Disclaimer: If it’s Valdemar, it’s Mercedes Lackey. If it’s weird and strange, it’s probably mine.
Notes: Cat McD… have you ever considered that maybe we shouldn’t talk to each other at all, ever? (Incidentally: I blame you for this).
Recently, the weather had been completely bizarre. Of course, bizarre was pretty much par for the course in the Pelagirs, but still; massive lightning storms large enough to start forest fires, distort the background magic of the area (which, incidentally, had a rather interesting knock on effect on several trees and one somewhat confused tree hare), and give every person with a hint of Mage Gift the headache to end all headaches, were taking things a little too far.
Foxflash k’Treva was not impressed.
As one of the few members of the Vale who couldn’t sense the Heartstone if he was standing next to it, he had found himself in the unenviable position of being one of the only scouts currently able to function.
Well, currently able to function at a cognitive level greater than that required to collapse in a hot pool and pout at the hertasi until they made you honeyed headache tea, which it what everyone else in k’Treva seemed to be doing. To the extent, in fact, that the hertasi were apparently devising a rota system for usage of the pools.
:Silly lazy.: Rizz decided.
Foxflash glanced over at his bondbird; the young cooperi hawk was perched on a nearby branch, assiduously grooming one of her wings. One of her sharp eyes focused on him, and she fluffed up her head feathers momentarily. :Silly lazy.: She repeated.
Given that this was his sixth solo scout run in three days, Foxflash was inclined to agree with her. At least; agree with her out here in the Forest, where there was no-one else to overhear them.
:Don’t let Uncle Windsnow hear you, Rizz. He’ll have Ylaar chase you all over the Vale.: Windsnow was brother to Foxflash’s mother, and the leader of the Day Scouts. He was also a near-Master level mage and had been amongst the worst hit by the recent problems.
:Rizz not scared of fat Ylaar.: She insisted, pinning her eyes rapidly and shuffling from foot to foot.
Foxflash sighed. Windsnow’s Ylaar was a White-Tailed Eagle who was known for her short temper. Although Rizz herself was a good size, Foxflash didn’t fancy having to pick up her feathers over the breadth of the Vale. :Don’t say that where she can hear you, silly bird.:
:What?: Rizz flipped her wings and gave her Bondmate a confused look.
Foxflash sighed. :Never mind.: He raked one hand through his relatively short hair (this month he had opted for a theme of green and grey) and used the other arm to lever himself up from a sitting position on the branch he had been occupying. :We’d best get on; the sooner we finish this, the sooner we can try to find a hot pool that has some space left.:
Making a disgusted sound, the Cooperi hawk fixed Foxflash with one baleful eye. :Rizz not like water.:
:Fine; we’ll find me a hot pool and you a rabbit, or something.:
:Good! Good!: Rizz bobbed her head enthusiastically, then spread her wings, hopped sideways and launched herself off the branch. After a short plummet, Rizz began pumping her wings and agilely flew between the trees. :Come, slow Foxflash!:
A low sigh and the young scout picked his way along the tree branch, following after his bird.
It wasn’t long before Rizz found something and alerted her Bondmate. :Look!: She sent excitedly, accompanying the word with an aerial view of a small clearing that looked disturbed and definitely worth investigating.
Foxflash altered his direction slightly and took the tree road towards where he could sense Rizz was. As he got close to her, he noted the faint smell of charred foliage in the air. That observation was confirmed as he reached the clearing; the tree canopy was distinctly singed and below, the loam of the floor was cracked and melted into an irregular glassy mess.
Wonderful. Foxflash thought sourly. Yet another one of those lightning strike sites.
Rizz was perched in a pine tree on the far side of the clearing, mindlessly preening her wings again. She completely ignored Foxflash, which at least meant that he got some peace and quiet.
Actually…Foxflash frowned and redoubled his grip on an upward-growing spar of the branch he was standing on, so that he could lean out over the clearing to get a better view, it’s too quiet. It was; the usual background forest sounds were absent from this section of the woodland, although the scout could hear distant birdcalls that indicated that the same silence wasn’t holding true elsewhere.
:Rizz, can you see anything?:
The hawk blinked and glanced over at Foxflash, before settling her wings and scanning the clearing. :!: She sent, after a moment. :Bad bad under bush by tree!:
Foxflash stiffened as he deciphered the image Rizz sent him; black, non-shiny scales covering a lean, large form, partly crouched under a tangled collection of bushes and vines.
Righting himself, Foxflash slowly reached over his shoulder and snagged both his hunting bow and the tail of an arrow in one hand, pulling them out together. Switching the arrow to his other hand, Foxflash smoothly nocked the arrow and drew back the bowstring.
:Which bush, Rizz?:
:Next to tree.: With an unspoken impression of Foxflash, in the tree. Meaning that the wyrsa was almost directly beneath him.
Wonderful, just wonderful. Stifling a mutter, Foxflash shifted his position until he was standing directly over the suspect bush. If he squinted, the scout could indeed make out the outline of the wyrsa crouching underneath it. Sighting on what he guessed to be the front end of the creature, Foxflash drew back on the bowstring again and let the arrow fly.
It shot downwards and into the bush, impacting with a satisfying thunk. The wyrsa erupted from the bush with a loud hiss-yelp, scattering branches, leaves and soil everywhere as it flailed madly towards the middle of the clearing. The red and green fletching of Foxflash’s arrow was clearly visible in its left shoulder, close to the spine.
Foxfire quickly grabbed a second arrow and tried to get an aim on the madly writhing change-creature. After a long moment, filled with ear-splitting reptilian shrieks from the injured wyrsa— and equally loud and excited sounds from Rizz; who was bouncing up and down on her branch, caught up in the thrill of the ‘hunt’— Foxflash finally managed a clear shot, and released the arrow with a singing hum of bowstring.
The wyrsa collapsed abruptly, limbs twitching spasmodically for a moment. The second arrow quivered in place, buried firmly at the base of the evil monster’s skull.
Foxflash let out a long breath and relaxed. Wyrsa weren’t usually that easy to kill; nor did they live alone… yet, no other wyrsa had appeared during the commotion. :Rizz—: Foxflash frowned faintly, :scout around for me, would you?:
:Yes, yes.: She readily agreed, bobbing her head, before taking to the wing again.
Whilst his hawk was spiralling around the clearing in a search pattern Foxflash climbed down to a lower branch and carefully peered into all the shadows that he could see.
There didn’t appear to be any more wyrsa around. This was confirmed a moment later by Rizz.
:No more hissy dogs.: She told her Bondmate. :Seen tree hare, hunt?: Rizz was nothing if not a food motivated bird.
:Fine, you hunt.: Foxflash agreed; a tree hare being on the ground was a very solid indication that the dead wyrsa was the only on in this vicinity. That meant, of course, that Foxflash could safely jump down to ground level, which he did.
Stowing his arrow back in his quiver, the scout paced over to the dead wyrsa. Getting close to it, Foxflash could clearly see that it was thin (well, thinner than wyrsa usually were) and showed signs of a recent fight; scratch and bite marks around its flanks and head.
Hmm… looks like a pack outcast; that’d fit with it being alone out here.
Retrieving his arrows from the corpse, and sticking them into the ground several times to give them a rudimentary clean, Foxflash wandered over to the bush the wyrsa had been hiding under.
The faint smell of blood tickled at Foxflash’s nose and he grimaced. The wyrsa appeared to have made a kill. Crouching down and using his climbing stick to poke under the bush, he discovered that the wyrsa had indeed made a kill, but that it had also devoured said kill completely.
There was something else under the bush, however—
Hooking it out with the curved end of the stick, Foxflash frowned down at the torn, alien looking bag. It looked like the same kind of bag that Tayledras scouts carried their provisions in; but it was a horrendous pink colour.
It also appeared (from what Foxflash could make out under the dirt and blood stains) to have a picture of a deformed looking cat on it.
If any cat ever grinned like that at Foxflash, he’d start worrying.
Something tattered fell out of a large rent in the side of the bag, and prodding it with a toe revealed it to me the torn remains of a book. Like no book I’ve ever seen… Foxflash frowned. The paper was odd, the language was incomprehensible and stilted looking, and there were pictures on the front cover; which wasn’t made of card-and leather.
The picture was of a white horse; it looked as if it had been drawn by the same disturbed mind that thought that cats grinned and wore frilly dresses.
This is definitely one of those damned lightning strike sites, Foxflash decided sourly, before stuffing the strange book back into the ruined bag, the bundling the whole lot into his own scout pack.
The Elders had decreed that any… unusual… artefacts found at strike sites be brought back to the Vale, for the mages to pick over and examine (during the single candle mark a day that they spent out of the hot pools and not high on willow bark).
These lightning strikes were the new Change Circles, or something, apparently.
Whatever. Foxflash snorted out a breath and decided that he’d had more than enough of the Forest for the time being.
:Rizz? I’m heading back to the Vale.:
All Foxflash got in return was the feeling of eatinghappynice. At least Rizz was pleased with her lot in the world.
K’Treva Vale was unusually quiet when Foxflash passed through the Veil; well, it was unusually quiet compared to what it used to be like, before the magic-warping lightning storms started. The muted sounds of people clustered around the numerous hot pools, and the quiet efficiency of the hertasi were the only sounds on the air.
Foxflash sighed to himself and made his way to the meeting circle that acted as the main co-ordination point for both the Day and Night scouts.
“You look like something that the kyree dragged in.”
Jerking his head up at the unexpected voice, Foxflash found himself looking at one of his best friends, and a fellow scout, Redleaf. She was grinning widely at him from her sprawled position on a pile of cushions on the far side of the meeting circle, and Foxflash poked his tongue out at her before shrugging off his pack and quiver, and collapsing gracelessly on a second pile of cushions.
“Six runs in three days; dealing with four Changewolves, a group of lost merchants and a wyrsa? You’d look like Hell, too,” he told her severely. “What’re you doing here?”
Redleaf crossed her eyes at Foxflash, seemingly unimpressed by his litany. “Relaxing after my own solo scout run, thank you very much,” she said, “and waiting for Sunstone, so that I can finish my report and go kick a mage out of a hot pool for half a mark.”
Foxflash vented a heartfelt sigh. “Tell me about it,” he said sourly, slouching further into the soft embrace of the brown and green covered cushions.
“What do I find here?” The question was rhetorical, and the smooth baritone announced the arrival of its owner; Day scout Leader Sunstone, as he stepped into the Meeting Circle. “Two half dead scouts, by the look of things.”
Redleaf snorted and crossed her arms behind her head as she leaned back. “I’d throw something at you, but I’m too tired,” she informed Sunstone.
“Seconded,” Foxflash agreed, before using one foot to toe his scout pack in Sunstone’s direction. “I found another lightning strike site, picked up what was left for you,”
Sunstone squatted next to the pack and reached for it with one hand, the other brushing wisps of green and yellow-brown hair out of his face. “What was left?” He queried as he undid the tie-string on top of the pack.
“Mmm,” Foxflash nodded. “A wyrsa had already had lunch.”
Redleaf made a tsking sound and threw a look at Foxflash. “Such a lovely turn of phrase you have,” she mocked.
“You’ve seen the invaders that arrive with the lightning,” Foxflash pointed out, causing the young woman to sigh. The invaders were… strange; they looked human— like young female humans, in fact— but they were dressed oddly, invariably had a collection of truly strange artefacts with them, and were usually very dead.
“You have a point; although I’m still convinced that they have to be accidental Change-creatures… no evil mage worth his salt would deliberately make something that…” she trailed off.
“Ridiculous,” Sunstone supplied for her, sceptically holding one of the alien books by a corner of its cover, almost as if he was worried that it was infectious.
Redleaf nodded. “Ridiculous is a good word,” she decided. “Did you hear about Hawkmoon?”
Foxflash rolled to one side and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Redleaf. “What about Hawkmoon?” he asked.
“Well,” Redleaf shifted her weight a gestured with one hand, “you know that since this lightning thing started, we’ve been finding all kinds of strange stuff at the strike sites?”
Sunstone snorted. “Usually in corpse form, or at least showing a severe lack of any kind of survival skills.”
That was true; the carnivorous inhabitants of the Pelagirs were starting to head towards the lightning when it was striking— rather than hiding like any sensible creature— drawn by the prospect of an extremely easy meal.
“He was out on a sortie when the lightning struck yesterday, and it came down so close to him it knocked him out of his tree,” Redleaf waved her hand in the air. “And when he could, you know, see and think again, he went to investigate—“ she paused dramatically, and Sunstone shook his head and continued to pick through the contents of Foxflash’s pack.
“Well?” Foxflash rolled his eyes and made a carry on gesture to his friend. “Don’t stop there!”
“Well, he got to the strike site, and there was one of the Change-people there and it attacked him, that’s what!”
Foxflash’s mouth fell open slightly and he gave Redleaf an incredulous look. “Attacked?”
Redleaf nodded vigorously. “He told me himself; it was this horrible thing, wearing blue and pink and it ran straight at him screeching something and waving its arms around.”
“That sounds like a really stupid way to attack someone,” Foxflash said. “What was it screeching?”
Redleaf shrugged. “Hawkmoon said so,” she said, “he didn’t recognise it as any kind of language, but it could have been some kind of spell trigger, what with the arm waving and everything.” She took in Foxflash’s expression. “He said it sounded something like—“ the scout cleared her throat and sat up, “—ouhmiiigaawdissahaukuhbruvverr!”
Foxflash blinked. “So what did Hawkmoon do?”
“What would you do— what would any of us do?” Redleaf said with a snort, “he shot it, of course.”
Sunstone finally joined in the conversation once more; the tattered pink bag with the obscenely grinning mutant cat in one hand. “Which is the only sensible thing to do.” A heartfelt sigh. “I’m going to take this lot to the Elders; you pair go find yourselves something to eat and a pool to soak in.”
“That sounds heavenly,” Redleaf said in a dreamy tone of voice. “Let the mages decipher the meaning of these lightning-Change circles.”
“Mmm,” Foxflash agreed with a heartfelt sigh. “I, for one, have gone past caring about anything except food and a good sleep.” He yawned and closed his eyes, already drifting off to sleep as he heard Redleaf speak for one last time.
“What kind of invasion uses idiotic looking girls as an advance guard; what do they take us for?”
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