Jack made sure the others woke during the first rays of dawn. Not sleeping had its benefits, and he had stayed up with Toben and Enora long after the other three had passed out in the comfortable chairs of Toben’s living room or toddled off to bed. Even Layla had begged off her usual evening activities to instead curl up in the massive cupped sitting chairs near the fire and nod off.
Jack had spoken at length with the giant about the future, about what to expect as their power continued to grow, about what the wider world was like. Toben had traveled before, during, and after his time with the Legion, been to the Red Stone, been as far north as the Golden Sea, a great plain that stretched twice as far as the Empire’s territory with a harsh, savage savannah in the northern reaches. He had seen the Astara, a river nearly a mile wide that flowed from the elven lands into the Golden Sea. He knew of city-states in the islands of the Vylornes sea off the coast, and the pirate kingdom of Valla Corsa. But the thing he stressed most during their talk was the size and harshness of the Whitespine Mountains that actually separated the Empire from the Red Stone. If they attempted to cross directly over the range toward the shrine, they’d pass over the highest elevation in Austrvost. Toben knew the top of the peak was over five leagues in height from his time in the legion, and it took Jack a minute to realize that meant the mountain was over fifteen thousand feet. He and Erin might manage it, but the rear guard would never make a climb like that without months of training.
He and Toben waffled between taking the long way around, along the coast, possibly even chartering a boat north, and taking the mountain pass guarded by the Fort. Toben even volunteered to take them upriver posing as polers with his next shipment. Jack finally put a pin in the entire talk, unwilling to make the decision for the group.
In the morning, the group consensus was that attempting to sneak through the imperial pass under the Legion’s nose was unnecessarily risky. They’d head up the coast and see if any other shrines popped up. If not, they planned to double back through the Red Stone and catch the original shrine. Toben insisted on taking them up the coast to a village at the edge of the Empire’s territory, about fifty miles to the north. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the four hundred miles to the Reyvan Pass that cut between the Whitespines into the continent proper. There was a large trade town in the valley called Moryven, which did brisk trade between the island city-states of the Vylornes and the Red Stone. There would be a solid mix of humans and monstrous races in Moryven, so they would seem less suspicious coming in from the east than from the south.
They had Toben’s catamaran loaded before noon, and made their farewells once they were ready to sail. Layla, Jack, and Erin spent nearly an hour making their goodbyes, and no less than a dozen villagers shed tears and begged Layla to stay. Two even proposed marriage, then got into a brawl on the shore over who would be allowed to wed the succubus. The blacksmith Holfdyr thumped Erin’s breastplate and told her not to go dying and ruining his legacy. Toben simply held Enora and smiled as the chosen prepared to leave Mistelein, likely not to return for a long while, if ever.
Uncharacteristically, Rory stood at the edge of Toben’s property, staring into the distance toward the southeast. His most recent tier two Vandal option was a new skill called Gambler’s Intuition, which was a sort of vague but general danger sense. It went off when a merchant was trying to cheat him, when he was about to step in a pothole, and he assumed, when someone was going to try to kill him. The less dangerous the hazard was, the easier it was to miss the subtle itch at the back of his brain.
What was bothering him enough to stand away from the crowd that had gathered to send them off was that his itch wasn’t currently an itch. It was a stabbing sensation in the back of his skull, much more obvious than anything he’d felt so far, including that one time he’d almost been run over by a wagon in the market. He could tell the sensation was coming from the direction he was staring in right now. Maybe he would be able to upgrade the ability in the future, but for now, there was nothing more than a thrill of danger and a nebulous idea of where it would be coming from.
Rory walked back to the group and came to stand next to the giant and his amazon-like wife, “Toben, I don’t want to alarm you, but one of my skills is telling me there’s danger to the southeast.”
“Yes, someone is out in the hills, watching us. He has been there since yesterday afternoon,” the big man smiled placidly.
Rory started, “How do you know that?”
Toben pulled his sleeve up and a spark of mana traveled across the lattice of tattoos that ran down his bicep to his elbow.
“This one is a connection to the land surrounding Mistelein, and this one to its people. The brand of the warden and the brand of the custodian. Soulbrand abilities of the third and fourth weave. So that I may better protect those closest to my heart,” the big man smiled again.
“Aren’t you going to do something about it?” Rory whispered.
“No. I am going to take you to Orenmar and then enjoy a leisurely sail back,” he replied.
“You’re not worried about the village?” Rory asked.
“There are many powerful warriors here that can protect the village while I am away. I travel to Girnvold every other month, and no terrors befall the village in my absence,” he maintained his blithe smile.
“I thought you were the strongest adventurer in the village?” Rory quirked a brow at him.
“What gave you that idea, Rory?” Toben laughed.
“Well, you’re in the… fourth weave, right? That seems pretty high,” Rory’s frustration continued to rise.
“In fact, I near the fifth. Perhaps I should stay and see if this stranger could challenge me enough to surmount the wall,” he smiled at Enora.
She slapped his barrel chest and scowled.
“You’ll not steal any more glory from this village, you overgrown bull. Now, take your vagabonds of Fate and be gone with you,” she grinned.
Rory shook his head and walked back to the other three chosen. As he walked away, Enora turned to Toben.
“So young. They’ve no idea how large the world truly is, have they?” she said wistfully.
“No idea at all, my pearl. Will you be the one to confront the stranger?” he whispered.
“I am the Speaker. It is my duty,” she smiled.
“Be careful. Some of the things they have spoken of in whispers make me believe the inquisition knows of them. Perhaps they have even had confrontation with the whitecoats,” he grimaced.
“Surely they would never have made it here, if that were the case?” Enora asked.
“Perhaps. But the old snake has many tricks in his vest, and I would not be surprised if the Nightfather interceded on their behalf,” his expression darkened. “If it is a high inquisitor, do not hesitate to give them most of the truth. Their golden eyes are fooled by half-truths and evasions as easily as any magic, but they spend a year during their academy in study of the subtle variations of expression. They are not easily deceived.”
“Do you think I could not best a high inquisitor, you great goat?” she poked him and grinned.
“Many of them, perhaps. There were a few in the capital that were approaching the fifth weave and the old grand inquisitor was of the sixth. But they will not send a single inquisitor if they are certain the chosen are here, Enora. They will send a small army, and the new huntsmaster. It is his duty to hunt darklings,” Toben’s face was heavy with the weariness of his old life.
“Very well,” she laid her head on his chest. “I will fish out my old things and ready the hounds for a hunt. If it is a high inquisitor, I will tell him you accepted a great price to ferry four travelers to Orenmar.”
“Technically true,” he smiled. “Goodbye, my pearl. However soon I hold you again, it will be too long.”
“Get going, you old crocodile,” she kissed him and pushed him toward the shore.
The stranger watched from a hill, obscured by the enchanted cloak he wore, which would sprout leaves, twigs, bark, grasses, whatever was appropriate to his environment, when he used his Camouflage skill. He stared down in to the village with eyes that could shame an eagle as the giant and the four odd foreigners boarded the trimeran and set off on the short trip downriver to the coast.
He wouldn’t risk confronting the four while they were still with the big man. He recognized the former huntsmaster immediately, and he knew it would take all his craft to best the giant. If the four joined in, even if they did seem to be weaker than he had imagined, he doubted he could prevail. He would’ve tried to snipe the big man, but he’d seen a mountain troll break it’s tree-trunk club over Giltenhardt’s head and the huntsmaster just laughed. The spark rifle wouldn’t put him down for more than a few moments, even with a headshot, and unless he could get close enough to put a dagger in the big man’s eyeball while he was dazed, attacking him was a death sentence.
No, he’d slip into the village once night fell and interrogate the huntsmaster’s woman. He’d pay some of what the inquisition did to his daughter in Nafsbirg back to the huntsmaster for helping the darklings that had escaped the Doom of Isenmar.
Enora lifted the kettle from the small disk on the counter, a simple mana element with the flame aspect, for heating kettles and warming food after it got cold. The element was one of the last working parts of Toben’s old Legion field kit, and one of the few arcanotech devices in the village. She didn’t really care for the magic machines. Something about even the small ones made her skin crawl. The only saving grace of the element is that it was powered by her own mana, not the horrid crawling energy the Empire raped from the earth in their cities. In her heart, she knew it was a sin to steal Ilani’s blood from the ley-veins the way the Empire did, but to say so was to invite the attention of the inquisition. She gave a small shudder at the thought.
“So you did notice me enter the house. You hold your composure well, woman,” the stranger said from the dark of the kitchen door.
“I did. But that is not what gave me the flutter,” she said without turning around.
“I have some questions, lady Giltenhardt. If you answer truthfully, I will only hurt you a little,” the stranger continued.
“Truly, I will be impressed if you manage to hurt me at all,” she serenely mumbled, pouring a spoonful of honey into her tea. “Are you with the Legion? You smell like their machines.”
“A scout. But that has little to do with why I have come,” he replied.
“Oh?” she responded innocently. He was a talker. She liked that in an enemy.
“Your man has taken the darklings away from your village. I want to know where he will leave them, so I can kill them,” he whispered darkly.
“What did they do to you?” she sipped her tea and mmm’d appreciatively.
“The inquisition tortured my wife and daughter for information about them, in Nafsbirg. I am Ivrayn Larken. My wife’s name was Gita, my daughter’s Savka. They died during questioning,” he gritted his teeth, the leather of his gauntlet’s creaking as his hands balled into fists.
“It sounds as though your quarrel is with the whitecoats,” she did not smile.
“A priest of the sun’s church detonated one of the Doom in Isenmar, killing the inquisitor, and it was believed, the darklings. My vengeance was stolen from me. But the seeing matrix reacquired them in the mountains to the southeast a few days later. They survived somehow. I want to know how, so that when I kill them this time, they’ll stay dead,” the lines of his face smoothed out, a killer’s blank expression.
“Perhaps you should take it up with this inquisitor’s superiors and the church?” she sipped her tea again.
“I have already abandoned that path. I deserted the Legion to pursue this vendetta,” he growled.
Enora’s eyebrows went up and Larken had a moment of instinctive hesitation at her feral smile.
“So… no one knows you are here. You came alone,” she set the tea cup down.
“I am an imperial scout who has seen a dozen campaigns. I can stalk my prey across any terrain. I have seen battle on the other side of the Front. I have killed trolls and giants and slain many men,” he drew a dagger from his belt. “Do not call out or scream, or I will kill your children.”
The woman’s expression shifted, like water poured from one cup to another, the easy smile instantly becoming a mask of hatred.
“Very well. But outside. If you make me break even a single wall in this house, I will kill you so slowly, it would turn the stomach of the imperial Shrike himself,” she turned swiftly and stalked out the door of the kitchen, onto the patio and out toward the shore of the river.
The scout followed her, holding his dagger at the ready, watching her closely in case she attempted to call for help. When she was about halfway toward the shore, he hissed at her.
“Stop there. Don’t try to run. I am faster than a tallbuck over land,” he whispered.
Enora just tensed her fists at her side, cracking her knuckles as the power rolled across her hands. Blazing light burned across the patterns of her silver tattoos and the Mark of Fate shone like a beacon on her chest.
“The intelligence files say the huntsmaster retired to a small village of no consequence?! What is this?!” the scout was quickly losing his battle-hardened composure.
“Oh, he did. But before that, he won a wife in combat from one of the mountain tribes beyond the Front. A girl he met when he was barely a man, fresh meat in the Legion. A girl that taught him the ways of the Soulbrand. That rare class all you Legionnaires used to gawk and chatter about behind his back. After the marrow tore him apart and he’d had enough of bloodshed, he returned to that brutal tribe and fought her to a standstill. The only man ever to do so in all her years,” Enora smiled savagely. “And so I took Toben Giltenhardt as my bondmate, and I love his tender foolishness and his great strength. But the honor of Speaker in Mistelein must always be held by the most powerful warrior in the village.”
Two marks on each of her muscled arms exploded with silver light, and she cracked her neck with easy confidence.
“And I am the Speaker of Mistelein, foolish elf,” she growled.
The scout threw the knife at Enora’s face with pinpoint deadly accuracy, empowered by skills and martial arts, and smiled grimly as the weapon burst with red light as the combination of abilities boosted the dagger’s speed and killing power to ludicrous heights. His stamina and mana plummeted as he paid the price for his most powerful alpha strike, a technique that had won him countless battles before they started.
The woman caught the dagger.
She tossed it into the ground with contempt, and before he could reach for his belt, she was in front of him. His incredible vision registered her foot drive itself four inches into the rocky ground, her hip swivel sharply, bringing her torso around, and the trailing edge of her shoulder drag the woman’s glowing fist, traveling with the speed of a Legion heavy mass-driver and pulsing with the mass and killing intent of a miniature moon, up into his face.
“Laeli’s Hammer,” she whispered to the dead man, the first to hear the technique’s name in a decade.
His soul was annihilated the instant her knuckles connected with his temple.
Impossibly, rather than bursting the scout’s head like a watermelon under a warhammer, the magic of Enora’s blow lifted the elf from the ground and flung him into the night sky like a humanoid cannonball. He sailed through the air, one, two, three, over four hundred yards, ripping the air apart with his flight. She heard the distant thump of his landing in the copse of trees on the other side of Abrhim Tyrhavt’s fields.
She would bury the body in the morning.
Maybe the children had slept through the impact of her blow. She doubted she would be so lucky. The technique was like setting off a mortar. She shook her hand, wringing out the sore knuckles as she walked back into the kitchen and sighed peacefully at the quiet. It was a miracle. She quaffed the rest of her tea and walked toward the bedroom.
“Sleep well, you great old bear. My heart is empty until you return,” she smiled.