She and her stallion had got to know each other fairly well over the last fortnight’s worth of travel, and they didn’t like each other one bit. As the sun dipped into the horizon behind them, casting long shadows from the mountain peaks at their back, the stallion tried again to shake off its cold, hungry, and grumpy rider. Freja clutched hard to the reins and cursed the day she was born, the day this beast was born, and every day in between. Fortunately, the dashing leader of their little venturing party was on hand to grab the bridle and keep the cursed animal from hurling her into the gulley to a crushing death on the rocks below.
“Whoa,” he said, hands raised to calm the horse. “He is this way all day?”
“Just about.” The gunslinger glared down at the stallion’s eye. He was skittish about something—the strange striations of brownish orange on the rock wall she had noticed a few paces back, maybe? Or else he just disliked her as much as she disliked him. “Spiteful bastard.”
Her employer smiled wryly up at her. “I doubt he means harm.”
Freja scowled at the horse. “Oh certainly, take his side.”
They’d traveled several days, by boat on the Abaddon River and on foot, to the far corner of the Protectorate, where the Broken Cliffs of the eastern coastline met with the mountains of the Highlands to the south. Few could say what lay much farther, and Freja had to admit being in the unexplored frontier gave her a little tingle of excitement in her belly. That sense of danger just unrevealed, lurking in every shadow—it made her feel alive in a way she rarely felt outside of a gun battle.
The difficult horse had almost ruined the whole experience, though she could look at her employer. The fading sunlight caught the man’s amber eyes, making them sparkle. The dark-skinned Targa Voshtet was an explorer of Dominion heritage—hence the reason he wouldn’t come into town to recruit Freja himself. A vital and energetic man, Targa was nonetheless inclined to reserve, letting others take the lead most of the time. For instance, he’d spent every night by the fire taking notes while Chenoa Gryn regaled the little group with tales. The Prymidian had spoken of the Protectorate’s past, its various wars, and the Sorcerer-Kings of old. Freja had hardly listened, spending most of her time imagining Targa warming her bedroll. It hadn’t happened yet, but Freja was ever optimistic, despite the hurdles. Even now, as their hands touched briefly on the reins, and Freja could feel the little shock where he went from confident to a little uneasy.
Their shared gaze lingered a little too long, prompting Gryn’s bemused snort. Always watching, the damn Prymidian proved as much a barrier to getting what she wanted as Targa’s inherent shyness. “Work up any more magic there, you two,” he said, “and you’re apt to summon the shade of Sineath Abadas or perhaps Ruon Dondun.”
Targa’s cheeks flushed red and he hastened back toward the fire, leaving Freja fuming.
“Now you’re just making up names,” she said as she climbed down from her horse, refusing his proffered hand. Dismounting was an awkward thing, but Freja had the trick of it now, and she was a graceful woman anyway. “Besides. I’ve never seen a Sorcerer-King. Have you?”
“ ’Twas seven centuries and forty years before Unification that the last of the Sorcerer-Kings reigned over this place, but yet does their power linger,” Gryn said. “Be wary.”
“Right you are, red man.” Freja gave him a mock salute. Her other hand gripped the handle of The Last Word quite hard. “Right you are.”
They’d ventured the treacherous passes of the mountains for the last day, and finally laid camp near an old cave on a rocky plateau overlooking a canyon between steep mountain slopes. Trail sign—three rocks mounted atop each other—pointed the place out, and Targa explained to Freja this meant explorers had come this way before and scouted out the location. No doubt she could have convinced him to follow her into the cave for a bit, but the call came for the evening meal, ruining their moment.
The camp was small and thus crowded. Ten had set out from Mavra initially, though only eight remained after one of the porters took sick and a slip down a rocky slope had broken the neck of another. Freja couldn’t remember all their names: faceless sword-swingers or beasts of burden, the lot of them. At least the two cat-like P’Tan hunters Targa had recruited displayed some use, shooting rabbit or deer with their keen arrows and feeding the party quite well along the journey. They looked so alike that at first she had thought them brother and sister—litter mates? That lasted until she had chanced to see them in the woods, engaged in rather amorous activities. She supposed it was better not to know.
For her part, Freja had proven herself many times, with flawless marksmanship and keen eyes, and they hadn’t lost a single porter to beasts or bandits. She rather wished Chenoa Gryn had met an accident on the road, if only to spare her the sight of his smirk or his ridiculously long beard.
“Tomorrow,” Targa said over the sizzling meat on the spit, “I will lead a small party, setting forth on foot. Our ranks consist of me, wise Chenoa, bold Freja, and—” He pointed at the male P’Tan.
“The name you . . . gave me . . . is Garrull,” he said in halting Common. He sounded very serious.
“Yes. Garrull.” Targa smiled. “Rest well, for tomorrow we unlock the secrets of the ancients!”
In an hour, when their small party bedded down for the night, Freja found herself lying awake, gazing at Targa and Gryn conversing softly by the fire. She’d almost convinced herself to make another attempt on the expedition leader, but then her bedroll finally became comfortable. She drew out Milka’s projector and looked at her tiny, ridiculous image. She smiled.
As she drifted off, she thought of those markings she’d seen on the stone. Like clawmarks leaving trails of old blood . . .
She came awake smoothly—the beneficiary of many such experiences—with a hand over her mouth. A pair of yellow green eyes burned at her, like fire caught within green amber, the pupils slits like those of a cat. The P’tan blended so well into the darkness, Freja would have doubted her own eyes were it not for the catwoman’s body pressed over hers to keep her still.
“You’re the female scout,” Freja said. “The one whose name I don’t know.”
The eyes narrowed. “It’s—”
“I didn’t ask.” The gunslinger tapped her pistol against the P’tan’s ribs. “Explain what you’re doing, or I rip you in two.”
The P’tan looked briefly irritated, then grimaced in something like respect. When she spoke, her common was far smoother than Garrull’s had been. “Many foes approach,” she said. “We rouse the camp slowly—do not alert our foes too early.”
“Right. Sensible.” She looked toward the campfire, where Garrull was perched over Targa’s sleeping form. Gryn’s crimson bulk still snored contentedly near the coals. “You said many. How many?”
The P’tan’s eyes glittered in the firelight. “Many.”
Then she was gone, bounding through the darkness to rouse one of the porters, or else secure a defensible spot. Freja attuned her ears to the whistle of the night wind. No birdsong—only the faint rustling of the spindly trees and brush that grew in the wilds deep in the Highlands. She stared at one moonshadow in particular, not entirely sure why it attracted her attention, until it moved, slightly and against the wind. A hunter.
Freja suppressed the urge to draw a bead immediately. If she fired, that would be going loud, and that would steal precious time the others might need to prepare. Instead, she crept slowly out from under her long leather coat, leaving it where she had draped it over herself for warmth, and slipped around the withered log she’d used as a pillow. A rocky slope led around to the rise where she’d seen the shadow, and she moved as quietly as she could. The night wind chilled her exposed skin. Thank the Sanguine Lord the moonlight didn’t catch her: in the desert, she’d have blended in, but in the mountains her flesh might as well be glowing. Perhaps it was the rest of the camp that distracted their stalker, for she got close enough to see without him alerting. The creature had a bow in its thick gray hands, drawn back and pointed directly at the camp—at Freja’s empty coat, in fact.
It was a man of some sort—she could see that—all gray-white skin stretched over rippling muscles and more than a few old, scarred over wounds. His individual parts seemed of decent form, but the total was hideous: a bulbous, bestial thing in the vague shape of a man. A Caliban, she thought. She’d met Kalisans before, and this creature reminded her of them, albeit wilder. Vicious.
From behind, Freja aimed at the spot where heavily muscled neck met distended skull.
A commotion in the camp took them both by surprise. Of a sudden, Chenoa Gryn leaped to his feet, entirely naked, sword in hand, and intoned what Freja thought at first was a warcry.
“Arms!” he said, voice echoing. “Arms, the women and men of whom I speak, who set forth from cursed Ablis—”
That was enough. Freja squeezed the trigger, and a bloody crater appeared in the back of the Caliban’s head. Its arrow flew harmlessly into the sky and its huge body tumbled off the rocky perch.
As the thunder of her shot faded, angry roars filled the hollow where they had set up camp. Three Calibans rushed out of the night, hefting jagged axes and spears, but the explorers were ready for them. A P’tan arrow took one of the brutes in the throat, turning his charge into a stumbling fall.
A second Caliban pounced on one of the porters, driving its spear deep into the man’s gut. The hapless man shrieked and fell to the ground, blood spouting from his mouth. Freja shot that Caliban in the back of the head, and it collapsed over its victim, quivering down into death.
The third Caliban locked steel with Chenoa Gryn, staggering him with its ferocious strength. Targa put his warpick in its leg, but the creature backhanded him away.
She reached for a third pistol when someone hurtled out of the darkness at her back. She spun, her reflexes putting the pistol in line with the charging Caliban’s torso. She squeezed off a shot that blasted blood out of the creature’s side, a hand’s width outside its heart. Not enough. The creature tackled her to the ground with enough force to knock the world out of alignment. More out of luck than skill, Freja twisted her head just in time to avoid the creature’s slavering jaws snapping. That settled any illusions she might have held about the Calibans’ intentions. These things meant to eat them.
The creature wrestled her onto the ground and scrabbled for her neck, choking off air. Freja’s head felt hot and her limbs started to tremble. She discarded her empty, palmed the pistol in her left wrist holster, and fired. At that range, she shouldn’t have missed, but the Caliban smashed her in the face and her whole body jerked to the side, so the shot just grazed the creature’s muscular side. She tried for another gun, but couldn’t reach any of them. The Caliban was choking her, and the world started to turn gray around the edges.
Panic set in.
Freja smashed The Last Word into the Caliban’s ear: it felt weak, but she did it again and the creature shook its head, startled. Then she managed to grab something from its belt—a dagger—and sink it into the gray-white flesh. The Caliban gurgled in surprise, but Freja just kept stabbing. With every blow, the Caliban’s fingers lost a little of their strength, until she could finally breathe again. Eventually, the corpse sagged atop her, and she wriggled free, panting and smeared in gore.
There was one Caliban still up, at the center of the camp. It was on one knee, howling in pain, and Targa finished it with a brutal rising chop to the chin that made Freja cringe despite herself.
That was all, then: five Calibans dead, one porter screaming in agony. The other two porters knelt beside him, one trying to soothe him and the other scrambling to bandage the wound. Gryn joined them, speaking in soothing words about the bravery of Arman barbarians who faced far worse wounds at the hands of decadent sorcerer kings. As he spoke, power flowed through him into the man, slowing the bleeding and rejoining the torn skin.
“That’s some good speechifying,” Freja said to the Prymidian.
“Bard.” Gryn had no smile for her just then. “You look afright. You need healing?”
She shook her head. “Mostly bled all over me,” she said.
“These will bruise.” Grin touched her cheek and neck, making her wince. “See to Voshtet.”
Freja might have objected, but he was already reciting another soothing speech to channel more healing. She noticed three reddish hash marks painted across the nearest Caliban corpse’s face, and realized she’d seen the same thing the day before. This was their territory.
She joined the leader of their party where he stood at the edge of the little cliff, gazing down into the gap between the mountains. The sun was just creeping over the horizon, making his deep brown skin glow a kind of russet gold. He was distractingly beautiful just then.
“Targa,” she said. “Are you hurt? What’s wrong?”
“Am I hurt? You’re the one covered in blood.”
Freja shrugged. “Didn’t get any on my coat.”
“Well, get cleaned up.” He nodded. “It’s time.”
Freja frowned. “Time for what?”
He turned a dazzling smile on her. “To press on,” he said. “Right when our blood is up.”
Freja cleared her throat. “One of the men is badly injured, we’re in Caliban territory, and we don’t know what would be waiting down there.”
“I know. Terribly exciting, isn’t it?” Targa looked at the others clustered around the wounded man. “I won’t have our expedition ended because of this. We’ll get him home, yes, but not before we give the crypt at least one attempt. That’s what I’m paying for, isn’t it?”
Freja wanted to argue, but the fire in his eyes burned too hot. Finally she nodded. “As you will,” she said, despite the unsettled feeling in her gut. “You’re the boss.”