The night was cool and silent, the dew of early autumn coating the grass in a filigree of glimmering drops and silver spiderwebs. A bright moon was peeking through a tattered veil of clouds, casting flickering shadows across the uneven ground. Shadows through which we crept, single-file, following Blaise’s lead.
In any other situation, I might have questioned the wisdom of letting Blaise lead in anything, but it was clear he was a skilled scout and tracker as well as a ranger; besides, this was territory he knew, had hunted in and patrolled long before he split from the Seraph.
I pulled a sour expression at that last thought. ‘Split from the Seraph’ was one way of putting it – ‘betrayed to their deaths in the name of profit’ was another. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Blaise’s predicament, or his desire to prove himself worthy again, not when all his troubles were ones he’d brought down on his own head. Still, Spark seemed determined to give him a chance, and I couldn’t really blame her for that.
So it was that we slunk through nighttime shadows, little more than pieces of darkness ourselves, heading always north and east.
More than once, Blaise paused to point out what signs and tracks he was following, but I could see little more than smudges in the grass, scrapes in the raw earth. Both Caolinn and Weir seemed satisfied, though, that this time the ranger was leading us exactly where he said he was leading us: towards the centaurs.
Before long, I had more than a few bent twigs and trampled leaves to reassure me of the same. There were lights amongst the trees, casting trunks and branches into silhouette, and making the midnight sky look even darker. And not just any lights: torches, carried by none other than centaur hands.
We paused behind a small ridge, Blaise hunkering down to whisper, “They’re gathering.”
Gathering what? I wondered, until I realised what the ranger meant. More torches were approaching from the west, cantering along as if their owners had the ease of movement provided by a significant road. Behind them came more, and yet another group to the north-east, all converging on the same trail. It was the centaurs themselves gathering, and in considerable numbers. That… wasn’t reassuring.
I shuffled closer to Blaise. “Are these the same centaurs we saw in Gendarran Fields?” I asked.
Blaise shook his head, barely visible as clouds shifted over the moon again. “These are other tribes, ones who live out here all the time.”
“And what are they doing?” Spark’s voice drifted from further along the ridge; I could see nothing of her save a gleam along the crest of the rifle in her hands.
“Gathering, like I said.” By the rustle of clothing, I thought Blaise might have shrugged. “We’ll have to get closer to know for sure.”
So, get closer we did. The moon remained hidden by clouds, which was some small relief as we stumbled across grassy hummocks towards the road. When we reached it, Blaise led us into a small hollow, where a stand of thorn bushes screened us. I peeked through their branches, watching cadre after cadre of centaurs troop past, laughing and joking amongst themselves in a language, or at least a dialect, I couldn’t understand. All I could glean was that they were in high spirits.
Caolinn seemed to have noticed the same. “Perhaps it’s a social occasion,” she suggested, clearly trying to sound more optimistic than she felt.
Behind me, Weir snorted. “Centaurs? Social?”
“Actually, centaurs have a highly developed social structure,” Blaise began, then trailed off as he saw how many scowls were being directed his way. If he was going to drag us into another fight against the centaurs, the last thing I wanted to know was how intelligent and advanced they were.
“The point I was trying to make,” Caolinn went on, after a pause, “is that perhaps their reasons for gathering are not combative. Who would they be fighting out here? Perhaps this is simply some aspect of centaur custom and no concern of ours.”
There was a soft, rhythmic clicking behind me. I didn’t have to turn to know Spark was readying her rifle. “This is Deathwish’s concern, no matter what the centaurs are up to,” she said. “Which means it’s our concern too.”
I turned to Blaise. “This isn’t about all centaurs though, is it? Are you certain the ones you… ‘dealt with’ are out there?”
Blaise had gone pale as the moon, and looked wan and anxious by its light. “The trail we followed was theirs, from where we met them before. They’re definitely here somewhere.”
‘Somewhere’, we soon learnt, was more vague than even Blaise had intended it to be. During a lull in the procession of centaurs, we darted across the road and into the thicker forest on the other side. After that we climbed a hill, battling our way through the undergrowth to come out a considerable height above the surrounding landscape. Which is when we saw the centaurs properly for the first time, and I realised just how apt the term ‘gathering’ was.
There were hundreds of them, perhaps close to a thousand, all milling around a colossal bonfire. That we hadn’t heard the roar of their voices and hooves was only because the centaurs had massed in a natural amphitheatre, cutting themselves off from the forest. Inside that rocky bowl, their voices boomed and echoed; outside, they were barely audible at all.
“What are they doing?” It was Weir who growled the question over my shoulder. He was as tense as I’d ever seen him, and – unusually for him – had his mace already in his hand.
I resisted the urge to be glib and instead studied the massing centaurs. Caolinn’s assessment of a social occasion had something to recommend it – there was food cooking on the fringes of the bonfire and on smaller, peripheral blazes; empty ale mugs had been tossed into a large heap beside one rocky wall; and the centaurs themselves had the look of party attendants, laughing and talking, swigging drinks and casually mingling.
“Are you sure we haven’t misjudged them?” Caolinn, rightly judging we wouldn’t be heard over the din below, didn’t trouble to whisper.
As one, we turned to look at Blaise. He, however, was intently staring at something on the far side of the bonfire. “Look,” he hissed.
It took me a moment to pick out what he’d seen: on a rocky outcrop, almost a dais raised above the festivities, were a smaller group of centaurs. They had to be dignitaries of some description, tribal leaders or similar, judging by the rich fabrics draped around their flanks and shoulders. And in the very centre stood a centaur nearly twice as large as his companions, with horns curving out like a bull’s and a staff in his hands that glowed with a malevolent red light.
I turned to Blaise. “What do you make of him?”
Blaise had gone even paler than before, and the firelight cast dark shadows in the hollows around his eyes. “Some kind of sage or shaman,” he replied, shaking his head.
“There’s your chance, then,” Spark said, from behind. “Kill the sage, and your debt will be paid.”
I didn’t think the ranger would ever ‘pay his debt’, not after what he’d done – I had the feeling Spark would agree with me, no matter what she said. Blaise, though, looked strangely comforted. “Yes,” he murmured, “this is the end of it.”
“Let’s get closer,” I suggested. “There’s nothing we can do from up here.”
“There’s plenty I can do,” Spark corrected, “and Blaise too, if he chooses.”
Blaise shook his head immediately – I was starting to like this new, decisive side to him. “I have to be down there. I have to look him in the eye when I kill him.”
I couldn’t really blame him, when that was a feeling I knew all too well. No-one else argued, either, so the rest of us left Spark building her weaponry on the hillside and set off along the ridge. The amphitheatre below us formed sheer cliffs where Spark was positioned, but a series of deep steps towards its rear; we’d make for those, and hope we could find a way to scramble down unseen.
We’d started to descend, in fact, when I felt the prickle across my shoulder-blades. I stopped in my tracks, Caolinn almost climbing down onto my head before she, too, pulled up short.
“Do you feel that?” she whispered – a whisper I heard, because the clamour in the canyon had suddenly fallen silent.
Though my perch was precarious, I whirled to face the centaur gathering, fearing we’d been spotted. We remained in shadow, though, and the centaurs were paying no attention to our position. Instead, food and drink had been forgotten, every head turned towards the outcrop on which the shaman stood.
The shaman who had raised his staff to the night sky and, though I couldn’t hear his words, appeared to be chanting.
Above me, Caolinn swore and a shower of little pebbles cascaded onto my head as she altered her stance. “That’s a summoning ritual.”
I went cold all over. “What kind of summoning?”
Caolinn shook her head frantically. “How should I know? What kind of fell beast does a centaur sage desire to control?”
I could think of a dozen answers to that, and I didn’t like any of them. Blaise and Weir had come to a halt on a wider ledge below, and I hissed a warning to them before slithering rapidly down to their feet. Weir caught me as I wobbled, though his attention was firmly on the spectacle unfolding before us. The sage had now transferred the staff to his other hand, and was whirling it around his head with a noise like a screeching raven.
“Are you sure it’s a summoning?” I asked Caolinn, as she joined us.
Blaise and Weir swung towards me, speaking as one. “Summoning?”
Caolinn was hunched as though under a great weight, and seemed reluctant to approach the edge perched on by the rest of us. “Can’t you feel it?” she said. “That energy… In the air, in the rocks, in everything.”
I couldn’t, and apparently neither could Weir or Blaise. The latter, however, spoke up. “Summoning is the preferred art of many of the greater centaur shamans,” he said. “They have an interest in elementals.”
‘Elementals’ and ‘energies’ – that sounded alarming even without the sage below breaking his chant to howl incoherent syllables at the sky. At the sound, Caolinn cowered, slapping her hands over her ears and making a strangled noise.
“We need to move,” I said, the urgency of the situation gripping me. “Caolinn, er… wait here.”
I don’t think she even heard me, lost in misery as she was. Weir, Blaise and I continued our downward scramble, no longer caring whether we were seen or heard. Within half a minute, we’d reached the canyon floor and were creeping along its rim. The centaurs remained blind to our presence, though I didn’t think that would last long – soon we would be behind the sage, and in the line of sight of the rest.
We were halfway there when I felt the curious sensation of being watched. Blaise seemed oblivious, but Weir halted, putting his hand on the ranger’s shoulder. As the others scanned the crowd, I looked up, expecting to see Caolinn peering down. Instead, I saw a flicker of movement further around the cliff-face, and an entirely different contingent of individuals.
Weir saw them too and a puzzled look crossed his face. “Who is that?” he murmured.
I wanted to reply, needed desperately to tell him, but I couldn’t make the words form. Almost, just almost, I had come to believe our trip into the Hinterlands nothing more than a wild goose chase. Now, though, I saw what I had both hoped and feared: Zurra – and she looked every bit as interested in the shaman’s summoning as we were. Somehow, I didn’t think she was here to stop it.