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The Lady of Marble
A Tale of Nerona's Bravos
November 15, 2022
The Outlook

The birds brought her tidings, as always. At first it was just a few songbirds rising above the treetops in twos and threes in panic. Then they came in waves. They became birds of all kinds, songbirds, raptors and even a handful of waterfowl rising from the mountainside.

Lenneth moved from the round seat at the center of the lookout tower towards the eastern windows. Something unusual was on the mountainside. Her father and brothers were down in the Round Lake Valley, beyond the Hall, taking in a few ducks for the guest they were expecting tomorrow. Lenneth was tempted to ignore the birds, since there were no other signs of something amiss. Only large predators or humans spooked the birds that way and neither was uniquely remarkable.

But it was possible their guest had arrived early. Leaving him to wander the mountainside for the night wouldn't be hospitable. She reached out and took up the tower's padded, metal striker and rang the eastern bell twice. The bell's clear, silvery tone echoed over the mountainside. Then Lenneth collected her short spears and spear sling and hurried over to the spiral stairway that led down from the overlook's platform. The rough wooden steps that wound around the outlook's central support beam had no interest for her. Instead she lept up on the railing and allowed her Gift to carry her down in a single sweeping movement.

She kept her legs tucked up under her body as she shifted back and forth to maintain her balance, her boots barely touching the wooden bar as the slid along without resistance. Her Gift of Grace turned the bar into a thoroughfare and propelled her along without resistance. Her sense of balanced, hone from a lifetime of similar stunts, kept her on course. She lept off the railing at the end of the bar and landed lightly on the dirt path below.

The mountain was as familiar to her as her family Hall. The Wingbreaker Clan had kept the paths on the Griffon's Mounts for two hundred years with each path, tree and clearing very deliberately maintained. The Gift of Grace wasn't integral to the way they kept the mountains. But many of the Clan had been blessed in that way over the years and they had found all the small shortcuts – rock outcroppings, convenient trees and dried creek beds – where their Gift would allow them to effortlessly slide down the side of the mountain.

From the appearance of waterfowl she'd spotted earlier Lenneth concluded their guest was crossing Hildur's Creek at the upper ford. At a normal march it was perhaps twenty minutes from the outlook. However an avalanche on the eastern ridges had left a wide channel open and smooth enough for gliding so Lenneth was able to sweep down two hundred feet of mountainside in less than a minute and the overall trip in less than five.

She walked out of the brush along river...

She walked out of the brush along river...

 

She walked out of the brush along river to find their guest seated on a rock beside the ford, pulling his boots back on. His appearance was immediately striking. He was tall but wiry in the way of a man who was used to an active life but not a laborious one. His skin was the olive tone of the Neronan people. The boots he was pulling on were shod with nails in the same way her own were, giving them more grip on the mountainous terrain. However that was the only concession he'd made to the wild. Unlike many visitors who came from that southern nation he had not adopted the dress of the Isenkinder but instead wore a wine red doublet and pantaloons in the Neronan style. He'd tied down the extra fabric around his arms with leather straps, presumably to keep them out of the way in the brush.

Lenneth found herself frowning at that. Many who came from Nerona bound themselves in tightly and shrank away from others. It was a very unnatural, city-like idea. The visitor's back was to her when she arrived so she made her way around to his front, grabbing the edge of her cloak and giving it a gentle tug. It rippled gently around her body, the roc feathers stitched to it it rustling with the motion. Some of her disapproval faded as the stranger immediately took note of the sound.

He stood, bracing himself on the stock of a crankbow...

 

He stood, bracing himself on the stock of a crankbow he'd leaned against the rock he sat on. Lenneth tensed for a moment but he made no move to raise the bow once he was standing. Instead he turned around and removed his cloth cap, a gesture of greeting and respect in Nerona.

Lenneth also turned, straightening her robe and cloak so they fell correctly about her, and presented her bare right shoulder, arm and side to their guest in openness and greeting. “Welcome to the Griffon's Mounts, honored guest,” she said, raising her right hand in greeting. “I am Lenneth Wingbreaker, of the Wingbreaker Clan. You are earlier than we expected but you are still most welcome here.”

“My thanks.” The stranger bowed from his waist then straightened, putting his cap back on his head. In the same motion he adjusted a strange piece of wire holding two disks of glass in front of his eyes. Then he took a solid look at her. For a moment he locked in place as his eyes focused on her bare arm and the narrow strip of exposed skin running down the side of her body to the top of her boots. Only the straps of her robe broke up the skin there.

Neronans dressed as if they feared any other person glimpsing their flesh. Their paranoid sometimes bordered on the obscene. Still, in many cases it was easier to close oneself off some to help others open up. She tightened the straps until the opening on her right side was little more than a finger wide. “May I know your name, honored guest?”

The man cleared his throat and pulled his eyes up to her face. “Of course. I am Ghiarelli Glasseye, of Verdemonde Province in Nerona. I came at the behest of the Marquis Verdemonde and bear letters of introduction but, alas, time was precious and no message proceeded me. I fear I am not the guest you were expecting.”

“You are welcome regardless.” Lenneth studied him a little closer, wondering what kind of man travelled to far foreign lands with nothing to warn of his coming. Such behavior spoke of extreme need. Yet if Ghiarelli was a desperate man, little about him bore testimony to it. His eyes were a bright, clear brown like the bottom of a clear river with no signs of exhaustion beyond what was normal for a traveler far from home. Likewise his clothes were worn but not tattered or uncared for.

Most of all, a bemused smile kept playing at his lips. Ghiarelli snatched up a pack by his feet, a rough, brown sack with straps for the arms and a buckler and long, thin sword strapped down within easy reach. “Thank you for your kindness, lady of marble,” he said. “My hope is to trespass on your kindness for only two or three days.”

Lenneth arched an eyebrow. “Lady of marble?”

“Am I not allowed to address you by title, as you have me?”

“There is a difference between calling you an honored guest and me a lady of marble, Sir Ghiarelli. Whether you are the one we expected or not you are our guest but I am not a creature of stone.” Lenneth turned and gestured towards the mountaintop. “Regardless of whether we expected you or not I ask you to come back to Wingbreaker Hall with me to enjoy our hospitality.”

The lifted his crankbow and slung it over one shoulder. “My thanks, lady Wingbreaker. Lead on.”

The worst part of heading back up the mountain was having to restrain her Gift so that her guest could keep pace. The Neronan man was content to walk in silence for a time. But as they turned away from the river he said, “Tell me, lady Wingbreaker, do you have many visitors from Nerona?”

“A few,” she said, casting her mind through the long line of faces that had come to the ancestral Hall over the years. “Perhaps half a dozen a year. Usually in pairs or families although some come alone like you. Why? Do you miss your contrymen's company already?”

“Not at all. I saw plenty of them in the journey north. Verdemonde is at the furthest southern limits of the western peninsula so I'm afraid I've seen half the country in the last three weeks. I was just surprised that no one has ever commented on your skin before.”

Lenneth laughed. “On the contrary, many of them do so. In fact, few if any Neronans fail to remark on the amount of skin they see; almost as if none of you have seen skin before.”

“We have, but never skin as beautiful as polished marble.”

A flush worked its way up her cheeks. It was no lie to say every visitor from the south had commented on the pallor of the Isenkinder's skin. This was the first to embarrass her over it. “Perhaps that's because they don't come from cities full of nothing but dust and stone.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “Perhaps so. I didn't realize it was that obvious where I came from. What gave me away?”

“There are no leaves or brambles in your clothes,” Lenneth said. “You've bound yourself up to avoid all contact. When something does brush against you, you take note and clean away the detrius. Only someone unused to the wilds would bother with such a futile endeavor.”

“I see! That's very astute of you,” he said, shielding his eyes as they stepped out into the clearing left by last winter's avalanche. “What other insights-”

He stopped short, grabbed her by the right arm and dragged her back into the tree line less than a second before a roc swept by. Wind from the great raptor's wings buffeted the branches of the trees. The tips of its claws scraped furrows through the dirt and stones where they had just stood. Then the mighty bird climbed up and away, banking away from the treeline and climbed upwards, screeching its frustration at the sky.

As the wagon sized bird dwindled into the distance Lenneth fitted one of her spears into the pocket of her sling. “The roc has seen us. It won't leave now until the sun sets and there is no path we can take back to the Hall that won't expose us to another attack. I'll try to lure it down and dispatch it, you head up the-”

Ghiarreli lightly grasped her sling hand and she looked over, startled. He was looking up into the air with one eye squinted and the other stretched open wide. Glimmers of light shot through his pupils. A chill ran down Lenneth's spine. He whispered, “Wait. Let it go a bit further...”

She looked back at the roc, now quickly shrinking into the sky. Then a spear shot out of the trees. It was little more than a sliver of black wood at that distance but even then Lenneth recognized the way it flew. It arced out of the trees at a brisk clip, destined to come far short of the roc. Then her father's Gift added an extra push to it and the spear jumped forward again. The great bird banked to avoid it but a second and final push corrected for the roc's maneuver and drove the weapon home. The roc dropped from the sky and disappeared among the trees.

Ghiarelli grunted and stood up, dusting himself off. “Impressive throw. Even with the Gift of Impulse to drive the weapon it's difficult to guide it at that distance in a way that will hit an evading target.” He started as four high pitched notes sounded from the distant, unseen overlook. “What was that? I heard something similar earlier.”

“A signal bell. Probably my brother, sounding the all clear so we know there aren't any other rocs in the area.”

“Ah. That's a useful system.”

“You're a clairvoyant,” Lenneth said. She immediately wanted to kick herself for saying something so obvious when you stopped to think about it.

“Is that a problem?”

“No, I suppose not.” She studied his gleaming glasses. “I've just never met one. Clairvoyants are supposed to stay cloistered in safe places, lost in the future and dead to the present, not wander around mountainsides.”

“Only the most powerful of us have that problem,” Ghiarelli said. “Most of us can only see a few seconds forward without great effort or in dreams.” He touched the wire and glass over his eyes. “With the help of a skilled Artificer we can see further or limit ourselves to the present and in general exercise more control over our Gift. Well, except for in dreams.”

Lenneth absently brushed her hand across the chain link belt she wore, an Artifact her grandfather had made to give more control and force to her own gift. “I see. That must be a great help to you. I know the Gift of Artifice is common in Nerona, such things must be plentiful there.”

“Are they rare among the Isenkinder?” The stranger asked as they resumed the climb to the summit.

“In comparison to the Talisman Gift, yes. I'm not sure why it should be so much easier for our people to amplify the residual magic of other creatures to make talismans, rather than channeling the magic of men into artifacts but so it is. If it were not the case the Wingbreaker Clan would not exist.” She ran her fingers over the feathers of her cloak. “If we were not here to mind the mountains all the rocs and griffons would be dead and their bodies turned to wards and trinkets. What brings you to our mountain, Ghiarelli Glasseye? Do you think the creatures we tend can serve to create you a talisman to help control your dreams?”

“I doubt the King of Dreams would allow me control of them,” he said with a wry smile. “The Kings at the Corners are so possessive of their omens, after all. Perhaps a talisman could add some clarity but even that's a stretch. No, I've never heard of any talisman or artifact that can affect a clairvoyant's dreams so your griffons are safe from me.”

“Not the rocs?”

“There is an appeal to a cloak that keeps me from ever getting cold.” He glanced at her roc feathers. “If I had such a thing I might be as bold as others are.”

Lenneth started pinking up again. “I thought clairvoyants saw things as they are about to happen. What clarity could you need? Are your dreams different from other visions?”

“They are much further in the future so what is likely to happen is less certain and the images become more symbollic.”

She gave him a questioning look. “What do you mean?”

“Well, let me give you an example. Just now I watched that roc tear your arm off and wiped your blood off my glass eyes.” He mimed a wiping motion with one hand. Lenneth shuddered. “It looked as real as if it actually happened. On the other hand, three days ago I dreamed that a block of marble tumbled to the ground blocking my path and transformed into the statues of two lords and a lady. Clearly a meeting that was important to my task but no idea of when or where we would meet. Until today, of course.”

Her father and brother flitted through her mind. “I see. And your dream got some of the details wrong, since I was alone when we first met.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps the moment that dream symbolized hasn't come to pass yet. Not everything we see ever does.” He flashed a charming smile. “I certainly hope I will never see you maimed before my eyes.”

“How kind of you. I'm sure my father will be impressed by your chivalry.”

 

“You may not remain on Wingbreaker land, Ghiarelli Glasseye,” Ulfar intoned, his face set in stone. “You must depart our land before the sun sets.”

Lenneth struggled but failed to keep her mouth from dropping open in astonishment. She hadn't actually expected overflowing gratitude from her father but she hadn't expected him to immediately send a guest away without even listening to him or the daughter who had brought him to their threshold.

“Lord Wingbreaker,” Ghiarelli said, producing a sheaf of paper folded in thirds and sealed with wax from his pack. “I assure you I come with no ill will to you or yours. I have here letters from the Marquis de Verdemonde stating his good will and offering -”

“On this I cannot be persuaded, no matter what inducement your Lord offers or how inconsequential you believe your presence to be.” Ulfar folded his arms over his chest and settled in place. “I am sorry but it must be so.”

For a moment Ghiarelli stared at her father, eyes narrow then slowly growing wider. Then he sighed and tucked away his papers. “Very well.”

“Father!” The word exploded out of her before she realized she was going to speak.

Ulfar's light brown eyebrows knitted together as he cut her off with a raised hand. “I will not be moved on this, Daughter. What binds the Isenkinder to Nerona? Or why should the Wingbreakers bow to the Verdemonde?”

“It is a question of honor, Father.”

“You question my honor, Daughter?”

Lenneth raised her chin a fraction. “No, Father, you threaten mine.”

Her father studied her fae for a moment then gestured back towards the overlook behind him. “Tyroc,” he said to her brother who waited patiently at the head of the path to the Hall, “stay with our guest. I will speak with your sister in private.”

Lenneth followed her father up the stairs. Climbing was slower than she was used to but she knew her father wouldn't want her sweeping past him on the railing. Not in front of a stranger, certainly. They emerged looking out over the valley that held the family Hall. The highest peak rose behind it. The slate eaves and fitted stone walls of the Wingbreaker's ancestral seat almost seemed a part of the landscape from that distance.

Her father stared at the building for a long moment before he spoke. “Tell me, Lenneth, what mark would stain your honor if we sent this man away?”

She joined him on the northern window. “Father, I have already offered him our shelter and hospitality.”

Ulfar relaxed imperceptibly. “Is that all? Then I hold you blameless for a promise that was not yours to make. I have already made pledges to the guest we expect tomorrow. He will have our assistance in tracking down and securing a valuable quarry and we will do all in our power to prevent others from stealing it from him. He warned us of several who might rob him by name. Ghiarelli was one of those. So you see, my Daughter, you have made a cannot honor lest I break my own word.”

Lenneth cast her eyes down. “Forgive me, Father. I did not know.”

“And I am not angry with you for it,” he said kindly, “but my own honor demands the boy be sent away. I can see from his eyes he understands our situation. Sometimes this is the way things must be. Do not trouble yourself over this.”

“I see.” Lenneth worried a feather between her fingers. “Still, wouldn't it be better to keep him here for the night, at least?”

Ulfar's gaze became sharp again. “How so?”

“If he's a rival to the guest we are expecting we must watch him to make sure he makes no trouble. It's growing late and we will need to escort him to the edge of our territory and return. It would be best to wait tomorrow to do it.” She met her father's gaze. “And I do owe him some consideration since he prevented the roc you killed this afternoon from snatching my arm off.”

“Did he.” Ulfar snorted in surprise. “He doesn't look like he would have better woodcraft than you, Daughter, how did he achieve such a thing?”

“He is clairvoyant, Father.”

This time her father was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “That explains a great deal. Very well, Daughter, I will extend him the hospitality of the Hall for tonight and send him out of our territory with my cousin Geirmund. He deserves that much for sparing you harm.”

With that Ulfar turned and strode back out of the overlook. Ghiarelli waited patiently for them at the base with her brother and faced her father for a long moment as they stared at each other. “You have kept blood from being spilled on our mountains, Ghiarelli Glasseye, and not just any blood but my Daughter's. The Wingbreakers offer you hospitality for the night, and the night only.”

The Neronan man nodded. “Thank you, Lord Wingbreaker, that is generous of you.”

“I ask only that you refrain from spilling blood yourself. If you make me this pledge of peace then Wingbreaker hall is open to you.”

“Of course.” Ghiarelli removed his cap and bowed.

It wasn't quite the outcome Lenneth had hoped for but it was something, at least.

 

Lenneth stepped out of the Hall in the early morning light, unsure of what roused her from bed before the sun was even risen. She pulled her roc's cloak more firmly around her body against the early spring chill. It was a minute's walk from the Hall to the overlook where she was sure she could find some hint of what was amiss. The Wingbreakers weren't clairvoyant but they knew the mountains like no other and Lenneth had always been taught to trust her instincts.

They were right on the money, although not in the way she expected. When she got up to the top of the outlook she found Ghiarelli there at the north window, his back to her, looking out towards the summit of the mountains with his arms wrapped around himself. “Is something wrong, Glasseye?”

He turned and she saw that today he wasn't wearing the artifact he took his name from. His cap was also missing. While not notable in and of itself, these changes in accessories made it easy to notice his sunken eyes and the way sweat plastered his hair to his skull. It was a stark contrast to his controlled, confident appearance the day before.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “The King of Dreams visited me again last night.”

“I take it this one wasn't pleasant?”

He turned back to the valley and let out a deep breath. “I saw a man of iron, burning like a furnace, scattering leaves in a shower of sparks and ash as he tears through ranks of trees.”

“That doesn't sound particularly nightmarish.”

“It is when you're one of the trees.”

“Oh.” Lenneth sat down on the bench behind Ghiarelli. “Are all your dreams that disturbing?”

“Does it matter?”

“I'd hate to think that I was a part of something that upset someone so badly, even unintentionally.”

He gave her a thin smile and joined her on the bench. From that lower vantage little of the mountains were visible for it was placed in a way to draw the eye to the skies; watching for the great flying beasts the Wingbreakers governed. However this morning only the clear, honey streaked skies of dawn were visible. Only single grayish green speck wobbled unsteadily through the skies to the north.

“Look,” he said, voice gaining strength, “even if Dreams do not favor me the King of Dawn sends me favorable portents.”

“How so?” Lenneth asked in amusement.

“Do the Isenkinder not believe the thing you see just before the sun rises will be yours before the next daybreak?”

Lenneth scoffed. “What a strang thing to say. What would you do with a bird from Isenlund anyway?”

His voice pitched down. “Who said I was looking at the bird?”

Risking a quick glance from the corner of her eye Lenneth caught him grinning at her and forced down her embarrassment. “The question stands.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “I see why your father was so prickly towards me last night. He must find you to be a mighty trial.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I don't understand was what he meant by not spilling blood,” Ghiarreli continued, acting as if she hadn't spoken. “Surely the Wingbreakers sometimes fail when hunting the dangerous game you keep. How can blood not be spilt?”

Lenneth glared at him for a moment then said, “It does happen. But it is our disgrace when it does, for we were entrusted these mountains because we could best learn, track and husband the strength of the creatures here. It falls to us to keep the peace between roc and Griffon, between beast and man and between fellow men. Der Isenkoenig granted us authority over it all.”

“But don't you hunt rocs and griffons?”

“It's a delicate balance but in the past their numbers have grown to the point where they became a menace to the flatlands and river country. All Isenkinder are in danger if the menace of the skies is not kept in check. Yet we also find great benefit in hunting them and if we were to simply wipe them out our talisman makers would soon follow and Isenlund would soon pass to others. When one of us dies in the hunt it is a sign that the balance we maintain is in peril.” She pointed at him the back at herself. “It is different for you or I. The Wingbreaker's mandate is not served by duels or grudges, so they are forbidden here.”

“Oh?” The glass over his eyes made the comical way they widened in surprise even more pronounced. “I heard that your people are famous for your grudges.”

“Not here.” Lenneth gestured out at the mountains below them. “The dangers of the mountain are enough and fighting in the ranks here not only weakens or position against them it attracts the attention of the most powerful of the creatures here. Thus no man may shed another's blood here save on my father's orders or that man will face the Wingbreaker's justice.”

“I see.” Ghiarelli's expression returned to normal as he watched the sun peek over the horizon. “Well. If that is how it is there's little I can do about it. Thank you for ensuring I received your family's hospitality, Lenneth Wingbreaker. I will not forget your kindness.”

She nodded gravely. “I hope you will not hold this outcome against our clan or people.”

“No, and certainly not against you. But now I think it's time I departed. I think I heard the doors to your Hall open again and no doubt your Uncle is looking for me...”

 

The man who came the day Ghiarelli left was named Remigio Bladebearer and he was hunting a rare creature called the emerald heron. He brought a rough sketch and a description of the bird's migratory path. According to Remigio the bird followed a two decade long circuit across unknown continents and it's eyes were a powerful talisman for seeing across incredible distances. The Neronan had pledge to share one eye with the Wingbreakers if they would help him capture the bird.

Unfortunately the map of the creatures migration pattern wasn't very precise and covered most of the Wingbreaker peaks. Remigio arrived near mid morning and insisted they immediately begin the hunt for the heron. The birds would only be passing over the mountain for a week, he said, perhaps ten days and he was anxious to begin the hunt.

Lenneth found the whole affair odd. She'd never heard of an emerald heron, nor had her brother, father or uncles and aunts. She wasn't sure how a Neronan had learned of it, especially since Remigio looked as much a city dweller as Ghiarelli did. Still, the best way to answer some of these questions was to sick with Remigio. So they set out hunting.

The creature was just as much a waterfowl as any other heron so at least they didn't have to search every inch of the mountain. However the sun rose to full height and sank towards the western horizon and they found no sign of the creature. After a long, humid day slinking along river banks, Ulfar proposed that they head back to the Hall via Round Lake Valley. Reluctantly, their guest agreed.

It was there, among the drooping pine branches and clear waves of Round Lake that they finally spotted their quarry. The emerald heron was not as striking as its name implied. The creature's plumage was a dull green, well suited to blending in with the pine trees. It stood on the bank of the lake not in the water so its gangly legs and were on full display and it's head constantly swiveled about on its snaking neck as if the creature was nervous. The bird's long, predatory beak clacked constantly, as if it was talking to itself.

Remigio instantly became excited, working the lever of his crankbow as he prepared for a shot. Ulfar put a hand on the weapon's stock. “Patience,” he whispered. “Let us take precautions. Lenneth, cross the water and sweep around it's opposite side. You will flush it to us. Tyroc, stand ready with your Gift to strike it if all else fails. But gently! Try not to destroy its eyes in the process.”

“Easier said than done,” her brother grumbled.

Her father ignored him. “Honored guest, you and I will proceed forward once Lenneth rings her bell,” he touched the bell at his own waist for reference, “and loose our darts at the bird together.”

“How will she ring the bell?” Remigio looked puzzled. “There are not strikers in your bells.”

“Of course not,” Tyroc said, “else we would constantly ring them by accident as we moved about. We strike them with our spear hafts.”

“Oh. That's sensible.” The Neronan finished loading his bow and hefted the weapon. “Then let's not waste time, shall we?”

“Indeed. With this luck and another week to search we might even take two or three more of these creatures.” Ulfar gestured to Lenneth and she took of at a slow jog.

In many cases the Gift of Grace only allowed one to drift atop a surface almost as if one was skating across ice. However, on lakes and rivers a special element of the Gift came to light. Lenneth was almost weightless while gliding, at least in regards to the surface she glided along for she herself still felt her own weight and that of what she carried. Still, it made slipping over top of the water of the lake to the far shore a simple task.

What she hadn't expected was for the heron to look at her as she crossed from its place hundreds of feet away, squawk in panic and clumsily take to the sky. Before she could process it the bird swept by perhaps six feet over her head and kept climbing. She threw her whole weight backwards, slipping down ankle deep into the water before she could reestablish her glide, and tried to reverse course. In the process she heard a confused shout from her brother, a grunt and the snap of Remigio's crankbow.

Then there was a crack of wood and another surprised shout. Lenneth got entirely turned around and scrambled back onto shore. Remigio was working to reload his crankbow, her father was stomping towards something by the treeline and the heron had landed behind them. Tyroc was holding two sticks in one hand and his other crackled with the thunder of his Gift.

Not sticks, she realized. Two darts from a crankbow. One dart had actually pierced the other through the shaft. At first that was unbelievable but once she took in the full scene it actually made a kind of sense. Standing beside the heron at the treeline was Ghiarelli Glasseye, his own crankbow leaning against his pack at his side. She wondered if all he needed to do to achieve such a feat was look to the future as he aimed and release the arrow when he saw the future he wanted.

Ghiarelli drew his sword and buckler and stood between them and the heron. “Remigio Bladebearer. I should have known Father Borgia's right hand would be here, kidnapping and Fair magic have Gregorio's fingerprints all over it.”

“Glasseye.” Remigio tossed his crankbow aside. “They said they sent you down the mountain.”

“They did. And I left the mountains in truth!” Ghiarelli pulled a vial of liquid off his belt with his buckler hand, uncorked it with his teeth and dumped it over his forehead and face. The whole time he never blinked. Lenneth realized he was staring wide eyed and, even at a distance of twenty feet behind glass, she could see his eyes were bloodshot. From the damp, stained front of his doublet she assumed this was not the first such potion he'd used, another thing to help his Gift along like the glass eyes. “But you know there's always a back way wherever you want to go, Remigio. You just have to look for it.”

The other Neronan drew his own sword, a sturdy montante with an elaborate guard and a sizable, two handed grip. As he flourished the weapon its edge glowed with a pale gold light. “All you've found is a way to your grave site, Glasseye.”

“Not today.” Ghiarelli glanced at Ulfar and smirked. “Not anymore.”

Ulfar came to a stop just outside the circle of the two men's weapons. “Ghiarelli Glasseye. Do not think you can still rely on my hospitality to keep you safe. As you say, you left the mountain. By returning you trespassed on my lands and my goodwill. If you blood spills it will be as if by your own hand.”

Remigio lept forward at those words, his weapon's blade held high and parallel to the ground. Ghiarelli casually lifted his buckler to catch the blade, keeping his weapon hand just behind the shield with the point of his sword pointed down to try and prick his opponent's weapon hand as he lunged under Remigio's cut. The montante twisted with a flourish and deflected the thrust then extended in a cross cut which Ghiarelli pushed down and away with the buckler. High thrust to the face and Remigio withdrew a step. Both men relaxed into a normal stance, the status quo restored.

The entire exchange took less than two seconds.

“It's not my blood that concerns me,” Ghiarelli said, not even winded. Then he glanced at his buckler. Remigio's glowing sword had left two deep groves in the center of the metal and taken about an inch off the right side of the shield. “Well, it concerns me a little.”

“Only a little?” Remigio demanded.

“You may be Father Borgia's favorite bravo, with the blood of a hundred duelists on your sword, but you can't kill me today, my dear Blade Bearer.” Ghiarelli's grin turned toothy. “You had a chance, but today I dreamed of death by fire and you, Remigio, cannot bring me low that way. No one here can.”

“What does he mean?” Tyroc demanded. Her brother's Gift of the Thunder Hand didn't truly burn things but it made a close approximation and Lenneth could see he was willing to try to kill Ghiarelli that way if no one else wanted a shot at it.

“He's a clairvoyant,” Remigio growled. “When they dream they see the way they are going to die. Unless they somehow prevent it.”

Lenneth's mind jumped back to their conversation that morning. Then it went back even further, to their meeting the day before and his casual mention of seeing her and her family in a dream. Her jaw dropped open. “You were going to die today.”

“And now, I'm not.” Ghiarelli produced a small leather bag from his belt. On second thought, perhaps not a bag, it looked more like a wineskin. “You see, I know something that you of the Wingbreaker clan do not.”

“That does not make you terribly special,” Ulfar growled. So far her father had watched the scene unfold with dispassion but now he reached up and pulled Remigio's sword down to a neutral position. “We are simple people of the mountains, after all. But if you think I do not know that this man serves Gregorio Borgia, Nerona's famed Merchant of Plunder, then I must disappoint you.”

“Not at all. Father Borgia believes he is a cunning man of intrigue and perhaps he is but he has reached the point where anonymity is not something even he can expect. That is something you lose when you become the most wicked man in Nerona. Still, he is every bit as cunning as he thinks he is. And he is more than unscrupulous enough barter with the Fair Folk for a curse to be placed on the children of those he seeks to bend to his will.” Ghiarelli glanced at the heron behind him. “Tell me, Ulfar Wingbreaker. Is it truly your judgment that Remigio may spill the blood of an innocent child simply because inhuman magic has changed his form to that of a bird?”

Her father's face turned stormy but otherwise he remained calm. “You can prove this accusation?”

“The child was cursed through poisoned food. As with all their magic, curses of the Fair Folk must be fair, although I have always thought that whoever determines fair must be quite the lunatic. In the case of magic that revolves around food, the counterspell is almost always the first food a person ate in their lives, save for their mother's milk.” Ghiarelli hefted the bag in one hand. “In this case, goat's milk.”

“You brought that all the way here from Verdemonde?” Remigio wrinkled his nose in disgust. “It's more likely cheese at this point.”

“The Marquis knows a few Folk of his own, they've ensured it will keep quite well.” Ghiarelli offered the bag to Ulfar. “If you want to know the truth of my words, offer this to the bird.”

Ulfar took the bag, then glanced at Remigio. Thinking better of taking his hand off the Neronan's sword arm he sought out Lenneth's eyes and nodded to her. Then, with a flick of his fingers he tossed her the bag and said, “Do as he says, Daughter.”

If nothing else the way the heron looked at her as she approached and docilely allowed her to guide its beak into the bag would have convinced her of the truth in what Ghiarelli said. When the heron's feathers melted together into a tunic and trousers and the tall, awkward bird shrunk down into a boy perhaps seven years old it was just a confirmation of what her heart already told her was true. The child looked up at her, astonishment and gratitude written on his face, then he sat down on the grass and burst in to tears.

The storm on Ulfar's face broke out in full force and he shook Remigio violently by his arm. “You have lied to me, servant of Borgia. No treasure or talisman your master can offer is worth the stain on my honor you have nearly tricked me into perpetrating. If you were not the messenger of a foreign lord, who's good will is valued by Der Isenkoenig, I would set your head upon the eaves of my roof in warning. Be gone from my lands at once.”

Remigio nodded once, not resisting but not terribly put out by her father's rage either. If anything, it seemed like something the man was used to. The idea that someone could face the full censure of the Wingbreaker clan and act like it was normal, even trivial, disturbed her as much as anything else she had seen that day. Ultimately, Borgia's bravo was taken off the mountain by her brother and two uncles before the sun was set.

Ghiarelli kept near the child but refused to tell his name, only saying that he was the son of someone important in the province of Verdemonde and he couldn't reveal more. Ulfar was suspicious but Lenneth thought it was because he'd just been duped once and not because he had good grounding for his suspicions. The boy seemed to know Ghiarelli a little, and that ultimately calmed ulfar somewhat.

“But why did the child come here?” Lenneth asked as she and her mother helped Ghiarelli make up a bed for the child in the Hall. “He could have flown home to his family.”

“That's part of the curse,” he said. “If everyone cursed that way went straight home to family the curse would be too likely to come undone. So it forces the victim to wander for some period of time along a predetermined path. Father Borgia knew the path and sent someone to kill the child when his parents refused to cave to his demands. Certain connections the Marquis has learned where the child was as well and he ordered me to come and rescue him.”

“Connections? You mean you didn't foresee his death in a dream?”

Ghiarelli turned very serious. “Sadly, I can only see my own death that way.”

“That must be a very hard thing to see, night after night.”

“Perhaps, although at least I do not dream every night.” Then the wry smile was back and he leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “But I haven't seen a death I couldn't beat so far. If you doubt it you're welcome to turn up in my dreams again, lady of marble.”

Then he trotted off to find the child, leaving her there, blushing.

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Lost Words

We've been working on decoding the information on the artifact for the last sixteen years, since we pulled it out of Saturn's rings. We're not sure how long it was sitting there, playing dead among the debris and we may never know for sure. Frankly, it's a miracle it's still in one piece.

What we do know for sure is that it is electronic and has something like an onboard computer although we haven't been able to make much of it. Here's what we've got, along with notes from the researchers.

INITIATING DATA RETRIEVAL...

FILES 82% CORRUPTED

ATTEMPTING FILE REPAIR...

10% SUCCESSFUL

RECONSTRUCTED DATA WILL BE DISPLAYED [IN BRACKETS]

INITIATING DATA PLAYBACK...

The data retrieval and file repairs are things referenced in the artifact's onboard memory, not something we did when we got it back to Earth. We find it unlikely we will ever be able to repair or replace any of the data lost.

SI[TUATION] REPORT: Drop Sphere 3

REPORTIN[G OFFI]CER: Te[data lost]

STAR SYSTEM: [data lost] 5 Phase 2 Star

Coordinates: 322.[data lost] off Galactic Plane

PLANETARY SURVEY: Tertiary Planet

Typology: Nickle-Iron Core

Oxygen-Ni[trogen] Atmosphere

2/1 Ocean/Landmass Ratio

Satellites: [data lost]

It's unclear what kind of coordinate system the artifact uses, or what kind of Galactic Plane they're referencing. Based on the information available, the logical conclusion is that they're referring to Earth although we find that eventuality unlikely for reasons that will become clear.

INITIAL SURVEY:

Chronomark – 928.4482.4

Multiple settlements confirmed on each continent. Civilization's power distribution network consistent with a Type 2 Industrial society. Multiple orbi[tal structures] detected, suggesting the native population has been making [data lost] for some time. Survey of outlying planets did not reveal signs of permanent settlements on outward planets. Conditions on [inward pl]anets do not appear hospitable to life. Further information in fu[ture surveys.]

We conclude that the native species is most likely confined to this planet at this time.

[data lost]

The onboard records suggest that the bulk of the lost data in the artifact's files were lost here. Roughly 40% of the data the artifact was trying to receive was from this chunk of lost files, which suggests that they spent a lot of time surveying the planet. What's particularly interesting is that the context around the missing data suggests the missing information was entirely about the population and civilization on the planet's surface.

Unclear how many sapient species are native to the planet. Initial scans show no signs of coherent architectural [themes] computer analysis cannot determine if differences are wide enough to suggest a differences in species. Communications [data lost] have not yet been deciphered.

Planet shows typical biodiversity for a Type 2 or Type 3 Industrial society. Standard sapience development studies show they should have larger settlements in the oceans suggesting the entire population may be mildly thassalophobic. Further details will [require closing to] close orbit.

The idea that a civilization is thassalophobic just because they don't settle their oceans is interesting, particularly given things we will see later.

Chronomark – 928.4482.6

I have submitted a request to remain in high orbit. The stories about first contact with Type 2 and Type 3 societies are nightmares. [data lost]

It would be nice to know what kinds of things the Sphere commander was worried about but whatever it was seems lost to time.

COMMAND DIRECTIVE

OBSERVATIONAL COMMAND

Issued: 4th Fleet [data lost]

Recipient: [data lost]

Chronomark – 928.4484.3

Commander,

Your objections to further surveillance are n[oted and show a comm]endable consideration for your crew and ship. We hereby override them. Deploy a communications relay and keep it updated in accordance with Hazardous Contact Protocols then approach to a [data lost]

You're out there to detect potential threats to the Commonwealth, Commander. Do you job.

It's interesting that whatever Observational Command was, they had protocol for these kinds of situations but still managed to lose the artifact – which appears to be a communications relay based on what we've learned – in spite of the protocols they put in place. What happened here was apparently well outside their expectations.

DETAILED SURVEY:

Chronomark – 928.4484.5

Our sphere has begun braking orbit, we are [data lost] and proceeding under Hazardous Contact Protocols. Our attempts to break the native communication codec is still [underway]. Fortunately we've discovered a series of analog broad[casts that appear to be unfiltered] audio and we're working on translating the language. So far it seems we've avoided detection by the natives.

Several of the major structures have been firmly identified as orbital telescopes.

[data lost]

This is another major section of lost data – it represents about 12% of the lost data and presumably describes more of the planet's orbital technology.

We believe the largest to be some kind of orbital space station, although what purpose the station serves is unclear. It's not attached to a space elevator nor do we see large space vessels under [construction.] We're adjusting our approach to avoid visual dete[ction by these install]ations.

So far we only have one new significant piece of information. Our analysis of the audio from the planet suggests only a single species lives there as the phonemes we're detecting are all similar enough to come from a single type of [vocalization organ.] Based on what we know of the galaxy, that suggests a single sapient species is producing them.

[data lost]

At this point most of the missing data is accounted for. From the corrupted data on hand my analysts suggest at least part of the analog audio the drop sphere recorded was stored here. It's possible we can still make something out of that and learn something.

[Chronomark] – 928.4484.6

[data lost] approaching standard orbit, two tanks compromised.

Definitely not a space station. What we thought were [just] telescopes do double duty as gathering arrays that focus [data lost].

The station then serves as a focal point for the weapon. Primary habitation module was compromised. Casualty list is attached:

[data lost]

- and I doubt our hull will stand up to the strain. Against the better judgment of my officers, I'm ordering us to abandon ship. We'll keep in touch with the comm relay in accordance with Hazardous [Contact Protocols] but [data lost]

May heaven have mercy on us.

The reference to heaven is heavily debated by the translators. Most of them think we're projecting our own culture on the aliens and worry we're dumping a lot of cultural baggage onto this part of the records where it's inappropriate. I've chosen to leave it in place for reasons you'll see shortly.

Chronomark – 928[data lost]

Drop Sphere 3 has been abandoned. Find rest in the silence of space, old friend.

We've launched both of the sphere's life pods and are making for the [data lost]

Current crew compliment of this pod [data lost] for a total of five survivors.

Five survivors in one pod led to a lot of speculation on the sphere's original crew count. Since it's a very small data point to draw any kind of conclusion on I eventually stepped in to end the discussion and removed that debate. Interested parties can pull the detailed files from the project archive if they're really dedicated to reopening the issue.

Chronomark – 928.4486.1

In spite of maneuvering at minimal thrust for the past thirty hours [data lost]

The telescope is im[possible to] shake. We've raised our acceleration to the maximum safe rate and are maneuvering towards the system's fifth planet, a gas giant with [data lost]. Hopefully the [local sapiens] conclude we're trying to shelter there. In truth, I just hope we distract them from [data lost]

We're not sure what the sphere commander was hoping to distract them from but our consensus supposition is they were trying to keep the planet's telescopes from picking up their communication relay.

Chronomark – 928.4486.4

It seems [data lost] and salvaged some of the data we'd collected before our Drop Sphere was destroyed. I've assigned my team to work on analyzing it to keep them busy while [data lost.] I've told them maybe we'll learn something that will help us survive, although privately I'm not optimistic on that front.

Pretty industrious people in that pod.

Chronomark – 928.4487.3

They scrambled a pursuit ship incredibly quickly. As near as we can tell it's a [chemically pro]pelled ballistic ship, which is shockingly primitive compared to [data lost]. Even so, it's closing fast enough to be here in three days. Things have been tense. Morale is dropping quickly and I have to admit that I don't think we have any way to avoid [capture].

Given how vicious the [data lost] avoided at all costs. We will continue to report what we learn from our scanning and analysis.

Chemically propelled ballistic ships are shockingly primitive compared to their drop sphere but somehow they still managed to destroy it. I'm not sure what bothers me more. That they think our level of technology is primitive, or that they still got destroyed somehow.

We're still not sure what the artifact's Chronomarking system means, but given the pretty clear timeline laid out in these last few entries we're optimistic we can crack them eventually.

Chronomark – 928.4487.8

A potential breakthrough, although [data lost].

The value of that analytical method is questionable but I'm operating on the premise the results are reliable. It's the only thing with the potential to improve our sit[uation] anyway. [data lost]

We're monitoring their communications now. We hoped that would help us evade pursuit but the new codec isn't helping us since we still haven't translated their language. [data lost] … understanding of basic machine commands based on what we're seeing but that's it for now.

We're not sure how they cracked a communication codec without knowing the language it contained. Perhaps in one of the lost data sets they translated an analog audio segment and used it as confirmation. We don't know.

Chronomark – 928.4488.6

We're testing the new codec against their voice transmissions. It's interesting because, even though we can't understand them, we're all able to mimic all the sounds we're hearing. I'm starting to think that [data lost]

I think at this point the people in that pod were starting to suspect. That's why they're testing all the language they were hearing.

Chronomark – 928.4489.1

The alien ship is getting very close, close enough that we can make visual contact with it. We expect it to match velocity with us in four hours. After some debate, I've issued sidearms to all survivors on board. There's already joking about saving a bullet for ourselves, which is an accurate reflection on the current state of our morale.

[data lost] and transmitted it. If the alien ship has any idea what we said or that we were talking to them they haven't given any sign of it.

Too bad we don't have the other ship's records to tell us how they reacted to this.

Chronomark – 928.4489.4

The alien ship has launched some kind of grapplers and drawn us into contact. I will try and record as much of our encounter with them [data lost]

… some kind of diamond tipped drill to pierce the hull before establishing a seal and moving their personnel over. We're bracing for their entry.

[data lost]

… fallen back and are regrouping. I don't think they were expecting resistance. Frankly I'm surprised, too. We're scientists here, not fighters, but [data lost]

We've got just enough time to pull the helmet off one and – my god, they're human. They're human just like us. That's not possible. If anyone reads these logs [data lost]

END PLAYBACK

When we reached this point we were extremely confused. The translators went over this dozens of times, we're almost 100% certain whoever created this log found creatures like themselves on a planet they were totally unfamiliar with. Whether they were actually a human civilization that discovered another human civilization where they shouldn't have is open for debate.

Did the artifact arrive here through some method of time travel? Is it a very elaborate, very expensive hoax created by one of the billionaires playing with space flight? Did the artifact just drift into the solar system after it was lost countless eons ago? We don't know.

I would love to be able to confirm one of those theories. It would remove the possibility that some other human civilization on Earth rose up, took to space and had an encounter with an even older, more advanced human civilization from far flung stars only to vanish for reasons unknown. What does that say about what's waiting for us out there, if it's true? And what will we do about it?

For now, I'm proposing we head back out to Saturn immediately and begin looking for other pieces of technology comparable to the artifact. Hopefully we can learn more before it's too late.

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January 09, 2023
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The Frozen Nest
A Roy Harper Adventure

“The prow says it's the Edmund Fitzgeral.” Roy handed the spy glass over to Books and pulled his gloves back on, fingers already stinging from cold. “Doesn't look like one of yours. More of a passenger ship if you ask me.”

“That's certain,” Books said, studying the ship from his superior vantage point. He was only a foot taller than Roy was but standing next to him it felt more like a mile. “The Fitz is a liner out of Avalon's harbor. Usually plies the Avalon-Hampshire route over in the Atlantic.”

Roy frowned as their small launch drew closer, skimming just above the water on a sheet of heated flight metal. “What's it doing out here in the Pacific then?”

“By the looks of it, it got stranded somewhere in the Arctic.” Books lowered the glass and gestured at the ice surrounding the ship. “That ice is too thick to have come from anywhere else.”

“So what's it doing down by Port Redwood? You don't get much summer here but its hardly the Arctic.” Roy dug his pack out from under a bench. “I don't like it when the cold comes too far south in unseasonable fashion. It doesn't bode well.”

“You're the expert on that front,” Books said, unfastening a short hafted boarding ax from the side of the launch. “Either way, the Sanna don't like it on their side of the border so we've got to move it somehow.”

Their skiff rounded the prow of the ship and they could see a hole two decks high running half the length of the vessel. Roy scowled. “Or sink it.”

“Don't think the Sanna would appreciate us leaving that on their side of the border but yes, we may have to.”

“Trust me, Books. There's nothing good on that ship and we're better off not going aboard.” Roy pulled two half-gallon pints of oil out of his pack.

Books gestured at them in meaningful fashion. “Why do you think I waited for you to come up from Keegan's Bluff before mounting this expedition? We'll look around and if we don't like what we see you can burn the place to the waterline.”

“That's an bronze belly boat, Books. I can't burn the hull.” Roy fastened the flasks to his belt then pulled out a leaf bladed short sword and slung it there as well. Finally he got his trump card out, a bronze caged lantern holding two fist sized sulfurite crystal gleaming with the power of the fires trapped within. “Might be able to put a hole in it with these.”

Books whistled softly. “That's an awful lot of magic you've got there, Harp. What were you expecting to find out here?”

“With you? I never know what to expect. Have you forgotten what happened when you convinced me to rejoin the regular Army for 'just a quick trip south' way back when?”

He snorted. “You stumble on one little Tetzlani blood cult and suddenly everyone thinks your a jinx. Just try not to char us alive with those, alright? Just because we've passed through the fires of the Stone Circle doesn't mean we're invincible.”

Roy glanced around at the other two in the skiff with them. “So you've changed your mind? We're not taking your boys in with you?”

“I hired them to navigate the ship if we can get it moving, not to help us scout the ship for danger. You know I don't trust many people watching my back these days.” Books pulled his wool overcoat off and dragged on a heavily padded duelist's jacket on in its place. The garment strained over his shoulders, probably sewn to his dimensions in warm weather and now suffering from some shrinkage. On many people that wouldn't matter. But Books was a dolmen breaker, imbued with superhuman strength and durability after accidental exposure to druidic magic some ten years ago when they were both in the 43rd Infantry. His stature and muscles had grown to accommodate his new capabilities.

In contrast, that same incident had turned Roy into a dolmen burner – a firemind to the druids, although he learned that much later – which came with very few physical perks. Sometimes he felt like he'd actually gotten shorter. That was probably a result of being around so many people who got taller but for an already short man the disparity of the outcome stung.

They ignored the hole in the side of the Edmund Fitzgerald, choosing to instead board the ship at the launching deck at the rear of the ship, where small boats generally came and went from large passenger ships. As they finished their preliminary rounds Roy caught a glimpse of movement from inside the gap in the hull. A flash of white he may have imagined, then nothing when he looked closely. “Got something moving just above the waterline.”

Books pivoted to follow his line of sight but neither one of them could spot further signs of life. “Well,” Books finally said, “We'll keep on our toes.”

The two of them did just that, taking great care in turning every corner and climbing every stairway along the top decks. After almost an hour of grinding tension and bitter cold they determined there was nothing out of doors on the Fitzgerald. Then they went below decks. Books took them down by the rearward crew access which led down into the kitchens where they found the first signs of something wrong. The decks had been totally empty, which was odd in retrospect, but the kitchen was a wreck. Pans, broken plates and scattered containers of spices littered the floor. It looked like the entire place had been working full tilt when a giant hand reached down and shook the ship like a baby rattle. There were a few old bloodstains, or perhaps old sauce stains but no signs of people.

Books crossed the kitchen carefully, making his way to the double doors that likely entered the dining room, but Roy grabbed his shoulder. “Wait. Look through the cupboards.”

“For what?” He asked, beginning to pull open doors.

“Food. What else?” Roy ignored the shelves and went through the kitchen until he found the ice chest, let himself in and held up his lantern to look around. With the exception of the racks full of chilled wine the shelves there were empty. Roy went back out and dug through cupboards until he met Books halfway. “Find anything?”

“Not a crumb.” Books folded his arms and shook his head. “Ships stock up on a generous amount of food when they put to sea, just in case there are complications. My freighters pack at least ten days of food per week of their trips. And I don't have to worry about keeping passengers happy. They must've been missing a long time if they ate through all of their stores.”

“How long could they go missing without your hearing about it?”

Books cocked his head thoughtfully. “Well, rumors spread faster on the seas than you think. Word would be out on the docks she was late pretty much the day after she failed to show up. All sailors talk, you can't stop them, so it'd spread pretty fast. Maybe two weeks?”

“And the Avalon-Hampshire route is how long?”

“Eight days for a ship like the Edmund Fitzgerald, so I'd be surprised if they had less than two weeks food on board...” Books shook his head. “And before you ask, no, I hadn't heard that the Fitz was missing before today. You're trying to narrow something down, Harp. What is it?”

“I think they stumbled across Hunger. Or at least something closely connected to it, like the Wendigoes like I saw during the Summer of Snow.”

Books heaved a sigh and nodded. “Like I said, you're the expert on that one. What are we watching for?”

“It's hard to say. If an avatar of the Antediluvian Deep is here we could get just about anything.” Roy laughed a hollow laugh. “If it's just an elemental creature tied to it we could get anything, just less dangerous.”

“How helpful. Anything else we should look for here or can we move on?”

Roy drew his sword. “We move on.”

Books walked over to the double doors again and pushed them open.

A polar bear picked him up by the shoulders and threw him out into the dining room in a crash of breaking furniture. Roy froze for a second, trying to process that. He was pretty sure polar bears weren't elementals, although bears in general bordered on the supernatural so there was a chance. The bear crashed back through the doors, Books' shoulder buried in its stomach. He drove the creature straight into the back wall with an impact so hard the boat rocked under their feet.

The bear pushed off the wall and slammed Books into the ground. Even his superhuman strength was no match for the bear's overpowering mass and reach. The bear's jaws reached down to grab Books' throat then Roy blasted it with a gout of flame from the sulfurite in his lantern. The bear reared up and roared in pain. Books scrambled to his feet, grabbed a serving cart and clobbered the animal with the cart, snapping the handle off of it and sending the cart careening off the wall. The bear dropped to the ground and rolled itself back and forth, quickly putting the fire on it out.

As the bear got up Books lunged forward, planted a boot in its back and kicked it back out into the dining room. Books sucked in a deep breath and the two of them charged out after the animal. As they ran Roy emptied the fire out of his lantern and held it in a single huge orb ready to throw. It might be overkill but when dealing with bears it was best to be absolutely sure. They burst into the dining room and skidded to a stop.

A woman holding a black orb and ice pick...

A woman holding a black orb and ice pick with a white bearskin draped over her shoulders was drawing herself to her feet. The skin was singed and the woman favored her side where Books had slammed her into the wall. Beyond that it was hard to pick out too many details under the layers of fur and thick clothing she wore. She carefully placed her implements on the ground and raised her hands. “Dust and ashes,” Books hissed, “who are you?”

The woman answered in a low, husky voice speaking words from some language Roy couldn't place. Fortunately this wasn't the first time for either of them to run into a language they couldn't speak. He put his hand to his chest and said, “Roy.”

Books did the same. “Books.”

The woman caught on quickly. “Svuli.”

“Okay, Svuli,” Roy murmured. He pointed at her orb. “What's that?”

She reached out and touched the stone. “Bjornrun.” The orb flashed with some kind of inner light and the bearskin began to meld with her body, blue stones in the eyes sparking with energy. She let go of the stone and the transformation stopped. Svuli returned to normal and pointed at Roy's lantern. “Skaldrun.”

“Is it some kind of catalyst?” Books asked.

“Or a kind of fulminite power storage she uses to shape shift, I guess.” The fire he was holding was starting to slip out of his grasp, his ability to command flames no more able to grasp that much magic for long times than his hands were able to hold hundreds of pounds for any length. He looked at the broken dining tables that Books and Svuli had destroyed and threw the flames down on them so they would have something beside his own powers to feed them. As the wooden furniture burned there he began slowly feeding smaller amounts of it back into the sulfurite in his lantern. “I'll tell you this. If she's some kind of skin shifter like the selkies of Avalon or the Sanna skinwalkers she's bad news but not nearly powerful enough to wreck this ship.”

“Avalon?” Svuli shook her head. “Ultima Thule.”

Roy glanced at Books. “Ever heard that one?”

“Yeah. It's a long story but they're supposedly people who live at the uttermost north, in places where it's always winter. Sailors talk about 'em every so often.” Books knelt down and looked at her ice pick, turning it over in his hands. “They know a lot about the magic of water and using it to change forms, although the details in the stories I've heard are very spotty. Some of the tales say they can all change shapes. Others say only their most powerful mages can.”

Roy finished channeling the fire back into the crystals in his lantern. They were dimmer than when he'd boarded the ship, at a guess he estimated he'd lost about one fifth of the magic he'd brought onto the ship an hour ago. “Svuli.” He crouched down and looked her in the eyes, catching a glimpse of pale gray irises around pupils as dark as onyx. He patted the deck and said, “Ship?”

She pointed down through the deck. “Kraken.”

Roy looked up at his big friend. “And that one?”

“First time hearing it.”

He turned back to the woman and pointed two fingers at his eyes. “Show me.” For a moment she looked confused, staring at his eyes as if she expected to see something. He held up his lantern and repeated the gesture, then turned those fingers around to point at the lantern. “Show me skaldrun.” He repeated the process with her orb. “Show me bjornrun.” When she nodded her understanding he finished with, “Show me kraken.”

Svuli held out her hand for the bjornrun, which Roy returned after a quick, unspoken consultation with Books. Then she snatched up her pick and led them across the dining hall towards another entrance. Books stopped to retrieve his ax from among the wreckage of the tables then the two men hurried after her. Roy tried to ignore the haunting sight of ranks upon ranks of tables draped in white cloth. It was like he was in the Infantry again, walking through the morgues after a major battle, wondering if the dead soldiers would rise to reprimand him for surviving when they had died.

But there was nothing under those tables. Nothing but chairs and the deck of the ship.

And, it turned out, the hole in the side of the hull. Svuli led them up a hallway and down a flight of stairs to the next deck down where the damaged hull lay gaping open on their left and the floor was strewn with ice, twisted pieces of metal and the occasional scrap of timber from furniture or fixtures from the walls of the ship. About twenty feet down from the stairway the damage to the ship cut through the hallway floor entirely. Svuli carefully picked her way down to that point and peeked around the torn remnant of the inner wall. After a quick trade of glances, Roy followed and leaned over her to follow her line of sight.

The hole in the ship went another fifteen feet deeper towards the center line, give or take. It had been torn through two decks of rooms vertically and was at least fifty feet wide along the length of the ship. The demolished rooms had been carefully filled with ice in what looked like a very systematic fashion. Buried in that ice were hundreds and hundreds of people. They looked like passengers and crew alike, based on the way they were dressed, and many of them looked like they'd been torn by giant claws or smashed by huge hands before they were frozen. A few gazed out of the ice with expressions of terror, as if they'd been frozen alive.

In the central, deepest part of the hole was the kraken.

It was a round orb of blubber as tall as a human body, suspended in a huge sack of fluid surrounded by ice in the center of the frozen abattoir. Long tendrils, half again longer than the lump of blubber was, drifted around the creature, twitching absently. Two black eyes stared sightless out of the fluid. It reminded Roy of a chicken egg he'd seen broken before the chick within finished growing. It was unsettling and ugly but it didn't look particularly dangerous. He stepped past Svuli and was looking for a way down onto the ice when the creature snapped around, its eyes focused on him, and a blast of freezing wind and sleet nearly blew him out of the ship and into the ocean. Svuli grabbed him at the last second and dragged him back into the hallway.

Books was there a second later, dragging them both back to the stairway single handed. Once they were both safely out of danger he said, “What in stormwrack was that?”

“I think it's the kraken chick's defensive magic.” Roy got up and dusted himself off. “If I'm reading this right, it looks like the Edmund Fitzgerald was attacked by an adult kraken. It made that hole and killed everyone it could grab from the passengers and crew then froze their bodies there for its child to eat. Maybe it cleaned out the kitchen, too? I suspect magic was involved somehow. Then it layed an egg and left it here to hatch.”

“What kind of thing is a kraken?” Books asked.

“A wiggly thing?” Roy wriggled his arm like it was a snake. “Except it had a big round body and a bunch of worm heads? It could be like a hydra.”

“No, it sounds like a squid,” Books said, nodding, “I've seen those before. Always thought they were warm water creatures.”

Svuli hefted her pick and mimed striking something with it. “Svuli drapet kraken.”

She started to shape shift back into her bear form but Roy grabbed her hand holding the orb and pushed it down gently. “Roy show Svuli?”

“Show?” She gave him an inquisitive look.

Roy nodded. “Show drapet.” He turned to Books. “Do you know where the furnace room on this thing is kept?”


Turned out it was kept two more decks down and behind the room full of coal, which made sense if you thought about it. The engine room was not as impressive as what you found on a sky train. Those were a forest of pipes that routed the magic in the primary furnace out to the dozens of panels of aluminum that held the train aloft. However, according to Books, the Edmund Fitzgerald was built along a much simpler design.

The primary furnace was fed with coal and the resulting fire was channeled into a massive sulfurite array which held the magic in such a way as to release it in controlled fashion. The magic, in turn, was fed into the keel of the ship in a steady stream. Like most metal hulled ships, the Fitz was built along a core of tin swift to provide the propulsion that moved the ship forward so there was little need to distributed the magic from the furnace to the whole vessel when the keel would do that just fine on its own.

The furnace room was really little more than a place for someone to stand and shovel coal from the feeder, the furnace itself, a set of dials measuring the stability of the sulfurite array and a chimney to take away the smoke. Roy hadn't anticipated that they'd need to pull apart the furnace to get at the sulfurite. But after half a sweaty, dusty hour of profanity laced work they managed to pull the huge pile of crystals out of the ashen interior of the furnace and drag it back to the coal room.

The furnace and array were entirely cold when they found it so Svuli seemed quite confused as to what they were planning to do at first. It was only once they had dragged the bronze and sulfurite array back to the coal bin and Roy opened a flask of oil that her eyes got wide. Pointing at the array she said, “Skaldrun surt?”

“Surt?” Books asked.

Svuli clenched her fists together then flung her fingers outward to mime an explosion.

“Yeah,” Roy confirmed. “Skaldrun surt.”

“Y'know, Harp,” Books said, balancing the array on the edge of the walkway that overlooked the bin, “I'm not sure this is gonna work.”

“Sure it will.” Roy liberally drizzled some oil onto the top of the coal a few feet below them. By his estimate the thirty foot by twenty foot bin was full of coal up to his shoulders and that ought to be more than enough for their purposes. “You've seen siege crystals at work during the war, right? You just have to overcharge them with heat and they'll cook off. That engine isn't using crystals as big as what we worked with in the Infantry but I think together they'll give us more than enough oomf to blast a hole in the bottom of the ship and sink it.”

“That's the part that bothers me.” He started pulling sulfurite out of the wire array and piling it on the deck beside them. Roy added the two crystals from his lantern for good measure. “Harp, squid are supposed to live in the water and I'm guessing a kraken isn't any different. I don't think sinking the Fitz is gonna be enough to kill it.”

Roy hesitated, seeing the point there. “Okay. So we can't just sink the ship we need to kill the kraken in the process. Everything around it is frozen so perhaps we can just blast the creature with the heat?”

“How're we gonna do that?” Books dropped the last of the sulfurite into the pile and discarded the bronze array. “We need fire to charge it. Once we overcharge it we've got maybe ten seconds to move the crystals to the kraken and get away before they explode. It's at least forty seconds from here back to where we were if we sprint with our hands empty. It may be more if we have to set the crystals somewhere else so the thing's ward doesn't blow them out to see before they cook off.

“But there's more. Based on the structural damage I saw around the hole and down along the keel as we were walking along it here that explosion is going to sink the Fitz one way or another so we'd be best off not being on the ship at all when they explode.” Books crossed his arms and gave Roy a skeptical look. “There's no way we're going to be able to set this all up and get away in time.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Roy focused and pulled a bead of fire out of one of his lantern's sulfurite crystals and let it hover in the air in front of him like a pearl from the sun. Svuli jumped slightly and backed away. Then, when it was clear the small flame wasn't going anywhere she approached and studied it with something akin to wonder. “Listen, I've learned a lot about this parlor trick in the years since the end of the war. One thing about it is you can hold a flame in places it wouldn't normally want to stay for longer than it would naturally burn. Usually that means out in the middle of the air, like this. But you can also use it to overcharge sulfurite crystals and keep them that way for longer than normal.”

“How much overcharge for how much longer than normal?” Books asked.

“With those two crystals from the lantern, twice the normal burn for about half an hour.” He gestured to the twenty crystals from the furnace array, each about three quarters the size of one of those from his lantern. “With all these together? I can't say for sure, since it's a bit like juggling. A juggler can keep two or three things in the air easily but adding a fourth makes it pretty difficult and the fifth is a whole new world of complexity.”

“But you can do it for all two dozen of them?” Books looked doubtful.

“Twenty two. And no, but I can manage it for a baker's dozen of 'em, so long as you can find the right place to put 'em so as to kill that thing.”

Books nodded. “We can probably arrange that. Svuli. Come.”

After a moment of confusion Books beckoned her and she got the message, the two of them leaving Roy alone with the coal bin. It was just as well. Juggling was an apt analogy for what he was about to do but it wasn't a perfect analogy. Concentration was going to be key.

Roy glanced at his small bead of flame and sent it down into the coal bin to light the oil he'd spread there. The massive reserve of fuel quickly lit up. Then he shifted his attention to the sulfurite crystals and began filling them one at a time, willing the magic rising from the coal in waves away from its normal paths and into the crystals one at a time. They were three quarters full when Books came back pushing a rattling serving cart with an enormous copper soup tureen on it.

“How's it looking?” He asked.

“I have most of them full,” Roy replied. “I'm going to top them all off so you and Svuli have something you can use to fight off the kraken or at least break up its wind wards if you need it. Have you found a place to set them off?”

“Yeah. Weak joint in a bulkhead, Svuli smelled it out as a bear and she seems pretty sure the kraken is on the other side of it.” He pulled a huge ladle out of the tureen. “I brought a way to transport the crystals but I had a thought on my way back.”

“What?”

“How long will we have after we put these in place before they go off?”

“As long as I can give you. Now let me focus.”

The fires danced before him and Roy reached down to pull them into his thrall. Flame kept secrets from most mortal men, but not him. He could hear its whispers. It spoke of worlds beyond flesh and blood, where the only elements were heat and fury, and all men need do to find that world was make a place for it in the present. Such was the promise of the Primeval Fire.

The promise held no lure for Roy. That ancient flame had nearly claimed his life once and he wouldn't countenance it again. Instead he made demands of it. The sulfurite he'd chosen for his task lept into the air at his command. Flames shot up from crackling coal and crystal and flame joined in a dizzying whirl of passion and potential. One by one they filled to bursting. Nothing kept them from breaking apart other than the ceaseless pressure of Roy Harper's will. Five there were, then six.

Once seven were full the easy part was over, the eighth and ninth took teeth grating focus. The tenth burned his mind like a lit match against the back of his eyes and the eleventh dried out the inside of his nose and mouth. When he reached a dozen full crystals his hands broke out in sweat. Then he reached down once more and pulled the last dregs of flame from the coal bin and crammed it into the thirteenth crystal.

Then he reached down once more and pulled the last dregs of flame from the coal bin and crammed it into the thirteenth crystal.

Holding it there was like like grabbing the tail of a phoenix. Roy opened parched lips and whispered, “It's ready, Books.”

He wasn't really sure what happened after that. He was aware of vague motion. Books and Svuli yelling at each other. And all the while the burning, writhing, furious fire, straining to get free from the prison he'd trapped it in. After an eternity – or perhaps just a minute or two – the fire began to recede in the distance. Keeping it in place got harder and harder. Finally he lost his grip on it all at once and Roy collapsed onto the bottom of the skiff as it swept away from the Edmund Fitzgerald. A second later the side of the ship erupted with a sound like giant pot breaking, pieces of melted bronze flying high in the air.

As he lay on the bottom of the skiff, feeling dryer than an autumn leaf, Roy grinned and croaked, “Well. That wasn't too hard.”

Books reached down and pulled off a piece of tentacle that somehow got stuck to his shoulder and threw it into the ocean. “Speak for yourself.”

“Books, Roy, bad come Ultima Thule,” Svuli snapped. Then she jumped off the side of the skiff into the water, melding with her bearskin in the process, and took off towards the north and, presumably, Ultima Thule.

“Bad come?” Roy asked Books, trying to figure that one out. “She telling us not to come?”

“Probably. Would you want us to come after seeing that?” Books shrugged and looked back at the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, slowly burning and sinking beneath the waves. “We'll have to report her lost when we get back. Shame.”

“We did what we could. At least the kraken is dead and the Sanna will be happy. Let's hope that's enough for a good day's work.”

“Let's hope.”

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January 01, 2023
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Cold Iron

“Run through it again, Porter,” the voice in his ear said.

Vince Porter worked his fingers into his thick gloves as he started. “Appearances began two years ago. The creature only appears in the winter months when the temperature is five degrees Celsius or less and always rides from the northern ridge down to the river before vanishing. I'll intercept it along the embankment by the river and assess it.”

“Remember that we're not sure it's a demon.” Remi's manicured nails clicking away on her keyboard were clearly audible over her headset pickups. “It could be a bunch of other things. If it isn't a demon your involvement ends immediately.”

“Sure.” Vince worked his toes down into his boots while adjusting the double cuff on his snow pants so it sealed off the tops better. “I leave right away.”

“I'm serious, Vince, you're a pastor and addiction counselor, not a paranormal expert. Leave the jackalopes to professionals.”

“The reports say its a man on a horse who seems to draw a snowstorm behind him, that's a far cry from a jackalope.” He adjusted his utility belt, his fingers drifting along the wooden stakes and silver plated knife he'd brought along, just in case. Vince had never fought a vampire or werewolf. However all the things he'd heard from Remi and the others suggested they were out there and he liked to be prepared. “If the retreat wanted a full service exorcist they could've asked the Vatican.”

“The papists have their hands full with all the possessed Catholics, they don't have time for us Protestant filth.” Remi said it lightly, although he knew she resented most of the Orthodox for her own reasons. “Besides, I don't think they'd prioritize a creature that's ignored people so far.”

The belt slipped awkwardly along the top of his parka and clothing. Vince had heard this was why layers of cotton or wool were preferable for cold weather exorcisms, rather than synthetic fabrics. Regardless of whether that was true he didn't have the budget for a specific set of gear for every kind of weather. He'd have to make do with his skiing clothes. “If it is a demon I need to know the name of its victim. Any leads from missing persons cases in the area?”

“You're in a ski resort, Vince, do you really think anyone could go missing there without it causing a multi week news blitz? Even you couldn't miss that.”

“I don't know, we don't watch a whole lot of news at the recovery center. It pushes the guys back towards the drugs.” He finally reached the large, heavy sheath that was secured via a special set of metal rings to his belt. It held his sword, a nasty weapon with a forty inch blade made of solid iron. A wiggle of the hilt assured him it was loose in its sheath and ready to draw at a moment's notice. “Are you saying no one went missing in the area two years ago?”

“No one was reported, at least.” Remi clicked her tongue once. “You know most of the people in the area who have gone missing or are most likely to go missing, did you ask any of them whether they knew people who went missing in the area?”

“Homeless people and addicts generally don't live this far out of the city center,” Vince replied. “Too hard to get to services here. Come on, Remi, you're supposed to be really good at connecting the right talent to with the right job, you have to have some kind of lead on who the demon's possessing or you wouldn't have called in an exorcist. You'd have gone straight to a paranormal researcher.”

“I haven't had time to confirm anything...”

“I preemptively agree to all your caveats, Remi. Tell me what you got.”

“A cavalry patrol on a training exercise disappeared in a blizzard during World War One. For a couple of years after there were stories of a rider appearing in a cloud of sleet during the winter months but there were no sightings for decades after. It's cropped up a few times in the past century, always just before an armed conflict, most recently Operation Desert Storm.” Remi recited the facts in a brisk, straightforward manner but there was a tinge of excitement underneath them, as if she reveled in knowing something he didn't. “I think it's possible your demon possessed one of the original cavalrymen.”

“Raises the question why it's back now,” Vince mused. “We're not at war.”

“Yet.”

“Thanks for that lovely thought to haunt my dreams tonight.” He tugged his parka's hood down over his head and pulled the laces so it fit snug around his face then climbed up to lay prone on the embankment, binoculars trained up the slope. “What were the names of the soldiers who went missing?”

“Lieutenant Braxton Thorton, Corporal Cole Emmery, Privates George Thurgood and Terrance Norton. I couldn't find much more in the way of records, so you'll have to try them all.”

“Thanks, Remi. That's a big help.” A low cloud rising like steam over the mountainside drew Vince's attention. “I have contact. Give me two second pings, please.”

A low tone began sounding softly in his earpiece. “Are there any cases of demons not disrupting phone calls?”

“Not that I've heard of.” Vince took a mallet and carefully drove an anchor stake into the river embankment below him then readied a heavily modified T-shirt launcher. “Unfortunately it's not an ironclad diagnostic tool, either. Lots of supernatural stuff causes problems with phones and computers but it's a simple enough starting point. If we lose contact wait an hour or so before you call in the cavalry.”

“An hour? That's a long time for your dead ass to be freezing on the mountain.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Wait an hour, Remi, if it is a demon then my phone is shot and I'll need to hike all the way back to the visitor's center before I can contact you. I'd hate to have the cops get out here at just the moment I stagger back into the lodge.”

“Fine. You have sixty minutes from the moment I-”

Her voice cut off. Vince sighed and started counting minutes in his head while watching the strange cloud of snow as it closed at an unsettling speed. By his estimate the approaching storm cloud was about forty feet wide. However trailing along behind the unnaturally concentrated front was a larger wall of snow and wind working its way down the mountain. The whole of the foothills glittered with moonlight reflecting on the flakes.

Vince fumbled with his hood for a moment, cursing his gloves as he got the earpiece out and clumsily shoved it into a zippered pocket. By the time he was done with that he could hear the dim echoes of hoof beats over the muffling effect of the snow. Pulling ski goggles over his eyes with one hand, cradling the T-shirt gun in the other, he stepped into the storm.

The wall of white cut off the outside world immediately. Vince took a deep breath in through his nose but no smell of sulfur was on the wind. All he got for his trouble was a numbed nose. The air had abruptly gone from damp and cold to bitterly cold and dry as dust. Sleet and snow buffeted against his parka. The hoof beats grew closer and a strange trepidation built in him with each thundering footfall of the unseen horse.

Something evil was coming.

“Terrance Norton!” Vince called, his voice booming over the silencing snow and horrible hooves. “You did not choose me, but I have called you!”

Somewhere out in the storm the horse came to a sudden stop. Vince waited, hoping for a sign, but nothing else happened for a good fifteen seconds. Either he wasn't actually dealing with a demon or the possessed person from the army patrol wasn't Norton, else that challenge would have forced the fallen one to respond. Well, there was a response. The sense of supernatural danger grew stronger and that was nothing to sneeze at. But it wasn't the response he should get if he'd properly challenged the demon, if it was actually a demon.

Not for the first time, Vince cursed all the unknowns that came with demon slaying for a side gig. It would be nice if demons had clear cut tendencies and typologies, like in movies. But eight years of experience had taught him that the supernatural had so many tools at their disposal a human, with all the attendant limits to awareness and agency, couldn't really predict their actions. An exorcist had to counter the demon on the human level, not the supernatural one.

“George Thur-” A creature on horseback thundered out of the snow, a steel helmet pulled low on its brow, red eyes peering out from underneath, stringy white hair flying along behind it. It was wrapped in tattered old rags. If the creature had been in a uniform before it was long lost to time and wear and all that remained was its helmet. The horse had a touch of the uncanny about it as well. It's mane was just as white as the creature's hair and it's hooves seemed to never touch the ground.

It appeared out of nowhere and bowled Vince off of his feet, sending him stumbling back into the embankment. For a brief moment he wondered if this wasn't a demon after all. Perhaps he'd stumbled on a horse from a fairy world or a snow elemental who's visits to the mountain just so happened to line up with the outbreaks of wars. Then the creature shrieked and a wave of brimstone scented air washed over him. Definitely a demon.

The horse reared and tried to trample Vince beneath its hooves but he dragged himself out of the way by pulling on the cord he'd driven into the embankment. Then he leveled his T-shirt gun and fired a weighted net out of it at the creature. The horse snorted and charged at him again, riderless, but it was less an attack and more a senseless flailing. He watched as color returned to the creature's mane in a matter of seconds. Vince sidestepped the horse and it wandered into the snow aimlessly leaving him with nothing to worry about but the demon.

The demon tore free of his net and howled, a nauseating wave of sulfur and terror radiating outwards from it. Vince forced himself to suck in a breath around it and said, “George Thurgood, you have not chosen me, but I have called you!”

Again, no result other than the demon lunging at him in spite of the net tangled around its legs. The creature wasn't particularly elegant in its approach but it was strong enough to pull up the net's anchoring pinion without breaking stride so it didn't really need that much finesse to go with it. Vince sidestepped the attack, drawing his sword in one smooth motion and tripping the demon on its way past.

That was a mistake. The creature almost got a grip on his foot before he could dance away from where it fell. Once he'd opened some distance Vince leveled the point of his sword at the demon to discourage it from making another lunge like that. That hadn't worked too well in the past but there was no harm in trying it again. On the bright side, passing behind the creature gave him a chance to look at the back of its helmet and see there was no lieutenant's bar painted there. He wasn't sure that had been the way in the early days but it was worth running with.

“Cole Emmery, you have not chosen me, but I have called you!”

The creature howled, staggering to its feet as it clawed at its head. “Silence! No one will choose you, Vince Porter! You are no savior, no redeemer, no minister to the down trodden. Men live their short, agonizing lives hungering for the release of oblivion and you spend your days dragging them away from the small scraps of death they find!”

Vince scowled. This was definitely a demon, then, since it finally responded to the challenge. It had the magical ability to get under his skin just like all the others he'd encountered and just like all the others he forced himself to ignore it. “In the name of Christ be freed, Cole!” He lifted the point of his sword to the sky. “There awaits for you a just and merciful Lord who will open the gates of paradise to you!”

“There is nothing after this!” The demon shrieked. “Nothing but oblivion before and oblivion after, between which is only the terrifying agony of life!”

The point of his sword came down and pointed at the possessed man. “All authority in heaven and earth is entrusted to the Sons and Daughters of God; that which we bind on earth will be bound in heaven! Your lord is Prince of the Earth. May you, also, be bound to the earth and Cole Emmery set loose to rise to heaven! In the name of Jesus!”

As Vince cut his blade upward the possessed man's body shuddered and it let out a gasp. He saw a wisp of light slip upwards. An oily shadow pulled out in the opposite direction, leaving the body of the creature to collapse lifeless on the ground. The shadow tried to slip away but Vince lunged forward and drove his sword through it, pinning it in place. “You can wait there until Judgment Day.”

A final, whispered scream rose from the shadow and was carried away on the last gasps of the wind. The snow had stopped and left Vince standing in two inches of snow by the body of a hundred year old man. He huffed out a sigh and let go of the hilt of his sword. Blade and shadow were drawn into the earth to wait for the End of All Things and Vince started back towards the ski lodge to get warm and call Remi.

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