Prompting from an insane jaguar is probably not the best reason to investigate a dark, dank hole in a hillside, but Firekeeper and Blind Seer had long ago learned not to ignore Truth.
Firekeeper might have looked like a human, wiry and muscular, with brown hair and eyes so dark brown that they were almost black, but she considered herself as much a wolf as Blind Seer. Perhaps more important, four-legged, shaggy grey-coated Blind Seer considered Firekeeper a wolf as well, having been raised with her far away west of the Iron Mountains. Firekeeper’s first language—at least as far as her waking memory held—was that of the wolves, and it was in that language that they now spoke, a language as much of action and posture as of words.
When Firekeeper hunkered down, she saw why the jaguar had brought them there. “Blind Seer, this isn’t some old fox or badger’s den. Look! There, behind the crumbling fall of dirt, that’s a brick wall.”
The blue-eyed wolf padded over to examine his human pack mate’s find. He sniffed deeply, sampling both their surroundings and the air within the hole. When he finished, he sat to vigorously scratch one ear with a hind leg before replying.
“What’s nearly as interesting as those bricks is that, although a hole such as this could make a fine den—never mind that humans used it first—there is no trace of such use, not only this season but for many seasons gone by.”
Firekeeper pushed her fingers through the brown curls she’d recently chopped short with her hunting knife, then picked up a sturdy branch. “Let me clear away some of the dirt. That way we can see how far those bricks extend.”
The wolf-woman glanced over to where Truth lay sprawled as do cats of any size, dozing in a patch of sunlight. The manner in which Truth slept was the only typical thing about Truth’s physical appearance. Although a jaguar in shape and size, the colors of Truth’s coat had been transformed from the golden with black spots of her birth to dark charcoal grey with spots shaped like flames. Her once amber eyes had changed to white with slit pupils of blue, like the hottest of fires. But neither Truth’s strange appearance, nor that she claimed her transformed coat was evidence that she had wrestled with a deity, was significant when weighed against her ability to read the future—or rather her ability to read numerous futures, sometimes so many that the fragmented realities paralyzed her.
Knowing this, Firekeeper was not offended that Truth was providing them with so little guidance. Any word Truth uttered, even any significant glance, could subject the jaguar to a cascade of mights and maybes. That Truth had gone to the extent of prompting Firekeeper and Blind Seer to travel with her from the Nexus Islands to the mainland, then leading them to this hole, indicated that whatever the jaguar had seen in her erratic visions was important enough that she had risked losing her mind to set them on the trail.
Probing with her stick confirmed what Firekeeper had already guessed: the bricks were part of a much more extensive structure that had been buried under the hill. She decided that the hole was either a very large window or a door made for something far more squat than a standard human. When Firekeeper discovered fragments of broken glass mortared into the brick frame, she decided this more likely had been a window.
Now that the hole was larger, and Blind Seer’s keen nose still had not scented anything more dangerous than earthworms and mold, Firekeeper decided she could risk a look inside. Although human by birth, Firekeeper’s childhood among the wolves had taught her how to see, if not in pure darkness, then with very little light. Some of her human friends claimed this was a magical gift, but Firekeeper personally believed that she had learned to see, while most humans saw only what they expected and very little beyond.
Dropping to hands and knees, taking care to avoid any remaining glass, Firekeeper poked her head beneath the brick arch. After her vision had adjusted to the reduced light, she gasped in astonishment. Clearly, the opening through which she now looked had been a window set high on a wall of a room that had been built mostly beneath ground level. Although once Firekeeper had despaired of the fact that humans had so many words for what was basically the same thing, calling this room a “basement” or “cellar” would have failed to describe it. The walls were not rough and unfinished, but were covered with what, even in the low light, Firekeeper could tell was an elaborate tile mosaic. Where the floor was not covered with dirt that had drifted in, the tiles continued the pattern from the walls. She looked up. The ceiling was patterned as well.
This style of decoration was not one with which the wolf-woman was familiar. The humans she knew preferred to decorate their walls, cover their floors, and mostly ignore what was above. This all-encompassing ornamentation made Firekeeper uneasy. She withdrew so Blind Seer could inspect in turn, then considered their next action. Investigate further, obviously. Truth wouldn’t have lured them here just to take a peek into a buried room, even if it was peculiarly ornamented.
Blind Seer could probably jump down into the room, but Firekeeper didn’t trust the smooth tiled walls to provide her with sufficient handholds for climbing. However, it wouldn’t take her long to run back to the Setting Sun stronghold, grab a coil of rope and a few other useful items, then return. Blind Seer could remain here and assure that no creature decided to explore the room, now that they had enlarged the opening. As for Truth, well, the jaguar would do what she would do.
When Blind Seer emerged from making his inspection, Firekeeper outlined her plan. Blind Seer considered, then nodded—a gesture he had picked up to make communicating with humans easier.
“I was wondering,” the wolf said thoughtfully, “if we should tell anyone what we’re planning to do, especially since exploring this place could be dangerous. Then I considered: If Truth believed that many people knowing about this was a good idea, then she would have arranged for more than you and me to come here. If only you could write…”
He trailed off and Firekeeper hung her head in acknowledgement of the reprimand. Her inability—or as some said “refusal”—to learn to read and write was an on-going sore spot between herself and her partner. She knew her inability made their lives more difficult, so she sought a compromise.
Blind Seer could probably jump down into the room, but Firekeeper didn’t trust the smooth tiled walls to provide her with sufficient handholds for climbing.
“When I’m at the stronghold, I will also take paper and a writing stick. We will manage a small note which we can leave either with Truth or where it can be found if we’re gone long enough for any to worry.”
Blind Seer huffed approval and bumped his head against her shoulder. Since he was a very large wolf—the size of a small pony—he did this easily.
“Hurry back, dear heart. I will keep watch.”
Firekeeper ran light-footed and swift to the stronghold. These days the Setting Sun stronghold was much improved from the semi-ruin they had first seen but, although it was now known to be occupied, it was isolated enough that there were no human neighbors to ask awkward questions about the tendency of those who ostensibly lived there to vanish for long stretches of time. The yarimaimalom—the Wise Beasts—who lived in the area knew the reason behind those disappearances. By their own choice, they served as long-ranging scouts so that when humans did stray into the area, the stronghold’s “owner” and at least some of her friends would be available.
Today, however, the only obvious resident was another great cat, the puma, Enigma. He only yawned a lazy greeting when Firekeeper came in, helped herself to various things from the storeroom, and departed. Firekeeper wondered if Truth had said something to the puma or if, like Firekeeper and Blind Seer, Enigma simply preferred not to ask questions when the jaguar prophet chose to set something in motion.
The wolf-woman returned to find Blind Seer in what, to anyone who didn’t know him as well as she did, would seem a relaxed position. Although he was reclining, his forelegs were extended in front of him, his head was held high, and both his ears and nose were canted toward the hole in the hillside. Although the wolf twitched one ear in acknowledgement of Firekeeper’s return, he didn’t relax his attention.
“Is there something living down there after all?” Firekeeper asked.
“Something? Perhaps. Living… If it is alive, it has no scent I can separate from those already here. I have looked down several times, but no matter how carefully I stalk, there is never anything there. Yet when I step away, I feel certain…”
He trailed off, as if even his certainty was uncertain, but Firekeeper trusted the wolf’s senses far more than she did her own.
“Fawns have almost no scent,” she reminded him, “and their dapples hide them from sight, but this does not mean that deer are born full grown.”
Blind Seer panted laughter. “That could almost be a proverb. I must remember it for another time. Does this change your desire to investigate that curious room?”
“Not in the least,” Firekeeper replied. “I suppose we could bury the broken window beneath deadwood and dirt, but that would not provide an answer as to why Truth brought us here.”
“Truth could have wanted us to cover the hole for her,” Blind Seer replied, but he didn’t sound convinced. He knew the jaguar was perfectly capable of burying what she did not want found. He sighed and rose to his feet, glancing over at the still-drowsing Truth. “Whatever she expects us to find, she is being very careful not to influence us. I can’t decide if that makes me feel better or worse.”
“Why bother to feel either?” Firekeeper shrugged. “Surely you remember the proverb that says ‘Cats are truly mad, great cats madder than most.’”
She glanced over to see if Truth would react to the taunt, but the jaguar remained impossibly quiescent. That refusal to respond even with a token snarl, made Firekeeper more uneasy than she would admit. She knew that Blind Seer would smell her mood, but respect her determination, and that was enough. Together they wrote a quick note, more a collection of pictures than of words, then she signed it with the sketch of a human hand and a wolf’s paw that had become their joint signature.
“I will offer the note to Truth,” Firekeeper said. “If she refuses, then I will use a spare spike to pin it to a tree.”
But, although the jaguar did not stir from her pretense of sleep, Truth let Firekeeper slide the missive where her heavy paw would keep it from blowing away. Firekeeper hurried back to Blind Seer and unrolled the blanket in which she had carried their new supplies.
“I brought rope,” she said, “and a heavy spike I will drive in as an anchor. This small blanket we can put down to protect us from broken glass.”
“I think I can make my own way down,” Blind Seer said. “It is not too tremendous a leap for one of my size. Climbing up again, that will be a different matter.”
“I have carried you before,” Firekeeper said, flexing deceptively slender shoulders. “Will you jump first, or after I am already down?”
“First, but set your rope in place so you can follow me immediately.”
When Firekeeper had the rope ready, she nodded to Blind Seer, who leapt down, landing almost inaudibly on the tiled floor. As soon as he was safe, she ran backwards down the wall, using the rope to brace herself. The wall tiles had felt smooth as glass beneath her bare feet but, once she was away from where the dirt and broken glass had fallen from the broken window, those on the floor were slightly dimpled, providing comfortable footing. Firekeeper left the rope in place, then padded over to where Blind Seer stood near the room’s center, turning slightly so he could study the walls.
“What do you not see here, Firekeeper?” he asked.
“Doors,” she replied immediately. She’d been puzzling over this since her first viewing of the subterranean chamber. “I brought a candle lantern. Perhaps the doors are hidden within these mosaic patterns.”
She knelt, striking flint and steel over tinder, quickly kindling fire that she transferred to the candle’s wick. Wolves saw far better than humans did in the dark, but what was clearest were shapes and motion. Colors were harder to discern, especially subtle differences in shade. Humans often spoke of canines as being “color blind,” but Blind Seer was most certainly not, although Firekeeper did have the edge over him when it came to subtle distinctions.
Although the light of a single candle would not have seemed very much to illuminate a large room for a human, it served Firekeeper well enough. The patterns made by the wall mosaics were predominately in red, blue, and yellow, accented and highlighted with green and orange. There was little black, and what there was had been mostly used to outline figures. White was used as a border, easily overlooked, but making the curves of a figure stronger by separating color from contrasting color.
At last the wolf-woman gave up and began to run her fingertips along the walls.
She did not believe that the humans who had built this place had come and gone by climbing through those inconveniently placed windows.
Firekeeper looked for anything that might be considered to represent some element she recognized: a flower, a leaf, an animal, a face, even something as varishaped as a cloud. She found nothing, or rather, every time she thought she found something, it slipped away and became something else. Even when she remembered to include the floor and ceiling, no pattern held for long.
At last the wolf-woman gave up and began to run her fingertips along the walls. She did not believe that the humans who had built this place had come and gone by climbing through those inconveniently placed windows. There were only three: the one through which she and Blind Seer had entered and one to either side. The flanking windows were unbroken. Now that Firekeeper could see a full pane, she noticed that the glass in the windows was a translucent white.
Meant to let light in, but not permit anyone to see what was here
, she thought.
It was not during her first pass around the room, nor the second, that Firekeeper located the seam, but on her third, when out of frustration she used both hands, fingers spread wide. Then she found that hidden within the riot of color was a straight line. The grout that filled between the tiles had been meticulously painted to match the adjacent tiles, making it nearly impossible to tell by eye alone where one tile began and another ended. However, once she had found the seam, Firekeeper traced first one edge, then the top, then the side of an oversized, round-topped doorway. Reaching into her belt pouch, she pulled out the writing stick and traced an outline that tended to vanish among the blue, but stood out well enough against the lighter colors.
“A door,” Firekeeper announced triumphantly. Then she deflated some. “But how to open it when there is no latch or knob?”
“Or hinges on this side,” Blind Seer added. “Use those clever hands some more and tell me if you find any other doors. I have something I want to check.”
He rose and began sniffing around the edges where Firekeeper had marked the door. Firekeeper considered. She’d already felt for seams and only found the one. How else might she find a door? An idea came to her. She’d seen how places where humans often walked developed wear patterns. Even stone stairs became grooved over time. Now that she thought about it, the floor tiles in front of the door had felt different.
Dropping to her hands and knees, she began to methodically search for similar texture. Beneath the wall directly across from where she had found the outline of a door, she discovered an area that felt rougher, even though the painted tiles showed no greater wear.
The great grey wolf was beside her in an instant. When she stroked the floor, inviting him to feel, his paws understood what she was showing him without the need for words.
“I would never have thought to check… “ He licked the side of her face. “But is there another door among the tiles on the wall?”
“Not that I can find,” Firekeeper admitted, rocking back on her heels and glowering at the wall in frustration.
“And yet the floor outside of what is definitely a door”—the wolf indicated the area of marked tiles with a toss of his head—“shows this same wear. It cannot be a coincidence. Let me relate what my nose has told me.”
“I believe that even if we found a way to open the first door you found, it would be of little help to us. Although it is tightly closed, the seal is not perfect. The only scent I caught was that of dirt. While you were off to the Setting Sun stronghold, I scouted around this hill. My belief is that there was once a building here, probably not a very large one, which was torn down. I suspect that the ‘hillside’ in which we found the hole was artificial, a result of the ruins having been completely buried. Eventually, weather wore away the mound, exposed the window, and created the hole that Truth discovered. If I may risk further speculation, I would say that even when the original structure was there, this room was secret. The windows were probably hidden behind shrubs or a low wall.”
“Why hidden?” Firekeeper said, then answered her own question. “Because magic was worked here. We know that in the days when the Old World was settling the New, every effort was made to keep the colonists ignorant of how magic worked. Most colonists never realized the gates existed. The mysterious comings and goings of the sorcerers simply added to the fear with which they were viewed, just as the snarl of the One keeps the pack in check, even if she rarely bites.”
“So, like me, you have thoughts as to what that other door might be?”
Firekeeper nodded. “A gate. I don’t understand. Why here? The Setting Sun gate is a quick run away. Even a briskly walking human could travel the distance with ease. The entire reason for the Nexus is because gates are not easy to make, and they devour a great many resources.”
“Maybe this gate will go back to the Nexus,” Blind Seer offered. “There are many we have not yet opened.”
But from the cant of his ears and the way he sat and scratched as if after a persistent flea, Firekeeper knew that the blue-eyed wolf did not believe his own explanation.
“There is only one way to tell,” Blind Seer continued, “and that is to see if the gate is unbroken, then go through. Again, my first impulse is to call on some of those from the Nexus Islands pack who know more about such things than we do, but then I remember how Truth chose to bring us here. She could have as easily summoned Ynamynet or Kalyndra or even Enigma. Her visions must have given her reason to believe we are the best choice.”
“We are guided by the visions of one who admits herself insane,” Firekeeper said, not disagreeing, just stating a fact. “But sane or insane, I believe that Truth has the good of the larger pack in mind.”
“Although the pack’s good may not be the same as our good,” Blind Seer said softly. “We must keep that in mind and walk with care.”
Firekeeper went forth to hunt while Blind Seer used his ability to sniff out magical workings to examine the gate. That the blue-eyed wolf was the one sensitive to magical workings, able to use spells, was comparatively new to them both, but extremely useful. Firekeeper, for her part, claimed no magical gift.
When Firekeeper returned, Truth was awake and grooming but, as the jaguar did not initiate conversation, Firekeeper did no more than pause to butcher her kill, then cut away some of the rich innards for Blind Seer and a steak for herself. She left the remainder for the jaguar, who, although Truth would be the last to admit it, often had trouble hunting because she saw not only what was there before her, but all the possible ramifications of the kill.
After he had eaten, Blind Seer explained what he had learned. “I took a lesson from you and used touch as well as vision and scent to guide me. Certain tiles are lightly inscribed with arcane runes not unlike those used for the Nexus Island gates. It might take a little trial and error, but I think I can activate it.”
“So you think the gate still works?”
“I do. Remember how I told you that I had sensed something in this room? I think that what I sensed was nearly dormant magic, humming like a sleeping hive.”
Firekeeper took out the small wallet in which she kept delicate bloodletting tools. “Then let us seek the honey and hope we don’t get stung.”
The wolf-woman’s pride when Blind Seer guessed correctly the first time how to activate the gate was intense. She knew humans often envied those who had abilities they lacked, but that was not the wolf’s way. Respect for the stronger, swifter, more skilled was at the heart of the pack hierarchy. She had grown to maturity aware that all her senses were weaker than those of the wolves, and that she needed tools to survive. Nonetheless, the name the wolves had given her—Firekeeper—acknowledged that even a naked, hairless, nose-dead two-legs could be special.
Therefore, when the gate flickered to life, a liquid metal shimmer replacing the brilliantly colored tiles, Firekeeper sang a soft howl of praise. She pulled her Fang from its sheath, picked up the lantern, in which she had fixed a fresh candle, then closed the shields lest light betray them. Without the bolstering words humans would doubtless have spoken at such a time, she walked beside Blind Seer from the confines of the strange tiled room into a place that was, in its own way, even odder.
They stood for a long moment in the dark, listening for any reaction to their arrival. Then Blind Seer said, “I neither hear nor smell any living creature. The air is stale, like that in a building that has been closed for a long while.”
“Light?” Firekeeper suggested. “It is too dark here for me to see.”
Firekeeper partially raised the shields on the candle lantern revealing the outlines of a large room lined with shelves, most of which were empty. On the wall behind them, the gate was not outlined, but indentations hidden within a larger decorative pattern indicated where the necessary blood to activate the spell needed to be placed.
“So, another secret,” Firekeeper said. “Interesting. No windows. At least this time there is a door with a proper handle and hinges.”
Blind Seer moved so he could sniff around the edges of the door. “I smell nothing larger than a mouse. See if you can open the door.”
Firekeeper pushed the lever down, but felt it stop before it had moved more than the smallest amount.
“Locked, but if I know my humans…” A brief search found a key fastened to the underside of the lowest shelf in the part of the room farthest from the door. “Not a bad hiding place, really. I didn’t think they would leave someone who arrived by means of the gate trapped. I think the lock is meant to keep those without from entering.”
She tried the key in the lock and, after a certain amount of effort, because the workings were very stiff, she managed to get it to turn without snapping the key. The door swung out, but clunked against something before it could swing flat against the wall.
Using the door as cover, Firekeeper risked a look, noting as she did so that, unlike the storeroom into which they had arrived, this room had some light. The source was a series of cloudy-paned windows set high in the wall. Their design reminded her of those in the mosaic room and, as there, some no longer admitted light.
“There is a bookshelf built on the back of this door,” she said. “More hiding. The windows let some light in, but no one could see in here through them.”
Blind Seer huffed acknowledgement as he dropped his nose to the ground and scouted. “As from the other side. Nothing has left a scent trail here other than small rodents, and not many of those. Poor foraging then.”
“This room reminds me of a classroom,” Firekeeper said, with a distaste that had more to do with her own failure to learn in such places rather than for learning itself. “Shelves around, although mostly empty of books. Slate on the wall for writing on. Long tables and benches. Who would make a school in a cellar?”
“Someone who was teaching in secret,” Blind Seer answered. “Or who was teaching students who might otherwise run away, like a certain Little Two-legs.”
He spoke Firekeeper’s baby name with affection, and she gently thumped him between the ears. When her hand dropped to his back, she noticed that his hackles were raised all the way down to the base of his tail.
“What troubles you, dear heart?”
Blind Seer gave himself a shake, as if emotions could be scattered like raindrops. “Something smells wrong.”
He shook again, then sat and panted slowly to calm himself. Firekeeper drew in a deep breath through both mouth and nose, but all she smelled was dust, a trace of mold, and beyond that, an acrid note that might have been burned wood.
“Wrong?” she prompted.
“Old magic, sleeping but still alive,” Blind Seer replied, rising to his feet and padding over to the only other door, then sniffing under and around the edges. “It is like but unlike what I have scented when a glow block continues to give light from mana stored away long, long ago.”
“This prickles. It makes me uneasy.”
“And the scent is stronger beyond this room. Do we turn back, then?”
Blind Seer grumbled deep in his throat. “If only that crazed jaguar could tell us more!”
“She cannot,” Firekeeper replied practically. “Else she would, because she loves bragging even more than she loves turtle meat. So we must choose. As with when we found the gate, the questions are ‘Can we leave this unanswered? Can others answer better?’”
“And if those others say ‘Don’t poke the hornet’s nest! We are barely recovered from a war. Maybe next season.’ Will you be content to bide by that ruling?”
“Then we go forward and hope that if Truth did not mean for us to go so far, she would have found a way to pull us back.”
The classroom door was locked but, after a certain amount of searching, Firekeeper found a key secreted within the lectern behind which some long-ago instructor had stood to teach. Blind Seer used the time to further analyze the strange scent, but all he succeeded in doing was making himself even more uneasy.
This door swung into the classroom, enabling Firekeeper to keep it as a shield between herself and whatever was beyond. She eased it open slowly, giving Blind Seer plenty of opportunity to give warning but, although she knew he was straining every sense he possessed, he made not the slightest sound.
When Firekeeper had the door open, she stepped around it, blocking it with her body so it couldn’t swing shut behind them. The chamber beyond was as large as the classroom, but rounded. Translucent windows, some partly occluded from the other side, still gave enough light for her to make out details. She did not step forward until Blind Seer gave the sign, and then only after carrying over an ancient bench to ensure that the classroom door would remain open.
This round room had suffered more from the passage of time than had the classroom. To the right, part of the ceiling had completely collapsed, showing burned support beams, planks, tiles, bricks, and other building detritus. The left side gave a better sense of what the round room had been like, with tiled floor and painted walls. Two doors interrupted its curve. Both were open, although the lintel of the farther one tilted. What might have been a matching door on the room’s right side was half buried. If there had been a second, it lay completely beneath the rubble.
She eased it open slowly, giving Blind Seer plenty of opportunity to give warning but, although she knew he was straining every sense he possessed, he made not the slightest sound.
Directly across was a stairway leading up, but Firekeeper’s line of sight was interrupted by a back view of a grey stone statue set on a plinth at the room’s center. The statue depicted a tall, broad-shouldered man bearing a staff. He was dressed simply in breeches, shirt, and boots, but the simplicity of this attire was more than compensated for by elaborate arcane patterns etched on the fabric.
Firekeeper gave the statue a quick glance, mostly in annoyance for how it blocked her view of the staircase, but her main attention was for the ceiling. She studied it carefully. Whatever catastrophe had caused the collapse must have been long ago, for now not even loose dirt hissed down.
Blind Seer said, “Once again, I would say nothing larger than a mouse or beetle has been here for a long time, and even the mice had the sense to go elsewhere.”
“How are the prickles?”
“Worse, but I cannot isolate what is causing them. My ability to ‘smell’ what may or may not be magic has the same weakness as tracking by other scents. If the scent is fresh and hot, I can follow it easily, but if the scent has dispersed or is very old, then I cannot.”
“Then we go forward.”
Firekeeper didn’t bother to add that they should be careful, as a human would. That went without saying. Even so, both of them nearly missed the attack when it came.
They were inspecting the open door to their immediate left. With its racks of bottles and jars, small spirit lamps, and distilling apparatus, it reminded Firekeeper of the stillroom Kalyndra and Frostweed had set up on the Nexus Islands. Slate boards along the walls and shelves that had once held books showed that the room had also been used for teaching. However, cots set up along the walls hinted at use as an emergency infirmary.
“Do you think…” Firekeeper was saying when, over Blind Seer’s head, she saw that the statue had begun moving slowly on its plinth. Her first thought was that they had accidentally triggered some mechanism, then she saw that the statue was raising the staff it held. She didn’t know if it meant to swing at them or to use it to channel a spell, but she wasn’t about to wait and find out.
Howling warning to Blind Seer, the wolf-woman rushed at the statue, ducking inside the effective range of the staff, then barreling directly into its torso. To one who had not fought sorcerers, this might seem foolish, but Firekeeper knew that concentration was key to magical attacks, which was one reason why they were not more commonly used in combat. However, she had forgotten this was no usual sorcerer. Rather than impacting soft scholarly flesh, she hit something that felt much more like stone.
Her attack was not without effect, though, for the statue—now moving much more like a large man with very stiff joints—rocked. Then, with a deliberate bend of its knees and torso, it jumped down to the floor and began turning toward her.
“Don’t bite him!” Firekeeper howled as she rolled to her feet, then darted to Blind Seer’s side. “You’d break a tooth.”
Blind Seer’s hackles—normally nearly invisible because of the length of his fur—stood erect not only on his shoulders and spine, but along his withers, making him seem twice his considerable size. A normal opponent would have paused to reconsider the wisdom of attacking such a gigantic wolf, but the statue began to stalk towards them, staff held cross-body, ready to defend or attack.
Firekeeper snatched up an old broom where it leaned against the stillroom wall. Mice had long ago chewed away the bristles, but had found nothing of interest in the varnished wood of the handle. A broom handle was not a proper quarterstaff, but must serve, since she doubted that either her Fang or her small array of throwing knives would penetrate that stony hide. Readying herself to attack, she caught an unexpected scent.
Blind Seer grunted. “The odor has been flowering forth since that thing began to move.”
With a toss of his head, the great grey wolf indicated the approaching figure. With every step, its motion became less stiff, but there was no mistaking it for a normal human, for the entirety of its eye sockets shone with an unnatural light that held every color from darkest black to milk white, with all the rainbow between.
Blind Seer growled. “The source of the scent that made my nose prickle rests within that thing, where its heart should be.”
“If I engage it, staff to staff,” Firekeeper suggested, “you could slip behind and trip it, then hold it while I bind its arms and legs.”
“As good a plan as any,” Blind Seer replied, his answer coming in action, not words.
Firekeeper strode to intercept the walking statue, holding the broomstick in both hands, then feinting a strike at its head. The thing moved much faster now and easily blocked. Firekeeper increased the speed of her strikes, glad that although she had never taken to swords, she had trained both with them and with staves. The statue’s moves were predictable, but powerful. She managed one hit on its right shoulder and nearly cracked her broom handle.
“It may move,” she called to Blind Seer, “but it remains rock hard.”
Next she sent a flurry of high strikes at the statue’s hands, thinking that she might break a few fingers, so it could no longer hold the staff. The only thing she succeeded in doing was sending splinters flying from her broom handle. Blind Seer took advantage of the distraction she had created to race belly to the ground. He dove between the statue’s spread legs. Then he rose to his full height, lifting the thing off the ground.
It froze at this unexpected attack, then flailed for balance. As it did so, Blind Seer dropped down and slid out from under his burden. The statue crashed to the tiled floor, its staff skittering across the tiles. Firekeeper dropped her broom handle, fumbling in one of her pouches for the short lengths of rope she had carried ever since Race Forrester had shown her so long ago how useful such could be.
Blind Seer leapt to hold the statue down but, when he braced both paws on its chest, the statue grasped him on both sides of his rib cage and flung him to one side. Free of the wolf’s weight, it heaved itself to its feet. Hearing Blind Seer scrabbling for footing on the tile, Firekeeper did not go to her partner’s aid. Instead, she darted behind the statue, then jumped onto its back, wrapping her legs around its lower torso. The statue still felt harder than any living thing should, but more like bags packed tightly with sand than solid stone.
Where its heart should be.
Blind Seer’s words echoed through Firekeeper’s mind, intertwining with the memory of something her fingers had touched when pulling out the pieces of rope. She had brought more than one spike with her from the Setting Sun stronghold, thinking she might need more to anchor her rope. The spikes were as long as the blade of her Fang and, unlike her Fang, made of iron. Iron was death to magic, and if this thing used magic for its blood, then…
Looping her left arm around the statue’s throat, Firekeeper fumbled with her right hand for the spike. Blind Seer had returned, and was snapping at the thing’s lower extremities, even as the lesser wolves snap at the flanks of a moose to distract it while the Ones go for the kill. Blind Seer might not know what his partner planned, but he knew that if she clung to her precarious mount, it was for a reason.
Gripping the long spike as she would have her Fang, Firekeeper thrust down into the statue’s chest. The sharpened tip caught, but barely dented the hard surface. Pulling back her arm, the wolf-woman thrust down with all her considerable strength, but again only dented the surface. This time she held the spike in place, pushing it in as best she could.
She howled, “Spring from behind. Knock it down.”
Blind Seer did not hesitate, but leapt up, toppling the statue so that it fell with both of their weight upon it. Firekeeper held the spike in place until the last possible moment, then snatched her fingers away. She listened, dreading the sound of the bit of metal snapping or rolling away. Then they were down, each rolling in opposite directions, up onto their feet.
The statue lay face down, still moving, but much more jerkily.
“The prickling is different now,” Blind Seer panted, “as if the source is broken, but is still there. We have not killed it, only slowed it.”
“I have an idea how to slow it even more,” Firekeeper said, binding the statue’s ankles, then its arms. She motioned with her head toward the great mound of dirt on the right side of the room. “Let’s give it a proper burial.”
“I have an idea how to slow it even more,” Firekeeper said, binding the statue’s ankles, then its arms.
She motioned with her head toward the great mound of dirt on the right side of the room. “Let’s give it a proper burial.”
Burial completed, the wolves shook the worst of the dirt from themselves and drank from Firekeeper’s canteen.
Blind Seer tossed his head to indicate the stairs. “I won’t even bother asking if we will scout where those lead. Of course we will.”
Firekeeper ran her hand along her partner’s back, pleased to feel that his tension had ebbed. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we came up on one of the Nexus Islands after all?”
Blind Seer only huffed and trotted over to the staircase. This was easily wide enough to permit them to mount side by side. When they reached the top, two wide doors confronted them. Firekeeper was about to check if they were locked—although she was certain they would be—when Blind Seer’s ears perked forward. She froze, dropping her hand to her Fang. Blind Seer padded forward, dropping his head and sniffing at the base of the door. He then retreated to sit next to her, mouth open and panting laughter.
Were they then, indeed, back on the Nexus Islands? Firekeeper was about to ask what the joke was when she heard the muffled thump of what was probably a bar being removed on the other side of the door. Then there was the creak of a key straining in a little-used lock, a pause, the smell of fresh oil, then more creaking until the lock snapped open.
Taking her cue from Blind Seer, Firekeeper dropped her Fang back into its sheath and sat on the floor next to him, throwing her arm around the blue-eyed wolf and doing her best to look harmless. Even with Blind Seer’s nonverbal reassurance, Firekeeper found it difficult not to flee where she could watch from cover, just in case her partner’s nose had been wrong. Then the doors began to pull back and, along with the scent of freshly lit lamps, came a scent that made her spring to her feet, in delight, not fear.
The doors opened to reveal two men, one quite elderly, the other greying but stalwart. Each was known to Firekeeper and, for different reasons, trusted with all her heart. Only the fact that the two men were armed and smelled very nervous kept her from rushing forward to greet them with the spontaneous affection wolves give to those they love. Instead she waited, restraining herself to bouncing lightly on her toes.
“Firekeeper?” The voice that spoke was aged but not weak. “Blind Seer? By all my ancestors, what are the two of you doing here?”
The speaker was King Tedric, ruler of Hawk Haven, a man many still thought was Firekeeper’s grandfather, although both Firekeeper and the king knew otherwise. Beside him stood Sir Dirkin Eastbranch, the king’s bodyguard and one of only two people (the other being Queen Elexa) who King Tedric trusted completely.
Firekeeper answered honestly, “Is a long story. We not know we would be here when Truth sent us forth, but now we are here, I know why Truth chose us. Where is here? Is Eagle’s Nest?”
King Tedric answered promptly, showing the clearheaded ability to face any situation—no matter how strange—with unshakable composure that had kept him at the head of his contentious family for many decades. She noticed he was dressed casually, and wasn’t wearing his formal wig.
“No, Firekeeper, this isn’t Eagle’s Nest. This is one of my family’s private estates about a day’s ride from the capital. Elexa and I have been spending more time here to give Sapphire and Shad a chance to practice ruling without others looking to me to confirm their decisions.”
“How you know to open the door?”
“We have an alarm. Why we had it, well, that, too, is a long story,” King Tedric replied. “I am an old man, and my heart is not as strong as it once was. Come, let us go where we can sit and tell each other our tales.”
Sir Dirkin gave Firekeeper a slight nod by way of greeting, then said, “Is anyone else down there?”
From how he said “anyone,” Firekeeper thought the knight knew about the statue. She shook her head, then tilted it as a qualifier.
“No, but there was a very nasty statue. We have broken it some, and buried it. If it is yours, we could dig it out so you could fix.”
“Not mine.” King Tedric shook his head. “Do you think it is likely to dig its way out?”
“Not for a long time. It is very tightly tied, with rope and with wire.”
“Then come. We will close the doors again, and go upstairs. I believe I can even offer you refreshments.”
“Upstairs” proved to be a large, airy structure built from some hard stone. The floor was set on a high foundation supported on pillars. More pillars supported a heavy roof beneath which was a dais upon which were what Firekeeper recognized as a pair of ornate stone coffins. The stair they mounted—King Tedric breathing a bit heavily—emerged between the coffins.
“You have now seen another of the great secrets of Hawk Haven,” King Tedric said when he had seated himself on a stone bench and accepted the cup of watered wine that Sir Dirkin poured for him. “This is the mausoleum of my grandmother, Queen Zorana the Great, founder of Hawk Haven, and of her consort, Clive Elkwood. Most of the time, their coffins rest side by side, covering the stair—and access to the chambers below. Now, tell me how you came here.”
Firekeeper did so, and since things like insane prophetic jaguars needed their own explanations, she talked for a long while, filling in the old king on what had happened in the years since they had last met. She withheld very little, for she had long trusted this human, not because he had been a perfect One during the years he had led his pack, but because he had not and had admitted his shortcomings.
King Tedric asked a few questions, mostly details about such places as the Nexus Islands, which Firekeeper had come to take for granted. When she finished, he sighed.
“My answer to your questions is much simpler. When Queen Zorana distributed lands after the founding of Hawk Haven, she kept for herself any that were known to have been closely associated with those who worked magic. On these lands, when clearing away what had been a wealthy sorcerer’s home, her workers found the subterranean complex you came into, including the gate. That was, by then, useless, but there were those who knew what it had been. Queen Zorana swore these to secrecy. By all reports, they were glad to give their word in return for her protection against the mob. Later, Queen Zorana had her tomb built here so she could to keep watch over the dormant gate. She passed the secret on to her heir, Chalmer, as did he, in my time, to me, and as I have done to my new heirs, Sapphire and Shad.”
“I don’t understand,” Firekeeper admitted. “If Queen Zorana knowed this was here and was maybe dangerous, why didn’t she destroy it or fill the cellar with dirt?”
“I believe she didn’t want to risk fighting with that thing you met—or the fact that such a fight would remind people that potent old magics still lingered,” King Tedric replied thoughtfully. “Remember, even you and Blind Seer had to settle for burying the statue, and you know far more about how to defeat things of magic than Queen Zorana and her allies would have done. However, I think there was an additional reason.”
Firekeeper asked the question wolf fashion, with a tilt of her head.
“I think my grandmother hoped that someday the gate could be used to reconnect us with the Old World. Remember, Queen Zorana may have led the revolt that created Hawk Haven, but she had friends born and raised in the Old World. She knew that everyone there was not a monster. I think she dreamed of a day when the gates would be active again and, as ruler, she would be able to insist on more equal terms between the lands.”
“But this did not happen,” Firekeeper said sadly.
“Until today,” King Tedric reminded her, “when the gate reopened to reunite both friends and distant lands. I suspect that this is why your insane jaguar friend chose you and Blind Seer as emissaries—because even if I had not been here, my stewards know I value you and would want to meet with you.”
“And only we two,
” Blind Seer bragged in the language of the wolves,
“could find and open the gate, defeat the statue, then consort as equals with kings.”
“The question is,” King Tedric continued, unaware of the blue-eyed wolf’s interjection, “how do I best prepare my people for such a great change? Can I ask you to keep this secret for a while longer? Not for generations, as my family has done, but until Hawk Haven is better prepared.”
Blind Seer snorted so loudly that both king and knight stared at the blue-eyed wolf in astonishment, then looked to Firekeeper for explanation.
“Truth sent us forth, and if anyone knows the value of lies of omission, it is Truth. I say if Truth can withhold truth, then we can do so in the hope that little lies will make safe a greater truth—and the possibility of peaceful friendship.”
Firekeeper translated, then added. “Once, when I was a very young pup, I believed that wolves could not lie. Now my world is larger and much more complicated, so I know that sometimes even wolves