Peino Starhand bowed his head as Lotye O’Tulvar took her leave. A brief flash of a silhouette when she opened her chamber door, and then he was alone.
A brief half-laugh, a shake of his head, and he carried on with his quest. With hand as much as eye, he found the flint striker on the side board and lit a candle, revealing the bottles and glasses Thimble had set there. He poured a goblet of golden mead, and squeaked the cork back into the bottle. Then, on a whim, he uncorked the stone-fruit liquor and threw a splash of that into the glass as well.
Why not? It’s only the High King I’ll meet in the morning.
He knocked back a third of the potent mix, sighing as a the instant burn in his throat spread in warmth through the rest of his body. “What a day,” he said, and the wind outside seemed to howl in sympathy.
Minutes later, he was back in his room, back in the big, soft bed, so different from the canvas pallet he was used to at sea. He yanked a light blanket over his hips, drained the glass, and at last surrendered to sleep.
His last waking thought of the day was, We could use Ruili here.
— — —
Meanwhile in Plesz…
Ruili Windwolf nodded at Y’lanna Sparti’s warning. He pointed to the theater building and the other playwright cowering nearby.
“Stay inside. Make Lancewing look after you until I return. Take this, in case of need.”
He pressed several gold and silver coins and his visiting card into her hand and then turned to the guardians.
“Right, the lady says it’s a fear-maker, so mind your moods, gentlemen.”
“We’ll send for a wizard, milord,” said the patrol commander. “Will you take my pike?”
“Eh, I’m a bit one-armed at the moment. How about that axe?”
With borrowed, more rugged weapon in hand, Ruili took off with the guardians up the street to the spot where the beast had appeared and run. They found its victim mutilated in a pool of blood. Shocked bystanders shook their heads — he was dead. They pointed the way the monster had gone.
“What’s up that way?” said Ruili.
“Cedar Gardens Park,” the commander answered.
“Good.” Ruili quickly envisioned the place. “We’ll need archers and torches to surround the wood ahead of us. Runners to alert the households. There’s a barracks of marines on the terrace above it.”
Civilians volunteered to carry the messages. As they — fleet elves and fleeter faeries — sped off to spread the alarm, Ruili and the guardians raced up the hill after the nightmarish thing. The question of exactly what it was and where it had come from did pop up in Ruili’s head, but he shoved it aside to focus on strategy. He had six men with him, armed with pikes, mace-axes, and torches, and they were chasing a very large animal into a very dark wood.
“Commander,” he called to the man running beside him, “We’ll manage this like a stag hunt. Our group will drive the beast towards the reinforcements around the edge of the park. We’ll use the torches to track each other and signal the archers.”
Thus the plan was made on the run, and the rest was left to fate.
At first, it was easy to follow the trail of blood, until they felt the fear for themselves, a sudden clammy grip on their guts and hearts that turned their blood to ice.
The men faltered. The dark mass of Cedar Gardens rose before them. The cleansing fragrance of the cedars was overwhelmed by the stench of otherworldly corruption. Ruili gripped the mace-axe. He snarled at the fear that, in his mind, he knew was not his.
“Our city, guardians,” he said. “This beast shall not take it from us. Follow the fear to its maker.”
The patrol spread out in a line and advanced into the woods. They went on faith, on trust that the beast was close, that the runners delivered the calls for help, that the marines up above in the cliff city would be where they were needed, that they would guess what to do.
Meanwhile, silence and terror closed in on the hunters.
Ruili could see the men on either side of him in the light of their torches, but that light meant nothing against the unyielding wall of blackness before them and the blackness that poured in behind them. His feet wanted to cling to the ground. His legs protested each step he forced himself to take. The guardians were looking to him, he knew that. Many in the guardian force were former navy or marines, but not all and it was impossible to guess at these men’s experience levels. He was, though, sure of one thing — none of them had ever felt a fear quite like this before.
But he had.
A growling mutter in the dark stopped him in his tracks. The stench intensified. Ruili signaled left and right. The torches gave away their position, but that was part of the game. The drivers were supposed to be seen. But something was wrong. There was another mutter, echoing or echoed by the monstrous growl.
In that instant, Windwolf’s fear turned to anger, and in that moment, too, the creature screamed and rushed out of the dark.