The Weathervane

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The Weathervane

Post by Oblivion on Tue Jul 24, 2012 11:19 pm

When Benny Davidson showed up to complain that his father’s weathervane had gone missing, no one paid much notice. The winters were prone to strong winds, and David’s farm had been in his family for generations upon generations; the old worn pewter rooster was going to go sooner or later, and there was nothing unnatural or criminal about it being caught up and away in a gale. The watch sent a man out to give the farm a cursory look-over, who found nothing out of the ordinary and returned without finding the missing object. “It will turn up,” they said, and David merely shrugged and made his way to Smith’s to see about getting a replacement made.

When the missing object “turned up” a week and a half later at Martha Hogger’s patch, half-buried in the mutilated body of one of her boars, it attracted a little more attention.

The watch investigated, of course. Initial impressions of the poor creature’s death by Martha and her husband blamed goatwolves or bears, and the dented device wasn’t even mentioned in the first complaint. Travis Nightwatch suspected it was the fault of a cane coon roused uncomfortably early from its hibernation, leaving it particularly famished; he theorized it had discovered the weathervane after the midwinter storm and kept it as part of its trinket hoard, but left it behind after gorging on the unlucky pig and presumably heading back to its warren to sleep. It was difficult to prove any guess, as the wind and snow had erased any tracks that might have been left, but in either case it was clearly the work of wild animals, and Martha was recommended to speak to Philip Carson or one of the Trappers in town about setting up snares. The broken compass-crow was returned to David Farmer, who passed it on to Terry Smith, who tossed it in the scrap heap and left it to be forgotten.

Had that been the end of it, it probably would have been nothing more than a month’s worth of gossip at the most, then swiftly forgotten. But merely a week later the weathervane was spotted again, pinned to the head of a slaughtered wolfhound belonging to Vernon Fisher. This time, it was impossible to blame on a wild animal. The brutality to which the unfortunate animal had been subjected was little different, but the manner in which the rooster was positioned atop its skull - nevermind its presence there in the first place - could only have been done by human hands or an animal trained by human words. And that’s when Lana got involved.

Until proven to be connected to something beyond local troublemakers or larger scale than an isolated wild beast attack, normally the watch handled criminal activity and basic troublemaking in Ora Lunata; the militia were reserved primarily for outside trouble, things beyond local authority, or bigger problems that the watch wasn’t equipped or were stretched too thin to handle. But Lana had been in the area when Vernon and his sons came back from their day on the waves, and intending to pass by the house on her way home, she’d been within earshot of the first screams of alarm and come running back. Now she crouched over the mutilated body of a guard dog, examining the evidence as closely as she could in the conditions while Vernon paced nervously back and forth in front of his porch.

The attack was not immediate, that was the first thing she’d discerned. The blood around the battle site had already dried, and what had splattered to the ground was already soaked into the earth well before the first flakes of nightly snow had begun to fall. It hadn’t been long ago enough, though, to cover the mad scramble of tracks in the grass and dirt around the Fisher house. She saw no human prints other than her own and a set she quickly matched to Vernon himself, but not all the remaining cluster belonged to the dead dog. If it hadn’t been for the odd placement of the weathervane, she could have easily passed this off as another wild animal attack. Maybe that’s what they wanted.

“Seen any animals around that aren’t yours lately?” she asked, not rising. “Wolves, goatwolves, foxophers, birds of prey, anything?”

Vernon shook his head while continuing to pace and wring his hands. “No, no miss. Nothing strange or unusual. We get robins and sparrows and jays but not ‘til spring at best. During the winter, no, nothing.”

Lana frowned. She didn’t expect much, but it would have been immensely helpful if someone in the family had spotted a stray lurking in the area recently. What didn’t make sense was the lack of reason for a wild animal to attack the Fisher house, especially when Vernon wasn’t home. They kept the fish indoors for that specific reason, sealed up in a coldbox, and unless his wife was cooking, there wouldn’t be much scent for some animal passing by to catch. They had no herds, no livestock, no chickens, no animals at all of their own save the dog. So why? What purpose would a wild animal have to attack? Unless it was so hungry it meant to make a meal of a trained guard hound, and if that was the case why was more than half the carcass left behind?

She scanned around the area until she found an unidentified print separate enough from the rest of the scuffle to isolate. She wished she’d had Nick along with his sketchbook, but getting a rubbing before the ground got too snowy would have to do. “Bring me some parchment or paper and some charcoal,” she called, and the sound of the door behind her confirmed Vernon was at least playing along. She did her best to shield the area with her body until he returned, then dropped the page of scrap paper onto the print and quickly rubbed in the impression as best she could.

“What is that for?” Vernon asked as she rose at last, sticking the paper in her coat pocket and handing the charcoal back. She snatched up the blood-splattered weathervane as well, taking a few moments to find a gripping spot that wasn’t painted red. If nothing else, it was evidence.

“Picture of the print, I can take it to a tracker and hopefully get it identified. If we know what kind of animal killed your hound, we might be able to track it down. Someone from the watch’ll get back to you shortly, if they find anything.” She dusted off her pants and retrieved her sword and pack from the fenceline. “Sorry I can’t do more, Mister Fisher.”

----

It was dark by the time she got home, meaning that any further investigation would have to wait until tomorrow after her morning routines were finished. The house was far from quiet though: Nick was outside, putting away his latest project by waning candlelight before heading back inside for the evening. He’d been spending most of his free time lately, what of it she wasn’t around for at least, working on building another of his two-wheel devices, this one slightly larger than the first. Whenever she’d asked him about it, he’d just said it was for “a wager” and grinned like a victorious housecat.

He threw a tarp over the half-finished object after shuttling it into the shed, then dusted off his hands before picking the candle back from the ground and turning to return to the house. He waved when he saw Lana approaching, and picked up a little speed to meet her along the way. “Hi. Everything alright? You’re home awful late.”

“Got caught up in some trouble,” she said with a sigh, and showed him the blood-splattered rooster. “Passed by the west Fishers’ place on my way back, someone or something killed their dog. Left this behind.”

Nick paled slightly, thought that might have just been a trick of the candlelight. “You’re investigating, then?”

“It’s my job,” she replied with a nod. “Well, normally it would be the watch’s job, but I got there first. Might as well finish what I’ve begun.” She stuck the weathervane back in her belt, thankful the long-dry blood wouldn’t smear on her clothing in the dark, and gestured toward the house. “Let’s head in. I’ll fill you and Father in on the details somewhere out of the snow.”

The house was quiet, despite the lights still being lit. Dan and Alicia appeared to have already turned in for the evening, but Avner was still up, sitting guard at the table with the remains of dinner still in place and Lana’s empty chair still waiting. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was despite the late hour, and made a beeline for her plate as soon as it came in sight.

“Nice of you to join us,” Avner greeted gruffly, though a slight smile accompanied the implied chastisement.

“Sorry. Was busy.” Lana filled her plate with ease and dropped into her seat, sparing only a moment to make sure she had everything she needed before digging in. Nick and Avner exchanged a silent glance, then the former claimed the seat next to her and rested his head in his hands, elbows propped up on the table’s edge.

“What kept you?” Avner spoke up again. “Or should I wait until you’re done gorging?”

Lana paused, and a slightly sheepish expression crept onto her face. “Sorry,” she mumbled again, and set her utensils aside once more before retrieving the items taken from the Fisher place. “Vernon Fisher caught me on my way home. Something had attacked his dog and needed looking into.”

“Is it okay? How bad’s the injury?”

“Dead.” She picked up her tools again and resumed eating, though at a much more restrained pace. “Torn apart. But most of the carcass was left behind, so I don’t think it was just some scavenger.” She passed the paper and weathervane across the table. “That was left on the body, propped up on its head. And that’s one of the tracks in the area that didn’t belong to the dog.”

Avner’s frown deepened as he examined the object. “Wonder if this is David’s.”

“David who?” Nick piped up.

“Farmer, Benny’s dad. The boy who was going about asking if anyone had found a lost weathervane about a month or so back.” He dropped it to the table again and unfolded the rubbing over it. “Had someone look at this yet?”

“Too late. First thing tomorrow.” Lana finished the last of her plate and glanced at the remaining food on the table, as if debating a second course.

“After sparring,” Avner asked, though his tone implied it wasn’t a question.

“After sparring,” she echoed with a nod, and pushed her plate aside. “Should be turning in soon then, but I’ll get this all cleaned up. Thanks for leaving things out for me.”

“Not the first time this house had someone come home from a long day,” he replied, rising with a nod. “I’ll leave you to it and turn in myself, then. Goodnight both of you.” Avner plodded slowly down the hall, pausing once to douse a candle in another room and a second time to usher Crackle out of his way; the iguanabat squawked loudly then came scampering down the hall moments later, and quickly claimed one of the abandoned chairs for his own.

Lana went about packing up all the remaining food, wrapping the leftover meat and vegetables in butcher’s paper and tying them off with strings then arranging them neatly in the warmer section of the icebox. Nick followed suit, picking up the empty dishes after she finished and taking them over to the washbin. Crackle busied himself with chasing the few scraps that dropped free, though there was very little left to his tastes and he ended up leaving most where they fell.

The two spent the next half hour washing the dishes and sorting them away in relative silence. Lana’s thoughts were heavy on her new mystery, and until she knew more she didn’t feel like discussing it too much; Nick stopped attempting to pry after the second try, forcing his curiosity to be satisfied with at least knowing what it was she was investigating if nothing more detailed. They shared a chaste embrace and a kiss on the cheek before going their separate ways for the night, he to his drawings and she to bed.

----

Lana was up at dawn as usual and minutes after completing her morning spar and breakfast was out the door and on her way to town without the slightest hesitation. In addition to her two meager pieces of evidence, Lana had brought a few more supplies for the purposes of investigation, mostly borrowed from Nick: some more spare paper and charcoal, some glass containers for holding small objects, a few small tools. She wasn’t sure how many of them might be necessary, but he’d advised her to be prepared for anything and she couldn’t much argue with that logic. It all fit in a small lightweight case, so it wasn’t an excessive burden.

Jarvis Trapper’s place was the closest of her available options for getting the print identified, so unless he wasn’t home or couldn’t manage the task she hoped to be there and back well before noon with a new lead to pursue. It took less than half an hour to reach the house by foot, and by the time she was five minutes out his hounds had already begun to bay, assuring her he was still home. When she arrived she found the trio jumping about excitedly on the porch and Jarvis himself laying half-sprawled on the bench he kept there, watching the midmorning sky.

“Taking the day off, Trapper?” Lana called, waving.

Jarvis sat up, took a few moments to consider a response, then shrugged. “Guess I am. Been a slow winter, but I’m good ‘til next month if I play it slow. What brings you out to these parts? Avner needing more catgut?”

Lana shook her head. “Actually wanted your professional opinion on something.” She made her way up the stairs and produced the rubbing, having to lift it out of the reach of curious basset snouts twice before she could actually hand it over to Jarvis, who thankfully by now had righted himself into a less-horizontal sitting position. “Found that out at Vernon Fisher’s, around his dead dog. Any idea what left it?”

Jarvis made a disgruntled noise and picked at his teeth with one nail while turning the paper over several times in the other hand. His expression very noticeably fell from half-asleep relaxed amusement to an uncomfortable anxiety that Lana did not care for. He was silent other than noncommittal grunts and non-words for several minutes before rising, stepping past her, and darting inside without a word, paper still in hand and leaving the screened door to slam shut behind him. Two of the three dogs jumped from their midmorning naps and began barking haphazardly before realizing the source of the interruption and rolling back over to sleep.

She waited several minutes in silence before he returned, carrying along with the paper a large book filled with yellowed pages. Lana moved to watch as he sat back down and began rapidly flipping through the pages, which she could see were filled with several drawings in the trapper’s hand. She’d figured most trappers worked by sight and memory and hadn’t ever thought of one as making himself a reference guide.

It was several minutes longer, filled with low mutterings and several backtracks through the pages, before Jarvis found what he was apparently looking for. The print in the book was slightly smaller than the one in the rubbing, but the resemblance was unmistakable; age, weight, or slight species variance could easily explain the minor discrepancies. “Thoverine,” he grumbled, jabbing a finger at the drawing accompanying the print. It was a small, long mammalian creature with a weasel-like build, its paws equipped with long sharp claws and its back and tail covered in bristling spines that made it look like an elongated porcupine or a tiny, thorny bear. “Did you find any quills on the dog? Or around it?”

Lana started to say no, then shook her head. “I didn’t think to look. Doesn’t matter though, I know what it is. Haven’t seen one of those before.”

“They’re not common ‘round here,” Jarvis grumbled, closing the print book. “More at home in northern parts. Might run across ‘em in Praeses, maybe Amarantius along the northern coast, but that’s about it; mostly you won’t see ‘em here at all. Have to be brought in from overseas.”

“So you’re saying it’s probably not just some wild animal.”

Jarvis shook his head. “I wouldn’t wager on it. More’n likely, someone brought it in or bought it off a sailor. Maybe thought it’d make an interesting exotic pet or unusual guard dog. Little blaggards are aggressive, though. Imagine a weasel with all the nastiness of a few angry wolves. Now give it spikes. And make it a carnivore, not a scavenger.”

Lana winced. “At least now I know what I’m looking for.”

“Good luck finding it,” he said, and handed her back the drawing.

----

Ora Lunata’s streets were always at their busiest at noon. It was late enough in the day that even the heavy sleepers and night workers were usually up and about, and when the day laborers usually took their midday rest and meal, which meant that many took the opportunity to head to the market, thus thronging the streets in greater numbers. It was lesser in winter, when the weather kept the stalls trimmed below half their normal number and many preferred the warmth of a fireplace or stove to browsing the shops on their rest times, but the increase was still noticeable compared to much of the rest of the day. Thankfully, due to it being winter, the throngs were nowhere near populous enough to slow Lana in making her way through the winding, oft-redirected streets of Ora’s market toward the residency and business of Terrence Smith, the most prominent metalworker in the region.

Neither Terry nor his wife answered when Lana knocked, but a few minutes after her arrival their daughter Simone peeked around the edge of the house to investigate the source of the noise. Simone was eleven and the less bold of the two twins, withdrawn and quiet compared to her brother Simon, and thus took quite a bit of coaxing before Lana could convince her to summon her mother. Even then the girl took her time, and nearly ten minutes had passed before Ivy finally opened the door, ushering the militiawoman inside with repeated apologies.

Terry came in from the forge shortly after, and immediately dropped into his chair in the greeting room across from where Lana was seated. “Sorry ‘bout the wait ma’am, what brings you to my shop? Nothin’ wrong with your blade I hope?”

She shook her head with a smile. “My sword’s as fine as ever, thanks. Might be due for a sharpening in a few weeks though, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment. I’m here about this.” She pulled the bloodied weathervane out of her satchel as she stood, then walked over and handed it to Terry, careful to give him a non-stained edge to grab. “The watch said this was given to you after being found at the Hogger place a few days back.”

Terry shrugged noncommittally. “Might be. David Farmer brought me an old busted ‘vane like this, but I didn’t really take a good look at it. These old things are mostly pewter, not much strong metal in ‘em; pretty sure I just tossed it in the scrap.”

“Anyone who could have gotten in and taken it?”

He blinked, perplexed. “Why’d someone wanna take an old weathervane from a scrap heap?”

This time Lana shrugged. “That’s what I’m trying to find out,” she said, sitting back down. “That’s twice it’s showed up at the site of a brutal animal kill, though, and if it’s the same attacker then it’s not just a wild beast.”

“What makes ya say that?”

“I took a print from the more recent kill,” she explained. “Happened yesterday, sometime midday or early afternoon I’m estimating. Took it to Jarvis Trapper, he identified it as a thoverine.”

“Whazzat?” Terry raised an eyebrow, finally looking up from turning the metal rooster over and over in his hands.

“It’s a northern animal, not native to Ora. About the size of a weasel, though this one looks to be bigger. Looks like a miniature bear with porcupine or hedgehog quills and oversized claws. Aggressive. Very.”

He whistled. “Where ya suppose one of them came from?”

“Overseas, Jarvis said. Someone could have brought it in themselves, or bought it in town. But either it’s gotten loose and is attacking easy prey, or - and this is just a conjecture - it’s being instructed to attack things. And I think the killer’s owner or trainer is leaving that as a calling card.”

“So it’s deliberate ya think.” He whistled again, then stood and returned the object to her.

“If it wasn’t for this I’d just assume the creature got free, but the presence of the weathervane made it too obvious that human intent was involved. Especially the way it was placed in the last kill - propped up against Vernon’s dog’s head, standing upright. Not a position an animal would leave it in unless directed to do so, I’d think.”

“You’re prob’ly right.” Terry stuck his hands in his overalls pockets and shrugged again. “Can’t say I seen anybody sneakin’ into the forge.... Maybe Simon did.” He turned and bellowed back toward the forge, loud enough that Lana was forced to shield her ears. “Oi! Simon! Git in here!”

Simon, a shorter lankier version of his father, came running in, reaching the room almost before the forge door slammed shut behind him. He skidded to a halt less than a yard before crashing into Lana and suddenly became immediately quiet, as if unsure how to react to the woman’s presence. Thankfully his father stirred him from his stupor almost instantly, waving toward the weathervane in her hand to draw his attention. “You seen anybody make off with this in the past couple o’ days? Was suppos’ta be in the scrap heap.”

“Yeah I saw somethin’,” he replied, nodding enthusiastically. “A big ol’ rat. Went to get a poker to get it with, but it scrambled out under one of the wallboards before I could catch it. Was a huge thing, size of a big cat! I told Ma about it. She said it was prob’ly a forest rat or somethin’, and to plug up the hole so it couldn’t get in again.”

Terry and Lana exchanged glances. Any lingering doubts that there was human participation involved were immediately rescinded in light of this new information - there was a chance, however minute, that a wild animal might leave behind a trinket in a manner vaguely similar to a human placing a notification of their presence, but the same animal tracking the item across an entire town and retrieving it from the heat and danger of a forge scrap heap was simply unbelievable without human interference. “Thank you Simon,” Lana finally said, ruffling the boy’s hair with a smile. “That helps me immensely.”

“Back to work with ya,” Terry added, giving him a smirk of his own. It faded quickly however once the son was gone, and Terry turned back to Lana with a grimace. “Now what?”

“I do more investigating,” she replied, holding up the rooster again. “Thankfully, I know someone who can do just what I need.”

----

“You want me to do what?”

If Lana had thought Jarvis’s relaxed slouch on his front porch bench a position indicative of someone who planned to do very little with their day, the pose she found Iris Sorcere in at Cook’s Waystation was that of someone who either planned to do nothing all week or couldn’t be counted on to plan anything more than five seconds in advance. The latter of which, to be perfectly honest, described Iris more accurately than anything. She was lying on the roof overhang of the inn’s porch, head and hair hanging over the edge, arms dangling below; skies knew how her dress hadn’t come flying over her head as well. She hadn’t budged from this position, save a continual swaying in the slight breeze that managed to get around the building, since Lana had arrived. She had, at least, managed to change expression, and now wore a face that spoke of mixed disbelief and amusement.

“Track for me. Preferably with petitioning, but we can do it the old-fashioned way if you need.”

“No, no,” Iris snickered. “I got that part. The other thing.”

“Track a thoverine.”

“Yeah, that part.” Iris closed her eyes and shook her head, scattering auburn locks wildly around her face. “Nope, not gonna happen. I’m not that easy to prank, Lana. I know thoverines don’t live around here, it’s too warm.”

“It’s the middle of winter, Iris.”

“And I’m out here without furs or a coat.”

“That’s because you’re insane. Not because it’s warm. Why are you up there anyway?”

“‘Cause I’m thinking.” She opened her eyes and resumed her gentle swaying.

Lana sighed. “Look, it’s not a joke, not a prank, I’m perfectly serious. I’m trying to do my job. Someone out there is using a thoverine to kill local animals, and I’m going to find them. I’d rather have your help because for one I know you can and you’re one of the better fauna petitioners in the city, and two because you’re my friend and I trust you. But I’d rather not have to jump through hoops to do it.”

“I’d like to see you jump through hoops,” she echoed with a giggle. “Think you’d be pretty good at it actually. Though you might have to practice ducking.”

“Can’t you be serious for one moment,” Lana muttered, massaging the back of her neck in frustration. “Look, here. Look at this.” She dug the drawing out of her pocket and held it in front of Iris’s upside-down face. “Jarvis Trapper says that’s a thoverine print. I took it from the Fisher place where there was a slaughtered dog, along with this weathervane. The same ‘vane found by a dead pig out at Martha Hogger’s. The same ‘vane stolen from Smith’s by ‘a big ol’ rat’. It’s not coincidence, Iris. There’s....”

“Oh wow!” she gasped, and rolled off the roof, landing in a nimble crouch just to Lana’s left. It was a miracle she hadn’t managed to break her neck in that trick. “There’s a thoverine here! Wonder where it came from. Or who brought it. C’mon, let’s go find it!” Iris latched onto Lana’s hand and dragged her ten feet down the street before skidding to a halt. “I... should probably grab a coat. Wait here, don’t go anywhere!” She dragged Lana back another five feet, nearly tripping her on the edge of the porch, then bolted inside.

Lana spent the few minutes she waited wondering how much she was going to regret this once the job was done.

----

“Surreal” was a word that Ferra had ushered into Lana’s more frequently-used vocabulary, mostly due to repeated observations on her rather common journeys with Iris. Just over six months prior, Lana had only been aware of the word in a strictly definition sense; in the time since she had been introduced to the much more realistic application by seeing it in practice.

At best, Iris had a very unique thought process and an utter lack of filter between mind and mouth. So as she led Lana vaguely northwest out of town she shared pretty much every thought that passed through her head, pausing only occasionally to reorient herself with the two tracking spells she’d activated. One a fauna spell, searching for the faint scent of a thoverine - Iris said she’d know when she smelled it, simply because it would be different from every other scent in the area - and the other a metal spell, searching for more of the components of the weathervane - Lana surmised the creature had carried its flag in its mouth, given a lack of any other method, and Iris was confident there might be some residue of the metal, however faint, left in its teeth. So far both methods seemed to be producing minimal results, but that didn’t stop Iris from being confident they were headed in the right direction, nor dampen her spirits at all.

Lana had to admit the vagabond’s cheery mood was infectious. She’d begun the day in a sour state, unsure where she was going to get the evidence she needed to pursue the case at all; with so little information available, it seemed like she was at a dead end. Her melancholy had only deepened after speaking with Terry, despite being confident Iris could pursue the lead she wanted. Now she was walking with a more upbeat step, keeping pace behind Iris with little difficulty despite her significantly-heavier load: Lana had brought her equipment bag, armor, and sword as well as the two pieces of evidence, while Iris had nothing but a small satchel and her staff.

“Any luck yet?” she finally asked, managing to catch Iris in a rare moment when she stopped for breath.

“I’ve got something,” she replied, tilting her head sideways in a manner that struck Lana as very birdlike or rodentlike; this was something fairly common for Iris when she was in the thick of a fauna petition that let her borrow these sorts of traits. Sometimes it was rather funny to watch her do so in public. No one ever asked questions though, this sort of thing was far too common for her. “It’s faint, and patchy. But the metal one’s stronger, and I think they’re pointing the same way.”

“Scent?”

She shook her head. “Think the snow’s killed most of it. If it falls again we might lose it completely. Hence the backup plan.”

“Right. Lead on then.”

While Iris turned her attention back to regaining the trail, Lana took a moment to regain her bearings. They weren’t far out of town, maybe ten minutes at most and on foot. Their quarry couldn’t be much farther, or the trail would be fainter; as thin as it was, they might not have been able to track it at all. They were getting near Allan Shoemaker’s home, but the old cobbler was extremely unlikely to be their culprit. Wasn’t he...?

“Uh, Lana...?”

She looked up. One thing Iris almost never expressed was uncertainty, and the waver in the wanderer’s voice set Lana’s hair on end. She was pointing slightly forward toward the cottage on the left side of the road, and more specifically the pile of bloody carnage in its front lawn.

Three cats, ripped to shreds, with a badly bent weathervane propped up in the center of the pile.

----

Iris explained the situation to Allan, who had been asleep inside and only roused after repeated banging, while Lana spent the time examining the scene and collecting more evidence. The weathervane was most certainly a calling card, that she was sure of: this one had been stolen from someplace else to replace the one she had, an unnecessary effort aside from someone wanting to leave their distinct mark. The attack was extremely recent, with the blood on the corpses still wet, and the pair agreed swiftly that they had a chance to find their mark if they were quick.

Within ten minutes Iris and Lana were back on the road, now headed almost due north; their prey, predictably, hadn’t stuck to the road. “I don’t get it,” Iris muttered, arms crossed and puffing smoke through her nose after every scent-searching sniff. “There’s no way it could have gotten far enough quick enough for the scent trail to be this dim.”

“Thank goodness for the metal, at least,” Lana offered, tapping on the first weathervane at her belt. Iris now held the second in one hand, stuck out away from her clothing to avoid being smeared by the blood.

“Yeah. This path’s a lot stronger. But it doesn’t make sense. Nothing leaves this faint of a scent after being here so recently.”

Lana shrugged. Magic had never been her strong suit, she barely understood how her father did some of the things he did, especially in healing supplicans. Thankfully Iris didn’t launch into a long explanation of the operation, and the two resumed the trail in Lana’s typical silence and Iris’s semicoherent ramblings. They traveled for another mile before Iris began picking up a new fresh, strong trail - not scent, that was still mysteriously absent, but tracks. A light snow had begun to fall shortly after they’d left the Shoemaker’s, and by this time it was a thick enough ground cover to leave behind marks. Lana paused only momentarily to confirm they were the same prints, comparing size and shape and coming up with only minor differences.

“This is our quarry,” she announced with a wide grin. “Can’t be much farther. These tracks can’t be more than half an hour old, not in this.”

Another mile, and a few sidetracks where the prints had ended and the pair had to reorient themselves on Iris’s spells, and the path suddenly turned sharply west, ducking through a copse of trees off the side of the path. The prints stopped at the brush cover, but Iris assured Lana that the spell still pointed the way. After a few attempts to climb through, she finally gave up and stood back, letting Lana cleave through the brush and directing the way from behind. What had appeared to be just a small patch of trees turned out to be the arm of a thick wood, and it was a matter of minutes before the pair were stumbling through dusky darkness, led only by traveler’s instinct and Iris’s guidance.

It was almost another half hour before they finally found the cabin. It was tucked away in the recesses of the forest, concealed among thick old trees and given almost no clear ground space, sacrificing the conveniences of a clearing for the chance to blend into the woods. Had they not been guided by the spell, Lana was confident they would have looked right past it and never recognized it for what it was. The logs were weather-worn and the roof was thatched with straw and sticks, then covered over with plucked evergreen branches, further concealing it as part of the never-fading flora of the forest. There was no snow on the ground thanks to the thick canopy, but a thorough blanket of tough underbrush, fallen branches, crumbled leaves, and hardy evervines prevented any chance of tracking through mundane means to any but the most experienced of woodsmen.

Lana called a halt and the pair leaned against a grand old pine for a rest, putting the tree between themselves and the cottage. An owl hooted loudly overhead, but for the most part otherwise the forest was eerily quiet. “So, thoughts?”

“He’s in there,” Iris said with a shrug. “Or whatever the metal’s reacting to. This whole forest is odd though. I get plenty of scents, but there’s some things that are just missing.”

“Such as?”

“No predator scents. No wolves of any kind. No predator birds. No weasels or their kin. I smell deer, I smell badger, I smell different kinds of rodent. No reptiles but it’s winter.”

“Wait,” Lana raised a hand, cutting her off. “You said no birds of prey. But I just heard an owl.”

“Yup. Can’t smell him though.”

She scowled. “Are you sure you did the petition right?”

Iris raised an eyebrow, momentarily looking stricken before smirking. “Oh yes, I’m sure. I can smell YOU just fine.”

Lana’s jaw dropped for a short second before she recovered. She leaned on her sword and tapped thoughtfully at her chin. “Has to be an explana... wait. Can petitioning do this?”

Iris looked like she was about to say no, then paused. “A really, really good fauna master might be able to. If it was just the thoverine, I’d say probably, easy. But every predator in the woods... that takes either some real skill, or a lot of power. Or more than one person.”

“Great,” Lana groaned. “So it’s not one scoundrel, it’s a bunch. Or one really good one. And they’re a petitioner. Wonderful.” She grunted as she shifted in place, leaning against the tree and shaking her head. "I didn't sign up for this mystical nonsense. I'm a weaver, toss it!"

"Would that make you a looming presence?" Iris replied, grinning broadly.

"I can hit you," she retorted without a moment’s hesitation. Iris didn’t stop grinning. “Come on, let’s get this over with. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s just one guy who’s really good. What can he do?”

Iris frowned as she appeared to gather her thoughts. “First off, everything I can do, but better. Channeling animal traits like sight, scent, hearing, and asking animals to do things for him. Judging by the looks of things, I’d say he’s got a pretty cooperative neighborhood.” She winced slightly. “Which means he probably knows we’re here. Focus on something like a hawk and he’d see and hear us coming from a mile away.”

“So surprise is out,” Lana replied with a nod. “What else?”

“Not necessarily,” she said with a wink. “But he can also do some nastier things, if he’s a master. Call animals from all around, drive them into a frenzy. Start up a stampede. Give himself more vicious animal traits, or outright take animal shape himself.” She paused again. “There’s also a chance, might be small but still, that he might be able to get at us directly.”

“Define ‘get at us’.”

“Well, humans are animals too....”

Lana froze. “So he can control us.”

“It’s not really ‘control’, per se,” Iris replied, waving her hands about animatedly. “It’s more like, ah, ‘strongly suggest’ or ‘aggressively persuade’. He’ll try to give you an idea, then use petitioning to push you a little toward thinking it’s a good idea.”

“Can you stop him?”

She shrugged. “Not really sure. I can’t petition humans, it’s a higher skill than I’m trained to manage, and the idea of trying it just makes my skin crawl. And the only counter method I’m certain would work would be to petition you to do the opposite of whatever he wants. I can try interrupting his concentration though, make it hard for him to use supplicans at all.”

“That sounds like a plan, even if he doesn’t try getting into my head,” Lana said with a firm nod. “Just keep yourself safe from any animals he sends after you.” Iris gave her a thumbs-up in response as the pair pushed off their hiding tree and strode around back toward the front of the ramshackle little cottage.

The hooting owl had long gone silent, leaving the forest in utter stillness as they reached the cottage’s front door. Lana shuddered slightly, feeling the whole thing completely out of place and wrong and all the more eager to get it over with as quickly as possible. She glanced back to Iris and exchanged a nod with her before drawing her sword and taking hold of the gnarled wooden handle of the door and yanking it open, piercing the silence of the woods with the protesting shriek of its rusty hinges.

Reflex saved her eyes as the hawk darted out of the darkness, raking through the air where her face had been moments before. She swung once, clipping a tail feather but neither harming nor stopping the bird otherwise, and it careened up into the canopy with an echoing shriek. Iris murmured quietly and called a ball of flame to life in her hand then followed Lana as they pushed their way into the building, shoving aside an overturned table that had been placed in front of the door as a barricade.

Moving the table knocked back one of the armaboars that had been crouched behind it, momentarily stunning the creature; the other remained free to charge, and nearly knocked Lana off her feet in the process. She recovered quickly by grabbing hold of the table’s edge, then swung the blade and caught the attacker under the edge of its shell, flipping it over on its side. She pressed further into the room, kicking aside debris and scanning around for human presence, while Iris spent a few moments calming down the armaboars to prevent them attacking from behind.

She would have declared the building empty of human life if it wasn’t for the discarded scraps of newspaper and the obvious arrangement of the overturned furniture to hamper entrance as much as possible. The blockade was thickest in the northwest corner of the room, where a dark wooden banister suggested a descending stairway into a basement or shelter. Lana motioned for Iris to follow and weaved her way toward the top of the stairs, then leaned close to her companion to whisper as they stared down into the gloom. “He down there?”

Iris nodded. “Not far either, I think. The spell’s strong. I’ve given up on scenting anything, wonder if he’s planning to let everything back out full-force once he has us pinned down. First time I petitioned unprepared it was....”

Lana cut her off with a raised hand and nodded. “Stay close, watch our backs. Dunno what else might be hiding up here and ready to jump on us from behind.” The stairs creaked loudly as she began her descent, but by this point Lana had given up on subtlety. She planted her sword at her feet and called down into the darkness below. “Alright, we know you’re down there. Drop your weapons and bring the animal. We don’t want to make trouble, and I’d rather this be solved without further bloodshed. Hear me?”

Nothing responded below for several moments. Lana might have waited longer, had Iris not nudged her from behind and given a “What are we waiting for?” shrug. Rolling her eyes, she nonetheless resumed the descent, lifting her sword and moving slowly into the darkness. Iris called up another ball of flame to light the way as they reached the bottom of the steps.

In the flickering torchlight they could only see a few pieces of furniture strewn about, and a few spots where the earth-hewn walls were lined with bookshelves, most half-empty. At first glance the chamber appeared to be empty, and a passage leading to another room on the far side blocked by a closed door. However as Lana began moving toward it a blur of motion to her left caught her attention, seconds before Iris cried out.

The thoverine was fast, giving Lana only enough time to recognize it for what it was before it leaped at her, latching onto her leg and digging in with fang and claw. If it hadn’t been for her armor, it would have gored straight into the vein, and retreat or bleeding out would have been her only options. As it was she was more startled than injured, and the creature perhaps realizing it was doing meager harm at best dropped free and bolted again before she could knock it off with an armored fist. A few of its quills remained stuck in her clothing, and she spared a few seconds to pull them free lest they work their way through the mail and manage to do some actual injury.

A loud crash, quickly followed by Iris’s shriek. “Lana!” She looked up, then ducked as splinters of wood flew across the room from the shattered door. Behind it was a creature that resembled a bear no less than the thoverine but had the advantage of meeting the former’s size. Compared to the meager thorns she’d just removed this creature’s quills were more like small lances, and its claws might as well have been sabers. It roared, cutting the prior silence with near-deafening cacophony, and resumed ripping its way free, apparently uncaring of the damage it was doing in the process.

“That’s him?” Lana shouted, pointing as best she could.

“Yeah, has to be!” Iris called back. “No one but a fauna master could... aaaieeeee!!”

Lana wheeled as the thoverine, the little one, bolted past, this time apparently seeking a less-tough target to gnaw on. Iris leaped to her feet and jumped, landing on a nearby chair before thrusting her hand toward the vermin and projecting the fireball held there into a burning jet. The creature screeched and dodged to the side, rolling and leaving a few quills in a small pile of debris, then resumed its charge. The delay had been enough, thankfully, for Lana to move to intercept, and a sweep of her sword caught the creature under its belly. She hadn’t gotten enough force to cut it down, but it did manage to lift it up and throw it across the room, bouncing it off a wall and landing in a woven basket.

“Keep an eye on him,” Lana commanded, then vaulted over the couch toward the giant beast, who had completed his destruction of the door and waded into the middle of the room. “Last chance. Dismiss the... whatever that is... and come quietly.”

The monster bellowed, a shriek-roar that made Lana’s ears ring, in response.

“Have it your way then.” She raised her sword and shifted her stance, bracing for the beast’s inevitable charge. It snarled and roared again, then pounced, and Lana batted its claw aside with her blade as she stepped out of its path. It whirled, tail crashing into the sofa and leaving several embedded quills behind in addition to shoving it several feet toward Iris. It charged once more and Lana repeated the process, knocking its claws down and away before stepping the opposite direction out of its line of attack.

“If you wanted to dance, you could have just asked,” she called, resuming her stance as the monster spun in place again. It charged once more, but when Lana knocked its claws away it instead lunged with its jaws, nearly catching her throat in its mouth and slamming into her shoulder and chest with its bulk. Lana fell back several feet, almost dropping her sword at the shock. She felt blood trickle down her arm before she noticed the quills stuck in her shoulder; thankfully they were not too deeply pierced, and despite the barbs and thorns she was able to pull them free without any further injury. That arm would be mostly useless until she could get it tended, though, and wielding her sword with one hand would be difficult at best.

“Lana!” Iris again. She looked up then over the beast’s shoulder, seeing Iris climbing up on the back of the couch. The chair she’d been on moments before was now occupied by the thoverine, who appeared to have woken from its stupor and was declaring the area its territory, or something to that effect.

The monster, however, turned to look at the sound too, and Lana took the opportunity as best she could. She dropped her sword and charged, planting a sharp kick to the enormous bear-thing’s right kneecap with all the force she could muster. There was a grinding noise followed by an uncomfortable clack!, and the beast turned and toppled on the injured leg with a pained bellow. She scrambled back, avoiding a swipe of its forepaw and a following bite, then darted in and kicked at its head as it attempted to rise up on the three remaining legs. The blow knocked loose a few more quills from its back, but didn’t appear to do much more than stun it, and after a few seconds it resumed its attempts to rise.

“Some magic would be really helpful right now,” Lana observed aloud, dancing back and forth between kicking at the creatures forelimbs and head and darting back out of its reach. Iris glanced from beast to animal for several seconds before narrowing her eyes and murmuring under her breath, her petitioning inaudible in the cacophony of the skirmish. A ripping sound several moments later interrupted them both, and the combatants stopped in place out of confusion before the roots tore free of the ground and wrapped tightly around the titan’s prone form, binding it to the ground.

Lana stepped back and leaned against the wall, relaxing slightly from the adrenaline rush of the battle before remembering the thoverine was still on the loose. The little creature had curled up comfortably on its chair, however, and seemed content to remain there as long as its territory was not further threatened by Iris. She shook her head and sighed then turned back to her companion. “Well, now what?”

“Need to get him back to normal, don’t we?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

“Yes, obviously,” Lana replied with a grunt. “Do we just wait for the transformation to wear off? Does it wear off? Or can you remove it?”

Iris scratched her head then shrugged. “Not as far as I know. Ruby - my fauna teacher - could do similar, she had a cloak of bearskin that she wore that served as a focus. He probably has something similar; if we can take it off, it should end the petition.” The beast snarled, an aggressive response that confirmed the suspicion as far as Lana was concerned. She picked up her sword again with her good arm and began prodding about the monster’s forepaws and head, feeling for an edge or a ridge she could pull away.

It took several tries, but she managed to catch onto something at the side of its head and lift up what seconds later appeared to be a quill-covered hood. Where once had been a hulking porcupine bear was now a scrawny, snarling old man less than half the size with beady brown eyes, a beaklike nose, and patches of grey hair sticking up in random clumps about his mostly-bald head. Iris’s vines responded to the sudden decrease in bulk by immediately tightening down on the prisoner, pinning him again before he could attempt to wriggle free.

Lana smirked and pulled the hooded vest off the prisoner, paying little mind to his yelps of surprise or discomfort as she did so, and tossed it to Iris. She then knelt down in the dirt to meet him face to face. “Had to make things difficult, didn’t you?” she spat, meeting his scowl with one of her own. “You’re under arrest.”

----

“His name is Derrick Woodcutter,” said Ian Sergeant as he dropped the roll of parchment on the desk in front of Lana, Avner, and Iris. “Or Magus, I guess. Old hermit, been around for years but almost never comes to town, a lot of folk don’t even know he lives out there much less that he’s a petitioner.”

“So why?” Avner mused, unrolling the sheet to read through the paltry information. The old man didn’t have a prior record of criminal activity, so the recent slaughters were the only things listed, along with calculations for proper restitution once his time in the prison was spent.

“Best I can tell, he was targeting people who he thought owed him debts,” Ian grumbled. “He’s got the thick woodsman’s accent and makes him hard to understand, especially since he’s half-mad and we can’t leave him ungagged for long for fear he’ll petition himself free. But he’s talked about folk taking things of his and not paying him in proper trade for it, or being swindled with a false or faulty barter, things like that. Thing is, it’s all disjointed and makes little sense.”

“So he’s insane then,” Lana sighed.

“Best as I can tell. Some of the targets are too young for the crimes he’s claimed them guilty of - Martha Hogger’s only been raising pigs for about seven years now, and only lived here ten, but he’s claiming she ripped him off back in ‘28. If there’s any truth to his accusations, he might be pinning his vengeance on the wrong people. Or he might just be confused.”

“Confused, but with a lot of power to back up his accusations,” Avner grumbled, “no matter how truthful they might be.”

“Whatcha gonna do with him then?” Iris piped up.

“For now?” Ian shrugged again. “Keep him locked up. Let him serve his time. Then find someone who can care for him properly and put him to work earning his restitution and paying back the folk he sicced that beastie on. What’d you all do with that thing? It’s dangerous and it’s not from ‘round here, and he’s already heavy keyed to petitioning with it. Should be put down.”

Iris blanched. “You’re kidding!”

“He’s probably right, Iris,” Lana said reluctantly. “As long as it’s out there, he can petition it commands, and....”

“That doesn’t mean it should die!” she interrupted. “It’s not guilty of being anything more than his puppet.” She crossed her arms and grinned. “Besides, it doesn’t really matter. I already let it go. Good luck finding it.”

Ian, Lana, and Avner shared a moment of silence before applying their hands to their foreheads in perfect unison.

“At least no one’s weathervanes’ll go missing anymore,” Ian grumbled, pushing back from his seat.
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