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The Long Hunt
I. MARAGHAI; GALCEN
UP ON Graksha's Bluff the air was cool, but by late afternoon the sun had warmed the bare rock to basking temperature. The wind that sighed and rustled through the trees on the slope below brought with it a smell of conifers, sharp and resinous, underlaid with the dry granite smell of the mountain itself. Jens Metadi-Jessan lay on his back half-dozing, his eyes closed against the brightness of the sky overhead, and heard the faint scrape of boot leather on stone as his cousin Faral shifted position a few feet away.
"Noisy, coz," he said without opening his eyes. "Too noisy by half."
"Be grateful I decided to wake you up gently, thin-skin."
"Your skin's no thicker than mine ... what's up?"
"Company at dinner, I think," said Faral. "I spotted somebody down on the valley trail."
"Let's have a look."
Jens sat up and joined Faral near the edge of the bluff. The cousins were much of an age, but otherwise resembled each other very little. Faral Hyfid-Metadi was dark-skinned,stocky, and heavily muscled, with sleek, close-trimmed black hair. A polished animal claw almost a handspan long hung from a leather cord around his neck. Jens, by contrast, was lean and fair-skinned, gone a pale biscuit golden from the sun. His yellow hair, tied back with a scrap of rough twine, hung in a loose tail between his shoulder blades. Like Faral, he wore boots and trousers, but--on this day in midsummer--no shirt.
From up on Graksha's Bluff, the valley trail looked like a darker line drawn against a background of green. Now and again, a flash of sunlight reflecting off clear water marked where the stream at the bottom of the valley ran parallel to the trail for a short distance before diverging again into the trees. A group of black specks swirled upward from the treetops far away.
"Let me have a look," Jens said, and Faral passed him a pair of binoculars.
He watched the trail below for some time. "You're right," he said finally. "Something sure disturbed all the rattlewings along that stretch."
"Something on the ground," Faral said, "and coming this way at a walking pace. Offworlder, maybe."
"Maybe," agreed Jens. The local fauna wouldn't disturb the noisy fliers, and none of the neighbors--in the generous High Ridges sense of the word--would bother walking the valley trail. Most of them lived far enough away to make taking an aircar more practical; the few who lived closer came and went by hidden deep-woods tracks. Even somebody from elsewhere on planet would have known to rent a tree-skimmer in Ernalghan. "I wonder who it is."
"Somebody who didn't send word ahead, that's who." Faral sounded disapproving.
"That lets out most of the people we know." Jens considered the possibilities for a moment. "Maybe it's somebody who doesn't like talking on the public links."
"What kind of person is that?"
"A private one, at a guess. One of Father's relatives, maybe, if they wanted to be rude."
"What for?" Faral asked. "Mamma never notices--and Aunt Bee would give them hell if she ever found out. Not even a Khesatan would go through all that trouble for nothing."
"You don't know 'em, coz. There's one or two in the crowd who'd slit their own noses if they thought they could get at Father that way." Jens looked down again at the solitary figure on the trail below. "But you've got a point. I can't imagine any of them going so far as to hoof it all the way uphill from Ernalghan."
*If it's a blood feud,* cut in a third voice, *do I get to help out?*
The speaker was a young Selvauran female whose scaly hide was decorated in whorls of red and blue body enamel. She scrambled up onto the bluff and unslung a bulging backpack from her shoulders. Chakallakak ngha-Chakallakak--known as Chaka for short--stood over a head taller than Jens, which put her at medium height for one of the Forest Lords, and her scales under the body paint were a mottled bluish green. She set down the backpack and joined the two young men at the edge of the bluff.
"If I ever get in a blood feud," Jens promised her, "you'll be the first to know."
Faral, meanwhile, was eyeing the patterns in Chaka's body paint. *You get thrown out?*
Chaka grinned--courteously, with no teeth showing--and said, *Finally. I thought they'd never get around to it.*
"We know how you feel," said Jens. "The elders haven't decided what they're going to do with Faral yet, and it's been almost a year."
*Do like I did,* Chaka advised. *Pack your bag yourself and leave it sitting in the middle of the floor until they get tired of walking around it and take the hint.*
Faral scowled. *I might ... I've tried everything else. Any idea where you're going to go?*
*Away somewhere. There's no good fighting anyplace, worse luck.*
"Don't let Aunt Llann hear you talking like that," said Jens. "She already thinks you're a bad influence."
Chaka laughed, a breathy hoo-hoo noise. *No, she doesn't. She just thinks that I make your cousin act more like a Forest Lord than he already is.*
"Comes to the same thing."
"Not really," said Faral. "If Mamma didn't like Chaka, she'd have fixed it so that the wrinkleskins threw her off-planet as soon as she was blooded."
Privately, Jens doubted that his aunt would ever make a tactical error of that magnitude--but Faral and Chaka weren't likely to be convinced by his arguments. Older, wiser people than the two of them had made the mistake of thinking that just because Llannat Hyfid was quiet and kindhearted, she didn't have a firmness of purpose that the rocks themselves would envy.
When Aunt Llann decides that she wants Faral to go off-planet, he thought, the wrinkleskins will trip over themselves to send him there. But not before.
Mael Taleion reached the top of the valley trail shortly before sunset. The path that led away from it into the deeper forest was little more than a narrow track marked by white blazes cut into the trees on either side.
He quickened his pace--the woods of Maraghai were no place for an off-worlder to linger at night. The predators on this planet came in sizes to match the towering vegetation that covered the mountain slopes all around him, and local custom held that none of them should be slain with any weapon besides the hunter's own strength. Humans, being weak and thin-skinned compared to the dominant Selvauran population, were allowed the use of knives and clubs in cases of dire emergency.
Mael didn't want to find out the hard way how dire the emergency had to be before a Magelord's staff counted as a permissible weapon. Simpler by far, he thought, to avoid catching anything's attention, and let the question go unanswered.
The sinking sun brought a rapid darkness under the great trees. The gloom made the trail harder and harder to pick out, and the ground was by turns rocky and boggy underfoot. It would not do, Mael reflected, for him to get lost. He took his staff from his belt and called the pale green witchfire to cling around it. The blazes on the tree trunks glimmered with its reflected light, but the shadows it cast between the stones and roots below were inky black, so dark that he couldn't tell whether they were truly shadows or ankle-twisting potholes. The going got slower.
Then, off to the left, Mael saw another light flickering among the trees.
Is that the place? he wondered. Have I been going in the wrong direction all this time?
It was possible, he knew. He'd never followed this trail by night before. If he'd mistaken the way in the dark, or missed a branching side path, then he might keep on walking far into the high country until weariness or disaster overcame him. At the best, he'd have to backtrack, shamefaced, in the morning; and at the worst ...
The temptation to leave the path and strike out across country was almost stronger than he could resist. He told himself that it was folly. He was no countryman, though his first teacher had been, but he knew that anywhere off the trail he risked becoming stuck in a bog, or walking across the lip of a cliff. He wished now that he'd waited overnight at the transit hub before starting, or that his legs had been younger to carry him faster over the ground.
He walked onward. The night was deep; the wind made little whispering noises under the trees, and Mael fancied he heard footsteps behind him that matched his own, and far-off voices calling out his name. Anywhere else, he would have rejected such fantasies out of hand--but not here, and not when the night had grown so thick with Power that a man need no more than half-close his eyes to see the threads and colors of it like a tapestry against the dark.
The light off to the left was bobbing like a lantern or a hand torch. Mael halted and turned toward it.
"Hello!" he called out.
The light stopped moving for a few seconds, then changed its course to intercept him. Mael wished that he had dared to walk abroad in the Adept-worlds in his proper garments, and not with his staff alone. He would have felt safer wearing the enveloping robe that blurred all question of rank or person outside the Circle, and the mask that narrowed the outside vision and made the threads of the universe easier to find and grasp. He could see them now, the eiran--the silver cords of life and luck--tangled and leading off in all directions.
And tarnished, some of them, which is a thing that should not be.
Which is a thing that the First must know.
The light drew closer. Mael saw now that it was coming from a man, a cloaked and hooded man--but not from any light or lantern. Instead, the entire figure was glowing, and the tarnished cords seemed to draw closer to the apparition and knot themselves around it. The man halted an arm's length away at the edge of the trail, his face a shadow underneath the hood. Only his eyes glittered in the pale green light.
The man spoke in the language of Eraasi. "What you seek to do, I will prevent."
He raised his hands and cast back his hood, and Mael saw that the face within was nothing but an empty skull. Rotting shreds of flesh and patches of matted hair stretched across the bony cranium, and the hands were skeletal and thin. But the eye sockets burned with their own lurid light.
Mael brought his staff to the guard before him. "Homeless one," he said. "Nightwalker. Go away from here and trouble me no longer."
The ghost-man laughed and brought up his right hand to strike at Mael's face. Mael swept his staff up and inward, blocking the attack. The polished ironwood of the staff passed through the man's arm as if through fog, and the blow kept on coming.
At that moment, a scream sounded from the woods behind Mael. He half-turned, distracted from the specter by the urgency of the cry--and saw, by the flickering light of his staff,a tall, fur-covered beast rearing up, its gaping mouth lined with fangs, and in front of the beast a young, fair-haired man with one hand buried deep in the creature's belly.
Man and beast stood together for an instant like a tableau. Then the youth pulled back his hand, all black with blood in the pale green witchlight, and Mael saw that he had a heavy-bladed knife a double hands-breadth long gripped in his fist.
The furry creature, man-tall, crumpled to the ground. "Rufstaffa," the young man said, wiping his blade on the animal's fur before sheathing it. "They aren't all that dangerous, but the only way to kill one is to go in through the diaphragm up to the heart, and the only time you can get there is when it's attacking."
He stuck out his blood-covered hand to Mael.
"I'm Jens, by the way," he said. "Aunt Llann asked me to come see if you'd gotten lost."
Mael returned the handclasp, feeling somewhat bemused. "You didn't happen to see another man, standing over about there ...?" He gestured. As he had expected, the apparition was gone.
Jens shook his head. "Just you. And we'd better get moving--that rufstaffa was trailing you for the last three miles. Rufstaffas travel alone, but there's usually a slam of rockhogs following after."
"Scavengers. They aren't really dangerous either, but you don't want to be around them when they get into a feeding frenzy."
He pulled a hand torch from his belt and flicked it on. In the clear white light, the path seemed more open, and Mael could see his footing. The two set off together at an easy pace.
Mael followed his guide along the uphill path, sorting out the young man's names and lineage in his mind as he did so: Jens Metadi-Jessan in the short form common among the Adept-worlders; by Eraasian reckoning, syn-Metadi and sus-Rosselin both in his mother's line. He carried the weight of all that lineage lightly enough. In his plain trousers and hisleather soft-boots, he could have been a backcountry youth from Mael's own homeworld--if somewhat taller and fairer than most.
"Mistress Hyfid knew I was coming?" Mael asked after a bit.
"So did everyone in the valley," Jens said. "The trail is easy to spot from up on the bluffs. Watch it now, the path gets a little tricky here."
"Thank you," said Mael gravely. "It's discourteous enough of me to arrive on your doorstep unannounced. To show up injured and in need of tending would be even worse."
In the mountain peaks of Galcen's northern continent, the air smelled of snowmelt and the first hints of new growth.
Mistress Klea Santreny drew a deep breath, relishing the change in the atmosphere. Even after more than two decades away from the warmth of equatorial Nammerin, she still wasn't wholly reconciled to the winters here at the Retreat. Let others think that her preference for the high collar and the close-buttoned sleeves of an Adept's formal blacks signaled an ingrained commitment to distance and rigidity. Klea knew better. If she had an ingrained commitment to anything, it was to keeping warm during the two-thirds of the year when the centuries-old stone-built citadel was--for everyone but the natives of this windy and isolated district--damned near uninhabitable.
The Master of the Guild, she supposed, counted as a native. He'd come to the Retreat for apprenticeship when he was still a boy, and had grown to manhood inside its walls. Klea knew before she opened the door to his private office that he would have celebrated today's foretaste of spring by abandoning formal garb for a lightweight coverall in dusty black ... and never mind that it's going to be snowing again by the end of the week, he's not going to switch back until next autumn.
She palmed the lockplate.
"You're right," she said as the door slid open, before he could make the remark she knew he would; "it's a beautifulmorning, and positively balmy outside as long as the wind isn't blowing. Of course, the wind hasn't stopped blowing since the day I first came here, and that was back in '05, but what's a minor detail like that among friends?"
Owen Rosselin-Metadi laughed under his breath. "What, indeed?"
The Master was working at his desk, a massive, domineering piece of furniture that only grudgingly shared office space with three chairs and a Standard calendar. An overhead light panel, its crude metal brackets dating back to the first time the citadel had undergone a conversion to more recent technology, supplied the room with most of its illumination. The single window was a narrow vertical opening that might at one point have been an arrow slit. These days, treble-thickness armor-glass covered the gap.
Owen gestured at the more comfortable of the room's two empty chairs--the other was reserved for unwelcome guests and errant apprentices--and went back to contemplating whichever piece of business was currently occupying his desktop. Klea sat.
"So what's today's headache?" she asked.
There was always a headache, of one kind or another. Directing--however gently--the affairs of the galaxy's Adepts took more comm time and comp time and paperwork than any one job ought, especially for a man who would have been happy to spend his days teaching the apprentices and the junior masters. In Klea's opinion, it was all Errec Ransome's fault, for selling out the Guild and betraying the Republic and then handing everything over to Owen without bothering to clean up what he had done.
Dead over twenty years, she thought, and still screwing up everybody's lives for them. Bastard.
If Klea Santreny hated anybody these days, it was the former Master of the Guild. But she was careful to keep those thoughts well below the surface of her mind. Owen had loved his teacher--had willingly done whatever tasks the Guild Master had set for him--and the knowledge of Ransome's treachery had been hard for him to bear.
"The galaxy is behaving itself at the moment," he said in reply to her question. "It does that, sometimes. Mostly so I can worry about my family, I think."
Klea pressed her lips together. The members of Owen's far-distant family were more than capable, in her opinion, of handling their own problems without looking to the Master of the Guild for assistance. But she'd made that argument, and lost it, too many times already. These days, she tried to cultivate patience instead.
"What about your family?" she asked.
"That's a good question." Owen touched a spot on the surface of his desktop. "All I know so far is that this showed up in the morning message traffic."
A display panel lit up the desktop where Owen had touched it: letters and numbers, routing codes of some kind or another. Klea didn't recognize them. They weren't for the Retreat, she could tell that much, or for any other place on Galcen that she knew of.
"Transmission glitch?" she asked.
"That's what I thought. But this was riding the wave along with it--don't ask me how, I don't do that sort of work anymore."
He pressed another spot on the desktop. The routing codes vanished, and a voice--tense and hurried; it could have belonged to either a man or a woman from the pitch--came on over the desk's onboard speaker.
"I'm going to keep this short. I think this is a safe line, but you never know. Listen, Owen--there's something nasty going on with the Khesatan succession, and I want you to keep Jens the hell out of it. I can handle everything else, no problem, as long as the kid stays clear."
The audio clicked off and the desktop went dim. Klea let out her breath. "Your sister, right?"
"Who else? Jens is her boy."
"I thought he was on Maraghai with your brother's family."
"He is," Owen said. "But that doesn't mean he's going to stay there. The law on Maraghai says that once you're grown,you leave the homeworld--and Jens has been grown for a year now, by Maraghite reckoning."
"Your sister thinks he'll head for Khesat when they kick him out?"
"She's afraid he will, anyway." Owen looked thoughtful. "I don't know what's happening on Khesat ... we haven't heard any rumblings from the local Guildhouses, so whatever's going on there hasn't spread outside the nobility ... but I expect we'll be getting word on the situation before long, if it's so bad that Bee wants to steer Jens away from it."
Klea didn't need to ask whether Owen would fall in with the mysterious request. Beka was his sister, and he had been schooled since earliest boyhood to follow her whimsies and keep her out of trouble. Whatever she wanted, he would bend the universe itself, if necessary, to deliver.
"So what are we supposed to do?" Klea asked. "Fend him off from Khesat ourselves?"
"Fend him off or lure him elsewhere. As appropriate."
"Mmh." Klea gazed out the narrow window at a vertical strip of scenic vista: a shoulder of mountain, a scrap of sky, a ragged wisp of cloud. Troublesome and high-spirited young men were a problem she no longer had to deal with, thank fortune; the ones who came to the Retreat for training or apprenticeship had invariably been through a few chastening experiences along the way. "So what are you going to do with him?"
"Them," said Owen. "Jens has a cousin. Several, actually ... but Faral is his agemate and foster-sib. If one of them leaves the planet, so will the other."
Klea suppressed a grimace of distaste. At that age, they were even worse when they traveled in pairs ... . "All right--so what are you going to do with them?"
"I can't do anything." He gestured at the desktop, and the dark surface lit up with an eyestrain-inducing display of glyphs and icons and blinking response-requested message buttons. "And that's just the ordinary stuff. It doesn't count whatever's brewing on Khesat--we're going to have to watch that situation, in case the local Guildhouses are keeping quietout of something besides ignorance or sheer Khesatan perversity ... ."
He was sounding tired again. And she knew that more than anything else he feared the possibility of local Adepts involving themselves in political conspiracies. In the old days before the Republic, the Guild had earned a bad name for that sort of thing in some places--and the temptation hadn't gone away in the decades since. Klea sighed.
"All right," she said. "You watch Khesat. I'll watch the boys."
Some twenty minutes after meeting with Jens, Mael saw the lights of the house shining out in welcome through the trees. The house hadn't changed much over the years. The pillars that held up the long veranda were as tall as ordinary trees back on Eraasi. Other parts of the house were trees, more of the immense sky-tickling giants that made up the local forests. Warm yellow lantern-glow made the veranda pleasant and welcoming, although the faint haze-effect of a force field let Mael know that casual intruders--rockhogs and rufstaffas, perhaps--would not find an easy entrance.
Llannat Hyfid was waiting for them on the steps outside the force field. She hadn't changed much either, as far as Mael could tell. She was still a small, dark-skinned woman, with features closer at first look to plain than to pretty, although they had worn better over the years than some. Her black hair had the streaks of early grey that came to so many of those who worked with Power, but her face was almost as unlined as when Mael had first met her.
"Mistress," he began.
"Dinner first," she said. "Talk afterward. Jens, you go help Faral feed his sibs and send them off to bed; I'll be in to say goodnight to 'Rada later."
The young man nodded amiably and vanished through the force field into the depths of the great house. Mistress Hyfid called out, "And wash that blood off your hand before you go anywhere! I don't want Kei or Dortan getting any ideas about going out hunting with the table knives!"
Mael suppressed a smile, and followed her up the steps. She led the way to a dining table set up on an open porch illuminated by more of the lanterns. Her husband was waiting there for her, looming almost as tall among the shadows as one of the Selvaurs themselves.
"Flybynights are running," Ari Rosselin-Metadi said as they approached. He gestured at the steep slope out beyond the veranda, where shadows dipped and flitted in the clear air above the treetops. "Shall I send the boys out to get some for dessert?"
"No," Mistress Hyfid said. "There's no need. Let's pour a drink to absent friends, then have our dinner and get to business."
Ari nodded, and moved to a side table that held three tiny crystal glasses and a cut-glass decanter of something purple. Ceremoniously, he filled the glasses and passed them round. Mael took one, and breathed in a cautious sniff of the liquid's fumes. The scent was sharp and medicinal, and he wondered what the Adept-worlders made it from.
"Absent friends," Mistress Hyfid said. She tossed back her drink, and Ari and Mael did the same. The purple liquid had a sour, almost electric feel in the mouth. It was an acquired taste, Mael supposed, though he didn't plan on working to acquire it.
The meal itself was plain but satisfying: a great deal of roast meat and steamed grain, accompanied by thick slices of sweet, yellow-fleshed fruit. Mael found that his long walk upcountry from the last pubtrans stop had left him famished. He ate heartily, finding the textures and flavors sufficiently alien to be interesting but not--he felt certain the choice was deliberate--so strange as to be disquieting.
When they were all finished, Mistress Hyfid wiped the fruit juice off of her fingers with her napkin and laid the crumpled white fabric aside.
"I'm glad you could make it this far," she said. "I'm sorry I couldn't give you much of a reason in my invitation, but it wasn't something I--"
"Mistress--" Mael experienced a sudden sting of anxiety."--you didn't call me here. I came on my own to ask for your advice."
She looked distressed. Her husband rumbled something in the Selvauran language; Mael supposed he meant it for comfort and reassurance, but if so the effect was lost on a neutral observer.
"I sent messages," she said. "I even called in some old favors for the last one, and it went out by personal post on a Space Force courier."
Mael shook his head. "No messages from you came to Eraasi while I was there."
"And when did you leave?"
"A month ago, planetary reckoning."
"Then at least one of the messages should have reached you," said Mistress Hyfid. "But if it wasn't my summoning that brought you, why did you come?"
Mael paused a moment to gather his thoughts before presenting them. Llannat Hyfid was the First of all the Mage-Circles, but she had been born on Maraghai and schooled in Power with the Adepts on Galcen ... much about the homeworlds would always be alien to her.
"Let me tell you," he said, "about what happened to me on the way this evening."
"In part. I should have sensed it following me ... a hunting-beast is a powerful disturber of patterns ... but I was caught up in watching the eiran. The cords are tarnished my lady, and decaying."
Mistress Hyfid's eyes were dark and sober. "I know. I've seen them more and more often of late. That's why I wanted to talk to you."
"The eiran aren't the worst of it." Mael looked from the First to her husband. "Back in the homeworlds, an ekkannikh has risen up to disrupt the Circles."
"Ekkan--?" Mistress Hyfid stumbled on the unfamiliar word.
"In the old stories," said Mael, "a hungry ghost. But among those who work with Power, it is the word for someoneamong us who has too much strength and too much will--or too much anger--to let himself die completely."
"I don't like the sound of that," said Ari Rosselin-Metadi. He stood up and fetched the decanter of purple liquor from the side table, then refilled all their glasses to within a hair of the brim. "Because the only dead man I can think of with that much of that kind of power is Errec Ransome."
Errec Ransome. Master, once, of the Adepts' Guild, and teacher of Mistress Hyfid when she first came to learn the ways of Power. The Breaker of Circles, they had called him in the homeworlds, for what he had done at the end of the First War. Traitor, they called him now, on both sides of the old border zone, and schoolchildren from one side of the civilized galaxy to the other made an insult of his name.
Mael tipped a splash of the purple liquor onto the smooth-planed boards of the veranda--a ritual gesture, of little worth against a determined adversary, but the habit of a lifetime could not be shed that easily. "You said the words, not I."
"I'm right, then."
"Yes," said Mael. "So far, the creature has not killed--it hasn't yet recovered enough identity to be that powerful. But the Circles on Cracanth have felt its touch these five months and more, and someday soon it--he--will cross the threshold."
Mistress Hyfid frowned. "Why Cracanth, of all places?"
Mael fell silent for a moment, the better to choose his words before he spoke. Not all the history of the First War was common knowledge in the Adept-worlds--especially history from the Eraasian point of view--but some matters were more ticklish to deal with than others.
"The story is obscure," he said finally, "and all those with direct knowledge of it are long since dead ... but it was told to me when I was young that Errec Ransome had once been a prisoner among us, and that Cracanth was the world on which they held him."
"Now that," said Rosselin-Metadi, after another silence, "is something nobody mentioned when I was growing up." Hetook a long drink of the purple liquid in his glass. "I wonder if they even knew."
"It makes sense, though," Mistress Hyfid said. "The way he hated the Magelords ..."
Mael said, "Yes. The stronger the ekkannikh grows, the more he will remember. When he remembers enough, he will know that it was not the Circles who defeated him in the end. And Errec Ransome was a man who devoted his whole life to crushing the ones who had injured him."
Copyright 1996 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald