“Sure is takin’ his sweet time,” Joe muttered, pacing back and forth in the mouth of the alley.
Ingvar just glanced at him in silence before turning his head again to peruse the street beyond. Despite being a few yards distant, he had a better view of Veilgrad by dint of being perched atop a stack of crates against one side of the warehouse.
They had returned from the mountains to find the city stirred like a kicked anthill. Their inkeeper had been full of fanciful yarns about demons and chaos, which all three had taken with a pinch of salt. The other citizens of Veilgrad were not so easy to ignore, however, given how many were milling around in the streets, several even seeming to have formed protests in front of the governor’s office and the main Imperial Army barracks. All this the three of them would happily have brushed off and made their own exit from the city, save that whatever had transpired had caused a lockdown. The Rails were running, but there were checkpoints at all the city gates and in other places besides, and according to the least outrageous rumors they’d managed to get from irate passersby, Grusser was on the verge of declaring martial law.
For now, Joe and Ingvar lurked quietly in a warehouse district, avoiding everything and everyone as much as possible. Darling, being both the most city-savvy among them and the one with the highest political rank, had gone to see what he could learn. It had been two hours, and Ingvar had actually been somewhat impressed with Joe’s patience up till the last few minutes. City dwellers in general, he had observed, lacked the inclination and possibly the ability to be still and calm without constant stimulation. Joe, of course, hailed famously from a very small town, but he was clearly no country boy (despite his prairie accent and the cowboy affectations in his attire), and had never been on a hunt in his life. Ingvar wouldn’t really have expected him to remain calm and focused for hours on end while waiting to learn the fate of their plans to escape the city.
In truth, he might not have expected himself to manage it at Joe’s age.
For his part, he was glad enough of the chance not to talk, and had been grateful that Joe seemed to share his feeling. Darling, of course, had blathered on as blithely as always before leaving them; only after a few days of observing him closely was Ingvar sure he was covering the same unease they both felt. That experience—vision, dream, whatever it had been—had left the three of them with a lot more than a newfound understanding of wolves.
At least Ingvar found solace in mulling his new insights into the sacred beasts. Joe and Darling had little to think about but whatever hung between them, now. It was a very strange thing; Ingvar still didn’t know any more about the histories of these two men than he had before climbing the mountain, but was left with the feeling of deep comprehension and familiarity one usually felt only toward lifelong friends. Or family.
It had also not escaped his notice that Mary the Crow likely did nothing by accident, and surely had deep plans of her own, irrespective of his, Shaath’s, Darling’s, or anyone else’s. He was beginning to resign himself to the fact that they were going to have to talk about this at some point, if for no other reason than to prevent the Crow from casually manipulating them like chess pieces. It was a testament to how rattled Darling must be that he hadn’t already proposed it. The question remained, though, what she intended to accomplish by drawing the three of them closer together.
“All right, I’m gonna have a look around,” Joe said suddenly, peering out the mouth of the alley again.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Ingvar asked.
“Frankly? No.” The Kid glanced up at him, eyes just barely visible under the brim of his hat. “Very likely ain’t wise or necessary, but I’m losin’ my mind, here. Walkin’ helps calm a body down. I’m just gonna do a quick spin around the block, see if I spot anything useful.”
“Very well,” Ingvar replied, beginning to rise from his seat. “If you want…”
“You better stay here,” Joe said somewhat gruffly. “This is where the Bishop’s comin’ back to, when he does. Won’t be long.”
He turned and slipped out of the alley, vanishing around the corner before Ingvar could reply. The Huntsman sighed softly and settled himself back down atop his crate. Well, at least he wasn’t the only one disturbed and on edge.
And he had time alone, now, to think. Not that he hadn’t done plenty of that in the dark on the mountainside after they awakened from their vision quest, but, in truth, that had been mostly reeling from shock, disbelief, and a whole torrent of emotions that it had taken him the bulk of the night to process, at least to the extent of controlling himself. Ingvar had come to believe that Mary was firmly right: you simply could not rip the world out from under a person like that and expect them to bear up well. He would not have been able to accept it at all, if not shown in that careful manner, and did not think less of himself for that.
Which was the problem he faced going forward. The Huntsmen of Shaath were men of action; knowing something like this about the condition of his god and not doing something about it was unthinkable. But what? How? One thing was certain: Ingvar could not overturn centuries of flawed dogma on his own. But how could he possibly bring more Huntsmen to his side? He could hardly coax them one by one up into the hills to meet with the Rangers and be ambushed by visions. Even if the Rangers were willing, not everyone would react the same way, it would take centuries just to do… So many problems swarmed up from his mind to swamp that idea that Ingvar dismissed it entirely.
Not to mention that not every lodge would even listen to him. There had been some tense moments during the campaign against the Wreath in Tiraas that spring; only the presence of his brother Huntsmen from the lodge had warded off trouble from some others, and even so it had been a close thing. Not every Huntsman would acknowledge him a man, much less a fellow Huntsman. Why had he been called to this?
He stood, stretching his limbs, and climbed down from his perch to take over Joe’s duty of pacing up and down the alley. After a couple of hours he was stiff, but not badly; a hunt required far more patience than merely this. The lack of sleep was weighing on him more heavily.
Well, perhaps it was premature to worry about the future yet. He would definitely have to do something, but perhaps the remainder of this quest would give him more direction. Mary had not deigned to tell them their next steps before vanishing, but Joe had said that before she left (which was before Ingvar had returned to their campsite) she had confirmed they had more yet to do. Not to mention that once the actual quest was done, he had agreed to help her find out who had sent him those dreams and visions.
Could it have been Shaath? Ingvar doubted it, and not merely on Mary’s say-so. The god of the wild would not be eager to reveal himself in a position of weakness. And anyway, that came back to the same question: why him? Glumly, Ingvar had to acknowledge that he was possibly the worst conceivable choice for some kind of reformist movement.
Could the Huntsmen even be reformed? As they were now…they were the living binds of their god, it seemed. He still didn’t know what to do with that horrible knowledge himself. What could the whole faith possibly do with it, except…die?
The sounds of feet were soft and did not catch his attention; he’d grown accustomed to tuning them out during his time in cities. The figures suddenly blocking off the front of the alley, however, were another matter. Ingvar abruptly ceased his pacing, pivoting on one foot and smoothly moving his bow to his left hand and reaching toward his quiver before even getting a proper glimpse of the new arrivals.
There were two of them, both bearded men in the very familiar garb of the Huntsmen. An older man, the one who had been telling stories outside the city gate when they’d first arrived, and one of his younger compatriots. Both armed, of course, and staring directly at him as if he were prey.
Ingvar hardly had to consider the unlikelihood of these turning up by coincidence in this of all alleys to see what was up here.
There was a soft sound from behind him—very soft, but still deliberate, and he calmly angled his body and stepped back toward the wall to be able to look in the other direction down the alley without putting his back to those ahead. The third local Huntsman was just now stepping around the stack of crates on which Ingvar had been sitting. A useful high ground which he was suddenly regretting having given up.
“Well,” said the older man, fixing his stare on Ingvar. “I don’t know where you come from, girl, so I’ll grant that this may be a mistake. That garb is not a fashion statement. It’s not for women, and not for those who have not earned it. However they do things back home, wandering around the Stalrange like that is going to get you in trouble.”
The man stopped, staring at him expectantly and clearly awaiting an answer. His two comrades were equally still and silent.
Ingvar realized that if he wanted to prevent this whole thing from becoming a problem, he’d just been handed a way. Not that he was much of an actor, but how hard could it be to play the part of some girl from Tiraas with silly ideas about clothing? That was probably what Darling would do in this situation.
No. Absolutely not. He had worked and fought too long and too hard for his identity; it was not a thing to be thrown aside for convenience, or even safety. He’d been beaten and worse before, and survived. A man’s integrity was worth far more than that.
“You speak in error, brother,” Ingvar replied, pleased with the evenness of his voice. “I am Brother Ingvar, of the lodge in Tiraas, a fellow Huntsman. It would be appropriate for you to show some respect.”
The younger man’s expression grew visibly angry; the older simply narrowed his eyes. The third remained a presence in Ingvar’s peripheral vision, but he did not turn to study him in detail.
“Where’s your beard…brother?” the elder Huntsman said finally, curling his lip. “Do they shave in Tiraas, these days?”
“It doesn’t grow,” Ingvar said curtly. “A simple matter of inborn deformity, thank you for pointing it out.”
“No,” said the younger man in front, shaking his head. “Look at her face, the voice—you’re a butch specimen, girl, but still a girl. Look at her throat.”
“Whatever it is you’re playing at, you will not do it further,” the older man said flatly, taking a step forward. “These are sacred things you profane, girl. If you know enough of the Huntsmen to pretend that skillfully, this is no simple misunderstanding. And that means you’re courting consequences by coming here.”
“I do not have to endure this jibing from you, old man,” Ingvar retorted, baring his teeth in a snarl even as he fought for calm. It was not his first time in this situation. The beatings were never worse than he could bear. Where the hell were Joe and Darling? “I am a Huntsman of Shaath, and I earned that place the same as you did. I had to work twice as hard to be accorded the same respect. Take your insecurities elsewhere and cease wasting my time and Shaath’s with them.”
“You little—” The younger man in front started to surge forward, stopped when the elder barred his path with his longbow.
“All right, there’s a simple way we can resolve this,” the elder said, staring grimly at Ingvar. “And if we have been in error, you will have our apologies, and whatever reasonable forfeit you choose to name for the sake of honor. Remove your pants.”
Ingvar had an arrow half out of his quiver before realizing he was drawing it; he stopped before the two younger men had nocked arrows to their own bows, but just barely. At best, even if he was the faster draw, he could only shoot one…
“Shall I assume that’s what passes for humor in this city?” he grated.
“There’s a lot more to a man than what hangs between his legs,” the elder Huntsman said, “but that’s a definitive mark. If you have that, at least, I’ll be more willing to believe your story. If not, then you are in for a great deal of the discipline your father should have given you.”
“Touch me and it will be the last of what I’m sure have been a long line of mistakes,” Ingvar snarled.
The elder snorted. “These things are sacred; we cannot have people parading around as Huntsmen who haven’t the right. If we’re wrong, we’ll owe you for the indignity. But I don’t think we’re wrong.” His gaze sharpened further, and he drew an arrow of his own. “And I think you know it. Last chance…Ingvar, was it? It’ll go the worse for you if we have to take them off.”
“Well,” sneered the young man behind him, “once they’re already off, she’ll be in a position to—”
“If you even finish that sentence, pup, I’ll give you worse than I give her,” the elder snarled. “Men of Shaath do not debase themselves! Enough time-wasting from all of you. Get on with it, Ingvar, and let’s get all this ugliness over with before—”
A beam of light split the dimness of the alley, flashing straight over their heads. The Huntsman who had flanked Ingvar whirled, aiming his bow back the way he had come and backing up toward the others.
“My pa always taught me that a man fights his own battles,” drawled Joe, pacing forward out of the darkness. He really must have made a complete circuit of the block, or at least the building, to be coming from that direction. “And that a man doesn’t interfere in another man’s affairs. Always seemed like wisdom, to me… Till the day I watched him murdered in front of our house by six thugs who wouldn’t face an honest man head-on. So when I find my friend, here, bein’ cornered by three galoots in an alley… Well, with apologies to Brother Ingvar, I do not care what this is all about. It stops, right now, or I drop the lot of you.”
“You don’t know what you’re meddling in, boy,” the elder growled. “This is a matter for the Huntsmen of Shaath.”
“I literally just got finished tellin’ you how I don’t care what this is,” Joe replied, glancing at Ingvar and raising an eyebrow. “Doesn’t listen very well, does he?”
“We haven’t known each other long, but I’ve already noticed that,” Ingvar replied. Part of him hated himself for the relief flooding through him at the Kid’s reappearance. It was a very small part, however, and he was learning that it wasn’t a voice which bore listening to.
The elder Huntsman slowly eyed Joe up and down, from snakeskin boots to leather duster, tigers eye bolo tie and ten-gallon hat, all in black, and curled his lip disdainfully. “Have you ever been shot, boy?”
“Nope,” Joe said in deadly calm. “Not once. But I been shot at more times’n you’ve laced up your boots. Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins, of Sarasio. You mighta heard of me.”
That got a reaction. The two in front exchanged a glance, eyes widening; the one in back had drawn even with Ingvar, now, and was trying to divide his attention between the two of them, a reversal Ingvar couldn’t help enjoying.
“Nonsense,” the youth in the front huffed after a moment. “Naturally a liar would be friends with a liar. Any idiot can claim to be—”
Joe didn’t even bother to draw his second wand; he simply made what seemed to be a dismissive and almost effeminate flick of his wrist, and his weapon hissed softly as it spat three needle-thin beams of light. All three of the local Huntsmen leaped to the ready, placing arrows to their bows, and utterly failing to draw them due to their bowstrings being severed.
“Now, I don’t know how you pictured this ending up,” Joe said calmly. “Religious issues ain’t legal justification for roughin’ somebody up in an alley; it’d be jail at the very least for the lot of you after all was said an’ done. But me, now… You havin’ stated your intention to assault my good friend, here, I’m legally justified in exercising lethal force to drive you off.”
“Some things,” the elder said softly, glaring, “are worth suffering for.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Ingvar replied, earning a truly furious scowl.
“Of course,” Joe drawled in the same even tone, “it’s well within my abilities to pick the fleas outta your beards at this range. There are all kinds of ways I could disable you. So when I say that if you force this issue I will kill the lot of you assholes dead, I want you to understand it’s on account of how personally I take this matter.”
“I think you’re bluffing,” the former rearguard said, a quaver in his voice now that earned him contemptuous looks from the other three Shaathists present.
“Dead doesn’t necessarily mean dead quickly,” Joe continued, holding the oldest man’s stare with his own. “You ever see what happens to a man with a hole burned through his femoral artery?”
“Do you really have such cruelty in you, boy?” the elder asked, his tone soft and seemingly genuinely curious despite his hard expression.
“I’m the goddamn Sarasio Kid,” Joe snapped. “I despise violence, cruelty, an’ most of the other things I am very good at. Now gather up your saggy machismo an’ get the hell outta here before I start gettin’ impatient.”
They locked stares for a long moment, then very deliberately the elder Huntsman turned to study Ingvar again.
“You expect me to argue?” Ingvar said disdainfully. “I would defend any brother Huntsman against even a superior foe, unless that Huntsman had just been busy making a fool of himself and our faith. Get moving.”
The man snorted, then made a sharp gesture which prompted his two younger compatriots to come stand, scowling, at his shoulders.
“You can evade the consequences of your behavior for only so long, girl, before—”
“No.” In a single fluid motion, Ingvar had his bow drawn and an arrow aimed right at the elder’s heart. At that range, the longbow would have put a shaft almost clear through him. “You came here for the sole and specific purpose of sullying Shaath’s good name with your stupidity. You will leave with nothing. Not even the last word. Now walk, before I decide I want your pants.”
The two younger men glared, and the elder shook his head. But when he turned to go, they followed, after giving Ingvar a final round of sneers.
They waited until all three were long out of sight before Joe sighed softly and holstered his wand. “Welp. Sorry for buttin’ in like that, Ingvar; I still ain’t too clear on Shaathist doctrine, but I know a man an’ his battles are an important thing.”
“I hope those three didn’t give you the impression that most Shaathists are too stupid to accept aid from a friend when it’s needed.” Ingvar drew in a deep breath and let it out, just now taking note of the adrenaline thrumming through his system as it finally started to ebb. That was going to be an irritating comedown. “Thank you, Joe.”
“Don’t mention it,” the Kid said with a shrug. “Truth be told, I shouldn’t’ve been gone in the first place. I get stir-crazy for five minutes and you almost get jumped by the locals. What a town.”
“Would…” Ingvar hesitated before finishing the question. “Would you actually have killed them with…unnecessary cruelty? Or were you just bluffing?”
“I make my living at the card table,” Joe said with a faint smile. “Bluffing’s another of the things I don’t like but am very good at.”
“Really?” Ingvar glanced over Joe’s suit; he was no student of fashion, but one didn’t have to be to observe that the Kid had expensive tastes. Tigers eye wasn’t a pricey stone, but that was a large piece. “You paid for all that playing cards?”
“Yep. Point of fact, I was hoping to find a game of hold ’em somewhere, if we stop long enough in a place that ain’t trying to kill us. Darling’s already had to talk me out of trouble in Tiraas; dunno why I thought winnin’ at the Thieves’ Guild’s casino was a good idea.”
Ingvar had to crack a grin at that, but just as quickly let it fade, turning his head to stare out at the mouth of the alley. “And…thank you. For never asking.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Joe shrug awkwardly. “Figured as soon as you wanted to explain it, you would. Other folk’s business is their own.”
He nodded. “I’m just…well, you saw all that. The reaction is fairly typical. I can’t afford to assume anyone will understand.”
Joe sighed softly. “Truth be told, Ingvar, I can’t rightly say I do understand. The whole thing doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. But I reckon you’re the expert on your own life, an’ I don’t recall anybody puttin’ me in charge of you. It’s the simplest damn thing,” he added, a scowl forming on his face. “Just let people alone to live their lives. The longer I live, the more places I see, the more it seems that’s the hardest thing in the world for a whole mess o’ folk. An’ I just cannot wrap my head around that.”
“That much I never questioned,” Ingvar said thoughtfully, still gazing out at the street beyond. “Some things are sacred. Some things have to be defended. I always knew why the Huntsmen fought against accepting me. Even when the traditions are wrong… Traditions matter; they tell us who and what we are. I guess I should start giving a lot more thought to which traditions deserve to be upheld, since it seems almost all of mine may not make that list.”
“Maybe that’s the difference,” Joe mused. “Where I’m from… Your family, your friends, the land that supports you, those things are sacred. Everything else’s just part o’ the world.”
Ingvar whirled suddenly, sensing another presence, and had his bow half-drawn again before he identified Darling lounging against the crates he’d been perched upon earlier.
“Well, don’t stop on my account!” the thief said cheerfully. “You two were having quite a moment, there.”
“How long have you been there?” Joe demanded.
“I caught the tail end of that little stand-off,” Darling confessed. “Well handled, both of you.”
“Coulda used your help,” Joe said pointedly.
“Nope.” Shaking his head, Darling straightened up and ambled forward to join him. “I make my way through life by talking my way out of trouble. You two have only known me when I’m on the top of the world, relatively speaking; you’ve no idea how many times I had to get my ass handed to me to get up here. There’s a certain kind of macho man who can’t be charmed down, and who takes the attempt as a call to violence. You just met three of them. Trust me, boys, you took exactly the right approach there, the only one that would have worked.”
“Well,” Joe said in disgruntlement, “while I don’t enjoy threatening people, maybe it’ll make them think harder before they try that next time.”
“That’s not how it works, Joe,” Darling said, placing a hand on his shoulder, and Ingvar wondered if the thief had always spoken with such an undercurrent of weary sadness or if he was just more attuned to it now. “That kind of bullying is about power. Come on, if this were some kind of real Shaathist inquisition, they’d have brought more; instead, it was those same three guys. You can bet they do stuff like this all the time. A bully is looking to make himself feel bigger by making others feel smaller; if you cut him down to size, you’ve just made it that much worse for the next person who catches his eye.”
Joe closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “I just… Man, can’t we have one clean victory?”
“I meant what I said,” Darling replied, squeezing his shoulder once before letting his hand drop. “You handled that the right way. Sometimes, you just don’t have good options. Maybe a trained Izarite could get through to someone like that, but… All I’ve ever been able to do is teach ’em who not to screw around with. It’s sad, but it’s life.”
“Anyway,” Ingvar said, making his tone deliberately brisk, “what have you learned?”
“Right, back on point,” Darling agreed, nodding. “Well, the good news is the city’s not actually locked down; the military presence is just trying to keep order. We can get through the gates and onto a caravan, no problem. It’s going to take longer because we’ll have to stop and identify ourselves to soldiers, not to mention dealing with the lines of everyone else doing the same, but we’ll get there. Worst comes to worst, I pull rank, but frankly we’re three out-of-towners leaving with our business done; I doubt they’ll make it necessary.”
“Did you manage to find out what’s got the city so worked up?” Joe asked. “Is there a danger?”
Darling sighed, and for some reason looked distinctly annoyed. “No, there’s no danger. What happened is somebody summoned an incubus out there on the prairie a mile or so outside town.”
“What?” Ingvar exclaimed, reflexively reaching for his quiver again. “That’s what you call no danger? A child of Vanislaas loose in the city—”
“Easy, there, I’m not done,” Darling said soothingly. “The demon’s dead; it was found hacked to pieces half a mile from the summoning site.”
“Why would someone do that?”
“Hm,” Joe mused, rubbing his chin. “Last year in Onkawa, someone used incubus flesh as a reagent in an illusion spell. Caused quite a ruckus at the time, but the technique’s been commented on in all the enchanting journals. I wonder how many of the Vanislaads that’ve been summoned in the last few months ended up right on the chopping block.”
“Well, I can’t make myself mourn that,” Ingvar snorted. “Maybe it’ll make them more leery of answering summons. Why is something like that having such an effect on the city, though?” he asked Darling. “You’re right, it sounds like there’s not an active threat.”
“Well, the problem is twofold,” Darling replied, tucking his hands in his coat pockets. “You have to keep in mind where we are, and what happened here just a few weeks ago. Veilgrad’s still recovering from a major chaos event. As disasters go, it was minor; a handful dead, dozens injured, lots of property damage. It was the nature of the thing that matters: the dead rose and rampaged through the city. That kind of horror leaves aftereffects on everyone who survived it. The people of Veilgrad have exactly zero patience with metaphysical bullshit right now. And the second problem is that the brain case of a military commander in the city, some clown named Adjavegh, is trying to keep a lid on this thing. Which, since the rumors are already out, is purely counterproductive. If he’d just get out in front of it, tell the people exactly what happened and that it’s over… And I’m sure he will very soon; if he doesn’t see sense, the Empire will land on him, and he’s got to have advisers telling him this already. But for now…”
“For now,” Joe said slowly, “we’ve got a populace who’ve been traumatized by a mass raising of the dead, and rumors about demon summonings and incubi loose in the city. Yikes.”
“Exactly,” Darling agreed, nodding. “We’d best get ourselves moving while the moving is good. What with the Imperial Army’s current presence, Adjavegh has enough authority to dictate some policy, and right now Grusser is too occupied trying to keep everyone calm to lean on him. He’s got his hands full dissuading people from doing something irrational like rioting, or extremely rational like abandoning the city en masse. Oh, and posting guards on Leduc Manor, because of course people have tried to form a mob up there. Luckily they seem to be avoiding Malivette’s place. Apparently they tried that during the last troubles and were…dissuaded.”
Ingvar cleared his throat. “Yes, about that… Where, exactly, are we going next? Did Mary see fit to tell you anything before vanishing again?”
“Ah, yes,” Darling said, nodding and glancing at Joe. “Well, most immediately we need to head to a town on the southwestern edge of Calderaas just above the Green Belt, called Fersis. That’s the nearest place we can reach by Rail. After that… It seems we’re going to visit the elves.”