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Jae leaned down, urging her raven faster, the warmth of the sunlight challenged by the stiff breeze spilling mountain cold into the valley. The sense of an obligation slipped was as freeing as the wind whipping through her hair.
The valley unrolled below Jae like a quilt of flame and gold. The sky was late-autumn blue, the wind quick and easy, flinging them along with every sweep of Ghost’s wings. She was on patrol rather than at the ceremony, and she hadn’t even had to trade a shift. Everyone else wanted to be there, for the festival atmosphere, if not for the solemn vows to Oru. She’d take freedom: the freedom of the air, the freedom from familial expectation.
When Ghost caught an updraft, chill penetrated her tightly-buckled scout’s leathers. They were close to the border, the sharp mountainous ring that separated the valley’s autumn from the fierce early winter that raged down the slopes of Mount Esben outside. Drifts of snow blew over the rocky promontories into the milder weather.
Nobody lived in the woods this close to the border. The snow was a blessing rather than an annoyance, one more protection between the valley and the outside world.
Ghost cawed, and she gripped the leather harness. The raven banked to the side, and she saw what the bird’s sharper eyes had caught first: tracks in the snow. Her good mood fled. She urged her bird lower, and Ghost stooped, but on her signal, didn’t land. If a beast had come into the valley, there was no way she was risking her bird.
Whatever had made the trail walked on four feet and had claw-tipped paws that could easily span the width of her torso. The prints pressed deep into the snow, edges blurred with the speed of its movement. Tied to her wrist was a wooden medallion inscribed with a stylized feather. She pressed her thumb firmly into it. A feeling like cold water brushed against her hand despite her glove, and she shuddered, although this magic was tied by the kith to her service. The other scouts would know that she had seen something and someone would come to help. Even if she were so careless as to get herself killed, they’d keep the beast from ravening through the valley.
She signaled Ghost higher and followed the tracks back to where the creature had come over the rocks at speed. The borders of the valley were warded against this kind of intrusion but sometimes the barriers thinned or a beast was particularly driven. The kith would need to know, so they could check the wards. But first, she had to find the thing, preferably before it got close to any place people lived. She leaned lower as Ghost caught a current and circled back. Her raven sensed her urgency and beat powerful wings against the wind. They sped along the trail, Jae loosening her javelins and daggers. She checked her bowstring as well, but she’d never been that accurate a shot even on the ground; from Ghost’s moving back, archery would be a last resort. She breathed a prayer to Imene, who tracked the sun, that she would be a worthy hunter.
The snow melted as it blew downslope into the warmer air of the valley, but the thing’s prints were still visible in the mud along the edge of the treeline. Jae’s stomach fluttered. It was headed toward the lake, toward the hearth trees. Her mind tossed up images of beasts at the ceremony, ripping through unsuspecting people. People she knew. Thorn. Seph. Uncle Ventis. She took a few deep breaths and focused on the now: wind in her face, sky above her, the thing’s tracks below.