• Matt Brown

A Raven's Dance (Part One)

The cold Sokoran wind spread across his body like a blanket. Each gust brushing annoyingly against his fur and muzzle. There were better places to be than is accursed land, but curiosity won over reason.


Talyn cringed at the sound of the snow crunching beneath his paws. It was as unnatural as the sensation of walking on four legs. The pads on his feet were a constant reminder of the cold, even with the insulation they afforded. As to spite him another gust whipped around him, nipping his face.


He curled his lip. Curse this form.


A familiar sound echoed in his sharp ears and he winced from the hunger pangs stabbing his sides. Even if taking the form of a snow leopard was the most sensible choice, it meant having to eat twice as much. Anything smaller might encourage predators.


He scanned the snowbanks and the pines scattered about the landscape. Prey had been scarce. It was the dead of the Sokoran winter after all. Much of the wildlife was hibernating or hidden away in their dens.


Even passing a Hungering One would at least provide something. Carrion, even if it was the rotting flesh of the undead, was better than nothing at all. Though, it was doubtful his current form could properly digest it.


Most of the human settlements would have stockpiled food. Sokorans were survivors and to live in this Immortals forsaken place, one had to be. Storms were common and unpredictable. Farmland was even more scarce.


Some dug burrows, using methods similar to the Shaylin of Daeshal. They would use makeshift hearths to keep the plants warm and specially blown glass to make sure they got enough light. They were difficult to maintain but vital to those able to scrounge enough shards to afford the supplies to build them.


The Shaylin were more sophisticated in their efforts. They used sun orbs to simulate the light they needed to create warmth, protect the plants, and nourish them. It had been fascinating to watch them work. Like a bunch of ants in a colony.


Talyn sighed. Keep thinking about warm places and you’ll probably turn around. Another chilling wind blew making the thought more appealing with each passing moment. Yggsid isn’t worth this.

Trudging on, Talyn caught sight of something just on the horizon. Focusing his sharp senses, he could tell it was a village of some kind.


Where there are humans, there is food.

******************************************

“We can’t thank you enough for doing this for free, Ranger Joryd. We don’t have much in the way of shards or trade.”


Leif smiled. “Food and lodging is fair trade enough, Geddon. The Rangers exist to help the people.”

“Are you sure your Huntsman won’t be angry?” he asked.


Leif shook his head. “No, Hunstman Shuet is a fair man. If he feels our contract was unfair then it will be addressed, but I doubt it. Taking from people who have very little doesn’t benefit anyone.”

Geddon appeared a bit relieved and hefted a sack of grain over his shoulder. “I will talk to the village elders tonight. I don’t see a reason we can’t provide lodging and food for any Rangers passing through in return for your help.”


“I think the Huntsman will be very grateful at such hospitality.”


Geddon smiled wide and took the sack of grain into the storehouse.


Leif shivered a bit and looked at the sky. A storm was likely coming. It was just a feeling, but it was better to be safe than sorry.


The villagers were already making preparations and food was being brought to the storehouse from the greenery. Wood had been chopped to keep the hearths in each home lit and the livestock moved into the barns. Blankets and coverings were being prepared to keep them warm in case the storm lasted a few days.


It was nothing out of the ordinary. For any Sokoran, this was simply a facet of everyday life. One of the villagers would wait out the storm inside the greenery. The heat of the hearths needed to be maintained and the plants watered regularly. Luckily there was plenty of snow to melt for that and the wood stockpile was spilling over.


“Ranger?” Geddon called.


Leif turned around.


“Something on your mind?” he asked.


“Sorry I was looking at the wall around the village.”


“We built it a long time ago,” Geddon replied. “A pack of Hungering Ones wandered too close…”


The look in the man’s eyes said enough. He had lost people to those monsters. It wasn’t too uncommon of a story in these lands. But it was why the dead were burned, not buried.


“I’m sorry for your loss…”


Geddon meekly shook his head and wiped his left eye. “It was a long time ago,” he replied. “Best to focus on the present.”


“Then let us finish preparing.”

*******************************************

Picking up the pace, while using the trees for cover, Talyn sprinted toward the village. The smell of the pines was a pleasant distraction and a bit of solace amid the horrid conditions. The large stone wall surrounding the village was the most notable feature. It was unusual, yet interesting for a settlement so small. There couldn’t be more than thirty people living here.


The wall was about five feet in height with wooden stakes built into it. The stakes added an additional five feet to the wall’s height. Judging by the poor design it appeared the intent was mostly as a deterrent, probably for the beasts of the Sokoran wilds and possibly Hungering Ones.


Strange as it was, Hungering Ones never crossed a physical barrier be it a wall or an entrance to a home. It was probably some odd restriction to their natures. The undead were notorious for having some bizarre quirk about them. Though, if it was a deterrent for them, then it meant that Hungering Ones often roamed in the area.


Talyn crept up to the wall, the agility and stealth his form afforded a welcome blessing. Following along its perimeter, he paused at the sound of children playing on the other side. His eyes fell upon a break in the wall and pressing himself against it, he lowered his head peering through the small hole he found there.


It was a peculiar thing to watch the small humans playing in the snow while the adults busied themselves with their day to day labors. He crouched lower to the ground for a better look. The children were so carefree and even occupied, some of the adults stopped long enough to smirk at them before they went back to what they were doing.


I’ll never understand humans or their ability to survive under the harshest of conditions.

One of the adults was different, not only in how he carried himself but also in demeanor. He was of average build, his raven hair cropped short just above the ears. He had a dark beard, cleanly kept, and two shortswords sheathed on each hip. He wore chainhide, a composite of chainmail woven around thick animal hides. As armors went, it was durable, offered decent protection and most importantly, kept you warm.


The human was helping the other villagers move grain and other supplies into a storehouse. Even while working, his gate and movement told a story. He was a fighter for sure.


Talyn tensed. In the haze of curiosity, instinct flared with warnings of danger. On reflex, he jumped away from the stone wall, landing on all fours, his paws crunching in the snow. His eyes went wide at the arrow buried in the snow, its flight just breaching the surface.


He turned to his left. One of the villagers was standing a few yards away holding a short bow. He was older, hints of grey showing in his thick, long beard and hair. Aside from the furs he wore for warmth, his clothing didn’t make him appear as anyone of note. Not like the human with the swords.


The man reeked of fear and determination, though. He quickly pulled another arrow from the quiver on his hip, fumbling slightly as he frantically worked to set it in his bow.


“Snow leopard!” he shouted.


Talyn gripped the snow, his claws extending. Instinct pressed against reason, urged him on. It would be an easy thing to remove the human’s head at the shoulders. Just a bit of pressure and…

No, it would only encourage them to give chase.


He crouched low to the ground. The moment to escape would come once the human loosed the arrow. The poor man was too afraid to have the proper focus.


The human released and Talyn jumped away. The arrow landed in front of him. A moment later and it would have pierced him in the side.


Not giving the human the opportunity for luck, Talyn bounded toward the treeline of the nearby pines.


Just don’t be dumb enough to follow me.

**********************************

Leif rushed toward the village gate, shortblades in hand.


Why would a snow leopard be this far north?


Geddon was just a few yards from the gate. He had already fired off two arrows. Both appeared to have missed their target. Their flights were easily visible in the snow.


“We should go after it,” Geddon commented.


Leif frowned, the idea of killing the beast didn’t seem right. Geddon was right, however. The snow leopard had probably caught wind of the sheep and other livestock.


If the beast was this close to the village, then it was probably starving. It wouldn’t take much for it to snatch one of the children and make a run for it. Whatever the reason for it wandering so far it was irrelevant to the safety of the village.


Leif sighed. It was like they were punishing the poor creature. “Gather who can be spared, we’ll hunt it down.”


Geddon nodded, then retrieved his arrows. “We won’t let anything go to waste,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. “I know it’s not the leopard’s fault.”


“Thank you for understanding. I’m sure my brothers would probably think I’m being ridiculous.”

Geddon laughed. “Nothing wrong with caring about the beasts you have to kill, Leif. Compassion is never a bad trait.”


*************************************

They hadn’t wasted much time. It had probably been too much to hope for. The smell of sap and the aroma from the trees made it hard to track them by scent. The whipping winds were a small grace. It would slow their pursuit slightly.


Talyn leaped between the trees, using his claws to anchor himself. They’re getting closer. He climbed higher to gain a better vantage. Once they see where my tracks stop, they’ll know what I’ve done.


It was hard not to be thankful that Sokoran pines were larger and sturdier than the pine trees in warmer climates. It was probably in response to having to fight for survival under harsh conditions and weather. It was one of nature’s prime rules, adapt or die.


Catching a glimpse of the humans in the distance, Talyn repositioned himself on a nearby branch. There were six in all and they were tense. The cold wind carried their fear like an ox pulling a cart. None of them spoke, which was wise, but they were ever watchful. The human wielding the shortblades was more alert than the others. Everything about him screamed danger.


Talyn dug his claws into the tree. It’s only a matter of time.


He waited and watched, ears twitching as they stalked closer. Four were armed with bows, one a spear, leaving the dangerous human with the two swords as the last. The bows were composite, meaning they would pack a greater punch on impact.


In hindsight, Talyn realized his mistake. This far north he should have chosen a bear or fox. Very few would tangle with a snow bear and a Sokoran fox could outrun most predators easily.


Just a bit closer. He took a breath and then softly whispered, “Acia toh nalin.” With the words spoken, every pore on his body felt as if they were being softly pricked by dozens of tiny needles. Nausea followed, as the power of the incant washed over him.


Let's hope you lot are as dumb as war trolls.


The human holding the spear suddenly began screaming, his face twisted in terror. He took his spear, turning to face his companions and began waving it wildly at them. “Stay back! I won’t let you eat me!”


Soon after, another fell prey to the incant.


“Frost giants!” the man screamed as he took aim with his composite bow, panning it back and forth in a panic while struggling over whom to shoot first.


The human leading them sheathed his shortblades and held his hands up. “Geddon, be calm,” he said, cautiously stepping closer.


‘Geddon’, as he had been called, turned the bow on him. “Stay back! You may be huge, but an arrow to the eye will see you dead!”


The human stopped. “All right, just stay calm,” he said.


Talyn turned his attention to the others. In the chaos, they had already subdued the spear wielder and knocked him unconscious. Another shout drew his attention and he looked back toward where Geddon and the shortblade wielder were.


They were wrestling on the ground, but it was obvious who the better fighter was. There was a hint of reluctance on the human’s face as he quickly overwhelmed Geddon and knocked him out. He then moved off the man and stood.


Talyn gripped the branch he was perched on more tightly in frustration. So, some of them are resistant to illusions.


The shortsword wielder stood over Geddon and stared at him. He then began scanning the area. “Take them back to the village,” he said. “I’ll handle this alone.”


The other humans looked reluctant but seemed to agree as two of them moved to help Geddon up and began carrying him back. It was comical watching them struggle to pick up the larger man.


It seems it will be down you and me, warrior. Let us see how adept you are…

**************************************

Leif drew his swords, his attention focused on the terrain around him. The forested area near the village wasn’t very large and spanned just a few acres. The tracks continued deeper in and as he followed them, he noted how they abruptly ended at one of the larger pines.


Cautiously he crept closer. Claw marks covered the lower trunk. It was as if the leopard had been trying to find its footing. Something is definitely wrong here.


Not allowing the thought to linger, he scanned the area again. There were no other tracks. It's in the trees? The thought was more than disconcerting. First magic, now this.


Climbing a tree to escape wasn’t normal behavior for a snow leopard. The beasts lived in rocky mountainous terrain. They were highly adept at navigating narrow cliff facings in pursuit of prey.

Leif stalked past the large pine, a cold wind buffeting him as he shifted his gaze to the canopy above. It swayed against the wind, the branches moving as about and he froze once his eyes caught sight of his quarry. The leopard was just ahead, the wind had unveiled its position.


When the wind died it shifted, resecuring itself on its perch. Leif's locked eyes with the beast, his blood running cold. Intelligence gleamed within leopard’s yellow orbs. This was no mere animal, but something more.


As if realizing that he knew, the leopard stood and began leaping between the branches until landing in the snow. It stalked toward him slowly, its intentions clear.


Leif placed his left foot forward and readied his blades. He felt a sense of amusement coming from the beast as its eyes briefly shifted from him to his shortblades and back. “Are you a druid?”

The beast stopped.


“Why do you threaten us? All druids are welcome in these lands.”


It stared at him. The silence unnerving.


“These people are simple folk. If you intend harm, then I will protect them.”


The snow leopard crouched, stalking a bit closer. It then shifted directions, circling. Leif followed, making sure not to leave his back exposed.


Is it gauging me?


“How, human?” it asked. “How could hope to stop me?”

***************************************

His surprised expression was priceless. It was a hard fight to remain composed.

Talyn narrowed his eyes as a pretense. How long has it been since anyone was this amusing?


“You…can speak?”


His surprise was strangely endearing. “Of course I can speak. Why should such a thing seem so improbable?” The fact that he was searching for an answer was too much. He wore his emotions like his kind changes clothes. Talyn snickered. “Don’t hurt yourself trying to grasp the concept.”


The human simply glared. “You still haven’t told me what you want,” he said.


It was almost sad. He was prepared to fight and if need be die to protect the village. “Should I have to?”


His face hardened. “This isn’t the time for games.”


Talyn paused. He was suddenly less amusing. “Games. Games are for children, human.” Another pang gnawing at him. “My business is my own but if you, in your misguided attempt at heroism, insist on fighting me then you are a fool.”


His heart was beating faster. His stance, cautious. Good, he’s hesitant to attack. Perhaps I’ll play with him a bit longer.


“Do you like riddles?


His stance changed, he was less tense. The question had caught him off guard. “And you claim to not play games,” he replied wryly.


“Life and death are not a game, human. I take both very seriously.”


His face became stoic. “As do it, creature.”


“Good, because I’m getting hungrier wasting breath over useless chatter.”


“So food is all you desire?” he asked.


Talyn curled his lip in a slight grin. “Someplace warm would be nice as well.”


“And this riddle you speak of?”


His cautious nature was curious but wise. “Well, there’s no need now, you already offered me hospitality.”


“I never said…”


Talyn smirked. “Well, there’s always the riddle that decides if I eat you or not.”


“You seem very certain of yourself, creature,” he commented.


Talyn closed his eyes, allowing himself to become lost in his power. The image of the snow leopard drifted away, replaced with that of a raven. “I’ve learned how to warrant such confidence. Now, this should be suitable as to not scare the people of your precious village?”


It was a gamble, but shifting forms was a simple matter. Either he agreed or he wouldn’t. The human was still wary, appearing to be considering his options, but eventually nodded.


“So long as you don’t hurt the people, I will give you food, warmth, and shelter for the night.”


Though his beak made him unable to do so, inwardly Talyn was smiling. Finally something agreeable.

***************************************

Lief was surprised that the villagers hadn’t raised any questions about the raven perched on his shoulder. They appeared oblivious. As if Talyn wasn’t there. It was uncomfortable and unnerving. The kind of thing that might cause a person to question their sanity.


He looked out the window of their room. The storm drawing his thoughts away from the two days prior. It was as everyone suspected. Once it passed, paths would have to be cut with spades. Long winter storms weren’t uncommon, especially in Thulm’s territory. The harsh winter winds blowing in from the Peridith Sea north of them came often enough.


The livestock had been secured in the barns, though if things went on for much longer the yaks would start growing restless with their accommodations. Especially the bulls.

Food was another concern. Preparations had been made to weather things for four days. Markers and ropes had been placed to navigate a path to the barns and the greenery. If the storm continued past expectations, then some of the villagers would have to go out and weather the harsh conditions to make more preparations.


Leif glanced at Talyn. As it was, the past two days felt like an eternity. Especially with him. He only spoke when they were alone and appeared content enough to remain perched on the chest or table near the small stove in the room. He never complained about the cold whenever he was near it or the fireplace downstairs.


“Don’t look so serious, Leif,” he commented. “Things will be fine.”


Leif frowned at the lack of concern in his tone. “Not taking things seriously in these lands gets people killed, Talyn.”


The small raven cawed softly as if laughing. “If you say so.”


Leif narrowed his eyes, studying him. Talyn had easily eaten twice his weight at evening meal. “Is this your true self?”


The raven paused as if considering his answer. “This is my preferred form,” he replied. “The snow leopard was for convenience.” Talyn spread his wings and flew onto the bed. “You have questions?” he asked, his tone gave the impression he was amused or grinning.


“Who wouldn’t?”


Talyn tilted his head in typical raven-like fashion. “Fair enough,” he replied. “Then let's play a game.”


Leif frowned. “Wouldn’t just answering my questions be more productive?”


Talyn sighed. “Humans,” he replied. “Never taking a moment to enjoy life.”


“It’s hard to relax when you have a creature who speaks vaguely and leaves little room for trustworthiness.”


Talyn cawed in rapid succession. He was laughing after all. “Fair.”


“Besides, we are only in a truce. I don’t trust you.”


“Oh, what a wise thing you are,” he replied, seemingly amused. “I would have called you a fool to trust anything so strange this quickly.”


Leif repositioned himself on the bed, leaning back against the wall. Talyn spread his wings for balance to keep himself righted, then hopped up on Leif’s knee. His dark eyes and body language, made it appear as if he were expecting something.


“You’re serious about this game of yours?”


Talyn bobbed his head. It was hard to tell but he appeared enthusiastic. “It’s simple. I ask a question, then you can ask a question. If you do not wish to answer, then simply say ‘defer’. However, if you defer three times in a row, the next question must be answered truthfully.”


Lief forced a half-smile, then glanced at the stove. The flames inside it burned brilliantly. They danced across the broken timbers inside, the sound of the wood crackling as it was devoured reaching his ears. “And if I choose to ignore the rule?”


With the question asked, he glance back at Talyn. Lief felt a strange sense of delight from him, no it was more than that. There was a sparkle in the raven’s eyes, showing his eagerness to begin.

“Then you will be unable to speak for three days,” Talyn replied. “I’m sure that will make your responsibilities difficult.”


Lief sighed. “You’re going to you magic on me aren’t you?”


Talyn cawed. “Yes, we’ve been playing for a while now. You have already asked several questions.”


“You cheeky bastard!” Leif lashed out to grab him, but Talyn took to the air and flew over to the table by the stove. Despite the warmth, he felt a slight chill in the air.


“My turn,” Talyn said. “Will you tell me more about Sokoras?”


“It’s a bitter land of ice and snow. There are eight territories each controlled by one of the Thran.”


“Who are these Thran? Are they like kings?”


Lief smirked. “That’s two questions.”


Talyn tilted his head, giving a respectful nod. “Ah, so it is.”


Leif regarded him curiously. The raven’s tone sounded passive, but there was a hint of something else within it. “Sokoras has no king, yet it is considered a single land and the Thran rule it in their own way. They respect each other’s borders and rarely ally unless it’s to defend against the Noren’s to the east or some other threat.”


“How interesting, they are allies of convenience,” Talyn commented. “I believe it’s your turn.”


Why do I feel like you’re grinning? Leif shifted on the bed, resting his head against the wall and staring at the ceiling. “What are you?”


“Complicated,” Talyn responded.


Lief frowned. “I will ask again,” he said. “What are you?”


“Unique,” Talyn replied.

Lief bit his lip. “What is the point of the game, Talyn, if you continue to be cryptic?” The room grew quiet. He turned his head. Talyn hadn’t moved from the table, but he appeared to be thinking. Leif narrowed his eyes, the feeling that something was off pricking him.


I’ve missed something.


He waited a few more minutes. “Talyn?”


The strange creature sighed. “The point is to learn, Lief.”


“You can always defer, as per your rules.”


The sense that Talyn was grinning returned. “I could, but finding clever answers is more amusing,” Talyn replied. “Now, you have asked many questions, but in the spirit of the game I will only ask one.”


Lief smirked. “Then since we are playing such a cryptic game, there is a chance I might defer if what I want to know remains unanswered.”


Talyn cawed. “Interesting, you would rather become mute, than give up information,” he mused.


“If it would annoy then, certainly. I believe it my turn now.”


“No, you are mistaken,” he said. “I haven’t asked my question yet.”


He was right of course. Lief shifted his attention back to the ceiling. Talyn had said the game had started a while ago, but when? He thought of the conversation, then understood. The game was rigged. Now he just had to figure the trick.


“Then ask, Talyn.”


“Would you allow me to travel with you once your task here is finished?”


Lief bit his lip. The very thought of having Talyn as a traveling companion was less than appealing. Let’s test your rules. “Defer.”


Talyn cawed, “Your turn,” he said.


“Why are you here Talyn?”


“Curiosity, I have been many places, but never Sokoras, even before it was Sokoras.”


His answer was interesting. Lief grinned. So, you won’t say more about yourself than you feel is necessary. However, eerie as it is, at least I know you are very old.


“That places you at close to seven hundred years, at least.”


“I couldn’t say, Lief, it tends to blur,” he replied, his tone more even and bereft of amusement.


He realizes he said too much.


“I have heard them use the term Ranger to define you,” Talyn said. “Is this a title or something else?"


“It’s a name that defines me and my purpose,” Lief replied. “The Rangers are family to me and through them, I serve the Sokoran people. We are bountymen, protectors, even farmers if need be.”


“You’re mercenaries,” Talyn commented. “You fleece the people for what little they have and live off it.”


Lief sneered and sat up, already reaching for his shortblade. “Never speak about something you understand so little about! All contracts are fair and within the people’s means!”


Talyn tilted his head. “I see.” The inflection in the raven’s tone gave a sense that Talyn felt he had won some small victory.


Lief narrowed his eyes, then sheathed his shortblade. “My turn,” he said. “Were you summoned?”


Silence filled the room. It was strangely calming. Lief laid back on the bed and smiled. He’s trying to think of how to answer.


“Defer,” Talyn replied.


Lief smiled wider. That’s a yes.


“How does one become a Ranger?”


“There are Three Huntsman, under them are a handful of trainers called Skegs. The Skegs train new recruits. Anyone can become a Ranger. If they live through the training. Each Skeg has their own method. Some are harsh, but so is each Huntsman’s expectation. They cannot afford to be lenient, people depend on us.”


Talyn went quiet again. Lief glanced at him, he was staring at the stove and the fire inside it. “That look you wore as you spoke of them,” he commented. “I haven’t seen that in some time.”


“What look is that?” Lief asked.


Talyn locked eyes with him. “One of genuine belief. It’s very rare,” he said. “Absonians wear it, but not like you. They ‘think’ they understand what it is they believe but are only mouthing something they were taught. It might be possible that some, truly believe as you, but it would shock me.” He shifted his gaze back toward the stove. “No, you, Lief, you believe in these Rangers and their cause from the heart. I envy that.”


His tone spoke of loss, of regret and veiled within it, disgust. Talyn was a mystery, he wasn’t lying when he called himself complicated.


“You were hurt, weren’t you?” Lief asked.


“Oh, Lief, every living thing is hurt or has been hurt in some way,” he replied. “That is The Cycle, is it not?”


“According to the druids at least.”


Talyn bobbed his head. “According to the druids…” he replied.


“Have you always been alone?”


“What an odd question,” he responded. “Who says I need company?”


“You do and have,” Lief answered. “You probably the loneliest creature I have had the misfortune of laying eyes on.”


The way he stared back was unusual. Lief could almost picture him scowling. “I choose my own way. If I were to say I was the pet of a summoner and lived the happiest days, would believe me? If I said I were a spirit called by a druid who had no understanding of the magic she wielded and trapped me here, would it be true?” Talyn flew closer, perching on the curtain rod over the window. Lief felt a chill looking into Tlyn’s black eyes as he looked down. “Or if I said I was one of The Forgotten, trapped and cursed to endure this pitiful existence among you mortals, would it be a lie?”


“I couldn’t say,” Lief said. “The only true thing I know is you like to play with…words.” Lief smiled. The answer was there the entire time. Talyn’s response had also told another story. It showed how lonely he was.


“Yes, Lief, I do,” Talyn said, his tone hinting at humor. “Words are one of life’s few pleasures.

“Words contain power.”


“Don’t they though, Lief,” he replied. “More than many understand. I believe, however, it is my turn.”


“Then ask your question, raven.”


Talyn flew from his perch and landed on the table, he shook himself off, as if trying to get comfortable. “What if the worst punishment the Rangers can inflict upon one of their own?”


“Forswearing,” Leif replied. “When all record of them is burned and they are cast out. We are even forbidden from speaking their name. To us, that person is dead.”


“To be exiled and forgotten by those you once called family,” Talyn said. “I suppose there could be no greater cruelty. All your efforts, your struggles and shared moments, erased. Your existence denied. It seems strangely poetic.”


Leif pulled his hip taught. “You have a strange concept of poetry, Talyn.”


“Tragedy can be poetic in its own way, Lief,” he replied. “There are tomes filled with such stories.”


“And just how tragic is your tale, Talyn?”


He went quiet, the embers in the stove crackling against the silence. More logs would be needed soon.


“Defer.”


That’s two.


“Did you enjoy killing your bounties?” he asked. “If you are so devoted to your family, to the Rangers, then surely there must have seen some satisfaction from putting such criminals down.”


“I’ve never slain anyone, Talyn. I’ve injured others who resisted and ran, but never slain. What kind of person takes pleasure in the pain another?”


“Ah, but care the rules,” he said, his tone, once again signaling his amusement. “Are you refusing to answer the question? If so then the game is over, and I win…”


Lief bit his tongue, his eyebrows drawing together in frustration. Talyn knew. Somehow the scriving creature knew he had lied. “Defer.”


“Who was it?” he pressed. “A man perhaps? Maybe older or younger?” Silence followed, the light of coals dimming in the stove. “Or was it a mistake? No, it was neither, it was something else…wasn’t it, Lief.”


The chill returned, the raven’s dark eyes shifted, seemingly unnaturally in the dimming light. Leif hardened himself, stealing away his emotions. “Defer…”


The moment the words left his lips, Leif felt something take hold of his chest. It was like an invisible hand was clutching his heart. It moved, slowly at first, until its grip was around his throat.


“Last question, Lief, and no more lies. I see your heart, so I will know,” Talyn said. “Would it be better having me wander the wilds of Sokoras on my own as I will, or would you prefer having me close where you can keep an eye on me?”


Lief tried to fight back the words, but he knew in his heart, Talyn was too dangerous to leave alone. “Yes…It would better to keep you close.”


“Excellent,” he replied. “I was in need of a guide.” Talyn flew closer, landing on Lief’s chest, his dark eyes seeming to peer at something deeper. “Now why don’t you wake up so our journey can begin.”


Lief shuddered, snapping awake, the cold Sokoran wind greeting him. The smell of pine carried on it. He shifted, feeling a great weight on his chest. Talyn was staring down at him still in his snow leopard form. His paws pressed hard against Lief’s sternum.


Lief turned his head, pain shooting up his spine. They were still the forest and judging by the displacement of the snow, there had been a fight. He saw shortblades laying a few yards away. There was blood on them, though Talyn appeared unharmed.


The creature arched his back and closed his eyes. Lief winced at the sudden shift in weight. Talyn’s fur turned black, gaining a feathery texture. The sound of muscle and bone reshaping as he shrank was unsettling, though if there was any pain, Talyn gave no sign.


The transformation didn’t take long and soon, in the place of a snow leopard, stood a raven.

“Now, Lief,” Talyn said. “I still require food.”

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