“You know,” Archer said, looking up from the stirrup leather he’d been in the middle of adjusting, “I actually wasn’t expecting you to be early.”
Sabbat rolled his eyes, yanking the stable door closed behind him as he stepped through into the warm, horse-stinking gloom. “Y’don’t need t’sound so fuckin’ surprised about it. Y’think I don’t want this fuckin’ thing gone as much as you do?”
“It wasn’t intended as a criticism. Honestly, given the luck we’ve had recently, I was more worried about something happening to you on the way over.” Or you happening to someone else, he added silently, eyeing the throwing knives tucked into the younger man’s boots. Not that he didn’t trust Sabbat, of course, but given both the assassin’s temper and his ever-growing list of enemies, he wouldn’t have put it past him to use his enforced absence from the city as an excuse to settle some scores.
The assassin laughed. “Chance’d be a fine fuckin’ thing, but no. City’s practically dead this evening.” He slung his seabag off his shoulder, leaning back against the wall with a grunt of pain which he didn’t quite manage to bite back. “You got the horses sorted?”
“No thanks to the fool running this place,” Archer said, with more heat than he intended.
“Thought you said they were one of ours.”
“The original owner was, yes. Unfortunately, they’re laid up with winter fever, as is their usual second, and the youngster they’ve left minding the place has all the brains and capability of a half-dead trout.” He straightened up, pressing a hand to the small of his back as a jolt of pain spiked across his spine. Too much tension and too little time to rest. Ah well. Not much I can do about it for now. “If I’d not thought to check the tack, half of this would have been causing problems before we’d gone even half a mile.”
“It’s sorted. I can’t promise we’ll not have to dismount and readjust halfway there, but it’ll hold up – and, more importantly, it won’t be rubbing them raw. Gods, if we didn’t have places to be, I’d-”
“Are the fuckin’ saddles goin’ t’fall off or not, Archer?”
I- What? “No. No, they’re not. And if they start slipping, we’ll stop and tighten the girths.”
Sabbat pulled a face. “Y’mean you’ll tighten the… whatever the fuck y’just said. I ain’t touchin’ the damn things.”
“The girths, or the horses?”
“Either.” He waved a hand towards the nearest of the mounts. “You sure we need all this?”
“Assuming that by ‘all this’ you mean the tack, yes. You can’t ride bareback, and I’ve not done it for years – I doubt I even remember how any more.”
He was fully expecting Sabbat to argue with him, but apparently even the assassin wasn’t willing to play that particular game. “Long as y’don’t expect me t’know how any of it works.”
“If I did, I’d have started teaching you long before we were saddling up for a night ride up into the mountains. As long as you can stay on her back and hold onto the reins, I can deal with the rest of it.” The mare whose tack he’d been working on turned her head, nuzzling curiously at his hand, and he patted her absently on the nose. “I don’t have anything for you, ijali. But you’re welcome to investigate my pockets to make sure, if that’s what you want to do.”
Sabbat laughed, picking up his seabag again and crossing to sling it over the saddle of the second mare, a sturdy grey who Archer had picked out more for her temperament than anything else. “Reckon she doesn’t believe you.”
“Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do about that, given that I can’t speak horse.” He nodded towards Sabbat’s bag. “Do you have everything you’re going to need?”
The mare shifted her weight from foot to foot and several somethings in the bag clinked together in a way which sounded distinctly metallic.
Archer sighed. “Sabbat…”
“How many knives are you bringing?”
The assassin grinned. “Enough.”
“…I don’t know why I bothered to ask.”
Meanwhile, in a laboratory a good deal closer to the centre of the city:
“Success!” Anneke crowed, waving away the smoke from their face with one soot-stained hand and grabbing for a pencil with the other. “A complete and utter success!”
Given the parameters of the experiment, they were technically right, Fest supposed. On the other hand, by almost every other metric in existence…
The windows were still intact, at least. And the table, which meant the two of them had actually done less damage to the laboratory than they had when they’d tried to track Lucy- Miss Foreval’s spellwork. On the other hand, pretty much everything on the table was either in pieces or a pile of smoking ashes, and the wood around the inlaid circle was blackened through and through, with the exception of a few places which were still glowing red hot.
“I knew it’d be Carom’s theorem that was the weak point! Self-taught is one thing, but without access to a library he never had the knowledge to build in failsafes for more powerful spells-”
As Fest watched, one of the glowing patches on the table suddenly flickered, faded down for a few seconds, then, quietly and without any fuss, began to burn with a warm, cheery orange light.
“-so when the circle’s charged to full potential the silver doesn’t ground in the way that it should, which means that-”
“The table’s on fire,” Fest said, with what he thought was admirable calmness given the circumstances.
“-that the table’s on fire!” Anneke agreed excitedly. “Wait, what?”
“The table’s on fire,” Fest said again. He pointed at the small tongues of flame licking at the edges of the circle. “See?”
Anneke blinked. “Oh. That’s a problem.”
“We should probably do something about that.”
“I don’t suppose you brought a bucket of sand with you, did you?”
“Just asking.” They tipped their head on one side, looking curiously at the flames. “Odd. They don’t seem to be getting any bigger, but equally well, they don’t look as though they’re burning out. I wonder if they’re being fed by the energy from the circle.”
“That’s a fascinating idea, and I’d really love to debate it further, but the table is on fire, Anneke.” The water in the ritual bowls had evaporated when the circle had blown, but there had to be a spare pitcher around somewhere, surely? “If I throw water on this, is it going to explode?”
“I don’t know,” Anneke said, cheerfully. “Let’s find out!” They crouched down, gathering the skirts of their robe out of the way with one hand while they reached into the recesses under the smoking table with the other. “I’m sure there’s a bucket under here somewhere.”
“I’ll just…er… keep an eye on this fire, shall I?” Fest said, feeling as though the conversation was getting rather away from him. “Make sure it doesn’t go anywhere, that sort of thing?”
“Excellent idea! Though if it does, you could-”
“I was joking, Anneke.”
“Oh.” They paused for a moment, then added, “Joking aside, I’d be very interested to find out if that fire actually is capable of moving. If it’s burning magic as opposed to conventional fuel, then there’s nothing which says that it couldn’t-”
“Weren’t you looking for a bucket?”
“Oh, I found it.” They straightened up, brandishing the aforementioned object (which, from the looks of it, had already seen its fair share of magical explosions). “See?”
“Well, yes. Circles don’t usually go up in flames, and I didn’t want to have a bucket of water lying around where I could kick it over. Or, worse, drop my notes in it.” They frowned. “Speaking of notes, I really do want to take a few more observations of this before we try anything else. Could you-?”
“Of course,” Fest said, taking the bucket. “Where-?”
“At the end of the corridor. We wanted to have taps in all the laboratories, but the High Priest said we’d have to take the floor up to put new pipes in and block access to the laboratory space for a month and none of us wanted to spend that much time away from our projects, so we decided against it.”
“Right hand side – my right, not yours. It’s a big blue tiled basin about the height of your knee, you can’t miss it.”
Knowing my luck, I almost certainly can, Fest thought, but it didn’t seem worth making the comment (not least because if he did, Anneke would almost certainly decide to spend the next five minutes describing the basin in excruciating detail to make sure he knew what he was looking for). “Are you sure you’ll be alright on your own?”
The priest laughed. “I’ve been doing experiments alone since I was old enough to be trusted with a ritual knife. I’ll be fine.”
Which might well have been true, but didn’t exactly make Fest feel any happier about the situation given what – or rather who – he was worrying about.
Avebury can’t get in here, not without the other priests noticing. And I’m fairly certain there aren’t any priests of Ashkenta in the Sinnlenst.
At least, I hope to all the gods there aren’t.
He hadn’t intended to stay out so late. In fact, after his encounter with Caine and Avebury, he’d been minded to head straight back to his rooms, lock the door, and stay up the rest of the night with a loaded pistol pointed at the bloody window.
But that way madness lay – or, at the very least, the kind of darkness that got inside you and left you jumping at the slightest noise and drawing steel on anyone who moved too fast in your peripheral vision – and he’d already come too close to the edges of that to want to invite it in any further.
So he’d gone to a tavern instead, hoping that the light and noise and company would chase away the lingering shadows in his head. And it had, after a fashion.
Gods. I swear I used to be able to hold my drink better than this.
He’d not embarrassed himself, at least. And he’d stopped drinking when the world had started to go sideways, which meant that, provided he was concentrating, he could still do a passable impression of someone on the right side of sober. But, he had to admit, he was definitely feeling the effects of the alcohol a good deal more than he had before…
Before I lost my arm. No need to bloody sugar-coat it. Especially since it’s probably the wound or the damn wound-fever that’s knocked the tolerance out of me.
The wall was trying to get away from him – he glared at it, which seemed to make it shape up and behave, and paused to rest his head against the bricks, trying to get his bearings.
That’s the turning up to the old milliner’s place, the one that’s Barreljack territory now. Which means I’ve overshot. Damn.
It wasn’t too much of an error, thank the gods – a couple of streets, if that – but it was an additional complication in a day that’d already been a damn sight too full of the bloody things.
And, if I’m not careful, the kind of mistake that’s likely to land me in more trouble than I can deal with right now. Plenty of gangs round here who’d take me wandering into their territory as an opportunity at best and a deliberate insult at worst.
Not to mention the fact that Caine’s likely still skulking around somewhere.
He’d been trying not to think about that possibility. Unfortunately, his subconscious had apparently had other ideas.
It’s not as though he couldn’t have killed me earlier, when he had the chance. So odds are I’m safe.
At least, as far as ‘safe’ goes when you’re dealing with a fucking walking corpse who’s already ripped the head off one person you were fairly close to considering a friend.
“Gods dammit!” He thumped the side of his fist against the wall, which did entirely sod-all to make him feel any better, and glared at the brickwork. “Wasn’t as if the bastard would’ve been on my side if he knew. Shouldn’t give a damn about him. Not my fault Avebury’s pet monster wanted to use him as a sodding chew toy.”
“And now I’m sodding talking to myself. Well, if I didn’t think I’d lost my mind before now.-“
Something brushed against his hip, the touch light enough that, if he’d not already been on high alert, he’d have barely felt it. He whipped around, his knife already clear of its sheath, and found himself face to face (or rather, face to top of head) with a pale, round-eyed, scar-faced girl who looked as though she couldn’t have been more than about fourteen. “What the bloody hellfire do you think you’re doing?”
“Could ask you the same question!” the girl shot back, glaring at him over the top of the thin scarf wrapped tightly across her nose and mouth. She took a step away from him, her hand dropping to the haft of her own blade. “What d’you want?”
“Whatever it was you just stole from me,” Mortimer growled, keeping his knife levelled at his interlocuter. And, as her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly at the accusation, he added silently, Got you.
“I ain’t taken anythin’ from you. Nor would I.” She scowled, the expression twisted by the rope of scar tissue that snaked across her face. “Don’t know where it’s bin, for a start.”
Mortimer blinked. He’d expected her to be defensive – angry, even – but contempt? That, he hadn’t been prepared for. “Sorry, do I know you?”
“No. But I know your kind.”
“What the hells is that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, don’t make like you don’t soddin’ know.” She made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat. “You ain’t that subtle… Sinnlenst.”
Oh gods preserve, I do not need this right now.
“Tell me I’m fuckin’ wrong. I dare you.”
“You’re-“ not someone I know, and I can’t risk blowing my cover right now. Not least because I don’t know where Caine is. “I don’t see what that’s got to do with you.”
“Nothin’. Except for the bit where you and yours are a plague on the face of the fuckin’ city.”
And you’re either mad or suicidally brave to run your mouth off like that to me, if you think I’m actually a Sinnlenst agent. That, or you’re a damn sight more dangerous than you look. “I’m not having this conversation with you. You give me back whatever you took, and I’ll forget I ever saw you.”
That actually seemed to baffle her for a moment, though she made a decent effort to hide it. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. I ain’t taken anythin’ from you.”
“I ain’t lyin’. If I’d lifted somethin’, do you think I’d still be here talkin’?”
Which was either a fair point or a bloody good attempt at bluffing. He shifted position, tensing the muscle in his thigh in an attempt to feel if there was anything missing from his pocket. Nothing seemed to be out of place, though that wasn’t exactly proof. He’d need to be able to actually put a hand into his pocket for that, and he’d be damned if he was putting his knife down right now. “So why are you still talking to me, anyhow?”
“Wanted to give you a warnin’,” the girl said. She lowered her voice, stepping closer towards him (though he noticed that she’d not sheathed her own knife either). “You Sinnlenst ain’t gonna have things your own way much longer. If you’re smart, you’ll get out afore things get worse.”
Gods, but he hoped his face wasn’t betraying him. “And you’re telling me this why, exactly?”
“Mostly to see the look on your face. But also ‘cos you din’t try and shiv me when I lifted your handkerchief – and you don’t need to look like that at me, there was fuck-all else in there worth havin’ – and that makes you somethin’ interestin’ as far as Sinnlenst go. Might be as you deserve a warnin’.” The corners of her eyes crinkled up suddenly, and he got the impression that, behind the scarf, she was smiling. “An’ you don’t take shit from that fuckin’ creep. That makes me like you a fuck of a lot more than I like the rest of your kind.”
“I thought you said we were a plague on society.”
“The city. An’ you are.”
“Then I don’t follow.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “You – meanin’ Sinnlenst – are a pack of fuckin’ sewer rats with all the morals of a dead sea slug an’ none of the backbone. You – meanin’ you personally, whatever your name is – I know exactly sod-all about you, other’n you don’t take shit from the blackmailer, you’d rather talk to a thief than slit her throat, an’ you’re willin’ to stand up for your mates. You get yourself out of that gang an’ runnin’ with a better crew, you might be able to make somethin’ of yourself one day.”
Of all the ways I’d been expecting this night to go, this really wasn’t one of them. Maybe I’m hallucinating. That’d explain a lot.
“You alright? You look like you hit your head on somethin’.”
“I’m… Honestly? I’m drunker than I’d like, still sober enough to be very sodding aware of exactly how many problems I still have to deal with, and now I’m getting life advice from a pickpocket who looks like she should still be in school – no offence meant.”
“None taken. You’re from uptown, ain’t you?”
“It’s that obvious?”
“The fact you think someone lookin’ like me ought to be in school’s a bit of a soddin’ giveaway, mate.”
He had to give her that. And gods, he was too drunk for this conversation if he was letting that much about his real origins slip through (though, if he was honest, he wasn’t exactly sure being fully sober would make this whole situation any less sodding confusing).
“You want that handkerchief back?”
“You can keep it.” There was an undercurrent to her voice now, one that he didn’t much like. Not least because he’d heard it before, more often than he’d care to admit. “And you can lay off with the damn pity while you’re about it. I don’t need or want your sodding sympathy.”
The girl shook her head, raising her free hand in a peace-making gesture. “Ain’t meanin’ that, though I’ll own I could’ve phrased it better.” She reached up – for a moment, he thought she might be about to pull down her scarf, but instead she traced her forefinger down the line of the rope of scar tissue which twisted across her face. “Might know a little somethin’ about unwanted pity myself.”
He winced, acknowledging the comparison (and wondering, privately, how close that wound had come to taking the girl’s eye and whether she could still see out of it. Not a question she’d answer, he suspected, and not his to ask, but he’d be surprised if she had even a little vision left given how horrific the wound must have been). “Fair.” And, as the full implications of something she’d said earlier in the conversation finally filtered through the last layers of alcohol left swamping his brain, “Wait. Back when I was talking to Avebury this afternoon – you were eavesdropping on that? Why?”
She shrugged, an easy gesture that he didn’t buy for a second. “Could be I’m just nosey that way. Could be the two of you sound like toffs and I was minded to see whether I could get in an’ lift somethin’ while you were distracted. Could be I don’t like Sinnlenst in my streets an’ wanted to know what you were plannin’.”
“Your streets? Those aren’t Barreljack colours, or Greenrock, or the Butchers. Who’re you with?”
The girl shook her head. “That’s not somethin’ you get an answer for if you’re still runnin’ with the Sinnlenst, mate. Come ask me again when you’ve got yourself clear of that mob an’ I’ll maybe give you an answer.”
Cover be damned, he’d be kicking himself for the rest of the week if he didn’t ask. “Are you with the Order?”
Her laugh was softer and more melodic than he’d expected, but no less mocking for that. “You think I’d tell you if I was? Even knowin’ you’re not the worst of your lot? An’ no, I don’t run with that pack. Too damn hidebound an’ stuffy by half, an’ too fond of hearin’ ’emselves talk to let someone like me get a word in edgeways.”
Much as he hated to admit it, that did track with his own impressions of the worse side of the Order’s business. “You’re hardly a neutral party, though.”
“I got friends who’re magicians. I got friends who ended up face-down in the river on account of bein’ magicians.” She made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat again. “I got no time for the Order, but at least they ain’t goin’ round butcherin’ folk for the crime of workin’ a little magic same as their parents and grandparents did.”
If he was a Sinnlenst, he’d likely say something at this juncture. Tell her that she didn’t understand, or that sacrifices had to be made to ensure the safety of the rest of the city. Tell her her friends died for a greater cause. Tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about. Hells, if he was Avebury, he’d probably tell her that she couldn’t know what she was talking about, and that she and her friends had no business meddling in the affairs of her betters.
But the thought of saying anything like that made his gut clench hard enough to have him tasting bile at the back of his throat. So instead he swallowed, pushed away from the wall, and said, with as much pretended venom as he could muster, “This conversation’s over.”
He’d expected her to riposte in some way. Possibly even hit him, though he’d suspected that she’d prefer to avoid an all-out fight if possible.
Instead, she just shook her head. “Have it your way, Sinnlenst. But don’t come cryin’ to me when everythin’ you’ve built falls down round your ears an’ you’re left bleedin’ out in the rubble.” She turned to go – then, as if remembering something, turned back for a moment. “By the way, y’know those murders up at your meetin’ house – the ones where somethin’ blew out the lights an’ shattered all the windows? That was the Order. An’ they’re just gettin’ started.”
And while he was still blinking at the enormity of that particular falsehood she tipped him a mocking salute, turned on her heel, and sprinted off down the street, losing herself in the shadows within moments.
Well. That was definitely a conversation that happened. Either that or I have significantly more of a drinking problem than I thought I did.
If the word on the street was that the Order had been behind the attack on the Sinnlenst gathering, he had to admit that it made a certain amount of sense. Certainly more than ‘a junior member of the Sinnlenst hierachy had his undead pet murder everyone who didn’t agree with his specific hardline version of the organisation’s doctrine, then covered it up so he could-‘
‘Could what?’ was the question. Keep himself and his lover from being executed over whatever dark magic they’d employed to bring Caine back from the dead? It was a possibility, but surely that wouldn’t have necessitated that amount of violence – and, if that was the plan, why something so damn public? Why not just pick off anyone he deemed a threat from the shadows, or hire someone to take them out?
No, there had to be more to it than that. This didn’t feel like self-defence. It felt like a power play.
He just wished he knew what in the hells the end goal was.
“So. What do you think Avebury’s up to?” Archer asked, after the silence had worn on long enough to grate on his nerves. He slowed his mare’s gait, drawing level with Sabbat’s horse, and looked sidelong at the assassin. “You can’t tell me you don’t have a theory.”
“Can an’ fuckin’ will,” Sabbat growled, though he sounded more tired than irritated. “The bastard’s too fuckin’ slippery for me t’get a hold on, an’ I ain’t wastin’ my breath spinnin’ stories over what he might or might not be stickin’ his nose in. Like as not he’s fuckin’ power-hungry as the rest of ’em an’ clawin’ his way up the ranks whatever the cost. Same as any other fucker with more money than fuckin’ sense.”
“What about him? He’s a fuckin’ Turned. Y’said as much.”
A decision I’m still not entirely sure I don’t regret, admittedly. “I’m aware of that fact. But what does it benefit Avebury to have a Turned on his side – or, rather, why do the benefits outweigh the risks?”
“Because he’s fuckin’ rich, an’ the Sinnlenst own half the fuckin’ judges. Ain’t much in the way of risk for bastards like him.”
“When it comes to Turned, that’s not nearly as true as you think it is. There are a good deal more ways of dealing with problems than the courts. You know that as well as I do.”
“That you admittin’ t’somethin’?”
“No. That’s me saying that privilege and power count for a good deal less in this kind of situation, and anyone with the power to create a Turned is well aware of that fact.” He sighed and scrubbed a hand across his face, nails catching briefly at the corners of the scarring around his empty eyesocket. “Gods, but I wish I knew what they were planning.”
“You an’ me both,” Sabbat agreed, with more heat than Archer had expected from him. He coughed and leaned over in his saddle, spitting a gob of something dark and stringy into the snow. “Don’t like Sinnlenst playin’ at subtle, ‘specially when I can’t tell what their fuckin’ endgame is. Means there’s somethin’ worse comin’.”
“I know.” And that box you’re carrying is almost certainly part of it. “How are you feeling?”
“Bin worse.” He coughed again, swiped the back of one gloved hand across his mouth irritably. “Bin a fuck of a lot better, too.”
“Are you-” Archer began, then caught himself just in time. Asking if Sabbat was up to the journey would be an exceptionally good way of ensuring that the other man would do everything in his power to avoid admitting the possibility that he might not be, and, given how bloody-minded the assassin was, that would likely end with him falling off his horse and cracking his head open on the roadway rather than admit that he might need to stop for a moment. Gods dammit, this would be a lot easier if you weren’t so damn contrary all the time. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d know what to do if you stopped. “Tell me if it gets worse. Please.”
Sabbat laughed. “-fuck’re you plannin’ on doin’ about it, Will? You ain’t a sawbones, last I checked.”
“No, but I do have some rudimentary medical training. And, more to the point, I need to be able to catch your horse if you keel over. Preferably before she goes and gets her tack caught up on a tree or puts a hoof in a rabbit hole.”
“Bastard,” Sabbat growled, but without much in the way of anger. “Ain’t much t’tell. Just an ache in my gut an’ that fuckin’ twist in my spine playin’ up.”
“And the blood?”
Archer narrowed his eye. “I’m a vampire, Sabbat. Please do me the courtesy of not lying to my face about the fact that you’re bleeding. If nothing else, I can smell it.”
“Ain’t bleedin’. Much.” He looked away for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck. “Coughin’ up blood ain’t the same.”
“That’s an academic distinction at best,” Archer said, with what he felt was an admirable degree of calm given the circumstances. “How long?”
“Since we started out.”
Somehow, Archer doubted that. But calling the other man a liar wasn’t going to solve anything, and he’d be damned if he’d get into a row right now. Not when there were significantly more important things to worry about. “Does it hurt?”
“No more’n the rest o’ this fuckin’ mess.” He swiped his hand across the lower half of his face again, a thick smear of something dark and damp glinting on the back of his glove in the weak moonlight.
“Is your nose bleeding?”
“Y’can’t smell that?”
Archer sighed. “No. I can smell the fact that you’re bleeding, and that the blood’s fresh. That’s it.” And the only reason I can do that much is the fact that it’s a relatively clear night and the wind’s blowing in the right direction.
“Then aye, ‘s bleedin’.”
“Do you want a handkerchief?”
“Let me rephrase that. Can you please use a handkerchief – yours or mine, I don’t care which. I’m on edge enough without having to deal with-” A flicker of movement, deep in the trees that flanked the path ahead of them. He reined his mare to a stop, gesturing for Sabbat to do likewise (and breathing a mental sigh of relief when the other man managed the task without too much hesitation). “Wait.”
Sabbat lowered his voice. “Y’see somethin’?”
“To the left. Where the path curves round, see?”
“Aye. What d’you reckon?”
“Not hunting us, whoever they are. But making a fair effort not to be seen.” The flicker that had caught his eye had been moonlight on steel but now he knew where to look, the rest of the picture was starting to come into focus. A hand here, a face there, paler brown than the branches around them. Something large and bulky, too angular to be a rock or a fallen tree. The jingle of harness, muffled but still audible to vampiric hearing. “That’s a cart or a sleigh they’ve got there, and a large one at that. Little late to be moving cargo, don’t you think?”
The assassin squinted into the gloom. “Smugglers?”
It wasn’t a bad theory, though Archer could think of very few reasons why anyone would want to be smuggling anything up this particular road. “Could be legitimate merchants, I suppose. If they didn’t think to plan ahead for the weather…” But legitimate merchants wouldn’t need to muffle their horses’ harnesses, or hide their weaponry – if anything, they’d be wearing their steel openly. Which meant…
“Sinnlenst,” Sabbat growled. “Has t’be.”
Ordinarily, Archer would have told him he was jumping to conclusions. But, given everything that had happened in the past few days, some conclusions needed very little jumping to. “I don’t think you’re wrong.” He chewed the corner of his lip, weighing up their options. “There’s another path we could take. Back along the trail a few hundred metres, then up and to the left of that fallen tree. It’d take us well out of their way.”
“Fuck that. If there’s Sinnlenst movin’ cargo into the city, we need t’know about it.”
“Subtlety, then? If we dismount and tie the horses up here, I can get closer on foot.”
“Or you stay with the horses an’ I go scout. I’m quieter’n you, an’ you know it.”
“In the city? Yes. In the woods? No.” He slipped out of the saddle, landing softly on the roadway, and led his mare off the path a way, tethering her to a tree near one of the small snowmelt streams that laced their way through this part of the forest. “In here.”
Sabbat followed, albeit with bad grace. “So, what? Y’want me t’stay here an’ wait?”
“For a moment, yes. Let me find out how many of them there are, and if we’re likely to encounter any nasty surprises.”
“And then,” Archer said, unbuckling his swordbelt and laying the weapon carefully aside, “we can hunt.” He stepped back away from the horses – no sense upsetting them with magic unless absolutely necessary – rolled his shoulders, took a deep breath, and, as his magic swirled up around him and the world suddenly shifted sideways for a second, found himself fighting back a grin that almost threatened to split his face in half.
Gods, but I’ve missed this.
It wasn’t the same as a true shift, of course – werewolf magic worked different, if ‘magic’ was even the right word for their abilities – but it was the closest thing to it that he’d ever experience, and it made the blood sing in his veins all the same. Standing four-footed in the snow, feeling the wind brushing the ridge of fur along his spine, his nose filled with the scent of pine and meltwater and-
And blood. Of course. Dammit. I’d forgotten about that.
The hunger wasn’t as strong in this form, at least, which made things easier. It was still there, of course, twisting at the back of his throat and making his mouth water, but for the most part he could ignore it and keep his mind focused on the task at hand.
Might stay in this form long enough to catch a rabbit or two after we’ve dealt with the Sinnlenst problem. Won’t be enough, but it should tide me over until we can get to Verist’s place.
Of course, there was always another option. Despite his rhetoric about leeches and bloodsuckers, if Archer asked him, Sabbat would likely say yes.
Archer wasn’t going to ask.
He looked up, tilting his head on one side to get a better look at the expression on the assassin’s face and, not for the first time, wishing that the vampiric variant of shapeshifting came with the continued ability to speak Sacaask. As it was, he was going to have to rely on Sabbat’s ability to interpret lupine body-language and, more to the point, willingness not to deliberately misunderstand anything he didn’t agree with.
Which, of course, he would never do. Unless he felt like it. Or he wanted to annoy me. Or it was funny.
In hindsight, this might not have been the best plan he’d ever come up with.
The snow crunched under Sabbat’s boots as the assassin shifted his weight, dropping into an easy crouch. “Here.” He held out his left hand towards Archer, palm up, as though he was trying to make friends with a strange dog. “Here.”
It was such an incongruous gesture, especially coming from someone as bloodthirsty as Sabbat usually was, that Archer found himself oddly touched by it. He padded forward, lowering his head to rest his muzzle very briefly on the other man’s outstretched palm, and was rewarded with a brief lopsided grin and a muttered “Least y’don’t argue wi’ me half as much like this.”
Bastard, he thought, but with affection.
“Don’t get t’killin’ ’em without me,” the assassin added, straightening up as Archer pulled away. “You owe me a fuckin’ hunt.”
I’ll do my best. It might be we don’t even have to kill anyone. But, given the way things had been going recently, he highly doubted the night was going to end without at least a little bloodshed.
[START (SERIES) – Blood on the Snow: Chapter 1]
[Author’s note: this is first/discovery draft content – I apologise for the likely increased number of typos]
Copyright © 2021 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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