On Death's Frontier
The mountain wind wailed like a tormented ghost outside the shuttered windows and whistled down the chimney to make the dying fire shrink in fear. The sound made the soul of one of the two figures in the small room shudder.
"Master, must it be tonight?"
The other figure laughed harshly, showing bright white teeth in the dim firelight.
"Of course! It would be foolish to wait any longer! Already I feel the stirrings within me, calling to me. I'm sure you can, too." The second figure's gaze was shrewd. "Yes, you can, can't you? We're both the same in that respect, and don't forget it. I know the urges that drive you as well as you do!"
The first figure bobbed its head subserviently.
"Of course, Master. But..." it began hesitantly, "I have had a vision. There will be danger tonight. Much danger to us!"
"You speak nonsense! What can threaten us now? You are afraid, yes, but only of your own conscience. You have yet to subdue those moral lessons to the needs of the flesh!"
The Master laughed again, making the other cringe. The Master's good humor was invariably at another's expense.
"It is only that...well, another death so soon would seem suspicious."
"Don't be foolish. What is one more corpse up here? Indeed, nature needs little help in filling the crypts. Compared to her, we are amateurs indeed at killing!"
The Master fixed the other with a piercing stare. The commanding voice bore with it an all but overwhelming force.
"Now, there shall be no more of this coward's talk! Go and make preparations at once."
The servant bowed deeply. The Master was left alone with its thoughts. These were grim indeed, and blood and pain merely their surface character.
"There!" Colce shouted over the wind. "I see the palisade, and there's the gate!"
"At last!" Prelate Arjan said with relief. The two men squared their shoulders and forced their way into the driving wind and snow. Colce bulled his way onwards, his broad shoulders and short height making him almost a living battering-ram. Arjan's tall, thin figure was much more typical of the hairless, green-skinned race native to the ice planet Dezolis; he followed behind so as to use the stronger man as a human windbreak. After fifteen minutes, they reached the shelter of the wooden wall Colce had spotted.
"We were lucky, boss," the burly man said. "In half an hour it will be dark. With the snow in our faces and the storm clouds covering the moon and stars, we might never have seen this palisade. I wouldn't want to try stumbling around this mountainside in the dark, that's for certain!"
"You're right about that," Arjan agreed. "We'd be as likely to stumble into a ravine as to locate this waystation. I should have had a couple of hunters come with us, experienced in the wilderness. You're used to towns and villages, and my survival skills are limited to how to get around in a library."
"Well, I didn't suggest it, either, so don't blame yourself. Let's just get out of this cold and into someplace warm. I'd pay a hundred meseta for a cup of deKal"--this was the amber wine that was Dezolis's most common liquor, served hot and mulled with spices--"or even some of that tea you're always drinking."
"If you're willing to take kej, then it must be an extreme situation indeed," Arjan said. His relationship with Colce was much more casual than that of most high Church officials with their servants. Colce, in his mid-forties, was fifteen years older than the Prelate, and this plus his much greater personal experience of the world put him on an even more level footing with his employer.
"Well, if we can't get through this gate it won't matter one way or another. Hey!" Colce shouted. "Is anyone there? Open up for your Prelate!"
Eventually, Colce's shouts caught someone's attention, and the gate was unbarred by a sturdy fellow whose fur-lined coat and leggings had an outer layer of hard leather, boiled in paraffin to become rigid armor. A dagger was strapped to his belt and he carried a long spear with a crosspiece a foot below the blade.
"I'm sorry I didn't hear you at first, Your Grace," the guard told Arjan. "In this weather the gatekeeper stays inside when not needed." He gestured towards a small hut built against the inside of the heavy log wall.
"Don't apologize," the Prelate assured him. "You're no good to anyone if you freeze solid, after all."
While the guard was resecuring the gate, the two visitors walked into the compound.
"I'll have to pay a call on the priest in residence first off," Arjan told Colce. "Why don't you go on to the inn or lodge and arrange for our rooms? Then you can get that hot drink for yourself, and I'll join you later for dinner."
Colce smiled broadly.
"Sounds good to me, boss! Just don't take too long swapping prayers; after that hike your body needs sustenance."
"Very true," Arjan agreed heartily. The two men then each went their separate ways. Tuvan Waystation was quite small, so it would be no trouble for either to find their way; Arjan could already see the watch fire burning in front of the local shrine.
Seeing the light warmed the Prelate's heart. In the Dezolian faith, fire was a symbol of the grace of Heaven, the light that could shine through even the most profound darkness. Eternally renewable by one's own hands, fire was the bringer of life on this icy planet. Arjan's vocation was as a scholarly theologian; his appointment to the rank of Prelate had come because of the restoration of theocratic rule to Dezolis following the strife echoing the destruction of the Palmans' Mother Brain. The Church had needed administrators, and so Arjan had been pressed into a service he still felt he was not necessarily suited for. He tried his best, but the responsibilities of overseeing his district's spiritual, judicial, and administrative matters all at once could weigh heavily on his spirit.
He did not knock on the door of the shrine; custom dictated that one was always free to enter a house of worship at any hour. The room was small, with two rows of pews for worshippers and a small altar. An ornate scroll painting of a flame done in brilliant reds and golds against a background of deep blue hung above the altar, flanked by two candles. A single person was there, a woman in a light blue jacket, trousers, and high kem'pallah hat, with white boots for contrast. Only when she turned did Arjan note a priestly stole and medallion around her neck. He supposed that in this remote waystation, formal robes were too impractical on most occasions.
"Good evening, Priestess," he said.
"Oh! Your Grace!" she replied, relief crossing her features at the sight of Arjan's own medallion of rank. "I was starting to worry; we had expected you hours ago, and with this steady snowfall..."
"The fault is entirely mine; I was unprepared for the needs of the trek up. My assistant tried to warn me, but I was too eager to set out to listen to good counsel. Please accept my apologies for any trouble I may have caused."
Arjan had only met Priestess Naia on a few occasions in the months he'd served as Prelate. She was roughly his age, and he recalled her as having a calm, patient mien. This was one reason why she had been appointed to head the waystation's shrine, a position where she was the chief local authority. Arjan was her superior, but he was based in Vassha, the nearest village, a full two to three days' travel away in the inclement weather so common on the northern frontier.
She did not, he reflected, look calm now. Every inch of her form was tensed, as if poised to react to sudden trouble, and her eyes showed worry...and something else.
"Let me offer you some refreshment, Your Grace. You must be exhausted."
Arjan shook his head.
"My assistant is already seeing to our evening meal, but a cup of tea would not come amiss."
"I can see to that. Come with me."
Naia led him to her small living quarters, which connected by a metal-banded door to the rear of the shrine. She showed him to a place at the only table in the two-room structure and poured him a cup from a pot ornamented with a scene of pine forests. The tea was hot, sweet, and lightly perfumed, not as stimulating as the bitter kej but also less harsh.
"Excellent! Thank you, Priestess."
She looked a bit embarrassed and said, "It is flavored with the essence of the zarion flower from near Ryuon. It's a weakness of mine."
"A preference for food and drink, in moderation of course, is hardly a sin. Now, do sit down and let me have some of the details. Your letter said that a man had been murdered."
"Yes, Your Grace. I saw the body myself and it was...horrible."
A shudder passed through her, and for a moment Arjan thought he could hear, carried on the howling wind outside, a keening shriek of laughter.
Colce, meanwhile, had found the lodge-house with almost as much ease as Arjan had found the shrine. Between the tavern on the ground floor and the attic rooms for rent above, it was the largest building in the waystation, its windows spilling a cheery light onto the snow. Colce went inside, seeing a large, open taproom with tables, a long bar at the back, and a small counter at the front. Behind the bar, on the wall, were racks of bottles and a small kitchen area where food could be prepared at short order. He went to the counter first.
"My boss and I want a couple of rooms," he said.
The innkeeper was nearly as broad in the shoulders as Colce, although he was developing a bit of a paunch.
"How long?" he barked.
"One night at least, maybe more. What's it to you?"
"I expect a couple of trappers in the day after tomorrow, on their regular run. After that there'll only be one room free, since they're good customers and I don't know you from a fallen pine."
Colce could have pulled rank; as the Prelate, Arjan was certainly entitled not to be thrown out of an inn-room, especially when he'd arrived first and was engaged on official business. He did no such thing, though. The bar and several tables in the taproom were occupied, and Colce wanted to pick up some local gossip before it became as plain as a red mole on a snowfield that he was Arjan's assistant. It was amazing how guarded the tongues of the common folk became around Official Personages and Representatives of the Law.
"If that's the way it has to be, that's the way it has to be," he growled. He preferred to avoid lying outright now that he, too, was such an Official Personage. "How much?"
"Thirty meseta a night, per person."
"Sixty cash for two rooms? What, is this now the Grand Palace in Jut?" A sweep of his hand indicated the bare wood floor and crude furniture. "Am I struck blind that I fail to see the servants waiting hand and foot, the kingly appointments, the winsome dancing girls?"
"So you think to liven our evening with comedy?" the man sighed. "Look, fellow, what you do see is a roof over your head and the warmth of a fire. If these don't suit you, then feel free to lie down in the nice, soft snow outside. Do you see my point?"
"It's a bitter day for honest folk," Colce sighed, reluctantly counting out the coppers.
"If you meet any, give them my sympathies."
Hiding a grin, Colce stumped to the bar and ordered a large cup of wine as well as a pot of kej. The latter raised a few eyebrows; tea was ubiquitous among the upper and middle classes of Dezolian society, but not as common among the low-class hunters who stayed at the waystation.
"For my boss," he explained. "He'll be along as soon as he pays his professional respects." The others nodded at once, probably assuming the absent employer was a fur-trader or other merchant. "How about some of those noodles now, to take the edge off?"
The barman dished up a wooden bowl full of noodles mixed with vegetables in a tangy sauce. Colce picked up his suuwis, the standard eating utensil featuring a spoon-like depression and two long tines, and dug right in, twining the noodles around the tines and transferring them to his mouth with expert proficiency.
"Well, you put it away like a man, at least, even if you do have that silly town accent," admitted the hunter to Colce's right, who was dressed in battle-scarred leather. Hunters, he knew, often avoided heavy coats that could inhibit movement, instead wrapping themselves in thick fur cloaks that could be easily put aside when facing danger.
"Best to eat while I can," Colce said between mouthfuls, "since I never know if I'll get another chance."
The faces of the men around him fell, and it seemed as if the atmosphere itself possessed its own aura that was drawn up taut and tense.
"You shouldn't say such things, friend," the bartender told him slowly.
The men would not meet his gaze.
"It must be something pretty awful," Colce decided, "to have you fellows so scared. Don't you men fight Dezo Owls with their razor beaks, and needle-spitting moles, and all that?"
This got a rise out of the man to Colce's right. He crashed his fist against the rough planks of the bar counter.
"Out in the field, fighting monsters is one thing. I won't back down from anything I can put my spear into! Something else, though--"
"Don't say it, Z'Krin," another man urged, and several patrons hooked their thumbs together in the old superstitious gesture to ward off the evil eye. Z'Krin just scowled.
"What are you, dogs or men? It's like this, stranger. There's something out there in the night. Now, I tell you that I'm not afraid of something I can face, but no one's seen this fiend!"
"Well, then, how do you know it's there?"
Z'Krin looked Colce up and down.
"Do you think we're all that stupid? A man is dead, stranger, a strong hunter. They found him the morning of the day before yesterday, near the watch fire outside the shrine."
Colce feigned shock. In truth, he already knew about the death; it was why Prelate Arjan had come up to the waystation.
"A dead man? Now that's something else, friend."
"It is indeed! Nobody saw or heard anything--just these shadowy whispers in the darkness. But Rivak was dead all the same, as if some sharp claw had torn out his throat."
"The man was a hunter named Rivak," Naia told Arjan even as Colce was receiving the same information in the lodge. "He was murdered three nights ago; I found his body yesterday morning when I went out to add fuel to the watch fire." The priestess shuddered delicately. "It was horrible. I've seen dead and injured people, of course, but this was..." She shook her head. "This was loathsome."
"Murder is always loathsome," Arjan agreed. He had dealt with more than one violent death during his term as Prelate, but had--in a way--been lucky; his first murder case had been a poisoning, without the blood and wounding associated with less subtle methods of killing.
"Since there was no question that this was a criminal case, I sent a message to Vassha at once. I am surprised that you came yourself, Your Grace; I had expected a few police-wardens, perhaps under the headman or a special assistant."
Arjan sipped his tea.
"I preferred to come have a look for myself," he said. "I'm not very familiar with how these waystations are run, and I've never visited one in person, though of course I know there are three under the jurisdiction of the prelacy of Vassha. Therefore I wanted to get the lay of the land, so to speak, to help me reach a more equitable judgment."
Naia smiled wanly at him.
"Well, let me say on behalf of the people here that we are very glad to have you. Though I daresay that you will find we have no suitable accommodations, Your Grace."
The Prelate waved her concern aside.
"Although I have never been a monk, used to hard beds and thin blankets, I think I shall do well enough without luxuries for a few days."
"I...didn't mean to imply..." the priestess stammered, suddenly realizing that what she had intended as polite modesty could be construed as a backhanded insult.
"I know," Arjan assured her, giving her a gentle smile to help put her at ease. "But let's have an end to empty formality between us. We are both servants of the Church, working together to solve a crime. Artificial social restrictions shouldn't be allowed to interfere with that greater concern."
The words sounded pompous to his ears, but Arjan had learned, somewhat to his surprise, that often a small, impromptu speech was necessary to leadership, inspiring confidence--presuming that one didn't go too far.
"Now, why don't you tell me some of the background details? I not only haven't been up here before, but I really know very little about life here."
"Well, as you said, there are three waystations north of Vassha, which is of course on the northernmost frontier of settled Dezolis. There really isn't much to do up here except for mining and hunting, and the only mine in this district ran out quite a few centuries ago. So the waystations act as glorified hunting camps up here in the mountains, one on the route to each major hunting ground. Tuvan Waystation is the furthest east of the three. It's relatively near Vassha, but a good snow will completely close the track between here and the town."
She glanced at the window, as if wondering whether the current snowfall would be one of those storms.
"Hunters base themselves here, go out on expeditions and bring back their monster kills. Representatives of Vassha's merchants keep permanent shops here as well, so they can buy on the spot. They don't pay as well as in Vassha, but it saves the hunters the trip down the mountain. I'm here, of course, to see to religious needs and to represent the law, and the lodge sells food and drink, plus offering rooms to travelers who don't permanently reside here. Oh, and of course there's Venya's supply shop, sort of a general store for hunting expeditions. All in all there's about fifty people who live here, ten to twenty of whom are out of the settlement at any given time."
"I gather that hunters here on their 'down time' serve as guards in case of monster attack?" Arjan remembered that the man at the gate had been armed with a hunting spear; the crosspiece prevented a wounded beast from charging up the spear, pushing its body along the shaft until it reached the hunter.
"That's right. We always keep a watch in case a particularly stubborn creature breaches the palisade. One time a snow mole actually clawed a hole through the logs, but the guards were ready."
Naia paused, shifting nervously in her seat.
"As you can guess, it's a pretty rowdy atmosphere up here. Most of the people are used to living with danger; when they come back to Tuvan to drink and carouse, we get our share of brawls. So long as there isn't any permanent harm done, we just shrug it off without turning to the law. No one would get any hunting done if every fistfight or bar brawl meant an assault case in the tribunal. Rivak's death is different, though, Your Grace. It wasn't a fight, not even a knifing in the heat of drunken anger. It was murder, pure and simple."
"How was he killed?" Arjan asked.
"His throat was slashed."
"Will I be able to inspect the body?"
"Yes, it's at the undertaker's right now. I told him not to bury it until the law had had a chance to investigate."
The Prelate nodded approvingly. "That was very wise, Priestess. We'll want to see it later this evening."
"The undertaker's name is Dachot; his shop is at the rear of the waystation. You can't miss the sign. He's something of a night owl, so he'll be around. Between the storm and the slaying, very few people will want to be out of doors, I suspect."
"That sounds quite likely." Arjan rose, then took his leave, saying, "I thank you for your hospitality, and for your diligence in reporting this crime."
The latter compliment might have seemed unusual, but Naia understood at once.
"Here on the edge of civilization, people have to be self-sufficient, up here even more than in Vassha. They get used to handling their own problems, in their own way."
"Self-reliance is an admirable virtue," Arjan agreed, "but all too often it leads people to forget to turn to others when appropriate." And, he added mentally but did not say, the idea that the Church authorities, unlike the previous secular government, could be trusted to achieve justice was a new one, not fully accepted yet. Arjan saw each new criminal case as a challenge, where he needed to show his people that as Prelate he would protect the innocent and punish the guilty.
He wondered, as Naia showed him to the door and bade him farewell with a polite bow of her head, if he would be able to meet that challenge, without the help of the coroner or a police force.
Outside, Arjan saw that the snow was picking up, blown around and around in the air by the swirling wind. Here and there a figure would leave the shelter of a door, scuttle quickly to another door, and dart inside. They clung close to the buildings, not willing to cross into the open. The weather was part of that, of course, but there was something almost furtive in their actions.
No, he revised his opinion, fearful. But why would harsh weather, or even a murder, scare this whole waystation?
Deciding that the question bore looking into, he identified the lodge and crossed over to it. He found Colce waiting at a table, a pot of tea and a wine-cup ready.
"Dinner's on the way," his assistant told him. "You know, it's kind of hard to mix with the locals, boss, when I have to go around with the head man in district government."
A waiter came over and set down another bowl of noodles in front of Colce, then a platter of steamed dumplings and a dish of sweet sauce. He looked Arjan over, noting the Prelate's clerical rank, then turned back to Colce with a sharp look before walking away. Illustrative, Arjan supposed, of his assistant's point.
"Why should that man resent you? You didn't lie, did you?"
"Let's just say I discreetly omitted the precise nature of my boss's business. Simple truth is, now they know I'm not One Of Them; I'm the Law."
"The Church protects and educates the people," Arjan protested. "Why should they resent that?"
"Because with a flick of a finger you could have any one of them dragged off to jail, then sentenced to harsh punishment whether they're guilty or not. It's like being around a dragon. Now, it may not be trying to eat you. It may not be hungry at all. It might even be perfectly tame. But are you going to test that out by provoking it, or are you just going to lay low?"
"You have a point," the young churchman admitted.
Colce took a deep drink of his deKal before answering.
"I do. And what's more, by not advertising out in the open that I work for the Prelate, it starts making people think that I'm slipping in close, getting them off their guard so I can strike without warning. Which, of course, is sometimes the truth, but that's another story."
Arjan shook his head sadly.
"This is not how things should be," he asserted. "Yes, we do have power, but that power is in accordance with the Way of Heaven, and should be trusted. There should be faith." He met Colce's gaze and sighed. "You think I am a naive fool, do you not?"
Colce didn't answer him as bluntly as he'd expected.
"Maybe not a fool, boss...but I do think you're putting too much onto people. They should trust in Heaven, but in their government? Most of us have too many bad memories of secular rule to trust anyone with power, priest or no. Besides which, you can't tell me that priests aren't corruptible, too."
"No," Arjan admitted, "even I'm not that naive."
"Good." He took the risk of giving the younger man a clap on the shoulder, a familiarity that would have enraged some Church officials. "Give it a century or two, and I'm sure people like you and me will at least have 'em believing the Church isn't just the same old power-hungry lot dressed up in fancy robes. Till then, you and me are just gonna have to take our lumps in exchange for the good feeling of doing the right thing. And the salary, of course."
Arjan smiled thinly.
They ate and drank quickly beneath the dubious glances of the lodge's patrons and staff, the cold silences that had stifled conversation allowing the wind's eerie howl to penetrate inside all too easily. Arjan was struck again by how cold and remote the waystation was; his mind instinctively wanted to turn to someone else for help.
Only, he was the help, and in Tuvan he didn't even have the comforting illusion of being able to look to another.
"Let's go, Colce," he told his assistant when they'd finished sharing what they'd heard separately about the case. "We need to inspect the corpse."
Colce made a face.
"So glad I just had a big meal."
It was a short walk through the whirling snowfall to the undertaker's, for which Arjan was glad. On a night like this, a man could freeze just traveling from one end of Vassha to the other, and unlike the town there would be no helpful passerby in Tuvan. He chastised himself sharply then, thinking that the waystation was hardly big enough to get lost in even in near-whiteout conditions, but then he thought of Rivak. He'd been done to death within the palisade, out in the open.
Maybe his fears weren't as silly as they'd seemed.
Lamplight shone through the windows of the modest building, silhouetting the words "Dachot, Undertaker" painted on the glass. A sign creaked to and fro on its chains over the door. Arjan presumed it carried the same message, but it was too dark to read.
"Priestess Naia said that Dachot was likely to be awake; it seems that she was right."
"Good; he'll be more cooperative if you don't have to roust him out of bed."
The Prelate took the iron knocker in his gloved fist and knocked twice. When no answer was forthcoming, he knocked again, this time striking the heavy ring against the wood several times. Still there was no response. Deciding to try the door, he found it unlocked, and the two of them went inside.
"Hello!" Arjan called, finding himself in a pleasant sitting-room with a sofa, chairs, and lamps giving off a warm glow. Off to the left, an arched entrance led to a kitchen, and two doors were set in the back wall.
"Hey, Dachot!" Colce bellowed. "Unlike your usual customers, we can't wait forever!"
This got results; a moment later one of the doors opened and a man came out, a thick leather-bound book gripped in his left hand. He walked with a slight stoop, that suggested a cringing, fawning posture even when his words did not.
"Oh, no," the man said, shaking his head. "Don't think the dead can wait. No, sir, even in a frozen waste like this, the dead always need care. Very demanding customers, the dead. Quite testy they get too, if they aren't looked after. Told Naia that myself, when she told me not to go ahead with Rivak's burial...but that's why you're here, isn't it, Your Grace," he added, his voice suddenly becoming more focused.
"It is. This is my assistant, Colce, and we would like to view the corpse."
"Good, good, glad to see you're getting right to it. Right this way into my workshop, gentlemen."
He set the book down on a chair arm as he passed to the other door and opened it. Arjan glanced at the cover, but no title was stamped into the pale green leather.
A blast of cold air seemed to rush out as they passed into the back room. There was a large hearth, but the log fire laid there waited unlit. Two sturdy tables in the center of the room were clearly Dachot's work area; on one a sheet covered the outline of a human-shaped form. At the side of the room a glass-doored cabinet held the instruments of the mortician's trade. Dachot lit a lamp which hung from the ceiling by an iron chain, then closed the door. It was almost as cold in the "workshop" as it was outside, and somehow it felt worse. There was death here, and its presence lingered like a shadow over Arjan's soul.
"Have to keep it cold, Your Grace," the undertaker said. "Warm it up when we work, of course, but until then, can't let my guests go all to pieces before I've had the chance to see to 'em right."
He drew back the sheet to reveal the naked corpse of a man. Or, more precisely, what was left of a man.
"Not too pretty, is he?" Dachot commented, with what seemed to the Prelate to be a hint of mirth in his voice. No doubt the undertaker found it amusing, the reactions of men not so used to the practical aspects of death as he was.
"I've seen some things in my time, boss," Colce muttered, rubbing the back of his neck, "but this is...it's just inhuman."
"That's exactly right," Arjan agreed. "Don't you think so, Dachot?"
The undertaker's head bobbed up and down eagerly.
"Oh, yes, yes. Monster for sure. Up here in the mountains I've seen my share of knifings, and my share of fangs and talons, and it wasn't a blade that did this--" He pointed to the torn shoulder and upper arm. "--or this--" He indicated the ripped thighs and calves. "--or especially this." His finger traced the outline of the hideous wound in the corpse's belly, where its abdomen had been torn away. There were no other marks on the body, and Arjan hoped that Rivak had fallen prey to shock rather than bleeding to death from his wounds. "Besides which, just look at the viscera here. Something's been che--"
"Yeah, we see," Colce cut Dachot off sharply. "All too well, we see."
Arjan's gorge rose, and he tasted bile in his throat, but he forced himself to retain his composure by the only way he knew how, channeling his mind into analysis and detail, reducing the revulsion to cold, hard facts.
"Can you speculate as to what did this?"
"Pretty near anything, I'd guess. Not rajago, though. Their claws are too big. Not mistralgec, either--you can tell those right off because they have all these tiny little teeth and a very small mouth. Could be one of the owl types. Skytiara, maybe. I'd have to say mole, though. Get a lot of leg wounds with them. They can jump up, but usually they cut the legs out from under their prey, then go at it when it's down. Hungrymole'll start eating before the meat's even dead, way the hunters tell it."
Again Arjan had to choke back the sickening images that threatened to drown his mind.
"Well, Your Grace, can I go ahead and get to work? Poor fella's waited long enough, right, and you've seen it ain't no murder."
No, it wasn't a murder, but he could see why he'd been sent for. It was a monster attack, only the creature had been able to enter the waystation unseen, butcher its victim, and escape again, despite the palisade and the armed hunters.
And without leaving any trace of its passage.
"So what's our next step?" Colce broke the silence once they were outside Dachot's grim little shop.
"We go back to the lodge and question everyone," Arjan said. "If this is just a case of a monster which has gotten into the waystation, then the hunters are the ones to track it down, deal with it, and keep anything else from getting in. They have the expertise, while I know almost nothing about monster-fighting."
He almost had to shout to make himself heard over the wind.
"But you don't think it's a monster, boss?"
"I can't say, but I don't think Naia believes it is. And from what you say..."
"Neither do the locals. You don't figure it's something supernatural, do you?"
They stepped into the shelter offered by a building corner where they could talk more easily without getting buffeted by wind and snow.
"I can't be certain. We'd be foolish to dismiss the possibility, though. There is magic in this world, and not all of it is pure and holy. I've studied some of the records from the cleansing of Menobe Tower; that was but twenty-two years ago."
"I was still a kid on the streets of Jut, then."
"Whereas I was barely a toddler. They kept complete records, though, and some of the things in them...they make what was done to Rivak look like a mercy. Yes, I believe it could be something undead or some spirit creature."
"Well, if it is, I'm sticking close to you, boss. Underworld characters are one thing and monsters another, but if it's ghosts and spooks we're dealing with I'm glad I work for a priest!"
They were almost back to the lodge-house when Arjan suddenly stopped in his tracks. Colce all but collided with him.
"Hey, boss, you okay?"
Arjan didn't answer for a second. Thoughts of ghosts and monsters flitted through his brain. They created fear, of the unknown, of a situation he couldn't handle; it acted like a fog in his mind, confusing his judgment. Now, though, something was shining through that fog, coming clear in his thoughts. Something...
"That's it! It has to be. It can't be coincidence."
"What?" Colce demanded.
"Both Naia and the hunter you spoke to--Z'Krin, wasn't it?" At Colce's nod he continued. "Both of them said that Rivak's throat had been torn out. Neither one said anything about the wholesale mutilation we saw at Dachot's. And for all that was done to that body, it didn't have a throat wound."
"Why would the undertaker show us the wrong body?"
"I don't know, but we're going to find out."
They reversed their tracks through the driving snow, returning to the undertaker's home. Arjan tried to think what would have made Dachot identify the wrong body to them as Rivak's. Was Dachot the killer, and if so was there some clue in the method of murder that pointed inexorably at him? Or was he covering up for someone else, and if so, why? Blackmail? Threats? Or for pay?
When they returned to the undertaker's shop, Arjan did not knock, but at once tried the door. This time, it was locked.
"Colce, can you do something about this?"
"I'll try." He took a case of picks and tools out of his jacket, removed his gloves, and set to work. A Palman's fingers, exposed to the cold and wind, could well have become frostbitten, but the Dezolian resistance to low temperatures was enough for Colce to be able to overcome the simple lock. The wind completely drowned out any noise the operation might have made; Arjan could only hope the lockpicking had been equally silent to anyone inside. When Colce had replaced his tools and glove, he pushed the door open slowly.
Inside, they found the sitting room much as they'd left it. Once again, Dachot was nowhere in sight. Colce seemed to be reading the Prelate's thoughts; if their man truly was a murderer, they did not want to smash in, shouting and being confrontational. Better to move slowly and carefully. There were no lights showing from the kitchen, so the undertaker was either in one of the back rooms or he'd gone out.
His book was still lying across the chair arm where he'd left it, so Arjan picked it up to investigate. As he did, a shudder ran through him. The Prelate's stomach twisted in horror as he realized that the green leather was actually tanned Dezolian skin. His flesh creeped as he turned the disgusting thing over and flipped through the pages. The book was a manuscript, handwritten in a scrawl-like cursive. The paper was new, the scholar recognized; the book was no more than twenty or thirty years old, maybe considerably less. The content appeared to be quite incoherent, a feverish combination of ravings about the powers of darkness and the disgusting things witnessed in half-drugged dreams.
He'd heard of books like this before, of occult tomes and grimoires of black magic. The Church banned private ownership of some as a sin and a crime both, the ones which were known to be doorways to true evil power. This might be one such, or merely the product of a deluded and psychotic brain. In either case, though, it was thoroughly evil, and the fact that Dachot owned and was reading it said much about his state of mind. Arjan could not help but think of the mutilated corpse in the next room, and of the fear he'd seen in the faces of Naia and the other people of Tuvan Waystation.
"Is that a clue, boss?" Colce asked softly. Experienced in such things from his years before entering Arjan's service, his voice was so low as to barely be audible. Arjan could hardly hear him, and someone in an adjoining room certainly wouldn't.
"I think so," he replied, trying to match his assistant's tone. "At least to Dachot's state of mind." He laid the book back down, relieved to have it out of his hands. "I don't think there's any doubt but that--"
Colce cut him off with a sharp gesture. Knowing the older man as he did, Arjan obeyed at once rather than raise a fuss about the breach of etiquette. When he fell silent he quickly realized why Colce had wanted quiet. They could distinctly hear a voice coming from behind the left-hand door, the one which presumably led to Dachot's bedchamber. Both men crept close and listened carefully.
"Master, must I now...?"
"Foolish one. It must be. You have deceived the priest and his servant, have you not? You have cooperated, like a good little slave of their accursed Church. They suspect nothing. But how long will that be? Can you hide the need that possesses you? Even now, does it not yearn to be unleashed?"
Arjan and Colce looked at each other in surprise. The first voice was that of the undertaker, its eerie, high-pitched tones easy to recognize even in the few words they'd heard. The second voice, though, was stronger and deeper, and it lacked the uneven pacing of the undertaker's sentences.
Colce held up two fingers, then brushed back the hem of his jacket and drew his longknife. In his work for Arjan he customarily used a truncheon to assist in capturing criminals alive, but on this job, with wilderness travel and the prospect of fighting monsters, he'd equipped himself with something a bit more lethal. The sharp, single-edged blade was nearly two feet long, almost big enough to be considered a sword. Seeing the low-grade laconia glitter in the lamplight made Arjan feel much more comfortable about bursting through the door and confronting two members of a murderous conspiracy.
Colce took the doorknob in his hand and turned it slowly, not making any noise. He inched the door open with equal care, but suddenly stopped when it was only a tiny bit ajar, surprise on his face.
"But, Master, the priest will know. Soon enough, he'll see the difference. Investigate the crime scene he will, before I can take the body. He'll see, he'll see what I've done, and he'll know."
Colce gestured for Arjan to come over; he crouched down so there would be enough room for the Prelate to lean in and see through the narrow opening between the door and the jamb. When Arjan did, he had to stifle a gasp of shock.
"Stupid, weak fool! Haven't you yet learned that you cannot resist the urges of the flesh? You do so at your peril! The concept of the mind restraining physical needs is one of the Church's teachings. It is not for you and me!"
Dachot's master was speaking, but there was no one else in the room! The undertaker stood in front of his vanity table, facing into the large mirror. They could see the reflection speaking, but also Dachot's own lips moving--it wasn't some strange magic animating the image but the voice of the man himself.
Then, Dachot seemed to shrink in on himself, reassuming the slight stoop in his posture Arjan was familiar with.
"But the priest..."
He then straightened up, and his face took on an arrogance more fitting for a liege-lord in the ancient feudal age.
"If you fear the priest, then make him your victim, and still the worry forever! Now, go, and come whining to me no more!"
Arjan thrust the door open; he'd heard enough.
"Undertaker Dachot! You are under arrest for the murder of the hunter Rivak! Surrender now, or we will have to use force."
Dachot spun to face the door as Colce leapt through, longknife raised to emphasize the Prelate's threat. They'd be taking no chances with this madman.
Dachot did not surrender, though. A mix of rage and terror in his expression, he scooped up a hooked knife that looked more like a dissection tool than a weapon from the vanity table and lunged towards Arjan.
Colce moved quickly, though, since he'd been alert for the madman to try anything. For a moment Arjan thought he'd use the silver knife, but instead he slashed up with the edge of his free hand, striking Dachot's wrist and knocking the killer's blade out of his hand. Then Colce whipped his own knife down, but cracked the butt of it against the man's skull. Dazed by the blow, Dachot couldn't keep the more powerful man from hurling him onto the bed and turning him face-down.
His opponent defeated, Colce took a short length of cord from his pocket and bound the killer's hands behind his back. Although Dezolis lacked the technology the Palmans had used to create plasmarings, restraints that disrupted a person's ability to use mysticism, it had a much longer tradition of magic use. The cords used by Dezolian police-wardens to bind suspects used a minor charm that blocked a person from tapping power outside themselves. There were few true Dezolian wizards outside the Church, but several users of the "techniques" invented by Palman Espers, and this simple step prevented those powers from being employed.
Ritual magic, such as that found in historical grimoires, required complex chants and objects, and would be utterly impossible to use in captivity in any case.
Arjan stooped and picked up the dropped knife. There were brownish stains of dried blood on it; the insane man clearly did not take care of his tools. It could be the murder weapon; if the point was dug into flesh and then the knife pulled back the edge inside the hook would rip open skin like a claw. The bloodstains meant nothing, though, if the weapon was actually an undertaker's tool.
"Where is Rivak's body?" he barked at the prisoner. "Why didn't you want us to see it?"
Dachot groaned but didn't answer.
"Fine; we'll find out later. Bring him along, Colce."
Obediently, Colce hefted Dachot to his feet. Dazed as he was, the killer was still able to stand on his own so Colce marched him along after Arjan. When they got out of the house, the cold wind seemed to shock the prisoner back to some sense of awareness.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To Priestess Naia. She'll know some place where you can be locked up until you can be taken to Vassha for trial."
"The church? N-no, you can't take me there! I won't let you take me there!"
He began to thrash and twist, but Colce was much stronger and easily continued to drag him along in spite of the struggles. It was only when they saw the watch fire that Dachot actually pulled his arm out of Colce's grip.
"Stupid, sniveling fools!" he crowed. "You think to pit your prayers against me? Against the true power of darkness? I'll show you the truth--how useless your so-called holiness is!"
A convulsive shudder ran through Dachot, and he arched his back. Even as Colce tried to grab him again, his body flexed, shifted, and changed. His skull shrank and broadened, a muzzlelike jaw with powerful canines thrusting outwards. His coat ripped and tore as his limbs took on new forms and were covered by a layer of coarse blue-black fur. His fingers became tipped with claws, and a winglike membrane stretched along his sides from wrists to ankles--explaining how he could murder a man and leave no trail to and from the body in the snow. The monstrous creature displayed unnatural strength twice in quick succession, by ripping its hands free of the cord--the charm useless against an internal power--and then by knocking Colce flying with a sweep of its powerful arm.
Arjan's assistant crashed into the snow, stunned, and fumbled to recover his longknife, but his movements were clumsy and uncoordinated, hampered by the blow and the deep snow alike. The creature laughed and turned to Arjan.
"You see, preacher? This is my new power, power I claimed for myself by rejecting your stupid teachings! Why should I submit to your weakness? I'll take what I want, from whom I want, and no one can stop me."
Arjan faced the monster squarely. Had it been only a killer, an armed criminal, he would have quailed in his boots before the purely physical threat, but this was different. This was evil, pure, supernatural evil that faced him. Arjan had many doubts about being a Prelate: his ability to dispense fair justice, the trouble of separating truth from lies, and most of all his ability to take the responsibility of leading the people under his care.
He had no doubts at all about his calling as a priest.
"The Way of Heaven is not weakness," he shouted into the wind. "It is what raises us above the beasts. You have not elevated yourself beyond human restrictions. You have instead chosen to regress yourself to something less than an animal, and you must accept the consequences, Dachot!"
Shrieking with rage, the monster sprang for Arjan. The Prelate traced a character in the air with his forefinger and spoke a single word. The air blazed with blue fire in the image of the character he'd sketched.
The creature that had been Dachot gleamed with an aura of the same silver-blue light as the flame, and crumbled to a fine ash that was instantly swept away by the howling wind.
Arjan bowed his head and offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for their deliverance.
"We found Rivak's body buried in the snow behind this place," Colce said, brushing the snow from his jacket. It would have been polite to do that outside, but he didn't really feel a call to respect the house of a dead murderer. "The thing was drained dry of blood. No wonder he pulled the old switch on us, showing us the body of some poor hunter killed by a snow mole. Woulda known in a second we were dealing with a derned vampire."
"Not a vampire," Arjan corrected. He and Naia were busily going through Dachot's books and papers, a task he was glad they'd put off until the morning after the battle. These things were disquieting enough by the light of day.
"A bloodsucking bat-monster that isn't a vampire?"
"Dachot was seen walking around in the light of day," Naia told Colce. "That could never happen if he was a vampire."
"Although it does seem that was what he was trying to become," Arjan explained. "What we believe is that he used some of the ritual magic in these books to infuse himself with the power of darkness. Only, he was still alive when this happened, so he assumed only certain qualities of the demonic. His journals reveal that this was how his mind fragmented, from the strain of dealing with the bloodthirsty urges his unnatural state raised in him."
"I'm thinking that to do that in the first place he couldn't have started out all that sane," Colce said dryly.
"Perhaps not." Arjan shook his head sadly. "Such is the price of dealing with the unholy and forbidden."
"What about his books? You're gonna burn them, right?"
"Some of them, yes. The ones with actual black magic rituals are too dangerous to preserve. The ones that are merely blasphemous or insane, no; knowledge by itself poses no threat. The truth will overcome any attempt to overcome it with these diabolic lies, and forcibly suppressing those lies instead of teaching how wrong they are only implies that they hold power and gives them additional, undeserved weight."
Colce chuckled wryly.
"You scholars have a lot of faith in people's ability to think for themselves. Seems to me they mostly follow whomever tells them things are gonna be easy."
"I have to have faith, Colce," Arjan said with a faint smile. "It's part of my job."
Colce laughed heartily, both with appreciation and with the joy of finding something to laugh at, after the black night they'd spent in Tuvan. "Boss, I think we'd better be getting back to Vassha soon. The air up here is getting to you. I mean, who ever heard of a priest making jokes?"