"What are we looking for, exactly?" Sam asked, as the freezing night wind hit the companions like a tidal wave. Belthor had to pause to wrap his coat around him a little tighter, though Agnete's rosy cheeks just lifted as she smiled. Belthor liked her smile.
"I don't imagine we can find two-day old tracks in the snow," Tori agreed.
"Well, no," Belthor agreed. "But the stranger said he saw them head out that way." He pointed vaguely in the direction of the forest. "Several of them were hit pretty hard. I figure if we head that way, we'll find scorch marks from the ones we set on fire, or things the others dropped."
"That's a big guess," Sam observed.
"I can track through the snow better than you," Agnete said. "I have hunted in the North. I will take the lead."
"Sure." Belthor let the drow pass him. He sank his staff into the snow, taking in a deep breath of frigid night air. "We were up there when it happened. I was walking you home."
"Yes, you were," Agnete agreed. "It was very cold. Which I found enjoyable, but you do not."
"You are a strange cookie," Tori told Agnete, adjusting her cap and pulling it down over the cascade of red flowing over her shoulders. "In case no one had ever told you that."
"I have been informed." Agnete sounded a bit sour, but she moved on before Tori had a chance to press her. "You arrived from the town, driving them further to the west. The stranger says that he was in a position to watch them depart, and that is the direction they traveled."
"What's west?" Sam asked, as they paced through fields of white darkened by a lack of sun.
"Hang on." Belthor held his staff up, and a faint green light winked into existence atop it. "I don't have Klamnet's Rune, but I can do a little."
"Good idea." Sam mimicked him, only his light was blue. The combination gave the snowy plain an almost underwater feel.
"West...west is Agnete's clearing," Belthor said. "I don't think that's where they're from, though, or they'd have come for her while she was there instead of at the town."
"There is not much else around it," Agnete said. "Master Kulkas chose the most out-of-the-way place he could find."
"There has to be something," Belthor said. "We'll head that way and fan out a bit. Sam, you're with me. Tori and Agnete can be in the center. Can you make a light?"
"Sure," Tori said, cheerfully. She held out her free hand, and flames burst up from her palm. "It's prettier than yours, too."
"She's kind of a pyro," Sam warned.
"I'm just too hot for you," the redhead replied. "Besides, this way, I get to be warm too."
"I have never been so jealous of a Gifted," Belthor told her, his teeth chattering.
"Aw. Not even me?" Sam made a very sad face. "I thought everyone wanted to shoot lightning from their fingertips."
"How exactly does that work, anyway?" Belthor asked, as Sam drifted to his side and the girls moved their own way. The four started across the snow toward the looming trees, with their wide-spread branches making them look like demons or devils in the dark.
"I don't know that I can explain it," Sam said. "I just...wish out lightning, and it happens." He shrugged. "It comes from my hands, usually, but I can call it down from the sky too under certain circumstances. It's not good for much that way, since the power's usually inside me, but it creates a thunderclap. Great for parties."
"And your device?" Belthor asked. Sam shrugged.
"I told you about that." He paused to nudge a branch aside with his staff. "My father made it. It's so I don't lose control and start shooting lightning left and right with no plan - all I have to do is wish it, remember? I can adjust the device to suppress my Gift, or to...empower it, I suppose."
"That's cursed," Belthor told him.
"Careful. You'll turn into Theron when you're not looking."
"Is it a very common Gift?" Belthor asked. Sam considered.
"I've never met anyone else with it," he replied. "Especially not the device. Some people can manipulate lightning, but not as well as I can. Not that I'm boasting." He glanced at Belthor. "Have you?"
"Well," he started, "back during everything that happened in Rosa-"
"One of the first rules of hunting, boys," Agnete said, appearing from the darkness so quietly that Belthor jumped mid-word, "is to be quiet."
"Oh. Sorry." The initiate winced. "Just a conversation."
"Caribou do not have conversations," Agnete informed him, which was most likely accurate. "And I do not think the Owned will either. If we wish the element of surprise, we must be silent."
"Yes, ma'am," Belthor said, very agreeably seeing as this was the drow's area of expertise. That seemed to confuse Agnete more than anything, but she withdrew with only a puzzled expression instead of a more vocal query. Belthor gave Sam a glance, but he only shrugged, as if to say I suppose she's right.
They walked. Belthor watched his and Sam's breath come out in great clouds of steam, and the two of them had to pause every so often for one of them to use a spell of warmth and drive the chill from their bones for a moment. Tori and Agnete were over to the left, always visible from the Gifted girl's purple-tinted flame, but occasionally Belthor saw the lithe form of the drow herself drifting through the snow on all fours in a very catlike way. He wondered if they were slowing her down, and morosely concluded that they probably were.
The trees grew taller, and the branches longer. More than once, Belthor gasped when the sudden movement of wood in the wind took him by surprise, or the breeze picked up and sounded like a banshee's howl. He had never been over fond of the dark, and that was before his brothers figured that out and educated him thoroughly on all the predatory and frightening creatures in South Sharan folklore.
And then, after what felt like hours of walking, he saw it.
"Sam." He raised his staff, examining the glint in the dark. The Gifted initiate drifted to his side almost instantly.
"What is it?" he asked, staff upraised to give even more light. Belthor knelt, and with his free hand he took the object from the snow, listening to the crunch of Tori's footsteps as she and Agnete(and her silent footfalls) approached from the dark.
"It's a knife," Belthor said. "It's Yvette's knife, the one she threatened us with."
"How'd it get here?" Sam asked.
"She dropped it," Belthor replied. "She must have dropped it, hurrying along this way." He stood, putting a little more power into his light spell as he examined the little ravine they found themselves in. "The sides don't look climbable. And that's a lot of branches overhead, which rules out any kind of air transportation, like griffons or a dragon."
"A dragon?" Tori asked, raising an eyebrow. Belthor shrugged self-consciously.
"Just keeping an open mind," he muttered. "We don't know."
"So they went straight through," Sam surmised. "Wherever they were going must be on the other end of this ravine."
"It must," Belthor agreed, smiling despite the cold. "We're on the right track." He glanced around. "Let's spread out a bit. Maybe they lost something else - something that can help us pinpoint their location better."
"Right." Tori nodded. Agnete seemed a bit more lost.
"How did she lose the knife?" the girl asked. "I do not understand."
"Maybe she was hurrying and it slipped out," Sam suggested. "Stranger things have happened. I don't know that it matters much how, compared to that she did."
Agnete shook her head. "I think it matters very much. She might have lost the knife in battle, but who was she fighting here?"
"Let's look around and see if we can find out," Belthor repeated. "There's got to be something if there was another fight."
"True enough." And then Agnete hurried off, staying close to Tori and Sam and their lights. Belthor turned his attention back the way they'd come, and without words, each of the four wound up choosing a separate direction to explore.
No footprints, Belthor mused. Makes sense. There's been a lot of snowfall lately. Enough to bury practically anything. He kicked at the snow and poked with his staff, hoping to hear a thump or a clang as he hit a further piece of evidence. That he didn't maddened him: there had to be something more than a lost knife buried under yesterday's snow.
"Yesterday's snow," Belthor found himself muttering. He frowned as he examined the powder, then turned back to his companions, scattered around the ravine hunting in their faint lights. "Didn't it snow yesterday?"
"Yes," Tori said. "Why?"
Belthor glanced around the ravine. "Do you think it snowed here? The overhead cover's pretty thick, but I don't think it's thick enough to prevent snow getting through."
"I think this place got hit," Sam agreed. "What's your point?"
"There's no footprints or anything," Belthor said. He glanced around. "Nothing." He opened his palm to glance at the blade. "Except this."
"Why wasn't it buried?" Belthor asked. He turned to Sam and Tori and Agnete, and he felt the sick certainty before anyone could say it. "It was laid here. It's bait."
"Bait for what?" Sam asked. "They couldn't know we planned on-"
"The Owner knows all. The Owner sees everything."