A kind wind blew through the Northernlands, sweeping away the clouds that had dogged the estate for several days. The sun was in evidence as two groups of travelers left the Wolfram estate and proceeded north along the Great Highway.
They did not stray far from the road. Word had come to the guild that the Lady Selva had warned against such practice. The guild was inclined to listen — she had, more than once, aided them. As for the Wolframs, they were not bound by her words should their lord wish them to scout the woods. But they, too, kept to the road.
Elanore had whispered to Edmund that morning of what she had witnessed. The Countess threatened to follow the Count should he drift from the road, in spite of how it imperiled her own safety as well as the safety of those lives she carried. Whether this statement was more plea or blackmail one could only guess, but Count Wolfram had found it greatly amusing. He had smiled once as he agreed to listen but not before promising that she would pay the price for such obedience later.
Elanore flushed red as she related this last piece, leading Edmund to draw the conclusion that the bargain the couple had struck was somewhat improper. She did not make such demands of him. Instead, she hurriedly pressed into his hand a bag full of medicines and trinkets for luck. He might have liked to kiss her but her grandmother was nearby. He could only hold her hand before she ran back to her grandmother and breakfast. As for the bag, it had ended up in his coat pocket. He kept it close — for it was a good luck charm in its own right –a tangible reminder of Elanore’s sentiments.
He did not ride with the Wolframs, in spite of Selva’s encouragement to do so. He was not keen to beg them for any favors. Rather, he took his place with the guild with the guildmaster Wilhelm’s somewhat reluctant permission.
Where Edmund went, the stone lions inevitably followed. And as expected, more than a dozen had appeared this morning to trail after the young man as he approached the gate that led to the road. Wilhelm had no particular fondness for the lions and, at times, thought them heedless and undisciplined. They were mischievous and childlike but he could not deny they were keen to protect humans.
He could not begrudge their presence when the guild’s numbers had been eroded these past few days. The more senior members of the guild were now split into several groups. Some of them had gone south to conduct reconnaissance on the next town while others stayed behind at the estate to keep watch on the walls.
The Wolfram lord had said nothing of this development that placed the lions with the guild as opposed to the lord’s own party.
The Wolframs’ numbers were larger. More than two dozen of them rode or ran with their lord on this particular trip. But while the guild pressed forward as quickly as possible, they loitered and paused intermittently. When they did so, their lord sat still on his horse with a small owl perched on his shoulder, using his eyes and other senses to gather information.
Edmund would glance back occasionally. He knew the wolves watched things with a different eye and purpose. As his eyes automatically came to rest upon the Count, Edmund observed the lord occasionally talked to himself. Why, Edmund could not gather, except that it might be a part of his magic.
This use of magic struck a faint pang of envy within Edmund. As time had passed, Elanore’s growth in magic was becoming increasingly evident. The Count also seemed to grow in power daily. Edmund was falling behind. He was trying to learn to attune himself to its presence but had not manifested any useful power or skills.
The young hunter sighed as he turned his attention back to the road before him and the lions trailing after him. He had not learned the names of all these creatures yet — they were numerous and, at times, hard to distinguish apart until they spoke. He sought out Galahad among the jumbled crowd of lions . At some point he had heard the grave and wise voice among the pack. But the lion did not respond to him; likely he had wandered off.
Edmund would have to continue to content himself with his own thoughts.
The lions were not terribly behaved. The horses the guild men rode did not appeared pleased by the sight of these other creatures so the lions kept to the back of the troop. They were gregarious and, as they were not permitted to come too close to the guild men, would talk among themselves. He warned them that the men who kept watch on their surroundings did not need to hear any unnecessary remarks.
Those remarks decreased as the band of men closed upon the first group of buildings at the south of end of town. Soon they became nothing.
Even though the sun shone strongly enough to soften the snow underneath them, Edmund felt a hint of a chill. He began to smell something faintly unpleasant.
The guildmaster paused the band. He brought his stallion horse alongside Edmund’s horse aware of the lions’ alert looks and lengthening silence. “What is it? What do they sense?”
Edmund knew that something unnatural had come this way.. something that reminded him of the sensation he experienced when he had first seen an Unthing. He could answer but the lions would do much better. Edmund turned his head towards the lions, intent on drawing them into the conversation. “Will one of you speak?”
One stepped forward, speaking clearly. From the slow, well-formed cadence it used, Edmund recognized this lion as Percival. “We smell something unpleasant. It seems Unthings may have lingered here a bit too long at some point. We would ask you to wait here. It is light and sunny and safe. We will make sure none have been left behind.”
Edmund glanced Wilhelm’s way, waiting to see if he needed to translate this statement. The expression on Wilhelm’s face revealed that he could clearly hear and understand the beast.
Somehow the time spent upon the estate had worked its own magic upon the guild; or perhaps the lions had grown stronger on their own and learned how to make their words reach humans.
“Men, stand your ground,” their leader muttered. “We will wait as they bid us to do.”
The sudden change in the lions’ behavior summoned the Wolframs to their side. Many of the wolves visibly tensed as they approached the hunters halted at the outskirts of the small village. Edmund watched their noses wrinkle slightly. He wondered if they, too, were affected by the unpleasant smell that hung in the air.
But the Wolframs remained silent. Their attention would remain focused on the woods around them and their Count, who drew his horse alongside Wilhelm’s steed.
The Count knew the guild leader was an intelligent person, one who knew better than to take unnecessary risks. He was not impolite as he asked the man why the guild had stopped moving.
“They believe Unthings came this way,” Wilhelm shifted in his saddle. His face tightened at the irony of what he uttered. Once he had denied their existence but now he feared them as well.
The Count’s eyes drifted towards Edmund to verify those words.
The young hunter nodded slightly.
“Peculiar,” the Count responded and then turned his horse back towards his men.He barked at them to stay put before he took off after the lions. This unexpected action unsettled the wolves who instinctively kept together. They wished to follow him but could not deny his orders.
But as the man moved about on his horse, weaving in and around the lions, he did not resemble a wolf at all. With his cane at his side, Edmund thought the man was more shepherd than wolf.
The Count called to the lions in a language that Edmund recognized was the magical beasts’ original tongue. He would speak to them and the lions would answer in response. This strange exchange made Edmund’s heart beat quickly.
When the Count returned to the assembled group, he clutched a stone in his hand . With a satisfied look he uttered. “They are gone.”
Wolfram rode ahead towards the town plaza before they could ask how he had determined this to be so. The guild men murmured as they sorted through the implications of the Count’s statement and then cautiously decided to follow him.
Edmund knew the man had used magic somehow. But if he was still using it, it was not in evidence when both wolves and hunters caught up to the Count. Lord Wolfram had already dismounted his horse to inspect a pile of rubble in the center of the plaza. “This has fallen into considerable disrepair. I don’t recall Giles mentioning this.”
The lions drew around the pile, staring at it intently.
“This was a fountain,” the guildmaster dismounted his horse to join the lord. He scratched his beard. “It was intact a few months ago. And it was rather sturdy. I did not think it so poorly constructed that it would be so easily destroyed by the weather. Or Unthings.”
“No,” the Count stated. “They would simply flow over this thing. Something else damaged this. “Could this have been done by people?”
Both leaders looked at the rocks and could not find any sign of pick or tool being used upon it.
“Master,” piped up a voice that belonged to one of the lions. “A wyrm could have done this. There were moonstones in this mix of rock. It would be something it might eat.”
The Count reached down to inspect the remaining pieces. The dust in the stone appeared to glimmer in response to his touch before disappearing. “That might explain the disappearance of those Unthings. Still–” he looked at the buildings that surrounded the plaza. “How unfortunate if true.”
The verdict implied trouble for the town. The eyes of many roved over those buildings and assessed them for damage. Nothing obvious appeared to them — nothing that suggested something monstrous had first destroyed the fountain and then began to eat buildings and people inside them as well.
Most of the buildings appeared to be firmly shuttered and intact. And yet, not a single soul had come out of them to greet their party.
“Edmund.” The guildmaster cleared his throat. “Confirm my recollection on this matter, but how many people did Mrs. Winchester state were last here?”
The young man did not relish the sudden attention the guildmaster’s question drew his way. Still, he took a breath and provided the information that had been given to him that morning. “Mr. Smith had reported seeing the pub keeper, his regular ladies, and more than a dozen or so customers. Some of those customers may have left. The innkeepers confirmed this more or less.”
“Right.” Wilhelm strode over towards the door of the pub, intent on discovering if the residents were still present.
The others followed carefully, save the lions who were ordered by the Count to look about the area for any sign of creatures.
The guildmaster’s brow furrowed as he rattled the door and tested the handle.
The lock would not give way. Wilhelm continued to knock loudly, calling out for the owner Henry to respond. In between those knocks, the assembled men and wolves would pause to listen for any noise within the building itself. Hearing nothing, the guildmaster raised his fist and began to pound the door more insistently.
The Count drew alongside Edmund, observing. “Is it normal for the man to simply not open for business?”
“The door is usually open,” Edmund answered, keeping his eyes fixed on the guildmaster as he summoned several of his guildmates over to test the door. He knew they would soon try to force the door down.
“And the windows?” The Count glanced upwards, drawing attention to the shutters which had loosened. They revealed windows still open.
Something was indeed amiss.
As if on cue, one of the lions trotted up to the lord. It appeared to be carrying something in its mouth.
“Hold up,” the Count interrupted the guildmaster. The Count put his hand on the creature’s stone nose. “What do you have there?”
The lion dropped what it held onto the ground.
The men gathered and stared down at what appeared to be a blade encased in dried blood.
Count Wolfram’s voice turned cold. “Where did you find this?”
“A big pile of trash down the hill near water,” the lion stated as it stood there, puzzled as to why the lord did not congratulate him on his discovery.
“It stinks,” muttered one of the less shocked onlookers. “It smells like some kind of wild animal.”
It was not merely some animal. Edmund stepped back, suddenly nauseated. His senses began to scream at him, urging him to flee. He bit down that wave of revulsion at the rancid smell that clung to the metal object.
His movement drew the attention of the Count, who narrowed his eyes for a moment but turned his attention back to the weapon.
The guildmaster set his features and stooped down to study the object. His eyes moved to look at the lion’s feet, clearly muddy. “Did you find something else?”
“Bones,” the lion stated calmly. “Many bones of birds and other things.”
Wolfram stepped around the creature, wrinkling his nose as if he could smell those other things the lion referred to. The owl on his shoulder hopped off and settled on the lion’s head. The Count laid his hand on the lion’s nose and said nothing for a moment while he closed his eyes. When he opened them, his eyes glinted. “They eat quite a bit of meat don’t they, guildmaster? They have been ordering a lot more these past few months from you?”
The guildmaster stood up abruptly, unsettled by that look. “True. The pubkeeper mentioned his customers were quite satisfied here. They enjoyed whatever we brought them. But I fail to understand–”
“We should go inside,” the Count’s expression had grown even harder. “But let my men go in first,” came the Count’s answer. “I do not think this pile of carcasses are due to the Unthings or a wyrm.”
The guildmaster did not appear primed to argue. His expressions revealed his inner concerns about the weapon discovered by the lion. “Very well,” the guildmaster answered.
As the Count’s coachman Giles began to organize a few of the wolves, he explained the layout of the pub in great detail to those who would listen.
Edmund could not help but listen. He was curious about why the wolves would go in first. The guildsmen understood the pub better and would not need so much preparation.
The Count materialized beside him. “Do not think to follow them.”
Edmund had not entertained that thought at all. He knew well enough that the Count had not intended to include him in such a party. But he wondered why the wolf would dare order him about. “And if I had expressed interest, why would you deny such a request?”
Wolfram must have realized his misstep. He sighed. “I know you can smell it.This is not the stench of the Unthings or a wyrm but something worse. We have smelled traces of the same thing on the road but they appear to be stronger here. It is possible that its source is inside that building. If it were, you would surely be sensitive to it, perhaps even overpowered by it since you are unused to it. My wife would not look too kindly upon me if I had to drag your inert body back and ask her to fix you. For your safety, please stand with me.”
The lord’s sarcastic statement should have merited some kind of argument from Edmund but the young man kept calm.
“I’ll wait,” Edmund withdrew his request graciously. For that moment, he decided to trust the Count’s words as an expression of genuine concern for him. “If this is something you have detected elsewhere — then what of the others at the estate?”
The elder man’s eyes shifted towards Edmund. “There is more power there than here for things of magic.”
That may be true — for the Lady Selva was undoubtedly one of the strongest users of magic that Edmund had ever seen for himself. But he did not feel comfortable that she might not know of this apparent discovery. “Why not send back a lion to warn them?”
“The matter is already addressed.” The Count smiled thinly as he stretched out his hand to his side. The owl which had been heckling the lion came back to his shoulder and settled there. “My wife sees what this creature sees. She will understand. Perhaps even more so than I. The humans that were here encountered monsters of all sorts during the darkness I fear. But none worse than themselves.”