing to tie this all back to any of them, either.”

Except that’s not entirely true, is it? her conscience prodded her. Brother Tomlin taunted you, just before he died. He used the same words. But it’s not proof.

Ramdas must have read something on her face. He stared directly at her. “Blackthorne, they chose you for a reason. And they wanted to ensure that if anything leaked, or one of ours were captured and turned to their ends, that your name wouldn’t be specified before you arrived here. They were protecting you, or their sources, or something.”

Who did, Lieutenant? Who’s pulling the strings on our end? The chain of command is supposed to be clear, from Pope on down to Novice.”

Ramdas shook his head, a frustrated scowl on his face. “It would seem, Caballero, that Major Weathers served a branch of the Knights that prefers not to share that information. I don’t know to whom I am answerable, right now. I know they exist, and I imagine they will contact me if we should survive this ordeal. I also have standing orders to ensure I am destroyed, utterly, if our death seems imminent. Matthewson too. Whatever we know is precious little, but it is precious. Keeping it from them is worth our lives.”

Heather cupped her hands to her temples. Her mace pulsed with light in sync with the throb of her headache. “So we’re all in the dark,” she said. “I don’t know for certain how I’m tied to this, Lieutenant. I’ve got suspicions, but nothing to pin them on. So let’s flip the question on its head. We’re all trying to figure out what I’ve got in common with this situation. What does the information you had have in common with me?”

“At first, there was nothing. There was mention of something Venician, many names familiar. I thought perhaps I might know them, but they were names of wealth and power, some inter-royalty marriages, that sort of thing.”

Heather groaned. “Please don’t say this is going to turn out to be about the pottery?”

“I doubt it very much. At least not directly,” Ramdas asked.

Heather grimaced. “Well, it was the last straw before I was sent up here. I busted a man for smuggling necromantic tools, and in the course of the blunt administration of justice, I fed him into the wrong crate. It had some very expensive pottery. I guess it was a minor gift from the royal family of Venicia to the Emperor. Twenty years worth of my salary, they say, and that’s a ‘minor’ gift.”

“Si,” Ramdas said. “But that pottery was a gift. And quietly confiscated, from a family that fell out of favor with the powers that be.”

“Which family?” Heather asked, voice sharp.

“I do not know. The records made a point to avoid saying. I think their names were stricken from the rolls, at the King’s request. Which would happen to any family convicted of necromancy.”

Heather shook her head, and the throb of her brain made her regret the gesture. “Well, that narrows it down to three, anyway. Hate to say it about your homeland, Pramath, but you guys have a real necromancer problem. A good half of all our busts in and around Bastia had Venician connections. Usually wealthy and powerful ones.”

Ramdas spread his hands. “Si. It’s a known problem, with a long history. Anywhere there are catacombs, and too many graves left unattended, the practice flourishes. Some great Houses still tend graveyards. Rumors are always swirling about them serving as reservoirs for such work. The Church hunts it all there too, of course, but burial traditions in parts of Venicia often interfere with our safeguards.”

Helga nestled into Persephone’s side, and murmured sleepily: “Those connections that led back to Venicia, Heather. Did any of them not come with names? If they’re striking them from the records, maybe it was discretion first, then political winds later?”

Heather drew in her knees under her chin. For a long time she was silent. “The ones that took my husband and son,” she said finally. “It was a tip-off. Fast action needed. From a reliable inside source, they said. No names, just a place. That happens more often than not when it’s the wealthy and powerful families. They just want us to come in and mop up the mess. The ones responsible get hung, but always privately, and Noble houses get to keep their names untarnished. More often than not, it’s actually fairer that way. Usually it’s one bad twig on a good tree, you know?”

Ramdas frowned gently. “And you were discouraged from investigating further after the arrests, si?”

Heather barked a pained laugh. “I was a little busy, sir. My husband and son had just been butchered. I was throwing off so much grief, it took six good wards to keep me from burning up the nice padded cell they put me in for awhile.”

“I cannae imagine, dearie,” whispered Helga.

“That’s right, you can’t!” snapped Heather, and then closed her eyes and raised a hand in apology. “Sorry,” she whispered, and exhaled a long plume of fiery motes. “I heard a lot of pity, after. I don’t take pity well.”

Helga extended a hand, and took Heather’s, and just squeezed it. Heather squeezed back, eyes flooding.

“What did they tell you about the one responsible?”, Ramdas asked.

Heather shrugged. “Nothing. They never found him. I spent a while in the cell,” she said. “By the time I could hold it in again, the funeral and Guiding were long done, and they’d pulled me from the case.” Her voice cracked. “And I couldn’t-” she sucked in a breath. “I couldn’t go. Going would make it more real. So I just… went home, every time.”

Ramdas passed her the jar of confit, and Heather passed it on to Helga, not trusting her gut anymore. Heather wiped at her eyes. “There was something he s-said, when he w-was-” Her mind skittered away from the memory, like a drop of water on a too-hot pan. She waved a hand. “-when he was in my home. Something Friar Tomlin said, too.”

Saying the words felt like vomiting. Retching would have felt better than hearing them again. “He said, ‘Such fine, strong bones.’ And then Friar Tomlin said it too, just before I killed him.”

Ramdas closed his eyes. “Perhaps a month ago, I would have said a coincidence,” he said. “That it sounds like the sort of gloating one would expect from any one of their sort of bastard.”

“And it is,” Heather said, pressing her chin to her knees, hugging her legs to herself. She was abruptly cold again, and it wasn’t the fault of the stone around them. “It’s why I talked about biases, that day in the practice yard. I can’t prove there’s a link. I can only say I suspect it. And the more I think about everything attached to that suspicion, the worse it feels. Like, what if the reason I’m here isn’t because the church wanted me here, but these bastards?”

Ramdas chopped his hand down in the air. “I can promise you that is not the case, Caballero,” he said with conviction. “This branch, she does not leak. The jacket, it would appear, is standard issue in the Major’s order.”

Heather swallowed. “If they figured out how to break into the Emperor’s own adamant stocks, Lieutenant, and suborn an entire military fortress, I’m not ready to have all my faith in some runes sewn in a jacket, no matter how frightening they are.”

The centaur looked off into the distance, for a time, and then twisted another button on the jacket. This rune wrenched her tongue right out of her mouth. Heather gave a grunt of alarm, and noted that both Persephone and Helga were likewise sticking out their tongues, writhing helplessly.

“My very sincere apologies, Caballeros,” said Ramdas softly. He opened a pouch, produced a quill-pen, and closed his eyes. Then the quill danced quickly across Heather’s tongue, and then Helga’s, and finally Persephone’s, before it finished on his own tongue.

His hands move in exactly the same way every time. Lurching around. The rune’s got control of his arm now.

She could feel the magic, soaking into her tongue. It didn’t sting, for all it felt sharp. Instead it felt like vinegar poured straight into her mouth, garbling any attempt she made to speak around her distended tongue.

The centaur gave another twist of the button, and all of their tongues returned to their mouths. Before they could muster their indignation, Ramdas held up his hand.

“Our secrets are safe. You cannot speak of them. If you are coerced into speaking them, your tongue will fall numb before you can speak. The numbness will last a while, I will not say for how long, nor do I know the counter-flow key. This is very classified now. Alektos himself wove this rune, and his vigilance is upon all of our tongues.”

Heather’s tongue writhed once, and then was still, and she shuddered. I’ve had one spirit’s magic on me already, and that was quite enough. But Alektos himself? She didn’t have a name for the mix of honor, horror, and awe that set her mace glowing again, lending warmth to the room.

Ramdas clasped his hands together. “I am so bound, and so are you all now,” he said softly. “The jacket, Caballero, has more runes than merely woven into the thread. When I wore the Major’s jacket the first time, it wove those runes into me. You understand, yes?”

Major Weathers, when I went to move his body! Lieutenant Matthewson said his body was warded too– oh. This rune he just forced on our tongues, that’s not the icing on a cake of secrets. It’s barely even the cake pan.

Helga looked puzzled, and touched a finger to her tongue. “So our bodies are warded to keep what we’re learning secret. How’s that help us if the necromancers kill us first, and compel us?”

“Then still your tongue will fall numb. And probably much worse. There is a great deal of Fire woven into the ward, pardon.”

Heather’s hands went still. “So you planted bombs in our tongues?”

Si,” Ramdas said softly. “Standing orders, in this sort of situation. The jacket comes with many standing orders within it. I think, very much, it should have been years more in service before I was tasked to wear it. But we are at war, and we do as we must.”

Heather shuddered. “Under the circumstances, I think I’m more relieved than I am angry, Lieutenant.”

He inclined his head. “Thank you for your understanding, Caballero. Please continue.”

Heather shivered. “Well, there’s another link, very weak. The man who murdered my family, he had on a red cloak and hood. Dark crimson red. I spent a long time learning not to jump or stare every time I saw someone walking around in one like it. One of the men who arrived on the boat with me, he was an expert in repair of automatons. Two other men came with him, fur traders. They all three had the same color of cloaks.”

Helga shook her head. “But none of them was the man who took your family. Or you’d have stirred up an instant ruckus if you’d spotted him in their company.”

“Absolutely,” Heather said. “So, it’s all circumstantial. We’ve got a necromancer or team of them. Probably a team. For all we know they’ve been in the fortress for months or longer before they struck, infiltrating. And with our necromancer killing people and using their skills, who’s to say the automaton fixer wasn’t a pawn? Someone they sent for, then killed and enslaved? And with two travelling companions who left shortly before the Sending Gate was destroyed? It’s suspicious, but it’s only suspicious.

Ramdas steepled his fingers. “I do not envy your task, Caballero, I only ask that you do as best you can with the information you have. Balance of probability, what does your gut say?”

Heather leaned back on the furs, and closed her eyes. She rolled her tongue around in her mouth, as if it were an unfamiliar appendage. “My gut says I’m going to have nightmares, tonight,” she said softly. “And that jumping at suspicions is a good way to swing and miss, sir. It’s something we can’t afford to do. Especially not now.” She let out a long breath. “Can I take last watch?”

Si, Caballero,” murmured Ramdas. “No watches, tonight. We stay hidden, we stay safe. Part of Ooluk’s plan. We do not expose ourselves.”

“Guess that’ll have to do,” Heather said.

“Goodnight, dearies,” said Helga, as she wrapped her furs around herself and Persephone.

The three fell into exhausted sleep.

And so it was that no one was awake to see Persephone’s eyes open in the middle of the night. Like an infant, she stuck a finger in her mouth and began reflexively sucking. Then a puzzled frown crossed her face, and gripping her tongue between thumb and forefinger, she stretched it back out of her mouth.

No-one was awake to witness her bite off her own tongue, and neatly drop the severed muscle back into her mouth. She swallowed it whole, then wiped the blood daintily from her mouth using the bedding.

With a content smile, she closed her eyes, turned on her side, and went back to sleep.


 

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Click here to read Chapter 8.0 – Verdict