The Trail – Chapter 21

A small town huddled in the forest, deep in sleep. It snored black wisps of smoke from chimneys, a harmless, peaceful place for one who didn’t know better.

There was a pause – a breath between words – as night bowed to day. Songbirds gathered their strength. Predators of the night curled up in sleep.

The world hesitated.

Sounds now came from within the town: the slamming of doors, the barking of dogs, and the cry of roosters. Golden light, glancing off the mountain peaks to the east, scattered blood red over it all. 

Just on the western edge of town, past the granary and storehouse, John lay slumped against a thick oak. He seemed a part of the surrounding scenery, unmoving and peaceful – just another aspect of the forest. A chill breeze tousled his hair as it did the ferns and the grasses.

Sunlight, blocked by the nearby granary, inched up John’s chest as Solus rose into the sky. It crawled across his body, over his crumpled shirt collar, and onto his sleeping face.

It beamed against his eyelids, and sleep was finally driven from him. John woke slowly with a groan, holding up a hand to shade his eyes. He felt well rested, with the exception of his back, which was stiff and sore from leaning against a tree all night. 

… A tree? What was he doing sleeping outside? 

John rubbed at his eyes and dusted off a scattering of leaves from his shoulders.

He could remember something about a meeting with the Baron…yes, the details were coming back to him. The meeting had gone poorly, though in a very unexpected way. He grimaced. Why did he have to mention that cavern? 

But that didn’t explain why he had fallen asleep outside, on the edge of town…

He picked himself up off the ground, cracked his back, and trudged his way back through town, leaving behind the wood line.

The morning light called to arms every man and woman from their homes. John saw the children resume their play as if the interruption of sleep had never happened.

At any rate, he would go home, grab Jonathan, and head to Ms. Fiona’s. He needed her advice regarding the boy. What would he tell Clara about…

Oh, right. Now he remembered; he had seen her with Captain Nico.

His trudging became a quick walk, chest tightening with tension.

That would explain why his eyes felt so puffy, and why he had fallen asleep outside, far from home.

He walked faster – fast enough for people to give him strange looks. He didn’t care. John’s mind was racing. His heart felt close to melting. Work and tasks that needed to be done began to flood his thoughts in a torrent, brimming over into his eyes.


He fought against the urge to shut down – to run from his problems. The tension made his teeth clench.

Just stop! I can’t let this happen again…

He came to a ragged stop in an alley away from curious eyes, close to hyperventilating. Thoughts swam through his head in a whirlwind.

I can’t keep doing this… 

There were facts he had to come to terms with; he no longer had a family. Clara had broken it. He couldn’t run from that truth.

Despair brought him to his knees – a physical crushing of the soul. It was too much to accept. John hadn’t lost something so dear to him since his father’s death fifteen years ago.  

What was he to do? Just nod and move on? How would anything hold any meaning? Where would he derive his joy and purpose?

How could I go on without her…

John clawed at his hair, hope seeping out of him like sweat. 

He had always thought she would be separated from them by death – as his dreams foretold – not by blatant betrayal. What a fool he’d been.

Tears pooled in his eyes – the tears of a little boy, one with dreams of a family of his own, one that grew up believing the best thing he could be was a husband and a father.

Maybe if he talked to Clara, confronted her with what he’d seen. Maybe they could work it out together, find a solution to fix their family. He pictured it in his head. A shiver of revulsion shot down his spine. He didn’t think he could face her without imagining Nico, holding her up against a wall…

He doubled over, feeling like he might vomit. A tornado of emotions whirled in him with nowhere to go. He kneaded at his face with the palms of his hands. Warm tears ran down his nose and fell to the ground like rain, darkening the manure-brown earth. 

He couldn’t see her – not yet. He just wasn’t ready.

Back pressed up against a building, John slid to the ground and planted his arms on his knees, waiting for the nausea to pass.

Was he to blame? Had he been the cause of their family’s demise? Had he been a poor husband or a bad father? Was this her way of showing him that?

“What am I supposed to do with this, Clara,” he whispered.

John sat there quietlyquietly there in the shadows, watching a colony of ants burrow into the fertile earth between his feet. He could sit there forever. A pair of children darted past the alleyway, chasing a frightened chicken with glee.

Then it hit him – clear as the morning sky.


He did still have a family; Jonathan needed him, almost as much as he needed Jonathan. 

Perhaps his wife had abandoned them, but John would not abandon his son. He would still speak with Ms. Fiona today. She would understand. She could help the boy.

John had been squirreling away his savings over the past year, money meant for Jonathan in case of an emergency. Now with the threat of a silver scarcity looming over them, he thanked the Saints for his precaution. He and Clara had hidden it away in the corner of the shed’s roof, out behind the house.  Anxiety told him the money was unsafe; it would be a sizable sum by now; who’s to say Clara wouldn’t take it for her own means? He would have to find a new home for it.

His legs trembled as he pushed himself to his feet. Despite finding purpose, he still felt half a man, and his body responded as such: weakly and without the confidence it once commanded. Pushing intrusive thoughts of despair from his mind, he made his way uneasily home to retrieve both his son, and his son’s future. 

As he did so, he reflected on this new life he must lead. Strange how everything had been so easily flipped on its head – decades of hard work negated in mere seconds. The cruelty and unfairness of it struck him, a feeling he was unused to. 

His own life, he believed, had been a stable thing – a simple thing. Effort and reward were the functions of a normal life. One endeavored to achieve something, and if efforts were sufficient, they would earn whatever it was they sought. Input and output, so it had been with John. He was unfamiliar with tragedy – the spontaneity that ignored effort and reward.

But that wasn’t entirely true, was it? John had seen senseless tragedy. He remembered the collapse of the Murel Lode six years ago, caused by an earthquake – the only one in two hundred years. 

Sixteen people killed over the course of forty-eight hours: that was spontaneity. That was tragedy. John had lost good friends that day. How had he forgotten?  

He turned a corner in the road. Between the brewery and Bertram’s lodge, a clear line of sight opened to the surrounding wilderness. 

Mountain crowns of jade fenced in the world. There was always a sense of isolation, looking up at those carpeted peaks. They stood like sentinels, hemming in the survivors of the untamed wilderness, guarding those treacherous paths that led to foreign places. Dangerous things were out there, John knew, things the Condor Guard could not defend them from. 

He realized that the Render and the bandits had changed the way he thought. He had always assumed that, because of his honest and good intentions, he had been spared the Render’s arrow or the bandit’s blades. In fact, he and his family had survived unscathed. But there were plenty of other good people who had fallen to one or the other – wrong place at the wrong time. The thought made him sick to his already upset stomach.

It was an awesome, terrible thing to see happen, like witnessing that freak earthquake. Whether it be the cruelty of the gods or the apathy of the universe John was unsure, but if ever there were an evil force in the world, he mused, this callous indifference to human life must surely be it.

John rarely looked toward religion for answers, but he found he needed one right now, something to explain why he had to endure this, something to take responsibility for his pains.

The Arcanists would call it Omni’s will, surely. They’d say Omni’s plans are manifold and mysterious, or some such nonsense. John shook his head.

The faith of the Pilgrims made more sense, not just because he was raised in it. This is the New World, the land of the Storm Father, where monsters and demons lurk in the underworld – remnants of the Enemy’s rule; things went wrong because there was evil in the world, and Free Folk must have love for the Father and faith in the Saints if they are to confront it.

He could use a little faith, something to take the impact, something to withstand this storm. The best he could do was try to be a good man, or so he always told himself.

But if the actions of a good man could so easily be disregarded and undone, what chance did one have at a good life? Struggle and strive, just to have it taken away, and for no good reason? Did he have faith strong enough to withstand that? It was despair speaking, he knew, but its heartless logic couldn’t be ignored.

With rising trepidation, he wondered what else would be flipped on its head. What other parts of his life would come crashing down?

Surely not Jonathan, he thought with a new measure of panic.

Not my boy. Without him I… Strength returned to his legs as he walked, but he did not feel strong. 

The path he followed wound to the right. Normally he would go straight through town, but he wished to avoid conversation at all costs.

It didn’t take long for him to regret the decision. It led him to silent homes, decrepit and forgotten by their neighbors. Their empty windows gaped black and hollow.

John averted his gaze as he passed. The squat building in the middle once housed Ansel and his family, friends taken two months ago by the Render. He hated thinking about the incident: a sleep-walking child leaving the house at night, her screams drawing out the parents, all to be butchered in the dark. All the adjacent houses had been vacated in a hurry. No one wanted to be within a stone’s throw of the site.

John stared pointedly at the ground as he hurried by. That poor little girl had died slowly. He tried to imagine how he would have felt, had Jonathan been the unfortunate child, and almost tripped over his own feet as the thought shot through his imagination. 

John’s will held firm. He still had purpose: the obligations of a father.

Mink was in the woods by five o’clock. Any excuse to get out into the forest, away from other people and their noises.

At least, that was how he explained it to himself, but really the morning routine was driven by torment; it was the nightmares. He had never really left Glaustow.

No matter how far he fled, it was always there, waiting for him to lie back and close his eyes. He figured they would fade with time and the decay of memory, but he had been proven wrong with the exact opposite; they had sharpened in detail and increased in frequency. He was being tortured all over again.

If only they hadn’t pulled that last job. If only they hadn’t trusted that rat. Their “mate”. Their “brother”. Their “comrade”. Mink would find him and make him pay for it, if Glaustow hadn’t already done that for him. 

The church had surely taken the bastard for their twisted means. He took no enjoyment in the thought. That was a fate no man deserved.

How did Duncan sleep, he wondered? Did the memories of that prison haunt his dreams? They had spoken of it only once, on the airship out of Machia. He was unsure about the other lads in the camp – those that had experienced Glaustow. Everyone avoided the topic.

But for some, it was obvious enough without needing words; Pete’s hollering at night told the story. Shut him up with booze – that’s the strategy. Just keep him sauced and hope for a single good night’s sleep, uninterrupted by his screams. Pete had been the sharpest of the lot – a real scholar.

Now look at him.

Mink scowled. It was clearly wrong, but he refused to feel guilt. Out here, you did what you had to. No room for soft hearts. Keep your head down, get through the day.

Prepare for the worst.

He looked up at the haze of an orange sunrise lancing through dark trees – the perfect time of day. It wasn’t so bad, being stuck out here, especially now that the Render was gone. 

…and replaced by a Ranger.

He made his way lightly through the forest, arrows rattling on his hip, bow slung over one shoulder. The sounds of the camp couldn’t reach him out here, and that was fine by him.   

His deerskin slippers made little noise on the forest floor – only the light scuffing of pine needles betrayed his passing.

He crossed a stream using a makeshift bridge of fallen trunks, walking quickly to warm himself against the morning air. His good mood would only last the day. Once night came around, it would be back to square one; the sky would grow dark, and his mind would follow suit.

But he could think about that later. For now, there was work to be done. He needed to put the finishing touches on his hideout, and he couldn’t afford to lose his way.

He hiked north-west for the better part of an hour before reaching the road leading from the barony proper. It ran north from the stableyard, piercing into the forest. He knew it well, and knew it was relatively well traveled by the guard. With this in mind, he paused in the brush for a moment, scanning for movement. 

Satisfied that no one was in sight, he set onto the road, headed straight north. He held the map firmly in his memory, having taken great pains to memorize it. Shame to lose it all to carelessness.

Mink split from the road at the diseased hemlock covered in cysts, making dead west in as straight a line as possible – a difficult task in the woodland. 

At this point he expected to get lost, which was why he had prepared some landmarks in his memory ahead of time; if he hit the rocky stream, then he had gone too far south. If he reached the open field at the base of the mountains, then he had gone too far north. 

Well on course. He sat on a stump and packed his pipe before continuing on his way.

The Baron exited the sanctuary, his family in tow. 

The Everettes worshiped in the keep, rather than the actual chapel, which had become more of a library than a place of worship under the care of Rector Owens. Instead the rector came to the keep to hold the ceremony, all under Aster’s careful oversight. Sometimes the Baron wondered about Owens’ faith, especially when put in juxtaposition with the master of servants. His demeanor unnerved the Baron, so docile and quiet. Aster, on the other hand, was more like a blank slate of propriety and control. His strict discipline and austerity inspired the same attributes in those he instructed.

It was Monday, the day they held the Invocation of Unum and studied the messiah’s first sermon. It lasted just over two hours. The Baron had never considered himself a particularly pious Arcanist, but he could not deny the clarity and conviction that came with the studious meditations. Sacred inspiration, fruit of the holy sciences, swept doubtful thoughts from his mind. 

His mind was alive and thriving, ready to tackle hard problems and invent solutions. He needed to speak with Duncan, but at the same time felt the need for solitary reflection. 

The Everette family broke off: Veronica to breakfast, Catherine to wherever the hell she disappeared to, and Theodore most likely to smoke a cigarette under the willow tree behind the keep. The Baron had seen him there most days, sitting by himself, looking deplorable. At least he was getting a proper education. He had better shape up, and fast. The boy had to be ready to take over the Everette inheritance and Barony. 

If there’s anything left of it…

His quick walk led him toward his study, but he found the idea of sitting behind a desk tremendously unappealing, so he decided to make the most of the agreeable weather and find Duncan. 

He didn’t have to go very far. As he stepped out into the fresh air, dominated by blue sky and songbirds, he heard a commotion to his left, over by the stableyard. 

A small crowd of guardsmen were gathered – some fifteen or twenty of them – in a loose circle. They jostled each other in good spirits, sweaty helms tucked under their arms. A distant explosion from the mines whispered through the air. No one paid it any heed.

Duncan was only of average height, but the Baron could still spot his topknot from above the heads of the others. 

He smoothed out the collar clinging to his thick neck and walked over, his mind still suspended in a clear focus.

The men took notice of his approach. They stepped aside, giving him room to see the center of attention. He was unsurprised to find it to be Duncan and Captain Nico. A soldier – Rufus, the Baron thought his name was – shuffled closer to his side.

“What’d you think, M’lord? Time to bet on the Captain yet?”

Rufus was one of the few with the balls to approach him in open conversation. An easy man to mold and make an example of. 

The Baron switched over – a quick, almost unconscious flicker of the mind – to false empathy. 

He chuckled. “Not on his life. Give him a decade, maybe, to be on par with Duncan.”

Rufus folded his arms and snickered, infected with the Baron’s good humor. “Aye, you’re probably right about that. The Captain’s been training awfully hard though. Really means to win one of these days.”

The Baron gave a snort. “It would take a miracle, Rufus.”

Rufus’ expression lit up

Baron Everette focused his attention on the two in the center of the ring. They were in the process of tugging on the greaves and vambraces of the Condor Guard. Duncan’s body language was loose and unconcerned, the amused expression on his face broken by a sinister white scar. It was always so strange to see Duncan in a guardsman’s uniform and not his typical studded armor and weapon array, the Baron reflected.

Nico’s face was alight with a youthful eagerness, rolling and stretching his athletic build as he took the wooden training sword offered to him. His uniform normally included all the allowances of a captain: steel gorget instead of chain coif, steel breastplate, and two pauldrons. In the interest of fairness, however, he had discarded all of that for the typical guardsman’s gambeson. 

He rarely if ever wore a helm (such was his rank), preferring instead to show his head of handsome dark hair, but here he donned it without hesitation, knowing the caliber of his opponent. He gave a footman’s sabre salute with the blunt weapon, then assumed a swordsman’s stance, face set with determination. 

Duncan shifted his bearing subtly, feet shoulder-width apart.

The cheers from the audience began, largely in favor of the Captain, though the Baron knew they were mostly in jest. Duncan always won these contests.

The two warriors began circling each other, and the crowd went quiet. 

For a moment, the Baron was unable to entertain any other thoughts. He was no warrior, but a chance to watch Duncan fight was too entertaining to pass up. There were few such opportunities in life to watch a master excel at their craft, and even someone like Eugene Everette could appreciate the overwhelming skill contained in one man.

Duncan and Nico were of similar height, though where the captain stood broad-shouldered and bull-ish, Duncan’s build more closely resembled a dog bred for racing – all powerful, long limbs. 

The Baron expected to hear the other guardsmen betting on the match. But of course not, he reminded himself. No one would bet against Duncan.

Fiona left Nigel’s house feeling frustrated. Another case of Cavedrain she couldn’t seem to fix. And in another miner, no less. 

Its symptoms were brutal and numerous. Headaches, hacking cough, abdominal pain, constipation, the list went on. Worse thing was, the symptoms could disappear and reappear at random, making it hard to pin down and effectively treat for any given period of time.

Not that my current treatments are doing any good.

She sighed, hefting the knapsack further onto her shoulders as she weaved around a broken fence and past the slaughterhouse. She could still hear the subdued roar of the Silverun behind her, growing fainter with each step.

What would you have done, Master Steffen? Am I doing this all wrong? What would you tell me, if you were still here?

She conjured up a picture of the wizened old man in her head: his stern, dark eyes, his crown of thinning white hair, the laugh lines marking his face like fresh parchment. 

‘Keep your head up girl; our Saint needs us.’ That’s what he would say.

Ahead, old food scraps came flying out a second-story window, causing a dogfight between barony mutts for ownership, snapping and growling at each other in a frenzy. Fiona stepped carefully around.

He always said things like that. Everything sounded so simple and wise coming from him.

Her love for the old man burned brighter, giving a lightness to her step. 

I’ll make you proud, master.

The town’s terrain steepened as she drew closer to the barony proper and the keep within. Folk went about their days – none of them miners, since the first bell had rung over an hour ago. They stopped her around every corner to strike up a conversation, exchange (or mostly impart) gossip, and give pleasantries. 

“Ms. Fiona! Would you just look at you – hard at work, that lady! Come by and have a bite to eat, girl! Oh, yes, the babe’s fine, thanks to you! Have you heard – Carlson’s gone and done it again; found piss-drunk down by the mill with that young Carissa! By the Saints! I swear that man will end up dead within the week! Though, whether it’s of drownin’ or at the hands of his wife, I can’t say!”

“Hey there! Ms. Fiona, is that you? Will you come take a look at my foot? Looks awfully green in a certain light…”

She gave her pleasantries and extracted herself from too many conversations, as gracefully as she could. It strengthened her spirit to see those she’d treated fully recovered. Without hurting feelings she escaped the more flirtatious advances of some of the men, young and old, saying she had important work to do.

It wasn’t easy for Fiona, going through the motions. In truth, it wounded her deeply to remain so separate from everyone, avoiding romantic relationships and hiding the truth. Seeing happy families, sharing lifetimes and love freely with each other, stabbed her through the heart. 

She was ashamed to admit that she sometimes had to avert her gaze, for fear the loneliness would overwhelm her. What she would give to let someone into her life, to drop all pretense and show them who she really was. 

Her calling wouldn’t allow it. If they knew what she really was they would never treat her the same. She would no longer be considered a fellow among her people. Raising a family of her own was just out of the question; pregnancy would affect the level of care she could provide, and the codes strictly forbade it. 

She wondered again how Master Steffen dealt with it. Didn’t it bother him to know that he would die alone, no kin of blood, no confidant to share his secrets? ‘We are servants of our Saint, nothing less. There is no greater calling than ours.’ That’s what he would say.

Several people asked her if it was the Ranger that she had to check on.

“Did he really slay the Render,” they asked. “What’s he like?” 

“Is he terribly injured?” 

“How handsome is he?” 

“Has Saint Lauretta come to our aid?” 

She dodged these questions. Master had valued the privacy of his patients, and she would too.

She was going to check up on Alex, though. His recovery was progressing quickly, despite his injuries.That being said, he was a difficult one to treat. He was suffering from wounds she couldn’t see, the kind no poultice could fix. 

It wasn’t uncommon in the barony to witness such pain in people, but it was harder with him because he didn’t trust her, and well he shouldn’t; the Baron was treating him like an outlaw, locked up in a cell. How could he possibly trust anyone here?

He resented her for making him feel so enfeebled, that much was obvious. She didn’t take it personally – it happened with most of the severely injured people she’d treated. They just weren’t used to feeling helpless and taken care of. It went against the hardy, stubborn mindset of the Free Folk (further convincing her Alex wasn’t Machian). She needed to get him back on his feet, as quickly as possible. The sooner he had some control and agency over his life again, the better he would feel and the smoother his recovery would progress in turn.

The winding path up to the barony proper finally revealed itself ahead. She had hiked it many times on her way to treat Alex. Still, the sight of the gateway, looming above the lesser town like a disapproving parent, made her teeth clench. 

It wasn’t fury she felt for the lord of the barony. Truthfully, she couldn’t quite name the feeling, but something about the gatehouse said it all. It could look down on these people; she would stare right back. These people were under her protection. This was her home. 

Defiance, maybe that’s what it was. For the land that nurtured her, for the man that raised her, she would not be intimidated.

She climbed higher and higher, leaving barony town behind and below her. The road was surprisingly empty, and even as she reached the gatehouse, not a single Condor Guard was in sight. 

Nico struck first – A guarded lunge, meant to test an opponent’s defenses.

Duncan parried, the wooden swords cracking loudly against each other, then immediately launched a retaliatory strike of his own.

Nico sidestepped the counterattack, traded another lunge, then fell back to regroup.

Duncan still looked bored. He stepped to the left, around Nico’s guard, but the captain kept pace.

Nico slashed for Le Treu’s head – a blow that could kill even with a training sword, had they not both been wearing helmets. Duncan leaned back casually, allowing the wooden blade to pass by without so much as blinking, and stepped forward suddenly into close quarters.

A look of surprise flashed across Nico’s face for a split second before Duncan slammed an open palm into his chest, meant to knock him off balance.

But Nico had seen the move before, and snatched at Duncan’s wrist before the full force could be delivered.

Duncan didn’t look impressed. Without missing a beat, he made a sword stab at Nico from incredibly close range with his one free hand. Nico stepped, pivoted, and twisted Duncan’s wrist behind his back as he narrowly avoided the thrust meant for his chest.

Now in Duncan’s blind spot, Nico used the twisted arm as leverage to try and force Duncan to the ground.

The Baron realized his mouth was hanging partially open. Nico had finally done it. Clearly there was no escape for Duncan…

Fiona saw the commotion as she exited the shadowed interior of the passageway. A mass of black and green stood in the distance, past the far corner of the keep; the Condor Guard. 

She could hear shouts and….cheering? 

She drew closer, watching from the shade of the guest dormitories. The guardsmen were circling two figures in pitched combat. She couldn’t identify one; he wore only the regalia of a guardsman – though slightly shorter in stature to his opponent. 

The other also wore the black and green of the guard, but the topknot of dark hair couldn’t be mistaken. 

…of course there was. 

With cat-like agility Le Treu whipped himself around with a half-flip, straightening out his arm and initiating his own grapple against Nico’s iron grip. 

The two were facing now, each in the grip of the other, straining and testing strengths. Cords of muscle stood out from their necks. Limbs trembled full-force against each other.  

A few more whoops and shouts from the audience, and the Baron’s heart was galloping, infected with excitement.

Nico made a desperate play, slashing at the arm Duncan held him with. It worked, and Duncan snatched his hand away before it could be metaphorically severed. 

There was the opening, and Nico took it. Both blades connected with a loud crack as Duncan parried and countered with a riposte, his sword suddenly in his left hand. The audience sucked in a collective breath.

They were back to square one, breathing lightly, neither having scored a hit. They circled each other like hungry animals, Nico’s face set with determination, Duncan’s face the visage of boredom.

The Baron crossed his arms over his chest, tapping lightly with one ringed finger. 

C’mon Le Treu. Show them why I hired you.

Duncan re-engaged with sudden aggression, forcing Nico back far enough to make the crowd part with shouts of “whoa!” and “look out!”

Nico backpedaled quickly, batting away attacks as guardsmen on all sides threw themselves out of the way.

One spectator was too slow, having been caught unaware in a conversation. 

Duncan deflected a blow, leaped, and spring-boarded off the poor man’s face, right into Nico’s blind spot. The spectator went sprawling to the ground with a broken nose. Duncan paid him no mind.

The Baron was on the other side of the ring, but still he uncrossed his arms and tensed in case the fight came in his direction. 

No way he would be caught in the middle of that.

Nico ducked a blow meant for his temple and lashed out for Le Treu’s feet. Duncan hopped it easily and snapped a kick into Nico’s chest in mid-air. He staggered beneath the blow with a grunt, Le Treu’s dirty boot print stamped on his armor, but seemed otherwise unharmed

It was Nico’s turn to press the offensive, and he did so with relish, driving at Le Treu like a beast.

Duncan gave ground, his footwork a blur, striking and parrying with equal speed.

Fiona watched in a daze. She had never seen someone move that fast. 

Of course, she had heard of Duncan’s lethality like everyone else, but it was something else to see it in person. Captain Nico was clearly a proficient fighter, but next to Duncan the difference was almost comical. 

Le Treu had unnerved her before. Now, it terrified her to think the Baron held such a powerful weapon. 

Do your job! Your Saint needs you.

She pulled her eyes from the fearsome spectacle and headed straight for the dungeon cells, on the opposite side of the keep.

To her surprise, two men-at-arms hovered by the entrance, one seated comfortably on a stump, the other leaning against the keep. Both were armed with truncheons – one with a crossbow, steel bolt glinting in the sunlight.

Fiona approached.

They shot her a look, exchanged their own glance, then the one touting the crossbow held up a hand. 

“Turn around. You aren’t allowed in.”

Fiona’s face must have shown her surprise, because the guardsman seated on the stump piped in,

“Baron’s orders. Your healing isn’t needed anymore.”

She finally found the words to speak.

“What’s this about? I’ve been coming here almost every day. That man is injured – he needs me.” She made forward. “Move aside.”

Crossbow looked uncertain for a moment, clearly not expecting resistance. He recovered quickly, stepping in her way and flexing his broad shoulders. 

“You deaf, bitch? Turn around – right now, if you know what’s good for you.”

She glanced at his seated companion. He looked unsympathetic. Clearly, the Baron had stationed men he knew wouldn’t back down from confrontation. 

But why? Why now?

Just keep them talking…

“What reason did he give you,” she shot back.

Crossbow lowered his weapon, knowing his fists would be plenty.

“Fuck off,” he growled.

A brief tremor of fear crawled down her back, but it was easily conquered. She had faced pain far greater than anything this thug could inflict; she had endured childbirth, amputation, organ failure, and death itself.

Use your head…

“Why are you two here when everyone else is watching Le Treu duel the captain?”

They both started. The seated one frowned. 

She shrugged and walked off without another word, trying to hide her smile.

It wasn’t hard to find a good hiding place; she had been up to the barony proper enough times to know the layout, and her eye for detail was impeccable. Master Steffen had made sure of that.

The two guardsmen exchanged a few words before Crossbow glanced around the keep’s corner, saw the crowd in the distance, and jogged back to his comrade.

Fiona was impressed by their…diligence? Patience? She had honestly expected them to go running to the duel; a chance to see Duncan fight couldn’t be passed up. Instead, they held their ground for a surprising couple of minutes before succumbing to temptation. 

Fiona smiled to herself as they abandoned their posts, heading toward the duel with child-like eagerness. 

She stole out of cover, dashed across the clearing, and slipped through the doorway leading to the dungeons. 

Their swordplay was too fast now for the Baron to follow, his ears ringing from the rapid crack of the wooden blades. Their feet kicked up an amber dust into the air. He couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, only that Duncan was winning.

Fully knowing the outcome, he stepped out of the ring of onlookers, away from the fight. He had some business to decide, and wasn’t sure how to go about it. He wanted to tell himself that the affair with the Ranger could wait, and that the silver scarcity came first, but it was a lie, and he knew it.

Without the silver he was in trouble, of course, but the Ranger held what he thought to be information worth a fortune. Hopefully that fortune was large enough to save his family from bankruptcy, relocate them to his holdings in Twosford where Theodore could finish his education, and pay off the banks in Geldlocke. A little extra to spare wouldn’t hurt, either.

But there was the kicker; how to get the information out of the Ranger? He was drugged out of his mind, or so Aster assured him, so he was fully at the Baron’s mercy. With the Atrix, he didn’t need to rely on the herbalist to keep the Ranger conscious, so that took care of two problems. 

But that still didn’t get him what he wanted. He could question the Ranger further, but there was no telling whether the information gleaned would be a lie or truth. 

There were shouts now from behind him; the audience was in an uproar. He glanced back over his shoulder to check on the fight. Duncan had disarmed Nico and was pressing him with sword in hand. The crowd threw Nico his sword back with shouts of encouragement.

“Give em’ hell, Captain!”

The Baron smirked and meandered slowly toward the keep, pondering to himself.

From the keep’s main entrance came hurrying a thin figure. 

The Baron lost his train of thought as Aster approached, looking more pale than usual in the light of day.

“My lord,” he said, drawing a slip of paper from his pocket. “A return message from our contact in The Reach. I just finished transcribing it.”

The Baron’s heart fluttered.

Finally, This had better be good news. Or at least, useful information.

Aster glanced at the cacophony past the Baron’s shoulder, his lips drawing into a thin line of distaste. He handed over a small note. Eugene Everette stared down at the slip of paper now in his hands, feeling its metaphorical weight. 

“What’s written on this note could change everything, Aster…”

Aster read the look on his master’s face. “My lord, I encourage you to remember the plight of the messiah. Do you know what held him steady on his path, against all odds?”

The Baron didn’t lift his gaze from the paper. “No, I don’t.”

“Devotion, my lord. Omni gave him an opportunity to fulfill his destiny, as we are all given at some point, and Unum seized it. His devotion led him to Realization – the greatest destiny of all. He surrendered to his role in Omni’s plan, and was rewarded with immortality. Devotion is all it takes, my lord.” 

“Thank you, Aster. That will be all.”

Aster bowed his head before retreating into the keep.

The Baron stood there a moment longer. 

“The future favors the devout,” he muttered in prayer.

He conjured up an image of the Arcanus Lex in his mind, feeling focused by it, and opened the note.

Den is closed up tight. Rangers completely withdrawn.

No one by the name of Alexander Monroe that I could find. 

Every Ranger has a “mark” of some kind. Not sure of specifics. Those without the mark are frauds. 

Hope that helps.


Baron Everette passed a thick finger over his brow, deep in thought.

Den is closed up? What the hell is the Den? He re-read the next line. 

No Ranger by the name of Alexander Monroe…

So he was lying to us about his name. 

No surprise there, but it still just left more questions. What was his real name? Who was he, really? Why was he out here in the middle of nowhere?

Hiding some big secret. A secret worth a lot of money…

He glanced back at the paper and read the next line.

Every Ranger had a ‘mark’ of some kind, proving them to be a legitimate member…

The Baron scratched at his head. He knew nothing of this. But then again, what he knew of the Rangers was very little to begin with.

Maybe this ‘mark’ is a tattoo of some kind. That would make the most sense. I’ll need to have him examined for something like that.

Or maybe it’s some sort of badge or insignia they carry on them… 

But no, he realized. They had confiscated all the prisoner’s belongings when they found him…

The fight was over, and Duncan had obviously won. They were stripping off layers of guardsmen armor, sweaty and rancid. The Baron waited for Duncan to finish, just to be safe from the stench.

Le Treu noticed him. He grabbed his weapons and clothing off the ground and approached. His scar cut through a bitter expression.

“Hah! Well fought,” the Baron said. He slashed the air with an invisible blade. “Fast as a speeding bullet!”

“Waste of my time,” he muttered as he walked by. The Baron shot him a bewildered look before hurrying to catch up.

“Let’s head to the reading room,” the Baron said. “Have you eaten?”

“Not hungry.”

He glanced at Duncan, trying to gauge his mood. His face was stony and impassive.

What’s gotten into him? You’d think he lost that fight.

The two entered the reading room. A wake of dutiful servants trailed behind them, attending to their needs. The balcony doors were thrown open, and the room was filled with warm scents.

The Baron poured himself a glass of brandy and dropped into a cushioned chair. “Should I start, or would you rather?”

Duncan took the seat opposite, tossing his bundle of weapons onto the table with a clatter that made the servants flinch. He grunted and began undoing the laces of his boot.

“The boys haven’t seen the Ranger, but they’ve all heard of him. No one’s thrilled about it. They’ve got nothing to do, and it’s making them restless.”

The Baron mopped his forehead with a neatly folded handkerchief. “Should I be concerned?”

Duncan didn’t look up from his boots. “No. I’ll handle it.”

The Baron leaned back in his chair, tucking the handkerchief back into its pocket.

“What’s got you in such a bad mood? You just wiped the floor with the poor captain. He only lasted ten minutes!”

Duncan glared back at him. The Baron flinched.

“Ten minutes? I could have ended that in thirty seconds,” he snapped. 

The Baron watched the frustration fade from his expression, replaced now with a hardness in his eyes.

“I want to find the Render’s body,” Duncan said suddenly. 

The Baron blinked. “Where’s this coming from?”

Duncan leaned forward, his dark eyes burrowing into the Baron.

“I need to know if the Ranger really killed it.”

“First at the dinner, and now? What is it with you and that monster?”

Duncan seemed on the verge of answering before he restrained himself.

The Baron put his hands up. “Alright Duncan. If this is really something you feel you need to do. Got to admit – I’m curious myself.”

Duncan leaned back, his posture relaxing into the chair.

“I think you’d be interested to hear this,” the Baron continued, handing Duncan the note from across the table. “This just came in from my contact in The Reach.” 

Duncan read it silently. 

“Sounds like he lied about his name, after all,” Duncan said, handing the note back. “Doesn’t mean he’s not a Ranger.”

The Baron’s eyebrow shot up. “I thought you’d say the opposite! You didn’t seem convinced before…”

“I hope he is.”

“You and me both, Duncan…” the Baron said slowly, unsure of his sudden change. “Ever heard of something called the ‘Den’?”

“It’s the Ranger’s headquarters.”

“Ah. Of course. How very…Free Folk-ish.”

“What’s this about a mark,” Duncan said, pulling off his boots one foot at a time.

The Baron scratched his chin. “I’m not sure. I was hoping maybe you knew something. I barely know anything about the Den, the Rangers, or any of that.”

Duncan set his bare feet up on the table, crossing his legs. 

“Neither do I,” he said, wiggling his toes.

“Really? I figured you’d have some experience in The Reach, what with your…” he waved vaguely at Duncan. “…adventures.”

Duncan snorted. “Piracy, you mean.”

“Well, yes. That, and your other criminal escapades.” The Baron lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned in conspiratorially. “You’re telling me Mr. Glass never once paid The Reach a friendly visit?”

Le Treu frowned, the scar on his face contorting. “No. I never did any work in The Reach. Plenty in the Divide, but never on Reach soil.”

The Baron leaned back, looking disappointed. “Oh well.” He glanced at the note in his hand. “We’ll just have to figure out this riddle ourselves. This ‘mark’; I’m assuming it’s some kind of tattoo – something Rangers are branded with? You were the one that found him – Do you remember seeing anything like that on him?” 

Duncan considered for a moment before replying. “No, but it was hard to tell. He was so cut-up and dirty.”

I’ll have Aster check his body, the Baron thought to himself. 

“How is he, by the way,” Duncan asked, trying to sound casual.

“The Ranger? Well and truly sedated right now. I’ve got him on a consistent dose of Atrix, fresh from the streets of Machia.”

Duncan blinked. “Atrix?”

The Baron nodded. “It’ll keep him reliant on us. Even if he tried to escape, he wouldn’t get far without needing another needle. I’ve cut off the herbalist’s contact with him, too. No sense letting her interfere anymore.”

“He could just kill you and take the supply for himself…”

The Baron waved a hand dismissively. “He’s harmless in that state.”

“That won’t stop a Ranger.”

“For someone who’s never worked in The Reach, you sure know a lot about them…”

Duncan shrugged. “Not really. Just rumors and legends.”

“Like what?”

Duncan drained the rest of his coffee before speaking. “The Rangers are Templars: clerics of a single saint. In the Ranger’s case, it’s Saint Lauretta. They’re scouts, trackers, pathfinders, and headhunters during peacetime – masters of the wilderness. But they were founded in war, like most things in The Reach. They’re a fighting force first and foremost. Don’t know much else. They’re a queer sort.”

“How do you mean?”

Duncan looked blankly at a wall as he saw some distant memory. “I don’t know – you hear all about the Paladins of Saint Zaratas. Hell, most people could name a few. They’re heroes. The Rangers though?” Duncan shrugged. “I couldn’t name a single one. Honestly I thought they had gone extinct until now. They’re Templars just like the Paladins, though; they shouldn’t be underestimated.” 

He rolled his empty saucer around on the table’s surface. “If a supply of Atrix is the only thing you’ve got over him, he’ll kill you and take it. And I can’t always be there to prevent him.”

“In that case,” the Baron said. “We should change our relationship. The more he sees me as an antagonist, the more likely he’ll be to resist. We should give him more freedom, show him we aren’t his enemy.”

“What kind of freedom?”

The Baron sipped his brandy, now facing outside with his back to Duncan. “Let him out of that cell, for one – make him feel like a guest rather than a prisoner. We could make him hate us, but trust is a far more effective manipulator. Besides, he would be far more willing to share information with a friend than with an enemy.”

“Quite a risk.”

“Every worthwhile venture carries some risk, Duncan.” He waved his glass in the air to punctuate his point. “I’m not frightened of the future. I know whom it favors.”

Duncan froze, startled recognition on his face.

The Baron didn’t notice. He was looking out the open balcony doors, watching two squirrels chase each other across tree branches. 

“Have you ever been a religious man, Duncan? These days, I find myself…pondering. More than usual. What sort of a man was he, Unum the Messiah? What plans has Omni laid out for me? Whatever they are, I feel…drawn to them. Aster’s really opened my eyes. I wish I had paid more attention at church during my youth, really absorbed the teachings, allowed it to strengthen my mind early on. Better now than never, I suppose.”

Le Treu’s face had drained of color. He sat tensed, staring uneasily at the Baron’s back.

The Baron cleared his throat and swiveled back around. Duncan managed to compose himself before the Baron could notice.

“Anyways, I’m rambling now. Back to the topic of this ‘mark’; my other theory was a medallion or badge of some kind. But you didn’t find anything like that on him? What’s wrong? You look pale.”

”No – nothing. He didn’t have anything like that on him. He mentioned losing all his gear though. The mark could have been with that.”

“Good memory!” The Baron leaned his elbows against the table, sunlight streaming in past him. “What are the chances we can find that gear?”

“Not great, I imagine. But I can try.”

“I don’t like having you away for such long periods of time, Duncan. Especially when I’m about to let him out of that cage. Let’s send someone else.”

“You could do that, but what’s the guarantee that ‘someone else’ would keep their mouth shut about what they find. At least if I do it, we can prevent more rumors from spreading.”

The Baron frowned at his empty glass and rose to refill it. “Fair point, Duncan. Alright, I’ll let you head this expedition. Just do me a favor, would you; keep it discreet. Only bring those we can trust.”

Duncan grunted his agreement. “I know just the man.”

Mink would have walked right by the hideout if he hadn’t been the one to build it. 

It lay camouflaged into the side of a wooded hillock with mud, moss, and fallen boughs. Though it couldn’t be seen from the outside, the hillock actually split into a small trough, some five feet deep. This shallow depression served as the room around which the hideout had been erected.

Mink removed the camouflaged door of woven branches and stepped inside. He almost bashed his shin against the stone furnace nestled in the corner. That would have to be moved later. A sizable pile of firewood lay next to it, spotted with moss and white mold. Beside that was what he called a table – really just four large rocks lined up together. 

A bucket beside that still held water, two stolen mugs floating within. A carving knife, hatchet, bedroll, old pack, oil lantern, and mostly empty quiver of arrows were shoved to the back. Snares and wires dangled beside furs and pelts. 

It was a formidable project, but one that he relished. Sure, the roof leaked in heavy rains and the furnace was only good for providing warmth and boiling water, but it would sustain a man in hiding, should he need to lay low for a few days. 

And, gods be damned, Mink knew those days were coming. 

He sat down heavily beside the table – careful to avoid knocking over the bucket – and started to pack his pipe again. Insects crawled in and out of the earthen walls, burrowing between live roots. Mink struck a match off his boot, took a drag, and flicked the smoldering nub into the cold furnace.

He sighed, tobacco smoke curling between his lips. 

Things were getting tense back in camp; even a recluse like him could tell. The lads flocked around Max like sheep to the shepherd. He couldn’t blame them. Max had a certain charisma – a personality that just made you want to be around him. 

Mink shifted his bum and scratched at his tangled beard, pipe clenched tightly between teeth.

Everybody was growing impatient and frustrated with the Baron – their employer and, for some, their savior.

His opinion was split. For one, he had been in Glaustow, held in a three-foot cell beneath stone and iron, hopeless and betrayed, waiting to be taken to Chamber Eleven. The Baron had gotten him out, along with a dozen others of Duncan’s band. 

He had saved them all from hell. 

Sweet apple-wood smoke curled around Mink’s head, filling the dirty hideout, suffusing with the smells of moss and pine. The slivers of light from outside lit the smoke with a ghostly glow. 

Perhaps he should feel like he owed the man.

On the other hand, it hadn’t been done out of the kindness of his heart – Eugene Everette needed them to terrorize barony town and keep the townsfolk dependent on him – but he had saved them nonetheless, and expected them to serve him and raid at his command.

Duncan played the role well. Everette relied on his skill and leadership, and Duncan used his influence to keep the crew fed and looked after. 

But boredom always comes for the idle, and the Baron hadn’t called on their services since the Render. He hadn’t needed them, after all. Leave warriors with nothing to do for long enough and they’ll grow restless. Rebellious, even.

Mink didn’t care for the raids to begin with, so it didn’t make much difference to him whether they were called upon or ignored.

If it were up to him, Mink would live out in the woods six out of seven days of the week. He’d avoid talking to anybody, dealing with their problems, or listening to their complaining.

He leaned back against the inner dirt wall, tiny roots poking into his lower back. He took a drag from his pipe, tamped it down, and sighed. 

This is the life…no people. No bullshit.

He had to piss, and eventually could ignore the urge no longer, so he groaned and pulled himself back out the entrance, into the open air. 

With a sigh he angled his stream, lost in a daydream. Decent weather, clear skies, and blessed silence.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

He shook off the last drops, buckled on his trousers, and decided it was time to get to – 

His gaze came to rest on the ground, beside the dark, dribbled stain of his urine. Left in a patch of drying mud was a single imprint. A boot print.

He paused. Is that mine? Did I come from that way? 

No, of course not. The hideout was to his back – not in front of him. And besides, he came in from the south, not the north.  

He stamped his own boot into the mud next to it. The print it left was smaller than the original by a slim margin, with a different sole.

His breath caught in his throat.

Am I being followed?!

Mink glanced left, then right. Squatting to his haunches, he examined the print closer, his heart beating to a new tempo. 

Fresh. Quite fresh. Did it lead anywhere? He ran his eyes along the surrounding floor of leaves and needles. Thinking he might have found something, he moved off to the left, paused, then backtracked carefully to the right.

There! A much vaguer print, followed by an oddly broken branch. 

But wait…no, that was his own footprint.


Mink could feel eyes on him, watching from the woods. He raced back to the hideout, snatched up his bow, and whirled around to face the forest. 

“Who’s out there!” 

Squirrels danced and played to the sounds of the mourning dove. The canvas of brown and gray stretched on, unbroken.

“Sonuva bitch,” Mink muttered to himself. 

His secret was lost. Nowhere to hide. Mink stood there, paralyzed with uncertainty.

The Trail – Chapter 20

John marched up the switchback incline that led to the Barony proper. It was late afternoon by the time he and Jonathan had gotten back, after having dropped their gear off in Quarry Town. He had let Jonathan have the rest of the day to himself. Jonathan had been sullen the rest of the walk home, afterall, and John didn’t know how to improve the boy’s mood.

He was ashamed by this, and surprised at himself. A father should know his child better, he reasoned. With Jonathan, he really only had one teaching method as a father: pass on to him every skill he could – leave Jonathan with something that he could live on for the rest of his life. That included his trade, of course. 

But when his son knew things he couldn’t possibly know, and heard things in the dead of silence? When he struggled and strained in a way John couldn’t comprehend? How was he supposed to deal with that? How was he supposed to be a father through that? 

Normally, a boy his age would go to his friends for support. But Jonathan had no friends. None that John knew of at least. 

He scowled. Another thing he didn’t know about his son.

Jonathan was an odd kid. He didn’t get along with others easily, and his presence made people feel uncomfortable. He spent most of his time alone, working with his hands, seeming content with no one for company but himself. The rare exceptions included Ms. Fiona and Rector Owens, whose company he clearly enjoyed. 

So what was a father to do? John tried his best, by his own account, but it was never enough. He always felt lacking in his duties to his child, never having the right words to say or the right reaction to things that came up – a man out of his league.   

An explosion from the distant mines rumbled across the Barony. He paused to look out over the town, now bathed in a golden sunset, lost in thought. The sound reminded him of that cavern – retreating shadows in the lantern light and a forest of stalagmites. 

He shivered at the thought and continued on.

He was grateful to his wife. She had an easier time relating to the boy, always with gentle words and encouragement, things that didn’t come easily to John. He smiled nonetheless. He had found the right woman.

But Jonathan had been avoiding her recently. 

Avoiding his own mother – certainly not the oddest thing a child could do, but Jonathan wasn’t the sort, and there were emotions behind his avoidance that John couldn’t explain. Emotions of disappointment and concern. Jonathan wouldn’t talk to his father about it – John had tried – and Clara was just as clueless.

It had torn a rift in their small family. He and Clara should be stalwart and reliable teachers to their son – authority figures that he could look up to and aim to become one day – that’s how it had been with John and his own father, at least. But Jonathan’s sudden behavior toward his mother had changed all that. 

A group of Condor Guards came jogging toward John, training to stay conditioned. They wore gambeson armor and chainmail coifs about their necks, with open-faced helms protecting their heads. Most were toting muskets and truncheons. An officer led the rank, pistol and sabre rattling on his belt. John stepped aside to let them pass.

Ms. Fiona, he decided. She’ll be able to help, if no one else. I should go see her this week. Bring Jonathan with me…

He frowned. Saints, I hope this is just a phase of his.

He rounded the last switch in the road, breathing hard from the climb, and approached the portcullis. A wooden, two story building guarded the approaching road from the inner sanctum of the Barony proper, acting as a short tunnel through which every visitor would have to pass. The colors of sunset painted the gatehouse in an ominous blood red. The actual portcullis itself – a heavy iron gate that could be dropped closed- was almost always kept open, as it was now. 

Men-at-arms lounged within the gateway’s tunnel, looking out over the sunset and chatting. They nodded to John as he passed by, barely pausing the conversation. Their words echoed and bounced off the wall of the underpass as John crossed the threshold into the Barony proper.

Towns within towns within towns, he thought. Quarry Town, Barony town, Barony proper….It never ends.

The keep was off to the left. It stood above all – grey and imposing. John appreciated its craftsmanship: no stone stood out of place. No turret stood higher than another, no window wider than their neighbor. The Baron’s flag of black and green hung proudly from the parapets, illustrated with the Everette condor on its face. Beneath it the Baron’s soldiers, servants, and craftsmen bustled here and there.

Huddled close within the keep’s shadow was the chapel, run by Rector Owens. John reckoned his son knew that chapel inside and out, from all his time spent with the old Archivist. Further past it would be the greenhouses and servants’ quarters, tucked neatly away out of sight.

The stableyard stretched out to the north, where Christoff bred and raised the Baron’s horses. John could see them standing in the enclosed field, grazing quietly. Further past was nothing but forest and a thin trail winding into its depths.

To the right of that, on the edge of the bluff upon which the Barony proper sat, were three buildings arrayed around a well that was shaded by a single maple tree. Among these were the forge and armory – the most active area of the proper by far. Chief’s hammer was almost always banging away at something, and soldiers cycled in and out of the barracks in regular intervals. Nearby was a longer, two-story building that acted as a dormitory for guests.

John turned left toward the keep, putting the armory, dormitories, and barracks behind him. The sunset blinded him for a moment before he was swallowed by the keep’s shadow. The main door was open, and he saw servants bustling past. He stopped one walking by.

“Where’s the Baron?”

“On the second floor balcony, sir.”


He climbed the stairs, turned a corner, and came face-to-face with a young man in the hallway. The two were caught in a moment of awkward surprise.

The young man in question was neatly dressed in a white collared shirt and long brown jacket of a material John didn’t recognize His slacks were black and well-ironed. He had been in the middle of drawing a cigarette from a brass case tucked in his jacket pocket. John marked his blonde hair and beady eyes.

“Theodore. Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” Theodore said without emphasis, and slipped past John.

I forgot to say my lord, John realized. He dismissed it from his mind. Time to focus. 

John stepped in the room. 

It was a reading parlour – broad and comfortable. Chairs had been positioned in the corners, beneath book shelves holding some of the oldest journals and historical reports from the first settlers of the Silver Weald. An armchair was flanked by two hanging lanterns and a potted plant John didn’t recognize. 

The doors to the balcony were thrown wide open to the fading light of early evening. A meek breeze flipped through the pages of an open book left on the armchair, perusing its contents. 

Further past, the Baron sat at a table with Ernst, pouring over ledgers, receipts, and other documents, held down by silver knick-knacks and paperweights to combat the breeze. John turned to close the door behind him, but a mystery servant on the other side shut it first. He suddenly felt trapped.

“John, good to see you,” the Baron said, peeking up over his reading glasses. He hid the concern from his voice, but John could see a new tension in his body language. He knew why John was here.

Vaguely good news or catastrophically bad news, John thought. Well, he’s about to find out.

He had mentally prepared himself for this conversation on his walk from Quarry Town. He was a prospector, not a politician or businessman. He did not mince words or manipulate. Nothing to do but present the facts – do his job and get home to his family. The thought gave him the conviction he needed. 

“Afternoon, John,” Ernst said, dressed in a rakish embroidered vest and ruffled undershirt.

“Afternoon,” John replied, taking the seat offered to him. He couldn’t help sighing as he sat back. It had been a long day. And it was about to get even longer. His hands started aching.

“Ernst, would you excuse us for a moment,” the Baron said, not unkindly.

Ernst gave a casual smile and tucked his own glasses in the pocket of his vest. He ran a hand through his balding head as he stood. “Of course,” he said. “You know where to find me.” 

He gathered up his papers and left the room, leaving a trail of perfume behind him that John nearly gagged on.

The Baron poured two glasses of brandy and gave one to John before sitting back down. John glanced at it but didn’t touch it.

“Alright, John,” the Baron said, folding one leg over another, pen twirling through his thick fingers. “Let’s have it. What did you find.”

Just the facts…

“Well, we examined the slopes surrounding that ravine, first. We foun-”


John blinked. “Y-yes m’lord. My son and I.”

“Oh, right. Sorry, please continue.”

John cleared his throat. “We examined the slopes and found only a few small deposits of lead and one silver deposit, also quite small.”

He paused to gauge the Baron’s reaction. Nothing. His face was unreadably calm. The pen in his fingers twirled faster.

“What about the new mine?”

John nodded. “Yes, m’lord. We blasted deeper in.” God, his hands were hurting a lot now. 


He tried not to grimace – forced himself to hold the Baron’s eye. “Nothing, m’lord. Just a few more lead deposits. And a natural cavern we blasted open.”

The Baron uncrossed his legs and casually leaned his elbows on the table, glasses now in hand. “What about the cavern? No silver inside? Could it lead to others?”

John stiffened. He hadn’t meant to bring it up. 

Dammit, why did I have to mention the cavern?! 

“I…uh…that is, we didn’t go any deeper…”

The Baron frowned. “Why the hell not?”

Images of Jonathan flitted through John’s mind, terror in the boy’s eyes.

There’s something down there. We should leave, Da.

“I…determined it wasn’t safe.”

“What does that mean, John? Why not?”

John was no liar.

Even so, a battle erupted in his mind, pushing back on his sense of self. Lies were the tools of the deceitful – the untrustworthy. John prided himself on being a straightforward and honest man, one that could be relied on to do the right thing. But how could he possibly tell the truth? Well, you see, m’lord: my son had a breakdown in the cavern and told me something bad was in there – something I had no way of seeing or confirming for myself – so I believed him.

No, he wouldn’t lie. But he could still bend the truth. The Baron didn’t need to know everything, he decided. Hopefully he could live with that.

“The cavern was weak and prone to collapse,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. It was technically true.

John frowned. The Baron wasn’t even paying attention to him anymore. His fingers massaged the bridge of his nose as he thought. 

Did he even hear the last thing I said?

“So there’s still a chance…” the Baron muttered.


The Baron looked up as if surprised to see him still standing there. 

“The cavern. We’ll have to dig deeper. The silver’s not drying up – we just need to look harder.” He clapped his hands, settling the matter. “I’ll have a blasting and mining crew up there within the week. We’ll need a dozen miners, at least. We need to pick up the pace on this.”

“But – M’lord, that wasn’t what I – “

The Baron waved his hand. “Thanks for stopping by, John.”


John hesitated. The Baron’s back was already turned to the view outside. He wasn’t going to listen.

John left quietly out the front door, slipping past Aster on his way. 

He didn’t like the way that conversation went. But there was nothing to be done about it, and Solus had begun to set.

I’ll talk to Ms. Fiona. I’ll go tomorrow, first thing.

John left the Barony proper, passing the same guards on his way through the underpass. 

He descended the switchback ridge leading back to town and followed the main road, exchanging brief greetings with townsfolk. Candlelight flickered in the shuttered windows, warm and comforting. Dogs barked in the night. Men sat out in old chairs, sharing a drink with a friend after a long day in the fields or mines. They looked tired. 

John could tell who was a miner at a glance. They were in the most pain, wracked with headaches and stomach problems. Cavedrain, they called it. It ran rampant through the miners, crippling men still in their prime. Just another problem for Ms. Fiona to deal with. 

But there were smiles. These were a hardy folk, recently emerged from an age of demonic terror. The Render had left its mark on everyone. They still had a wariness about them like frightened deer. A barking dog had been their warning system for so long now that some still jumped at the sound. But there hadn’t been an incident in over a month – no butchered corpses in the night, no bandit raids, nothing.

All-in-all, things were looking up, John decided. Who knows – maybe the Render had taken care of the bandits while he was at it.

The thought wasn’t a cheery one, though. They would have died horribly, in great pain, before the Render dismembered them.

He stepped past stray chickens and dogs of the town. A few children still ran around after dark, soon to be called in by their parents. They wore threadbare clothing that was older than some of the town’s buildings. Everything was like that in the Barony: built upon ancient history like the foundation of a building. The clothing, the tools, and even some of the houses could date back to the end of the Freedom Era.

John decided he wanted to walk a little more, so he took a longer route through town. He passed a granary and turned at the well, clustered with small shacks and houses. He could hear laughter from a small tavern off to his right. He passed it by. 

No more Render, no more bandits, some peace and quiet. Is that so much? Saints know these people could use a little peace – we all could. Jonathan’s dealing with enou-

He froze. 

There in an alleyway to his left were two figures, shrouded in the shadow of night. His wife and Nico, captain of the Condor Guard. 

He had Clara up against a brick wall, skirts hitched up, her legs wrapped around his waist, moving with his thrusts. Her hands were in his hair. Nico was breathing hard, kissing her, his trousers around his ankles. 

Clara moaned and threw back her head, telling him to go faster.

John stood there at the mouth of the alleyway. His mind just….stopped. He couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was seeing. 

Is that….my wife?

Another moment passed in a stupor. Nico was close to climaxing. John couldn’t watch anymore.

He turned and walked quickly down the road, his mind exploding into activity.

There are so many things to get done the shed roof is leaking the door’s hinges need oil Jonathan needs a haircut I need to clear enough space to fit that wheelbarrow I need to pick up potatoes tomorrow morning Clara wanted me to fix that birdfee – 

Clara. That was the name of his wife. 

The wife that was sleeping with another man. 

His eyes started to burn. He wasn’t watching where he was going. He pushed past several townsfolk, earning more than one irritated glance.

I need to sweep the front stoop fix the flag stones get that pot repaired Rey needed to talk to me about something I was borrowing that shovel I should return it soon… 

Clara was fucking Nico. 

She betrayed him. 

He broke out into a jog, then a run. 

That belt buckle needs to be fixed before it breaks I need to pick up my wages from Ernst remove that wasp nest replace the oil in the lanterns update my maps with the new adit help Hank with his fence and bring Jonathan so he learns how to do it in the future…

She was his wife. 

They had a family together.

Exhausted and out of breath, he came to a stop on the edge of town. Crickets chirped in the night.  

His mind slowed. It was all too much.

John slumped up against a tree, slid to the ground, and the tears finally came.

The Trail – Chapter 19

Warm dust clung to John’s boots as he walked down the dirt road, munching pensively on a salted heel of bread. Next to him, quietly keeping pace, was his son Johnathan, devouring the last of an onion. 

It was early morning.

John set a fast pace. His son’s lanky legs allowed him to keep up. Neither of them felt the need to speak.

This wasn’t unusual. John’s mind was on the job as he walked: equipment, routes, and other preparations he would need to consider. These thoughts came as easily as breathing to him. They did not slow him down or cause him strain. Not after forty-five years of practice. 

These were things he had been trying to instill in his son – familiarity with his trade to the point where he could plan in his sleep. Preparation and a methodic eye for detail – they meant everything. 

The road, striped down the middle with grass, left the bridge spanning the Silverun behind and marched up a hill. Stumps and dying roots dotted the hills on either side of the road. What was once a dense, thriving thicket had been clear-cut for lumber used in the mines.

Orphaned saplings swayed in unison to the morning breeze. In the spaces of open ground between them grew cornflower and daisies, giving crickets their stage from which to dance and chirp. An eastern bluebird appeared with one of these in its mouth, still twitching. The bird disappeared just as quickly, leaving behind a quivering tree branch.

A peaceful morning if he ever saw one, but John’s head was elsewhere. This day was about to be very difficult. Not that the technical aspects of it would prove to be particularly challenging, but the outcome was entirely out of his hands and he hated it – bluebirds and daisies be damned.

John was a man who liked to create his own luck. The more information he could first gather about a certain task, and the more agency he had, the better he felt about it. That’s why every day he applied his principles of preparation and scrupulousness. It had kept him employed with honest work, fed his family, and gave him a trade to pass down to his child.

But a job like this – one that would be perfectly ordinary under different circumstances but now carried monumental weight – he felt anything but good about. There were really only two options: he delivered the Baron vaguely good news, or catastrophically bad news. 

What was it he said? “Bring me good news, John. I don’t want to hear anymore about ‘running dry’. Just go find me some goddamn silver!”

As the road wound to the left, Quarry Town came into view. 

Divided from the actual town of the Barony by the rushing waters of the Silverun, Quarry Town resembled a small hamlet of wooden cottages, shop fronts, and canvas tents – all arranged in a loose grid. Paths of surest brevity led to the butcher shop, the saloon, the foreman’s lodge, and other significant sites.   

The hour was early enough to still find laborers gearing up for the first shifts. The forge fires had been stoked well in advance, their smiths enjoying a morning pipe and early conversation with the miners and muckers before the first bell. Men sat out on the porches in stools and chairs, ragged and lean, dressed in suspenders and crumpled hats. They watched father and son pass by. A sparse few found the desire to greet them in passing.



“Mornin’ young fella.”

“Good morning,” Jonathan muttered, avoiding eye contact.

They took the main road through the center of town, giving a wide berth to carts hauling wood, stone, and iron ingots, following the flow of workmen.

Clerks went about opening shop fronts as laborers trickled in, looking for a place to get a quick breakfast or wet their throats with the first drink of the day. 

There was a ritual to it all, formed of paranoia and kinship. Accidents happened all the time. Unfortunately, they were often fatal. Every day on the job could be their last – saints preserve them. 

Everyone understood this. The man that started his morning with a beer and two eggs in the saloon’s corner seat would continue to do so for most of his seventy years of life, never knowing the world outside his habits. The ritual was normal, and normal was safe. Safe meant no more monsters or marauding bandits. Most took strength from their faith in the Father and the Saints in these worst of times. Hymns of community and family had kept them together through the generations.

John rounded a corner into the center intersection – the busy crossroads of Quarry Town.

As always, the town’s dogs came running at Jonathan with wagging tails and panting breath, overjoyed to see their favorite human. John always marveled at this. His son’s skill with animals was remarkable. He left Jonathan on the road to be smothered in canines as he unlocked the front door of the foreman’s lodge. 

The building was among the largest in Quarry Town, housing a front parlor on the first floor, a meeting hall and storage room on the second, several living spaces and the bailiff’s (second) office on the third. A iron emblem hung on the front stoop of the building, depicting a crossed hammer and pickaxe. 

These iron signs were everywhere in the town, their creaking sway just another part of the background noise. There were never any written words, in Machian Common or otherwise.

As far as John knew, only three people had the keys to the lodge – himself, Ernst, and Rey – and rightfully so. It held in storage John’s prospecting equipment, the foreman’s ledgers, and the deed to the mines. Looking around, he seemed to be the only one there.


 John climbed to the second floor, unlocked one of several storage rooms, and retrieved his gear from a footlocker. 

 …and an eye for detail

He checked and double checked that he had everything he needed before locking up: two climbing harnesses, two coils of climbing rope (marked in meters to double as a measuring tool), two pairs of steel climbing spikes, a leather tube containing his maps and measurements, two sticks of chalk, ten pitons, three cowstails, ten wooden stakes, two oil lanterns, and a delver’s flask. More advanced equipment remained behind – he would avoid using unless absolutely necessary. 

He checked that the locks were properly locked before returning to the pile of dogs that covered his son.  

Jonathan was wet with slobber, laughing and greeting each dog by name. 

Like a normal kid, John thought, for the first time in a long while.

He divided up the equipment between the two of them, making sure to carry the maps himself. They were worth more than he felt comfortable admitting, and cost no small amount of time or toil.

Jonathan hefted his burden onto his back without fuss. His father secured his own load before leading the way on the road out of Quarry Town, eyes forward.

Both of them drew more attention with their rope coiled across one shoulder, work belts laden with tools. They walked single file from road to alley to path and eventually to wooded trail.

The warm rays of Solus had heated the loose shale beneath their boots by the time they had made it into the ravine. John paused, scanned the rocky slope, and selected a relatively flat patch of ground nearby.

“Let’s set up here,” he said, and the two of them unburdened themselves of their equipment. Wordlessly they went about checking their work belts – both jingling with hammers and chisels – and tucked sturdy gloves into their pockets. John shielded his eyes against Solus and pointed up the incline.

“I’ll start there, below that tree, on the left side. You start over on the right, past that boulder and work your way in. We’ll meet here in the middle.” 

He passed his son a loose bundle of wooden stakes.

“Remember to mark what you find.”

“Okay,” Jonathan replied.

The two split up, hauling themselves over loose tumbling rock and dry soil. A thought occurred to John and he paused.

“And watch out for snakes,” he hollered. Jonathan looked over, nodded, and continued carefully up the incline.

The two went to work, sifting through the broken rock with hand and hammer. Solus cast two shadows on them: one darkening the hillside with shade, the other darkening their backs with sweat. After an hour John’s mouth was almost too dry to swallow. He paused to check on his son’s progress, smearing the sweat off his brow. Jonathan was making good time – exactly where he should be. But not a single marker. He frowned. 

“Did you forget to use the markers?” Jonathan looked up from his excavation, sweat plastering his mop of hair to his forehead.

“No, I haven’t found anything.” 

John sighed, fighting off a building sense of dread. He glanced up at his own progress. He hadn’t used a single marker, either. He stood up to full height to stretch his back, which ached in protest.

“Let’s take another hour or so to finish this up,” he said without much enthusiasm. “The fellas from demo should be here by then with the charges.”

Jonathan shot him a thumbs-up before toppling a sizable rock down the slope behind him.

The worries in John’s mind drove him to work with extra gusto for the next hour. Pink-stained cobalt and sparkling quartz were revealed beneath his hammer. Grunting with effort, he heaved large stones out of the way, always looking for the tell-tale signs of silver deposits.

The ante had never been higher.

Sure enough, he found it. Lifting aside a sizable chunk of granite, there beneath was a small patch of charcoal grey, roughly the diameter of his head. He nodded his satisfaction and marked the deposit with a wooden stake.

About time, he thought to himself, and turned to continue his way down when he paused in alarm. 

He was already back at the bottom. 

Only one find for two hours of work? This did not bode well. A brief image of the coming conversation he would need to have with the baron flashed through his mind. He quickly cut it off.

Don’t think of that now. Focus on what you can do….

John glanced to the side to see his son finishing up as well, with only two markers to show for it. His heart sank. Hopefully his were of better quality. 

“Anything sizable?” He asked. Jonathan was now shirtless, showing an unusually muscled torso for an thirteen year old. He looked back with a stern expression, dripping with perspiration. 

“No,” he replied, pointing with his hammer. “Just a small deposit of lead for the first, zinc and granite down that side by the edge, and nickel for the second. About that big,” he said, indicating his fist.

John sighed audibly and scratched his head. The day wasn’t done yet. They hadn’t even touched the new lode. There was still hope. 

“Alright. Let’s call it there. Hopefully the others will be here soon.”

Father and son sat down to a lunch of buckbread and dried fruit beneath the shade of an old sycamore. The Silver Weald played for them its lively bird song, punctuated by explosions from the nearby mines. 

John barely noticed the blasts. In an odd way, he just heard it as more birdsong. Its clap had shook the woodland for long enough to have become part of it.

Jonathan tugged on his shoulder, pointing up at the sky.

“Da, what’s that?” 

John shaded his eyes against the sun. 

“A hawk.” It banked left, wheeling around the nearby ravine. “Must be hunting.”

“Reckon the saints sent it?”

“Maybe. Could be an omen.”

“What kind of omen?”

The dangerous kind, he thought but didn’t say. The kind your future depends on. “Couldn’t say.”

“From which saint, do you think?”

“Dunno, son. Lauretta, maybe.”

“The Lady of the Woods, you mean?”

“Aye. But who’s to say.”

They sat in silence for a moment, sipping on a waterskin.

Jonathan piped in again.

“Is it true every time you mention the name of the underworld, a demon escapes to the surface?”

John shot him a look. Saints! Where does he come up with these questions?

Sometimes he felt like he had no idea what was happening in that little head of his.

“That’s what they say…”

Jonathan nodded sagely, as if he had learned something of great importance.

John raised an eyebrow. Clara, he thought. How did we raise such a strange child? He shook his head and stood up with a grunt.

“They should have been here by now. We’ll clean our tools while we wait.”

The two tended to their equipment as Solus approached its zenith. John’s mind wandered to thoughts of the mines, other tasks that needed tending to, and frustrations with people’s tardiness and lack of professionalism. 

Suddenly, a blast of pain shot through the joints of his hands, forcing him to drop his tool clattering to the ground. Jonathan glanced over. Clutching his hand, John grimaced and tried to flex his fingers. They did so, slowly and with an abundance of aching.

This had been happening a lot lately, and with increasing frequency. 

“You okay, Da?”

He stooped to pick up his tool. “I’m fine.”

But he wasn’t. Saints above, don’t let this happen. Not now…

He knew it was a long time coming. With every swing of the hammer he could feel the shock weaken and damage his grip, little by little. Clara was right – he needed to do something about it – show it to Ms. Fiona, maybe. But what if it was too late?

A sinking feeling took root in his chest, swelling in threat and size. What if it didn’t get better? It could put him out of work. Who would provide for Clara and Jonathan?

The lad was bright – alarmingly so, at times – and would make a fine prospector like his Da, but he wasn’t fully trained yet, and he was still too young. Clara couldn’t pay the Barony taxes on her own. 

No – that wasn’t the underlying problem, and he knew it. It was these dreams. He had it again, two nights back, and he knew with rising certainty that its events would come to pass. Him, alone with their son, a funeral pyre sending his beloved to the Storm Father. He didn’t know the how or the why, but it would happen. He was sure of it.

The sinking feeling in his gut had evolved into a full-fledged whirlpool, hurling him around its epicenter like a soggy piece of driftwood. 


He snapped to. “Wh-what?”

“You’ve polished that already. Four times.”

John looked down at his work belt, dripping with leather oil. His hands ached again. He set it down with a sigh. He needed to keep moving – keep doing something.

“Come on, if they’re not going to show up, we’ll get started without them. We can at least take another look at the back of that shaft before they detonate it.” He went to gather the necessary equipment before Jonathan stood up.

“They’re here now!”

John glanced over at the dirt road. “Well, fina-”

No one was there. 

He looked back at his son, who stood there patiently waiting, then turned back to the road. Sure enough, there came riding down a cart, hitched to a mule, led by several men.

John looked sharply at his son. There it is again! How does he keep doing that?! 

This tendency of Jonathan’s to know things he couldn’t possibly know worried him. 

I have to keep this…habit of his a secret. Who knows what others would do if they knew about it.

He hadn’t spoken with Jonathan about it directly. Everytime he tried to, the boy grew quiet and closed off. 

Maybe I should bring this to Ms. Fiona’s attention. She knows all kinds of spells and sorcery. Saints, I hope that isn’t what we’re dealing with…

The demolition crew consisted of four men, all stained in rock dust, wearing brimmed caps and loose shirts. Jonathan kept a wary distance from them. They were chatting distractedly among themselves, some smoking pipes just next to the cart of explosives. They seemed less than sober.

It took no small amount of patience to restrain his tongue, but John managed to hold back a string of reprimands at these scoundrels – showing up two hours late, and drunk at that!

What happened to the days when men were proud of their craft and worked an honest day for their families and fellows? Have Free Folk forgotten their morals so easily? 

The crew exchanged greetings with John – not acknowledging their own tardiness. He covered up his impatience with politeness. 

He led them to the new lode – yet to be named – a mile south of the ravine. The road leading there was barely wheel-worthy, and the crew struggled to keep their cart from tipping. They drove the mule on, cussing and snapping at each other in what was their version of teamwork.

John walked on ahead, pausing only to lend a hand in wrestling the cart over a large rock or root. He would not have paused to help them – especially with his son in tow – had it not been crucial to the job at hand. He would have much preferred to make it to the lode far before them so he and Jonathan could clear out the adit, check the supports, and prepare their gear.  

Instead, all six of them made it to the new lode together. Its dark entrance ran straight into a hillside, fringed all around with paper birch and ivy. Its silence would have been unnerving, surrounded as it was by the tranquility of birdsong, had the men not been used to such things.

John and Jonathan methodically checked the interior for animals with the light of their lantern, enjoying the cool air within. The shaft was quite small, only reaching a depth of about thirty meters before terminating in a dead end. The work put into it had been minimal, since they still weren’t sure if its yields would cover the cost of the dynamite used to extract it. Tracks had been laid down, along with a single medium-sized mine cart to allow muckers to clear out the rubble after a blast.

John took care in examining the walls and ceiling. Eventually, he found his own sloppy script written on the walls in chalk, pointing out various veins of ore along the strata of bedrock. 

The men outside gave him the signal that they were all ready, and he directed them to a small silver vein – one that, if blasted, wouldn’t undermine the structural integrity of the mine. He stepped aside as they went to work hammering a hole into the rock in two-man teams. This they did with surety and a practiced rhythm that set John’s mind at ease.

Eventually, with dynamite stuffed into the hand-drilled holes, everyone gathered outside. Jonathan covered his ears and tensed.

The blast shook the earth, and out from the mouth of the mine came billowing a cloud of pulverized rock dust. The others gave a whoop of childish excitement and made to go running into the adit to see the effect on the interior, but John made them wait fifteen minutes. If the explosion had destabilized the structure of the shaft, it would collapse violently into itself within that time. 

Of course, it was largely his responsibility to ensure that didn’t happen in the first place, but caution should be exercised all the same, he reasoned.

The adit and interior remained standing after fifteen minutes, and they entered the shaft with shovels in hand to remove the rubble and see what remained. The tunnel had widened significantly, revealing smaller, broken deposits of lead deeper within. 

John groaned. Not a good sign. Lead would certainly be of value, but not nearly as much as silver. Silver paid for its own flight back to Machia – not always so with lead. Putting it through the amalgam refinery would be the only choice left to the Baron, and that took time and labor. 

He thought of this while shovelling rock and dirt into the minecart alongside his son. Just work. That’s all he could do. Just work and get back home to his loving wife at the end of the day, comforted by the knowledge that he had put in his honest labor.

“Pits of Gaul! Look at this!” It was one of the demolitionists. Jonathan looked fearfully at the man that had uttered the cursed name. John paused in his work and walked over, unfazed. 

They were gathered around a fissure in one of the walls – a gap of cracked rock half a meter wide. It had probably split open in the blast. The lancing light of the crew’s oil lantern showed a passage on the other side, wreathed in darkness. 

The men looked at him questioningly.

“A natural cavern, looks like,” he said, scratching his chin.

Doesn’t happen everyday. This could be good luck. It would make prospecting for new deposits easier without having to blast our way around.

Another thought occurred to him, and he stopped scratching his chin.

But, at the same time, this means any more blasting we do is much more likely to cause a cave-in with this much open space…

Best to investigate. “Let’s widen this a bit, enough for one man to fit through. I want to see what’s on the other side.”

The men nodded and went about grabbing pickaxes. John let them do the hard work this time, instead gathering his climbing gear with Jonathan, just in case.

The demolition crew had the fissure widened within ten minutes. Jonathan took point, easily fitting through the gap, sweeping the darkness of the new cavern with lantern in one hand, delver’s flask in the other. John followed behind, squeezing himself through with effort. 

The tunnel curved away to the right and down a somewhat steep slope supported by stalactites and stalagmites that had fused into thin pillars. They could hear the steady plinking of liquid on rock. The smell was damp and the darkness all-consuming. 

Nothing stirred. They proceeded with caution, watching their footing.

Jonathan flicked open the stopper of the delver’s flask with a finger, swirled the contents within, and let it close. He watched to make sure the color of the liquid didn’t change.

Nope. Same old grey color. The air was good to breathe for now. But the lessons instilled in him by his father drove him to keep testing it – open the spring-loaded stopper, swirl the solution, close the stopper, check for color change. John nodded his silent approval. 

The walls of granite glistened with schist and tourmaline, hidden there in the darkness since time immemorial. Jonathan’s light branched off as he inspected the far wall. John followed along, circumnavigating the cavern.

Grey stone. No silver. He made several markings in chalk automatically.   

“Nothing here, Da.” Jonathan’s voice echoed off the walls.

John sighed. “Alright. Let’s see if we can make our way down that slope. We’ll need to set an anchor and go slowly.”

Jonathan nodded, and the two approached the slope’s edge. John took the lantern and inspected the terrain. The stalactites and stalagmites crowded the downgrade so thickly that the bottom couldn’t be seen. It wasn’t terribly sharp an incline, but in the darkness, with unsure footing and unknown depth, it could be dangerous.

John grunted and set his jaw. Down there. That’s the last place to find any silver. It’s now or never. Please let there be some…

“Alright, son. Set the anchor there, and we’ll start spooling your rope across the – “ 

Jonathan grabbed his sleeve. 

“Let’s leave, Da.”

John frowned. “What are you talking about? It shouldn’t ta…” he trailed off as he looked down at Jonathan’s face. The light of the lantern illuminated his expression.

Eyes wide, Jonathan stared down into the unseen cavern with terror.

“Da. Let’s leave.” 

He was clutching his ear as though in pain.

John had seen his son like this before, when Jonathan had been younger. His skin crawled. 

He kneeled down to be eye level with him.

“What is it?”

“There’s…something down there. We should leave.” 

John’s blood ran cold. He snapped his light down into the forested slope of rocky pillars. Shadows retreated into their hiding places. Water dripped off of stone. Nothing moved.

He could vaguely make out the sounds of the demolition crew’s banter outside. He hadn’t noticed it before – how it bounded off the walls and ceiling, carrying further into the darkness. Now it seemed jarringly loud. His nerves suddenly felt stretched to breaking. 

He looked back at Jonathan, shaking and covering his ears to keep out the…silence? 

What has gotten into him?

The boy looked up at his father with a desperate pleading.

“Da, please!” he whispered. “This is a bad place. We need to leave!” 

This is one of his insights, John realized. He hesitated. The boy has never been wrong before…

“Alright, kiddo. Let’s leave.”

The two left the dark slope. Jonathan gripped his father’s sleeve the whole time, practically pulling him out of the cavern. John saw his son’s eyes dart back to that darkness incessantly. He marvelled at the boy’s transformation. 

Something really shook him up. He found himself looking back over his shoulder into the cavern. 

He said something is down there. Something bad…

Without even noticing it, John had stopped worrying about the silver. 

As they emerged back into the mine’s shaft, the crew asked what they had found. John didn’t lie. “There’s nothing good in there,” he said, and the men accepted this as reason enough. 

Jonathan didn’t say a word. He sat under a tree, knees huddled close to his chest, staring back into the gloom.

The Trail – Chapter 18

When the Galioux landed in the clearing outside the barony proper, Eugene Everette was there alongside Aster, several servants, and his wife Katherine. 

The skyship gently descended in a cloud of its own blue vapor, scattering nearby birds and woodland critters. 

Katherine stood next to her husband in the open air,  heart beating quickly with anticipation, praying this reunion with her children would be a fresh start.

She could not leave hope’s ledge despite the many times she had fallen from it. The view was too intoxicating to resist. Old memories and wounds were partially forgotten. This time things could be different between them – more like the parent and loving child dynamic that was so normal for other families; no more cold, hostile glances, no more being treated like an unwanted outsider in her own home, no more being humiliated to please the father.

Katherine loved her children. Of course she did. She was a mother and that’s what good mothers were supposed to do. 

Yes. She loved them very much.

Out of the hatch came stumbling Theodore and Veronica, still familiarizing themselves with normal gravity. Veronica had grown flawlessly into her womanhood – all dark hair, light skin, and subtle curves that were not so prominent two years ago. She had the crew wrapped around her finger – several of them eagerly hauling out the trove of luggage she had brought. 

Theodore descended the ramp next. He looked the spitting image of his father in everything but hair color. He had the blonde hair of his mother, much to the Baron’s disappointment. He was dressed in Machian fashion: pea coat, grey slacks, suspenders, and brimmed hat, currently tucked under one arm. His heavy-set build and beady eyes left no doubt as to who his father was. He looked paler than Katherine remembered, though, and was wiping perspiration from his forehead with a folded handkerchief despite the chill of the night. 

“Father!” Veronica skipped the rest of the distance into the Baron’s arms.

“Hello, pumpkin. Look at you! A lovely young woman! What happened to the little girl I let go two years ago?”

She giggled and kissed him on the cheek. “She’s right here, father! Oh, it is so good to see you again!” 

They separated from their hug. Katherine turned to Veronica.

“Welcome back, sweetheart,” she smiled weakly “how was the flight?”

“Hello mother.” She walked off to direct the men with her luggage.

She hadn’t been expecting much from her daughter, but still the little gleam of hope for a loving relationship with Veronica all but died.

Shoulders tensed, she took a ragged breath and hastily repeated her mantra.

I love my children I love my children I love my children….

 Surely her son would not treat her the same. 

Theodore was shaking hands with his father. 

“Father. I have returned.”

The Baron nodded. “Your studies are proceeding well?”


“I expect you were at the top of your class?” 


“Good. Go get settled in. You and your sister meet us in the dining room when you’re ready.”

Theodore moved on to his mother as the Baron disengaged to go speak with the captain. 

She felt more nervous than she would like to admit. How would their relationship be after two years of not seeing each other? Would he treat her like Veronica did? He was always the closest of her two children, but her family tended to scorn her like a disease,  like the outsider – the undesirable tainting the Everette name. 

Theodore wasn’t smiling as he approached her. He looked worn out, like he had just made it through a taxing ordeal. 

“Mother,” he said.

She forced a tenuous smile. “Hello Theo. How you’ve grown! Very handsome.”

He sighed and walked past her, pausing long enough to touch her arm and give it a weak squeeze.

For the first time in memorable history, Katherine felt joy. She almost smiled.

The night grew thicker over the barony proper as the siblings settled into their old rooms and prepared themselves for the first evening meal. They both knew what to expect: their father would use the opportunity to invite everyone worth inviting, and some arguably not. He would want to show off his children and their accomplishments, and reassert their authority in the barony while they were home for break.

With that in mind, Veronica had her servants draw a bath while she went about selecting her outfit for the evening. She welcomed the distractions – it kept her mind off the monster that might still be prowling the woods, waiting for her. She had insisted on a detachment of guards to be assigned to her as a personal escort. It was a relief to know that they were just outside in the hallway, should she need them.

Theodore, meanwhile, sat heavily into the chair in his old room and took a quick nap. The flight, combined with the stress of lying to his father’s face, had exhausted him mentally and emotionally. Just before slipping into unconsciousness, he had brief, disconnected thoughts about Twosford, Gracie Newel, and his terrible, failing grades. 

He awoke to the sound of his door creaking open. In walked a petite serving girl, carrying folded towels.

“My lord, I brought – “ she paused when she saw him coming out of a nap.

 Fear swept over her face. 

“I’m so sorry! Forgive me, I didn’t realize you were asleep!”

She hastily dropped the towels on a nearby counter and fled back out the door. Alone in the room, Theodore sat there, feeling embarrassed and self-conscious. He straightened himself out and combed his hair pack in place, cheeks burning. 

The encounter, mundane though it was, stayed in his head even as he was walking out the door to dinner. It blended with the uncertainty of the coming social encounter. He hated the feeling – halfway between reliving the past and fearing the future. The run-in with the servant girl had been different, though, from what he was used to undergoing at the University.

He realized as he traversed the cold hallway that it was the first time someone had been afraid of him in a long while. He was a lord again. People here feared and respected him.There would be no more insults and slander, at least not to his face.

He shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but he had grown used to the life of a city hermit, where self-isolation and social avoidance had spared him the humiliation of being out in public. 

But no more. Here, he was at the top. He was a lord again. 

As he turned the corner and passed by the parlor, he lit a cigarette and reflected on the servant girl’s face. 

She must be new, he decided. She had been awfully pretty, in a simple sort of way. He found his pulse racing.  

Pretty and petite. And terrified of displeasing him. 

He entered the dining room then, and was assaulted by greetings and warm welcomes. Quickly made uncomfortable by the attention, he snatched up the first drink he saw and downed the glass for courage. With desperation he reminded himself that here, he was top dog.

You’re not in Twosford anymore. You’re a lord. They are afraid of you, not the other way around.

Another drink couldn’t hurt. He shook the hands of the guests milling about the dining room table as he secured himself another glass. 

They are afraid of you. You are not afraid of them.

The mold of the young lord of the Silver Weald had been empty for a long time. He stepped into his old role and pulled it snug about him. He now saw how the guests spoke to him with flattery and compliments, knowing well the danger of gaining his ire. Theodore drank it all in as he did the wine, intoxicated by the power.  

He couldn’t help but smile. It felt good to be home. 

The dining room glowed with an inviting warmth. It featured a great hearth, putting out heat on cold winter nights and unusually chilly spring evenings like this one. It had a veranda opposite the entrance, overlooking the barony proper to the east. 

Of course, the room would not be complete without a table, and this particular table took up eighty percent of the floor space. It was old mahogany, its story well archived in the dents and scratches carved on its surface.

Carefully laid out in equal spacing on the table were three candelabra made of barony silver. Regiments of oatcakes, warm bread, stuffed sausage, and sharp cheese were arrayed tastefully between them. Fluted wine glasses stood stoically beside clean plates and sparkling silverware, waiting to be filled with the best red wine from the barony cellar. 

Sitting at the table was everyone the Baron could think of inviting: the stablemaster, the bailiff, the captain of the Condor Guard, the forgemaster, the archivist, and, of course, Duncan Le Treu. The Baron sat at one end of the table, his wife Katherine at the other.

Aster stood behind the Baron in the corner, calmly surveying the performance of his servants, moving with clockwork efficiency to serve the guests.  

Veronica and Theodore sat on either side of their father. Directly next to Theodore, on his right, was seated Ernst, the Bailiff, dressed cleanly and smelling lightly of perfume. He was slightly drunk on wine before the first course was served, and was recounting Theodore with his own tales of studying in Machia.

“Now, keep in mind, this was back in the thirties: things were simpler back then. No Dardassa, no pirates north of The Reach, and none of this ‘Liberalism’.” He was talking a little too loudly for Theodore’s liking. It was hurting his ears, and drawing attention away from other conversations.

“This was also right after the war, mind you, when Machia was struggling to rebuild its economy and soldiers were returning from abroad looking for employment back in the cities. Sure, money was scarce, but back then you could get a nice meal for ten pity. At the time, I was working for a ……”

Ernst droned on. Theodore was forced to sit there, nodding politely. 

Across from him, flanking his father, sat Veronica, trying not to be bothered by the poor table manners of the stablemaster, Christoff, who smelled like horse and hacked wet coughs filled with phlegm.

On Theodore’s side, past the chatty Bailiff, sat Duncan Le True, laughing at something Nico, the Captain of the Condor Guard, had said. Theodore wished he could have sat next to Duncan, if only to ask him about how he killed the Render. 

The forgemaster, called ‘Chief’, was laughing alongside Duncan, trying to cut in his own recounting of the same comic moment. He was by far the largest of the three: broad and thick, with biceps the size of his bald, bearded head. Captain Nico still had the energy of youth about him. With a face that never seemed to age, he looked to be in his mid twenties, fifteen years short of his actual age. Only the little flecks of grey in his otherwise black head of hair betrayed the illusion of youth. Duncan said something at Nico, who pretended to be offended, causing more laughter from the other two. 

Baron Everette watched the proceedings of the table. Sensing the atmosphere, he waved Aster over his shoulder and gave the command to begin with the feast.

Marmalade-braised duck legs with brussel sprouts was to be the main course, preceded by blue cheese bruschetta and followed by a summer salad in a basil vinaigrette.The night was to be ended with the Barony’s best brandy and chocolate tart.

The first course was served. Everyone dug into the bruschetta, pausing in between mouthfuls to continue the conversation. Most had drained their second or third glass of wine by the time the appetizer was being cleared off the table, and Christoff was sneaking sips from his flask of liquor, unaware that everyone at the table could see him. 

Katherine nibbled at her food, trying to avoid eye contact with Duncan Le Treu and to ignore the masculine antics of Nico and Chief as they tried to steal from each others plate. Stephen, the barony archivist, sat on Katherine’s right side, stuck in the midst of this. He was the only one not drinking. Quietly he flipped through a notebook with thin fingers,  his discomfort apparent. He wore the same old drab cotton pants and cracked belt around his thin waist. His forehead bore a black tattoo of the Arcanus Lex, or its rough approximation, signifying him as a Rector. 

Katherine watched Theodore awkwardly navigating the conversations at the far side of the table, becoming increasingly bold with each glass of wine. This filled her with love and sadness. Love – for the young man that was her son; quiet, shy, and still good inside. Sadness – for the struggle he was clearly fighting through. She didn’t know exactly what it was, but he was hiding something painful from everyone. That much she could see.

From one end of the table the Baron led the conversations, conducting everyone to pay their compliments to his children and to be grateful for the honor of sitting at the table, which they all did with smiles on their faces. Veronica spoke up.

“Father, when are you going to tell us about what happened with the Render?”

As if on cue, the room went quiet. Everyone wanted to hear the answer.

“Is it true a Ranger killed it?” Asked Nico. Some nodded along, having heard the same rumor.

“That’s a load of shit,” said Christoff through missing teeth. “It was Duncan, of course!”

Duncan’s fork and knife went still in his hands. He didn’t look up from his plate.

“Duncan! C’mon now! Tell us about it! What was it like!”

With a loud clatter Duncan threw down his silverware unceremoniously onto his plate, startling everyone. No one said a word. When Duncan Le Treu was pissed, it was best not to.

Christoff muttered a hasty apology, seeing his fatal error. The Baron looked around the table

“It wasn’t Duncan,” he said. 

Sensing an answer to their question, everyone forgot about their food to listen. Duncan sat unmoving, hunched over his plate. 

“It was a traveller,” The Baron continued. “A stranger not from here. He fought the monster and slew it.”

No one hid their surprise. Stephen the Archivist was now looking up from his book. Veronica was hanging on every word. Theodore risked a glance at Duncan – sitting still as a statue. A very angry statue.

Christoff spoke next: “So it was a Ranger? Did he survive?”

The Baron gestured with his pudgy hands. “No, no, he isn’t a Ranger,” he lied. “We managed to keep him alive.”

“And the body,” Veronica cut in. “Did you recover the monster’s body??”

The Baron looked at her with surprise, as if he hadn’t expected her to be interested. 

“No. We don’t have a body.”

The color drained from Veronica’s face. “So the Render could still be out there…”

“I doubt it. The traveller did have its weapon in his grasp when we found him. And his story seems believable.”

Veronica glanced back down at her plate, looking quite ill.

Another pause. The Baron looked to the servants hesitating at the edge of the room.

“What are you waiting for,” he hollered, face as red as the wine. “Bring out the next course!”

That was that. He had ended the questions and brought the discussion to a close. The guests were fine with that. They had been given enough information to fuel several years of gossip and conjecture.

As the lavish supper was winding to an end, the hunter sat alone in his cell on top of his mattress, nursing the hangover that still raged inside him. His pain, though by no means lessened, could be muddled through enough to hold a thought. And he had nothing if not time to think.

In fact, it seemed to be all he had left – time to think. His gear and all possessions were lost, along with his money. His health was gone. His freedom – taken. His mission – failed. That last one hurt the most. He had been without all the others before. But take away a man’s purpose and what is he left with? Survival? The habit of staying alive? 

What bullshit. Just kill me now if that’s all I have left. He snorted. It was hard enough with all that I had.

These thoughts were his spade, and with it he dug himself deeper.

It is because of these thoughts that the man was so desperate for solid ground, for something to arrest his unending plummet into despair. He felt panicky, seeing the dwindling light of reason and composure grow far, far away, and the mysterious depths of dementia rush toward him.

So he thought of the one purpose left to him: the encounter with the mountain lion. If what Duncan said was true, he had ended up far off the mountaintop after the battle. Which means – like his feverish recollection suggested – he actually followed the puma somewhere after he was shot. 

It must have shown me something! Something incredibly important…Why can’t I remember?!

He rubbed at his aching head.

Regardless, if there was even the slightest chance that moment had occurred, he would get to the bottom of it. He would find out what it was that beast had revealed to him.

He would need to revisit that mountaintop with the ruined aquifer. Maybe there he could retrace his feverish steps, or at least remember some clue that would help him figure it all out.

That meant he would need to recover his health – at least to the point where he could trek back out and find that mountain again. 

That was to be his new purpose. He clung to it.

Alone, he reminded himself. I need to do this alone.

He didn’t trust anyone here, especially not with such a personal matter, one that he suspected could change his life forever. 

He glanced at the thick door to his cell. He would need to find a way out eventually. The door didn’t have a lock on the inside, unsurprisingly. It’s iron reinforcements made it impossible to break down. He would need to wait for the right moment for someone else to open it from the outside before making his escape.

But that was a long way coming. Regaining his strength came first. 

Just then, the door opened. He hadn’t heard anyone approaching, so he was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that he considered bolting for the door and making his escape right then and there. 

In walked a thin, balding man in old court attire, cold blue eyes peering at him from above a curved, beakish nose. His white-gloved hand held a small cloth package.

He considered asking the intruder his name, but felt the energy and willpower to do so was out of his reach, so instead he watched as the pale stick-man gently placed the package on the table and went about unravelling it with private ceremony. 

The hunter couldn’t see what the package contained, but briefly had the image of a pistol, soon to put an end to his misery. He considered whether this would be a good or bad thing and broke out in dark laughter. 

The balding man turned to regard him with a look of mixed confusion and distaste. 

“What do you want,” the hunter said. “Here to interrogate me? At least be creative about it.”

Aster ignored the question, and turned around to reveal what he had been carrying: a long syringe and a corked bottle of milky-blue liquid. He stuck the needle through the cork and drew out the substance into the syringe. 

The hunter tensed. “What is that?”

“Medicine. It should help with the pain and your recovery.” The thin man’s voice was soft and devoid of emotion.

He approached the hunter with needle upraised. 

“It should?!”

“It will. Lie back down, please.”

He hesitated for half a second before complying.

His left pant leg was rolled up, and with a brief stab of pain the needle was inserted into the vein of his ankle. 

A blue wave, that’s what it was. 

It’s tidal forces came sweeping over him, gaining momentum as it crested over his head, casting a shadow that blotted out his cognizance. 

His instinct was to fight against it and resist its chemical influences. But as that wave broke upon his mind, all thoughts of resistance shattered. There was no fighting this. It swept aside his willpower like an empty sea shell, and he was thrust beneath its blissful current.

The warmth came first. From the feet it started, rushing up from there, all the way to the top of his head and into each hair follicle. He had never felt so remarkably warm and comfortable, like a thick blanket had been tucked snuggly all around him. 

Those pains and aches in his chest, head, and back changed their tune immediately, instead serenading him with songs of pleasure and paradise. The throbbing in his head became almost orgasmic. 

Deep in the wave, his surrender gave him the contentment he never knew he needed. Gone was the fear and doubt that had previously been so dominating. That dark hole he had dug himself – the one who’s exit seemed so unreachable – flooded with the onrush of blue chemical magic and out he swam, just as quickly as he had dug it.

His new purpose of finding that mountaintop, learning what the mountain lion had shown him, and escaping from his prison was completely forgotten. Who needed purpose when everything was perfect just as it is? He didn’t need to leave. He didn’t need to do anything at all.

Everything was okay – better than okay. Everything was wonderful

The Master of Servants stepped back and watched as the hunter sagged with a sigh of pleasure, lost in the high. He was an ugly sight, Aster decided. Unkempt and ragged like a wild dog, his face was permanently scarred with wicked claw marks. A horrible gouge, now healed over, ran up the left side of his head. Aster sneered.

“You know, Mr. Monroe,” Aster said as he went about wrapping the empty syringe back in the cloth. “I’ve always hated you and your kind.”

The hunter’s eyes closed. His body curled up in the fetal position and a line of drool crawled out from the corner of his mouth. He clearly couldn’t hear anything.

“You ‘Free Folk’, as you call yourselves, are perhaps the greatest mistake in human history. Freedom? What nonsense. The only freedom you monkeys want is the freedom to practice your perverse hedonism.”

He stood with back erect, looking down at the man, arms tucked neatly behind him.

“So listen here, monkey. Your presence here is a sin – a blasphemy against God. It is because of people like you and the herbalist that so many have strayed from the true faith, instead choosing to worship the weather and the plants and the dirt under their fingernails. You and your clergy of your fake storm god are the reason human civilization struggles to progress – the reason diseases are not cured and wars are not won.”

Aster said this as he would give a comment on the weather – indifferently and without care. Not once did his face break its stoic expression. 

“Imagine, for a moment, a world in which all people followed the true faith. Imagine if everyone accepted their role in society and worked toward reaching enlightenment – toward unravelling the divine construct of God and bettering humanity as a whole. Can you picture it? The progress we would make in the Divine Sciences! You think our skyship technology is impressive? Imagine what we could do with the backing of the entire human race. The real faith – the true faith would put us a thousand years into the future.”  

The hunter was sound asleep in ecstasy, a big, contented grin drawn across his face.

“You know, the drug I just administered is Atrix, but on the streets of Oulette they call it Wave. They say it causes your brain to interpret pain as pleasure and muddles your perception of hot and cold. The Machian military uses it on their wounded soldiers to keep them in the fight. It’s tremendously addictive. Being without it for more than twenty-four hours will break most people, so I regret to say you are now stuck here for as long as my lord wishes. You are his property now. When he tells you to dance, monkey, you will dance. I only wish we could do this to the rest of your kind.”

Aster stepped over to the table, his back now to the comatose prisoner, and loosely rifled through Fiona’s herbs and implements with one hand. He flipped through her papers, committing their contents to memory.

“But the Machinations of Omni are all encompassing. Heathens and savages like you are included in it’s holy design. So don’t worry: druggies have a part to play, too. Perhaps this knowledge will help you better step into your new role – as the addict that serves the faithful. So for that – if indeed it is true – I thank you. I will make sure your sacrifice is put to good use, monkey.” 

With that, the Master of Servants left, and the hunter was left alone in his cell – now his paradise – completely unaware of the trap he had fallen into. 

End of Book Two

The Trail – Chapter 17

The Galioux (as its name turned out to be), didn’t leave the docks until quarter to four in the afternoon, only because it had to wait for Veronica to return.  

The captain had suddenly announced it was ready to depart to a wharf (which had no particular location or name, according to him) as soon as Veronica arrived, from where the new cargo would be loaded. All they had to do was wait for her to return.  

Theodore found this unusual, of course. The cargo could surely just be loaded from this dock? But no, said the captain, citing vague excuses and imaginary tariffs. They had to be loaded from an entirely different location somewhere in Umbra Alley. Theodore knew of that district. It was not the kind of place he would like to visit. 

The captain looked increasingly agitated as they waited out the time for Lady Veronica to return. He paced back and forth, checking his watch and incessantly ordering the crew. Theodore knew something was not right, but he couldn’t do anything about it, so he boarded the Galioux and waited comfortably away from the public eye.  

The skyship looked dingy on the outside and felt equally so inside. He saw lumps of luggage in disarray, stained seats, and rust forming on railings. He remembered his lessons in artificery and prayed at least the reactor shell was up to code. He had a brief vision of being cooked inside-out by ghostfire and felt sick to his stomach. That image would stick with him for the rest of the flight, he knew. He quickly relocated to a seat as far away from the reactor as possible. 

Twenty minutes later Veronica arrived, arms laden with the fruits of her exhaustive shopping, and the captain set off immediately. Theodore gave her a brief update on their next stop to pick up cargo. She was equally puzzled by this strange and sudden detour. They gave each other uncertain glances from across the aisle, but said nothing else.   

Things only got stranger. The “wharf” they were landing at wasn’t a wharf at all. It was a warehouse, connected to a small grid of abandoned depositories, clearly another victim of poor city funding. It’s shattered windows glared at the streets like hollow eye sockets, partially patched over with wooden boards. Lights shown through the barricades, fleeting and brief.  

Outside the warehouse were people, looking diminutive from the skyship window, milling about in small groups. Some patrolled the perimeter of the grounds. Separating the facilities from dingy apartments were trash-lined streets and alleys where stray dogs fought for scraps. The occasional tramp shuffled beneath broken streetlamps, giving the patrolling goons a wide berth. 

Every head was craned up toward the approaching skyship. Theodore and Veronica watched them grow larger as the captain brought the Galioux into a low hover beside the warehouse. He gave the call for the hoist, and passed by the two siblings on his way to meet the strangers below. Theodore noticed the shining grip of a pistol under the captain’s jacket. His face looked grim with determination.  

Four other airmen rushed past to join their captain, equally armed with pistols and daggers. Theodore tried to act unperturbed as he mopped the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief. Veronica was openly staring. 

“What’s going on?” No one answered her. 

 The captain and his entourage descended via the hoist, and the dark figures below converged on them. 

 Theodore felt his chest tighten despite his stomach’s desire to exit through his mouth. His sister lost patience. She stood up and moved to another seat from where she could get a better view. 

“What are you doing!?” Theodore hissed at her. She ignored him. He hesitated before joining her at the window. He considered in the back of his head whether he could pilot the skyship on his own. He pictured crashing to the ground in a fireball. Probably not. 

Despite his fears, the captain and his airmen were not immediately fired upon. The strangers below gathered around. They looked like they could have been Machian, but here and there he spotted darker skin tones in the glow of their cheap cigarettes. They all appeared armed, and followed the commands of two individuals who carried themselves with an inflated sense of confidence. 

Theodore couldn’t hear a word that was being said, but clearly the captain was trying to explain something. He could tell the strangers weren’t thrilled by their body language. They gesticulated wildly at the hovering skyship and back at the captain. 

He and Veronica watched the proceedings with intense focus.  

“What’s going on down there?” 

“I don’t know. Looks like they’re negotiating something.” 

The proceedings came to a peaceful conclusion after the captain presented a document to back his argument, which swayed the other side. They shook hands and a collective tension eased from everyone.  

The cargo in question was a single lockbox. It was wheeled out and stacked gingerly on the loading hoist like it was the cure to Meul’s Disease. There was no more talking as this was taking place. The goods were quickly transferred, the captain gave the call, and everyone was back aboard the Galioux like nothing had happened. 

Maybe he was just imagining it, but Theodore thought he could feel the crew’s collective nerves as they rode up the hoist with the boxes. As they got the ship underway again, their glances drifted to the cargo hold more often.  

The Galioux’s reactor flared up with a shrill whistle that made Theodore’s stomach turn. His weight lifted off his seat as the ship became increasingly buoyant and climbed for altitude, leaving a silvery stream of evaporated Arcanite behind it. 

He watched as the city drifted past. The tall funnels of Greyfalls belched their last head of smog before disappearing from view. Skyships in the dozens were drifting across that hazy sky, trailing vaporous tails, bound for distant civilizations. The Galioux followed the Green Channel for a quarter of a mile before plunging into a shallow cloud bank from which the view of Twosford was lost for good.  

From there, the land below was barely visible. On occasion Theodore could make out the lights of the outposts and inns along Trapper’s Track, but little more. He fancied seeing lanterns plodding down the road, but couldn’t be sure. Soon the vast plummet off the side of the ship struck him with vertigo, and he gave up on sightseeing.  

Veronica got up to talk to the crew, who lazed around her like lizards basking in the sun. None were too subtle or particularly charming, but Theodore could see her energy being replenished from their constant adoration. If she laughed, they laughed. If she became serious, so did they. The whole display of idiocy made him sick. 

Theodore just hoped to God he wouldn’t be dragged into the conversation. He unfolded a newspaper and scanned it with exaggerated intensity. 

The daughter of Ambassador De Costa was still missing, according to the headline. Things were looking grim for Dardassa. Allegations were a free ammunition for every major power, and everyone wanted a piece of the city.  

None of the articles said the word outright, but Theodore knew it was on the mind of every journalist, reporter, and politician worth their salt: war. Old powers felt threatened by new. The one man keeping the peace was now in jeopardy.  

The western world was on the edge of a precipice, he reckoned. It was just a matter of who would give it that final push over the edge. 

The rest of the flight crept by painfully slowly. The darkness of night made looking out the windows pointless, and reading the newspaper had given Theodore motion sickness. Instead he smoked a cigarette, tried to sleep, and watched his sister entertain the captain and his crew. 

All it took was a woman to reduce them to classless, simple-minded buffoons. Not that they were any better without Veronica. Even before she had arrived, they had been crass and uncouth, to put it mildly.  

He sneered at them as he took drags from his cigarette and felt a weak sense of self-fulfillment. Sure he was judging them, but It’s what everyone was undoubtably doing to him, he reckoned. Why shouldn’t he judge them back? 

Of course, he did not do this to their faces. He said not a word unless it was required of him, and hastily avoided eye contact with everyone, instead assuming the guise of an uninterested stranger. 

It had taken his sister less than an hour to assimilate herself into their midst as one of their own. That left him all alone to himself, without any allies. The thought made him squirm in his seat.  

Theodore was sure they were watching him. He did not like their gaze. He could feel them even without looking, like points of fire burning into the back of his head. His face flushed red for no good reason. He sunk deeper into his seat, and once again prayed for the trip to be over. 

“Three hours out,” the captain announced. Veronica retreated to a window seat and had gone quiet for the first time during the trip. Theodore had just finished an uncomfortable nap and was left with the boredom of wakefulness. 

He thought about home. Before, it had only been an idea: going home. But now it was about to become a reality. Excitement and nervousness circled his head like hungry sharks. The excitement had been all he could think about before boarding the ship, but now that his arrival was imminent, the nervousness had consumed its compatriot, becoming stronger as a result. 

That nervousness had a storyline, just like everything in his head seemed to have. This one was about his father. 

It’ll be fine, he tried to reason with himself. He won’t find out. I’ll just keep my composure, and lie through my teeth.  

And if he does find out…? Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe he’ll forgive me? 

Images of both played out like an opera in his imagination, dealing the psychological trauma before it had even happened. He steeled himself with desperation.  

While Theodore underwent a change in emotions the closer he got to home, so too did his sister.  

Veronica Everette was not one to be swayed by her emotions. It was a convenient lie to believe, but a lie nonetheless. She had carried mixed feelings about the return home since the beginning. City life had agreed with her as much as she had expected it to, and the social atmosphere proved the perfect playground for her.  

Living in Twosford had given her the distance she needed from the Barony. And from that monster. She couldn’t think about home anymore without brooding over the night that almost killed her. Years of childhood memories wiped away in one instant – how could she not?   

The nightmares had continued for a while, but soon her metropolitan pursuits were enough distraction to pacify the dark memory, at least temporarily. 

For a time she had even forgotten the bleached-bone of its skull face, its lashing tail, and those horrid, empty eye sockets. 

She would have stayed in the city, given the choice. The only reason they were coming home for break was because it was dead. Or so they said.  

But what if they were wrong? Did they have a body? What if they were being too hasty? What if it was still out there, waiting for her to return, waiting to finish whatever it had wanted to do to her that night…. 

She looked out the window as these heavy thoughts floated to the surface. Below was the edge of that dark expanse of woodland they called the Silver Weald. She stared down into the mirk as though she would see something staring back.  

Don’t be stupid. It’s dead. Father said so. He would know best. 

Real fear – something Theodore would have been intimately familiar with – wrapped around Veronica’s throat. She gripped at the window ledge with white knuckles, staring down into the darkness below as they began their final descent toward the Barony.

The Trail – Chapter 16

Theodore arrived at the appropriate dock at nine-forty in the morning. The vessel was scheduled to depart at eleven, but he had intentionally arrived early. There was no one for him to say goodbye to. He tried to not be bothered by this, but the slinking worm of loneliness stirred in his gut. He clenched his teeth. There was simply no one deserving of a goodbye, that’s all.

He hurried his pace. 

A skyship was moored at the dock, one of a dozen of other ships, all fanned out in their own personal gate. The crew was gathered around their weasel of a captain, who was briefing them on something in a quiet tone. As he approached, Theodore could hear some questions being asked before the group split up to their various tasks. The captain gave Theodore a look as he approached. 

“Sorry, young master, but our departure’s been delayed.”  

The captain spoke like someone unfamiliar with politeness. It came out sounding awkward. 

“By what?” 

“Just some unscheduled cargo we’ve got to include last minute.” 

Theodore frowned. Unscheduled cargo? He supposed it made sense. His father had to make the most of any flight to the Barony, given their infrequency and cost. 

“Alright. How long till it departs, then?” He got a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer. 

“About four or five o’clock, I guess.” 

He groaned. The silver watch in his vest read ten minutes before ten o’clock. “Make it fast. I want to get out of this dump.” 

The captain looked irritated for a brief moment before remembering how much he was being paid for the trip.  

“I’d better get to it, then.”  

Theodore slouched into a bench and set his things down with a sigh. It took a second to find his lighter and cigarette case, after which he avoided making eye contact with passerby’s and smoked.  

The roaring echo of the station train reached him some time later. With a screech it came to a halt before a platform labeled ‘SKYDOCKS EAST-1′.  

Passengers disembarked in suede jackets, tight blouses, skirts, and fashionable hats, all looking for their departure. Skyships lined up at the various points, awaiting them. Magnetized pillars held them tethered in their gate, below which was a four hundred meter plummet. Morning sunlight gleamed off their sleek silver and white bodies, shimmering with energy. Airmen and women in uniform bustled about the behemoths like ants.  

Men kissed their women goodbye. Women embraced and promised to write. Some stopped to pick up breakfast at a street-side food stall. Others sat at sun-shaded benches to read or smoke a cigarette.  

Bluecoats stood to either side, watching citizens pass by with seemingly little interest. They rested their hands on their belts and occasionally chatted with one another before returning to the tedium of their duties. 

A raggedy musician playing an old guitar entertained a few onlookers, his cap upside-down and awaiting donations. Large mechanical boards ticked off the minutes until each flight’s departure above his head.  

Theodore leered at the milling masses. The muscle in his jaw tightened.  

“To hell with these people,” he muttered under his breath, flicking the snub of his cigarette onto the pavement. “To hell with these people and the city they live in.”  

They were no different from his peers – these Machians. He would remember the names they had called him. He would remember the way they had laughed at his title. 

I am the son of a Baron, you gutter-rats. I am nobility. 

Two years of this insolence he had dealt with. At first it had baffled and confused him. He was nobility – why were they laughing at him? But after that it had only ashamed and angered him. They made fun of his round, chubby face, his country accent, and the clothing he wore. They called him names that still echoed in the back of his head, and laughed when his face reddened. 

He thought of a dozen retorts to their name-calling and slurs, but it was too late to do anything about it, which only deepened his resentment. 

The disrespect had gained enough momentum to become the talk of the university. A certain scornful rumor began to circulate regarding his sexuality, and that was it. He stopped leaving his room. He didn’t socialize, he barely went to classes, and always avoided campus when he did go out.  

He was eager to go home. Of course, he would have to return to this city to complete his education, but he would make sure he returned a different man. And when he did, he would remember the names and faces of every whoring bastard that had made these past two years so wretched. His heart beat faster at the thought and his palms broke out in a sweat. He would not be so weak and vulnerable. He would make them pay. 

He couldn’t help but smile at the thought, imagining the vengeance he could inflict. Perhaps he would have Duncan teach him how to fight or shoot a pistol. Then the next time he returned to school he would be lean and mean. He would be just like Duncan Le True – sly, deadly, and respected. 

Caught up in this fantasy, he imagined he would look different, too. He would have darker hair, a fairer complexion, and rippling muscle. His face wouldn’t blush so much, his cheeks wouldn’t be as puffy, and his eyes would be a little less beady.  

The women wouldn’t laugh at him behind his back anymore or huddle in groups and whisper as he passed. In this daydream of his he imagined having his way with one of them – particularly Gracie Newel or one of her friends.

It would be their due payment to him for the years of slander. 

The station attendant sounded the whistle, and the train pulled back out, engorged once again with passengers. A skyship bound for Oulette had begun boarding in the distance. Important-looking dignitaries and aristocratic gentlemen had their luggage loaded for them as they sauntered aboard, canes swinging at their sides. They left behind them a trail of cigarette stubs and cologne vapor.  

He watched them out of boredom until one of them happened to look his way and make eye contact, at which point Theodore immediately broke it by averting his gaze. 

He stared at the ground for a while, brooding, until he gradually fell asleep there on the bench. 

In the depths of sleep he was subjected to a nightmare – the kind that lingered in his head long after waking. Directed by his insecurities, the nightmare played out painful scenarios made worse with bizarre, non-sensical twists.  

Don’t be a fucking sheep, Theo! I thought I told you! I won’t have my son acting like a bitch! You’re gonna man up or YOU’RE GONNA PAY, His father scolded him. In the background his classmates acted like they weren’t watching. 

Past events from his childhood met recent memory with frightening clarity, and convinced him through its entirety that it was real. 

His father was beating his mother against the couch, yelling “Wipe that look off your face! I don’t want to see it anymore!!” But it wasn’t his father doing the beating. Glancing in the mirror, he saw it was his own face looking back. 

The dream jarred him awake painfully. His heart was drumming in his throat. The raucous sounds of the station came flooding back again. Someone was leaning over him 


Theodore squinted through the daylight.  

He had only seen his sister a handful of times over the past two years, and briefly at that. She wore dark colors, mostly purple and black, with a wide-brimmed hat perched fashionably on her head of carefully tidied hair. Her gloved hands held a purse, looped around her thin shoulders. She only seemed to have grown more beautiful; with black hair, cream-pale skin, and a slim body. He hated her all the more for it. 


“Just making sure you’re still among the living,” she said, still speaking with that fake Machian accent he hated.

“Unfortunately for you.” 

“Good to see you too, brother.”    

“You’re late.” 

“I know. They threw a surprise farewell party for me and I had to do my rounds saying goodbye to everyone.” She smiled a playful smile. 

It sounded like gloating to him. He wanted to slap that stupid smile off her face. He became painfully aware of his disarray and sat up on the bench. 

“The flight’s been delayed,” he said. 

“Has it, now?”

She walked over toward the men bustling about their small craft. The fact that she hadn’t simply asked him the reason for the delay infuriated Theodore. He watched her approach the crew.  

The sight of her drew the gaze of every dock worker. She quickly singled out the captain and walked up to him with a confidence Theodore could never have. 

He felt obviously lesser compared to her, and he was sure that everyone else could see it. He was certain that they were comparing the two of them, always judging him as lesser. His mind stumbled in an angry flurry of thoughts trying to prove evidence to the contrary – that he was not, in fact, inferior. He came up with a few weak-sounding arguments and desperately tried to swallow them.  

He watched her confront the captain like an officer approaching a subordinate. He could see the captain shift his weight uncomfortably.  

His sister spoke briefly to the captain. She laughed a pretty laugh and the captain grinned along like an idiot. The rest of the crew were still busy at work, but most found an excuse to be within eyeshot of the young woman. 

The two separated and his sister returned with a pleased expression on her face. Theodore groaned inwardly.  

“The captain says we’ll be departing at three-thirty. Pleasant fellow.” 

“Three-thirty? He told me five.” 

“I persuaded him to make haste,” she said with a smile. 

“What, you’ll sleep with him, too?” It was a weak cut. She didn’t take the bait. Her smile turned into a fake frown. 

“Oh, don’t be vulgar.” She sat on the bench across from him and crossed her legs. “We haven’t seen each other in almost two years, brother. Let’s not fight.” 

He dug in his jacket for another cigarette “Yeah whatever.” 

“So how’s the city life been?” 

He didn’t want to answer that. “Fine.” 

“A charming place, isn’t it? Always something to do and new things to see.” 


“How’re your studies coming along?” 

Panic fluttered in his chest. He fumbled with his lighter. “Good.” 

“How did you place in your class?” 

He felt a sweat break out across his back. The cigarette’s tip glowed as he took a big drag to steady his nerves. “Top of my class, of course.”  

She smiled. “Good. Father would give you a thrashing if you weren’t.” 

An image of his father, red-faced with rage, flashed in his mind. “You think I don’t know that!?” 

She threw her hands in the air. “I’m just saying. At least I won’t have to listen to the beating.” She stood with a smile and walked off. 

“Where’re you going?” 

“To enjoy the city some more before we depart. Were you planning on just sitting there by yourself for the next five hours?” 

His face flushed red. He had been planning on just that. It would be easier than feeling self-conscious in front of strangers.  

“Of course not,” he said quickly. “I’ll go for a walk, maybe.” 

But she was already gone. 

“I’ll go…,” he muttered to himself after she had left.  

He was even about to follow through with it, before the thought struck him; what if he were to run into someone he knew, or even worse, someone that recognized him?  

And then: who’s to say he wouldn’t be recognized here? Plenty of other students came from abroad and would be flying home for break just like him.  

Those that lived in other Machian cities would probably be taking the North Express home, but not all of them. He scanned the masses of people passing through the station while trying not to look paranoid. Too many people. He didn’t like the odds, and he didn’t think he had it in him to weather anymore of their insults.  

Quickly he gathered his luggage and relocated to a more secluded bench, away from prying eyes.  

There he spent the next five hours alone. He told himself it was because he didn’t feel like talking at that particular time, but the truth floated quietly in the shadowed places of his mind like a patient disease.

The Trail – Chapter 15

Duncan Le Treu rode slowly through the woods. The day was bright but cold. His hands were tucked firmly in his greatcoat to keep warm. It was especially chilly beneath the tree canopy. The frozen light of Solus could not beat back the oddly cold spring weather. Its rays seemed fake somehow, and only confused the senses. Was it spring or winter? By all accounts winter should be two months past, but by some cruel joke or simple misfortune spring and winter had partnered and could no longer be separated.  

He didn’t like it. The cold did not sit right with him. It’s prying fingers always seemed to find the nooks in his clothing, tickling the places that would make him shiver most. His hands suffered the most from this and, by association, his marksmanship. Clumsy fingers were a shooter’s worse nightmare. 

But, honestly, he thought to himself I haven’t had to do much shooting recently. 

He had expected a fight with the Render. Of course, it had to happen, didn’t it? A chance to fight the apex predator? The thrill ran down his spine. Duncan had wet dreams about this.  

But as the months passed by the Render’s kill count rose. He couldn’t keep track of how many men he had lost to the monster. Somewhere between ten and twenty. He could remember their names if he thought really hard about it, but didn’t bother. They were dead and that was that. At least some had died fighting.  

It killed townsfolk, guards, bandits, and livestock, but never came for him. Or, maybe he was simply never in the right place at the right time. 

This drove him mad with anticipation, as if the most gorgeous prostitute had taken her time with everyone except for him.   

And now it was gone, or so the Ranger claimed. Shot dead with an arrow.  

No way. Not a chance. He’s just bluffing in the hopes that we’ll keep him alive. 

Show him a body and he’d consider it.  

The Baron might have never seen a Ranger before, but Duncan had. He knew what they looked like. That man in the dungeon did not look like one. He looked like a drunk, lost in the woods.  

He had been wearing no uniform or Ranger regalia, no fancy precision bow, no insignia or chevrons – nothing to distinguish him as one of the holy order.  

The Baron’s right, though. Word of this cannot be allowed to spread.  

Mercy trod softly beneath him, following the path worn into the undergrowth. He made a mental note to stop using the same path every time. Probably unnecessary caution, he figured, but complacency had no place in this operation. Get lazy: get sent right back to Glaustow. He probably wouldn’t even make it that far. They’d put him before a firing squad in a heartbeat.  

He dismounted and gathered Mercy’s reins to lead her forward. No signs of any sentries yet. Either they were doing their jobs very well or not at all. He scowled. It had better not be the latter. 

It was ten minutes before he ran into another person. Mercy snorted and pricked up her ears before he could see anyone. 


“War!” he shouted back.  

“Mornin’ Duncan,” said a raggedy man has he came out of hiding. 

“Hi Pete. Where’s One-eye?” 

“Chatting with the others, probably.” 

Duncan came closer, leading Mercy by the reins. “This perimeter needs to be widened, Pete. I could smell the fire long before you stopped me.” 

“Sorry Duncan, nose has gone a bit daft on me.” He sniffled loudly. “This cold’s a cruel bitch.” 

Duncan gave him a cursory glance. Pete looked downright miserable, all red-nosed and pale. His patchy beard grew in an ugly pattern, but nothing was new about that. He seemed sober, at least. 

“No wonder, you’re not even wearing a coat. And you haven’t got any socks on.” 

Pete glanced down at the mouse-chewed leather of his boots. “Ey, right you are, Dunc. Guess I lost feeling in em’ quite some time back.” 

Duncan frowned and unclasped one of the buckles on Mercy’s saddlebags. He dug through the various supplies and tossed a pair of socks to Pete. “They aren’t new, but they’re better than nothing. Keep them warm or you’ll start losing toes. And for fuck’s sake, find a jacket.” 

Pete nodded somberly “Alright.” 

Le Treu lashed the saddlebags closed again. “You said One-eye was chatting?” 

Pete stiffened. “Aye, he and the others. With Max.” 

“Why aren’t you?” 

“It’s for seniors only, says Max.” 

Duncan’s blood ran hot. Seeing the look on his face, Pete took half a step back. 

“There are no ranks in my crew,” Duncan growled at no one in particular. His eyes looked northwest, toward the camp. He turned back to Pete. “Who does Max consider senior?” 

“Tommy, Spurs, One-eye, Harry, maybe Big Mic n’ some others…” 

Duncan gazed into the distance, committing the list to memory.  

“You’ll slow me down on those frozen feet. Hop on Mercy. Let’s see what they’re ‘chatting’ about.” 

“Alright, Dunc.”  

Mercy stamped her hooves and shied away from Pete as he drew closer.  

“Be good,” Duncan commanded, and she went stock still. With a grunt Pete climbed up onto her back with a little push from Le Treu.  

Duncan led Mercy by the reins with Pete bobbing on top. 

“You sure about this, Dunc? Maybe I should stay behind…” 

“You’re no use to anyone with frostbite. We need to swap you out.” 

Pete nodded dumbly as he gripped the horn of the saddle to keep from sliding off. Mercy plodded on diligently behind her owner. 

“Is it true, Dunc? The Render’s really gone for good?” 

Duncan stepped over a fallen log and waited for Mercy to do the same. “Who’d you hear that from, Pete?” 

He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Mink.” 

“Who’d Mink hear it from?” 

“Hmm, I dunno.” 

“What else did Mink say?” 

Pete sniffled and coughed. Duncan cringed at the wet sounds his throat made. 

“Said a Ranger killed it, Dunc. A real Ranger! Like from the stories!” 

“Yeah, I know the stories, Pete.” 

“So is it true, then?” 

“I Doubt it.” 

Another sentry spotted them closer to the camp. Duncan gave the password and the two continued on. They approached the first of the tents and lean-tos. The smell of cooking meat grew stronger. Duncan could hear activity further in; talking, hollering, laughing, and the sounds of wood splitting.  

He looped Mercy’s reins around a post and entered the enclosure without waiting for Pete. 

The camp was home to roughly forty men sharing rickety shacks, hovels, and canvas tents that spread out a hundred square meters into the woods. Most of the shelters were tucked away in clusters of three or four, creating a sort of road network through the camp. Each of these clusters had fashioned their own bonfires, stools, and table. Bows, axes, pistols and sabers leaned haphazardly up against each other. 

Some people were up and about, but most were simply trying to stay warm by their fires, smoking pipes and chatting. Dead center of camp was a number of cooking spits and benches flanking a large, smoldering bonfire.  

A group of over a dozen men were gathered in the hazy smoke of fire and pipe tobacco. They had just finished a meeting by the looks of it, each man separating to their own business. Duncan’s approach put haste into their step. One-eye hurried into his tent. He saw mixed emotions on the faces of those brave enough to make eye contact with him. 

This was not entirely new to him, but it had only been a feeling before, one that he could never quite place. He could see it now in the way they glanced at him and each other. 

Is that….shame? 

Everyone inconspicuously retreated into the camp, leaving half a dozen men in the center, passing around a bottle and chatting in high spirits. One of them towered over the rest by at least a head. 

The first to notice Duncan and Pete was a man with muttonchops wearing a frayed top hat. His patched vest and green trousers looked fashionable on him, despite being stained with mud. 

“Hallo, Max,” Duncan said. 

Max spoke with a clear voice and showed his perfect teeth with a smile. “Duncan! What news from the lords and ladies of the castle! Give im’ some room, lads! Pull him up a chair!” 

A stump was dragged over for Duncan by a tipsy young man with red eyebrows and a shaved head. “Duncan,” he nodded 


The bottle was passed to Duncan and he took a swig. 

“Good gin,” he said after a swallow.  

Tommy grinned. “Ay, took it on the last raid. Had to pry it out the dumb bastard’s fingers.” 

The giant of a man piped in: “Say, when we going for another raid, Duncan? Been nearly three months! I’m getting antsy.” 

“Gotta go crack some heads, don’t ya Mic,” said Tommy. 

Big Mic rolled the massive bulk of his shoulders. “Getting all stiff sitting out here with no village girl to warm my bed.” 

“No girl to break in your bed is what you mean, ya fuckin ogre,” said a sallow-skinned, dark-haired man sitting across from him. 

“You sound jealous, Spurs,” cut in Tommy. “You still smarting from the way that bitch slapped you? Not our fault you’ve got shit luck with women.”  

The others laughed at this. Duncan did not. He was trying to read the air. The laughter seemed forced. Something was going on.  

Max interrupted the conversation. “So what’s the word, Duncan?” They all turned their attention to Le Treu. 

Duncan had considered how he would answer this question well before hand. 

He shrugged. Nothing much.” 

“Nothing much?” 

Max made a show of looking to the others with confusion.  

“How can there possibly be nothing much! Is the Render dead or not! Who killed it! Did you?!” 

The last remark hit home. No, I didn’t kill it, you prick. But I wanted to. It should have been – it should be me! 

“I’ve heard rumors, that’s about it,” Duncan replied without missing a beat. 

Max didn’t let up. The others were getting excited. “How can the fucking Baron not know?! I thought nothing happened without his knowledge! What else has be got to do, besides shag that dead-eyed cunt?!” 

Duncan almost lost control of his demeanor. His body screamed at him to draw his blade and cut the whoreson’s throat out. The thought of the Baron fucking Katherine (wife though she may be) made him sick with fury. He kept his cool. 

“The Baron doesn’t know. Or if he does, he hasn’t told me.”  

It was the wrong thing to say. 

Tommy piped in. “He better tell us! We work our asses off for him! We’re the one out here suffering for his royal highness! We lost more men than anyone!” 


“That’s right!” 

 Max gave Le True a knowing look “You wouldn’t be holding something back from us, would you Duncan?” 

Everyone went quiet, just now seeing the train of thought. 

Fuck you, pal. 

“Why would I do that? Don’t be stupid, Max. There are rumors about everything. Remember that rumor about the well? You all believed that too, didn’t you?” 

Max said nothing. Duncan decided to quickly change the conversation. 

“Where’s Mink?” 

“He’s out hunting,” said Spurs. “Left before the sun came up. Said something about his traps.” 

Duncan jerked a thumb at Pete, standing by the horses. “Pete’s gotta be swapped off sentry duty. He’ll die in the cold.” 

“We’re all freezing here,” said Tommy. “You chilly out there, Pete,” he shouted in a mocking tone. The others laughed. Pete looked over from a distance, confused. 

“I just pulled sentry duty yesterday,” said Spurs. 

“An’ I did it the day before,” cut in Big Mic.  

“No you didn’t! That was Mink,” said Tommy. 

“No it weren’t! It was me,” replied Big Mic. “I remember cause you lot were hootin’ and hollerin’ back here the entire time! I could hear you from way out!” 

Duncan lost his patience.  

“I don’t care who did it last. Just get someone on it.” 

A look passed between them. Max smiled. 

“Alright, lads,” he said. “I’ll take it this time around. You lot, enjoy that gin for me!” 

They gave him one last swig and patted him on the back as he left.  

“What a gentleman!” 

“A stand-up chap!” 

“Go get em’, Max!” 

Max walked off with a satisfied grin. Duncan frowned. He felt like he had just lost a battle he hadn’t signed up for.  

The air had grown awkward and stale with Max gone, so the others finished off the liquor quickly before scattering to their corners of the camp. Big Mic and Tommy went together in a drunken stagger, singing a song terribly out of tune. Spurs went by himself. Duncan was left alone with a few men tending to the cooking. He sighed and stood up. 

Hopefully Mink will have some answers. 

Luck was on his side. He caught Mink trudging out of the wood line not long after, a handful of conies swinging over one shoulder. Mink himself looked ghastly as usual. His hair and beard were the same dark shade of red – so dark it appeared black. Where the head hair stopped and facial hair began was difficult to tell. His grey eyes peeked out from beneath shady brows. Duncan stood taller than him, but only because Mink hunched over like an older man. 

But he was not much older than Duncan, and still walked with youthful agility. He was clothed in furs and buckskin breeches. A bow and quiver of arrows bobbed on his back. He walked past Duncan with a grunt of recognition.  

Some people haven’t changed, at least.  

Duncan followed him to his tent, around which were all the hunters’ essentials: tanning rack, butcher block, grindstone, workbench, and a large cooking fire.  

He went about stringing up the dead rabbits. He glanced at Duncan from beneath the mess of hair. 


“You heard about the Ranger?” 

Mink paused. “It’s true, then?” 

“It might be.” 

Mink stuck his pipe between his teeth as he packed it with loose tobacco. “Well I’ll be damned. Render’s dead?” 

“So he claims.” 


“The Ranger. If he really is that.” 


“Did you or any of the boys run into him, Mink? I need to know if he’s aware of us out here.” 

“Not to my knowledge.” 

“You sure?” 

“You know the lads. If they saw a Ranger in the woods they wouldn’t be able to shut up about it.” 

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” 

Mink started skinning one of the conies, his pipe held tight between his teeth. He spoke out of the other side of his mouth. 

“Besides wilderness rescue and reconnaissance, you know what Rangers do, Duncan? Kill outlaws. And they’re damn good at it. We’ll be on his list.” 

Mink paused at his own sentence. Duncan could see the beginning of an idea forming on Mink’s hairy face. 

“Wait,” Mink said. “Is that why the Ranger’s here? For us?!” 

Duncan sat heavily to a log. “I don’t know, Mink. What else have you heard.” 

“I heard he’s wounded pretty bad.” 

Duncan nodded. “That’s true.” He plucked a piece of grass and began toying with it in his fingers.  

“Also heard the herbalist Fiona is working on him.” Mink paused to point the stem of his pipe at Duncan, not caring that he got rabbit blood all over it. “Bad idea, that.” 

“I know. It was the only way we could keep him alive. I just need you to keep your mouth shut about it.” 

Mink chuckled and spat on the ground. “Doesn’t matter what I say, Dunc. Word’s spread, sure enough. Sure, they’ll ask you questions like they don’t know, but you bet your ass they do.” 

Duncan shredded up the blade of grass and leaned back. “What’s going on in the camp? People are acting strangely.” 

Mink flicked some of the blood off his hands onto the ground. His pipe was now thoroughly covered in gore. He puffed at it without noticing. “Max has been organizing things whenever you’re off with the Baron. The others look up to him. Some are saying we’ve grown soft out here. Hadn’t had a raid in ages, they say. Max and the others are thinking it’s your fault.” 

He looked gravely at Duncan. “Hiding the truth from them is likely to make that worse.” 

“I don’t have much of a choice. What am I supposed to say? A Ranger killed the Render? He’s coming for your ass next? There would be complete panic.” 

“Is that you speaking, or the Baron?” 

“Does it matter?” 

Mink shrugged. “You’ve always got a choice, Dunc. That’s all I’m sayin’. You gotta choose between pleasing the Baron and pleasing the crew.” 

Duncan scoffed and went about picking the dirt from his fingernails with a knife that suddenly appeared in his hand.  

“So what’s the Baron want with him,” Mink said. “The Ranger, I mean.” 

“Like I said, we don’t know if he is or not.” 

“What do you mean? Hasn’t he said he’s a Ranger?” 

“No, technically he hasn’t. The Baron’s convinced, though. He thinks the ‘Ranger’ has some valuable information. Plans to extract it and sell it to Machia or some such.” 

“Gonna torture him, then?” 

Duncan wiped the fingernail grime off the knife, then went back to picking. “I don’t know what he has planned. Something crafty, knowing him.” 

Mink shook his head. “What happened to the good ol’ days when you could just torture a man and be done with it.” 

They both chuckled. 

“Those days are long gone,” Duncan said. “These days everything is theatre. People just act their way through a fake performance.” 

“And what happened to the Duncan Le Treu I used to know? Back then you spoke with your gun and reasoned with your blade.” 

“Glaustow happened.” 

They both went quiet. The shared memory hung over the two of them like a shadow. Mink spoke up. 

“Well whatever play you have to act in, you better act like hell. We ain’t going back there, Dunc. We promised. We lost too many behind those walls. So don’t screw up this business with the Ranger. Pick your sides carefully.” 

“I won’t. I know what I’m doing.” 

“Fuck me, I hope so.” 

The Trail – Chapter 14

At the same time the Baron had sat down to a diligent breakfast with Duncan Le Treu, the hunter heard someone approaching from outside his cell. 

He had been awake now for… many hours? It felt like the whole night. Or was it the whole day? There was no sunlight down in the Baron’s dungeons, only flickering torchlight and it’s resulting shadows.  

His first few hours of what he felt was a new life had been momentous. The man he once called himself had changed over a period of time that felt like an instant. 

Apparently that instant had been over a month he had spent comatose. A whole month he had been unconscious.  

Not only had he failed his purpose, he had failed himself. He had failed the world. He had failed every man and woman sitting in their homes, unaware of the international calamity that would soon unfold. He had failed every son to be slaughtered on the battlefield, every wife to become a widow, every citizen to be hiding in their basement; soon to be pulverized by artillery. 

It wouldn’t come to that, he tried to tell himself, unconvincingly. 

If it does, it will be your faulthe countered. 

Lastly, he had failed Ayesa: a woman he had never met.  

Despite this, he was not fully sure. He was not sure if it had happened.

Maybe, as he lay on this cot in the dungeons of a fat psycho, Ayesa was alive and well in Machia somewhere, surrounded by scores of bodyguards, safely on land. He could not know for certain – not without proof. But reduced to his most primal form of suffering, the worst seemed far more convincing.   

In a turbulent sea of pain, his mind clung to these groundless thoughts like a drowning sailor. There was nothing else to hold on to; no objective, no hope. He felt like a hollow, undefined being without a foundation with which to hold himself up. So many things had been torn away from him within the past twenty-four hours. He was directionless. 

Luckily for him, there was not much he could have done even if he had wanted to. His injured body was incapable of most trivial tasks. He could no longer shoot, run, walk, or even stand, for that matter. 

Hell, he could barely hold a complex thought. 

He willed the time to pass. The agony of his wounds grew; slowly at a time, teasing what was to come. No other pain he had felt in all of his thirty-something years could compare.  

He hadn’t slept, and he desperately wanted to. A bolt of sharp pain shot down the right side of his back every time he tried. Catastrophe whirled through his mind like a flood. Would he ever walk again? Had he been crippled for life? Would everyone find out who he was? He couldn’t possibly know. 

So when the door to his cell creaked open once more, and the dread-locked woman entered again, he was miserable. 

She looked at him with green eyes and smiled.  

What does she have to smile about, he thought dimly. Is there anything worth smiling about?  

You’re awake again – good. I was afraid the fever had taken hold. How’d you feel? Warm or cold?” She had a strong Free Folk accent.


“Good. Your skin color looks better too. Sleep much?” 


 She dropped off what she had been carrying, came close, and placed a hand on his forehead with a look of concentration on her face. Her hand felt warm and comforting. He watched her many necklaces of rawhide and bone dangle above her clavicle.  

“Looks like you’ve shaken the infection. That’s great news. Let’s try to get some liquids into you.” 

He was desperately thirsty, but equally afraid of the pain that might come from drinking. 

She brought forth a steaming mug of something and gently eased him upright. 

“Let’s sit you up slightly.” 

He tensed for the pain, but under her assured touch it was minimal. The tart beverage warmed his throat. He had not been this near someone in a long time, he realized. She felt warm. It felt good to know someone was still concerned for his wellbeing. That good feeling stood out in the refuse of negativity. 

“That should soothe the pain a little. I’m sorry, I know it hurts.” 

She laid him back down again and went about some other preparations at the far table. 

“Newspaper…,” he croaked. 


He cleared his throat. “I need a newspaper.” 

“A newspaper? What for?” She looked around, as if hoping to find one nearby. “We don’t get any newspapers here. News of the outside world only reaches us through rumors.” She went back to her work. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Baron gets them, though.” 

Is everything going to be this difficult from now on? Is this just the way things are now? Why can’t anything just be easy for once. I need some damn answers.

“What’s your name,” He said. 

“Fiona. What’s yours?” 

It took him a second to remember what name he had chosen. “Alexander,” he lied. 

“Hey, Alex.” 

He hesitated before speaking again. A momentous decision suddenly loomed before him. He tried to read her face, and something told him she knew what he was doing. Her fair features looked back at him, topped by piles of fiery dreadlocks.

I have to know. I hope I can trust her…. 

“Have you heard…,” he cleared his sore throat before trying again. “Have you heard anything about the Decosta girl?” 


“Ayesa. Ayesa Decosta.”

“I don’t know who that is…” 

“Daughter of Rafiq Decosta…” 

“Don’t know who that is, either.” 

He gaped at her. “The Reach’s Ambassador to Dardassa.” 

“Oh. Never heard of him. Is that important?” 

Saints! These people live under a rock! 

He waved a hand weakly. “Never mind. Just forget it.” 

Fiona turned back to the far table to finish grinding in a pestle. “Sorry, but I meant it when I said news of the outside world doesn’t reach us here. We’re cut off.” 

“How have you been surviving out in the middle of nowhere?” 

“We farm, work the land, and praise the Saints and the Storm Father. I do what I can to tend to folk’s ailments and injuries, and they see to it I don’t go hungry. We look after each other.” 

“And the Baron?” 

Her voice lost it’s warmth. He watched as her hands went still. 

“He runs the town, and the mining and refinery operation.” 

“What does he mine?” 

“Silver. I say ‘he’, but it’s really the townsfolk that do the work. It’s the only job to be had, besides working the fields. It’s dangerous, and whenever there’s an accident, it’s always the common folk that suffer for it. Meanwhile he lines his pockets as the silver is sold abroad and minted into foils.” 

“I take it you don’t like him very much.” 

“That’s neither here nor there. I do right by the Saints when I can. That’s all.” 

He stared up at the ceiling in silence for a while, listening to the steady sounds of the grinding mortar and pestle. He recognized several scents from herbs he knew – their features and medicinal properties drilled into his head from years of instruction – but he couldn’t focus enough to recall their names.  

His pains eased slightly thanks to the tea she had given him, but his head still ached tremendously. With his fingers he gingerly felt the outline of a deep, bandaged gouge across his scalp. He could remember the predator’s bone hook smashing into his head.  

How deep did the gouge cut? All the way to the brain? Of course not. 

His bare chest was equally bandaged, centering on a point just below his collarbone.  

That’s where it shot me…that’s where the arrow struck. How did I survive that? How deep did it go? He felt sick. 

Investigating the area with his fingers brought a dull, itching pain.  

“You’re lucky, you know.” Fiona said. He looked up to see her watching him. 

“The arrow went right through you – poked out the other side and got stuck like that. Stopped you from bleeding to death. Made pulling it out of you much easier, too. You were screaming an awful lot, but I doubt you remember that.” 

He didn’t. “How bad is it?” 

“When I first saw you about a month ago, you had four broken ribs, a fractured skull and pelvis, a partially collapsed lung, a lot of internal hemorrhaging, too many cuts and bruises to count, and a badly infected wound that was slowly killing you. The steal head of the arrow scraped one of your ribs on it’s way through you, but luckily didn’t sever anything.” 

“Will I recover?” 

“You will if I have anything to say about it. The infection had me more nervous than anything else, to be honest. Now that you’ve shaken it, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to fully recover. But things will be different. That head wound is serious. I managed to control the hemorrhaging, but the damage could already be done. Be careful of any changes you notice; loss of balance, loss of hearing, mood changes, memory problems, and so on.” 

“Great,” he groaned. “Just great.” 

“But if the Saints are kind to you, then none of that will happen and you’ll be just fine in no time.” 

Over the course of the next hour she fed him, changed his bandages, and washed his wounds. She helped him urinate and defecate, wiping his ass for him afterward. He was in pain through the entirety of it. She left him afterward with careful instructions of rest. He didn’t remember them. He hadn’t really been listening. 

Ultimately, he was left feeling broken and helpless, as well as thoroughly ashamed. He had never been in such a position of infirmity, and it was not a comfortable position to be in. His already diseased mind did not help matters. 

“God, I hate this life,” he growled, and he meant it, too, at least in that moment. Things had a way of coming full circle for him, no matter where he was.

Always back to that statement, like somebody (himself, perhaps) had it out for him. The worst part of it was, he was aware of this tendency, which evoked a reaction of anger and frustration, which, in turn, further propelled the cycle. There never seemed to be an end to it. 

The shadow of his own mind bled him like a parasite. It fed off his already depleted reserves of hope and energy, both of which combined to make motivation. Without it he would remain inert, slowly being consumed by himself like a rancid, molding cheese. 

He was starting to wish he had never woken up from that coma. No reality was far easier to bear than reality. 

And that’s when the door to his cell opened for a second time, and the Baron walked through it, dressed in a fur-lined cloak. Fresh air drafted in behind him with the smell of a cold spring morning. 

Fuck, not this guy. 

“Mr. Morris,” the Baron said, “I thought I’d stop by and check in on you.” 

“Did you.” 

“Indeed I did. How do you feel?” 

He couldn’t summon the effort to respond to that. 

“Not well, I see. I hope that wench isn’t causing you too much trouble. 

The hunter felt a pang of guilt. He hadn’t been very kind to Fiona. He should thank her the next time he saw her. 

“No, she’s been good.” 

“That so.” The Baron perused the table, running his thick fingers absently across her herbs and tools. He knocked a few things onto the floor and didn’t seem to notice. “Are you a Free Folk, Mr. Morris? Or Machian, Perhaps?” 

His lungs and chest were hurting again. He just wanted to get this conversation over with. “Free Folk.” 

The Baron nodded. “Travel to Machia much, Mr. Morris?” 

“More than I would care to.” 

“Why do you say that?” 

“Not a city person,” he said dryly. 

“The Free States have their fair share of cities.” 

The hunter shook his head weakly. “It’s not the same.” 

“I agree with you, there. They certainly aren’t.” 

 Baron Everette set two glasses and a decanter onto the table. They clanged softly together. 

“A drink, Mr. Monroe? If anyone could use one it would surely be you.” 

The hunter gazed weakly at the amber liquid sloshing in the decanter. He could desperately use a drink of something strong – just something to take off the edge.

Something to dull the pain for a bit. 

He ignored the faint warning in the back of his mind. “Pour me one.” 

The Baron held up the glass in acknowledgement and poured out two drinks – one for each of them. He held one out to the hunter, who awkwardly tried to sit up to receive it. The Baron waited patiently with an amused expression on his face. 

“To your health,” he said, and they both drank. 

The liquid fire burned down his gullet, sloshed into his stomach, and came to rest like a bed of hot coals. Nausea swirled in his gut and at the back of his throat.

But it wasn’t so bad. His pains and aches took on a hazy, undefined quality, as if seen through a dirty lens. 

The Baron poured them both another one. The hunter – finally seeing a possible escape from his pains, drank it quickly, barely able to hold in the vegetable stew Fiona had fed him for breakfast.  

The Baron pretended to sip on his. 

“How long ago did you leave Fairfield, Mr. Morris? It must have been quite a journey. How long did it take you?” There was a dangerous undertone to the Baron’s voice that the hunter missed completely. He felt very loose and relaxed. 

“Took me…..a week, I guess.”  

“Wow. And all on your own, at that? How’d you manage?” 

The hunter felt a blush of pride. “I was cautious and prepared for the worst.” the room was tilting a little bit. It felt good.

“I bet you didn’t feel prepared for the Render though, did you,” the Baron said with a chuckle. 

 The hunter smiled wryly. “No, I didn’t. It took everything I had. But I knew I couldn’t fight it in the woods. It moved through the trees like a monkey.” 

“So that’s why they found you on a mountain. You deprived the monster of it’s natural terrain!” 


The Baron whistled. “Very impressive.” He pretended to take another sip. “Bandits give you much trouble?” 

The hunter felt really tired now. He wanted to be left alone. 

“Bandits? No, there weren’t any bandits.” 

The Baron smiled. “Right, of course not. Your Ranger training would have made quick work of them, anyway.” 

“What? Oh, yeah I guess.” He wasn’t fully listening anymore. 

The Baron decided to push it just a little more. “You must be eager to get back out there and complete your mission.” 

The hunter mumbled something incoherent. His eye lids were beginning to droop. 

“Well,” the Baron muttered to himself. “That’s as much as I’ll get out of you today.” He poured out the rest of his untouched drink onto the floor and retrieved the hunter’s glass from the bedside. 

He paused, about to leave the room.

Instead he peered over the slumped form of the hunter. He looked lean and disheveled. The muscles of his chest and legs stood out against his sun-tanned skin. A puncture scar could be seen under the layers of bandages, and a gouge ran down one side of his scalp in a straight line. Across his face were three wicked claw marks, recently scarred over with pink tissue.  

The sight make the Baron’s stomach turn. He looked like a wild animal, he realized.  

Like a wolf. A starving, mangy wolf. And just as dangerous. 

He left the cell to see Aster standing in the hallway, his balding head and dour face cloaked in shadow.  

“A constructive conversation, my lord?” 

It was time for business. The Baron shifted gears from amiable to apathetic.

“Very. I know for sure now that he was lying about his name. I changed it multiple times during the conversation and he didn’t so much as blink. But we can’t rely on this anymore.” He dropped the glasses and decanter unceremoniously into Aster’s hands. “We need to rush that shipment. I want it here this week.” 

“Would your lordship like me to dispatch that message? It will surely cost no small sum…” 

They both traversed the dungeon hallway and climbed the staircase at the end.

“Do it. That ranger holds the key to our future. I will spare no expense at acquiring it.” 

“As you wish. Oh, and your lordship wanted me to remind you that the young master Theodore and Veronica are arriving this evening.” 

The Baron blinked. “Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot.” 

“I have taken the liberty of preparing their chambers ahead of time.” 

Aster and Baron Everette emerged into the main hall of the keep. Servants bustled here and there, scraping and bowing appropriately. Aster surveyed them out of the corner of his eye with scrutiny, looking for anything out of place. 

Two such servants drifted to the Baron’s side to remove his cloak mid-stride. 

“Good. Let’s give them time to settle in after the long flight. Assign them three servants each. I’ll receive them for the evening meal.” 

“As you say, my lord. What shall I tell them of the Ranger?” 

The Baron considered this. “Nothing unless they ask. Tell them he’s a trespasser. Don’t mention the Render’s death if you can avoid it. I don’t want that information spreading too quickly.” 

“Very wise, my lord.” 

“Oh, and Aster?” 

“My lord?” 

The Baron lowered his voice. “When the Atrix arrives, I want you to personally administer it. You can do that, yes?” 

The Master of Servants smiled a rare smile. 

“My lord, it would be my pleasure.” 

The Trail – Chapter 13

Baron Eugene Everette was having an interesting week – certainly the most interesting in recent memory. Sometimes life had a way of surprising him. The gods certainly had a sense of humor.  

But “a problem is just another opportunity,” his grandfather had told him – and he was certainly an opportunist. It was all about how you viewed it. Events could always be shaped and molded to suit you. He just had to take hold and bend it in the right places.  

“Eugene,” his grandfather would say, “There are two types of men in this world; the Lions, and the Sheep. Lions like you and I take destiny into their own hands to get what they want. Sheep never try to change their destiny and therefore will never be great.”  

Sitting in Grandpa’s lap, little Eugene had asked: “I’m a Lion, sir?”  

“You were born a Lion, Eugene. But being born a Lion is not enough. You have to act like one, too. Just look at your father.” Grandpa had grown very still as he said this. A crawling anxiety grew in Eugene’s guts. “Your father is no Lion,” he spat, “despite being born of my loins.”  

Little Eugene had looked up at his Grandfather’s face to see it darkened with rage. “Don’t ever let me see you becoming a Sheep.”  

Seven-year-old Eugene was paralyzed by those dark eyes. “No, sir.”

“No sir, what.”  

No sir, I will not become a Sheep,” he peeped, affixed in place with terror.


“I will not become a Sheep.”  


“I will not become a Sheep.”  


I am a Lion, he thought to himself as he sat down to eat. I will take this situation and handle it – bend it to my will. Some Sheep will be trampled in the process, but that is what great men do. 

 I will not become a Sheep. 

A large breakfast was spread before him now. A crystal glass held an amber liquid, next to it a kettle of tea. He was halfway through a week-old newspaper when Duncan Le Treu entered the dining room, armed to the teeth as usual. 

“Duncan,” the Baron said as he peaked over the paper, reading glasses perched on his nose.  “Sit! Join me for breakfast!” With a wave of his hand he sent a servant hurrying to prepare another place at the table.  

“I’m not hungry,” Duncan said. 

“What’s that got to do with it?” The Baron chuckled as he removed his reading spectacles and placed them on the table. 

“Alright.” Duncan sighed and unslung the rifle from his shoulder, leaning it against the table as he took the seat offered to him.  

“Any of that fancy coffee?”  

The Baron clapped his hands. “Your lips to god’s ears.” He turned to another servant: “You heard the man.” They scurried off to do their master’s bidding, who was now sawing neatly into a sausage with fork and knife.  

“M’lord,” Duncan said, “something needs to be done with that trespasser. He’s trouble.” 

The Baron dabbed at his lips and chin with his napkin before returning it ceremoniously to his lap. He pointed his fork at Duncan from across the table. “Opportunity, Duncan.” 


“That man is opportunity. Opportunity just waiting to be seized.” 

“How so.” 

The Baron leaned back and took a sip of his brandy, looking deep into its contents as though it would show him something. 

“He’s a Ranger, Duncan.” 

A servant returned with the steaming pot of fresh coffee. Duncan had forgotten he had requested it.  

The Baron dismissed the servants with a wave of his hand.  

“That’ll be all.” 

 They filed out quietly, leaving the two alone. 

“You can’t be serious,” Duncan said. 

“Don’t tell me the thought never crossed your mind.” 

“All the more reason to get rid of him, then.” Duncan sipped at his coffee, frowned, then reached for the sugar. “Why didn’t he tell us he’s a Ranger? It would have been in his best interest. He didn’t so much as mention it. In fact, he didn’t tell us much at all.” 

The Baron smiled and shook his head, waving his fork in a tut-tut motion. He swallowed his food. 

“Duncan, you’re a fighter, not a politician, so I forgive you for not thinking like one. That man told us a great deal of information.” He leaned forward, counting off on each thick finger. “One: we know he is travelling north – I don’t think he was lying about that – and what do we know is south of us?” 


“And further past that?” 

Duncan frowned. “Fairfield. But that’s at least for-” 

“Exactly,” the Baron cut in, leveling a greasy fork at Le Treu. “Only a Ranger can survive that journey on foot – and alone at that. So that gives us another vital piece of information:” he raised a second finger “he’s a Ranger.” 

Duncan took a long sip of his coffee and leaned back in his chair, adjusting the curved knife on his belt. “Okay, so he’s a Ranger travelling north from Fairfield. We still don’t know why, or how much he knows about us.” 

“We don’t need to know just yet. The fact that he wasn’t willing to divulge that information to us means,” he lifted a third finger, “it must be very important. Information like that,” he leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. “is worth a fortune in the right hands.” 

“But we’ll need to know eventually, and we can’t keep a Ranger imprisoned in the dungeons forever. He’d get out sooner or later. And we’re screwed if The Reach finds out about it. The Host won’t accept the ignorance card, either. Not without consequences.” 

The Baron played absentmindedly with the remains of his sausage. “You make a good point.” 

He massaged the bridge of his nose, deep in thought. Duncan let the moment pass in silence, using it as an opportunity to sample the raspberry jam on a biscuit. All this scheming made him hungry. 

“We have one thing in our favor,” the Baron said, breaking the silence. “his wounds. He certainly won’t be going anywhere for a while. which gives us plenty of time to get the truth from him. Did you see the look on his face yesterday? The man can barely focus for ten minutes in that condition.”  

“I wouldn’t rely too heavily on that bet,” Le Treu countered. “The herbalist is sure to get him back on his feet faster than you expect.” 

“Damn that whore,” the Baron growled. “I need him to remain weak and enfeebled while I question him. She’s liable to put the fighting spirit back in him before I get a chance.” 

“Maybe we should be going after her then? Tell her to keep him injured. Threaten to take something of hers?” 

The Baron considered this. “No, she’d never agree to that. She knows we want him alive, and she could use that as a bargaining chip. Goddamn goat-fucker. Whatever we do it has to be without her. We’d have the ignorant mob rioting at the doors because of her.” 

“And if she gets in the way?” 

“We’ll cross that road when – if – we get to it. For now we need to focus on what we can do with Mr. Monroe.” 

Think he was lying about his name?” 

“I’m not sure. Probably. I’ll check in with some contacts in The Reach to see if they know anyone by that name.” 

“Can you get a list of all the active Rangers?” 

The Baron rubbed at his smooth, freshly shaved cheeks. “Maybe. I’m hesitant to dig too deep, though. I don’t want to draw too many eyes, especially when we have one of their own imprisoned.” 

“Just say we were treating his wounds,” Duncan grinned. 

The Baron pointed his fork at Duncan again with a broad smile. “Ah! We’ll make a politician out of you, yet!”  

A twinge of anxiety the Baron as he, once again, realized just how dangerous his compatriot was. I’m in a goddamn viper pit. A Ranger in the basement and the world’s greatest killer in my dining room.  

I need to keep this dog on a firm leash. 

 Le Treu lowered his voice, despite it being just the two of them in the room. “If the Ranger knows about the bandits, it’s all over, and he’ll have to die.” 

“You’re probably right about that. You should question them today if you get the chance, find out if they had a run-in with him.” 

“What about the Ranger?” 

“I’ll question him more this morning.” 

“I’m coming with you.” 

“No. You said yourself if he found out about the bandits we’d have to kill him, so you should leave town to find that out first while I question him.” 

Duncan looked like he might argue the point, but he let it go after a moment’s hesitation. “Alright.” He stood, drained the rest of his coffee, and grabbed the rifle on his way out. “See you later today, then.” 

“Alright then. Good luck, Duncan.” 

A smile spread across the Baron’s lips as Duncan strode out the door. That Ranger is an omen of things to come, he thought to himself. Great change is about to happen. Time for the Lion to go hunting. 

A knock sounded at the side door to the dining room. The door opened, and in walked a tall stick of a man, sharply dressed in a black court doublet and breeches. His long-fingered pianist’s hands were covered in silk gloves, clasped neatly before him. His hawkish face regarded the Baron with a slight bow.  

“My lord, it is nearing eight-thirty. Shall we proceed to the dressing room?” 

“Aster, forget all that. I need to visit our guest in the dungeons before anything else. Strike while the iron’s hot, and all that.” 

Aster frowned even more than normal. “My lord, your schedule was specifically planned with your -” 

“Oh, very well. But let’s make it quick. Let me pick your mind on the way, at least.” 

“I am at your disposal,” the vulture-like gentleman replied, holding open the door for his master with a professional flourish. The Baron raised his bulk from his chair, his dishes and utensils left neatly arrayed on the table. 

Aster followed the Baron out of the dining room and down a long hallway echoing the sounds of whispers and shuffling footsteps. Sunlight struck the walls in intervals through the evenly-spaced windows. Outside, the clatter of horses and barking of dogs could be vaguely heard. 

“Tell me, Aster, how would you go about dealing with the trespasser we have locked in the dungeons? I need him to remain in a weak and enfeebled state long enough to question him, but I can’t afford to torture him. Not directly, at least.” 

They walked in silence for almost ten paces. The Baron did not hurry the Head Steward, but rather let the silence pass with an almost religious sanctity. 

Finally, Aster spoke: 

“In the Book of Philosophy it is written: ‘A human’s sharpest tool is neither sword nor plow, but their own mind. Some are sharper than others, but all are keen enough to cut themselves. All the mind needs is a good enough reason – and it will tear itself apart. ’” 

The Baron grunted. He would need to unravel that bit of wisdom in his head. They came to the end of the hallway and entered the dressing room, where several fresh sets of clothing were laid out on the bed for him. 

“So how would that work,” the Baron asked as he began to undress. “Lock him in solitary confinement until he cracks? We still would need to send the herbalist to keep his wounds from festering.” 

“Hmmm. A tricky conundrum indeed,” Aster replied with a quiver of excitement in his voice. The Baron selected an outfit and went about pulling it over his thick stomach.  

“Am I correct in assuming the gentleman in question is greatly suffering from his wounds?” 

“That’s right,” the Baron said as he tugged on his breeches. 

“In a great deal of pain, is he?”  

“I would think so, yes.” 

“Splendid. Might I suggest a course of action, my lord?” 

“Out with it, Aster. What do you have in mind?” 

He knelt to tie his master’s boots as he told him of his plan. It was rather genius, the Baron thought to himself.  

This interesting week was about to become positively remarkable. 

The Trail – Chapter 12

Whilst thou take me as thy guide? 

His heart drummed in his chest like thunder.  

For the wood is full of dire peril,  

He awoke in a swamp of chilled sweat. 

And the land cries out for Pilgrim blood… 

A wave of nausea, followed by a crash of horrible pain throughout his chest.  

I’m alive. 

 A light seared his eyes, causing him to clamp them shut again to preserve what comfort he still had left.  

Another second passed, bringing with it new and unpleasant sensations for him to experience; A dull throbbing in his legs and groin, a red-hot rash across his torso, the blasts of a crippled lung, and a headache powerful enough to be contagious.  

At first, he didn’t even notice. His entire existence funneled into one thought: 

What was it? What happened? What did I see? 

Through the pain and torture of a freshly-roused consciousness, his mind whirled like a feeble leaf on the wind. 

I can’t remember…. 

No…,” he pleaded aloud. His voice sounded hoarse and brittle – more like a groan than actual spoken language.  

Something profound – no, profound was far too meager a word – something otherworldly had been witnessed.  

The mountain lion had shown him something so transcendently beautiful – more beautiful than the most vivid sunset – that for the first time in his life everything had been made alright. Every groove and divot of pain and suffering carved out of him since his conception had – in one instant – been smoothed out and rendered whole. 

“No…please…” His lips felt parched, his throat as dry as a desert.  

“I have to rem…” He had no energy left to speak. The rest of his sentence died as a soft moan of sorrow whistling between cracked lips.  

Through the pain he tried to focus his anemic mind to remember anything at all – even the slightest detail. Nothing came. Even the brief sentences left to him began to fade slowly out of thought. This revelation struck him with raw terror. A scream escaped from his lips, horribly mutilated by his wretched condition into a ghoulish moan. 

“I can’t remember,” he croaked. His shoulders shook.  

“I can’t remember.” 

He awoke shortly after. His pains greeted him again with open arms. He was lying on his back in a mess of his own sweat, staring up at a ceiling of grey stone. It was well lit – wherever he was – by flickering flame-light. 

He craned his head left and right and was rewarded with a brief view of the room he was in shortly before a headache exploded across his temple.  

 The room was small – no more than fifteen feet across – and barren of decoration. There were no windows or sources of any natural light. 

 Pushed up against the walls were thin tables heavily worn with age, overflowing with strange implements; tweezers, rags, syringes, dried herbs, vials, books, a tea kettle, and a washbasin. A single wooden door, reinforced with iron struts and bars, remained shut as the only way out.  

His ankles, he realized, were strapped to the table upon which he lay. His hands were similarly restrained, but at the ends of chains that allowed him enough range of motion to scratch his nose. 

Just then all the images clicked in his head to form a realization; he was in a prison cell.  

A jolt of fear shot through him. But then a thought came: 

I couldn’t stand up even if I wasn’t restrained. 

He would have laughed at the idea, but he was in no laughing mood.  

For a while he tried to fall asleep, hoping to wake up later to find it had all been a dream – a terrible, terrible dream. But every time the cusp of unconsciousness came close, a fresh pang of pain shot up his back and deprived him of a well-needed rest. The headache made him want to vomit. 

So instead he lay there and ruminated. The showdown with the predator seemed like an experience from another life – like it happened to someone other than him.  

It had been a Wood Elf, driven by either grief, rage, or both. He could remember clearly the look of anger and sorrow in its eyes. What was an Elf doing so far south? What had driven it to commit such slaughter? He just couldn’t bring himself to believe it was all random. Something or someone had wronged the Elf, motivated it enough to kill. 

Maybe it had deserved to kill him. Maybe he didn’t deserve to win their battle. Maybe it would have been best if he had not fought back – didn’t survive against all odds. If he had known he would forget everything the mountain lion (if it really was just a mountain lion) had shown him he probably wouldn’t have fought so hard to live.  

But no, maybe there was still hope, he thought as a fresh wave of throbbing pain wracked his lungs. Maybe…if he could only remember!  

Focusing his mind, he silenced pain as best he could.  

What the hell was it? What did that creature show me??  

He remembered standing up to follow the puma, with the antler bow as a crutch…. 

He had followed it along the snowy mountain side… 

Then what?! Then WHAT!? 

Nothing. He just couldn’t remember. Then another thought occurred: 

Was it all my imagination? Was it just a hallucination 

He had been feverish – the sheets soaked with sweat told him that much. 

He tried to think straight. There was no real way to disprove it. There was really nothing he could do but endure and focus through the pain.  

Easier said than done. The man felt like a torture victim put to the knife, only the torturer was his own crippled body. He couldn’t tell which was worse; his lung, back, or his head.

His one mercy was the passage of time. Perhaps as a psychological coping mechanism, the hours went by quickly. He had – amazingly enough – fallen asleep briefly. He did not dream.  

He was awoken by a noise.  

He craned his head to get a look at the door as it was opened from the other side. A woman entered the room (or cell, from his point of view) carrying a tray in one hand. Her full height came up to his chest (if he were standing). Her skin was tanned and freckled from sunlight, and her hair burned with the color of fire, fashioned in beaded braids. Her clothing was simple and in dark earthy tones. Both thin shoulders peeked out under her sleeveless tunic, showing dark red armpit hair and a series of tattoos running up her arms. She brought the smells of fresh air into the room with her.  

Clearly, she had not noticed he was awake yet. She pushed the door closed behind her with her leg – her hands being too occupied to do so – and crossed the small room in a few strides to deposit the tray on one of the tables. She turned around, deep in thought, and they locked eyes.  

Her eyes are green, the man noted. 

She looked alarmed for only a moment before she composed herself with a casual smile. 

“You’re awake. How do you feel?” Her voice was clear and rustic with the accent of the Free Folk. He summoned the strength to respond without coughing: 

“Awful. Where am I? Did you keep me alive?” 

“I guess I did. As for where you are, this is the b- “ 

Just then the iron-reinforced door slammed open. Two armed men, each garbed in a dirty black and green tabard, burst into the small cell. 

“He’s awake, I knew it,” said one. “You!” He pointed a gloved finger at the woman. “Not another word! The Baron gave clear instructions! Get out!” 

The two stormed into the room, ushering the woman out and shutting the door quickly behind them, leaving the hunter alone again in a shocked silence. 

What the hell is going on, he thought. Baron…something about a Baron? 

He could hear footsteps outside the door and hushed conversation retreating in the distance. His lucid train of thought did not last long enough to ponder the strange occurrence. Breathing wasn’t so bad if he just didn’t try to move, but his head throbbed even when he kept perfectly still. He was assailed by the ache with each thrum of his pulse through his temple.  

His focus drifted off.

Not long after he heard footfalls approaching again – more than one person. There were hurried voices echoing down what must have been a long hallway. The door unlocked from the other side and opened. 

Standing before him was a heavy-set man well into his middle age, dressed richly in red and black. His hands were adorned with three rings – two on his left and one on his right – which sparkled in the firelight. His dark, beady eyes regarded the prostrate hunter with something he could not quite place. 

There was another figure behind the larger man, but he could not make them out from where he was, lying on his back.  

The ringed man entered the room, fully circling the hunter as though too wary to come within striking distance. Another man followed him inside, and closed the door behind them. The hunter painfully tilted his head to afford himself a view of the second man, and was immediately struck with an impression: 

This man is dangerous. 

So you managed to pull through after all,” said the one with the rings. “I was worried you would die without telling the tale.” 

 He was about to summon another spurt of strength to reply when the more dangerous-looking man cut in: 

“Who are you, and where are you coming from?”

“Where am I,” the hunter groaned with considerable effort.  

“You didn’t answer my ques-” He was cut off by the heavy-set man, who held out a hand for pause. 

“That’s alright, Duncan.” He turned to regard the hunter. “I am Baron Eugene Everette. You are in the Everette Barony, in the middle of the Silver Weald.” 

The hunter frowned before coughing. It was a minute before he was able to speak again. The two men waited – the Baron quite patiently. 

“Never heard of it. Did you say you’re a Baron?” 

“That’s right. And who are you?”  

He chuckled weakly. “You’re in the wrong century. Is this Free States Territory?” 

If he was annoyed with having his questions ignored, the Baron didn’t show it. 

“Technically, yes. But you’ll find that we have our own way of doing things here.” 

Duncan lost his patience. He walked up closer to the hunter and looked over him.  

“Now, we answered your questions, mate. How about answering some of ours:

Who. Are. You.” 

The hunter could make out all of Duncan’s features now: dark hair in a topknot, brown eyes, and corded muscle down his body. 

Built like a hunting dog, he thought wryly. 

He was well armed with throwing knives and a wickedly curved hacking-blade at his hip. The steel muzzle of a rifle peeked above his shoulder. His breath smelled of black pepper. 

He thought fast – or as fast as he could under the pain and stress he was experiencing.  

“Alexander Monroe,” he lied. Sorry, Alex, it was the first name I could think of. Hopefully you’re much better off than I am, on a tropical island somewhere in the Aureate.

Duncan stepped back and shared a glance with the Baron. 

He doesn’t believe me, the hunter thought. He sees right through me. 

“Well, Mr. Monroe,” the Baron clasped his fingers together. “what brings you into my domain?” There was something in the Baron’s voice he did not like.  

Again, he tried to think fast. 

The best lie is always closest to the truth. 

“I’m trekking north.”  

The Baron nodded his head. 

“I see. Why, exactly? And from where?” 

He hesitated. 

“I can see you’re hesitant to trust me.” The Baron approached the hunter and undid the restraints on his wrists and ankles with a thick-fingered dexterity. He took a few steps back. 

The hunter massaged the feeling back into his wrists, still not daring to sit upright.  

“As you can see,” the Baron continued, “we have taken it upon ourselves to attend to your treatment and recovery.”  

“You mean the red-haired woman that was in earlier.” 

The Baron nodded, looking slightly irritated for the first time. “Yes, yes. Her. What I mean to say is – you are in safe hands while within my domain.” 

“Interesting how that includes a prison cell.” 

The Baron’s brow furrowed. “Understand something, Mr. Monroe: while we will gladly treat your injuries and provide you safety, it does not mean that we trust you. You are a stranger – and a trespasser at that. And until you have answered all of our questions, you will remain as such. For all I know, you are a spy or assassin with an agenda of your own.” 

The hunter’s pulse quickened. That’s not far from the truth, he thought.  

He kept his face passive.  

“If I were a spy, I’d be doing a hell of a job,” he replied, gesturing to his broken body. 

“Indeed. Now, if you would humor one last question, we will be on our way and let you rest.” 

The hunter felt thick-headed and already exhausted. He could desperately use it, he knew. 

“What was your experience with the Render?” 

The hunter frowned. “The Render?” 

“Yes, that’s what we’ve taken to calling it. It’s a monster. As of now it has killed thirty-two people.” 

“They say its head is skeletal and horned,” Duncan added. “cripples its victim from a distance with a bow and arrow before ripping them apart.” 

The hunter considered lying, but thought better of it. There would be no other way to explain this. 

“Yes, I’ve seen it.” 

The Baron’s eyes narrowed. “Tell us about it. How did you survive? Apart from our efforts, of course.” 

“It hunted me for days. I tried to evade it as best I could, but lost all my supplies when I had to flee for my life. In the end…,” he trailed off, lost in the memory: the look in the Elf’s eyes, his hopeless pleading to stop the battle, and the final shot that ended it.  

He realized the two men were staring at him in silence, waiting for him to continue with rapt attention. 

“In the end we both fought to the death. On that mountaintop. Except, I survived.”  

A great sense of sorrow washed over him. He did not deserve to survive.  

He wished he could do it over again – this time convince the Elf with words he didn’t have before. Maybe, just maybe, if he had done something different, he wouldn’t have had to kill it.  

There was no reason it had to come to that… 

“You…slew it?” The Baron blinked.  

“I think so.”  

He was sick of talking to these two. Speaking of the incident left a bad taste in his mouth, and he guessed these strangers wouldn’t see it in quite the same light. 

Just leave me alone, he thought to himself.  

“I know my shot struck true.”  

Duncan scoffed. “Horseshit. I found your dying body in the woods, not on top of a mountain.” 

The hunter paused. How is that possible? Did I really make it all the way down the mountain like that on my own? He shook his head in disbelief.  

“That’s not possible…,” he muttered to himself.  

“You’re damn right it’s not,” Duncan said. The hunter wasn’t listening. 

That’s not possible, unless… He thought of the mountain lion, waiting for him to follow.  

Realization struck like a bell. 

It wasn’t a fever-dream? I wasn’t just hallucinating?? That really happened?! 

“I can see you’re worn thin,” the Baron cut in. “we’ll leave you to your rest.” He made to exit the room with Duncan in tow. 

“Wait,” the hunter cut it before they left.  

They both turned to regard him. “What is it?” 

“What day is it? How long was I out?” 

“It’s the nineteenth, if I’m not mistaken.” 

His heart sank in his chest. “The nineteenth of Cheering?” 

The Baron frowned and shook his head. 

“No, the nineteenth of Esprit. You’ve been unconscious for over a month, I’m afraid.” 

His heart shattered to pieces. 

I’m too late.  

I didn’t make it north in time.  

It’s over.  

He stared at the Baron, stunned speechless. 

I’ve failed.