Arc One: Modern Way
It could be worse."
"Well, we could be captured. Or dead." Jen leant on a post and looked out over the windswept square, while Dhaymin counted out the last of their coins. A few people looked up at them as they went past, no doubt surprised to see a pair of Rhusavi men somewhere so remote, but none of them stopped to ask questions. They looked more interested in Dhaymin, anyway. A blindfolded man wrapped in the skin of an ice bear would draw looks anywhere.
Dhaymin picked up each coin one by one, feeling its shape. "We've got about two or three meals left here, if we're careful. Here, what are these ones?" He held up a single coin so Jen could see. It was a scuffed, faceted thing, the design worn away by many hands, stamped with a hole in the middle. Jen took it from him, rubbing his fingers over the faded curves.
"I think this one's a Jakvinta mark. Good luck getting anyone to accept it."
"The nation of Jakvinta's spent the last fifty years being entirely unresponsive to the outside world. Word is something ate the ruling family and is now pretending to be them but don't ask me how accurate that is. Or likely."
"Oh, fuck." Dhaymin leaned back on the nearest wall with a thump, pocketing the rest of the change. "Well, that does it, then. We're going to have to do the thing."
"And what if this happens to be a perfectly nice happy town that isn't being terrorised by a monster?"
"Well, we won't know if we don't ask. How downtrodden does everyone look?"
"Dhaymin!" But if Jen was honest with himself, maybe Dhaymin had a point. But then again, maybe this was just another dusty old mountain town. He'd seen plenty of them. They ended up like this, when the mines ran dry. You didn't need monsters to hold people in check, not when you had good old fashioned hopelessness. "I don't know. Couldn't we sell that thing?"
"What, my bearskin?"
"Well, you know exactly what I think of it."
"Jen, you're supposed to be the smart one! This is our winter coats, once I find someone to cut it up all nice. I'll not see you freeze."
"Maybe you're right." Jen turned away from the square, down toward the market street. At least that looked like it was doing good business, from all the delicious smells of meat and alcohol. "I tell you one thing, Dhaymin," he said, "remember that lovely goat cheese they had? I bet it doesn't taste that good, but I don't care. I could really do with some of that cheese now." He could smell the heavy, slightly musky scent on the wind now, and he felt his empty stomach clench. "Come on, there's got to be something we can afford, isn't there? I'll think of a proper plan if I've got something in me."
"I was just thinking, Jen."
"Dhaymin, they have food! What's wrong with you?"
"You suggesting there's something wrong with me thinking?"
"When there's food about? Yes!"
"Well, try this," Dhaymin said. "Come over here. Out into the square. Tell me what you see?" He held out his arm, and Jen took it, guiding him into the centre, or as close to as he could. There was a plinth right in the middle, such as might form the base of a statue, but it was empty, as though the builders couldn't decide what to put on it. Right now it was occupied by a small flock of young men, who lounged around with the air of people who didn't have anything better to do, but were expecting a good show from the foreigners.
"Well, what am I looking for?"
"You don't see anything like a holding, do you? I don't think it'll be a big one, but if we're lucky..."
Dhaymin couldn't be serious, could he? But that was the problem with Dhaymin - the more outlandish his idea, the more likely it was he'd drag Jen along with him. And Jen could feel that weight drag down on him, when he looked down the widest street. There was a house there, right at the end, where a sheer cliff rose above the town like an imposing wall against the outside world. "You wouldn't! Dhaymin, don't you remember?"
"Why. what are they going to do to us? We left Rhusav months ago. Whatever Mother said, it doesn't mean shit out here. Besides.... she never said anything about me."
Despite Jen's protests, they ended up at the entrance, the cliff looming over their heads and casting a shadow over the gates. "What are you going to do now?"
"Is there anyone there? Take me to them."
A lone guard was indeed seated at the entrance, watching them with the same air as the young men back at the square. Jen opened his mouth to protest, but Dhaymin's hand was firm on his arm, and maybe he'd been right about Mother. Throughout it all, even after Dhaymin's blindness, he'd always been her favourite. Nobody had ordered him to leave. Nobody had told him a monster lurked in his blood. If Dhaymin were to turn up at the gates of home, she'd welcome him back... of course she would. He was the last of the line. The last of the Dhalsivs.
Jen, meanwhile, only used his last name because Dhaymin insisted.
And then, Dhaymin did something that Jen had never seen him do. Letting go of his brother's arm, he knelt before the guard, raising his right palm in the gesture of offering. Jen immediately did the same, wondering where Dhaymin had picked up a Toxiliviti gesture of all things.
"Is there room for an audience?" said Dhaymin.
"Lord Dhalsiv of Rhusav."
Jen tried, very hard, not to swear.
Once, Dhaymin had told Jen that they'd both lived because Jen had the sense to retreat. Knowing when to run was a sound tactic, Jen thought, but right now he wondered if it was also important to know when to stay. How Dhaymin had pulled this off, he couldn't say, but here he sat now, in a chamber carved of rock deep within the cliff face, while a warm, spicy scent filled the air, and he wondered when he'd last known what warmth was.
"It is not the proper drink," their host said, "but it was all I could do. You have to understand, the chocolate, the spices... they are all but cut off. People didn't often come here in the winter before. I'm surprised you came this way at all."
"Oh, there's things in the dark," said Dhaymin. We've met most of them."
Jen supposed he should be contributing to this, but the rightful Dhalsiv was speaking, and right now, he was willing to let him do so. His eyes were on their host as he poured their drinks, steam rising from the tiny cups and rising into the air, swirling and dancing in the candlelight. He was only aware of the tradition from his scant readings on the subject, but he could already tell it wasn't right - the books had described a thick, rich drink, and this was a thin, rather tealike liquid. Nevertheless he accepted it with grace, drinking the whole thing as quickly as he could while staying reasonably polite. It tasted a little bitter, and slightly peppery, with a slightly burnt aftertaste that lingered for a few minutes. He guessed it might be nettle, but it was at least not unpleasant, and while it was no substitute for food, it filled his stomach with a welcome warmth. Even Dhaymin drank with grace - he was serious.
"I would imagine so," said their host. His name, so Jen had learnt, was Lord Koiski, a stargazer by blood, as most of the mountain lords were. He was a thin man, with wide eyes and hair that slowly faded from black to grey. "So that would make you beast-hunters after all. That makes sense. I can't imagine anyone else taking the roads at this time of year. Even then I've rarely known any travel. Most of them would set up somewhere, find a town, protect it... gets them trusting you, you know."
More so than a pair of ragged young men, reeking of dirt and sweat, who'd barged in only hours earlier, Jen felt, looking over at Dhaymin. The pair of them must look a terrible mess. They'd both removed their mud-encrusted boots at the door, and that was the first time he'd noticed the blisters, and the first time they'd started to hurt. They still hurt now, even as he knelt barefoot before the serving table. They'd been ridiculous, both of them! What did Dhaymin think he was going to do, march in and demand coins for every dead monster he dragged in? Life didn't work that way!
Except it had. There'd been some bewilderment to begin with, but then Dhaymin had produced the wolf's head clasp he always wore and let Koiski handle it, and then he'd looked from Dhaymin to Jen, his eyes lingering on him for a few seconds, and that had been that. How could Koiski know their story anyway? He'd probably never heard of the Dhalsiv family, for certain Jen had never heard of the Koiskis, and if he didn't know... well, that was the hidden depth voice talking, but who else would?
"We've both got somewhere to be." Dhaymin said. "Far away. We're not looking to winter here. I'm offering you just ourselves. For food, directions... money... whatever you want. Within reason."
"Well, you are of course welcome for the night," said Koiski, his hand brushing against the still-steaming pot. "Though I should warn you, this place is already protected by a beast-hunter. Myself."
"But then again, you could help me? There is a creature that lives close by in these mountains. I... would not want to tell you what it has taken so far. I've been trying to track it for some time, but it won't let itself be caught. There are people who say it can't be caught, but I've never listened to all that talk. The beasts have claws and teeth like everything else. They're not untouchable. This one, though, is cunning. It may give the illusion of being unable to capture, but perhaps it is only because it takes three to do so."
"I can pay you. I can open the second road and trade over the mountains again. I can give you money and point you in the direction of anywhere you need to go." He sat now with his hands laid flat on the table before them, his wide eyes meeting Jen's.
Life didn't work this way, except when it did.
He wanted a wash, and hot food, and a chance to sleep, but Jen had ended up sidetracked nevertheless. Well, any proper Toxiliviti lord had to have a library, but it had never felt real until today.
It wasn't a big one, and there were gaps once filled by books, sold to pay for more urgent things. But it was so unlike his father's, a few lonely books clustered on a shelf that Jen had taken down over and over, until he'd memorised them all.
And, said the hidden depth voice, nobody will be angry if you read these ones.
Dhaymin heard footsteps behind him, gaining speed. He whirled around, but the sound was everywhere now, echoes bouncing around the rock tunnels. They grew and multiplied, until the world became nothing but sound in all directions. He turned again, a moment of uncertainty. It cost him.
Something slammed into him, pinning him against the rough stony wall. It took him another second to get his breath back, valuable time in which the thing raised a hand to his throat and, ever so lightly, touched its fingers around it. "Oh, perfect," he said. "Suppose I'm dead now!"
"Well, apart from the part where I'm talking to you, yes, you are." Jen let go and stepped away, giving Dhaymin enough room to rub at his back, where Jen had pushed him into the wall. There'd be bruising there later, but nothing he couldn't handle. Weren't as if a real monster would step back once it had his throat.
"Go again," he said.
"Course I'm sure. It's the echoes, I'll get used to them." He listened as Jen walked off, until his footsteps blurred away into echoes, and, yet again, he was gone. He'd get the hang of this eventually, but he'd never had to fight anywhere where sound made as little sense as it did here. Was he relying too much on sound, then? Were there other ways? No, he'd get the hang of this eventually. Just needed to compensate for the echoes, and then he'd be fine. It was new, just like everything else.
Yes, he'd had bitter moments over it all, he remembered, as he traced his way around the hall. It felt to him like another intersection - a broad room, low-ceilinged from the tone of the echoes, the larger space held up by columns interspersing the space. According to Jen, there was little else of interest. His own meanderings around their host's home had reminded him in some ways of the holding, a home too big for its current inhabitants, and all full of passageways that went nowhere and rooms with no purpose, either because whoever had built them had lost interest or funding, or because there simply weren't enough people to justify their use any more.
There was still no hint of Jen. Dhaymin pressed close to a column, wondering if, by chance, he'd be hidden from Jen's sight when he came in. Oh yes, he'd had bitter moments. But you kept going. You didn't listen to your mother as she wailed that you'd never fight again. You just did things differently, sometimes.
There he was.
Faint at first, then growing and rebounding, Jen's footsteps rang out in swift succession as he charged into the hall. Dhaymin strained to hear - he had perhaps a second or two to work it out, and act accordingly. No room to hide now, and just maybe, this time, he had the right angle...
...and then, just as Jen was almost on top of him and he felt that jolt in his stomach that told him he'd not quite made it, he twisted aside, flexing his whole body out of the way and dropping to the floor. Above him, he heard a thud as Jen kept going, and a quiet "Ow."
"I think I'm getting better at this!" Dhaymin pulled himself to his feet, and reached out for the nearest pillar. "Oh. You still fine?"
"Well, I have just run headfirst into a column of solid rock, but aside from that, I don't think I can complain."
"Good. Did I die that time?"
"I think I'll call this one just badly injured. Do you want to try again?"
"I've died enough today," said Dhaymin. "I feel like some real sleep." There was much to be done tomorrow, and Jen would not want to stay long. Best to enjoy the warm beds while they were on offer. He was about to hold out his arm for Jen to take, but hesitated. "Lead on, Jen. I'll follow."
In his dream Jen stays, with the rock tunnels and their secret, wonderful libraries. He's defeated the creature and trade pours into the mountain town, all thanks to their hero. He doesn't really know how to be a hero, but he's done good in the world, and that's all he wants.
But he stayed to long, and the mountains never knew their hero was tarnished.
He hears its claws on the low road one night, the steady clicking rising until it it all there is in the world. He must not turn around, yet he does.
Heroes never last long.
Jen had never seen a breakfast table like this before.
It was an elegant, unfolding thing, not at all like the low table they'd knelt at last night and taken their drinks over. And, unlike the breakfast tables at home where everyone sat around it in preparation for the day, this one had no seats, but was piled high with little crunchy things - nuts and dried autumn fruits, savoury biscuits and hard cheese, all served with fresh, steaming tea. Koiski had not yet arrived, but there were two others waiting to greet them at the table. Jen recognised them from their quick introduction from last night - a studious girl of about seventeen, and a boy of about seven. Koiski's children, and, if Jen was right, the only remaining members of his family. A sombre thought for a bright morning, but, then again, was it any different to anywhere else?
The elder of them had been standing against the wall reading, and she lowered her book in acknowledgement of their presence, while the boy took a few steps forward and looked up at Jen with wide eyes. "Good morning, Lord Dhalsiv," he said.
"Dhaymin. Just Dhaymin. No need for Lord Dhalsiv." He knelt down, so he was on the boy's level.
"Call me Lord Dhalsiv when he's around, then."
"Oh. What do you want me to call your brother?" The boy looked up at Jen.
"Hey!" Jen protested, but Dhaymin was too busy laughing at his own joke to notice, and the boy was grinning, and even the girl had managed a smile, so he let it all slide. Besides, there was food to be had. He took a few slices of dried fruit and poured himself some tea, the steam swirling and rising in the golden morning light. Taking a bite from the sweet fruit, he noticed something on the far wall, and wandered over for a closer look.
The walls lay draped in all manner of banners and woven woollen hangings to hide the grey rock, but amongst them were several framed documents, and one of them Jen recognised as a map of Toxilivital. The ink had faded over years of morning sun and some of the names weren't right - they still labelled the mountains as long-gone Jakvinta, not Toxilivital proper - but the shape was still recognisable - there were the mountains, and the border with Rhusav, and Jen could just about work out where they might be now from the names of the peaks. Further south, the marks that denoted pine woods faded away, and the land melted into gentle countryside. Further south still lay the sea, and a tiny dot, just off the south coast, labelled only "The Island".
Must have been a superstitious mapmaker, Jen thought.
There were other documents too - a few star charts, though to Jen's eyes, accustomed to using the real thing, their positions looked a bit off, as though whoever had drawn it hadn't a steady hand or didn't understand the subject.
It was the girl with the book.
"The map is still good. Just ignore Jakvinta. I'll wish you luck, I think you'll need it."
That, Jen felt, was her way of saying she thought he was mad for making the journey. She may as well come out and say it outright, for all it mattered. He'd have been slightly mad to do it in summer. He was certainly mad to do it now. Oh, the morning sun might feel bright and warm on his back now, but stand outside and all would be different. But he knew she never would. It wasn't right, and everyone knew it. "Thanks," he said. "I'll remember it."
"Don't rely on the charts, though. I shouldn't say it but they're terrible, but don't tell my-"
The moment was broken by a crash and a yell of "Oh sh- I mean bugger!" Jen whirled around to see Dhaymin and the girl's brother standing over a spilt teacup and a rapidly spreading red stain. Immediately, Jen ran over to the table end, where a bowl of water had been left for hand washing, and soaked a cloth in it. "No," Dhaymin was saying. "I won't tell him it was you. I'll tell your father I did it, because I'm a clumsy idiot who can't see what he's doing. And because I wanted to see how long it would take my brother to clean it all up again."
"Oh, be quiet!" said Jen, as he bent down for a closer look. There was a thick woollen rug underfoot, and the tea had soaked into it, but a few seconds of vigorous scrubbing got rid of the most. The two children rushed to help as well, but Jen held up a hand to stop them. "No, don't worry. I think I got most of it." They'd been lucky - the rug was checked in cream and russet, and he'd managed to clean up the pale parts. They'd be a bit pinkish from now on, but just crease it right, make sure something's on top... nobody need know, if you didn't want them to. It could be a shadow, or an old stain that had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Nobody need ever know!
Dhaymin tapped him on the shoulder. "Get up," he hissed. "Someone's coming."
Jen stood up, making sure he was standing over the stain, holding the damp cloth as though it were the most normal thing in the world, while Koiski entered. He looked over the little scene, the four of them clustered together, and let out a quiet cough. "Good morning, Lord Dhalsiv."
"Good morning, Lord Koiski," said Dhaymin.
"Are you not finished with breakfast? I can give you a little more time, but you have your day's work ahead of you. All of you."
"A little longer, please," said Dhaymin. "After all, this is a wonderful breakfast."
"Yes, wonderful," said Jen. A few drops of water fell onto his bare feet. "Thankyou very much for it."
"Well, I suppose a little longer... very well, then. You will meet me at the entrance when you are finished, I hope?"
"Of course," said Dhaymin.
Koiski seemed satisfied with the answer and left them alone. The air was tense and still for a few seconds, as his footsteps faded away, and then, once he was safely out of earshot, a collective sigh of relief arose from the foursome.
"Only a bit of tea," said Dhaymin. "I don't know what we were so worried about."
"I do," said Jen. "Look, can you all give me some space here? I think there's a spot I didn't finish."
As he got back to work, satisfied with the job he'd done, he saw the boy out of the corner of his eye. He took Dhaymin's hand and gave it a tug. "Thankyou, Dhaymin," he said. And then, turning to Jen. "You too! I don't think you're an idiot!"
The air tasted fresh, still with the tang of impeding winter. Dhaymin stripped down another tree branch, giving it a few sharp prods against the ground before setting off. "I tell you one thing," he said, "I could do with those new coats now." Koiski had taken the bearskin with the promise he'd send it off to the best tailor he knew, but that left Dhaymin without the familiar weight and warmth he'd grown accustomed to in the last few days. Without it, he could feel the cold biting again, though at the very least the air was still enough that he could feel the weak autumn sun on his back. "Well, with them or not, we'd better be going. Wouldn't want you caught up in the dark, would you?"
They were by now heading downhill, away from the town. Koiski had advised them to keep low. "You could have been lucky yesterday," he'd said, "but my people are frustrated and want someone to blame. A pair of... foreigners... would be just the thing. I hear some people call Rhusavi the gold-men? If they hear I've been helping you, they might start claiming I've banned the very idea of gold for your sakes. People will make the strangest assumptions when they're angry." In any case, it made little difference if they entered the town or not. Koiski had sent them into the forests for good reason - to search for clues as to the creature's whereabouts. His claim had been that they were better suited to the task than he ever would be, and Dhaymin wasn't going to argue with that.
The downward trail led them through a forest, silent save for the occasional distant sound of a mountain stream, or a faint breeze through the trees. The ground felt soft underfoot with fallen pine needles, their scent thick and heavy in the air. Occasionally Jen might spot something and stop to study it, or they'd hear a crack of fallen twigs and pause, waiting, but nothing happened. "Fine walk this is," Dhaymin said.
"It's wonderful," said Jen. "But I can't help but feel there was something we were meant to be doing. Something about... finding a monster?"
"Bugger this," said Dhaymin. He felt a small stone underfoot, and gave it a kick, hearing it skid across the ground. "How much daylight's left?"
"Maybe two or three hours," said Jen. "Hard to tell. You don't think that's really true what Koiski said about light, is it?"
"What, that thing about it glowing?" That had been in Koiski's brief description of the creature from what he'd heard, and Dhaymin had found it hard to swallow, though he'd kept enough respect about him to not show it. "Why would a monster want to glow? Do monsters celebrate midwinter too? Is it the fingernail monster? Come on, you don't still believe in-"
"No, I was just thinking maybe it prefers to come out at night."
"...or it comes out at night." Not as if he still believed anything about a glowing monster, but it wasn't as if it was any use to him if it did. Another breeze rose, ruffling through his hair and carrying the scent of pine - and something new. "Wait." He turned in the breeze's direction, sniffing the air. The scent was faint but definite, foul and full of decay. "Did you catch that?"
"Ugh, now I do. Yes, that's a dead thing out there."
It was Dhaymin who found it. The stench was terrible by now, a cloying and acrid dead animal scent that pervaded the air. The branch he'd been using ran into something soft and yielding, and there was a buzzing of angry flies as they rose, disturbed, into the air. "Jen," he said, "get over here." Not willing to touch, he traced the top of the branch over the thing's body, feeling the hard, regular shapes of exposed ribs. A little more prodding revealed a mostly empty body cavity, the soft organs pulled away, and the shape of the body overall - a long, arching neck, dipping and curving until he reached what felt like a slender head. "Deer?"
"Looks like it. Suppose they haven't turned yet in these parts."
"I really wish you wouldn't use the word 'yet'."
Jen ignored him. "Well, it should be safe to touch anyway. Would you say that's been here a while?"
"I'd say a day or two. Reeks, doesn't it? Problem is... this could be its kill, or something else."
"Is it territorial? Pack hunter, maybe. I suppose if it's killed in this area it's not gone far?"
"I doubt even Koiski knows." Dhaymin tapped at the ribs again, as though they were some gruesome musical instrument. "But I know what he might recognise..."
"Oh, the teeth marks!" There was a crunch of fallen needles as Jen crouched down before the corpse. "Well, the ribs look a bit scratched up. You might be onto something."
"I am onto something," said Dhaymin. He crouched beside Jen, reaching out to touch one of the exposed ribs. They'd dried out in the chilly air, and under his fingers he could just about make out grooves and indentations that indicated something had been chewing them to get at the innards. The smell, by now, was unbearable, filling his nose and mouth, and he was forced to hunch down and pull up one of his undershirts so it covered most of his face. "Fuck. This stink could cure colds! What do you think?"
"Narrow teeth," said Jen. "Jaws probably not strong enough to crush, then. It's gone for the soft bits. That is assuming... oh Dhaymin, you're touching it. That's disgusting!"
"It's only meat! Anyway, I think I can snap this one off, it's probably halfway to falling apart as it is. Come on, I don't want to sit around here all day. Koiski will be happy with this."
"What makes you think he'll be happy?" There was a crunch as Jen stood back, doubtless unable to stomach the stench any longer.
Dhaymin just took a better grip on the rib. "Because I say he will." He heaved, and a satisfying snap rang out across the forest. "Come on. Let's get into the warm."
Kes unfolded her best sewing box. It rolled open in a beautiful and complex pattern, tiers of drawers and compartments revealing themselves. She searched through them, but none of them, despite being filled with meticulously categorised needles, buttons, clasps and thread, held what she wanted. "Kimi," she called, "do you have my best leather needles?"
"There's another box in here," came her student's reply from the front room. Kes, at least grateful for the chance to be away from the tough, heavy, and above all smelly bear's hide, got to her feet. "Go on and look for them, then," she said.
The first thing that greeted her as she walked through the door was a sudden blast of cold. Kimi lounged on the checkered, woollen mat, oblivious to the chill. The second thing she noticed was the figure in the open doorway, leaning on the frame. "Skettin. Found somewhere better to waste time than that plinth?"
"Don't remember any law about not being able to stand here. I'm only talking to Kimi about those gold-men." He looked down and let out a phut noise, a wad of spit landing in the cold, dry dust.
"No," said Kes, "there isn't. I, however, have a little personal law about spitting in my doorway."
"Oh come on! It's what people do!"
"Not in my doorway they don't."
Skettin gave her a look that suggested he'd like to make a comment, but didn't dare. The one thing everyone knew about tailors was that, when you got really, really down to the basics, they were just people who were very good with sharp objects. It might not make her a hunter, and she'd never admit to the few times she'd pictured herself caught out in the mountains with nothing but a pair of scissors, but it shut people up. Kes ignored him. She'd found the second box, and, taking it from the shelf, eased herself onto the mat beside Kimi. "Right then," she went on. "Best leather needles, remember?"
"You're still working on those coats?" said Kimi.
"Told you. Skettin stepped inside and nudged the door closed with a foot. "Told you it was those gold-men again."
Don't comment, Kes thought, going through the second box. Whoever had put this one together hadn't been as careful as herself, as evidenced by the tangles of thread and metal waiting to ensnare and stab unwary fingers. Nothing good will come from commenting. "Yes, well, it's trade," was what she settled for. It wasn't that she cared for Koiski, or his Rhusavi guests. Occasionally she'd caught herself thinking Koiski himself was the problem, and though she'd tried to shut it up, sometimes she wondered if he'd ever actually catch the monster in the pass. The thing about beast hunters, the thing everyone with any sense knew about beast hunters, was this one thing...
"Could do with a bit more," said Kimi.
"Hah! Not going to happen. Way I hear it, they had nothing before they came here. That's not all of it! Do you know what Herink said? Saw both of them down by the market. Said one of them's blind."
"They'll let anyone call themselves a beast-hunter..." muttered Kimi.
Be quiet, the pair of you!" Kes snapped. "Unless either of you want a pincushion to the face, and I warn you, those things hurt when thrown hard enough. Anyone would think you only existed to comment on them."
"Like you don't remember what happened to the last lot," said Kimi.
"All too well. That's no reason to assume these two are going to fail. Or to believe something your friend's friend overheard, come to think of it. I'm not lying down. There's someone at fault, but I don't think it's a couple of wandering hunters. Not yet, anyway. Time for that talk should be past. We're all just people now. All just trying to keep alive." Yes, you know where the fault lies, she told herself, but it's not easy to talk about, is it? She looked out of the small, slit window, at a sky that was rapidly turning from pale blue to rich, deep indigo. "Skettin. It'll be dark soon. Either go home now, or stay here."
Skettin's face flickered through expressions, torn between the youthful desire to say "And what's going to happen?" and the knowledge that saying such a thing significantly elevated said what's chances. "Uh... yes." was what he ended up saying.
"Now," Kes said when he was gone, "help me with the lamps."
It was all very well and good to talk about heroes and hunters. The problem was, you started out as a child, hearing the stories of brave beast-hunters who freed the people, but then you grew up, and heard the stories of equally brave beast hunters who ended up as damp smears on the ground. The story right now lay in an uncertain state between the extremes. She wondered how it would be told, and knew, in a nasty little moment, how she'd like it. What was it everyone knew about beast-hunters?
Ah yes. The thing everyone knew about beast-hunters was that some of them hunted for revenge, and some hunted for glory. She'd always thought of Koiski as the former, but then again, she used to oversimplify things. As for the Rhusavi men, that lay like the ending of their story.
She waited until Kimi was occupied with the lamps in the back room, found a pen, and began to write.
"Dhaymin, what are you doing here?"
"I knew you'd come here." Dhaymin was lounging in the library, sitting back in the largest, softest chair. On a low table beside him, a pot of tea steamed away. "Little tip, Jen. Stop being predictable."
"Yes, well, we're buried inside a cliff face. I think we can do with a little less caution."
"Maybe a little," Jen said, flicking a lock of still-damp hair away from his face. Life wasn't perfect, not when there was only still water to wash in, but after the warmth had eased into his muscles and he'd gotten all the dirt off, now that he felt clean for the first time in days, he didn't care. The world, for all it mattered, could consist of nothing more than this cavern - the warm light, the bookshelves carved into a rock, and the tea. Jen poured himself a cup, and clasped it in his hands, letting the warmth seep into his fingers.
"Quiet, though." There'd been no sign of the Koiski family for a few hours. Jen and Dhaymin had handed the rib over on their return, much to Koiski's delight and insistence they join him sometime. Dhaymin had been all too happy for both of them to go running off at any command, but Jen had insisted on a good wash after the carcass incident. It might have only been a deer to his eyes, but he wouldn't take a single risk. He took a mouthful of tea, letting the warmth fill his stomach. Tea had been a new experience so far, but a welcome one. In Rhusav, if you wanted your water safe, you made spirits and drank those, although Jen had preferred the winter because that meant fresh snowmelt. The start of winter was always the best, when there were still a few fresh autumn fruits left over and sometimes a few drops of sweet juice to mix in. Tea reminded him of that, but with so much warmth, and so much energy.
"He's gone outside. Taken the children, said he wanted to show them how to track monsters too."
Jen gripped the cup, very tightly. "It's dark."
"Yes, well, I don't like it either, but-"
"He can't, though. That's what we're here for! He doesn't have to take them out, it's not-" He stopped himself, and took another gulp of tea in an attempt to keep himself steady.
"Not any different to what our parents did, and you always defended-"
"No! It wasn't! Because they had sense! Because when they thought OUR monster was close, they'd lock us up before they left to go after it! It's not the same at all! I know they left us alone, but... we were safe."
Jen's voice trailed off as he became uncomfortably aware of Dhaymin's silence. His brother hadn't moved a bit from the chair, but his face was turned in his direction, and everything about the way he lounged back suggested that he was waiting for more. He shrugged and set down the teacup, before he ruined another rug. "I'm sorry. Normal life. You know what I mean."
"I know. I'm sorry too, Jen. Life. Got to survive. All that shit."
Jen supposed the tea was getting to his head again.
He'd been slipping, forgetting to shut up the inner-depth voice. Because it was all very well to let it cry, over and over, "It's not fair!" but none of it changed the world everyone had to live in. Koiski might yet have a point. When Jen had been small, their monster had been a lurking presence in the dark. It was simply how life had been - when the beast came close, their parents locked them into the holding where it was safe. Oh, he'd grown up chasing monsters, but he'd started with the little ones, while Father's monster remained a storybook threat, the stuff of long dark nights, not to be faced until they were ready.
Maybe Koiski's way was better. Maybe, instead of locking children away, it was better to take them out and let them watch you land the final blow.
Maybe it was better to prove that even the greatest of monsters can be killed.
"Dhaymin, wake up!"
Dhaymin drifted out of sleep, only to find that someone was prodding his shoulder. "Jen," he said, "stop it." He'd gotten himself into a good, warm bed two nights running, and Jen should have known not to disturb him. He rolled over so that his back was turned to him, and pulled the covers higher.
"You've missed the entire morning, breakfast's almost gone, and there's something for us in the hall."
"You could have told me earlier!" Dhaymin said, throwing the covers aside and pushing himself upright. "I was having a lovely dream, too. One of those ones where I don't die."
"I didn't have much of a chance to tell you!"
"Well, you're telling me now." Dhaymin stretched his arms. "Now then. You only said breakfast's almost gone, didn't you?"
There was enough left at the breakfast table to satisfy him this one time, at least, even half a pot of tea. To his surprise, though, Jen didn't make immediately for it, but left him alone for a few minutes. When he returned, there was a whump noise, such as might be made by a large, soft bundle hitting the floor. "They arrived earlier this morning," Jen said. "Koiski left us a note. Said it was for yesterday's job well done. Here, this one's yours."
Dhaymin held out his hands, and Jen placed the heavy bundle in them. "Coats! Well you could have told me earlier." He unfolded his - it was a long, heavy thing, made of thick sturdy fabric, the sort where if he placed it on the ground it might stand up on its own. He ran his hands around the cuffs and hems, where the maker had sewn in strips of thick, warm bear's fur, and tried the whole thing on. It had a reassuring, warm weight. "There, see now, Jen? Told you we'd do well. Hah, pockets too! Lots of pockets. That's what you want. Can never have too many pockets. Pockets are good."
"Oh, it's so warm!" said Jen. "You don't think they feel a bit overblown?"
"No, Jen. You look perfectly fine to me."
"Thanks! I was a bit worried I... why do you have to do that?"
"Seriously, Jen." Dhaymin wandered over to him, grinning. "As long as they're not bright purple or something, and I doubt it because I don't know where anyone around here would get the dye, it doesn't matter."
"They're more like a sort of light brown."
"Told you, everything's fine. Now I'd better-ow!" Something scratchy had jabbed into his neck, just under the collar. Pulling the coat off, he ran his fingers along the inside and found the source of the irritation, a stiff fabric loop. "Oh, typical," he said. He pulled it out, and was satisfied to find that it came away without much resistance, but just as he was about to toss it aside, he realised there was something else pinned to the inside. "Well, that's irresponsible. Just because the world's gone mad..."
"What is it?"
Dhaymin worked the pin free. "Well, it feels like a piece of paper. But I don't think that's the point." He handed it over to Jen. "Anything interesting?"
"Toxiliviti script. I think I can read it, just give me-"
Oh, Dhaymin thought. Dramatic timing.
There was a clamour of footsteps and the slam of a door as Koiski burst into the room. "Lord Dhalsiv... ah. I see you got the packages. You have to come. Now. It's Lavin."
"That's.." Dhaymin hissed, his voice as quiet.
"His son. Yes. I told you this would happen!"
If Koiski heard, he gave no indication Dhaymin could notice. Dhaymin stepped forward, the sound of Koiski's ragged breath in his ears. "It was the monster. Wasn't it?"
Dhaymin felt the angry words in his throat, and it was only by sheer willpower that he kept them down. This was diplomacy, they were guests, and this man was not Mother, to shout at whenever he felt. He clenched his fists and took a few deep breaths, and, just as he was calming his thoughts, he felt Koiski's hand on his arm, tugging him away and causing him to stumble. "Don't do that." His voice was as level as he could manage.
The procession led him deeper into the mountain than before, until he lost track of everything. He kept his misgivings to himself - they were guests. They were guests. They were guests, fuck everything, and if he had to put up with idiots at every turn, so be it. At least nobody had tried to grab him any more. Jen was sensible, and he knew to keep his hands off outside of an immediate emergency, but some people...
He consoled himself by making a personal promise that he'd chew that waste of space out as soon as they left. There were more important things to do now.
The next moments were a mess of sound. They'd stopped, there was Koiski's daughter saying "no, he's not really hurt, but..." and plenty of screaming, and somewhere in there dear, sensible Jen and "no, it's fine now, you'll see, we'll get it for you..."
"Had the sense to run, did he?" Dhaymin said. "Always a good thing to know. Right. In the next few seconds, one of you is going to explain things to me."
"He's fine," Jen said. "Little scratched up and scared, but not as bad as it could have been."
"That's right," said the girl. "We saw it off, but it's still out there."
"Yes, well, that's where we come in," Dhaymin said, taking a few cautious steps toward them. He felt a large, heavy chair, and crouched down beside it. "Now then. I'm not going to ask any stupid questions. But I am going to find out what's happening. With me, Jen?"
"I think we should make sure-"
"You can do it! Just watch out for the teeth."
That came from Lavin, seated in the chair. Dhaymin smiled. "Oh, don't worry about the teeth," he said. "I know all about things with teeth. I'm what things with teeth are afraid of." He stood up, and strode back toward Koiski. "So here's what we'll do. You show myself and my brother where this monster showed up, and we'll sort the job out for you. Everyone's happy."
"Yes. Come on, we need to leave now." Koiski laid his hand on Dhaymin's arm again.
"I told you," Dhaymin said. "Don't. Do. That."
"Why didn't you take the last one?" Jen asked, as he watched Dhaymin strip down another branch.
"Because it was covered in rotten deer innards," said Dhaymin. "Not very observant, are you?"
"Don't." Dhaymin slammed the end into the ground, sending up a shower of dirt. "And before you ask any more, I'm fine. Koiski's waiting. Let's not disappoint him."
Koiski was indeed waiting, perched on a rocky crag overlooking the mountain slopes and the deep green pinewood beyond. If he'd heard the discussion. he gave no sign.
"You're right," Jen said, as Dhaymin set off. It was the second day in a row he hadn't asked for help.
Jen hung back, taking the paper slip from his pocket, and studied the unfamiliar words. Speaking Toxiliviti well was one thing. Reading it was another, and even when he thought he had the literal meaning...
He pocketed it, and followed on.
It must have been at least an hour, Jen thought, by the movement of the sun as it glinted through the trees, but if his sense of direction was working right, Koiski spend much of it backtracking and double checking, leading them in circles in his search. Nevertheless, Jen kept his concerns to himself. There was no time to pull Dhaymin aside, and even if there were, the words still burned in his head.
What was a monster going to care if Koiski led them into danger, anyway? Say what you would about monsters, at least they saw everyone was equal targets. There were many beast-hunters in the world, sometimes as thick as summertime midges around a lake if they thought there might be a kill going. Sometimes you met the odd echo-eater or the like, and they were even madder than the usual crowd, but in Jen's experience real monsters weren't echoes, or things from children's tales that stole your fingernails in midwinter if you'd been bad. They had claws and teeth, and, all discussion of higher motives aside, thought you were prey.
That at least put Jen's mind to wondering about herbivorous monsters, or small monsters, which obviously existed even if the most serious of beast-hunters thought they were a wimp's target, because monsters couldn't eat villagers all the time. He'd seen a diagram in a book once about how it just wouldn't work. And that turned his thoughts to how the most serious of beast-hunters had never faced an enraged male caribou, which was better than dwelling on the current situation.
And for now, the day was clear, the sun low but bright, the air crisp and clean. Jen's new coat hung over his shoulders with a warm, reassuring weight. And maybe Jen's misgivings were the work of the inner depth voice because it saw a few little parallels and had wormed its way through the cracks of consciousness, and it was time to push it back into the dark where it belonged.
Yes. That was probably it. Jen was going to draw up a new rule when this was done - never work with anyone with children.
And at last, when the sun lay low and golden in the sky, gleaming through the sharp pine trees, Koiski came to a stop on an outcrop overlooking a low vale. "It was there," he said. "Lavin only escaped by climbing up here."
Jen studied the layout. Before them, the outcrop fell away into a steep but climbable cliff, a little taller than a man. Below that, the ground fell away into a bowl-shaped depression, lined with soft, dark soil and the ever-present pine needles, bordered by the ever-present pine wood. It grew thick in this sheltered spot, and only the spot directly below lay clear.
"I apologise for the implications," Koiski went on, "but if we go down there one of us needs to keep watch."
And get killed while the one keeping watch stands and... well, watches. Jen drew himself up to his full height and took a look around the wider area. The crag at least provided a good vantage point, enough for him to spot the curls of smoke from the town. "We're not far as I thought," he said. "Any of us gets hurt, help's not far off."
"Are you sure-" Koiski began.
"Listen to him. He knows what he's talking about when it comes to going and getting help," said Dhaymin.
"Very well," Koiski stood up as well, and made his way to one of the gentler parts of the slope, but paused before descending. " I believe in all the action of the last few days. Have you been a beast-hunter for long?"
Jen looked down the crag. "Since I was named."
If Jen could have a good word about Koiski, it was that he probably wasn't lying. There was enough scuffing and disturbance to suggest a good sized fight, and Jen stalked around the edges of the clearing, unwilling to disturb it. Koiski hung back, and a hint of guilt gnawed at the back of Jen's mind. If all his suspicions were meaningless, all he'd gone and done was drag him back to the spot where his son had nearly been hurt or killed. Koiski might only be a scrawny, slightly terrified looking man, but Jen knew exactly where that was headed.
You could say one thing about Father. He'd fought like a monster himself after Dhaymin fell.
But there was no time to contemplate past battles. "Well," he said, "It's a bit too scuffed up to tell what happened afterward, but the way you describe this thing, it wasn't a climber, was it?"
"I don't believe so," Koiski said. "It left us alone, once we got back up the crag."
"I see," Jen looked up at the sun, now well into its descent and throwing long, dark shadows over the clearing. Another day lost, just because someone had to have a lie-in. "And you think it prefers to come out at night?"
"It's just my guess based on most sightings. And the lights. I think that maybe-"
"I think you both need to shut the fuck up." That was Dhaymin, who stood at the other end of the clearing, leaning on a tree. "Some of us are trying to listen."
"Sorry," said Jen. "You heard something?"
"No, because you two wouldn't be quiet! Give me a moment."
As silence fell across the clearing, Jen strained to listen. There was something dead about a pine wood in autumn, when even the birds did not sing, and even the air lay still. The silence of a world preparing for death, Jen thought. Any second now, he told himself, a twig was going to snap. A twig always snapped. Or rather, that was the way people told it. The truth was, you never knew for certain, not until it was right there. He stood his ground, watching and waiting, as the sun sank ever lower, the sky turning to deep blue. "Dhaymin, do you-"
That was when he saw the light. A cold blue gleam, not like the warmth of the sun but the light of a distant aurora, it flickered in the depths, just long enough to catch his eye. "Koiski-"
"Yes." Their host was leaning against the crag, but at Jen's voice he drew himself back to his full height. "Be quiet, both of you."
He hadn't been lying, then? Jen thought for a second he'd imagined the whole thing, but at Koiski's confirmation he saw it again, glimpses of blue light in the undergrowth, there and gone again. And now there was a whisper of leaves brushed aside, the soft crunch of a broken pine-needle-carpet. Whatever lurked in the trees was sizing them up, he realised, trying to work out if all three of them were worth attacking, or not. But, Jen asked himself, in the cold, rational core of his mind that ran in the depths even when he felt his breath become rapid and his muscles tense, why advertise where it was?
Across the clearing, he saw Dhaymin raise the branch he carried.
What happened next was almost too fast for Jen to register. Before he could move, something rushed from the undergrowth, something long limbed and gleaming with light, only for Dhaymin to whirl around and catch it with a glancing blow, causing the thing to stumble backwards. Only then did Jen see what it was. A shaggy, lean, wolflike beast, but its back ridged with finlike protrusions, and a head unlike that of any wolf Jen had ever seen - the teeth too numerous and needlelike, and enormous eyes, dark pools in the sides of its head. As he watched, it got to feet and hissed, head lowered and jaws open wide, wider than they ever had a right to be. On the fins on its back, pale spots flared into blue light again. Dhaymin stood his ground, turning in the direction of the noise.
That's not right, said the cold core. Shouldn't stand around posing! But his eyes were drawn to something else, something he hadn't spotted in the initial rush - the long tendril-like ears, trailing from the back of the thing's head. "Dhaymin! Taxrak!"
That was more than enough for Dhaymin. At Jen's voice he caught the thing another blow as it charged and made a dive for it, crashing right into the thing in a tangle of limbs and light. Jen ran forward, but Dhaymin eventually stood up, seated over the creature's shoulders as though it were a tiny horse, one ear in each hand, while it stood docile, its dark eyes calm. The eyespots faded and died away. "You could have told me it had those fins!"
"Sorry," said Jen, "Didn't really have time to." He took a deep breath, and steadied himself against the nearest tree as the battle rush faded. "Well, that was easy enough."
"For you. I might want to have children one day! Now, Koiski, funny thing about the taxraks. Grab them by those ear things and they just... go. Always thought it was a stupid weakness, but I- Koiksi? Jen, don't tell me he ran off again, I'm getting sick of always having to do the...."
But Jen heard no more, as he turned to see Koiski leaning back on the crag, his face pale, his legs shaking and unsteady as though they might give way at any point. On seeing Jen had noticed him, he tried to straighten himself up, but he kept his back to the rock face. Behind him, Jen heard the beast struggle in Dhaymin's grip, only to fall silent again. "You..." He pulled his coat aside, reaching within.
"I... apologise. I didn't expect you to be done so quickly..." But by now, his eyes were on the knife Jen had drawn, and his face flashed through expressions. Jen took a few steps forward, and he broke into a run, straight for the climbable slope, hauling himself to the top of the crag. Jen took off after him, scrambling over the rocks - somewhere behind him, he could hear Dhaymin calling out in confusion, but it was all noise, irrelevant noise, and there was nothing in the world but Koiski. For a second it seemed as though he would get away, but Jen reached out just as he pulled himself over the edge, grabbing his thin ankle and letting him crash to the ground.
In a flash of movement, he had Koiski pinned face-down to the rock face, his knife pressed against the base of his skull. "Funny thing about tarnished men. Defeat the monster, and they just... go."
"I don't know what-"
"Revenge or glory, Koiski?" Jen grabbed his hair and pulled his head upward, so that he could see the scene as it played out below him, and shifted the knife so that it pressed against his throat. Below him, Koiski struggled, but he was too light and skinny, and Jen had him pinned by weight alone. "Revenge or glory?"
There was a high pitched shriek from the creature below, which abruptly fell silent as Dhaymin gripped tighter on its ears, and a cry of "I can't exactly do this shit forever!" but to Jen it was all meaningless noise, and nothing was real but the blade and the tarnished man. He heard Koiski take a strained breath, finding his tongue.
"...one to talk, aren't you?"
Jen pressed the knife harder, feeling hot, damp breath on his hand. His own breath came in ragged bursts, his heard pounding so hard he could feel his body shake. His fingers clasped tight around the hilt, he pressed a little harder still...
That was Dhaymin again. And now Jen saw him properly, still seated over the taxrak's back, while it struggled to free itself. "He attacked Lavin! He's tarnished!" He jerked Koiski's head higher, so that his neck nearly snapped under the tension. "How many did you kill? How many of your family?"
"Jen, if you don't-"
"Just to make yourself look brave!"
"I'm sick of this!" As Dhaymin yelled, Jen caught the glint of metal in the last rays of the setting sun, just enough for Jen to see the motion as Dhaymin ran his own knife in one quick sweep.
There should have been screaming, Jen thought. There should have been a world full of noise. But Koiski merely shuddered as the creature sank to the ground, and went limp, his head hanging by his hair, his eyes glazed and unfocused. Jen, still with his knife drawn, stood up, circling him with caution, but although Koiski was still breathing, he made no move to get up, not even when Jen prodded him with a foot.
Well, thought Jen's calm depths, that's certainly convenient. But Jen himself paid no attention to the revelation, sinking back to the ground, the battle rush once again wearing away and leaving exhaustion in its wake.
"Jen! Are you going to sit there all day or are you going to help me up?" Dhaymin was pulling himself over the ridge, certainly not in need of any help Jen could see, but nevertheless he stood back up and took his hand, heaving him over the edge. "Good," Dhaymin said., "Got a bit of sense in you. What are you going to do now?"
"Well, I know what you feel like doing," said Dhaymin, "but you're not going to sit there. Because I'm not going to let you. You can sulk about being a monster later. I'm assuming from the silence you got him? Well then, you're going to do something you're good at. Dragging unconscious people back to civilisation."
Jen opened his mouth to speak, but there was nothing he could say that Dhaymin probably wouldn't shoot down, so he settled for gripping his hand tight, drawing him closer and into a quick hug.
"Jen, do you have to? Come on, off me. Now. I lost that branch down there. Haven't got a fucking clue where I am. Don't make it worse. Come on, talk to me. I... want to know it's you."
"I suppose it is for now."
Jen looked back over at Koiski's still form, and realised, as clarity came flooding back, that he'd never seen what happened when a tainted person's beast was killed, and perhaps that was what worried him the most. If his own creature was out there, and if this time they brought it down, then would he share Koiski's fate? Had he simply collapsed from shock, or was he going to die without ever waking? Dhaymin surely must be thinking the same, even if he didn't show it. There had been a door in his mind, a potential escape route, and now it had slammed shut.
So they'd find a different way! There was always Sinak Island. As long as that lay over the horizon, as long as they knew where they were going, that meant there might be a way out. "I'll have to get back down there and get something. Can't run back without proving we killed it." He let go of Dhaymin's hand and looked out over the forest. In the distance, though he could no longer see smoke, he could just about make out the glint and glimmer of warm lights, as the stars began to show in the darkened sky. "Suppose I'll have to work out what to say when we get back, too."
"You were always better at that than I was."
"Well," Jen said, "come on then."
Jen turned his coat collar up and hunched downwards a little as he walked on. It was rare that Jen drew himself up to his full height, moving instead in a sort of learned slouch to disguise it. Right now he felt as though he were trying to curl into a ball, to fluff himself up like a small animal against the cold. Winter came early in the pinewoods, the sudden blaze of summer giving way to brief autumn before plunging into chill. There'd be frost in the morning, no doubt of that.
"Bet you wish you'd stayed in bed now," said Dhaymin. He walked close to Jen, their arms linked, though whether for guidance or warmth, Jen wasn't sure. Possibly both.
"Oh shut up."
"Now seriously," Dhaymin said, "we can handle this and you know it. So how about you have that mope now? Take your mind off the weather."
"That's not what I'm thinking about," Jen said. All the doubts and fears were in the back of his mind now, where they all belonged, back with the hidden depth voice that created them. Far, remote things, unrelated to the situation at hand. And yet...
The end had gone as well as could be expected, and no better. They'd been met by a short, older women, who'd stopped them at the town limits and introduced herself as Kes. "Bit dangerous out here, isn't it?" Dhaymin had said.
"I'm a tailor. It's my job to be good with sharp things." And after that she'd pushed a map and a few coins into their hands, explaining it was the best she could do and there was no sense in them staying around. "I'm what you might call in charge," she said. "Not in any official capacity, you understand, but if you can't go out and solve a problem directly, then all you can do is push someone who can in what you hope is the right direction. I needn't draw you any more pictures."
"'Revenge or glory', Jen had said. "So it was you who left the note?"
"Gamble on a lot of sides. Good to know it paid off. I'd suspected the attacks of being partially staged for a long time, though... who can know? As for you two, I suggest you let me know where the body is. The whole thing. I'm not afraid of dead things, and I'm not too afraid of the forests, and people like to see when something's been killed. Lends a bit of credibility to the story. Hate to break it to the pair of you, but nobody's going to cheer for a tale about a couple of foreigners who showed up one day and overthrew the evil lord."
"But that's what happened!" Jen protested.
"It's what happened," Kes said, "but it isn't what people want to hear. Seen those like you before. You're brave and good when the world calls for it, but you don't know people. People won't cheer for a couple of ragged foreigners. But they might cheer for a story about the three men who took down the beast of the pass and how the roads opened up again, and the rest of it... well, that's to wait until we find out what's happened to him, isn't it? I'm sure I'll come up with something. He was never any good at anything, that's for sure. Terrible stargazer. Doesn't surprise me he's a terrible beast-hunter too."
"Are you sure you've never met our aunt?" said Dhaymin.
"No idea who you're talking about. I can offer you no more than good luck. If at all possible I'd like to share a few words of wisdom, but those are harder to come up with on the spot than people seem to believe. Now show me that corpse before something eats it."
Kes, Jen thought, was probably right. However you looked at it, they'd incapacitated the lord of these parts and left a seventeen year old girl and, possibly, a tailor in his place. Things like that never sat well on anyone's shoulders, no matter why you did them. But that was just another tough little lesson on how Life's Not Fair. You could complain forever about how you didn't get a better reward, about how you got kicked out into the cold for your troubles, how one of your plans had fallen to bits or how you'd seen a glimpse of your future. But life wasn't fair. These things happened.
No, what was really nagging him was the state of Koiski after Dhaymin killed the monster. "It does seem odd to me that we never got told what happened when you killed a monster someone was tarnished with. You'd think one of our parents would have told us? They told us plenty else about... well, that one unfortunate massacre incident." He exhaled in one long breath, the vapour catching the moonlight before fading.
"Well, the way Father tells it he was locked in a closet for a day and a half for it," Dhaymin said.
"Yes, and the way Mother told it she was fighting in the middle of everything. She could have said something!"
"Maybe it's different. Different people. Different monsters. It's not as if that comes in a book."
"I don't see why not." This was, after all, Toxilivital - wild, northern Toxilivital, barely distinct from Rhusav, but Toxilivital nevertheless. If anything was written in a book, it was written here. He licked his lips, noticing that they'd gone numb from the cold, and pulled his undershirt over his mouth to keep warm. Someone would know, if they could get far enough.
By Rakaros, or whoever they worshipped around here, someone had probably tried it just to see what would happen.