Thursday, July 20, 2017

Chapter Eighteen: What Demons Men Hide(Part Three)



"He can't have gotten far," Tori said. "He's cast a spell of invisibility, or of transportation. He could be anywhere within a mile, but he has to be going somewhere. It sure isn't back to the school, not with us aware of who he is and what he's done."

"He's got to be headed for his parents' estate," Sam said. "They might shelter him. He could make a case as the son of the baron that this is politically-motivated, or even fabricated. If he mentions Agnete's involvement, he could win the Masters over on that alone."

"Truth." The drow's voice was cold. "We have to stop him."

"I can find him," Belthor said. He raised his staff, and the impulse he sought now was discovery. If there was anything hidden within five hundred yards, he wanted to know about it.

His staff hit the snow. He closed his eyes, listening and feeling...

It was like a itch...seven itches. It was very strange. He frowned as he tried to pinpoint more about them...he felt footsteps running for the river, but before he could tell his companions, he felt the other itches, the other discoveries.

"Belthor?" Sam asked, as he turned on his heel. He walked six paces through the snow, staff in hand, heart pounding.

"No," he whispered. "No. This can't be."

"Belthor?" Tori demanded.

"What is it?" Agnete asked.

Belthor raised his staff. He sucked in breath, then brought the tool down with a thud!

The snow shifted. It whirled and twisted, and then vomited upward, accompanied by geysers of dirt, from six spots at once.

From before six headstones, each one with a bouquet laid before it.

Six coffins rose, each one crashing down in the snow in the same heartbeat. Belthor approached them, barely able to breathe, and lowered his staff.

"What is this?" Agnete asked, as he wrenched the lid off of one.

"No!" Yvette's voice was strained and panicked. "He will see!" She thrashed inside the coffin, in a white dress and held down by what looked like hidden steel cuffs, clutching flowers to her chest. Green ran in her veins, and flashed in and out of her eyes.

"It's me!" Belthor ran to her, jabbing at her restraints with his staff. They cracked, and he grabbed her hand to pull her out. "It's Belthor-"

"Light!" She covered her eyes. "No! No light! It will shatter me and scour us all! He will see!"

"Theron is gone," Belthor said. "You're free. Yvette-"

"There is no free!" She burst into tears, thrashing. "The dark is all! Light and fire and...and he will see! Nothing but dark." She whimpered. "Don't make me go back in the dark. Please, Owner, don't do it. Don't leave me in the dark again. I'll be good."

"I'm not going to-"

"Please!" Yvette thrashed, her voice panicked. "Not the dark!"

Belthor fell silent as he realized how far beyond reason she was. Her eyes still glowed green, her veins still pulsed, and in her movements, she had the jerky stiffness she had possessed as an Owned.

"Check the others," he managed to gasp, while he grappled with the truth of what he was seeing. "Get them out."

Tori and Sam set to with a will, and Agnete shattered a coffin's lid with her claws. They pulled the other four Owned from their prisons, and the chorus of whimpering cries only became worse. Belthor felt his breath come in great rasps as he took them in, and noted with horror that one looked exactly like Theron's sketches of his fiancée. He couldn't bear to approach her, and instead hurried for the sixth coffin. He ripped the lid off-

"I don't want to do it again!" Annette cried. "Don't make me drink it! I'll do anything!" She twisted in her bonds, green in her veins and her eyes like the others. "No more! Let me go, please!"

"Annette..." Belthor couldn't get anything else out. "Annette..."

"Don't make me drink it," she whimpered. "Please don't do it. It burns me. It hurts. It tears at me and rips me open on the inside...I can't think...please, don't force me to drink any more. No more dark...light and fire..." She started giggling, almost uncontrollably. "Light and fire in the dark and...and..." the giggles became tears. "Please stop!"

"Gods." Sam was pale like the snow, and Tori along with him. Agnete just stared, stared at all the Owned with incomprehension and shock in her eyes.

"How could anyone do this?" Tori asked, before she embraced one of the sobbing girls. "It's all right. It's all right. Breathe. You're safe."

"What the devil is-" the stranger's voice trailed off as he saw the chaos. "Oh, no." He surged forward, leaning down to sweep Yvette and Annette both up in his arms like they weighed nothing. "It's all right, girls. It's over."

Belthor said nothing. He couldn't even bring himself to comfort one of the Owned. Sam knelt with them, looking unsure of what to say but determined to try, and Agnete just stood still as a tree, and quiet as one too.

Belthor's grip tightened on his staff as the coiling beast returned.

"Hey!" Tori called as he turned and bolted for the river. "Bel, what are you-"

"Get them to safety!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Find a Master!"

"Belthor, you can't just-"

"Come back, son!" the stranger called. "Theron's too good for you to take on your own-"

Belthor shut him out. He shut Tori and Sam's calls out too, and he shut out every voice of caution in his head. The only thing that mattered was the chorus of crying and screaming, the thrashing girls lost in their own minds, locked in coffins buried in the earth...

And the man who had done it to them.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Chapter Eighteen: What Demons Men Hide(Part Two)



Belthor turned. Theron Greenhaven stood in the stairway, legion upon legion of skeletons behind him, staff in hand, with a little smile curling up his lips. 

"Theron?" Tori demanded. 

"You're the Owner?" Sam continued.

"Honestly, I thought you'd have figured it out a while ago," Theron admitted. "I messed up several times talking to the roc. He never told me the word Owned, and yet, idiot that I am, I used it."

"And you were the only person I told where we were going!" Belthor clenched his free fist. "You're an expert on potions, you have a specialization in healing...why did I not suspect you until now? You fit every criteria we were looking for!"

"I honestly don't know," Theron said. "Be more suspicious, roc. Not everyone is as handsome as they look."

"Why?" Agnete demanded. "Why do you want me? What did I do to you?"

"It's not what you did to me," Theron said. His eyes hardened. "No one freezes my little brother in a block of ice except me."

"She lost control," Belthor said. "It was an accident."

"And I couldn't care less. You hurt him." Theron's face was dark. "I'm sorry, Agnete. You won't be one of the Owned. I won't give you that reward, that pleasure."

"Reward?" Belthor demanded. "Reward? You take control of them without writ and-"

Theron laughed. "I have the power, roc! What other writ do I need? If they didn't want it, they should have protected themselves."

"Are you serious?" Belthor asked. "You cannot be serious."

"I have the power," Theron said. "The gods gave it to me. They must want me to use it. What law says I should not? I have the power, and so I have the right - no! The obligation to honor the gods' gift by spreading it." He laughed. "Besides, the girls are all too happy to stay with me forever after just one night."

"You're insane." Belthor raised his staff. "Give it up. We know who you are now. You've lost."

"I don't want to kill you, roc," Theron said, and he actually sounded like he meant it. "I like you. You're like a little brother."

"You're lucky the Owner doesn't want you dead," Belthor quoted. "How did I not see this coming?"

"Roc, you may leave," Theron said. "But Agnete I will kill for what she did to Hastel, and the rest of you along with her." He regarded Tori. "Except maybe you."

"Oh, I see where this is going," she said. The flame in her hand exploded upward. "I'd rather die than become one of your shambling slaves."

Theron shrugged. "Oh, well. Fair enough."

"Right." The stranger cracked his neck. "Bored now."

"Kill them." Theron melted backward as his legion charged.

Branches and bones and swords and rotten shields flashed in the dark. Belthor's staff spun and he annihilated two of them before a blow took him in the ribs. Agnete appeared on his right, claws flashing and ice surging outward any time skeletons approached her, and then Sam was on his left in a storm of lightning. Bones flew and shattered, and green acid rained on the floor.

"Oi!" The stranger hefted one of the tables festooned with cauldrons, and he hurled it across the laboratory with a roar. It tumbled through the skeletal ranks and spilled over the floor, and Theron jumped to avoid getting caught by the liquid. His minions slipped and tripped by the dozen, and Sam's lightning and Tori's fire caught them as they tried to rise.

"Theron!" Tori hurled a blast of fire his way, but the senior waved his staff and it split off to the sides. As the flames dissipated, he leveled the weapon at her, and she flew with a cry, hitting the far wall hard enough there was an indent of her body half an inch deep in the solid stone when she dropped.

"Tori!" Sam was over her in a heartbeat, lightning flying from one hand and staff lashing out in the other. Belthor vaulted over a table and skidded over to the redhead, putting his hand on her back.

"Nerien!" he called.

"Come on, fruitcake!" The stranger's fist flew, and Belthor had the distinct pleasure of seeing Theron roll to the side, staff held in both hands. The senior set his teeth as the stranger came at him again, throwing punches and kicks that ripped great chunks out of the wall when they made contact. Theron's staff lashed out and he blew the man back across the room...but the stranger just laughed, a deep, bass laugh that bespoke amusement at pain.

Then he vaulted back at Theron, and the senior was summoning fire and wind from both ends of his weapon, battering away wildly and trying to avoid punches that broke down doors.

Tori groaned. Belthor helped her to a sitting position, pausing to jab his staff into a skeleton and end its meager existence without even looking.

"Can you stand?" he asked.

"I can." Tori proceeded to prove it, almost unaided. "I can still fight." She raised her hand and her staff returned to her. "I just..."

"Sam, stay with her!" Belthor spun, enchanting a heavy chair into the air and smashing it through the next set of skeletons first one way, then the other on the backswing. The chair shattered when it hit the wall, and Belthor leveled his staff in the economical stance Master Vignette had taught as the next wave came forward.

The big man let out an annoyed grunt as he flew through the air, his shirt on fire, to slam head-first into the same dent Tori had made, extending it to be a head-and-shoulders shaped hole. He tumbled to the floor, then rose to his feet looking slightly dazed and very miffed.

"It's gonna take more than that, pretty-boy!" Then he surged forward again like an avalanche, only for about twenty skeletons to throw themselves on him. He roared as he shattered them with both hands, but they were bogging him down.

"Get off!" Belthor attacked, his staff shattering the things with both ends, even as he whirled the broken chunks of masonry around him in a spiraling cloud that struck down anything within two feet. He felt power flood the room, making it hot and muggy, and sweat burst out under his coat and on his forehead.

A thump echoed through the room, and Agnete cried out. Belthor glanced up and he saw her tumble through a chair in a cloud of splinters. She jumped to her feet nimbly, but then Theron was on her, staff spinning, and she could only dodge, creating little shields of ice for her defense that survived one hit before shattering.

"Agnete!" Belthor hurled his staff. She stuck her hand out and caught it, which made Theron grind to something approaching a halt for just a moment. That was all the drow needed, and she lunged onto the offensive, forcing him back. The instant staff met staff, sparks flew and rained and a great crack of thunder nearly deafened Belthor. More came in a rapid-fire series of explosions as senior and drow went head-to-head with matching snarls, ice coating her staff and flames forming on the ends of his.

Then Theron's hand shot out, and Agnete's hair jerked backward, hauling her two paces away. She flailed, and the end of his staff took her in the ribs.

"No!" Belthor cried as she hit the wall next to Tori's dent. The drow dropped their staff, landing on all fours. She struggled to rise, raising her claws.

"You-" Theron hesitated as Tori, Sam and Belthor put themselves between him and Agnete, the initiate summoning his staff back to his hand. The stranger hurled a skeleton's skull past the senior, and he glanced left as if to assure himself that his legion was, in fact, more of a party by now. "You haven't seen the last of me."

"Oh, yes we have!" Belthor lunged forward as Theron bolted, and he heard his friends on his heels. They tore up the stairs and out of the mausoleum, their footfalls echoing in the dark along with the stranger's laughs and snarls of battle.

Then they were out in the cold, and Theron was nowhere to be seen.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Maximus 3 Update + Thank You!

Hello, everyone!

I hope you've been enjoying Belthor Spellweaver, and I hope you're buckled in as we make the transition to the third act. This was one of the most entertaining stories I've yet written, and if you feel the same, please share it with your friends on Facebook or Twitter or what have you, and leave me comments with your thoughts!

I would like to share that today I will be beginning my second-pass work on Maximus 3, the name of which you'll find out later. It will air after the conclusion of Spellweaver, which if I'm not mistaken will be at some point mid-October. Max3 has been completed and sitting on my hard drive since January(before Spellweaver even started posting, yes) but it needs some detail work in the beginning(openings are hard to write, man) and then a general trim-and-fix pass to eliminate errors in the manuscript. It features a character from Spellweaver in a fairly prominent role, and several from Midnight, though the protagonist is someone who has only been mentioned in passing and the setting is completely new territory.

I also feel the need to put a huge shout-out here to my lovely WIFE, whom I married on the thirteenth! She was the inspiration for Agnete in some ways, and I love her dearly. You're the best, Lani!

Shout-out to you as well. Thank you so much for reading, whether you've been here for a while or are new or are somewhere in between. All I've ever wanted to do is share stories and entertain, and if you're entertained, then I walk away happy. Without readers, this project would be for nothing but my own vanity - so thank you again, and I hope you remain entertained by what comes.

If you've enjoyed Spellweaver and/or Midnight, please consider buying them in the Bookstore.

I'm off to start my editing work...the next post will drop Tuesday as usual. Be prepared!

-Kevin Haulsee

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Chapter Eighteen: What Demons Men Hide(Part One)



It was cold. Belthor didn't care. He wore Estelle's gifted coat under his cloak, he carried his staff in his right hand, and he had his shard of Ardwal glass on him in case he needed to scry things far away during the raid. In fact, he held it now.

"Spellweaver," he said, "show me the Owner."

The glass rippled...and that was that. The initiate sighed.

"It was worth a try," Agnete said. "Either the glass does not recognize the name, or the Owner is protected from scrying."

"We're going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, then," Belthor said. He turned to look at the mausoleum, painted orange and red by the setting sun. He eyed the skeletons. "There's no more than twenty of them."

"And there's five of us," the stranger growled. "Four each hardly seems a challenge. Maybe I'll take six and give the ladies a break."

"What a gentleman." Tori's voice was dry.

"Tori, Sam, stay together," Belthor ordered. "Cover each other. Agnete, you're with me." He hesitated as he regarded the big man. "You..."

"I don't need no partner. You just look out for each other." He examined the mausoleum. "We going in together, or...?"

"We'll enter from two sides at once. You come in with me and Agnete, but then we'll split up." Belthor pointed to a few positions in the graveyard as he outlined further details. "I don't imagine the skeletons will be that big of a deal, but we've got to be prepared for something else to throw a wrench in the gears."
 
"Like the Owned," Sam agreed. "Where are they? Sunbathing?"

"I don't know," Agnete said. "I do not like their absence. I find it bothersome."

"So do I." Belthor took a breath. "Let's take a minute and make sure we're ready. Then let's find out who this Owner is."

Tori and Sam checked their staffs, and Belthor saw each one test their Gift. Sam adjusted his device. The stranger just leaned against a tree, his muscles bulging through his shirt, and watched the skeleton patrols with an expression that suggested the whole pause was a waste of time. Maybe it was, too, but Belthor would rather waste a few minutes making sure nothing was going to go wrong that he could prevent than suffer the consequences of not waiting.

"When we get in there, I think we will see more skeletons," Agnete warned, appearing beside Belthor. 
"If the Owner truly is here, he will throw everything he has at us to ensure his escape. Skeletons, the Owned, his own power..."

"It'll be a fight," Belthor agreed. He sighed, and his breath blew away on the breeze. "I don't like fighting."

"I don't think most people do," Agnete said. "But I find many stud humans..." She coughed. "Many boys pretend as if they do. They must maintain an image."

"Well, I'm terrible at image." Belthor glanced at her. "I only ever wanted to heal. And here I am, about to raid a crazy sorcerer's headquarters to rescue a captive."

"You want to heal her," Agnete said. "The Owner stands between you and doing that. There is nothing wrong with power, Belthor, so long as you use it well. It is those who cannot see what harm their power inflicts who are the problem."

"You sound like Master Kulkas." Belthor smiled. "He'd say the same thing."

"He is very wise." Agnete's eyes glittered with the light of sunset. "I think you are too, for trying to avoid pointless confrontation."

"Well...thank you." Belthor took in a breath. Agnete watched him closely, and he realized after a moment why.

"I think it is very funny," she said, before he could comment. "The way your breath floats away. Mine does that too, but only a little. Your air is so warm...you creatures are walking volcanoes to my eyes."

"Well, you're like frost in mine," Belthor said. He paused as a shadow flitted over Agnete's face. "I'm sorry. Did I-"

"It is nothing." Agnete shook her head. "I am ready. Are you?"

Belthor struggled with the suddenness of it all, but he could only nod. "Yes."

"Well, then." That was the stranger, pushing himself off his tree. "Let's break some bones."

***

The first skeleton turned as Belthor approached, but all it accomplished was to see his overhead strike coming in the instant before it shattered the sack of bones into sixty or seventy separate fragments. The next one swung with a length of wood, but Agnete vaulted into it from next to nowhere, ice spraying from her hands before she hit it with her shoulder. It shattered even more conclusively than Belthor's opponent.

"Next?" the initiate asked, as Agnete drifted back to his side and the remaining six skeletons faced them.

Crack! Crack! His staff claimed the first two, and Agnete's claws and ice ripped into the remainder. Belthor spun behind her, raising his weapon high, and a strike of lightning came down on the tool from above. He stabbed, and out the power went, turning his fourth victim to ash on the spot.

And then there were none, and he and Agnete were walking through the rows of tombstones almost casually, watching fire and lightning explode on the other end of the graveyard for all of five seconds of light.

"Chumps." Sam seemed unimpressed as he stepped over the remains of his and Tori's foes. "Didn't stand a chance."

"Don't get arrogant." The stranger threw a femur aside as he joined the wizards before the mausoleum. "There's liable to be hundreds more." He considered. "But they really are pretty terrible."

"The Owner will be better." Agnete examined the heavy stone door before them. "It does not look like it opens."

Sam grabbed it. He yanked on the heavy steel ring that served as a handle for a moment, before giving up with an annoyed grunt. "It's enchanted. Must only open for the one who knows the password."

"We don't know the password," Belthor pointed out. He glanced around at the neat rows of graves, side-by-side, some marked with flowers even in the snow. "I could try and open it with magic, I suppose, but if Protec is the one who enchanted it, I don't know that I can top him-"

"Move." The stranger pushed Sam aside and approached the door. He cracked his knuckles.

"The door's enchanted," Tori said, sounding almost exasperated. "It's not going to open for brute force-"

"Sure. The door ain't." Then the man lifted his leg and kicked the stone wall about two feet left of the massive portal. Belthor winced-

The wall blew inward in an explosion of masonry. Chunks of stone fell on all sides, and dust sprayed into the air. The stranger recovered his leg, then punched twice at the hole, each blow sending bricks and mortar flying.

Belthor's jaw cracked as it fell open.

"What're you gawking at?" Then the stranger was in, and Belthor had to shut his mouth in a hurry. He turned to stare at Tori, Sam, and Agnete, and all of them seemed just as shocked as he was.

"What is he?" Tori asked in wonder. Belthor could only shrug...and then hurry after their human battering ram.

It was dark in the mausoleum. They walked an entry corridor lined with statues of what Belthor recognized as death gods and angels and servants, each one different yet similar. The corridor became stairs, and then they descended into the bowels of the earth, pausing only for Belthor and Sam to light their staffs and Tori to create a flame.

The stairs let out in a large open room, littered with tables and cauldrons and books and steaming potions set out for use. The walls were decorated with tapestries of one scene or another, but Belthor could only hurry over to the cupboards of ingredients and start rifling through them.

"Dragon blood," he said. "And ocular fluid. They have the hypnotic eyes...it's necessary for compulsion potions."

"This is definitely his lair," Sam agreed. "But where is Protec? And where are the Owned?"

"Are they on the attack?" Tori asked. "If so, we've taken their base while they were out. They'll come home and we can ambush them."

"I don't know." Agnete examined the boiling, bubbling cauldrons with no flame below them. Her face glowed green in the reflected light. "These potions look like nothing I've ever seen. They must be a custom brew."

"Spread out," Belthor ordered. "Let's look for any sign of the Owned, or any clue as to where Protec's gone."

"He'll be back soon, if he ain't here already," the stranger warned. Belthor nodded.

"Then let's get this done and be ready for him."

Belthor tried to keep an eye on the stairs as he wandered the room, but since he had one of the three lights, Agnete and the stranger kept calling him over to give them a better view of something. His breath came shallow in the deep and the dark, and he again had to remind himself that the legends his brothers had told him were mostly fictionalized. Besides, he wasn't alone. Agnete and Tori and Sam and the stranger would make short work of any vampire that strolled into the laboratory.

Then his eye caught on something. Belthor frowned for a moment, before turning.

"What..." he eyed the tapestry in confusion. "What is that?"

"Light!"

Belthor continued staring. He continued until Agnete tapped him on the shoulder.

"I need light," she said, as he turned. "There's a book-"

"What is this?" Belthor held his staff up so she could get a better look. "I feel like I should know what it is, but my eyes aren't putting the pieces together."

Agnete studied it. "It is a woman. I think she is dead. She is wearing a white dress."

"We need to leave. Now." Belthor barely recognized the voice as his own. His legs wobbled under him and his veins pulsed with needles and chill. "Now!"

Agnete blinked. "Belthor, it is a tapestry. How do you-"

"So. You've figured me out, have you, roc?"

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Chapter Seventeen: Daughter of the Frost



"She never came in today," the stranger growled. "Just like Yvette. No one's seen her since last night, right after you lot slipped out."

"It can't have been the Owned," Belthor protested, his heart racing. "It can't have. We were fighting them in the woods. They trapped us."

"Did they?" The stranger crossed his arms. "Could've been their Owner slipping into town looking for a new recruit. Annette's going to be there next time you hit up the Owned, mark my words." His jaw worked. "How'd you get trapped?"

"I don't know!" Belthor clutched his staff, glancing to his friends. "Why does everyone keep disappearing? Who's next?"

"He is after me," Agnete supplied, eyes distant. "I will be soon."

"How can this man operate with no one stopping him?" Belthor demanded. "No one sees anything, no one says anything...just disappearances, and the victims reappearing as the Owned! It's impossible!"
"We've got to step up our plans," Sam said. "We might need to move ahead with Theron's idea."

"Theron?" The stranger's lip curled. "You're bringing the pretty-boy in on all this? He'll be a deadweight."

"He's been a fair sight more helpful than you," Belthor snapped. "You're the one who gave us a tip that turned out to be a trap."

"What are you saying?" the big man bristled.

"I'm saying that I take coincidences like that as maybe being not so coincidental, especially in light of the fact that the Owner made off with Annette while we were distracted." Belthor met the stranger's gaze, his veins pulsing with anger. "I'm half-inclined to think you set us up, and Annette too."

"Watch your mouth, boy," he snapped. "Annette and Yvette are sweet, and they're under my wing. I ain't letting nothing happen to them." He eyed Belthor's staff, almost in amusement. "Your toy won't help you if you piss me off, son."

"Oh, yeah?" Belthor raised it off the floor. "Why don't we go outside and find out?"

"Bel!" Tori caught his shoulder, and he hesitated. "We don't know anything."

"For all we know, he's as benevolent as he wants us to believe," Sam continued. "You're the one who said you had a good feeling about him."

"But...but..." Belthor let out a cry that was almost a howl. "That's six victims! Each one doomed to be corrupted and compelled and...and..." he struggled to find words. "We can't just..."

"And I don't expect you to, son." The stranger's tone almost seemed gentler. "But don't go seeing conspiracies in every bush, when there are perfectly real ones that require your attention."

"...I don't know if I can trust you," Belthor told him. He laughed.

"Makes two of us. You could be the Owner's source yourself, kid, and just making a damn good show at hiding it. But I guess I'll have to hope you ain't, won't I?"

Belthor took in a deep breath, trying to get a handle on the hot, coiling feeling in his stomach. It was like an animal had taken root inside of him, clawing at his heart and breathing fire into his places of better reasoning.

Something stung on his arm. He pulled his collar down, and faintly he could see the edge of his tattoo, glowing red.

I'm sorry, Nerien, he thought, trying very hard to mean it. I'm not thinking. Then he took in breath and turned to face the stranger.

"But I'll try to trust you," he said. "I can't hold you responsible for something without evidence it was your fault."

"Ain't you nice." The stranger was back to his mocking glare, but Belthor thought he seemed a little calmer in the eye. "Still leaves us kind of lost."

"We need to do something," Belthor agreed. "We need to take the attack."

"Well, we need a plan first," the stranger replied. "And a plan requires food and drinks for mind-stuff." He gestured to his table. "Come on."

Belthor followed, almost numbly. He waited for Tori and Sam to pass him, all three leaning their staffs on the table after the girl cast a spell of silence. Belthor removed his coat, glancing out over the diner just in case he saw the Owned lurking in a corner, or a sinister man in a dark hat with steeped fingers as he laughed maniacally. One never knew.

"What're you waiting on?" the stranger's voice asked. Belthor jumped, turning to the man, Tori, and Sam already seated.

"Um. Agnete." He turned to the girl. "Ladies first..." He trailed off. "...Agnete?"

"What?" Tori tried to peek around Sam, and Sam tried to peek around Belthor. He turned in a full circle again, looking through the diner.

"She's not here." The initiate grabbed his staff. "She's gone!"

"Where is she?" Sam and Tori thundered to their feet, seizing their own rods of power.

"Ladies' room?" the stranger suggested. "If she'd been taken, we'd have heard it." He leaned back as the three wizards gave him surprised looks. "I figure I know where she is, for serious."

"Where?" Belthor asked.

***

Agnete moved from tree to tree, making no sound as she padded almost on the surface of the snow. She scattered some, but her tread was light and so was she herself. Every few hundred yards, she paused to ascend a tree, her claws giving her an advantage any human would envy, and wait. Rarely did any snow spill from the boughs from her arrival, and whenever it did, it was little enough that perhaps a bird might have disturbed it. Agnete kept her breathing low and quiet the whole time.

If you wish to hunt an animal, you must understand how it thinks, her uncle had taught her. You must know where it eats, when it mates, and what it does in between. You must understand it, or you are just running in circles and trusting in a Goddess of Luck who is not our people's.

Arguments were resolving nothing. The stranger's veracity was in doubt. Agnete did not doubt her own observations, though, and freed of Tori, Sam and Belthor, she could move like the wind in the night, without their great deal of crashing and talking and banging and breathing. She was a ghost.

I suppose that makes it sound as if I do not appreciate them, she thought, pausing to massage her back with one hand. I very much do. Tori is kind and Tori is dangerous with her fire. Sam is witty and his lightning is impressive. And Belthor is kind, so kind. If there were ever good humans, it is those three.

She sighed and rapped her forehead. They are proof there are good humans, Agnete. Your uncle does not know everything, and neither do your cousins. Your experiences are broader and wider than theirs ever will be. Do not be exactly what those you hate are.

She thought of Hastel as she scurried through the snow, and the drow hissed. There was a human who was everything her uncle had warned her of. She had to figure out a way to deal with him without escalating his complaint with her, and fast. Maybe Belthor could help?

He is very kind, Agnete thought, as she slipped through the ravine where they had battled the Owned, so quietly even the birds of the snow didn't react to her passing. I like Belthor. B-E-L-T-H-O-R. I wonder what he thinks of me? Does he spell my name?

The cold did not bother her. She reveled in it as she padded through the snow, taking in grateful gulps of frigid air. She removed her gloves after a while, and she rubbed snow all over her skin with a contented sigh. There was a small pleasure that would not interfere with her work tonight. She made sure to do the same to her face: under her Glamour, she was very pink, not white like snow. She needed to make sure she would not stand out in the fading light, and the dangers of releasing her Glamour and being seen as a drow so near the school seemed greater than the effort of covering her skin in joyfully freezing snow.

"I have missed this," she muttered to herself. "I have missed staying in the cold."

Then she climbed to the top of a hill, and she paused in the shade of a tall tree, frowning down at the low ground laid out before her. There were scattered trees stretching from her position all the way to a bluff perhaps two miles distant, dominated by a frozen river that must pour into a waterfall in summer or spring. Now it was white and still.

But before it was what caught Agnete's attention, and what made her pull out her notebook and sketch, very quickly, before turning and darting back for the town.

***

"A graveyard?" Belthor asked. Agnete perched on a chair they'd pulled up to their table, nodding as the three initiates one-by-one examined her sketch.

"With a large mausoleum in the center," she agreed. "There were many figures patrolling it, but none with skin. Green smoke rose into the air from the mausoleum."

"Sounds like a potions laboratory to me," Tori agreed. She passed the sketch to their fifth wheel.

"Right. We've found his home base," the stranger grunted. He gave the drawing a cursory examination. "Now what?"

"Now we can tell Master Kulkas," Tori said, eyeing Belthor. "So that he can-"

"Annette's only been in the Owner's clutches for less than a day," Belthor said, very firmly. "It's possible that if we go in tonight, we can prevent her being turned into an Owned. If we wait two days for Master Kulkas, that's not going to happen."

"Belthor, the Owner sounds like he's dangerous," Tori protested.

"So am I." The stranger nodded as he threw the drawing down. "I'm with the boy. We go in hard, we go in fast, and we take no prisoners."

"We should at least tell the other Masters," Sam said. "We could get some form of backup from them. The Owner has been a thorn in their side for a while."

"I don't trust Protec and Vignette," Belthor said. He glanced at Agnete. "I think one of them is the Owner, and they're using the Owned to be rid of their drow problem."

"This is logical," Agnete agreed. "But I do not like our chances of taking on Masters Protec and Vignette, or even just one of them."

"We have to. For Annette's sake." Belthor eyed Tori and Sam. "I can't ask you to risk your lives-"

"Shut your face," Tori ordered. "We were in this when it got started, and we're going to be with you until it ends. We may have our own tactical concerns, but don't think we're not going to follow you. We will. Every step of the way."

"...I'd add to that, but I don't see what I can say that Tori didn't." Sam nodded. "We're in. Lead the way...Spellweaver."