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Pathfinder Tales: Plague Of Shadows
By Howard Andrew Jones
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Paizo Inc.
All rights reserved.
Elyana knelt among the splintered wooden debris for only a few moments before discovering a claw mark scored deeply into one of the boards. Frowning in concentration, she laid the ruined planks in the grass, piece by piece, trying to reconstruct how the fence must have looked at the moment of its destruction.
She'd already studied the tracks and stains left in the trampled steppe grass, and a disquieting suspicion had dawned. So she searched carefully, hoping to find some sign that whatever had crashed through her fence was mundane.
Her work area was small. Debris lay between two sturdy posts, six paces apart. The remains of three horizontal planks littered a cart-sized area inside the fence line, leaving only a few jagged edges still nailed to the posts themselves. The rest of the fence stretched intact across the plain to the darkening east, and to the west, where the sun sank in a golden haze.
She could feel Renar watching as she worked. The boy — young man, now, she corrected herself — might think he was being calm and quiet, but his suppressed shifting from foot to foot was a distraction. It flattered Elyana that he tried to mirror her own calm when he was in her presence, but it was an act, not yet an attribute.
Renar waited only ten paces away, inside the fence line. She glanced up at him, hoping her disapproving look would communicate the need for silence.
He took the acknowledgment as permission to speak. "Was it a bear?" His questions were as rapid-fire as they'd been at half his age, though his voice was a rich alto now. "Is it still inside the pasture? I can see the horse tracks. Did it attack any horses?" Renar's fingers shifted down the reins of his mount, which was browsing a patch of wild rye behind his right foot. Elyana's mare waited obediently on his left.
"It was not a bear." Elyana looked down again at the ragged edges of the boards, then rose and considered the setting sun. There was not much time before nightfall. The servants were likely already laying out plates in Stelan's dining hall.
Renar released the reins and stepped carefully over the planks. He bent down near a hoofprint, examining it with great care. She tried to remember when it was that he'd begun to resemble his father so strongly. Renar was slighter than Stelan, with fuller lips. In truth he was better looking, for he had inherited his mother's high cheekbones, though they still weren't as sharp as Elyana's own elven features. Then, too, Renar's nose had not been broken in innumerable combats ... But the hawklike eyes and the forehead and the hairline, those looked so much like a young Stelan that when she contemplated him at rest she sometimes felt an ache in her chest.
"What do you see?" she asked him gently.
Renar's mouth worked as his eyes roved over the tracks. "The horse has spun and bucked."
"Good. What more can you tell me of the horse?"
"Was it Calda?"
Elyana smiled and Renar beamed at the sight of it. She tried not to smile too often at him now, for she had overheard him saying to a friend, with the sighing ardor of youth, that her smile was bewitching. There were too many issues already between Elyana and the boy's mother to have her worrying about that. "How did you know?" she asked.
"The notch in Calda's right front hoof where she hit that stone last week."
She was more pleased than she let on. The boy was picking out details and integrating pertinent outside information as well. They had trimmed Calda's damaged left front hoof only a few days ago, and it left a small but telltale mark in the prints wherever she walked. "Tell me of her attacker," she instructed.
"Well ... the paws are bear-sized."
"But these tracks don't look quite like a bear's. They look more like they were made by a dog."
"Correct," Elyana agreed. "It was not a bear." She did not manage to keep a grim note from her voice.
"So what was it?"
"There's the trouble, Renar. It had claws, for it used them to smash in the fence. You can see them here, and there — that long gouge." She pointed precisely at the ruined boards.
Elyana glanced up to check their horses. Renar's gelding had wandered a few paces on; her own animal waited patiently.
She returned her attention to Renar, who was ready with more questions.
"It's so large for a dog, though. Could it be a cat? Mountain lions come down from the hills sometimes."
"These paws are twice the size of a mountain lion's."
"Oh." From his meek tone, it was clear Renar had picked up on her disappointment. "So what was it?"
An answer would require too much explanation, and she wasn't sure she wanted to hear herself say it aloud. "Tell me the order of events."
He stood, hands on his hips. He was not so tall as his father, though the broad-shouldered youth might still gain a few inches of height. After another moment spent regarding the prints, he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Elyana."
At least he had the grace to admit his lack of skill this time.
"The creature smashed through the fence with brute strength. It attacked Calda on her left flank. You can see the blood here." She pointed to a few blades of grass. "And do you see here, as she runs?" Elyana paced away from the broken boundary, pointing at the grass. "She was favoring her off hind leg."
"Calda survived and fled," Renar announced.
"Is there anything else you find peculiar?" Elyana stepped past him and took up the reins of Persaily, her long-limbed brown mare.
Renar stood with a puzzled expression, seemingly intent on reaching his conclusion by scrunching his mouth in different ways. On foot, Elyana guided Persaily carefully through the boards, then stood and petted her, sliding long fingers along the animal's neck.
After careful deliberation, Renar finally spoke. "Um. Hmm."
"Calda was here alone. By the fence. Far from any others. What's odd about that?" Elyana swung effortlessly up into the saddle, long-legged and impossibly graceful to Renar, who stared in undisguised awe.
"You aren't going out there to look for her alone, are you?"
She couldn't help smiling. "The day I can't track down a missing horse, Renar —"
"But there's some mad beast out there! I should go with you."
"I was handling things much worse than this before you were a glint in your father's eye." That, she realized, was an unfortunate way to phrase things, for she had once been well acquainted with the glints in his father's eyes, and Renar was sure to know it.
Renar was too concerned to notice. "But you don't even know what it is," he sputtered. "I should go get father and Drelm and —"
"I'll be fine," Elyana said. She patted the curve of her bow, strung and holstered behind her saddle. "Round up all the horses and get them out of the north pasture until we can repair this fence."
"And then get to supper. Your mother will be furious if you're late again."
A protesting noise began deep in Renar's throat, but Elyana had already urged Persaily into motion. The bottom curve of the sun now touched the horizon, and their shadows were long upon the grass as the mare cantered away.
She doubted Renar had the expertise to guess why a horse would wander so far from the rest of its herd that it would stand beside the fence as a large predator charged.
It was remotely possible that she'd missed some tracks, but to Elyana it looked as though no other animals had been anywhere near the edge of the north pasture recently. It was possible, if completely uncharacteristic, that Calda had wandered from the rest of the herd of her own volition. But at the very same time something crept down from the foothills? The coincidence defied belief.
Only one explanation served all the facts: sorcery had called the horse forth, and a sorcerous beast had attacked her. Elyana hadn't seen predator prints like those for more than twenty years, but she hadn't forgotten them. And a summoned shadow hound meant someone to do the summoning. The possible whos and whys tumbled through Elyana's mind as she followed the wounded horse's trail. None of them especially brightened her mood.
Twilight was fading on toward night when she found what was left of Calda.
Persaily gave the slashed and twisted corpse a wide berth as a grim-faced Elyana soothed her mount with whispers and scanned the death site. The colors might be drained from the land, but to her eyes, details still stood out sharply. Calda's body was missing most of its neck, and the haunches were stripped of flesh. Terrible raking wounds stood out all over her body, as if she'd been repeatedly slashed before she was finally killed. Flies were settled into the wounds and were already at the eyes.
Elyana frowned. Calda hadn't been the brightest of horses, but she'd been good-natured and swift. She had not deserved this death. Elyana resisted the impulse to bend down and look for the shadow hound's tracks, for the wind was blowing her scent toward a dense thicket of hawthorn and maple standing only twenty feet off.
Persaily pricked up her ears. Elyana had her circle the little stand of trees, and eyed the place warily. She brought Persaily to a stop downwind.
There was no missing the smell of horseflesh, which kept Persaily alert. The predator's scent was absent, which might have meant that a normal animal had moved on.
But Elyana was positive she faced no normal animal.
She drew her sword. The elven craftsman who'd fashioned the long, slim blade untold years before had known better than to announce its wielder's presence with showy magical energy. Instead its power pulsed through the hilt against her palm like a slow, steady heartbeat. As always, it set off a resonant thrumming in the coarse old armband hidden by her shirtsleeve.
Suddenly, a hound bayed from inside the copse. The sound was deep and sonorous and strangely resonant, as though it echoed in from some far-off place. Elyana winced at the assault on her senses, and Persaily snorted in fear, laying back her ears and readying to bolt. Only Elyana's deep bond with the horse left her some modicum of control when the snarling hound charged.
It seemed more a shadow than a being, a huge springing darkness against the lesser blackness of the twilight. Elyana had a mere heartbeat to note the flashing teeth in its overlarge maw before it closed the distance and leapt for Persaily's newly presented haunches.
Elyana urged Persaily forward with her knees, praying the mare would respond. Persaily had never been in combat before, but she was no green mount; she'd been trained to ignore dozens of different kinds of loud noises, sudden movements, and strange shapes. They'd both soon learn whether it had been enough.
Persaily whirled at her command and the hound twisted in air to follow, missing by only a dagger's length. Elyana leaned out. The edge of her blade slashed deep through an ebon shoulder. The moment her steel met the flesh of the hound the blade glittered with silver energy, dimming to nothing as her weapon cleared.
The creature landed with a grunt and pivoted on its hind legs. Elyana spun Persaily to face it.
Again the beast howled. The sound was a sorcerous attack, and Persaily nickered in fear, dancing and tossing her head. Yet she did not bolt, and Elyana's mouth tightened with satisfaction.
The hound sprang again, its arc more shallow this time and its massive clawed paws reaching for horse and rider.
At Elyana's command Persaily kicked in a burst of speed, and Elyana's strike caught the hound a hair before the apex of its jump. The blow raked through the darkness that was the creature's head. A dark spray of blood trailed after the blade's silvery passage. The hound itself missed her by inches, for Persaily had veered left precisely as directed.
The hound shook the ground as it fell, keening. It clawed at the dirt and from its mouth came a mournful call, falling in pitch as life seeped away.
Elyana swiftly brought Persaily around and scanned the plains, suddenly fearful the hound might be signaling others. It was then she heard the tolling of the village bell. The distant, lonely sound seemed to evoke an answering response from the dying beast, which howled forlornly a final time before its head fell between two black paws. A moment later it dissolved into dark clouds that were carried and thinned by the wind.
She glanced quickly at her blade to see that the blood smeared there was transforming to smoke as well. She sheathed the weapon, then leaned down to pat her animal's neck, trying to decide why someone would be ringing the bells. "Good girl. Very good girl."
Persaily snorted in satisfaction, or perhaps relief. Elyana listened. Fourteen clangs. This was no late hour ring, but an alarm. The last time she'd heard them rung like this was six years ago, when that sky-swallowing storm had roared out of the north to rip roofs off of half the farmsteads.
Elyana cursed and urged Persaily into a gallop.
She could not guess what kind of emergency had set someone ringing the bells, but she feared any number of things. More shadow hounds. Shadow wizards. Galtans.
Or worse, her old friend Arcil.
Persaily's gallop ate up the miles, her gait so smooth it was akin to flying. Soon Elyana saw the bell tower of the temple limned against the stars. She cut through a dark pasture and thundered into the road, clouds of dust billowing out behind them. Persaily was winded now, so Elyana let her slow. It was just as well, for the villagers were gathered around the fountain in the square, nervously fingering farm implements and old swords. They looked at Elyana expectantly, and Odric, the balding headman, stepped out from among them with his lantern.
"What's happened?" Elyana demanded.
"Captain Drelm's ordered us to search the streets and houses," Odric reported. Elyana hadn't seen the man this tense since his granddaughter's birth three years back.
"Someone's poisoned the baron," Odric said, almost choking. "We're going to catch the rat bastard and string him up!"
"Poison?" Elyana repeated, stunned. It felt as though her stomach had dropped away. Her heart hammered in her chest like the beat of a mad drummer urging her to war. "Is he dead? Who did it?"
"The priest of Abadar is with him now, milady, and we'll all be praying —"
Elyana's voice grew uncharacteristically strident. "Where is he? In the keep?"
"So far as I know, milady."
"Yah!" Elyana kicked Persaily into action again and the tired mare leapt forward. A half-dozen startled farmhands scattered from her path.
She'd been a fool. The shadow hound and the missing horse had been an obvious ploy to lead her from the keep — a mystery intriguing enough to lure her out, but not one so dangerous she wouldn't be able to handle it. Who else but Arcil would have been so careful? The question was why. He had no reason to hate Stelan any longer. He'd been gone for twenty years. What could he possibly be after?
Persaily gamely worked into a gallop, though her breath came in heavy gasps. They flew from the village and pounded up the hill to the old keep. Elyana hated to overtax the animal, but if Stelan had been poisoned, he might not have much time left. She might already be too late.
The mailed armsmen at the portcullis lifted lanterns and stepped aside. She swept past them, ducking her head under the points of the gate retracting into the stone arch above. She reached the courtyard and swung down from the saddle as a gasping and trembling Persaily came to a halt before the stables.
"She's been ridden hard," Elyana said as the stable hand ran up. "See that she's rubbed down and given half a bucket of warm water. If I'm not back in two hours, start feeding her some small handfuls of grain."
The boy bobbed his head quickly, eager to please even at so late an hour. "Certainly, m'lady."
Elyana patted Persaily's neck as she stepped away, then held scabbard to hip and raced for the old wooden door to the keep's tower. She scarcely acknowledged the chamberlain's bow. He must have been told she was riding up, as he had no other reason to linger in the entryway.
"Is he still alive?"
"I think so, Lady, but —"
"Where is he?"
The chamberlain bowed his head respectfully and his hand swept out toward the stone stairs. "He is in his —" before he said the word "bedchamber" Elyana was already pelting up the crescent steps.
She found Stelan in the room that made up most of the keep's top floor. He lay under a thin linen shroud in his canopied bed. Waiting in the bow-shaped room with him were an anguished-looking Renar; a sturdy little cleric of Abadar, robed in white silk and sitting at the baron's side; and the baroness, wan and pale, an aging beauty whose dark locks were now threaded with gray. Elyana paid scant heed to the subtle turn of Lenelle's lip at sight of her and stepped to the side of her old friend.
His arms lay atop the cover; everything below his chest lay beneath. And that scarred face with its broken nose and graying beard was still.
Elyana reached out for his left hand.
"Don't touch him!" Lenelle said swiftly, and Elyana snatched back her hand, astonished Lenelle would be territorial over him even now.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: Plague Of Shadows by Howard Andrew Jones. Copyright © 2015 Paizo Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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