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CHAPTER THREE

Evening approached, bringing more dark gray clouds. Birds began searching for steadier perches in the strong winds that rolled in from the Lake of Steam. A humid mist hung over the tall grass growing tenaciously on the hill between sea and forest, its mass interrupted only by the worn cart path that led to the town gates. The mist shifted slightly, rolling in on itself, swirling in ephemeral drafts as a faint figure appeared in its depths. It was tall, this silhouette materializing in the agitated mist, a shadow taking form among shadows. He was wrapped in a gray cloak with a high collar and wore a long-used, wide-brimmed traveler's hat. The spinning haze settled and revealed fair skin, a graceful jawline, silvered blond hair, and the light armor of a quick-footed warrior. Reflexively, Quinsareth hid his pale eyes beneath the brim of his hat, never sure who might be present as he arrived from the phantom roads of the shadowalk. He stopped for a moment, allowing the icy chill to fade from his body, letting the gravity of the dirt road settle into his stiff muscles, and clearing his mind of the discordant voices that echoed in the Shadow Fringe. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that the mass of blurred darkness he'd seen was the ocean. Its appearance in the shadowalk had been hauntingly beautiful, a black velvet blanket of absolute nothing. Quinsareth pulled the plated leather gauntlet from his right forearm and reached beneath his collar to trace the thin, jagged scar from Vesk's knife.

It was tender but closed and healing quickly now, a benefit of the shadowalk's swift corridors. The moisture in the air chilled him, driven by cool gusts of wind. He pulled his cloak tighter across his shoulders and surveyed his surroundings. He spotted the crude stone walls of the small town before him, noting the closed gates though it was barely sunset, or seemed so from the faint light illuminating the heavy clouds overhead. A signpost identified the town ahead as Logfell. A raven perching on the sign eyed him suspiciously, its wings raised. Quinsareth replaced his gauntlet as he studied the town, something alarming him, triggering the abstract senses of his celestial blood and stirring the restless darkness in the pit of his stomach. He absently patted the scabbard of the slumbering Bedlam at his side. Although not truly asleep, the blade's magic lay inert and silent, allowing him a measure of stealth as he approached the gates.

The raven leaped into flight, flapping quickly against the wind and disappearing over the wall. No smoke curled from the chimneys beyond the low stone wall-a strange detail in a region where autumn was brief and winters brought more rain than snow or ice. In the early chill of the current season, Quinsareth expected warm fireplaces among those unaccustomed to such cold winds. Standing before the wide gates, their surfaces eroded by years of exposure to the Lake of Steam's briny moisture, he could smell the familiar stench of death. Its aroma barely touched the air, but it confirmed his growing suspicions. As he laid his hand upon the wood, a hundred scenarios played through his mind, none of them worrisome. He had no expectation of a warm reception, or even of a peaceful street scene painted with curious onlookers. Those of his ilk rarely arrived in time to wield blade and will against injustice before harm was done. Like a scavenger to carrion, the ghostwalker came to balance the scales. Quin banished all thought of what might be, emptying his mind to be filled with what would be. He had no liking for practiced swordplay-patterned strokes and thrusts could be too easily read and countered. Entering the unknown-this seemingly abandoned town, for example-with scripted preconceptions could be just as dangerous. He leaned into the gate, swinging it open slowly. The first stone in this Fate Fall was Chance.

The next, he expected, would be Mystery. His eyes darted left and right, searching for any movement, but nothing awaited him. He found only an empty street and several rats scurrying for cover. Tiny dervishes of dust skipped across the avenue, disappearing between houses. He walked slowly, watching the open windows and doors of the stone and wood cottages, looking for the tips of arrows or the flash of readied blades. Or perhaps the frightened faces of hidden villagers waiting to learn the intentions of this silent stranger. No one met his shaded gaze. All seemed abandoned and overrun with rats and birds, no doubt feuding over forgotten crusts of bread. He heard the flutter of wings echo down the otherwise quiet street. Quinsareth contemplated the vacant town. Unlike fellow aasimar he'd met in his travels, he enjoyed his isolation, and did not brood over the loneliness of such an existence. He typically saw only the worst in people when called by the shadows-the faint voice of Hoar, his patron deity-and preferred to spend as little time with others as possible. Thus, he feared those he hunted less than their victims, daunted by the ordeals of conversation and social etiquette. He stared into a window, his eyes adjusting to the darkness within. Dim ambient light illuminated the cottage's interior in shades of gray. A table was laid out for dinner, the carcass of a chicken festering in its center, swarmed by flies and crawling with maggots. A loaf of stale bread was all but gone, devoured by rats and mice. A quick look into a few other homes revealed much the same, prepared meals left for vermin and any inhabitants utterly missing. He wondered at the scene, uneasiness and dread settling in his blood. He knelt on one knee, listening to the distant rolling tide. Evening drew closer and weak sunlight faded behind ominously hushed storm clouds. Then he saw it-a dark stain spattered across a large garden stone, rust-colored and almost black, spilling across the wooden border of a flower bed. The sight of blood was almost comforting. Better a morbid clue than a complete mystery, he thought. A strong draft blew down the avenue then, casting dust into Quinsareth's eyes and mouth. He coughed and spat as a loud clatter sounded behind him. Instantly, his hand went for Bedlam's hilt, drawing the first few inches of blade as he spun to face the source of the staccato noise that shattered the town's heavy silence.

As he watched the gates crash together, blown by the sudden gust, he eased Bedlam back into its scabbard. The garden stone forgotten, he stared at macabre splashes of blood and gore across the inside of the weathered gate. Most recognizable were the hand prints. Some were clearly defined, others smeared downward as their owners were dragged beneath what could have been a sizeable crowd. The smears indicated a mob, all pushing on a gate that he had opened easily. Had the gates been sealed-by some force or magic-not to keep something out, but to keep it in? He turned away, grimly searching for more and expecting the worst. It was a philosophy that had rarely failed him. "Prepare for the worst" matched his experiences better than "hope for the best." The empty streets suited him just fine as he strolled from house to house, relegating the possible fate of Logfell's population to the back of his mind. He would sort it out in time. On his way to the eastern wall, Quinsareth paused, noticing something in a west-facing window at the end of a broad street. Looking in, he studied a small broken figure lying on the floor of a bedroom. Rather than lingering, he determined the town's secrets had moved on, and he must keep up to discover them. He paused briefly to inspect the sanctuary of a small temple to Savras in the center of town, expecting any survivors to be there. In the company of its stained glass and marble floors, he felt something familiar, fleeting memories picking at his mind but dodging recognition. The temple itself seemed to be the only place untouched by spilled blood or signs of violence, yet it held the most ominous chill, as if any connection to its divine patron had been severed and replaced by a void. Quinsareth was reminded of a monastery on the River of Swords, hundreds of miles away, similarly left hollow one day, its charred remains no doubt grown over by now.

Those who walked the paths of Hoar rarely stayed in one place for long. That place though, had seemed hundreds of years old the first time he'd entered. The day he left was the last day he'd set eyes on any structure devoted to his god. Faith and service had come naturally to him, and Hoar was not a deity strict in the observance of rituals or rites. Though priesthood had never called to him, Hoar had.

Quinsareth found the eastern gate in the same condition as the western, except open and swinging, banging together like loose shutters on an open window. Logfell was desolate, displaying its wounds on every street corner, moaning as the windy breath of the coming storm blew among its orphaned lanes and austere buildings. He studied the ground and the footprints he found there. The clawed prints of several gnolls and the heavy, sunken tread of an ogre confirmed the presence of possible attackers or even scavengers but did not explain the total lack of traces of them within the town. The prints showed them moving east, skirting the edges of the forest. His instinct was to follow them, as he'd always done, but something kept drawing his gaze to the forest, its dark depths hiding secrets, its twisted and misshapen trees calling to that dormant chill running in his blood. He forced his eyes and thoughts away from the forest.

Reaching within himself, he disappeared into the swift embrace of the Shadow Fringe. He followed his instincts and avoided that inexplicable dread of whatever lurked among the trees.



***** | Bloodwalk | *****