Morning mist rolled up from the streets in the pre-dawn light, and the breeze tugged at Walker's cloak and pulled at his hair. He checked the bronze sword now at his side: made for a two-handed wield by a drow, but for him a hand-and-a-half sword.
"This is a dangerous waste of time," Lisbeth pressed, appearing from the mist. Walker rolled his eyes.
"It's called being a wanderer. I go where I go, go with whatever events I wind up caught in, and make it all work one way or another until it's time to move on."
"I say it is now time to move on."
"Hey." Walker put his hands on his hips, pausing to glare down at his companion. "Who's the grown-up here?"
"Do not let my outward appearance fool you," Lisbeth snapped. "I am more than I choose to appear."
Walker eyed her. "You ain't gonna turn into a dragon or nothing, are you?"
"No! I am not a half..." Lisbeth sighed. "You must leave. We have important business to be about, and drow do not feature in it."
"Maybe ghosts do, though." Walker tilted his head. "Why do they want to take you back to Hell?"
"They..." Lisbeth shrugged. "Who knows why ghosts act as they do?"
"You're a ghost."
"Not one enthralled by the Gray Witch-"
"So the Gray Witch wants you?" Walker turned that concept over in his head. Lisbeth hissed.
"I did not say this."
"But you didn't not say it, neither." He turned back for the road, and the war party assemblage further down. "What's she after you for, then, Lis?" He waited a moment. "Lis?"
Silence. Walker didn't even bother looking.
"Should have guessed. Should have guessed...take my eyes off her for one minute..."
"So where are we headed?" Walker asked, as he hurried along with Azar's company. The redhead lead, glass sword on her back, while Chaska and Navin held the flanks. Behind them came several dozen warriors, while Jazmin remained behind. Walker eyed the shape in the distance for a minute. "I figured we're after ghosts, and that scepter, but I haven't heard no plan."
"There are small settlements ringing Prelate Archer's land, toward the glass mines in the east." Azar glanced over her shoulder. "The Gray Witch often sends Reznos and her other agents to attack traders on the road."
"Why?" Walker wondered. "What's her interest in Ardwal glass?"
"The glass has many properties. The dwarves are the best at its working." Azar pursed her lips. "It is not clear what the Witch's interest is. It is possible she is using it to manufacture weapons or looking-glasses."
"Or she could know something we don't, with supernatural whatsits." Walker grunted. "I'll be happier when we got an answer. Or at least some idea what she's after."
"I agree. The longer the Witch's motivations remain under a cloud, the more uncomfortable I become." Azar nodded. "It's a two-day journey to Archer's territory. Once there, we should find something we can work with."
"What did you find?" Azar asked, three days later. She and the majority of the war party hunkered under trees in the sunset rain, while the drow quickly went through a stock of hunted squirrels and rabbits, draining them of blood. Walker made do with vegetables and berries he harvested from the surrounding trees, unwilling to risk a fire to cook meat.
"We wandered down the road for a few miles," Chaska said, as he and his brother scurried back into the glade. "Five miles out, there's a little farmstead."
"And?" Walker demanded. Navin raised a hand.
"And there's werewolves in the trees," he said. "None changed, but..."
"Changed?" Walker glanced up. "Ain't a full moon, tonight."
"A gift of the Witch's," Chaska explained. "The Draught is something a wolf can drink to change, then and there, so long as it's night out. Doesn't have to be a full moon."
"But they're stronger the closer it is," Navin finished. "And the moon's waxing."
Azar grunted. "Are there any humans at the farm?"
"We thought not, at first." Chaska glanced over his shoulder. "Then we saw movement in one of the barns. They're holed up inside."
"We can't let them get eaten." Walker cracked his neck. "Ain't right."
"A farm down the road?" Azar arched an eyebrow at Chaska until he nodded. "Show me."
It wasn't a long journey, even approaching quietly through the trees. Walker stayed with the brothers as they slipped up to the edge of the fields, while Azar detailed the rest of her warriors in a loose semicircle.
"We want some of them to escape," she reminded, fingering her sword hilt. "If we kill them all, we have no way to track the Witch."
"Right." Navin nodded. "There's the barn."
"Small one," Walker observed. He examined the terrain for a long moment. "Don't see no wolves."
"They're prowling." That was Chaska. "They smell prey."
"They'll smell us, too, if we move any closer," Azar muttered. She tapped her claws on the loam, red eyes narrow. "We need to draw them out. Left to their own devices, they'll rush the farm and kill the humans."
"Can't have that," Walker agreed. He nodded to himself. "I'll take a look around."
"Alone?" Navin demanded. "No, no. I'll go with you-"
"You're drow. They'll smell drow."
"They'll smell you, too-"
"But there's already human scent everywhere in that place, ain't there?" Walker shrugged. "Only logic."
"And if I die, that ain't so bad." Walker patted Chaska on the shoulder. "I'll be back."
"I don't like it."
"Well, good for you." Walker gave Azar a glance. "I ain't asking permission."
She eyed him for a long moment, then tossed that scarlet, sparking hair. "Get in there, and draw them into open ground. Once we have a clear target, we'll descend on them from the rear and drive them off."
"Sure thing." And then Walker lowered, and he started into the cornfields.
"Don't die!" Navin encouraged.
Walker scurried as quickly as he dared, cursing his size. If not for his shoulders and spine, he would have a much easier go of slipping through the field unnoticed. His breath came in shallow as he worried: worried about a wolf bursting out in front of him, or behind...
"Ain't gonna happen," he muttered, far too low to be heard. He paused to sweep up a rock. "And if it does, kill it. Simple enough."
Then he neared the end of the plants, and Walker slowed. He settled, listening. For a few long minutes, there was nothing but the wind, and the rustling of crops.
"I smell something." A growling voice, that. Walker saw a shape through the last screen of vegetation, and he set his teeth when he took in its size and its blackness. It padded on all fours, sniffing the dirt. "I smell human."
"Of course you smell human." There was another wolf, behind the first. "Are we spotted?"
"Of course not," scoffed the first. "There are no warriors here to see us in the dark. Just the farmer and his pups, and the cripple they took in." He salivated. "We will feast tonight."
"Be careful," his friend urged. "We must encircle them and approach cautiously."
"Screw caution!" The first one snarled to punctuate that, pawing at the ground. "I want flesh, and Reznos said the first in have first-pick of the meat."
"But if you are seen-"
"What can they do?" The wolf barked laughter. "Only a silver weapon could harm us, and peasant farmers will lack those." He drew himself up. "I go to feast."
His friend hesitated. "This might not be wise-"
"Then you accept the scrap," scoffed the first. He rose to his full height, turning for the barn. "I want the youngest for her tender flesh-"
"Holy gods." Walker didn't even realize he'd been the one to gasp for a minute: not until the wolf's body had collapsed in the dirt with a hole between its eyes, the edges smoldering with the tell-tale marks of a silver bullet.
"That was one shot!" The authoritative voice rang from the barn loft, and Walker thought he saw powder-smoke rolling off into the darkened sky. "I have no shortage of munitions."
"What was that?" The other wolf seemed remarkably unfazed by his friend's instant death. He sniffed the body, and Walker winced when he took an experimental bite, as if to confirm his taste. Satisfied, the wolf turned to the corn. "I heard you, lurking in the dark."
Walker considered stealth and then discarded the idea, just as quickly. The wolf's nose turned his way, and he took a breath.
"Did you?" He punctuated that by hurling his rock right into the animal's eye. It flinched with a cry, and then Walker lunged. He battered at its face, punching left, then right, then ripping at its nose and hair.
"Get off!" The wolf threw him, and Walker tumbled. As he struggled to his knees, it rose, letting out an ear-splitting howl.
Walker lunged, and before those jaws could snap on him, he gave the wolf his best uppercut. It staggered up on its hind legs, snarling and spitting-
"Who's next?" called the sharpshooter, as the body collapsed atop the first. "I can sit here all night. And I never miss."
"In the dark." Walker shook his head, taking in the corpses. "In the pitch-black...one shot..."
Walker spun. He sucked in breath as he took in four more wolves, pacing low in the fields with dark eyes full of hunger.
And the speaker, a red-eyed man with wild sideburns.
"You must be Reznos," Walker surmised, glancing to the wolves and the way they waited at the red-eyed man's beck and call. "You're the wolves' boss. The Gray Witch's number two."
"And I don't recall meeting you." Reznos took Walker in, very intently.
"You can call me Walker, on account of it's all I ever do." He paused, after saying that. It was almost like...had he said it before?
Healer. I need a healer...
"Walker, then." Reznos' lip curled. "You are a big man. Big...and foolish. Men are not to intervene in the affairs of wolves."
"You're picking on people who ain't need you picking on them," Walker snapped. "Let well enough be. Find dinner somewhere else."
"I'm not inclined to be told what I may do," Reznos snapped. "And I am hardly threatened by you. Large you may be, but you are alone."
Reznos jumped back as lightning came down on his pack, descending from wild clouds hanging over the corn. His wolves howled, spittle flying as they turned rearward.
"He's not alone," Navin announced, where he stood with Chaska. His brother raised his hands, and roots and plants sprang to life in tune with the building of the wind.
"Not by half." Azar appeared at Walker's side, glass blade held one-handed while flames kindled in her other. "He's with me."
"Is he?" Reznos' lip curled. "What kind of bastard alliance is this, between men and the Army?"
"One that can defeat you," Azar riposted. Walker grinned, cracking his knuckles.
"I ain't broken real heads in a while," he mused.