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Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice

by
Jeromy Henry
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by
Harris Tobias
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Hawkesmoor One: How Hawke Earned a Horse

by

John Henson Webb



a Gregorian Regis story

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken

Robert Frost (1916)

 

            In the thirteenth year of his reign, his Most Splendid Majesty Henry Sixth, King of the Known World, Ruler of the Moon and Stars, Protector of the Truth Faith and Guardian of the Sacred Book, fell ill. None of Elysium’s Court physicians could fathom the sickness that afflicted him; they tried and failed. There were whispers of enchantments by Typhon witches, curses sent by the Halde, even murmurs of the vengeance of the Witch-Queens of Thome. They were just words and none provided a cure.

            Tremors were felt across the empire.

 

661 GR, 2nd Moonday, Month of Flowers

            A bloated red sun rose lethargically from beyond the dark Aquitaine Hills, to cast skeletal shadows upon the North Way. One elongated shadow made slow progress along the old road, intermittently attached to the booted feet of a solitary traveller.

            Since narrowly avoiding the formidable reach of Lord Call, Hawkesmoor had sought to make good his escape from membership of the Masks and the extensive tithe lands dominated by the old port city of Crome. His precipitant flight from the city had, unfortunately, left him on foot, with no access to either stored goods or the considerable fund he’d quietly hidden away – one source of Lord Calls’ violent displeasure.

            Many of Hawke’s acquaintances considered him nothing more than a thief. Lord Call thought him competent in his skills (perhaps more so than before) and had been his patron. Hawke considered himself an adventurer; always willing to try new and more profitable pursuits.

            Despite its name the North Way was now a little-used road, a minor spur of the much better maintained West Highway, which terminated at a small coastal town; Whitefall, a prosperous port once, being well-placed for fishermen plying their trade in the Sea of Cydon. Despite regular naval patrols, too-frequent corsair encroachment drove most of the fishermen further west, where constant Elysian traffic to the isle of the long-dead wolf-souls kept the corsairs at bay. Most road traffic now followed the Highway, which curved further inland, away from cliff edges and denser, more dangerous woodland.

            Hawke had walked steadily upon the road most of the night, though he knew for certain he’d never out-run a determined pursuit. He had to rely on Call thinking he’d hide somewhere within the city, rather than venturing into the countryside. With daybreak imminent he’d realised how tired he’d become and made the decision to leave the Way, find somewhere to sleep; if only under a bush and until mid-morning. Still formulating a survival plan, he needed to rest.

            A partially overgrown trail led off into low, wooded foothills, which eventually merged with an arm of the Aquitaines, reaching toward the north coast. Without being conscious of the act, Hawke turned on to the trail, quickly disappearing among the trees.

 

            Through the imprecise medium of the crystal embedded in the delicate silver circlet he wore, Hogarth observed the man turn from his intended road and on to the forest path. Good, the suggestion had worked. Hogarth allowed himself to relax slightly. His touch upon the other’s thoughts became feather-light, but the hard work had been done; suggestions made, decisions influenced.

            He could still feel the keen, cold bite of the metal about the man’s person, in shapes a fighting man might utilise – jack armour, three daggers – just the sort of tool Hogarth required. Besides, passers-by were few, he lacked the luxury of being choosy!

 

            Though the passing of time failed to register, it was nearly an hour later that, ascending a short incline, Hawke emerged into a clearing. To face a low grassy mound and, seated upon a rock, a man in a quilted silk doublet and hose. Even from a distance Hawke could see the dark stain of sweat on the man’s fine clothes, several days’ stubble upon his double chin. Cropping grass near the mound, a group of horse raised inquisitive faces.

            Hogarth bobbed his head in greeting, morning light flared from the metallic band on his brow. ‘Good day sir, you’re early abroad!’

            Hawke sketched an open-handed salutation; found himself wondering, albeit briefly, what a man so ill-dressed for the outdoors was doing sitting on a rock at the tail-end of nowhere. Looking toward the grassy dome, Hawke observed an ivy-covered entrance of carved stone, which was set at an angle into the mound itself. It looked somewhat like one of the burial mounds, the barrows, he’d once seen in the meadowlands to the east of Crome, on his journey to deliver a message to Lord Munday an acquaintance of Call’s, in the fortified town of Horncastle. It seemed unlikely the man resided in the mound.

            He looked around for the owners of the half-dozen horses, but could only detect himself and the rock-sitter.

            Hogarth favoured Hawke with a wide, disarming smile, who unaccountably found himself smiling in return. When Hogarth begged his leave to ask a boon, Hawke readily agreed, lacking the self-awareness to question this uncharacteristic out-pouring of altruism.

            ‘It’s but a simple task.’ Hogarth stood, brushing fastidiously at the seat of his hose. ‘I merely require the article currently kept within this structure. It belonged to a dear friend who recently passed away.’ Hogarth’s smile widened involuntarily as he thought on the assistance he’d provided in ensuring Graydon’s journey to the darker realms. It was only to be expected, two acquisitive sorcerers such as they wouldn’t be able to share the solitary item their investigations had uncovered.

            Only dimly aware that his wits seemed shrouded in fog, Hawke returned the smile once again; nothing would be too much trouble for his new friend.

            Hogarth, for his part, concentrated to achieve a balance in his control of the other man – too much and Hawke could prove ineffective; too little and self-preservation might drive him from the chambers that lay below the mound.

            For a moment the pair stood silently as Hogarth finessed his manipulation. Once he felt confident Hawke would follow his direction, he began strolling nonchalantly toward the grass mound. After a second’s delay Hawke trailed in his wake, across the dew-fresh sward.

            ‘I see you are on foot.’ Hogarth cast over his shoulder. ‘Perhaps, in payment for your assistance, I could offer you one of the many horses I have acquired.’

            Hawke let his gaze wander over the half-dozen animals standing near the stone entranceway. Even a cursory glance revealed the motley nature of the beasts; a courser caparisoned in the King’s colours, two moderately equipped palfreys, a rouncey and two sumpters outfitted as pack animals. One of the palfreys caught Hawke’s eye; an attentive animal, well-proportioned. Its tack looked costly; saddle bags and rump pack of oil leather, both pommel and cantle extended. The horse returned Hawke’s scrutiny, tasting the air with a pale, forked tongue. It flicked its ears then resumed cropping grass, tail chasing flies.

 

            As Knight Protector of Crome, Lord Call had responsibility for the city’s Watch; a select band of experienced men and women, sworn to uphold the King’s laws within the capital and its surrounding lands. That Call also controlled the Masks, an equally dedicated group of thieves, confidence men, smugglers and highwaymen, gave him a unique perspective on the application of Henry’s laws. Any of the Masks who transgressed their master met a swift end at the hands of the Watch; any who choose to try such enterprises without due deference to the Master of the Masks met a similar, bloody fate.

            One such transgression had Call in a quandary.

            ‘None have seen him in his usual haunts.’ Brandt, the man Call entrusted with direct control of the Masks, stood before his masters’ wide desk. ‘Should we assume he’s fled the city?’

            Lord Call took another sip of wine, looked at the other across the brim of his glass. ‘Send word to all our outliers; if he shows his face, I want him detained.’ Call uncrossed his slippered feet where they rested upon his desk. ‘As much as it pains me, Hawkesmoor will need to be dealt with. Severely. Give a dog too much leash and he can turn and bite you!’

            The less-refined Brandt finished his wine in two swallows. ‘He could be hiding in some doxies’ boudoir. Never showed any particular preference, but he might have a girl somewhere.’

            ‘Just as likely he’s down in the undercrofts or on the canals. We aren’t wasting any people in a search.’ Sitting upright, Call placed his wine glass on the desk. ‘Just get the word out. Tell our people there’s a gold ounce for his capture.’

            After Brandt had left on his errand, Lord Armand Call stood out on his fourth-floor balcony, savouring his glass of wine, to contemplate the punishment he would visit upon his wayward, bastard son.

 

            The barrow-like mound sat within a broad circle of stone; this terrace enclosed by a chest-high wall decorated by odd, leaf-shaped crenellations. Hogarth halted beside a short flight of stairs that led down to the mounds’ entrance.

            ‘There is some minor danger, I will admit,’ a dismissive hand gesture accompanied this pronouncement, ‘but to a man of your undoubted ability it should be but a trifle to overcome.’ The flattery acted to bolster Hogarth’s mental subordination and further weaken Hawke’s resistance.

            Gesturing to the shadowed rectangle of the doorway, Hogarth continued, ‘I’m uncertain of what’s within, except that the object is guarded.’ Another broad smile. ‘I doubt it will prove difficult for one with expertise such as yours.’

            Stepping to one side Hogarth remained silent as Hawke trudged down the brief decline and entered the mound.

            Which proved to be little more than a hollow shell of stone covered by turf; its interior a single hemispherical room, the door Hawke had entered by the only structural feature, apart from a circular hole in the flagstone floor. The stone walls forming the low vault were carefully dressed, to allow space for the carvings that crowded the round room. It was immediately obvious that the mound was no defensive construction, its purpose appeared to be as an entranceway, a vestibule for the helical stair that descended within the central void. A fleeting thought – for an abandoned building, the room seemed remarkably free of detritus; no dead leaves, no sign of animal infestation.

            Pausing, Hawke took a closer look at the pictures decorating the walls – even Hogarth’s control couldn’t completely quash his curiosity.

            Images of obscene, grotesque creatures shared space with pictographic writings Hawke was unable to decipher. Dæmonic beings cavorted among cyclopean architecture, intricate steles, pyramidal buildings, delicate buttressed towers. None of the structures reminded Hawke of any of the few places he’d visited outside Elysia, though etchings he’d seen of ruins in northern Borea showed some similarities of style.

            At Hogarth’s prompting, Hawke shifted his attention to the central hole and a stone stairway that led downward. Treading carefully, he progressed ever deeper, though the individual stairs were as clear of debris as the room he’d left.

            Three complete turns deposited him in a second chamber, almost identical to the one above. Identical, except that the entrance archway headed into a short corridor and a corpse lay beside the lowest step.

 

            Gears and wheels have begun to fail, though the geothermal heart of the machine still beats strong and steady. Chill waters of an underground lake provide the guardians with fresh water and the blind cave fish as a food source, but the guardian lizards are old now, the machine was never meant to operate over such a span of time; reactions have slowed. Recent intrusions finally register, a piece shifts within the depths of the machine maze.

 

            Dressed in mail hauberk and coif, the face-down, spread-eagle figure was surrounded by a wide stain of dried blood.

            Through the mental link established by the circlet, Hogarth caught the mixture of revulsion and trepidation experienced by Hawke.

            In an odd twilight, emanating from a series of glass-like panels set among the room’s stonework, the thief quickly appraised the corpse for anything useful, even a purse. Using his baselard he slit the belt about the man’s waist to remove a dagger and its scabbard. He ignored the plain broadsword laying a short distance from the body; he’d never mastered the heavier bladed weapons – a quick knife worked better in Crome’s narrow streets – and saw no profit in the extra encumbrance. Baselard in his right hand, dead mans’ poignard in his left, Hawke proceeded cautiously through the archway.

            The half-light continued, maintained at the same level by regular spacing of the glowing panels. Hawke had never seen their like before; Crome’s richer quarters were lit by an arrangement of gas lamps, poorer areas made do with oil or candle lanterns.

            Hogarth felt the increase in Hawke’s awareness of his surroundings; a bubble of curiosity building in his mind. Closing his eyes, he more fully integrated with the others’ senses trying, subtly, to keep Hawke focused on the task.

            Beyond the archway, a short corridor led to a second chamber. The illumination here was supplemented by a larger panel set into the ceiling, directly above a slender plinth, seemingly an extrusion from the centre of the stone floor. Including the one Hawke occupied, three archways led from the chamber.

            Beside the plinth, discarded upon the floor, lay a broad-brimmed hat crafted of fine blue felt. Several stems of feathery, pale green hamna grass decorated a wide band of a darker blue silk.

            Sensing the plinth to be his goal, Hawke moved cautiously toward it, eyes darting between the two further archways. Keeping the short stone column as cover, he investigated its flat upper surface. Carved in to the stone face was a shallow recess, empty, leaf-like in shape, just over a hand-length in size; the ‘stalk’ of the leaf thickened to a delicate handle. A dagger then, highly stylized and scaled for a small hand.

As Hawke encountered the empty recess, Hogarth cursed, his concentration slipping momentarily. Excruciating pain crashed in upon him; it felt as if his skull were being split apart.

            Moments passed, Hawke found himself slumped beside the plinth, chin on chest, cheeks within the standing collar of his jack, unsure as to what had just transpired. Snatching up both dropped daggers he rose quickly to his booted feet, turning circles, searching for any previously hidden threat. A half-caught sound issued from the archway to his right.

            Taking what cover there was from the plinth, Hawke strained his hearing to catch any further noise. A few seconds later came the distinct sounds of heavy fabric being ripped and torn. Glancing at the abandoned hat, Hawke wondered if its owner were being forcibly divested of further items of clothing.

            Seated once again on the flat rock, eyes closed, Hogarth concentrated on his mental link to Hawke – it took him several long moments to re-establish the degree of control he required, once again aided by the thief’s tired and confused state.

            Extending his senses through the circlet, Hogarth detected the proximity of the artefact. It did seem that despite his frailty, Orbone the merchant had succeeded in wresting the item from its guardian. He hadn’t, however, been as successful in exiting the vault. That the sequence of sounds uttered by Orbone had unlocked the plinth convinced Hogarth he’d been correct about the provenance of the piece – it was a vargr seax, a ceremonial, copper-bladed dagger. Once matched with the circlet and three rings he already wore, it was Hogarth’s belief that the expanded collection would grant him an immeasurable advantage over his rivals; lesser academics who consistently failed to understand or even appreciate the true power of the vargr, the wolf-souls. Perhaps he would even be able to challenge the Toymaker or the Engineer, take their discoveries as his own.

            Only the Elysians comprehended the legacy of the vargr, but then, reflected Hogarth, they had the advantage of geographic proximity to the vargr homeland, a storm-encircled island off Elysium’s north-western coast, separated only by the Strait of Tarbrick from the basalt promontory of Ghost Head. Being the deserted island’s next nearest neighbours, both the Thale Hegemony and the Cydonians had tried, in their turn, to exploit its technological wealth. With an advantage in plundered materials the Elysians had beaten-back both competitors, establishing a so-far benevolent dominance over the region, forging alliances with numerous other nations across the world.

            Hogarth knew it was only luck, and it was a species of luck he wished to personally exploit. Long and extensive research had shown the wolf-souls had not been restricted to their ill-favoured isle, but had explored widely and left their mark upon the many and varied lands in which they’d set foot. The vaults, such as the one he sat near, were the most obvious of their works outside of their ruined homeland – though no map existed on which they appeared. Vague directions, local folklore and superstition combined to give those with an understanding a faint trail to follow. Many vaults lay empty and were of no known usage; some he’d tentatively identified as either way-stations or lightly-manned garrisons; a very few housed the underground rooms and the plinth.

            In the six years of his travels, this was only the fifth occupied vault Hogarth had discovered. The second with a living guardian.

            A wet, crunching sound signalled the unseen creature had finished its dalliance with its victims clothing. Though his instinct was to put distance between himself and the thing in the vault, Hawke found himself dwelling on the consequent betrayal of Hogarth’s trust were he to leave before completing the task. For the reward of a horse and its traps, he needed to see his mission through. For the ability to pass beyond Lord Call’s reach, he’d hand Hogarth his prize.

            Scraping and clicking issued from the darkness. Hawke took a firm grip upon both blades, crouched, balanced on the balls of his feet. Further sounds of movement sharpened his wits.

            It dragged itself ponderously into the circular room. Though identical to neither, the creature reminded Hawke of the dragonkin of the Argyian forests or the legless wurms of the Praxian marshes, both of which he’d seen confined in the King’s zoological gardens in Crome.

            Armoured by iridescent scales, the thick-bodied, lizard-like beast swung its heavy, wedge-shaped head to-and-fro, long pink tongue tasting the air. Blood smeared its massive jaws; scraps of blue silk snagged between wickedly curved teeth. Legs solid as granite pillars propelled the creature forward. But its movements were hesitant and, as it advanced upon him, Hawke could see the numerous wounds that marked its hide, many of which still sluggishly bled. Several deep gashes had been inflicted by blades and gaped as the lizard-thing moved. Other wounds were the result of firearms; the charge having burnt and blistered the scaly hide.

            Tongue darting from lip-less mouth, the creature advanced upon him. For his part, Hawke eased back behind the plinth, moving to keep the slender column of stone between himself and his attacker. He began to shake as panic started to take hold - he could see no possible way he’d survive the encounter – when a calmness washed over him. Faith in his abilities displaced the mounting horror of his situation – he could defeat the beast, he just needed to think.

            Curved talons gaining purchase on flagstones, the creature lunged at him, head turned sideways to snatch its prey about the torso. As he dodged curved teeth, Hawke slashed with the heavy-bladed baselard; the honed dagger carving a thin bloody line across the creature’s snout, halting the thrusting head.

            A low, rumbling roar built in the lizard-creature’s barrel chest. But it was a cry coloured by pain, not triumph. Its attack aborted the monster retreated a pace, long tongue licking at the newest of its many wounds.

            Given that the object he sought was not where it was meant to be, Hawke saw no other option than further exploration. That this was the only consideration to cross his mind was lost on the thief – a decision to inspect the hallway from whence the creature had appeared fixed itself in his consciousness and he found himself dodging past the creature, into the corridor.

            Once again illumination came from the wall-mounted glowing panels. What Hawke took to be the mortal remains of the merchant lay scattered across the width of the corridor; little more than a blood-soaked jumble of rags. As noise of slow pursuit had commenced from the plinth room, Hawke spared only a few seconds to investigate the tattered corpse. No leaf-like dagger appeared among the scraps of clothing. He flinched at a severed arm protruding from a shredded blue sleeve, but the necessary inspection revealed the weapon it gripped was only a dull-bladed dirk, more suited as a dress ornament than a serious means of defence.

            A single pace beyond the first body lay a second, this mostly whole and attired in jack-of-plates similar to Hawke’s own. A brief glance showed it to be a woman. Hawke’s second glance alighted upon the rank sash of a Royal Messenger. Beside the body lay a double-barrel wheellock pistol.

            Conscious of the creature moving into the corridor, Hawke sheathed his baselard to snatch up the pistol. He was no marksman by any means, but at least familiar with pistols and their function. Lord Call was content, within reason and social standing, to allow those in his employ to improve both themselves and their skills – court etiquette could be useful when moving among the gentry; combat ability always had a value. Hawke grabbed a handful of cartridges from the Messenger’s ammunition pouch, but haste and one hand meant he only came away with five, of which two dropped from his fist even as he closed his fingers.

            Backing further along the corridor, he broke-open the wheellock and shook out the two spent cartridges it contained. He was only able to load a single new cartridge before the creature lunged at him, ripping the sleeve of his linen shirt and leaving a shallow but painful gash in his left forearm. Dodging to avoid another attack, Hawke dropped a further shell.

            In one motion Hawke snapped the weapon closed and fired.

            A bright ball of sulphurous fire leapt from the wheellock to strike the lizard high upon its left shoulder. The impact spoilt its attack; jaws clashed together a hands-breadth from Hawke’s chest, its snout thudding hard against his quilted armour, staggering him backward against the tunnel wall. Lunging round the enraged creature tried biting and licking at the pain burning into its body. Wounded, shoulder pressed to the wall, Hawke scrambled further away, gaining the space he needed to reload the wheellock with his last scavenged cartridge.

            Aiming with both hands, he shot the creature low in the side, hoping for a hit where the scales seemed smaller, perhaps weaker.

            As the shell struck, in another burst of yellow, liquid fire, the now maddened beast surged toward its prey. Mouth gaping, bloody froth erupted from its jaws. Even as it rose, the damaged leg gave way beneath it, the monster crashed back to the ground, thrashing jaws striking Hawke, one elongated fang ripping his already bloodied arm. Spurred by this second wound, Hawke threw himself away from the creature. Landing heavily, he could only watch as the monster struggled. Its thrashing exertions weakened perceptibly, a pool of dark blood expanding around it. Though it struggled, its head dropped to the flagstones. Only its eye moved, watching as its tormentor stood, using strips of torn linen to bind the gashes in his arm.

            Tongue still tasting air, the creature once more tried to rise; once more it failed.

            Empty wheellock shoved behind his knife belt, dagger in each hand, Hawke watched the lizard’s armoured flank heave with each slow, shuddering breath.

            When the rumbling breathing slowed to a standstill, the eyes now dull orbs, Hawke cautiously approached.

            Close to the monstrous lizard-creature he could appreciate the vitality it must have possessed – many of the wounds he’d previously glimpsed were more grievous than he’d realised during the confusion of the melee. Some reached down through the natural armour and thick muscle to expose the bones beneath. The stench of burnt flesh stung his sinuses, made his eyes water.

            Casting glances into the surrounding twilight, Hawke fervently hoped there were no other guardians in the tunnels. He still had the artefact to find.

 

            A silent, dark chamber. Cool; temperature of the earth in which it was enclosed. Stone walls carved in fanciful patterns, most abstract, some carrying meaning to the people who built the room and dressed the stone.

            Embedded within embrasures on one wall, stand a line of sarcophagi, crafted from a fine metal, adorned with symbols and a bizarre script. Of the eight receptacles, only one has an occupant.

            Shallow breath; eyes open, slit pupils react to light shining down from glass panels set high in the walls. Pointed ears strain for any noise within the silence. As the lid retracts into the wall, the occupant of the metal sarcophagus draws a deeper draught of stale air, chest rising and falling beneath a coat of delicate scales. This armour emits a faint chiming, jingling sound as the wearer lethargically extricates herself from the cold container, her deeper breathing expelling vapour into the room. From a shelf beside her metal bed she retrieves a cloak of leaf-like scales, a web of belts that hold sword and scabbard, sheathed daggers and numerous small pouches. When finally attired, she unseals the lowest level of the structure and exits the chamber, her prehensile tail curling and swaying in agitation.

 

            Shadows were lengthening in the afternoon sun; the tall trees around the glade already caste a cool shade. Hogarth stood, eagerly watching as Hawke appeared, the latter’s trews, boots and jack dirty from his time underground. Over one shoulder hung the messenger’s baldric and holster, the pistol secured within. Both of his own daggers were likewise sheathed. In addition, he carried three further blades and their scabbards; all of reasonable quality, and was richer by the contents of several purses.

            In his left hand he carried a delicate, leaf-like blade; recovered, after much searching, from the cold grip of yet another corpse – a second, less well-attired merchant, hanging half-out of the mouth of a second, dead lizard.

            Hogarth had maintained his control over Hawke throughout the hunt, but, with his prize so close, he gave in to eagerness and snatched the vargr blade. Having been maintained for so long, the mental bonds on Hawke released slowly.

            ‘My reward?’

            Distracted by his newest acquisition, Hogarth gestured vaguely toward the makeshift corral.

            ‘You can take them all. Just leave the grey.’

 

            Stroking cooling flesh she feels a sadness for one so abused. All three guardians are now dead; one in the sleeping cave, taken by infirmity, two within the sanctum, victims of violence in their defence of their last master. The sanctuary is now a tomb.

            Discovering the plinth to be empty, her pace increases. Though a triviality, nothing more than a symbol of the lineage that commissioned the structure, anger at the intrusion spurs her on.

 

            Now mounted, Hawke turned south. He had it in mind to head toward Prax, a lush country of rolling, fertile grassland, famed for both its herds of steer and the sumptuous bazaars of its coastal cities. Where there were people with money, Hawke had no doubt he could make a living.

            The modest monies he’d collected, plus whatever he could get for the horses and tack he didn’t need, the merchant’s wares on the pack animals, would be a reasonable travelling fund. He was armed, better so than before. Looted trail rations and several water flasks would come in handy. His first real need was a small town saw-bones to check his wounds didn’t fester. He’d cleaned them with water, then a splash of brandy from a merchant’s stash. Bound with clean linen they no longer bled nor hurt.

            Spirits buoyant, Hawkesmoor enjoyed the sun and the breeze as he rode, back through the trees, across the North Way and further from the wrath of Lord Call.

 

Epilogue

            Hogarth’s headache returns with a vengeance when the slight woman lifts the circlet from his sweating brow. The pain in his stomach is much worse.

            Lying on his back, staring at the clouds, Hogarth’s hands flutter about the savage wound that stains his silk shirt and hose. Again, the beautiful face appears above him. Long hair hanging around her narrow face, she speaks directly into his thoughts. ‘These things were never meant for people such as you’. The impression of a soft voice, at odds with the savagery of her attack on an unarmed man.

            The rings he’d worn now adorn her slender fingers, beside those she already possesses. In one slim hand she holds the leaf-like blade, in the other a fragile-looking sword, stained with Hogarth’s lifeblood.

            As his hearing fails, the diminishing thud of his heart softer, Hogarth still hears the delicate chiming of her scaled cloak as the wolf-soul walks away.

            Rubbing the grey palfrey’s snout, rewarded by a dry rasp of its forked tongue, thump of heavy foreclaws on grass, the slight woman lifts herself into the uncomfortable saddle. She can sense the second human who violated the sanctum, needs to assure herself that he carries no artefacts. During her long sleep the world is much changed. The sanctum had been empty, but for her; where are her people? They had been six, now she is alone. Further questions begin to surface, but she has an immediate concern.

            Turning the horse’s head to follow the trodden path, the vargr goes in pursuit of Hawkesmoor.

 

            From each of Crome’s six ornate city gates, a rider went forth, carrying the sealed orders of Onegin Brandt. Though unsigned, each rolled parchment carried a wax seal impressed with the unremarkable crest of a minor merchanter house. Within, the scroll promised a gold ounce for information on a missing member of the merchant’s household. In their fashion, the Masks also pursued Hawkesmoor.
 

© John Henson Webb 2017


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