A raptor swung invisibly through the air, high above the scrubby grass, searching the night for food with eyes that saw the heat of its prey against the cold earth. It turned its head slightly as it noticed a target and then banked, locking the bones in its wings and using only its head and tail to steer the glide. It turned downwards and dove, wings still locked, sweeping earthwards in dangerous silence.
There was a click of its closing talons and a quiver in the grass before it was gone.
Eyes turned away and looked back on the town below.
The raptor knew well how to strike in the night. See the enemy but don't let him see you. Use the night against him but make sure it cannot be turned against you. Strike silently and swiftly and vanish as if you were never there. Take only your target and do not attract attention. Let them wonder. There was much to be learnt from the beasts of Motavia.
The Hunter's shaggy silhouette rose slightly and crept along the ridge to find a new position to study the town. He would not strike in the night like the raptor but its lessons were still useful. He may study and use the skills of the beasts, but he was not one. He was a man and knew his greatest advantages were calculation, patience and preparation.
He settled into the grass just as the ridge was dipping to slide into the ground and studied the town through thoughtful eyes. The town was not a significant factor but information and preparedness would do no harm. Such caution and careful strategy was what made him the best.
And now... Now his skills would serve him to defeat the arrogance and power of the Guild of Hunters.
Sunlight had edged through the crack in the curtains and was now creeping silently towards the face of the sleeper. This was perhaps the only time she looked at peace but time would steal it from her as she aged and her face became set in her dominant expression. It would not be an unpleasant one but perhaps it would be daunting. The woman would become handsome rather than beautiful. Her jaw would become set, her mouth a line and her eyes harder.
Her hair, currently tumbled around her head on the pillow, was a rich brown. An arm that protruded from the covers showed that she was sleeping in her clothes. She had either arrived late or was someone for whom preparedness was important. Perhaps both.
On the room's single chair there lay a belt and two bladed throwing weapons, both sheathed. Her boots and gloves were on the floor next to the chair.
There was the almost inaudible sound of weight easing itself on to a foot outside the door to her room. The handle turned soundlessly and the door swung inwards slowly, with barely a breath of air moved by the careful motion.
The woman slept on.
A shaggy shape stepped silently into the room and stood for a moment at the end of her bed, watching her sleep. Then it turned, reaching for the curtain across the window and yanking it aside to let the light fill the room.
"Time to get up, Alys," it said as it left.
Although the shape looked for all the world like it should lumber somewhat awkwardly, its step was quiet and sure as it padded down the stairs of the Inn to the common room. It walked across the wood-tile floor to a corner table and sat down, nodding at the other patron who sat opposite.
"You're breathing heavily," he said.
"Damn your ears," Alys said, as she'd been breathing through her nose to hide it. "The drop knocked it out of me," she added in explanation. Then she shrugged. "Well, it was worth a try."
"I am surprised that you would, Alys," said her companion. His voice had a strange resonance to it. "Your reputation does not imply someone who plays games."
"Being able to move fast upon awakening is a useful Hunter trait."
"That is an excuse, not a reason," the other said evenly.
"I wanted to see if I could crack that imperturbable mask of yours, Hysk."
The Motavian nodded his shaggy head in understanding and there was a pause.
"Do you wish to eat now or see the Prefect first?" Hysk asked then. "I imagine he will hear of our arrival soon."
"We'll eat. I'm sure the Prefect already knows. News of the" – Alys grimaced – "bloody Eight-Stroke bloody Warrior moves fast."
"We each have our reputation to burden us," Hysk said solemnly. "You must put up with a name you do not like and I must put up with silly jokes from my partner." He paused strangely and Alys had the impression if he had a mouth instead of a beak, he'd be frowning. "Why 'Eight-Stroke'?" he asked. "I have wondered that more than once."
"Long story," Alys sighed and signalled the Innkeeper, "and not for today."
They didn't need to knock. The Town Prefect had obviously seen them coming down the mainway and opened the door for them as they approached. Alys nodded to him as she approached.
"Prefect Shah. Good morning to you."
"And to you, Hunters," the Prefect said as he allowed them in. "I must say that I -"
"That you weren't expecting the eight-stroke warrior when you contacted the Guild?" Alys interrupted. She shrugged slightly to show that it didn't really concern her. "I get that all the time. Don't worry about it. I'm just doing a job."
"Uh, please sit down," the Prefect said, gesturing to some chairs. The two Hunters took their seats, Hysk a little awkwardly.
"Well," said the Prefect, trying to make amends it seemed. "I'm pleased that you're here although I don't think -"
"The job is worthy of me?" Alys asked. "I get that as well. Please, I'm just here to do a job."
That flustered the Prefect. "Of course," he said. He gestured vaguely towards her companion. "Is this, um, your partner?"
Three for three, Alys thought wearily.
"This is Hysk. He's not with the Guild, but we're travelling together and he's willing to help. We'll split out the money between us," she added untruthfully, just to save unnecessary explanation. Hysk refused to accept any money, much to her annoyance.
The Prefect sighed. "Straight to business then?" he asked. "Okay, there's a cemetery a little way north of the town. No one really goes there except for children – unless, of course, we have a burial. We had one last week. Nothing connected," he assured her. "One of the village women was involved in an accident. The cemetery..." The Prefect paused and cleared his throat. "The cemetery has been disturbed. Actually, it's not far off from being destroyed. A lot of bodies have been unearthed. We questioned the children and they admitted it had started a few weeks previously. They had been staying away since then."
"Any suspicions?" Alys asked.
The Prefect spread his hands. "We had assumed it was biomonsters, but we have..." He shrugged apologetically. "There's nothing to base that on, really," he admitted. "We couldn't find any tracks."
"You're probably right anyway," Alys told him. "Do you know when this has been happening?"
"The children hadn't seen anything but..." he shrugged helplessly. Alys nodded in understanding. Children went to bed early and weren't freed by their parents to do their own thing until their chores were done. With school taking up the morning, they might only be out for an hour or so during the early evening.
She got up. "We'd better take a look."
"I'll show you myself," the Prefect said, rising also.
The cemetery was on a slight rise, screened from the village by a copse of trees and the endless long brown grass of Motavia's plains. The cemetery itself had only short grass and it was obvious that it was occasionally weeded out. A low stone wall – unmortared – enclosed the graves in a ring, broken only by an entrance gap on the north and south sides.
The headstones of the graves were still straight and erect, odd considering the destruction elsewhere. Large areas had been dug up, seemingly at random. Occasional skeletal and mummified body parts stuck out from the earth at odd angles and Alys knelt to examine one, brushing her fingers along a rough spot. Then she examined the ground around it, parting the stubby grass carefully to examine the earth beneath. Then she walked over to the wall, picked up a fallen piece of rock thoughtfully and replaced it on the top.
She turned, almost running into Hysk who was standing behind her.
"Crawlers?" he asked her and she nodded.
"Sorry?" the Prefect asked.
"Crawlers, Prefect," Alys said. "The tracks – you didn't see them because you were looking for footprints of some sort. Crawlers leave little pits in the ground. They've been feeding on the dead here. They must be desperate, 'cause there's not much to be had. You're lucky you called us when you did," she added. "They might have come for your town next."
The Prefect looked worried. "Can you find them?"
Alys scanned the horizon briefly, vaguely hoping for some sort of sign of the creatures. She wasn't surprised to see nothing.
"Tonight," she told the Prefect. "They've learnt to be nocturnal around people."
Alys sat cross-legged on her room's small table, directly under the window's light, running the bladestone over the edge of her second slasher in smooth, even strokes. Every now and again she would turn the blade beneath the sunlight, watching to see the light catch on the edge of nicks and scratches which she would then smooth away with the stone.
She barely glanced up when someone knocked.
"Come in," she called.
Hysk walked silently in and stood in the middle of the room. He tended not to be comfortable sitting on chairs made for Palmans. Alys generally avoided them as well. Sitting in strange places and positions stretched her tendons in a faintly pleasurable way, like a good stretch in the morning.
"Do you know we are being watched, Alys?" Hysk asked.
Alys resisted the urge to be surprised. "No," she said, keeping the tone carefully matter-of-fact.
"We are," Hysk said unnecessarily. "I think it is a he. Skilled, but too large and heavy to be completely invisible. He observes the town from the ridge."
Alys picked up her belt and carefully slid the slasher back into its guard. Then she swore in a matter-of-fact way. 'Skilled' basically meant a Hunter or a Protector like Hysk and she rather thought Hysk would be able to tell if it was one of his people.
"I wonder if we should be reading more into this Crawler business then," she said.
"I cannot see a connection," Hysk said, "but I cannot explain the watcher."
"Are you armed?" Alys asked and Hysk turned his shoulders slightly, allowing his cloak to fall open. His two hand-axes were strapped to his belt, one at each hip. Alys nodded.
"Think we can sneak up on this guy?" she asked and Hysk shrugged. Alys nodded again, thoughtfully.
"Time for lunch," she said, jumping lightly from the table.
They ate downstairs. Alys was sure the Prefect would be happy to feed them but he'd also talk a lot. Hysk knew her well enough to remain silent while she thought. He was a good partner. In fact, he was the only partner she could work with. Other Hunters asked too many damned questions.
Hysk wasn't part of the Hunter's Guild but was still effectively her apprentice, albeit an almost equal one. It was custom among the Motavian people that the warriors of each tribe – 'Protectors' was the best Palman translation Alys had for their name – learnt from a more experienced warrior by accompanying them. In fact, the two would learn from each other, making the term "apprentice" not quite accurate. Alys wasn't sure if there was a word to describe the partnership in Palman. It wasn't exactly a custom, either. The concept was difficult to translate, but it seemed to Alys that everyone just saw how logical and useful it was to do it. Like sending a child to school. It wasn't law or custom. It was just done because it was a good idea.
Something else that seemed to be a good idea was to apprentice Motavians off to Hunters – to see what the two groups could learn from each other. Most Hunters were too steeped in what even Alys could see were typical Palman faults – pride, independence, superiority and the need to jealously guard their techniques and secrets – to accept. Such things never seemed to occur to the Motavians – and, indeed, seemed to be hard to explain in some cases. They came all too easy to the Guild, though. It had refined the skills and training of its members for centuries and thought itself perfect, superior. Good though it undoubtably was, it was also stagnant. After you were the best, there is nowhere to go.
Yet the Motavian Protectors had managed to surprise the Guild with their spear launcher. It was little more than a piece of craved wood into which the spear is fitted, yet it doubled the range in a way that looked, to Alys's eyes, like a sling worked. Their techniques with axes were also far superior simply because Hunters tended not to use them much.
The Guild had, indeed, perfected its skills – but it was only one set of skills, only one perspective.
It was working great for her and Hysk, though. They didn't teach each other anything but they were definitely learning from each other in a silent, watchful way. Hysk was the best partner Alys had ever had or could see having.
Because of trust, she suddenly realised. Hysk trusted her completely in the same casual way that people trusted the seasons to cycle. You didn't need to know why. That it was reliable was enough and you learnt to work with it, even turn it to your advantage. That's why he didn't ask questions.
Alys felt the strange creepy feeling she felt whenever she worked her way to some insight about how her partner thought. It wasn't that she couldn't understand why he did things, but that she could in spite of the fact that humans didn't work the same way. It made her wonder about herself. As if she had more in common with a member of another race than her own.
Then again, maybe Hysk was thinking similar things about her, too. Alys plucked out a large leaf from her salad and folded it in her fingers so it would fit in her mouth. Opposite her, Hysk was breaking a tuber into small pieces. Motavians couldn't chew, Alys reminded herself. No teeth.
She changed her trail of thought over to the job.
As Hysk had said, it was hard to wrap a conspiracy around some hungry Crawlers. Short of some children's story rubbish about creating monsters from bits of dead people, Alys couldn't see any conspiracy applying to a graveyard. It was probably wise to assume the uninvited Hunter was not directly connected.
Of course, she could just ask him. Probably best, she thought. Might save unnecessary complications.
"Eat quickly," she told Hysk.
"We are going to see the watcher?"
Alys nodded, her mouth full, then swallowed. "If he stays put, yeah."
The Hunter lay in the grass, only peripherally aware of the heat. There was little more to be learnt about the town and little enough to begin with. Now he watched his quarry, assessing and waiting. The time would come.
There was little emotion in his heart, and none towards his prey except perhaps some small admiration. A good Hunter must be dispassionate and he was the best. None in the Guild shared his discipline and dedication, his constant drive to learn from his prey, using their own tactics against them.
Know your enemy. And he did, very well. He had once been a part of it, after all. The Guild had strength in its size, but every giant had its weakness.
Below, in the town, Brangwin and her Motavian companion emerged from the Inn. That was a quick lunch. She would, of course, hunt the Crawlers by night, so there should be no reason to...
She was waving.
Alys knelt down and scanned the flattened grass for anything the Hunter may have dropped. She wasn't expecting anything though. It was just something for her to do whilst she thought.
"He is still watching us," Hysk said and Alys looked up. The Motavian was scanning the horizon slowly.
"You can see him?"
"Hmm," said Alys, turning back to the grass.
Hysk was right, she felt. He would still be watching. Certainly now that it seemed he was up to something. He'd want to know the competition.
"I still can't see a connection to the Crawlers, though," she said aloud.
"We have little information," Hysk said, still watching. "What do we do?"
Alys stood and looked down on the village. She couldn't see anything interesting from this position. Maybe the guy was just watching her and Hysk, but why, then?
"Kill the Crawlers," she said with a shrug, "and see if anything interesting happens."
"We sleep then?"
Alys nodded. As they walked back to the village, she took one last look at the horizon. There was only grass.
The Hunter watched them go. She was good. To have spotted him, yes, she was very good. He should still be safe tonight, he thought. The darkness would hide him and the Crawlers would occupy Brangwin and her Motavian friend. He would watch her carefully, gauge the skills of the famous "Eight Stroke Warrior."
He waited a half-hour to make sure they were not still watching and then crept off to better cover to rest.
Alys roused without Hysk's aid just as evening was approaching. She stretched as she rose from the bed. No point doing any sort of warm up exercise as it'd probably be hours before the Crawlers showed up at the cemetery. She stretched again and yawned.
Might wake her up a bit, though.
Hysk knocked when she was working her arms. She called him in but he didn't say anything until she was finished and belting on her weapons.
"No sign of the watcher," he said and Alys nodded. He was either being more careful or had backed off. Or maybe – and she rolled her eyes to herself at the thought – he was out rallying his Crawler army. Children's story rubbish again.
"Let's go then," she said to Hysk.
They went down to dinner and ate it in silence. There were a few other early diners around. Alys caught the phrase "Eight Stroke Warrior" at one point and swore almost silently into her food. Hysk, damn his sensitive ears, glanced over at her but remained quiet.
It was dark when they left but Dezolis was up, a brilliant but tiny disc in the sky. Its light was only enough to separate shadows from night but both Alys and Hysk were used to navigating in the darkness. Distant insects hissed in the grasslands but there was no other sound, no follower that Alys could detect. If their watcher was around, he was either waiting for them at the cemetery or too stealthy for her.
She would have to ask Hysk when they got there. The insects of Motavia tended to become silent when disturbed and although Palman ears couldn't place a silence in amongst noise, Motavian ears could.
The two walked in silence for a while, Hysk's tread almost supernaturally quiet next to the quiet steps of Alys's boots. She kept scanning the horizon for strange lumps or a moving shadow. She didn't like the idea of another Hunter being around, not one who skulked around the edges of the town and did nothing but watch.
"What is bothering you Alys?" Hysk asked her with a sideways look. "Our watcher?"
"Yes," Alys said and then corrected herself. "No. I don't like that there's no explanation."
Hysk frowned, although since he was a Motavian it only showed in his brows. "Why?" he asked. "One will become apparent."
"Because usually there are some," Alys snapped. "They're almost always wrong, but there's something."
Hysk was silent for a few moments.
"There was no explanation in Tehir," Hysk pointed out reasonably. "It did not bother you then."
Alys remained silent. She had thought it was Hysk, in fact. That was where they had met. He was still right, though. It shouldn't bother her. Something was different and she couldn't shake it off.
"Children's stories," she said, realising only as she did. "I hate children's stories."
Hysk was silent.
"Looking back on them, they're creepy and unnerving. I don't like them. I don't like the ideas they use."
There was another silence from Hysk, and then: "I don't understand," he said. That was the first time he had ever said that to her, Alys realised.
"There's a famous children's story in which a mother, driven mad by the death of her family tries to build a new one from bits of dead animals and people," Alys explained. "At least, that was the original version. There are sanitised versions where the family turn against her or run away or work her too hard."
Alys paused for a moment, thinking back. She hadn't thought of this story for years and the details were hard to remember, but the feeling. The terrible, tragic feeling of the story. That came easily, and was settled like pebbles in her gut.
"She made two daughters," she remembered suddenly, "Nefer and Neece. They... killed each other. Her failures went on to become monsters and destroyed the town until the villagers..." Alys paused. "I can't remember," she admitted. "They killed her and she... No they can't have because she destroyed the village..." She shook her head. "Can't remember," she repeated.
"The mother died and destroyed the village as her last act, toppling the mountain that overlooked it on to the houses," Hysk supplied.
Alys turned her head to look at Hysk directly. "You know it?" she asked.
Hysk remained silent for a few steps and then began to sing in the strange, trilling voice Motavians use for music. It was haunting, particularly in the chill night, and it echoed eerily from the ridge above the town. It suited the remembered tone of the story perfectly and Alys had to fight not to shiver.
It seemed to last for something like ten verses before Hysk let the tone die on the wind.
"The same story?" Alys asked and Hysk nodded.
"In song for us," he said. "It is very old and is called... I think in your language it would be 'Before the darkness fell'. Interesting that we have the same tale."
"Hmmm," Alys agreed.
"But I still do not understand why it unnerves you now, unless you think that the watcher and the Crawlers..."
"I don't" Alys said sharply. "I don't think that. I just... keep getting reminded of the story."
Hysk was quiet for five steps before he spoke again.
"It is not a nice story," he agreed.
There... She had arrived, her Motavian friend with her.
The Hunter had his spot. Far enough away to go unnoticed by all but close enough to see the famous Alys Brangwin in action. The Motavian was... should be an irrelevancy, but he would watch him also. The Hunter must be sure. There would be no second chance at this. All the power lay in the first attempt and to fail and try again would never succeed as well. To successfully defeat the Guild his attack must be unexpected.
He was being cautious, then, and careful. He knew he could beat her – she was slight and used weapons that kept her a distance from the combat – but he studied her anyway to find every edge. He could afford no mistakes.
The two reached the cemetery without incident and scouted it briefly to ensure it was clear. They then found a position in the grasses some twenty bodylengths away where they could watch. Alys doubted it would be long. Crawlers had learnt to be nocturnal around humans. It was not something that came naturally, and so they stayed up late rather than switching their sleeping patterns completely. The Crawlers would come before midnight, Alys knew. Unless they had learnt again...
Alys was just starting to feel the first ache of boredom when Hysk nudged her and pointed to their left. The grass was moving...
Crawlers rather than their follower. Alys tried to count the patches of movement. At least seven so far and they were going to pass closer than she liked. She froze, barely breathing, as the first shuffled invisibly beneath the grass two bodylengths from her.
As the Crawlers filed past, it occurred to Alys suddenly that their watcher would be best served striking now. She turned her head very slowly and saw that Hysk's ears were turned back, listening for anything behind them. They met each other's gaze for a moment and then Alys turned her head slowly back to watch the trembling grass. The Crawlers were past them, it seemed. She looked behind but couldn't see any more. They had now just to wait for them to reach the cemetery. It was not be an effective coral, but it would be enough to slow them down.
Alys and Hysk rose slowly and silently from the grass, Alys resting her hands on the hilts of her slashers at her belt. The shaped shadows of the cemetery were full of twisting, uneven snakes of stars. Dezolis, Alys realised, reflecting from the segmented shells of the Crawlers. It was a strange sight. As if constellations were crawling.
Alys began walking carefully towards them, drawing the slashers silently from their sheaths. Hysk moved lightly alongside her, ready to move when she did.
She stopped, just within range, and nodded in signal to Hysk. She transferred both slashers to her left hand and raised her right to point towards the far wall of the cemetery. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face away so that the flare wouldn't affect her night vision.
Summon... and release.
Heat bloomed in her hand and she felt it leap away. Hysk was gone from her side, leaving only stirred air where he had stood, and then her Foi Technique broke with a dull whoomph against the stone wall on the far side of the cemetery.
Her eyes snapped open and Alys took in the situation in an instant.
The Crawlers were recoiling from the heat, chittering and crawling over one another as they backed towards them. Hysk was running, his hand axes curves of starlight in his hands. Alys snatched her slashers into the correct hands and flung them, aiming for a wide arc to hit the Crawlers from the same side as the heat. Hysk vaulted the wall and Alys ran to follow him.
Hysk, and presumably most Motavian Protectors, had a strange way of fighting to Alys. She preferred the tactical fight, dictating the distance and calculating her attacks. Hysk merely leapt into the middle of the Crawlers and lay about him with his twin axes. Without his axes, Alys knew, he would grab and hit, shouldering enemies around with his bulk, always using chaos, confusion and confinement against his foes. It was not something Alys could do.
Sparks flashed in the darkness as Alys's slashers hit and she heard a shriek from the back of the pack. Her eyes sought the slashers in the air and spotted their spinning light swerving back to her. She stepped forward and caught them neatly, releasing them again instantly.
We've both selected our weapons to suit out preference, Alys thought.
The Crawlers lasted little time. Confused, apparently attacked from two sides and in the open away from the concealing grass, their instinct was to fight their way out of the corner. Hysk's hand axes were superbly suited to breaking armour, being stubby enough that they were almost like bladed fists. He hit anything that presented itself whilst Alys flicked her slashers in, striking from all angles and sides, leaving the Crawlers confused, hemmed in and easy prey.
Alys jumped in to help Hysk finish off the last two, using the slashers as awkward daggers. Hysk delivered the final blow, right in the gap between the head and the body. Yellow fluid sprayed and the Crawler spasmed and curled into a tight, dead ball.
Alys blew some hair from her face and looked around. All dead.
"No watcher then," she said.
Hysk looked up at her as if wondering who she was – damned inscrutable Motavian expressions – and then nodded. His cloak had a sizzling hole in it where some digestive juices had been spat on to him, but he seemed not to mind it. It was hard for the stuff to reach his skin through the shaggy fur anyway.
"Are we done?" he asked. Are we going to stay and find out about the watcher, he meant. Alys thought about it as she wiped her slashers clean, one at a time.
"If he wants us he'd better make himself known tomorrow," she said. "We leave after lunch."
"And if he's a problem for the town rather than us," Alys added, "then they can hire us again later."
Alys was adamant that they had breakfast before seeing the Prefect the next morning. If he was eager for news, she told Hysk, then he could come and get it. She was hungry.
They ate in silence for a while before Hysk broke it.
"Why do you fight your reputation?" he asked her.
"What do you mean?" Alys asked, knowing exactly what he meant.
"'Eight-Stroke Warrior'. It is a term of respect and awe. Why do you not like it?"
"Respect I can take," Alys said shortly, "especially from people whose opinion I can respect. Awe I can do without, thank you."
"But why?" Hysk persisted.
Alys pointed her spoon at Hysk.
"What, exactly, have I done for these people?"
"You helped me kill the -" he began but Alys shook her head.
Hysk thought. "Nothing?"
"In one," Alys said. "I don't mind a reputation, but these people think I'm a damned hero and not one of them actually knows why except that everyone else thinks I am. What have I done for them?" Alys demanded. "Nothing! What have I done for anyone? They pay me money and I do a job." She shook her head at their obvious idiocy and scooped up another lump of her porridge with her spoon.
"And nicknames are stupid," she added with her mouth full.
Hysk seemed to think for a moment.
"I am still curious why 'Eight-'"
The Prefect was, indeed, eager for news but a little late. He met them on the mainway as they were walking to his house and fell into step beside them.
"The Crawlers are dead," Alys told him, noticing that Hysk was watching the ridge.
"Excellent!" the Prefect exclaimed.
"You'll have to shift the bodies, though."
"And return the cemetery to order," the Prefect added. "Of course. Thank you for your help, Lady Brangwin. I'll forward your payment to the Guild." He frowned suddenly. "Why can't I just-"
"The Guild takes it's cut," Alys said.
"Of course," the Prefect said. "Well, I'll forward it there and – What's wrong?"
Hysk was no longer with them and Alys had turned to see why.
The Motavian was standing with his legs apart, arms spread for balance and looking at the ground as if it had just attacked him. Alys approached, looking around carefully.
"Hysk, what is it?"
"I hope that I am... No. A worm is coming," he said urgently. "An adult."
Alys whirled and ran for the Prefect, grabbing his arm and spinning him to face her.
"Get everyone out in the open," she hissed. "A worm is coming!"
Alys shoved him hard, sending him sprawling to the ground.
"Don't argue you idiot!" She pointed next to his head. "Look!"
Alys could feel it through her boots now, a faint thrum, enough to make the dust shiver in the street. Flat on his back, the Prefect would not help but feel it himself and the dust was jumping right in front of his nose. Alys leant over and hauled him up by his tunic.
"Now help me get your people outside!" she snarled.
Damndamndamndamn. A worm. Bad enough even now, outside of breeding season. Worms were only fractious when their shallow burrowing young were around and vulnerable, but even a worm passing by was dangerous.
And she wouldn't get paid for this.
As Alys ran for the Inn – simply because there'd be more people in there than an average house – Hysk spread his arms, inflated his chest and bellowed. For a Motavian, that meant a shriek like a tortured avian only far louder. It echoed off the ridge and vibrated down the narrow gaps between the houses. Good one Hysk, Alys thought. People would come out just to see what on Motavia that was.
Beneath her feet, the ground was now shaking noticeably. Alys burst into the Inn.
"Everyone out!" she shouted into the common room. There were only two people and the Innkeeper. "Right now!" She didn't wait to see if they heeded her – there was no time for that. She leapt on to the stairs, climbing them three at a time. Once on the second floor, she ran its length, hammering on doors.
"Everyone out!" she shouted as she did. "The Inn's on fire!" That would save explanation and doubt, she thought. Alys skidded at the passage's end and sprinted back the way she came, grabbing one patron to yank him in her direction as she ran.
"Come on!" she yelled at them, flying past them. She hurtled back down the stairs in leaps. The Innkeeper was at the bottom, his mouth opening to form a question. Alys just pushed him.
"Out, you fool!" she shouted. She shoved him out of the door. "Move!"
Once outside, Alys could feel the ground shaking again, harder than before. The Prefect had roused some houses and they, in turn were rousing others. Hysk seemed to be gathering the children around him. Other townspeople were wandering out to see what was happening.
"Get away from the buildings!" Alys shouted at them, waving her arms. "Get in the open. Quick!" She could feel the shaking get stronger now. Balance was becoming hard to keep, but she ran for the nearest dithering woman and pulled her down by her arm.
"Stay down! Hands over your head!"
And the ridge cracked.
It seemed to snap, and in a single violent instant. The sound of it cut straight through Alys's ears and past the back of her eyes like the pulse of a migraine. A huge jagged black edge appeared on the ridge, exploding rock and dust out into the air. Alys turned away from the shrapnel, covering her face.
And the very earth bucked beneath her.
Alys felt herself tip backwards and wheeled her arms for balance. The ground had vanished, though, snapped away from her feet and leaving the surface dust hanging in the air with her. Alys spun, all sense of direction lost, no reference point but blurs.
And then the ground jumped back at her, hitting her like a thrown wall and jarring her back into the air. She fell on her back, cracking the back of her head on something hard.
It took a minute for her to realise it was over. The world still seemed to be wheeling wildly, but she wasn't moving any more. She got up unsteadily, coughing in the dust, trying to balance against her lurching senses. Her glove was ripped and her hand bloody. Her hair felt wet and matted on the back of her head and she felt horribly sick.
Alys fell to her knees as her treacherous balance left her. Beneath her palms, she could feel the fading thrum of the retreating worm. Her stomach churned, but she fought it. Had... to ... get... up.
She found herself standing again, the dizziness now bearable. She staggered through the dust coughing, trying to see something through the haze. She should be able to see, but her eyes didn't want to focus.
"Hysk?" she called.
"We are here," came the reply from somewhere ahead. Alys coughed and blinked, waving her hands before her to try to defeat the dust but it was little use. She could see Hysk's distinctive hunched shape, though, and made her way there.
"Are you okay, Alys?" he asked, grabbing her by the arm to support her.
"Fine," she said. "Getting better." And she was. Her vision had just been jarred, it seemed. She was nearly focussing okay now. The children were here. They seemed fine but most were crying. Somewhere close by, Alys heard a house crumple.
"And Palmans look down on us because we live in tents," Hysk said with an edge of wry irony. Alys laughed and then coughed. Damn Hysk for getting her at a weak moment, but it felt good anyway. She was feeling almost normal. A bit queasy, legs a bit shaky and a bit of a headache but she could function normally, she judged. The dust was fading from the air, too. Thank providence for the breeze.
"Okay, we need to find everyone," said Alys, pushing herself out from Hysk's grip. Her balance was fine. Good. "Get everyone together."
The town had survived pretty well, Alys saw as they herded people together. The support beams in the Inn were showing splinters but the structure was holding. Two houses had fallen and the ridge was cracked and would be unstable for a time. Most notably, a long depression marked the worm's path, from the bottom of the ridge, through the town, under someone's now-sagging house and out into the grasslands. Such was the power of a full-grown worm, even when they were ignoring people. A worm's path crossing a village only happened about once every fifty to a hundred years, at least in this part of Motavia. Lucky she was here, Alys reflected. Lucky for the town, anyway.
Yes... Now was the time. The village, his audience, was assembled.
People feared the methods of the raptor, the silent death in the night, but they respected the brave and the open. People were fools, he knew, but they were also his weapons and he knew that he had to work within their weaknesses. He knew how they thought and he knew how to use them against the Guild.
Know your weapons, yes. Know also your enemy and know the field of battle. Strike at the point of most advantage, whether it be a time or a place. Finally, and importantly, ensure that your enemy will never be able to – or never want to – return for another challenge. This was the way of the Scorpius when challenging for food, young or a mate. There was another rule, though, one particular to the intelligent races.
A challenge must be seen.
Do that and the world will know who is best.
"Everyone group into families," Alys called to the throng. "Spread out a bit. We need to find if anyone is missing. Everyone do a headcount of people you know." She turned around. "Prefect? Do you have any records for the town?"
Prefect Shah blinked a couple of times as if only just getting his thought processes on some sort of track.
"Uh... yes. Yes. Back at my house."
"Go and get them, but don't risk going in if your house is damaged. Come back if it is. We'll-"
"Has anyone seen Guyr and Seri?" someone asked and Alys closed her eyes. Damn.
She turned her head as a babble of negatives rose from the crowd.
"Where do they live?" she asked.
Fingers pointed to a house just down the way, one of the collapsed ones. It looked as though it had simply been pushed over backwards, skewing the building rather than crumbling it.
"Everyone stay here," Alys commanded. "And sort yourselves out. Hysk?"
"I am coming."
The Hunter strode down the hill to the town, his sword clenched in his hand. Now was the time. The townspeople were all outside. A larger town and more people would be better but the time was perfect otherwise. Now the Guild would learn to fear him.
They had expelled him before he had really started but he bore them no malice for that. He would not be as skilled if they had not. You could not take away a man's soul and purpose by barring him from a club. He was still a Hunter. It was in his blood, and with over three hundred kills, both men and beast, he was not only a Hunter but the best of them all.
But his expulsion had denied him recognition. Centralisation had advantages the Hunter could not match. Everyone knew the Guild and everyone knew their poster girl, the arrogantly self-styled Eight-Stroke Warrior. Yet he was the best Hunter, far stronger than this slip of a girl, trained by experience and student of the beasts.
One more hunt. One more prey to kill, and the Guild would be defeated. Destroy their best, and their inferiority would be plain for all to see. The story would spread across all of Motavia, that the Eight-Stroke Warrior has been defeated by Gregir the Hunter, and everyone would know at last that he was the best.
He stopped, feeling the elation of being on the cusp of greatness, and raised his sword, curling his left hand around it with his right, ready for battle.
There she was. She and her Motavian friend. The time was...
"Brangwin!" someone bellowed. "We will battle. Now."
Alys glanced over her shoulder. It was a huge guy, a Hunter, dressed in furs and with something like a cross between a sword and an axe in his hand. She'd heard of him being around but never picked up any details. Called himself the Hunter but his name was... Gregir or something. Whatever.
"Come on!" she called back as she ran. "We could use your help." She skidded to a halt before the house. The whole structure was leaning back on itself, the front wall a slope. Most of the roof had slid off but the beams beneath were twisted and cracked, ready to go at any time.
Alys turned to Hysk. "Get a rope," she ordered. "I'll have to go in." Most people wouldn't see the point of a rope, but Hysk either guessed or was too professional to question it.
"Brangwin!" someone bellowed from behind. Alys glanced back.
"Hunter, come on. You can help me carry-"
Hunter's fist slammed into her chin. She felt her feet leave the ground and then her back impacting on it hard. A cloud of dust billowed up as she skidded a footlength over the rough surface.
Hunter stood over her. He was huge.
"Get up, Brangwin. Now is our time to fight."
Alys pushed herself up, her mind running fast. Huge, but inefficiently so. Too much damned muscle to move nimbly and he must be too heavy with those shoulders. The bloody great sword couldn't help either. She thought this guy was supposed to be good.
"Don't be ridiculous, Hunter. There are people -" She ducked, and his weapon swung through the air above her. "You idiot! The house is about to -" She swore as she twisted away from another strike. He was playing with her, trying to make her fight. Didn't he care about the villagers? "Don't make me -" she started before Hunter tripped her up. She rolled away, expecting a strike from the sword but Gregir was just standing there.
"Draw your weapons, Brangwin."
"Let me save the people," Alys said evenly. "I'll fight you as soon as they're safe."
"Now," Gregir said flatly.
Alys scooted back on her rump and started to get up. Gregir took a long stride forward to stay close.
Standing, his feet had been firmly planted. Walking, his balance was shifting constantly. All you had to do is know when to strike.
Alys's leg swept Gregir's feet out from under him. With his heavy two-handed weapon, he had no way of breaking his fall unless he dropped the thing and he landed on his back with a thump. Alys was on top of him in an instant, punching him as hard as she could, twice. His head bounced off the hard-packed earth just in time to receive her second punch.
She rolled off, sucking her bruised knuckles absently. He had a skull like rock. Where was Hysk with the damned rope? She looked around and saw him coming at a run. She got up to meet him, grabbing the rope off his shoulder and tying one end quickly around her belt.
"You know what this is for?" she asked.
"To find you," Hysk said. "I will watch the hunter also."
Alys nodded briefly and ran for the house, sprinting in order to get up momentum enough to scale the slope. She grabbed a window frame to stop herself from slipping back and lifted the window open with her spare hand. It resisted but gave in and Alys slid quickly through the opening.
The house was all shadows and dust. Stone was still settling in the darkness and wood creaked all around her. The internal walls had all been twisted and broken, the furniture cast against them in piles.
"Anyone here?" Alys called. "It's Alys Brangwin. Where are you?"
Something shifted in the darkness, maybe someone trying to get up. Alys whipped the rope to draw in some slack from outside and then started towards the sound. She moved quickly, stepping carefully through the debris and pressing her feet hard against the slopes for maximum grip. Wood creaked and moved under the pressure.
"Here..." someone said. Male, so it must be Guyr. Alys clambered towards the voice, swinging herself carefully through a doorway into... into what was the bedroom. Guyr was sitting against the far wall, leg trouser torn and soaked in red.
"Hang on," Alys said, climbing around the bed. She steadied herself with one foot on the sloping floor and one against the wall. His leg was broken, and badly. Not for the first time, Alys wished she had a healing Technique. She couldn't seem to get the hang of them, though.
"Where is your wife?" she asked, feeling his leg carefully to get the measure of the wound. "Quickly."
"Daughter. She was... in the kitchen."
Alys set the bone with a click and Guyr screamed. Important to do that after she had found out where Seri was, of course. The pain might well knock him senseless. In fact, Alys thought grimly to herself as she tore into the bed sheet, it would be better if it did.
Guyr groaned. Still with us, huh? Alys thought. Tougher than some. She gripped the wooden skirting of the bed and twisted around so she could kick it. It took three blows before the wood splintered and Alys tore off a couple of big long pieces, strapping them to Guyr's leg with the sheet quickly and efficiently.
"Time to go," she told him and hefted him on to her shoulder. He groaned as Alys sagged a bit under his weight. "Time for a diet, bucko," she said cheerfully and turned around.
It must be Seri, Alys thought. She was young, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and she had wedged herself awkwardly in the doorway. There was a glossy lump on her forehead and she was filthy but there was no blood that Alys could see.
"Is Dad going to be alright?" she asked quietly.
"Fine," Alys grunted, "but I have to get him out of here." Something creaked behind her. "You too. I need you to follow the rope out. Can you do that?"
The girl nodded mutely.
"Go on then," Alys urged. "I'll be right behind you."
Heading back was much harder, burdened with Guyr as she was. The slopes and debris were that much harder to navigate with one arm and an unbalanced load. Seri was far ahead of her and crawled out the window when Alys was only halfway across the house.
"Get Hysk!" she called belatedly and then cursed herself. She wouldn't know who Hysk was anyway. Damn.
But Hysk was there when Alys reached the window and she passed him through, glad to be rid of the burden. She crawled out after him and all but slid down the wall of the house to the ground. Alys stayed on her hands and knees where she had landed, trying to steady her breathing again.
After a few moments, she recognised the sounds of applause and looked up wearily. About half the townspeople were there and clapping. As she looked up, they started cheering as well.
"Just great," she muttered as she pushed herself up. She'd managed to pull something in her hip, too, she thought with a wince. Didn't feel bad, though. She just needed a good night's sleep. She looked down at her bloody hand.
Yeah, and a bath.
Her gaze fell on the still form of Gregir. Oh yes. She'd have to do something about him, too.
Hysk appeared by her shoulder and took her arm. She shook him off.
"Deal with the lump," she muttered, jerking her chin towards Gregir. "Chain him to something heavy. I don't want any more problems today." Alys looked back at the house. It seemed stable, for what it was worth. It hadn't collapsed any further yet and Alys rather thought that it wouldn't.
But it would have collapsed at her heels by the time this story reached the next town, she'd wager. Alys Brangwin sighed to herself and went to find an intact bath.
"What are we to do with this Gregir?" Hysk asked her the next morning as they both ate breakfast at the Prefect's house. Alys felt pretty good. Just bruises were left, really, and a scab on the back of her head. She'd been through much worse.
"I don't know. Take him back to Aiedo and toss him in a cell maybe."
"On what charge?" the Motavian asked reasonably.
Alys sighed. A good point, of course. He hadn't done anything illegal as such.
"I have no desire to leave him at my back," Alys said. "He needs to be dealt with."
"He is a danger to people around him," Hysk said gravely. "He is shallow and narrow minded and stupid. Yesterday was a good example of this."
"We could keep him here," the Prefect offered. Alys subjected him to a long look.
"No," she said eventually. "Not practical. I think I have a better idea." She sipped her juice. After all, she told herself, she did already know his weakness. His main one, anyway. And all the others, not least of which was that he was an arrogant idiot, of course.
"Hysk?" she said, almost absently. "Find me a sword, will you?"
No way she could deflect that great lump of metal with a slasher, after all.
Gregir was sitting, tied firmly to the end of a bed in an empty house. Alys didn't know where the owners were. Maybe there was a bit of damage somewhere or maybe they just offered up their house as a prison for the night.
Alys stood in front of the Hunter waiting for a reaction but Gregir stayed staring at the floor.
She kicked him. "Come on then," she said. Gregir looked up.
"Where?" he asked in a dull voice.
Anger flashed over Gregir's face. "No."
Alys produced a slasher and started cutting the ropes.
"Don't sulk, Gregir. This is what you wanted."
Gregir stepped out into the light and stood there blinking. The entire village was arrayed out in a semi-circle. The Motavian stood slightly separate from the others, one hand resting on a hand axe at his belt. A warning to not try anything. Gregir snorted.
"What is this?" he said then.
"Our duel," Brangwin said. "You want to beat the Eight Stroke Warrior, don't you? You want to be the best?"
Gregir glowered. Didn't she understand? The moment was lost. It would only have worked if he had beaten the Eight-Stroke Warrior from out of nowhere. Only then would the Guild lose credibility and he gain it.
"Your sword," Brangwin said, gesturing. It lay off to the side in the loose dust. Gregir looked at it. It was almost as long as Brangwin was tall and it seemed absurd that such a weapon would fail to prevail against her.
Perhaps... Perhaps it could still work, he thought. A formal duel. Brangwin's first. It had to be as duels were not encouraged by the Guild and were in fact all but prohibited. First duel. To lose the first duel...
It would work.
Gregir walked over to his sword and picked it up, weighing it in his hand. Then he turned to his opponent and grinned.
"So be it."
Slashers versus his sword. The Eight-Stroke Warrior would fall with just one stroke from him. There would be no deflecting his weapon.
He walked slowly towards Brangwin. She subjected him to a slow and steady look.
"Yes," Gregir said.
And Alys drew a sword from her back.
That fazed him, Alys saw. How stupid did he think she was? Slashers were completely inadequate for a duel against a weapon that heavy. And didn't he see the scabbard? How many other ways was this fool underestimating her?
But he was good. To a point. Alys knew what that point was, but... She was getting overconfident. Just get this over with. Beat him and leave him in the dust.
She readied her sword in a guard position.
Gregir stepped in close and swung.
Alys ducked, attempting a strike at his undefended side. He stepped away from it and brought his sword down in an overhead sweep. Alys deflected it, feeling the blow echo from her sword into her arm. Damn, that hurt-
"One!" called out someone in the crowd in a voice that carried humour.
Gregir pressed in to take advantage of her momentary distraction, trying to force her to a defensive position. She simply danced from his path, avoiding the slow sword easily and slicing at his upper arm. Her sword cut through the thick furs but Alys was unable to tell if she'd-
"Two!" This time it was a few people, all together.
Alys suddenly realised what the crowd was doing. She felt a surge of irritation at her idiotic reputation. Damn. This was going to make things a lot harder because, in spite of herself, she was tempted...
Alys dodged the next sweep so as to save a stroke. How to do it? Gregir's weakness here was his slow speed. She didn't want to kill him – this was a battle of public opinion, after all – so she'd have to bludgeon him out of the fight. That would take a few blows in itself...
Alys blocked another strike-
"Three!" the crowd called out.
- stepping back automatically as she did. Let him think she was being defensive, then. Might overextend his reach. That sword would be useless up close. This was stupid of her, she knew. She shouldn't let her reputation limit her options. It was an obvious weakness and if Gregir thought to exploit it...
She parried again -
- stepping to the side to help absorb the blow into her motion. Running out of strokes. Needed an opening...
Gregir was unimaginative, unadaptable and he might just be stupid enough to fall for this...
Alys danced back a few feet and flipped her sword so that she held it backwards, the blade extending from near her smallest finger instead of the thumb. The backhanded grip. Ill manoeuvrable and lacking in leverage due to the limitations of the wrist to direct something pointed that way, but it had its uses.
Gregir stepped in to press his attack and fell for it. He swung for the side without the sword to defend it – her left.
The problem was that the backhanded grip was deceptive. Her sword could defend her left better than her right by bringing her fist across her face. The natural move to follow was to re-reverse the grip, swing the sword around her head and sever his neck from the opposite side whilst his sword was blocked and crowded by her body.
She blocked and the swords rang. Alys chose -
- the other option. Since her bent elbow was next to his face, she jabbed it into his eye as hard as she could. Gregir staggered back a step -
- and Alys brought her fist, still closed around the hilt of the sword, crashing across his cheek before using the momentum of the motion to drive her other fist into his spare eye.
Gregir was much taller than her, which made her next move particularly impressive and effective. She pirouetted on her left foot, tucking the other up as she turned, and released both the spin and the tension in her knee joint up under Gregir's chin in a kick that lifted him clear off the ground and landed him flat on his back with a thump.
She sagged slightly as she relaxed, panting heavily.
"Nine," she muttered, apparently to herself, but loud enough for all to hear. She shook her head.
"I must be getting old," she said.
The townspeople broke into equal amounts of laughter, cheering and applause.
Done and done, Alys thought with satisfaction. She threw the sword down and turned away.
"I had heard something of this Hunter," Hysk said as Alys and he made ready to leave. "He is not what I expected."
"He's an idiot," Alys said with a snort, stuffing her soiled clothes into her travelling pack. "No training at all. Just a lot of kills. Criminals and monsters." She snorted again to show what she thought of such untrained opponents.
"No lore," Hysk said solemnly, the Palman word he used to mean knowledge and experience passed down through generations. Alys nodded. That was his weakness. No footwork, no balance, too much bulk, too large a weapon... He had never been taught how to fight, not really. He relied on his own experience whereas Alys relied on the experience of the last twelve generations of Hunters. It was never a contest.
"Although," Alys said, "I can see an argument to his view. It is hard to discount tens of thousands of years of evolution."
"Yet we prove every time a Hunter or Protector fights the beasts that a few centuries of lore is superior." He shook his shaggy head. "People," he said wisely, "make better teachers than animals."
"People," Alys repeated, firmly including the Motavian Protectors in that category by her tone. The Guild was as narrow minded as Gregir in its own way.
"Indeed," Hysk replied.
Alys swung her pack on to her back. "Ready?"
Innkeepers were a cheerfully ungrateful lot in Alys's experience. No matter what you did for the town, you always paid full price. As the innkeeper swept the thumbnail-sized meseta gems from the counter, he nodded at Alys.
"A pleasure to have the Eight Stroke Sword under my roof. Walk a safe road, Hunter."
"Safe road," Alys responded automatically.
Eight Stroke Sword? Alys sighed to herself. Another blasted chapter in the legend of Alys Brangwin, she thought ruefully, and even worse, she only had herself to blame. She turned and saw that Hysk was right behind her.
"I'll never hear the end of this, of course," she told him with a grimace.
"And, of course, you hate that," Hysk said with such a lack of expression in both his face and voice that Alys couldn't help it. A treacherous grin twitched across her face.
"Oh, shut up," she said before he could comment and swept past him.
The point about training was one driven home to me when Australia stepped in to aid East Timor in its quest to become a democracy. Australian troops, who had of course been trained with the distilled lore of a multitude of cultures over two thousand years like any first world army, would be routinely ambushed by militia who had trained by shooting at a target and had previously fought only peasants. From all these engagements, the Australians suffered only one battle casualty in the entire campaign (that I recall) and that was more of an accident than anything else.
The effectiveness of training can also be seen in any engagement between a police officer and a criminal. They always seem to be so one-sided and last about as long as Alys's and Gregir's first meeting.
The children's story does, of course, reference the Phantasy Star 2 era and Mother Brain. There are certain rules that can be used to corrupt a word or name over time which basically amount to what you get if you say the word over and over to yourself for five minutes. Therefore, Nefer is an ill-remembered corruption of "Nei First" and so is Neece for "Nei Second".
And the Motavian spear-launcher must be credited to the correct inventers. It is called a Woomera and was used by the Australian Aborigines before us European vandals showed up and ruined everything. They're a strange device and don't look like they should work, but they do. We have a space rocket launch site rather appropriately named after it as well.
Finally, Hysk's almost bezerker-like combat tactics are those used by a Dungeons and Dragons character I role-played for a good while. It was amazingly effective but then this character was astonishingly versatile in a fight. Disarm Calgor the Draconian and he'd happily start grabbing random enemies in clawed fists and throw them into each other.