Disclaimer:  Everything recognisable as relating to the world of Velgarth in general, and the kingdom of Valdemar in specific is the sole property of the author Mercedes Lackey.  The possibly cracked-out, semi-AU weirdness of the plot can be firmly blamed on etcetera-cat, and the characters of Trannen Ashkevron and Ambassador Shadowflame used courtesy of Cat McDougall.
Notes:  Would you believe I’m still introducing characters?  Well, I am, so there.  Plot-related things are happening concurrently, though, so there is some actual progression ahead.  I think.  Also, the end of the chapter earns the rating.
Feed(back) etcetera-cat.
Chapter Eight.

Hi, ho, Silver!  Away! – You mean you’re actually going to explain something to me? – Satellite surveillance, Tayledras style – The hobbies of evil Blood-mage Adepts – All together now, scream!
The final score in the great game of People in White vs. Everyone Else in the Room had been nil-nil.  Penalties and extra time had also resulted in a draw, and both sides had retreated to lick their metaphorical (and in the case of the unfortunate page who had gotten in the way of Shadowflame whilst she was Making A Point, literal) wounds. 
Michael had actually found himself humming the Imperial March during this action; for some reason “The Empire Strikes Back” had sprung to mind.
And now he was standing, at least as confused as before, in a field.  In the dark.
At the advice— read insistence— of many of the People in White, no less.  Apparently, Michael was supposed to be finding the irritating white horse that had kidnapped him and then Bonding With His Companion (the capital letters, as they seemed to be doing since about halfway through the second major shouting match in the Council Hall, were just dropping in all over the place this evening).
Michael wasn’t entirely sure that that was what he wanted to be doing; but if it got him out of the vicinity of the assorted raving lunatics that seemed to make up the government, then it could only be a good thing.  He’d also managed— again at the instructions of the People in White (namely, the Queen, who also appeared to be a Person in White)— to lose his ever-present guards.
That was a good thing.  Michael had been rather unnerved about being followed around everywhere by a pair of blue-clad men who appeared to have all the facial expression and personality of a pair of bricks, and who had swords.  Sharp, pointy, metal swords that were somehow a Hell of a lot more intimidating than a mere gun.
Not that he was no longer being watched; anything but.  Although having a demented white horse talking in your head didn’t make you crazy, what it did do (apart from severely limit your wardrobe choices) was indicate that you were impeachably trustworthy.  Or something.  At any rate; Michael’s watchers were now… rather more unique.
Because no-one seems to be able to do anything in this country without involving a talking animal.
The people in the Council meeting who’d looked like their clothing had been grown on trees (including the delightful Ambassador Shadowflame) were all something called ‘Hawkbrothers’.  In the most literal sense.  So now Michael could look forward to being followed around by a collection of birds, both night and day.
It was just as well that he’d never really been in to Alfred Hitchcock films, otherwise he suspected that he’d be developing a nervous tic (although the Companions, dyheli, kyree, gryphons and assorted other ‘animals’ should be enough to do that).
At the moment, he thought it was some kind of owl, what with it being night time.
I wish I could see as well as it can!  Michael thought with exasperation.  He’d never been anywhere where the black of night was exactly that.  Jeez!  Is it too much to ask for a little light pollution?  He bit off a string of swear words as he found his ninth pot hole in as many minutes. 
Bugger.  This.
Limping slightly, Michael turned to walk back the way he came; the Palace was lit up, which was helpful, but he must have circled on himself slightly because when he reached the river to cross back over, there was a distinct lack of bridge.  Stopping on the bank, Michael gave a dismayed groan.  “Oh, great,” he muttered to himself, before glumly limping along the bank in search of something resembling a bridge.
The Palace was still on his left side (on the far side of the river, that is), and it didn’t appear to be vanishing into the distance, so Michael was fairly sure that he wasn’t walking— okay, limping— in completely the wrong direction.  So why isn’t there a bridge?
“Ack!”  Michael stumbled and fell over forwards, grazing both hands on the shingle-like soil that made up the ground.  Whilst there wasn’t a bridge, there was a large weeping willow tree, which he’d just walked straight in to and given himself the fright of his life.  I cannot seriously believe I just said ‘ack’, Michael thought with a groan.  In addition to the grazes now decorating his hands, Michael’s knees also felt somewhat worse for wear.  Arranging himself in a sitting position and examining them by touch, he discovered that the left knee was torn out of his jeans.
“Oh, fantastic.”  Michael growled, fully intent on starting in a vocalised tirade on just how and why his entire life had gone to Shit City via Alice’s rabbit hole—
—and then something moved in the darkness under the willow tree.
“—the Hell?!” Michael yelped, bringing his hands up into a defensive position.  Not that he could actually see anything, so it was a moot point.
A snort, a short distance in front of him, and the faint smell of horse, gave Michael a clue and he elected to use it.  “Is that a C-Companion?”
:One who was quite enjoying the peaceful evening before it was so rudely interrupted, yes.:  The voice inside Michael’s head sounded a little bit like Hirrn; it was female, laden with sarcastic undertones, and had a faint roughness to its edges, but that was where the similarity ended.  This voice sounded like the owner had been handed a life full of lemons, was lacking a good lemonade recipe and was really pissed off about it.
“Well, you know I didn’t exactly plan on falling over your tree,” Michael snapped back, his irritation finally overflowing.  “It’s not exactly like this Godforsaken patch of undergrowth has signs or anything!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Michael winced.  Oh great, now I really am going to get trampled—
He was shocked to suddenly hear laughter; faint, brief, and definitely cynical, but laughter.
Gravel shifted and crunched under hooves, and Michael was aware of something looming in front of him.  :You certainly have a short temper.:  The voice observed.  :I’m guessing you must be the reason everyone and their mothers have got their tails in a knot?:
Michael groaned.  “Probably,” he said listlessly, before snorting in a disgusted fashion.  “Not that I exactly had any choice in the matter; I was walking home from the Seven-Eleven one minute, and next thing I know I’ve been kidnapped by a bloody horse and have ended up in la-la-land!”
:That’s a rather novel response to being Chosen,: the voice still sounded bitterly amused.
“Everyone is acting like I should be all happy and… I dunno…” Michael continued, crossing his arms over his chest, ignoring the sting of the grazes on his palms, “… mainly I’m just thinking that everyone here is falling off the edge of the insanity curve and that I’m going to be joining them pretty soon.”
:You really haven’t a clue what is happening to you, have you?:  The voice sounded mildly curious.
“Apart from the fact that I really wish I was a crack addict, because this would all possibly make some sense?”  Michael snorted.  “No.”
:I thought I overheard Dadero telling the dyheli to give you a head full of ‘An Introduction to Valdemar’?:
Reflexively, Michael rubbed at his forehead and winced slightly.  “Something which gave me a killer headache and made me even more confused, yes,” he muttered.  “Is it too much to ask for a simple explanation in plain English?”
A slight shifting of gravel, as if whoever was standing near to him had just produced something similar to a shrug.  :No,: the voice said.  :I could probably manage to un-honey-coat a simple explanation in Valdemaran— or rather, Mindspeech— though.:
Michael opened his mouth, but then found that he couldn’t think of anything to say.
Apparently, his silence was taken as acquiescence, as the Companion— she hadn’t volunteered a name, and Michael was curiously shy about asking— proved that it wasn’t just Giff who did the whole I’m not actually speaking, but I’ll make the throat clearing sound in your head anyway.  Because I can! thing.
:So, you’re currently sitting in the capital city of a kingdom called Valdemar.  The main peacekeeping force in the country— apart from the army— is the Heraldic Circle.:
Michael nodded slowly, then realised that it was dark and the Companion probably couldn’t see—
:Good.  Heralds are picked— the proper term is ‘Chosen’— by a Companion.  Being Chosen is the only way to become a Herald, and most Choosings happen in early adolescence, although there are some exceptions.  In addition to a certain set of character traits, Heralds also possess one or more Gifts.:
Michael had figured out pretty quickly that he was a rather large ‘exception’.  “What are… Gifts?” he asked cautiously.
:An inborn mental ability to manipulate the world at large; be it physical or spiritual.:  The Companion replied promptly.  :For a long period of time Valdemar only possessed Mindmagic— which is the generic term for every Gift except for the Mage Gift— but that’s really not relevant to you.  Magic has been actively used in Valdemar— they even let them set up an independent Mage’s Collegium—for  about a century.:
“Some… examples of Gifts?” Michael asked hopefully.
:Thoughtsensing, Mindspeech; talking like this, the ability to Fetch objects from distant places, or to See things not within normal vision.  Firestarting.  Occasionally a degree of the Healing Gift or something like Empathy.:  A snort in the darkness.
Michael blinked.  Right, so.  Heralds are basically white-wearing, ESP-wielding psychic freaks.  Wonderful.
:That’s a fairly accurate description, yes.:
“How did—?” Michael jumped.  “You’re reading my mind?”
A loud sniff.  :You are projecting at me.:  The voice corrected sharply.  :I have absolutely no desire to go voluntarily winnowing through some human’s mind for juicy titbits.:
“Uh,” Michael felt his expression change to a faint frown.  “Not even your Herald’s?”
:Hah,: one hoof crunched gravel just in front of Michael’s scraped knees and he could feel the Companion looking at him.  :I— do not have a Herald.:
Well hello there, foot!  Nice to see you back in my mouth again!  Michael groaned to himself.  There had been a definite edge to the Companion’s last reply.
“I…uh… sorry,” he offered lamely.
A disparaging sound.  :Quite.:  Silence reigned for a moment.  :All Heralds, Bards, Crown sanctioned non-Heraldic Mages and the vast majority of Healers are trained right here in Haven; in the linked Collegia.:
“That sounds… totalitarian…”
:It’s served since the Founding of the kingdom,: the Companion said.
“Oh,” Michael searched for a subject that wouldn’t include him insulting the Companion either personally or culturally.  “What are— I mean, do I have any… um, Gifts?”
The sensation of being stared at (and, oddly, through) intensified and Michael felt the hair on the back of his neck standing up.  :No,: the Companion sounded surprised, :I can’t see that you do.:
“But,” Michael coughed, “you said I was… that you could hear what I was thinking, that I was, um, projecting?”
:States of high emotion are enough to bolster the projections of the most ordinary person so that those whom are suitably attuned may pick them up.:
Well, that put Michael in his place.
“Why me?” he asked plaintively.  “You say I’m not Gifted— fuck, I’m not even from this damn world!”  Inserting a very English swear word into the middle of a Valdemaran sentence actually made said swear word sound worse.  It was also as satisfying as hell.
:You’ve probably heard this cliché multiple times, and from an assortment of self-important idiots, but it contains a grain of truth none the less.  A Companion cannot Chose wrongly, and, concurrently; every Choosing is for a reason, however obscure that reason may be.:  A deep exhalation; Michael could feel the slightly warmer air on his face, proof of just how close to him the Companion was standing— and how bloody dark it was.
Then, on the edge of… well, Michael supposed it was still classed as ‘hearing’, even if the ears weren’t involved.  :Even I have to admit that.:  The Companion sounded unutterably sad.
Michael didn’t really know what to say to that.  He had heard the first part (and yes, several of the people who had said it did seem to have fallen out of the idiot tree and hit many large branches on the way down) many times in the past day and a half, and he really wasn’t sure that he was supposed to hear the last bit.
He was saved from trying to think of anything intelligent (or otherwise) to say, by the Companion suddenly moving; its hooves crunching as it turned around.
:Your Companion is looking for you.:
“Oh,” Michael coughed, “yeah, they… um… told me to go spend some time with him… um.”
:But you got lost in the dark.:  It wasn’t a question; it was a statement of fact.
“Yeah, well, you guys could stand to have a little light pollution around the place,” Michael didn’t really put any heat behind the words.  For some reason he felt more akin to the nameless (and so far, essentially invisible) Companion than he could easily rationalise.
:You wouldn’t have found him anyway,: the voice continued; Michael took the complete ignorance of his comment as some kind of approval, :he was off with the rest of them in the Grove, having a meeting.:
“Uh, meeting?”
A dry sounding snort.  :The High Council doesn’t have the monopoly on standing around and flapping at each other whilst squawking nonsense.:  An abrupt change of subject.  :I’ve told him that you are here, goodnight.:
More crunching steps, then the rustling sound of willow branches being parted, accompanied by a swirl of night time breeze and the brief glimpse of an equine shape; a silhouette against the darkness.  “Wait!”  Michael said, scrambling to his feet, wincing as both his right ankle and his left knee complained at him.  “I don’t even know your name—?”
:Uh… it’s Giff.:  Michael’s Companion sounded confused.  :But you already knew that, um…:
Great, just what I need.  Michael sighed.
“Not you,” he said clearly, “the other Companion, the… mare?... who was just here.  She never told me her name.”
Now that he was concentrating— and perhaps, talking with the other Companion had accustomed him to the oddness of Mindspeech— Michael could pick up on some of the overtones and traces of emotion that accompanied Giff’s words.
Giff sounded confused still.  :Well, Companions only really talk to their Chosen—: he started to say, but Michael interrupted.
“She said she didn’t have a Chosen, and she actually explained some things so that they made some sense.”
:She talked to you?: Giff practically yelped, shock radiating from his words.  :But— that— she’s— Datti barely ever talks to other Companions, let alone people!:
“She’s called Datti, then?”  Michael asked.
:That’s her name, yes,: Giff said, :but for as long as I— and my parents— can remember, she’s always been called… the lone Companion.:  he sounded uncomfortable.
“Who’s Tonto, then?”  Michael asked facetiously; Giff’s explain-not mysticism was really beginning to piss him off.
:Ton— Tonto?:
Twentieth Century pop-culture related sarcasm was completely wasted on neo-Mediaeval talking horses.  “Never mind,” Michael sighed, before changing the subject.  “Look, can we go somewhere where I don’t feel like my retinas have gone on a holiday?”
Giff didn’t even have to voice his non-understanding, and Michael stifled another sigh.
“Can we go somewhere with some light, please?” he clarified.
:Oh— Oh, of course.:  Giff sounded apologetic.  :I forgot that humans don’t have good night vision.:
Michael snorted.  “I have perfectly fine night vision,” he retorted, whilst sliding one foot forward and waving both hands in front of him in an attempt to locate his Companion.
One hand smacked into something soft and warm.  :Ow!: Giff exclaimed.  :You have an obsession with hitting my nose.: he complained.
“Sorry,” Michael apologised, “but it’s not like I can see where I’m going.”
A sigh.  :Well, I suppose that you didn’t mean it this time,:  Shifting sounds of movement close to Michael.  :I’m standing next to you, if you reach out with your right hand, you should touch my shoulder.:
Michael tentatively waved his right hand out to the side; encountering Giff’s shoulder almost immediately.  “Okay.”
:Just keep hold and I’ll walk us back to the Palace.:  Giff said.
“Avoid the potholes,” Michael insisted as the Companion walked slowly forwards, and he had to limp quickly to keep up.  “One of my ankles already hates me.”
:And risk you turning another ankle and hitting me again?  Of course I’m going to avoid the potholes!:  Giff was, Michael realised after a moment, teasing him.
Hmm…  Michael wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the unaccountably warm feeling that was growing in his chest, so he decided to ignore it.
The inn had been… adequate… but Enyivika was not the kind of person who would be content in making a common ale house her punitive base of operations.  Besides; it was no mean feat to construct a Gate all the way to the place that she was really interested in and, at that, she’d only been able to Reach the southern-most part of the kingdom.
So, the solution was to move closer, obviously.
Another Gate (courtesy of the two shepherds and their flock of sheep that the darlings had found for her) had gotten herself, Dupe and the darlings into the mountain range known as the Comb, and a brief aerial scout by Stripe had located this rather impressive building.  It looked like it had once been some kind of hunting lodge, much modified over the years, and then completely forgotten about, if the thick layer of dust on every interior surface was anything to go by.  The roof also had several missing slates, and one exterior wall was bowing outwards alarmingly; the ground under the stone having shifted during some kind of earthquake in the past.
That suited Enyivika down to the ground, and she had immediately appropriated it and directed Dupe to start cleaning away enough dust from the floor to make a work-circle whilst the darlings went hunting for… fuel.
The location was perfect, but the building itself just wouldn’t do.
Enyivika hummed happily to herself as she mentally mapped out what she was going to change the building to.  With sufficient magical power and determination, one could accomplish practically anything.
Standing in the middle of what had apparently been the main public room Enyivika let her eyes drift from wall, to crumbling leather armchair, to solid stone fireplace, completely ignoring Dupe, who was haphazardly sweeping up dust in the far corner of the room. 
Sometimes, Enyivika reflected, it would be so much easier to find intelligent help if obliterating said intelligence wasn’t the only way to ensure obedience.  Not that Dupe had exactly been a genius before Enyivika had… employed… her, but still.  Good help is so hard to find that one may as well do things oneself… or at least make sure it happens to one’s specifications—
And that reminded Enyivika that Rabbit’s presents (the darling had its uses) were still waiting for her in the ruins of the hunting lodge’s stables.
Well, the darlings wouldn’t be back until dusk at the earliest, and Enyivika really felt that she deserved some quality time with just herself and her favourite hobby.
“I shall be in the stables,” Enyivika noted with satisfaction the way the broom ticked against the floor as Dupe started nervously.  The underling bobbed her head in (somewhat limited) understanding and Enyivika swept out of the room, her winter-wool cloak swirling around her ankles and scattering dust over the nominally clean parts of the floor.  It would keep Dupe busy, at least.
The ground outside the lodge was uneven and rocky, although bits of it still showed signs of human intervention; the remains of a paved ‘drive’ area, some pieces of low wall marking the paths.  Clumps of scrubby grass, gritty piles of snow huddling underneath some of them, dotted the area and added to the feeling of isolation and desolation.
Enyivika approved.
The stables were the most badly damaged of the buildings.  The same earthquake that had bowed out one of the lodge’s walls had tumbled the top from one of the sheltering hill ridges that surrounded the little valley that the hunting lodge sat in, completely burying half of the stable structure, and making the remaining half a lopsided shanty of a building.
A mage light— the rusty brown colour of dried blood— sprung into being above Enyivika’s head as she ducked through the slanted doorway, illuminating the interior of the stable with a daylight-like glow that was entirely at odds with its colour.
This end of the stable building had originally been an open plan tacking and grooming area, and thus provided an adequately large area— with scored paving still intact— for Enyivika to use.  Rabbit’s presents— all three of them— were laying in the centre of the perfect circle of volcanic glass that Enyivika had burned into the stone of the floor upon arrival. 
The predominant colour theme of the three presents was red— shading to a brown that perfectly matched the mage light— but underneath this, white, silver and an odd brownish-grey were visible.
Hmm… Enyivika crossed her arms and tapped one foot on the floor as she considered things.  The hardest part in any endeavour; even one that you enjoyed, was deciding where to start.  Well, the main body is rather obvious, it’s just how to recombine the rest…
Uncrossing her arms and sweeping her cloak back over her shoulders, Enyivika adjusted her posture and summoned up her reserves of power with a thought.
It was time to play.
Day scout Blackbird k’Verei, part of the k’Verei Vale detachment making the trip north and east to the land of Valdemar to fulfil their Clan’s obligations under the terms of the Alliance, was not impressed.
Oh, she understood the reasoning behind organising matters so that representatives of every single Tayledras Clan spent three months of the year in one of the capital cities of the Alliance kingdoms; it reminded the Outlanders that the Tayledras were more numerous than many still thought, and it ensured that her people presented a united front to the Alliance. 
That wasn’t what Blackbird was annoyed at.
Oh, no.
“Blackbird!  Wait up!”  The voice was filled with enthusiasm, and had a slightly breathless quality to it.  It also positively dripped with hero-worship.
That was what Blackbird was unimpressed with.
:Silly squawking boy, oh no, no, no.:  Blackbird’s peregrine flipped his pointed wings and hunched against his Bondmate’s neck.  :Make go away Blackbird!:
:I wish I could, Heri, I really wish I could.:  Blackbird responded, before schooling her expression into something neutral as the source of the voice; an overly enthusiastic young scout by the name of Frostbark, slid to a halt in front of her and grinned, his braided hair swinging around his face.
Frostbark puffed a few heavy breaths, then started to walk backwards, seeing as how Blackbird hadn’t slowed her pace in the slightest, and it was either that or have her walk over him.
Blackbird really wished that he’d stand still.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?” Frostbark asked, before rattling on.  “So, Embertree and Rainfox reckon that we’re coming up on the Valdemaran border, isn’t it exciting?”
Blackbird fixed her attention on the trees ahead of them— they had trekked up through the Pelagir Forest in the direction of the Valdemaran border and were planning on Gating the rest of the way to the capital once over the border.  The Forest around k’Verei Vale was unstable enough to make building a long-distance Gate something that no-one was willing to attempt.
“Hey!” Frostbark waved his hands back and forth.  “I said, isn’t it exciting?”
Blackbird sighed.  “I’m absolutely jumping for joy,” she told the boy.  “If you continue walking backwards, you’re going to trip over something and break a leg.”
“Oh, right,” Frostbark spun around agilely, and began walking alongside Blackbird, concentrating more on her than on where he was going.  “So, have you ever been into Valdemar before?” he asked.  “Or met anyone from Valdemar, or one of the other lands— I hear they have representatives from practically all of the countries west of the Empire in the capital city, and there’s supposed to be Kaled’a’in gryphons and kyree there, too.  Have you ever met someone from k’Leshya?—“
Blackbird tried, with limited success to ignore Frostbark’s inane babbling.
Heri moaned in her ear.  :Why silly Blackbird stop snake dogs eating squawking boy?:
“—and then Dirden said, before we left, that he’d heard that his cousin, from k’Rika Vale was—“
:I’m not entirely sure, Heri, I’m really not.:  Blackbird looked around desperately for someone— or indeed, something— to rescue her.  The rest of their small party; four other scouts, an Adept mage, two Master mages and one kyree, were a short distance behind them, as Blackbird was currently serving as point guard.
The three mages; Embertree, Rainfox and Leafdrop, appeared to be deep in conversation with the kyree, Dirden.  The scouts were all studiously looking in any direction except for Blackbird’s.  If she was feeling charitable, then Blackbird would have said that it was because they were being scouts and keeping an eye on their surroundings.
“—arrows that are just like yours and I was wondering if—“
Blackbird was not in a charitable frame of mind.
Heri obviously sensed his Bondmate’s worsening temper, and decided to beat a hasty retreat.  :Heri fly ahead, yes?: he asked, shifting his weight down Blackbird’s arm as she held it out to one side in order to launch him.
:Make good your escape now, featherhead,: Blackbird told him, as she flung her arm upwards, giving the falcon a boost upwards.  :At least one of us can.:
Heri beat his wings energetically, quickly gaining height and moving forwards and to one side as he began to angle between the huge trees that made up the vast majority of the Pelagir Forest.  :Heri could find squawking boy’s Liss and pull out tail feathers,: he offered.
“—other day, but I told him that—“
Blackbird was really tempted to take him up on the offer, but a half naked raven would probably earn her significantly more than a smack around the back of the head from the others.
“—and then I overheard Leafdrop saying that we’ll—“
:Up!:  Blackbird jumped and scrambled for her climbing stick as Heri’s alarm call echoed in her head.
Judging by the reactions of the other scouts, their own birds were giving them similar alerts.
:Up!  Up!  Up!  Danger!:
Blackbird froze, putting out one hand to stop Frostbark as well, her climbing stick griped tightly in her other hand.  The rest of the group quickly caught up with them, and they quickly formed a rough circle; the scouts and Dirden on the outside, and the three mages on the inside, ready to deliver any spells that were needed.
“Anyone seen anything?” Rainfox, a thin, almost saturnine looking woman, asked.  Her bird, a completely white magpie chattered angrily on her shoulder.
Headshakes from all around.  “Just the birds, and they’ve not been able to get a clear look; whatever it is, it’s fast and it has some rudimentary shielding magic.  That was Windfire, one of the scouts, her bird was a sun tailed hawk called Fri.
“Wonderful,” one of the other scouts, Brightstar, muttered, as Blackbird concentrated on Reaching for Heri.
:Bad, bad, bad!  Bondmate look out!:  Heri’s sending was tinged with panic, and Blackbird got the disjointed impression of Heri’s twisting and turning flight through the tree canopy as he tracked back towards the scout party.  Flickers on either side of him were the other hawks and falcons Bonded to members of the party.  Frostbark’s raven was probably trailing behind the faster raptors.
:Show me, Heri.:  As Blackbird sent the request, she could feel the faint tingles at the edge of her awareness that meant that the other scouts were contacting their own birds, probably for similar information.
Strange view, from above, and twisting and changing rapidly as Heri banked and wove between tree trunks.  The ground was thick with undergrowth, but the large… something… blundering through it didn’t seem to notice the impediments in the slightest.  There was a coarse, poorly built shield over the thing, blurring it from view in a way that made Heri’s eyes ache.
All he— or indeed, Blackbird— could make out was that it was large; perhaps the size of a Shin’a’in war steed, and that it was a curious mix of white and greyish brown.
“It’s coming from the south,” Blackbird warned, sheathing her climbing stick and pulling out her bow and a barbed killing arrow.  “And, it’s big, we’re going to have to take it out fast or it’s going to do us damage.”
“We should—“  Whatever Brightstar was saying was drowned in the sudden crashing sound as the monster appeared a short distance in front of them, the shield still obscuring just what it looked like… apart from the fact that it was well over twelve feet tall.  It stopped, apparently surprised to see the Tayledras party expecting it, then it reared up onto its back legs— not incidentally making itself even bigger— and produced a challenging shriek that hammered its way through Blackbird’s ears and made her teeth ache.
“Sketi!”  That sounded like Mooncat, her voice tight with fear.  “Arrows!”
Six arrows shot forwards, only to skitter off the surface of the shield.  Crude it may be, but it had been keyed by someone who was not stupid.
“A little magical aid!”  Blackbird demanded, as she nocked a second arrow.  The creature had frozen at the first attack, but now reared again and produced another ear-piercing scream, before thundering towards them.
Rainfox cried out something and a brilliant arc of white light lanced over Silverstone, the final scout’s, head, impacting with the shield over the monster.  The shield glowed incandescent for a moment, then shattered into glowing motes that rained down onto the ground.  The monster didn’t slow its charge in the slightest.
“Oh, Blessed Lady—“  Blackbird was barely aware that the voice was her own, she was too busy staring at the charging monster in paralysed revulsion and shock, the same as the rest of the party.
It wasn’t just white— its body was covered in the pure silver-white hair that only a Companion possessed, but, instead of an equine neck and head rising from its chest, there was the naked, pale torso of a man, its arms spread forwards with grossly clawed hands grasping hungrily.  Blazing yellow eyes glared out from the scaled, be-fanged, but strangely twisted, wyrsa head that topped the human torso.  The four legs of the equine body didn’t end in hooves, instead, from about halfway down, the pure white hair melded into brown-scaled, wickedly clawed feet.
And then it was on them.
Blackbird barely managed to jump to one side— violently kicking Frostbark, who had been standing next to her, in the opposite direction— and duck as a hand-claw slashed at her throat.  As it was, she rebounded off the side of the thing, stumbling to regain her balance before being thrown sideways as a heavily muscled, scaled tail cracked into her chest, driving away all of her breath.
Chest heaving (and aching in a way that indicated at least one cracked— if not outright broken— rib) as she tried to suck in enough air to banish the black sparkles crowding her vision, Blackbird was aware that the area around her was filled with layered screams.
Loudest were those of the monster, closely followed by the high pitched battle-cries of the Bondbirds and then the frantic cursing of the scouts and mages.  Blackbird managed to catch her breath and get her eyes open just in time to be near-blinded as a levin-bolt impacted with the creature’s side, making it slew sideways and produce an (even louder) shriek of rage.
“It’s partly resistant to magic!  Somebody bloody put some arrows in it!”  Embertree yelled, his truncated robes swirling around him as he called up a second levin bolt, his hands glowing white-hot with mage energy, then cast it.
Blackbird heaved to her knees and groped for her bow; her right hand closed on it almost immediately, and she half sobbed with relief, scrambling for an arrow to shoot at the monster that was rampaging in their midst.  She managed to catch it in its… human… shoulder, making one of its arms flop uselessly against its side.
Two more arrows flew, hitting the creature in the human chest, and just in front of the equine shoulder on the same side that Blackbird had immobilised.
A hawk stooped on the monster, trailing a scream that seemed to cut straight to the heart.  The monster whipped its head around and snapped the bird out of the air, crushing it instantly, before throwing it contemptuously away.  Blackbird swallowed hard against the bile that surged up her throat.
A blur of dark grey shot past Blackbird, as she finally managed to stagger to her feet, and launched itself at the wounded side of the monster, teeth flashing.  Dirden managed to bind with the creature for long enough to score a long wound from one nipple, down its side to just above the top of the equine front leg.  The creature howled and reared, throwing the kyree to the ground, before kicking out at him with both front legs.
Dirden managed to writhe sideways and avoid the first foot, but the second one caught him a glancing blow to the hip and he yelped with pain, scrambling fruitlessly at the ground with his front paws in an attempt to get away as the monster reared for a second attempt.
“No!”  Frostbark shouted, his arrow taking the creature through the right eye, making it crow hop backwards, flailing in an uncoordinated fashion.  Its balance was further thrown off as a trio of levin bolts hit it in the chest, chest and belly.
Smoke wreathed around the creature as it stumbled back onto all fours, still emitting painfully loud yelps and screeches.
“Once more, all together!” Leafdrop yelled hoarsely.
The three mages gestured together and coruscating bolts of pure energy impacted with the monster simultaneously.  It let out a horrendous sound and glowed a sickly red colour before collapsing heavily on the ground.
Dead silence, apart from the harsh panting for air from several throats, settled.
Blackbird coughed then really wished she hadn’t, dropping her bow from hands that tingled in order to wrap her arms around her chest in a vain attempt to stifle the pain dancing up and down her ribcage.
“Wha—what is—?” she managed, before doubling over as another burst of coughing caught her, leaving her only able to wheeze in pain.
Chattering with acute distress, Heri dove in from above and landed heavily on Blackbird’s right shoulder, clenching his claws deep into the padded leather shoulder pad and immediately preening at his Bondmate’s hair, too incoherent and badly scared to use anything approaching intelligible Mindspeech.
Sinking to her knees— as standing involved far too much effort— Blackbird blinked sweat out of her eyes and looked around.  Oh no—
Mooncat was lying half on her back, limbs thrown akimbo, the large gash that occupied her throat and chest, and the jewel-bright sprays of blood around her indicating that the scout was dead.  Her hawk, a black-banded male named Risk was nothing but a mangled puddle of feathers and flesh on the ground a short distance away; the monster’s teeth had done terrifyingly efficient work.
“Sound… sound off,” the voice was dazed, and the reason began apparent as Silverstone, the leader of the scouts, staggered into Blackbird’s line of sight.  He was bleeding profusely from a head wound, blood streaking down his face and matting both his hair, and the feathers of his gyrfalcon, who was stubbornly refusing to leave his Bondmate’s shoulder.  Silverstone’s eyes were unfocused, and he was swaying from side to side.  “Scout Leader Silverstone and Gerr.”
“Scout—“ another burst of coughing, “Blackbird and Heri—“ Blackbird panted harshly, she was finding it hard to breath around the stabbing pain in her chest.
“Sc-scout Windfire and Fri…”  Windfire was leaning heavily against a nearby tree trunk, her hawk perched just above her, one of its wings drooping low.  Windfire herself was clenching hastily torn fabric around both of her forearms, blood making the formerly green fabric a dark brown colour.
“Brightstar and Drin,” Brightstar announced with a groan, “I think my arm is broken…”  Brightstar was sitting back to back with Frostbark, his arm curled protectively against his chest, fingers pointing in an entirely unnatural direction.  Drin, a falcon was perched on his knee, making distressed sounds in counterpoint to his Bondmate’s gasps of pain.
Frostbark was pale, tears streaming down his face, and it took nearly inaudible prompting from Brightstar for him to speak. “Fuh—fuh—Frostbark and—and Liss.”
“Adept Rainfox and Krii,” Rainfox’s voice was calm and controlled, but her expression gave away the fact that she was very close to falling apart.
“Master Embertree and Jali,” Embertree was lying on the ground, breathing quickly, obviously in the grip of a severe reaction headache, his crow— which had, before the encounter, still possessed black feathers— was completely white and sitting on Embertree’s chest, looking deeply shocked.
A muffled hiss of pain.  “Master Leafdrop and Erii,” the second Master level mage was sprawled next to Embertree, also showing signs of acute reaction-related suffering.  His snowy owl was perched in the same tree as Windfire’s Fri, most of its tail feathers missing.
:Dirden, kyree storyteller and really in need of a Healer—: the kyree’s Mindvoice was badly garbled with pain-overtones.
“I—“ Rainfox paused to take a shuddering breath.  “We’re Gating to Haven from here, I’ve already sent the request for a key to the city shields.  I…” her gaze wandered towards the still faintly smoking corpse of the monster, and her expression twisted suddenly.  “They need to know about this.”
No one disagreed, and whimper-laced silence reigned over the group as they waited for contact from the distant city of Haven.

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