“Captain Pramath. This way please.”
Knight-Captain Ramdas Pramath straightened the cuffs on his coat, and ignored the gawking stare of a nearby squire as he passed by. There were only a handful of centaurs in the service of the Church, and none but he in the Knighthood so far. The old, sour history of wars between their peoples hadn’t faded much in the years since his birth.
The centaur followed after his guide, a sallow old knight with hands tanned a deep brown by the sun. The old knight walked through the forest underbrush, scarcely stirring a leaf or a twig as he walked.
“A town hunter found them yesterday,” the knight explained. “Someone passed through the village two days ago, in a four-horse carriage. Knocked out every rune along the road, and some distance beyond. Scared the folks real deep. The carriage driver left a coin purse and told them to buy new runes.”
“How much?” the centaur asked.
“Over four hundred gold crowns,” the knight replied. “Sum like that, you don’t walk around with every day. Or throw around, for that matter.”
Ramdas grimaced. “That sounds awfully indiscreet for the Merchant’s Guild. But I can’t think of anyone else willing to throw so much gold down on a problem, either. If it was a noble house, they’d have their colors on.”
“Aye, sir. No colors being flown, so my guess is the Guild as well. I think someone’s sending a message.” The knight pulled the last boughs of a tree out of the way, revealing a clearing beyond. “But I’m not sure if we’re looking at the message, or the recipient.”
A blonde man lay dead on the ground, alongside a stump, clothed in a crimson cloak. Ramdas startled, and paused at the threshold of the clearing, as the left breast button of his coat burned hot against him. He quickly wrapped his hand around it and twisted, staring at it. To his eyes, the rune inscribed on the button had begun to glow a throbbing, warning orange colour.
“Clear the grounds, now. I want a perimeter of one hundred meters. Walk a circuit, you and everyone here. Nobody goes in further until I say,” the centaur ordered.
The old knight cast the centaur a questioning look. “By your order, Captain. But the boy’s been dead at least two days.”
We’re not sure that ever stopped them before, Ramdas thought, and shook his head. “He’s been dead two days and my wards still don’t like him. Set the perimeter.”
The knight knuckled his forehead, and drew back into the forest to repeat Ramdas’s orders.
Ramdas drew a long breath, and closed his eyes, giving the button of his jacket a squeeze. “What is it?”, he whispered.
A voice too dispassionate to be human whispered a reply in his ear: “Active magic rune is in place on target. You unconsciously suspect case Scrimshaw Spider. Activating defensive suite.”
The centaur frowned at the runed buttons on his coat, that had once belonged to his commanding officer. When Major Weathers died, Ramdas had inherited both the command and the jacket. The coat seethed with complex runes, that often seemed to have a mind, or minds, of its own.
Ramdas lowered his lips to the hem of his jacket. “Well, now I consciously suspect it,” he said with asperity. “Just because we’ve some undead and a man in a crimson cloak, doesn’t mean it’s-”
A rune in the jacket flared, and Ramdas’s tongue cramped before he could say ‘Scrimshaw Spider’.
“Do not disclose Scrimshaw Spider aloud in uncleared positions. Bias injection is secondary to security preservation. Suspect Scrimshaw Spider, proceed accordingly. Cognitive and visual filters engaging.”
Runes around the collar and in the left pocket of the jacket lit up. Then a wriggling, writhing blurring appeared in his vision, obscuring the runes of his jacket. Ramdas grimaced and blinked reflexively a few times, to no avail. “Beginning investigation,” he muttered to the jacket.
Damn thing, he thought, as his tail lashed in aggravation. Who’s really in command when they wear these coats? It wasn’t a thought he was certain he wanted the answer to.
He walked a careful, spiralling circle inward, as Detective Blackthorne had taught him, his eyes scanning the grass and dirt under the thick canopy of forest overhead. One set of boot-prints from the road. Another set of boot-prints from the deep forest. The boot-prints from the road are smaller, and looks like a woman’s traveling boot. The prints from the deep woods belongs to a man. He’s just wearing ordinary shoes, not good for hiking a forest.
The centaur stallion circled warily, stepping over lifeless skeletons that the runes on his jacket assured him were quite inert. The face of the man in the cloak lay cowled and covered, blowflies buzzing around his face and hands. The smell was nauseating, but only that of a corpse a few days old, no more.
Crossbow bolt in his throat, Ramdas noted. And another in the stump. Small crossbow, small dart. Lethal enough. This man’s shoes, the tread looks like it matches from the forest. What was a man with city shoes doing deep in the woods?
A branch snapped to his left, and a sour voice called out: “Oi, dearie! How many circles d’ye want us walking? Should we just stop when we get dizzy, Captain?”
Ramdas snorted a humorless laugh. “The rest of them, yes, I do want them to circle until they’re dizzy. Tell them to take down notes and draw a map for us. Come here, Stengrav. Recognize this fellow?” The centaur carefully drew his rapier, and lifted the cowl away from the blond lad’s face.
Helga Stengrav marched over, her heavy plate armor clanking with every step, and she crouched down alongside Ramdas. Her eyes searched the death-sunken face, trying to see past the bloat that had begun in the tissues. “No, dearie, I can’t say as I do. Blonde boy. Cloak I wish I’d never see again, not since Frostmoor.”
Ramdas felt his lips tighten. “We knew we weren’t going to be that lucky. What do you think? Could it be one of them?”
Helga shook her head. “I don’t recognize him, Captain. Never met them all back in Frostmoor, though.” She held up a hand, and took off her glove, feeling the air carefully around him. “I feel a spot of magic left on the lad, Captain. Don’t think we should touch him yet.”
“I see it, sort of,” Ramdas said, staring at his face. “He’s got a rune in his skin, somehow. On his forehead. I can’t see it clearly, my jacket is interfering. Some of the magic leaks out. I’ve never seen any rune like that before.”
“My jacket too, sir. Any idea what it does, Captain?”
“None,” Ramdas said with a grunt, and drew out a notebook from his pocket. “I’m going to try to draw it out, no sense in it rotting away on us. Maybe it will make sense to someone.”
“Aye, Captain, good idea.” The dwarf rose and carefully walked around the perimeter, pausing at the inert skeletons she found. “Permission to crack one of these open, Captain, and get a look at the runes inside?”
“Just one, Stengrav. We’re going to want to turn the rest over to the holy engineers for examination,” Ramdas said.
Ramdas lowered his lips to his collar of his coat, speaking to the runes within: “Disengage visual filters. I need to see this rune and record it.”
One of the buttons near his throat got hot as the jacket thought about it, and then gradually the hazy blurring around the rune disappeared from Ramdas’ vision. He lowered his eyes back to the page, and began to sketch.
Then he stopped, gave a puzzled frown, and looked up from his page to the face of the dead man in the crimson cowl. I’m distracted today, he thought. Too many bad memories. That cave, that winter, and all of those bodies. That was a bad year.
His pencil touched paper again, drew a line, and then he paused. Another look up at the face of the man he was trying to sketch. Funny, it’s like looking at it anew every time. I’d better draw the rune first.
Ramdas blinked, looking up from his sketchbook.
Helga leaned on her hammer. “You’ve been staring at that page for the last few minutes. Something on your mind?”
Ramdas frowned. A few minutes? he thought. He cleared his throat, and gave his head a gentle shake. “Ah, yes. A great deal on my mind, Stengrav. Artist’s block, I think. Having a hard time figuring out how to draw this man.”
Helga held up a broken skull. “Ye didn’t even look up when I broke this fellow open, before. Look at this. Look at these runes.”
The inside of the skull she held was scorched in thin, precise lines. The writing was familiar, identical to too many they’d smashed four years ago back in Frostmoor. It had been a hellish winter, fighting for the lives of the faithful. Ramdas looked away.
Seeing it brought back memories he’d have been happy never to revisit. Rage. Pain. Grief. The torture of slow starvation in a cold mountain cave. Victory narrowly won, at the cost of over a thousand dead, and scars that still ached when the monsoons came.
“Saints damn it!” he bellowed, and kicked a deadfall branch sailing into the brush.
The coat’s runes lit up around the cuffs, and Ramdas took a long, steadying breath, fighting down the sickening mix of rage and fear he could feel crawling up his spine. The urge to let it out, in one enormous blast of fire and fury, rose up his throat.
“Ye need a moment there, Captain?” Helga said. “I’m not any happier about it than you.”
Ramdas whirled Helga’s way, but then let out a long, slow breath, flame licking at his nostrils as he fed his anger into the gesture. Slow. Careful. She is not the enemy, and I will save my fury for my enemies, he reminded himself. Taking care to extend his hand slowly, he accepted the skull from Helga’s hand.
“I may need many moments soon, Stengrav. But not yet. I need to get this man’s face and rune sketched.”
“Well it shouldn’t be hard, sir. What’s he look like?”
Ramdas paused, and frowned. “You just looked at him not a minute ago, Stengrav. Do you not remember seeing that man’s face? At all?” He gestured over to the corpse.
Helga shook her head, paused, and then mirrored Ramdas’s frown. “I don’t, sir. I remember crouching beside you to look.”
“Yes, and you looked, Stengrav. Do you remember reaching your hand in the air, to feel the rune?”
Helga’s eyes widened. “I do remember that, Captain, but I don’t remember the rune. You’ve drawn it?”
The centaur held up the notepad. It had a single line on it.
“Captain, I think you should move away from that body, right now.”
Ramdas wheeled on all four legs and trotted alongside the dwarf away from the man’s body. The centaur thrashed his tail about in alarm. “Something’s wrong, Stengrav. I swear, I’m sure I was there but a moment or two.”
“I know, sir. You said I just looked at him a minute ago?”
Helga swallowed. “I don’t remember looking, sir.”
They paused, glanced back at the body, and then stared at each other.
“Quickly, Caballero. You were right there a moment ago. What does he look like?”
“I thought… his cowl was still over his face, wasn’t it?” Helga asked.
“No. I had my sword out, and I lifted it,” the stallion replied. “Before you even came over.”
Helga blinked owlishly at Ramdas for a few long moments. “I remember that, now that you mention it. He had blonde hair. You stood there looking at him. What did he look like?”
Ramdas opened his mouth to reply, paused, and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. “I cannot remember. Caballero, walk over there, stare at his face, walk back, and tell me what you remember.” Ramdas said.
Helga nodded sharply, and did as she was asked. She walked over, and paused by the corpse to stare hard at the man’s face. Helga narrowed her eyes, and then walked back. Then she paused, and her expression grew flummoxed. “Uh, I…”
Ramdas held up a hand. “You can’t remember, can you?”
Helga flushed in embarrassment. “I have a lot on my mind, dearie, worrying about Persephone. I suppose I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have been. I’m sorry, Captain,” she said, hands raising in contrition.
“Stengrav, you stared at his face with intensity and purpose for some time. You looked as if you were really, carefully scrutinizing it. You remember nothing?”
Helga flushed further, and shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “I don’t like this, Captain. My jacket’s got filters too. If it’s that rune doing it, I think it’s getting past our defenses somehow.”
“Not your fault, then,” Ramdas said, head straightening up. “I don’t know how he’s doing it yet, Helga, but this isn’t right. Something is wrong. That rune you felt. Somehow, it’s making us forget his face.”
“How’s that possible?”
Ramdas stared at the runed embroidery of his coat. “How indeed,” he said, and scowled. “The report came in without a description of the victim, Stengrav. I think that’s why we were called in on this. That, and the cloak.” He folded his notebook and pencil away, and tucked it back into his pocket.
“Helga, I have to report this to command. Call Matthewson in. Nobody else enters the perimeter until the holy engineers arrive, and I’ll make sure they’re here within the day. Strike camp.”
“Why not send a squire, Captain?”
A surge of warning heat spread from the left breast button of Ramdas’s coat, and he shook his head. “Because whatever we left behind in Frostmoor isn’t finished, Stengrav. This one is eyes-only. Brief Matthewson.” His face softened. “It would be better if you were there when she’s told.”
Helga’s eyes turned sad. “Aye, dearie,” she acknowledged. “That it would.”
The ore ship Longeau sat high in the water, freed of her burden of adamant ore. The waters of the Brumeau ocean welcomed her keel as she left the deep-dredged river in the shadow of Fort Ouestin.
High overhead, the Fort Ouestin towered atop the cliffs. Its slab-sided adamant armor plating, six feet thick and runed for further protection, stood resolute against the stiff spring winds. Two great scars marred the armor. The first was a great black crater nearly a century old, that still smoldered and occasionally smoked. The second scar was a rippling distortion in the huge armor plates, wider than the Longeau was long.
Jerome, Windcaller of the Longeau, turned his eyes from the old scars on the fortress walls and explained to his northbound passengers: “Both assaults were repelled by the armor. They mounted the damaged plates on top of the new ones, to remind Hanshu and the Thousand Kingdoms they’d taken their best shots, and failed. Now if you turn your eyes to the north, you’ll see how the water changes colors? That’s the waters of Brumeau meeting the river. The brown is the river, and the blue is the ocean. You can follow the plume for days out into the ocean, if you dare.”
“What about that plume there?” asked a passenger. “It’s a different brown.”
Jerome jogged over to the side of the ship, and cast his eyes where the passenger pointed. A few fishing ships tacked in the distance, gulls and other white shorebirds wheeling around them in pairs and trios. The plume the passenger pointed out was a light brown verging on gray.
“That’s a good question,” Jerome replied. “Sometimes, rivers run underground, and emerge under the ocean as springs. This one has been here for centuries, and usually runs clear, but now and then as the earth erodes, it pushes fresh silt into the water currents. That one started up again two years ago. One second, I’ll see how much it’s opened up since it began.”
Jerome pressed his ear to the mast of the ship, and closed his eyes, and began to hum. Motes of magic appeared around his lips as he hummed, and then vanished into the mast of the ship, casting themselves far underwater.
Seven hundred feet down, twelve adamant automatons paused in their work. Slabs of cut and crushed stone carried in their hands sent swirling eddies of silt and rock flour out into the water. A skeleton turned its head upward, and went still, empty eye sockets pointed at the ore ship floating far above.
The Windcaller’s magic caressed through the currents, and sent a rippling eddy through the milky plumes. His magic followed along the cavern’s painstakingly cut walls. At the touch of his curiosity, the water currents traced the surfaces, mistaking blocks for rubble, and bones for stone. The cavern ran into the slope of the continental shelf beneath the cliffs, far, far beneath the roots of Fort Ouestin. The current in the cavern was sluggish, but it was enough to keep the plume of silt moving out of the wellspring.
Jerome opened his eyes, and smiled to his passengers. “It’s a big hole. You could walk four people abreast through it. Amazing how much water can cut stone, given a path.”
His passengers nodded in mild curiosity, and stared at the mocha-gray plume of silt in the water as they sailed by.
When the ship was safely past, the skeleton turned back towards the nearest automaton, and rapped bony knuckles twice against the thing’s adamant body. The automaton lumbered into motion again, continuing the same labour it had tirelessly pursued for the last two years, throwing a cut chunk of bedrock over the ledge of the continental shelf. The stone fell into the abyss.
During the adamant automaton’s return, it passed eleven of its brethren, and thousands more skeletons, as it followed the current of fresh water back underground. Hundreds of feet of water and stone overhead cloaked them and hid their work. As it entered the tunnel, small runes lit under the water, casting just enough light to navigate by.
At a hewn juncture in the natural tunnel, the automaton turned, and approached the perfectly-cut stairs cut into the stone. Two years ago, it had cut the very first step of the long, spiraling stairs. Soon, it would cut the very last.
Tireless, it began to climb.
Inside the Cathedral of the Saints, in the heart of Bastia, there existed a plain and very unremarkable office. Lit only by an ordinary oil lamp, the undecorated room offered no distractions to any mind wishing fervently for distraction. The only contents of the room were a plain, rough-hewn wooden table, four chairs, unremarkable paper, one pen, and the lamp.
As he took his seat at that plain wooden table, the man known as Greyson was desperately grateful for the lack of distraction. It helped to keep him focused. He had long ago consigned his conscience to a simple, reliable metric: Deaths.
In his thirty-seven years in a position too important to bear any official title or rank, every decision he had ever made in this room had been measured by simple, inescapable logic: Deaths. His job was to make the decision that would result in fewer deaths. It felt right that the room should hold no distractions from that equation.
And it was only ever in the presence of the beautiful man and beautiful woman already present at his table, that he ever felt swayed from that cold, iron-clad logic of casualty counts. For this he resented them. And for their presence, he was just as desperately grateful.
It wasn’t very often Greyson had a chance to feel human anymore.
Roland Rolente. Neela Nalee. Like every member of the Inner Circle, they carried orphan’s names, though Greyson knew they’d both come from loving homes left behind at age four. They both looked at him with eyes more compassionate, more encouraging, than his own mother had ever shown him. They were eyes that made him want to fall sobbing into their embrace, to confess every failure of his own resolve, and every failure of his own empathy for every life he’d been responsible for allowing to end. Or been required to end, to save the lives of others.
They were the most dangerous eyes a man in his position could ever face. So he stared into the lantern, first, and drew a breath, feeling every one of his years and regrets in the fractional catch of his throat.
“Thank you for welcoming us, Greyson,” Neela said. “We know it’s difficult for you, and we’ll do all we can to make it easier.”
Greyson stilled his features, careful to give nothing away in his gestures, or the slightest expression on his face. He did not need to be reminded that they were as skilled as he in reading the tiniest of expressions, and had far more practice.
“You forced my hand,” he said softly. “This seemed easier.”
“We forced your hand,” Roland said apologetically. “As you forced ours. We forgive you.”
“Thank you for not escalating this to the Pope,” Neela said, as she laid a folder down on the table between them, gesturing to it. “She and Alektos don’t need to carry the burden of the memories of this tragedy, through their lives to come.”
“Agreed,” Greyson said immediately. He touched the folder between them. “Blackthorne. I’ve recalled her.”
“May we ask why?” inquired Neela. The pleasant scent of lavender and sandalwood hung around her in the air, fed by her kindly concern.
Greyson politely closed his eyes, and touched his jacket pocket. He sprang up a polite ward between him and the pair, just enough to filter out the magic carried on the scent of Neela’s breath. Had he the slightest bit of suspicion about their intentions and their magic, he would have been forced by his jacket to kill them both on the spot. Or himself. But he did not, and so his only reproof was an apologetic smile Neela’s way.
“Need-to-know, Sister Nalee. Detective Heather Blackthorne is needed, as soon as possible. The less you both know, the happier you will be.”
Roland’s gaze held the same arcane pressure against Greyson’s wards as Neela’s perfume, fuelled by his concern. His magic fuzzed and blurred the boundary of the ward between them.
“I don’t doubt that’s true. And the less we know, the less hesitation we can hold in sending her back into the line of duty, correct?” Roland asked.
“Correct,” allowed Greyson. He wasn’t a man given to guilt, but the sincere sadness that blossomed across the pair’s faces was enough to stir the emotion in some forgotten basement of his heart. He drew a breath: “I wouldn’t, if I didn’t expect lives were on the line.”
“We know,” Neela said. “We know you do the best you can, Greyson. We believe in you. Even when we don’t agree with you. We have faith in you, too.”
Their sincerity was as plain, and real, as the table between them. It took more than half of Greyson’s training to look away, and stare into the lamp once more, until the lump in his throat would die. It would be so easy to throw his resentment for their belief in him in their face. To tell them every day they delayed could mean another dozen deaths, a hundred, a thousand.
But they already knew. And they, like he, lived by their own iron-clad logic: To save every heart they could. They were as necessary to the Pope as Greyson was, and as complete a counterpoint. His job was to save lives. Theirs was to save one life at a time.
“How long are you taking her for?” asked Greyson, already knowing the answer.
Neela’s smile was a sad, tremulous thing. “As long as she needs.”
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