Edited and Posted by Jozh
Pravo searched the room thoroughly, avoiding looking at the body. The room appeared to have been hastily gathered, and based on the snow on the floor and frost on the window, he surmised that someone had used it to exit the building recently. He discovered a train ticket under the bed and the remains of a meal on the table, but nothing else of note.
Josephine took a deep breath, crouched next to the corpse, and searched it. She found a nothing in his pockets and a simple metal band on his ring finger. She caught a glint of something from the dead man’s open belly, and a closer look revealed what appeared to be glass shards and tiny pieces of metal.
“Was this man…poisoned somehow?” she asked, turning toward Pravo.
“I don’t think poison melts one’s guts so…thoroughly,” he said. “Maybe Dok Komrade would know.”
Jo stood up and headed for the door eagerly. “I’ll go find him.”
“Da. Will kome with you.”
* * *
Blegovian thought he saw a shadow vanish between the rooftops, but he couldn’t be certain. He took off at a quick jog toward it and leapt up to grab the edge of the closest roof that would allow access to the spot. There, he noticed melted snow, as though someone had recently lain there. He scanned the surrounding rooftops, and spotted some footprints nearby. He began to follow them, but swiftly lost the trail; the footprints seemed to grow lighter and lighter the farther he followed until they disappeared entirely. He swore silently.
* * *
Outside, Alexi took cover from the building into which the trollkin had rushed. Konstantin held his position at the front of the inn, scanning for threats. The Iron Fang didn’t flinch when Josephine and Pravo burst through the front doors, both looking ill at ease.
“Dok, we havink cadaver for you to examine. Fresh,” said the spy.
“Well, then,” said Alexi, digging a piece of paper out of his armor. “I have a note for you to examine.” He handed it over.
“Da. Do let’s trade,” said Pravo, sounding relieved. While Alexi slipped into the inn and up the stairs, he examined the note and shared its contents with Josephine.
To whomever finds this please deliver it to my wife Anna Mykan in Tverkutsk, tell her that I Stannof Mykan love her very much and will see her again in Urcaen.
The spy scowled. “Suicide note. Bah.”
“Even if he wasn’t following us, maybe he had the same goal?” Josephine suggested.
Pravo shook his head, at a loss. “Nothink in his room to implicate any group. Professional. Maybe trollkin’s sniper is partner? Bah. Pure conjecture. Am needink more Facts.”
Leaving Konstantin to watch the front door, they followed the doctor back to the room to hear his report.
* * *
Alexi examined the body with a critical eye, noting bruises on the throat and wrists – clear signs of a struggle. He collected a sample of the viscera and performed a few rudimentary field tests. A few minutes later he had his results.Absently noticing that Josephine had returned, he addressed her.
“Sergeant, it looks like he was force-fed an organic acid. Something like the Thornwood creatures…”
“Thornwood creatures?” she asked, turning to include Pravo.
The spy shrugged. “So, our tail kidnaps this man, slow-kills him, then flees out window. Before we arrive, or Blegovian would have seen him. Unless he wouldn’t have. Trollkin’s eyesight is questionable. But why? If he fled before we arrived, why bother killink man? Too many questions." He sounded frustrated.
Josephine nodded. “No telling how many parties are involved here. We will have to be on guard.”
Pravo gave her a blank stare. “Kapital suggestion, Llaelese. I do not think there is any more to learn here. Let’s find out about trollkin’s hunt.”
Josephine collected Alexi from his autopsy and the three made their way back downstairs.
The innkeeper, a husky woman, came out from behind the bar to confront the Contingent as they returned to the commons. “What-what-what-whaaaaat! What is going on here!?! What is the screaming about snipers!?! You’ve chased off my business!”
“You have a dead man upstairs, komrade, but we have the situation under control,” Josephine said in clipped tones.
“D-d-d-dead man?! YOU KILLED H-” The innkeeper interrupted her shout, seeming to notice something.
“No, we did not,” said Josephine. “Calm yourself.”
The innkeeper gritted her teeth in forced politeness. “Then what happened, ma’am?”
“Someone attacked and poisoned him. We are searching for the guilty party now.” Her tone remained dry and matter-of-fact, like she was discussing the weather.
The burly woman winced. “Oh…Erm…” She looked around and spotted a younger woman in an apron. “CHASTICE!” She coughed. “Go up and try to clean up, while I get the guard to come and take the body.” The girl glared at the barkeep.
“Not a task I would wish on anyone,” said Josephine.
“Don’t touch the green stuff for…an hour?” Alexi interjected off-handedly. “Yes, an hour or so.”
The girl cringed, but then grabbed a mop and bucket and headed up, muttering Cygnaran expletives all the while.
“Heh. Spicy vocabulary on that one,” said Pravo as Blegovian entered the commons, pushing past a couple of evacuating Nyss. When the spy noticed the trollkin, he said bluntly, “Well? I see no blood on your klaws.”
Blegovian folded his burly arms, some snow flaking off the sleeves of his great coat. “The sniper vanished with laudable skill. Or he grew wings. His footprints in the snow seemed to get lighter, like he was beginning to float in the air.” The trollkin smirked. “Seems crazy, but I haven’t been drinking that much.”
“I’ll be bringing the watch…officers,” said the angry innkeeper before departing.
“We should go,” said Pravo. “Lokal yokel kops are too annoyink for words.”
The Contingent returned to their own inn, and Josephine brought everyone up to speed. “I cannot say with any certainty what we’re dealing with here,” she concluded.
Konstantin looked thoughtful for a moment before replying. “I’m not sure we need to spend our efforts trying to decipher this mystery. We have our mission. If that person is following us, we will surely see him in the frozen ice fields on the way to the keep. There we can handle him on better terms.”
Pravo gave the big man an appraising look. “I hate to admit, but Iron Fang has point.”
Blegovian raised an eyebrow at them. “Not surely, if they are as good as they seem. They might have magic or good camouflage.”
“Always an excuse with you, trollkin,” said Pravo. “Always. A goddamn. Excuse.”
The Fell Caller narrowed his eyes slyly. “Always with the witty commentary. Sounds like yer overcompensating for some personal flaws.” The spy ignored the comment.
“If he is only following us, I really don’t care about him,” Konstantin said mildly. “It won’t stop our mission. If he tries to interfere, then he will have to engage us. He will not survive that encounter.”
Josephine nodded. “Sergeant Dragov is right; we should concentrate on our own mission. Anyone working against us will reveal themselves in time.” The others muttered their assent. “All right then. Let’s try to get some rest.”
* * *
In the morning, Blegovian entered the commons and walked up to Josephine, who was already halfway through her breakfast. “What’s the plan, Sergeant? Break our fast and move out?”
“Right,” she said.
The trollkin ordered up a few plates of the innkeeper’s greasiest food that was ready to dish up. “I’ll have this down before you finish your breakfast, Sergeant,” he declared.
“Gobber has agreed to lead us to keep,” said Pravo. “Irkuk, I think his name was.”
“Did we arrange a time or place to meet Irkuk?” asked Konstantin.
“Sure,” said Pravo.
They ate, relaxed, and considered the long cold trek ahead of them. Once they’d finished eating, Josephine said, “Let’s get to work, men.”
The Contingent met Irkuk at his home, where he had a wagon and a very shaggy donkey ready and waiting. The gobber reminded them that he would only take them as far as the mountain pass, recalling that the keep was visible at that point. It was agreed, and without further ado, the travelers set out.
Irkuk led the soldiers along a westward road toward the sea, and they traveled for a day, camping along the road at night. The surrounding region consisted of foothills and brush covered in snow and ice. Along the road the next day, the gobber stopped at every rockpile along the way to dust off snow and search for something within. He noted one after a few hours’ ride and began to deviate from the actual road into the brushy hills toward the mountain range in the distance.
At first, the path was unassuming and would have been difficult to find without aid. However, after a mile or so, the ground appeared to have been worn down by travel. Konstantin was in the finest spirits anyone could remember, but Pravo kept his spyglass handy and kept checking both ahead and behind for threats. Blegovian walked along behind the group, trying to disguise their particular trail without making it look like it was being disguised. On the second night, when the road was an easy day away through the plains, they entered the foothills. The sounds of barks and howls came from the distance ahead.
“The wolves are about this night,” said Konstantin. “It is a good sign for us.”
“Is it,” said Pravo.
“I hope you’re right, Sergeant,” said Josephine.
The ground became rocky and rough as they traveled up into the mountain base. Irkuk led them up a rough twisting slope into the mountain through biting winds and into the pass to which he’d promised to bring them. The sun was setting and the gobber seemed uneasy every time the howls sounded. “I want to rest in the pass ‘til morn’ if you don’t mind,” he said. “Up ahead is the cliff. I believe you kin see it from thar.”
“Unless anyone else objects?” said Josephine. No one did.
There were slick patches of ice in the snow here and there as they approached the edge of the pass. Icy wind swirled over the ledge and burned against everyone’s skin. Full darkness fell as they looked out over the land toward a strange green glow off on the horizon. Irkuk pointed at it and said, “It ain’t done that before, but that be the direction of the damned place.” Looking long and hard enough against the glow, they could see a single black silhouette against the glow like a bony finger jutting up toward the sky.
As they began laying camp, Pravo pointed out animal tracks in the snow all around their chosen camp site. “Da. Wolf howls are good sign,” he deadpanned.
Blegovian strapped ice spikes onto his boots, drawing some curious glances. “I don’t like falling on my ass,” he explained. “Also, good for kicking wolves in the face.”
“Doesn’t seem like the wolves have much else to eat out here,” said Josephine. “Better safe than sorry.”
The trollkin eyeballed the outline of the keep for a few moments, before turning back toward the camp. Sergeant Jo, want me to see if these critters are a little too interested in us?”
“I don’t want to provoke them…but on the other hand, I don’t want them tearing our throats out in the middle of the night,” she said.
“The wolves are like us,” said Konstantin philosophically. “Proud, powerful, and understanding that this is their domain. They may attack us…as we would if we found intruders in our land.”
“Truly komfortink, komrade,” Pravo said sourly. A new chorus of howls echoed from behind and beyond the ledge, as if on cue.
“They would die, of course,” the Iron Fang concluded. “But I would not hold it against them.”
Jo checked one of her pistols, then the other. “Does it sound to anyone else like they’re getting closer?” she asked.
“Shall we set watch for the evening, ma’am?” asked Konstantin.
“Of course, Sergeant Dragov. I’ll take the last.” Blegovian took the first, and Pravo volunteered for a middle watch then settled in to sleep.
Irkuk looked unnerved. “Don’t remember this many sounds when I escaped,” he said. “I’m going to sleep next to the fire, if’n ye don’t mind.” He laid out a thick woolen bedroll, then lay down and swiftly fell asleep. The donkey – Ol’ Burt – lay down beneath its own blanket in the snow, but it did not sleep. The beast’s ears twitched at every sound.
Blegovian freed his axe from his pack, twirling it around in his gauntleted hands for a few moments. Then he replaced the weapon in his belt loop and picked up the halberd, thumping it against a rock to knock the snow from it. The trollkin nodded to Konstantin and said, “I’ll take cover over there. It looks like a promising spot to perhaps catch a passing wolf unawares.” The Iron Fang nodded back, then settled in himself.
The howls were unnerving, and more than once during his watch Blegovian saw glowing green eyes off in the darkness. None of them ever came within fifty yards of the camp. Pravo saw them too, and watched them keenly during the middle hours of the night. During the third watch, as the others snored, Josephine heard Ol’ Burt shuffle and grunt.
At the sound, she noted movement from nearby and could see that four pairs of green eyes were just outside the firelight. She heard a low growl from the opposite side of the fire, and green eyes peered down at her from a raised area.
“Wake up, everyone,” she said, just loud enough, aiming her repeater at the nearest pair of eyes.
The wolves let out a frenzied bark and began racing in, jaws slavering, saliva congealed around their fanged maws. Their green eyes glowed eerily even in the light, as the first pair rushed the donkey, digging their sharp teeth into Ol’ Burt’s thick hide. One managed to get its jaws around the back of the donkey’s neck, but it stubbornly shook the predator off.
Alexi’s steamjack Ivor advanced on the wolves atop the rise, its fist slamming into the icy ground as its target leaped aside. The wolf retaliated, but only managed to chip its teeth on the ‘jack’s iron armor. The final wolf leaped down at Pravo. The spy managed to get his arm between the beast and his throat, but winced as the heavy jaws closed down on his forearm.
Konstantin rose up from sleep like a vengeful god, marching forward and leveling his blasting pike at one of the wolves harrying Ol’ Burt. He drove the blade into its side, triggering the explosive. The wolf blew up spectacularly, blood and fur splattering most of the camp. Alexi’s jaw dropped.
Pravo tore his arm free and retreated behind the doctor. From that relative safety, he buried a pair of throwing knives into the wolf that had bitten him. When it fell – drowning in its own blood from a severed windpipe – the spy breathed a sigh of relief.
Josephine fired a repeater shot into the other wolf in the camp before striding over the exploded one to finish it off with her sword. Blegovian had watched the wolf on the ledge, waiting for right time to strike. When it came, the trollkin leaped up and severed the wolf’s spine right behind its ears.
Seeing all the wolves dead before he could even react, Irkuk stared in awe at the Khadoran soldiers. Several other sets of green eyes in the near distance disappeared, and the frenzied howling ceased as the remaining wolves retreated. Ivor continued attacking the body of the wolf Blegovian had slain. The sound of the ‘jack’s heavy mace beating bone to splinters and gore to soup was singularly appalling.
“Your ‘jack has issues, Dok Komrade,” commented Pravo, though he appeared to be struggling not to sick up.
“Hmmm..?” said Alexi. “Oh… Ivor, stand down.” A creak and metal groan signal the end of the savage postmortem beating. The steamjack’s Khadoran paint was smeared with blackened blood. Blegovian wiped some wolf blood off his face, sniffing it and making a face.
“Anyone hurt?” asked Josephine.
“Da, a bit,” said Pravo, holding his injured arm.
“Specialist Repparmann, will you see to Specialist Ostavil, please.”
Alexi readied his suturing equipment, and Pravo eyed the needle warily. “Antiseptik?”
Konstantin lifted the visor on his helmet and inspected the nearest whole wolf corpse. “I did not expect them to look diseased, but I think we have taught the pack that we are not a meal.”
“Agreed, Sergeant Dragov,” said Josephine. “I don’t imagine they’ll bother us again tonight. Good work, men.”
Irkuk begins stammering and tending to the bleeding donkey. “Oh, Burt ol’ buddy! Ye been hurt! Folks, I pity them brigands after seein’ that display… I’ll be headed back to town in the morning – a few hours, I guess. Should be faster with just me and no plodding metal contraption trailin’ along behind.”
“Kan your ass handle the trip?” quipped Pravo. He winced as Alexi sewed him up without anesthetic.
“He ain’t hurt as much as it looks,” said the gobber. “He’s a sturdy one.”
Once the doctor had seen to the spy’s arm, he bent down to examine one of the wolves. That the creatures were diseased was obvious, but he was unsure what their particular malady might be. The shaggy coat was thick and greasy, and closer examination revealed pustules and lesions on the skin that have created a thick undercrust beneath the fur.
Pravo retrieved his knives from the other body, then cut one of the still-glowing eyes out of the wolf’s head and dropped the eerie orb into the snow to see how long it would continue to provide light, muttering something about “science.” It glowed for perhaps half a minute before finally dimming to black.
“Please have your ‘jack throw the remains over the ledge,” Josephine asked of Alexi.
“Never seen this kind of disease before,” said Blegovian. “Sorcery, perhaps.”
“Wolf rots from head,” said Pravo, spitting on the eye and genuflecting to a few different gods.
“They look menacing,” agreed Konstantin, “but were not much of a real threat. I expect we will find worse in the keep.”
Blegovian grumbled. “Looks like something Cryx might have had a part in.”
Josephine paused at that. “Do you think so?”
The trollkin shrugged. “not from any particular experience, but they do love death and disease.”
“So, too, does nature,” said Pravo, but he didn’t sound convinced of his own words.
“Might I suggest an early start this morning?” said Konstantin. “If the disease is contagious, I’d like to put some distance between us and it.”
“Agreed,” said Josephine.
When the sun came up, its light was dimmed by clouds threatening snow. In the distance, the green glow on the horizon dimmed, and the bony structure was revealed to be a single crumbling spire jutting up from the point where land met sea. They judged it to be perhaps four hours’ march from the bottom of the pass, through frozen swamp and scraggly brush.