“End of the Line” (Part 1) by Scott Colby

The trail of blood was maybe a day old. It began in front of a trade house. Undurlund, the sign read. Why here? Did Boruin have business with Underlund? The trade house was serene, untouched, so I decided to follow the trail. I could come back to Undurlund later if it was necessary. I doubted it would be.

Priyati was eerily quiet despite the weather. The bright, sunny day had failed to draw people into the empty, cavernous streets. It was a shame, really, that my visit came under such circumstances. Here was a city where I could’ve felt somewhat at home, where the construction was a part of the landscape rather than a barrier built to keep it out. Buildings were nestled under rocky outcroppings or among the lower bows of tremendous old trees. Windows were wide and open to the elements. The roof was just another floor, a place to observe and enjoy nature. These Easlinders got it right.

But for all the city’s beauty, the lack of people on the streets left Priyati feeling downright eerie. Something very bad had happened here, something that seriously spooked the locals. The few I encountered on the outskirts of the city went about their business furtively, suspicious of everybody and everything, as if they would’ve prefered to be anywhere but out in the open. These people, the Easlinders, were very different from the Nefazo I’d met in Terre Haute. They were darker and earthier, their hair wilder and their skin shining only with sweat. Their bright, homemade clothing would’ve been considered downright garbage in Terre Haute’s elite social circles. Bare arms and legs were hard with taut muscle. Breasts swung freely under loose, airy dresses. Some carried bags or boxes of belongings or dragged young children or elderly parents behind them. I passed an old woman seated on the road, her back against a nearby building, beseeching some unnamed god or gods for assistance with blood-soaked hands. Something terrible had happened in Priyati, and these people wanted no part of it. The boy to whom I’d traded Lord Thistelonious’s shoes for directions to the city warned me to stay away, but refused to say more.

I followed the trail of blood in a general southerly direction, winding through alleys and side streets. Time and weather and foot traffic had diluted the trail, leaving it spotty in sections. More than once I lost it and had to carefully examine the area to pick it up again. Did the blood belong to Boruin or one of his companions, or to one of their victims? Did it lead to a trap or was it a call for help? I had so many questions and so few answers. Such would be the life of a Riddari: a never ending search for truth through a dangerous sea of mystery. I was looking forward to it.

The homes and shops soon gave way to a district of thick, blocky warehouses. I noticed people working inside through the occasional broken window, hauling crates and barrels of uncertain contents. Food, I guessed, maybe fish given the area’s proximity to the water. Here was a novelty I wished I had time to examine further. We had no need for such things in the Dreaming Lands. Each of us knew how to gather his or her own particular brand of sustenance from the land itself. I shook my head and focused back on the trail.

I noticed something strange. Sections of the cobblestones seemed a bit depressed at regular intervals. Footprints, I realized. What in the name of the Great Mother could leave footprints in a stone street? Something big. Something dangerous. Something I hoped was long gone.

My heart sank when the trail split into three directions. This was obviously some sort of a trap, but was it still primed and loaded? I didn’t want to find out. I paced around the area where the trail split, trying to find some way to differentiate the three lines of blood. One had to be safe to follow, I reasoned. Why bother dividing the trail if all three lead into danger? But which two were the diversions? They seemed identical. There were no markers to identify them. I bent down and sniffed each line, but they all smelled the same. Tasted the same too.

Suddenly I knew exactly which line to follow. I leapt to my feet as if I’d been shocked, then took off at a run along the line flanked by the footprints. I laughed at my previous indecision; this was why I was going to be a Riddari, a secret keeper, and not a Feirnann, a land shepherd. I was so thoroughly useless in the field that my only hope for success was to lose myself in the world of books and maps. Exactly where I’d always wanted to be.

The trail brought me alongside the Oriune. Its rushing waters were a constant stream of sound and a mixed blessing; the background noise of the river would surely mask my approach, but it left me similarly deaf to the movements of anyone lying in wait. The buildings ahead were broken and crooked, long ago abandoned to the elements and left to rot. This was the perfect place for an ambush; dozens of men could hide in the nooks and crannies created by the collapsed walls and dilapidated foundations. I slowed my pace, taking care to examine every shadow.

I didn’t see the tripwire. Suddenly something was pulling my feet out from under me, and then my face and hands struck the cobblestones hard. I rolled quickly onto my back, gasping to regain the breath that had been forcibly expelled from my lungs. The first thing I saw was the tip of a sword, sharp and glittering in the sunlight. I traced the lines of the blade upward to the hilt, to the strong set of fingers holding it in place, to the burly man in a blue and gold uniform who looked none to happy to see me.

“Whatcha doin’ here, boy?” he asked.

Possible answers whirled quickly through my mind. Surely I couldn’t tell him I was lost; he’d obviously seen me following the blood trail just before my fall. He didn’t look like the type that would tolerate any sort of half-truth or incomplete response.

So I told him the truth. “I’m here on Fae business, tracking a man named Boruin. I have reason to believe he was involved in whatever happened further up the street.”

The man relaxed visibly, sheathing his weapon. These Easlinders were obviously more familiar with my kind than the ignorant Nefazo. “That’s a crime scene up ahead. I’m not supposed to allow anyone past this point without a judge’s permission.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

He shrugged. “No harm in that; most of Priyati knows. The man you’re after got into a bit of a tussle with the local Makua’Moi. He and his crew wiped the floor with those rutters. A lot of us are grateful he did it, but where there’s one Makua’Moi, there’s always more. We’d like to bring Boruin in for questioning, to find out if he can help us track down the rest.”

“He left no further trail?”

The officer shook his head. “If he did, it ain’t as obvious as these bloody rilk tracks. He and his crew are long gone and no one knows where. We think the rilk might have some idea, but they ain’t talking.”

The rilk. I should’ve known. A rilk was certainly heavy enough to leave the kind of trail I’d been following, especially if it had been moving quickly.

He wiped his chin, considering something. “And…there’s something strange in the back. Something none of the brains can figure out. Brought in a Ha’ha’welo, but even she had no idea what she was looking at. And now you’re here. It makes a man think…it might be Fae.”

Here was my chance. It was refreshing to meet an honest, intelligent lij who was trying to do his job to the best of his abilities. He was worth ten of every single one of the bastards I’d met in Terre Haute. “Let me through, and I’ll share anything I learn.”

He answered by offering me his hand. I took it and he pulled me to my feet. “It’s not pretty in there.”

“I’ve been following a trail of blood. I didn’t expect to find a rainbow at the end of it.” We shared an awkward laugh. Despite my attempt at humor, I was petrified of what I was going to find—especially considering that my companion, a rather hard looking man, still seemed haunted by the things he’ seen up ahead. We parted with a handshake and I soldiered on.

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