To Seek, To Find ~Part I~

To seek
To find
To loose, unbind.
To bend
To break
To shatter, unmake.


[July 23 — 1002 years since the end of the Second Demon War.]

The clash of steal on steal was the first thing that greeted Commander Darryn Ynzhara as he stepped out into the Academy training grounds. Sighing, he shook his head and headed in the direction of the sound, knowing what he would no doubt find. That boy hasn't even been back a day from his last job and he's already out here. Hell, at this rate, he's going to spar himself to death before any Shadowspawn can kill him.

The two figures dancing around one another in the far corner of the outdoor grounds were kicking up dust liberally. The electrical lights that beat down upon them seemed harsh—they usually did—but there were no alternatives other than utter darkness in the City of Night.

"You're too slow!" the shorter of the two carolled, darting in with his short sword. The taller man yelped, jumping back and bringing his katana up to block the thrust. Unfortunately, the block was clumsy because of the haste with which the katana had been brought up, and the sound of tearing cloth was audible as blade slid across blade.

Darryn winced, knowing well what would happen next.

"You bastard, that was my favourite practise shirt!" The taller man lunged forward with renewed vigour. His sword strokes showed none of their usual fluidity and grace; the man was past the point of caring about his technique.

Continuing forward, Darryn could hear the other man muttering the mantra in Old Tongue, "Kuso, kuso, kuso, shinde, shinde, shinde!" as he tried to block the heavy blows intended to cause him bodily harm.

Sighing, the commander silently agreed with the shorter man's words; "shit" was an appropriate expletive, and if the commander didn't step in, he could indeed die from Jerrick's peculiar temper. He decided to step in before both parties wound up more black and blue than they already were. "Ynyami, Ynmari, stand down now!" he barked in his best parade ground voice, trying to look as foreboding as possible as he stalked across the grounds

The two combatants broke apart, the smaller flushing guiltily as he propped the tip of his sword against his boot. Fighting the urge to sigh again, Darryn turned to the tallest, who was wiping the sweat from his face with his sleeve. "Do you have a death wish, Ynmari?" he asked dryly with an arched eyebrow. "If you're trying to find your way to an early grave, I can have you transferred to straight Hunter duty and send you to the City of Angels."

Pale blue-green eyes went impossibly wide as the young man gaped in open dismay. "You wouldn't." Jerrick phrased it almost like a question, taking a step back. It was a joke amongst the Hunter populace that only Clan Ynsara and Hunters that thought they were immortal went to the City of Angels for duty; Angels were amongst the least forgiving of the Shadowspawn, and they practically ran the entire city.

Darryn snorted. "No, I wouldn't, but when you pull stunts like this it's bloody tempting. By the Goddess, Jerrick, I haven't even processed your report from the mission you just returned from, and already you're out here practising. Do you ever do normal things like sleep or eat?"

Grinning, Jerrick ran a hand through his shoulder-length dark brown hair. "Not if I can help it, sir."

"Yeah, I mean, how many guys do you know that obsess about their clothes as much as he does?" Micah Ynyami continued to grumble, trying without success to get his black hair to lie flat against his head. "He's anything but normal, if you ask me."

Jerrick scowled, fingering the rent in his sleeve. "Just because my mother taught me to appreciate good clothing…" he said under his breath.

Darryn winced. Really, that explained it all right there. Jerrick's mother was an eccentric, even amongst Hunters. How she ever became the High Council's public relations advisor was anyone's guess… And it was rumoured that most of her salary went to expanding her already gargantuan wardrobe. She was perhaps the only Hunter who went on duty dressed in the height of fashion.

Unfortunately, she had passed her legacy of "good taste" on to her son.

"I want you two cleaned up and in my office within the hour," he said at last, not wanting to ponder Jerrick's mother any more than necessary. It was one of those subjects that was best left alone.

"What's up, Commander?" Micah asked, bright blue eyes looking up at the man eagerly.

"The town council of West Point called. They have a VIP they need escorted here ASAP, and they specifically asked for Jerrick. I want you in on this too, Micah." Darryn frowned. "There's more going on than they're telling me, and I don't like the idea of sending anyone, even our best Hunter-Companion, into this on their own."

Wiping the blade of his sword meticulously with his torn sleeve, Jerrick scrutinised the surface briefly to insure that it was completely clean before sliding the sword back into its saya. "Well, you heard the Commander, Micah." He turned to his friend with an arched eyebrow. "Let's get cleaned up and find out what kind of a job we're in for."

Micah shook his head and sighed, bending to the task of taking care of his own weapon. "Seriously, Jerrick, I worry about you sometimes. I think we need to find you a hobby or something—other than being a clotheshorse, that is. It's just not natural the way you look forward to a new job."

Their commander silently agreed with the black-haired boy silently as he turned and strode from the grounds. Jerrick's dedication to his job was unparalleled by any other in the field of Hunter-Companion, and that worried Darryn. The boy was only a little over eighteen-years-old, and had been performing active duty services since he was sixteen. Whenever the Mage Guilds needed someone to be escorted anywhere, Jerrick was the man they asked for.

I don't want him to burn himself out early, he thought with a frown as he opened the doors to enter the Academy. He's got so much promise; I can sense something inside of him, some power that hasn't even begun to show up yet. I just hope that he can stay alive long enough to discover what it is.

*****

"I see you managed to find a suitable replacement shirt." They were the first words that Micah said when Jerrick came around the corner of the hall. He was leaning against the wall just outside of the commander's office, arms crossed over his chest.

Blinking, Jerrick looked down at his shirt in confusion. "What's wrong with it?" he asked, arching an eyebrow as he looked back up. It wasn't actually a shirt that he was wearing; it was a black kimono with his clan crest emblazoned near his shoulders on either side, tucked into his white hakama. His daisho were slid through and tied loosely to the hakama belt.

Micah snorted and waved a hand. "Nothing, nothing." It was pointless to discuss clothing with Jerrick. Though the brunette knew practical versus impractical, all of his clothing was still the height of fashion—and Micah was certain that there was no force in the Shadowlands that would change that. "It's just that sometimes you can be such a bitch, Jerrick."

"Thanks," Jerrick replied dryly. "If I remember correctly, that's been my nickname since I was, what, thirteen, fourteen? Pretty soon I'm going to quit answering to my real name."

"Hey, it's not like you didn't do anything to deserve it." Micah grinned, waving a finger in Jerrick's face. "I mean, come on already. Even you have to admit that you're a little different from most people."

"As I've said before, just because I happen to know and appreciate good taste doesn't mean that you have to be jealous."

"I still maintain that you were either dropped on your head one too many times as a kid, or your father wasn't Hunter or human."

Jerrick shrugged, the conversation having been one discussed numerous times. "Either one is a distinct possibility," was all that he said.

The door to the office opened, and a small, pugish face peered around the corner. Large, murky green eyes blinked up at the two boys from behind a pair of thick framed glasses, their owner beaming as she recognised the duo. "Good, you're finally here!" Erin "Missy" Ynzhara pushed her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose, smile not faltering a whit. "The commander was just about ready to send a search party after you."

Snickering, Micah cast a sly look at his friend. "Oh, you know Jerrick here, Missy. He had to make sure that he was dressed to the nines before stepping out of his room."

Missy chuckled as well, shaking her head and sending blonde curls tumbling about her shoulders. "Well, he's not our resident bitch for nothing, Micah," she said, eyes bright with amusement. "Now come on in before the commander screeches at me again. Whatever is going on with the West Point town council's got him pretty damn pissy."

She led the two boys through the office antechamber, directing them down the hall. Pausing, she knocked briefly on the large wooden door twice, not waiting for a reply before she opened it. "Sir, Jerrick and Micah are here to see you," she murmured as she stepped into the room with the boys behind her.

"Thank you, Missy." Darryn glanced up from the paperwork scattered about on his desk. His eyes, the same colour as Missy's own, were shadowed with some barely-veiled emotion, but the smile that quirked on his face was full of amusement. "By the way, just for the record, I do not screech and I do not get pissy." The last was said primly, and caused all three Hunter-Companions to stare at their commander with varying expressions of dismay. Darryn was already well into his second century of life; people his age were supposed to act with dignity and decorum not like girls in pique.

"Whatever you say, Commander," Missy said at last, shaking her head. "If you need me, I'll be out taking care of the latest mess the Ynraevyn's sent our way. I swear, I'm nearly ready to petition the High Council about those sisters that Councilor Ynraevyn left in charge of Garrison Home. Things are bad when you're not only getting in reports of human injuries/fatalities, but mage and Hunter injuries/fatalities as well. And you know how it goes in our line of work: for every two mage fatalities, we have at least one Hunter-Companion fatality as well. We don't have the kind of reserves to keep up with the demands the Mage Guild is beginning to make on us. Goddess, half of my roster roll is marked with either med or psych injuries." She grimaced, absently poking a finger to her mouth. "And now this is running away with me. Damn."

Frowning, Darryn's forehead creased as he thought. "Missy, I want you to piece together as much information on what's going on in Garrison Home territory and type me up an outline. When I'm done with Jerrick and Micah, I want you to bring it in and go over it with me. If it looks like we have a strong enough case, I might be sending you with Jerrick and Micah so that you can stop off at the City of Angels to speak with the High Council on the matter."

Missy nodded, saluting the commander with a fist over her heart as she bowed. "Yes, sir!" With that, she left the office, closing the door quietly behind her.

Darryn sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing at the tired, burning orbs before opening them again. He'd been on his feet for nearly forty-eight hours straight now, but the things happening in the Shadowlands these days were too ominous to ignore. He had his suspicions, as someone who had been around for a while and heard all of the old Hunter lore, but he had nothing solid to go on as of yet.

He looked up at the two boys awaiting his attention patiently, eyes narrowing as he scrutinised them. Micah Ynyami was technically only half-Hunter, that being on his father's side, but his mother had been one of the strongest water-aligned mages ever. She'd reached the Master-Adept level by the age of fifteen, and Micah's father had become her Hunter-Companion not long after. Micah's unusual colouring for a Hunter helped him to blend in better on undercover assignments, and his affinity for Prentice level water spells as well as his natural resistance to magic made him almost invaluable to the Hunter-Companions.

Jerrick Ynmari was a different creature all together. Supposedly pure Hunter—Ynmari on his mother's side, maybe Yncorwyn on his father's, though his mother would never divulge a name—the boy actually resembled neither side of his family. The pale blue-green eyes came from the Yncorwyn side, but that was about the only thing that could be attributed to either clan. His dark brown hair was thick, more like the Ynkelsa or the Ynraevyn, and his skin was a dark gold in colour, again more like the Ynraevyn or the all-but-extinct Ynsheyna. Then there was his unusual height; at one hundred and eighty centimeters tall, he towered over every other Hunter-Companion based out of the City of Night. Such height was usually an attribute of the Ynvelda or Yntiva clans. Like Micah, he seemed to be resistant to most types of magic, but there had been reports by several of the mages the boy had worked with over the years that they felt the boy may actually be a magic catalyst, having the ability to boost a mage's natural talent. Like most members of the southeastern clans did traditionally—the Yntsumei, Ynyami, and Ynmari—Jerrick carried daisho as his weapons of choice. As a swordsman he was fast, graceful, accurate, and deadly; there was a reason that he was the number one Hunter-Companion at the age of eighteen, and it wasn't his pretty face.

But why had West Point pushed so hard to get Jerrick as the Hunter-Companion to escort this VIP mage of theirs? There were Hunter-Companions of Clan Yndeisho that should be just as suitable for the job. Darryn had never heard of the mage before, and had yet to hear back from the local Mage Guild chapter concerning the person. He had a feeling, also, that he wouldn't be hearing back from them, and he didn't like the implications of that one bit. He especially didn't like it when there was possible trouble afoot not only in Garrison Home, but the City of Angels as well. The reports the Ynsara had been sending their way had been delayed of late, and were not promising at all.

"The mage's name is Anya Kharchyek," he said, pushing a file across the desk towards the two young men after urging them to be seated. "She just recently graduated from the Mage Guild Academy at Bright Town, but her family is from West Point. She's been a Master-Adept for the last two years, and the Guild thinks that's as high as she'll go."

Jerrick whistled as his eyes scanned the information in the folder, handing it over to Micah after a moment as he looked up. "She's only nineteen; that's pretty damn impressive if she's that powerful already."

"Not only that, but she's aligned to metal and water," Micah added, eyebrows furrowed together. His expression was troubled, and Darryn leaned further across his desk, lacing his hands together.

"What does that mean to us, Micah?" Though Darryn had been dealing with the Mage Guild for some fifty plus years as the commander of the City of Night's Hunter-Companions, there were still many internal-workings of the mage gift that he didn't understand completely. One of those things that wasn't quite clear to him was the matter of alignments.

"Well, you know that my mom's main alignment is water," the black haired boy said, setting the file back down on the desk. He crossed his ankles as he settled deeper into the chair, lips pursing in thought. "Mages aligned with water tend to have a lot of flexibility and fluidity in their nature; not only that, but their powers are such that they can often wear away the defenses of another mage unless that mage is aligned to air or spirit. Metal is usually one of the worst alignments a mage can have, at least, if the mage is utilising combative magics. The metal alignment is rigid and unbending, and can even cause some disturbances in the nature of the wielder. Water is one of the main alignments that metal is weak against. It may take awhile, but once water alignments find their way in the metal alignment cracks, the whole metal alignment comes tumbling down. Unlike water against earth, there's no subtle wearing away; the mage just crumbles completely without their alignment base.

"So, the fact that this girl is aligned to two complete opposites can mean one of two things. One, it could mean that her alignment to metal is strong against water because of her alignment to water; basically, that they complement each other enough to actually make the other stronger. Or, two, it could mean her magic has a distinct probability of being compromised."

"What do you mean by that?" Jerrick asked, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair and propping his chin in his hand. "How could the two alignments compromise her casting abilities?"

Settling into the comfort of a subject he was well versed in, Micah leaned across the arm of his chair and used his hands to help explain. "It's like this, Jerrick. Imagine that a mage with two alignments is actually two different people; they share a lot of similarities, but deep down there is a big difference in their nature. Like I said before, water alignment is very fluid and adaptable, while metal is rigid and unyielding. Now imagine that, though they are two different people, they have to work together as a team synchronisitically."

"Do you even know what that word means?" Jerrick asked with an arched eyebrow.

Micah scowled, shaking a finger at his friend. "Shut up and listen, since this could be important to know for this assignment. Anyway, if these two people come up against another mage, and say that mage is aligned with fire though fire is a rare alignment, they're going to want to react two different ways to the threat. In the confusion and their inability to really come up with a compromise between their two alignments, the two would most likely throw each other's spells off, their alignments fighting each other. Now when you consider the fact that these two alignments are in one person, not two, you begin to see why this could be a problem."

Jerrick's eyes widened as his brain fully processed what Micah had said, and he turned to his commander with an incredulous expression. "And they let this girl graduate from the Guild Academy?" What the hell are they thinking, letting a potential time bomb run around like that?" Another thought occurred to him then, that his cousin, Thyra, was schooling at Bright Town. He wondered why she'd never said a word about this woman before. If she had just graduated, Thee would have shared classes with her.

"I don't know," Darryn said, shrugging his shoulders. "I've put in an inquiry to the Mage Guild about the girl, but I haven't heard anything back yet. I have a feeling I'm not going to hear anything back, either. There's no doubt that this girl is powerful, and a potential problem, but I don't know what the Guild and the West Point town council are thinking by having her sent here. If anything, I would think they'd want her out of potential danger. By sending her to our city, they're putting us in a hell of a position. What if she panics when she sees Shadows in the streets? What if she mistakes one of Mariel's weretigers for an enemy?"

"Well, we might be able to blow the top off the mountain and the City of Night could become the City of Daylight," Jerrick muttered, though there was no real humour in his voice. "Shit, I don't like this!" He snarled, smacking his fist onto the arm of the chair. "I've never been in danger from one of the mages I've escorted before, and I don't like the fact that we barely know a thing about her."

"Well, I could call home and see if Mom knows anything about her," Micah said with a sigh. "It's a long shot, but she still does a lot of work out of Bright Town and might have a little bit more information for us."

"Call Thee too." Jerrick grinned, adding, "I'm sure she'd love to hear from you, and she's likely to know any gossip from the school."

"Go ahead and use the phone at Missy's desk," Darryn said, nodding his head. "Anything you can get will be Goddess-sent. All I know is that when this is over, I'm filing a complaint with the High Council against the Mage Guild for putting us in this situation. It's a contract that we can't back out of and they know it, but I'll be damned if I'll let them pull this kind of stunt on us again."

"I'll be right back," Micah said with a small smile, jumping up from his chair.

When the door closed behind Micah's retreating form, Jerrick turned to the commander, barely concealed anger in his eyes. He was used to being in charge of his job situations, and the idea of not being in charge of one didn't make him very happy. "Forgive my bluntness, sir," he said, eyes narrowing, "but just how the hell did they manage to grab us by the balls on this one?"

Darryn smiled thinly. "The oldest way in the book, of course. I did some checking, and the Kharchyeks are Old Family in West Point."

Jerrick snorted, shaking his head. "What the hell is it with human Old Families? I swear, money and power seem to be able to buy you anything, especially now a days."

"We have to be careful with the Old Families," Darryn said slowly, eyebrows drawn into a frown. "Especially whenever they happen to spawn a mage from their ranks. I don't know if you remember hearing about Rhinna Yncorwyn; she would have been an aunt of yours, I believe."

"Vaguely." Jerrick replied with a wave of his hand; the relationship was mere speculation, given that no-one save his mother knew who his father had been. "I think I was about four or five when that happened, and the adults kept it pretty hush-hush. I never bothered to ask about it when I got older."

"Rhinna was Vallidan Yncorwyn's youngest sister at the time," the commander said with a sigh, raking a hand through his beginning-to-grey blonde hair. Vallidan Yncorwyn was the current Council member for Clan Yncorwyn, as well as the leader of the High Council. Jerrick remembered him as a stern seeming yet gentle and compassionate man. "She was full of life the way most recent Academy graduates are. Like you, she'd begun serving Hunter-Companion duty at about the age of sixteen, loving the freedom that travel gave her.

"When she was about twenty-two, twenty-three, she got a contract with a male mage of one of the St. Mikhail Old Families. Teo Merrick was his name. He was just a couple years older than Rhinna, kind, amiable, good-looking, and very charming. Rhinna fell for him hard within the first week, and by all accounts, the attraction was mutual. They'd been together over a year when something bad went down in the Old Family district. Two rival Families had both contracted mages, and innocents wound up getting caught in the middle of their fight. Teo jumped into the middle of it to try and save those bystanders—most of them were children for Goddess' sake—and Rhinna was right behind him. She loved him more than her life itself; like most Hunter-Companions, she would have died to protect him. But one of those children had suffered a broken leg in the fight and couldn't run away. Teo ordered Rhinna to carry the child to safety, telling her that he would be right behind her, laying magical cover for them.

"Before Rhinna even made it across the street she heard an explosion, one that threw her hard into a nearby building. She blacked out for a time, only waking up when the worried child in her arms began to cry. Panicked, she set him aside and set about looking for Teo. What she found was one of the worst mage disasters in our recorded history. Both sides of the warring mages had realised that they were too equally matched for either side to win, so they had decided that if they were going down, they were going to take the other side with them. Poor Teo had been caught in the middle; he hadn't stood a chance. Rhinna lost it when she found his broken body, and her bare hands killed any of the mages that hadn't died in the blast. It was all rather…messy.

"Civilians had called the Hunters in by that time, and it took almost a half-dozen, plus sedative drugs to subdue her. Her clan wanted her sent home to St. Eldran, and when the medics at the St. Mikhail Academy were relatively certain that Rhinna was stable enough to travel, she left with a Hunter escort for home. The Merricks were furious that Rhinna had failed to protect their son, their prize mage. They rode into St. Eldran full of righteous anger and marched into the Yncorwyn Compound as if they owned the place. They demanded to see Rhinna, to see the woman that had allowed their son to die."

Darryn paused in his narrative, glancing up at Jerrick, who seemed to be riveted. "I don't know how much you know about Hunter-Companion and mage Bonds," he said softly. "When you finally meet the mage that you can spend your life with, it's like nothing else in the world. When that Bond is shattered, especially by something that isn't natural death, it shatters the one that is left alive. The mages seem to be able to withstand it a little better than the Hunter-Companions, but a shattered Bond usually only ends one way."

"What happened to Rhinna?" Jerrick asked, licking his lips. "I know…I know it wasn't good, whatever it was, but I never did hear what happened to her."

"The Yncorwyns allowed the Merricks to have one audience with Rhinna. They led them to her quarters, and waited for Rhinna to answer the door. When she didn't, Teo's father grew impatient and tried to open the door. When he found it locked, his anger grew and he threw himself against the door, breaking the deadbolt from the frame. They found Rhinna Yncorwyn on her bed, lying in a pool of her own blood with her hands locked around a picture of herself and Teo. She'd slit the veins in her arms with Teo's own ceremonial knife, and had bled to death in order to assuage her guilt, end her loneliness, and join her beloved again."

"That's what you meant by broken Bonds ending only one way." Jerrick's gaze turned introspective. "When a Bond shatters, the other partner commits suicide."

"Not always." Darryn gave him a sad smile. "If there were really close siblings, like a twin, or if there were children, the other member can usually survive. But, yes, in a shattered mage/Hunter-Companion Bond, the mortality rate is about ninety-five percent. It is because of the kind of trouble Old Families can get us into—and believe me, they tried their damnedest to drag Rhinna Yncorwyn's name through the dirt—that we have to play the game with them."

The door clicked open, and Micah slunk back into the room, looking troubled. Jerrick arched a near-black eyebrow as he turned to his friend. "What's wrong, botchan?" he quipped, using a term that Micah hated from the Old Tongue.

"Shut up, bitch," Micah replied almost absently, sliding back into his chair. "Don't call me botchan." He looked first at his friend, then at his commander, blue eyes dark with worry. "Mom actually had quite a bit of news for me, and none of it is reassuring. It's a good thing that she feels no real loyalty for the Guild. And Thee—Thee had quite a bit to say as well, though most of it only confirmed what Mom said."

Jerrick looked his friend over with narrowed eyes. "You look terrible."

Micah's hands curled around the ends of the chair arms, gripping the wood tightly. "Thanks. You have a wonderful sense of tact."

"No, I mean it." Jerrick leaned closer, gripping Micah's hand. "What happened?"

"Personally I think that we should just tell the Mage Guild and the West Point town council to screw themselves, damn the consequences. Anya Kharchyek is Old Family, as in, the Kharchyeks were the first human family to really establish themselves in West Point. Missy put in a call to an Academy buddy of hers and found out that most of their dealings with the Hunters have been straightforward and clean, but there are some members of the family that absolutely hate Hunters. There's a case open right now where a Kharchyek cousin is accused of having raped two Yndeisho children, a brother and a sister; the oldest kid is seven years old."

"Fuck!" Jerrick swore, anger flashing in his eyes again.

Micah nodded, biting his bottom lip. "Really, that's not the worst of it, though. Anya is the youngest daughter of the Kharchyeks that are currently running the family. From what Mom could recall, she was a nice girl, a little bit timid, but nothing really outstanding. Thee said the same thing, that she was mostly withdrawn and didn't really interact much with the other students. However, I guess it came out while Anya was at the Mage Guild Academy there in Bright Town that Anya had been sexually abused by her father as a child; apparently she started having nightmares and began casting in her sleep, causing a lot of problems for the school. She's supposed to be over that now, but Mom said that her control is minimal at best. It wouldn't take much to push her into losing it."

"If the Kharchyeks are that fucked up, what are they still doing in control of West Point?" Jerrick's face was a mottled shade of red and white as he glanced at his commander.

"Like you were saying before; money and power," Darryn murmured. "Stay the best-of-the-best for long, Jerrick, and you're just going to have to learn to deal with it. They have connections that we couldn't even dream of, and they probably have favours and blackmail that they can call in all over the Shadowlands."

"The Yndeisho that I talked to has a feeling that the Kharchyeks have something going on with someone here in the City of Night." The nauseated look had left Micah's face to be completely replaced with a white colour that spoke of his fright. His fingers flexing again into the wood of the chair, lips pressed into a flat line. Darryn winced as he heard the arms creak ominously. "You know what we discussed before, about how her alignments could make her a walking time bomb? Mom agrees, and that's exactly what the Yndeisho I talked to thinks they're sending her here for. She doesn't have the power to blow the top off the mountain, but she could take out a third of the City easily. Combine unstable psyche with unstable alignments, add very little real world experience, and we have an equation for disaster without even trying."

Growling, Darryn barely stopped himself short of slamming his palms down on the desktop. "Dammit! Hunters and Hunter-Companions are not toys for the Old Families to play with. Goddess, how I'd love to throw a copy of the Hunter Accords in their faces, love to remind them of the sacrifices that the Archangels and the Hunter Clans made for them…. I'm calling the Mage Guild and West Point right now and telling them that they can take their contract and shove it up their collective asses!"

Closing his eyes, Micah shook his head. "I'm afraid we can't do that, sir." He spoke so softly that they almost didn't hear him—in fact, the only thing they really heard, the thing that made them stop short, was the rage, sorrow, and hint of fear lacing his voice.

That caused Darryn to pause, his anger draining as he looked up at the black-haired boy. "What do you mean, Micah?" he asked, almost dreading the answer. "What else did they tell you?"

Stomach roiling, Micah took a deep breath before he continued. "A squad of Yndeisho Hunter-Cadets went missing about a week ago. The Kharchyeks have them, and they've already sent Clan Yndeisho the hand of the woman in charge of the squad, complete with marriage ring, status tattoos, and the Kharchyeks' message. For every day that we're late for our arrival to West Point, one of those kids will lose a limb and they'll send it to the Clan Yndeisho Compound. They're going to make that poor woman watch all of her Cadets be dismembered and killed before they'll kill her."

Jerrick paled considerably, Darryn even more so than he. "Goddess," the commander said hoarsely, eyes wide in horror. "We really…we really don't have a choice." What were the Shadowlands coming to? Was this the event he sensed that would soon be set into motion, the thing that would set off the chain of events leading to the fall of everything they knew?

"No, we don't." Jerrick swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat, as well as the rage that threatened to overwhelm him. To think that such a thing was about to happen and there was nothing they could do… Had honour really gone out of their world? Were the Hunters, the Shadowclans, and the fabled Majin really all that was left of the old ways, the only ones that understood what was at stake in the Shadowlands?

Missy walked in unannounced, her face visibly pale, glasses absent, hands shaking considerably. All three men noticed that her eyes were red-rimmed. "Th-they must have known that you'd hesitate and ask questions," she said in a quavering voice. "A squad of Yndeisho Hunters tried to break into the Kharchyek compound and were completely annihilated. The Kharchyeks have hired mages that have somehow managed to call up Medial demons. I've never, never, seen anything so horrifying in my life!"

"Seen?" Darryn said in confusion. "What…? How…?" West Point was on the opposite side of the Shadowlands from the City of Night.

The petite blonde's fists clenched, her lips pressing together tightly. "Those fucking bastards televised the whole damn thing!" she spat, face turning green again as she remembered what she had seen. "Mel Yndeisho's mage has the kinetic gift and he sent the video here. It was unlabeled, so I didn't know what to expect. And when I got back from puking my guts out, I had a phone message from Mel as well. It seems that they've already started on those Cadets, and they're threatening that any further interference from the Hunters will cause them to retaliate even worse next time." Abruptly she burst into tears, bowing her head.

Jerrick stood, pulling the woman into a comforting embrace. Over her head he looked at both his Micah and Commander Darryn with hell in his eyes. "We'll escort Anya Kharchyek here if only to save those poor Cadets." His voice was tight as he ran a soothing hand across Missy's shuddering shoulders. "Commander, go ahead and call West Point and the Mage Guild. Tell them that I'm bringing Micah with me because of the turbulence in crossing Garrison Home territory, so that they won't see two of us as a threat."

"They fucking should see you as a threat," Missy sniffled, backing off so that she could wipe at her eyes with her sleeve. Tears apparently under control, she collapsed into Jerrick's abandoned chair, staring across the desk at their commander. "And you're going to send me with them, sir, whether you like it or not. I contacted a mage friend in the City of Angels, and she'll meet me half way. I not only have reports written up on the Garrison Home territory incidents, I've got reports from the Yndeisho on what's going on in West Point, I've got a report on this case, and I've got that very damning video. And I'm taking it all to the High Council. I'll wait until we know those Cadets are okay before I actually go to them with my information, but I want to be able to move as quickly as possible. This can't be allowed to happen again."

"I have a request to make as well." Jerrick managed to smile faintly at her stubborn insistence, reaching out to ruffle her tousled curls affectionately. "I'd like for someone to contact Shen Li Ynraevyn."

"Who?" Micah blinked his eyes in bewilderment. He'd never heard Jerrick mention this particular Hunter before.

"Shen Li Ynraevyn," Jerrick repeated with a half smile. "I've only met the kid twice, but he knows the area between here and West Point like no one else, and he moves like a shadow. I don't know of anyone that's ever been able to trail him. He's a hard guy to miss in a crowd; long black hair, covers his face most of the time, and has a burgundy-coloured fox with him."

"A burgundy…fox?" Missy said. "Might I ask why…and how?"

Jerrick shrugged. "You could, but I wouldn't be able to answer you. Shen Li said that the fox has been with him since he was a child. It's pretty large for a fox, with black points on his ears, tail, and muzzle, and he really does like to play tricks, but I think the only time I've ever seen Shen Li smile is when he's with that fox. Anyway, that's neither here nor there; I want Shen Li to tail us to the outskirts of West Point and then tail us home. I'd feel safer knowing there's an extra pair of eyes watching our mage and our backs."

"Okay, how do I get a hold of this Shen Li?" Darryn asked, agreeing with Jerrick's reasoning.

"Well, he rides Garrison Home territory's northern border, so your best bet would be to call up the town farthest to the south of the City of Angels and have the local Hunter look for him. Don't worry about telling Shen Li to meet us somewhere; just tell him the route we're taking. He'll know how to find us."

Darryn nodded, lacing his hands together once again. At least Jerrick was managing to think clearly despite his apparent anger. "Well, if you're leaving today, you'd all better get to packing. I'll head down to the stables personally and settle things there. Try to be ready in an hour."

All three Hunter-Companions nodded, Missy and Micah rising from their chairs. Each placed their right fist over their heart and bowed, leaving the room one after the other in complete silence.

Staring at the closed door, Commander Darryn Ynzhara was, for the first time in his life, completely tired of his time in the mortal coil. Goddess watch over those three, he prayed silently. We're going to need them.

***

"I have two quick messages for you, Jerrick," Missy said, pausing in the hallway. She turned to face the two men, arms locked around her abdomen as if hugging herself in reassurance. "The first is that your mother is passing through on her way to the City of Angels; she'll probably look you up before you leave. The second is that the watch reported the Harlequin's return."

Jerrick had paled slightly at the mention of his mother, but paled even further at the mention of the Harlequin. "I swear, they both have the damned worst timing."

"Worst timing?"

The words were said like a silver chiming in the air, followed by the sound of a giggle and the jangle of numerous bells. "Worst timing, bad rhyming, pigs flying! Why, Jerrick, I had no insight that you had such a way with words!"

Stifling a groan, Jerrick forced a smile to his face as the Harlequin came bounding into view in all of his colourful and flamboyant glory. He waggled his tongue at Micah, bowed and kissed Missy's hand, which sent her into a fit of watery giggles, and swept Jerrick a low, courtly bow as he skidded to a stop before him. Leering a bit evilly, he dropped down on one knee, clasping Jerrick's hand to his breast before Jerrick could stop him. "Ah, hello, m'love. Long have I been away from thee, tarrying beneath the dark and sombre skies to try and scrye for you a peaceful clarity of mind and soul. But, alas, 'twas all in vain for the vein we were heading towards was in the wrong, apparently. So, now I've returned to reclaim you as mine. Tell me your heart is still mine, gentle Jerrick, my most beautiful of loves."

Jerrick flushed, which made Missy giggle even more and Micah hide a smile behind his hand. The Harlequin's jests were legendary throughout the City of the Night, and any other destination he frequented as well. Jerrick had been a favourite torment of his for years beyond recount; they'd grown up together, after all.

The Harlequin staggered backwards when Jerrick yanked his hand back, performing a somersault that vaulted him to his feet. "What is this? Do you spurn me, your most loyal of friends, your most devoted of lovers?"

"Harlequin…" Jerrick growled, clenching his fists at his sides. Violence against the Harlequin would not do, for despite his oddity of both manner and appearance, he was a friend—an old and true friend—and quite useful in his way. However, after the events of the day, Jerrick was in no mood to jest.

"We'll catch up with you in about an hour," Micah said, still laughing at Jerrick's discomfort. He and Missy continued down the hall, leaving Jerrick and the Harlequin alone.

The Harlequin sobered when they had left, and his sobriety frightened Jerrick more than his typical madcap nature. "I sense that you missed me not, Jerrick-dear, for something darker weighs upon your mind. Will you share this news with a simple jester, a simple player of tricks and purveyor of humour?"

Jerrick sighed. "What news could I tell you that you wouldn't already know? I swear you have eyes and ears aplenty in every town. I wish we could have even half your spy network, Harlequin."

The Harlequin arched an eyebrow, delicately silvered like gilt metal. "Spy network? Spy? I? I have nothing more than my tongue and my wits, Jerrick-dear; this you know quite well. All I know I garner from wagging tongues and leaking dreams. And, given the dreams that leak of late, I hope that they are wrong."

Scowling in frustration, Jerrick spun on his heel and went to door leading to his hall, flinging it open and barely noticing when it cracked ominously on its hinges. "I have no time for your foolish prattle, Harlequin. I'm supposed to leave within the hour on an urgent mission and I'm nowhere near prepared."

The Harlequin closed the door quietly, dancing into Jerrick's line of sight with an affronted expression, his eerily mismatched eyes of polished gold and colour-shifting opal wide in hurt. "Foolish prattle? My dear sir, every word I say carries meaning and every meaning I mean to say carries words. As your friend, would I talk your ear to death with senseless "prattling," as thou so eloquently puts it? Nay, for my name would change from Harle the Quin to that of Babble of Brook, and such a change I desire not."

Jerrick glowered, but it was weak; in spite of his protestations otherwise, the Harlequin's antics made him want to smile. "Despite your pretty words, you prattle and babble quite well."

Sighing, the Harlequin performed a series of lazy cartwheels down the hall, sending his shining bells into a chorus of tinkling chimes. He stopped in front of Jerrick's door, knowing it well, performing pirouettes until the Hunter-Companion reached him. "Ah, but to one such as myself, words are as breath. I have no lord or lady, no goddess or god. I have only the gift of my tongue and my wit, as I have stated before."

"Yes, and you seem fond of applying them in plenty. To me," Jerrick added sourly, unlocking his door.

The Harlequin danced inside like so much air, the motley purple and black of his outfit a sudden clash with the muted blue and white of Jerrick's room. It was somewhat ironic, however, that the colours he wore matched those of Jerrick's Clan crest. "Only to you, my friend, is my tongue and wit applied for the ass of assistance rather than the ass of the asinine. Rather than angering at my words, let them tell you of your esteem in my heart. Let me tell you a tale to pass the time as you pack."

"Have I a choice?"

"Hmmm, a choice?" The Harlequin rolled across the bed and jumped to his feet, performing a small mad caper around the sword stand that stood near the opposite wall. "Choices aplenty, you have, child of night. Your choices may make or break a path of fate, for the weightiness of your role must wait… A time yet to pass may change, yet still… But, in this, my words, dear friend, you will hear now, here, with or without your will."

Jerrick went to the dresser and began to pull out clothes, throwing them towards the bed; he was too frustrated to care if they got rumpled. "Then speak already, Harlequin. Your words confound me normally, and when you begin to speak in riddles and metaphors, you may as well be speaking in tongues, for all I'm able to understand."

The Harlequin stuck out his tongue. "Lose you? Lose you? Fie, for shame, must everything be about you, Jerrick-dear? Have you ever thought that, mayhap, the world does not revolve around you?"

Jerrick rolled his eyes, moving to crouch down on hands and knees in the closet to dig through the piles of boots. "Harlequin, I know that the world doesn't revolve around me. It'd be rather selfish—and stupid—for me to think so. Now did you have a purpose in seeking me out or did you merely come to push me to my wits' end?"

"Wits' end? Are your wits so short, then, that I would drive you to the end of your witty wits?" In a graceful dive to the stone tiling, he somersaulted and rose into a handstand. The bells jangled, the dagged tips of his sleeves dragging on the floor, the tails of his hat trailing like twin limp snakes. "Ah, you be but a half-wit, then, my friend. Half-wit, no-wit, bland twit, black pit!"

"Harlequin…" Jerrick growled again, pale eyes flashing.

Any other words he might have said were cut off when there was a single sharp knock to the door before it was thrown open. A tall dark-haired woman swept into the room. Her rich Ynmari Clan robes trailed like water over the stone floor, the vibrant purples drowning out even the Harlequin's finery. She paused at the foot of the bed, berry-stained lips pursed in a half smile, a finely-plucked eyebrow arching. "Well, well, what have we here?"

The Harlequin giggled, balancing briefly on one arm in order to wiggle his fingers in a greeting. "Why, hello, m'lady. What brings you to this fine tower room today? Be wary, for I think a dragon has taken up roost."

She laughed, shaking her head. "Still driving my son to distraction, Harlequin?"

The Harlequin tumbled into a surprisingly graceful sprawl on the floor. He looked up at her with unwavering-innocence upon his pale, painted features. "I, m'lady? Nay, if anything drives your son to distraction, 'tis but his black pit wanting for half a wit."

Lyra Ynmari laughed, be-ringed hand rising to cover her mouth. "Oh, Harlequin, 'tis a wonder that you haven't made him mad with your antics."

He stuck out his tongue in reply, hands weaving figures in the air. "Mad? Of course he's mad—are not we all? Alas, I am but a humble servant of merriment, m'lady. I see not how my mannerisms and capers could cloud the judgment of one as great as your son, whether he be mad in his madness or not."

She nodded, lips pursed, laughter continuing to shine in her pale green eyes. "I agree with you, of course. But, I often fear we are the only two with sanity to have come from the walls of St. Saria Compound."

"Hello?" Jerrick looked back and forth between his mother and the Harlequin, scowling faintly. "Must you talk as though I'm not here at all?"

"Yes."

The reply had been said in perfect chorus, as if it had been planned, though Jerrick knew it couldn't possibly have been. His mother dissolved into another fit of giggles, the Harlequin rolling on the ground with peals of silver-toned laughter.

Jerrick all but tossed his hands up in the air, returning to packing his bag. "Really. You'd think I was the elder here. Can't you two stop laughing, already? It's not as though there's anything to laugh about."

"Ah, but laughter is a gift, dear Jerrick. Surely you, of all people, should be able to appreciate the value of mirth in dark times." The Harlequin's expression was sober once again, despite the twitching smile upon his lips.

Jerrick didn't know whether to laugh or scream; both seemed appropriate. "I swear, Harlequin, you are the utter limit."

"Only because I must be."

"Harlequin," Lyra remonstrated softly, glancing first at her son and then the capricious creature. "If you know why Jerrick leaves, what news torments him so, why do you insist on pouring salt in the wounds?"

The Harlequin leapt to his feet, brushing off his motleys with a careful flurry of bone-pale hands. He pulled straight the tassels of his coat, flattening the tails of his hat which sent the bells chiming. "Know, m'lady? I know only what dreams and visions tell me, and lately those are only coated in death and blood. Will you tell me that my visions are correct? Your son hasn't seen fit to speak either way."

Jerrick pulled tight the strings of his pack, a scowl in place as he tugged the strings into something resembling a knot. "Visions? Dreams? You speak like you're a prophet, Harlequin."

Lyra sighed, smoothing her skirts aside to sit on the edge of the bed. "And isn't he, Jerrick?" She glanced fondly at the Harlequin, who was leaning out the window, whistling to whatever nocturnal birds were seated in the eaves. "Has he not always spoken in riddles, in puzzles?"

Considering the question, Jerrick nodded. "I suppose. I've never really thought about it much."

The Harlequin had now climbed up onto the windowsill, legs dangling outside. His hands rested on either side of him, head tilting from side to side with his bells echoing the motion. Jerrick's heart leapt into his throat as the Harlequin's perch seemed to slip, but then the creature was laughing, and Jerrick found himself scowling in reply.

"And, always, he has tried your patience beyond normal measure. But, has he not also been your truest friend?" Lyra asked, glancing down at her fingernails.

Only friend, a corner of his mind whispered. Outcast among his own clan for as long as he could remember, the Harlequin had been his only friend until he'd become a Cadet at fourteen. And yet, lately, he'd found the Harlequin jangling his nerves the wrong way-not unlike how a cat felt when it'd had its fur rubbed the wrong way.

"I frighten him, now, though. I make him think things he doesn't want to think, see things he doesn't want to see." The Harlequin sighed, tumbling backwards into the room. "He is wary of prophecies, for now he thinks they may have credence." He spun on his toes and performed a cartwheel that brought him to stand just in front of Jerrick. "Correct, my love?"

"Don't call me that, Harlequin. And, no, I still don't believe in your silly prophecies." Jerrick tried to put the right amount of scepticism into his voice, but knew he'd failed when the Harlequin leered up at him.

"Ah, my beloved Child of Night!" the Harlequin crowed, launching himself at Jerrick. Jerrick caught him, though his eyes were wide in surprise as the Harlequin pressed their foreheads together. His voice was a whisper, smoke and mirrors, as was the haze that covered his eyes. "Then let me tell you of a prophecy, Jerrick, one for you to either believe or disbelieve as you will."

"Harlequin…"

"Give me this!" he hissed, fingers digging into Jerrick's back, surprising the Hunter with the desperation that laced his voice. "If you never give me anything else in my meaningless life, give me this chance to save you. Listen to a foolish creature's words."

And then he began:

"Oh, riddle me this, riddle me that,
Now look for a man with a talking cat,
The girl with a sword and mage-crafted touch,
The boy to whom scars are a well-worn crutch.
An Angel with wings-can you picture this?
The young white-haired Hunter he'll steal with a kiss.
The youth who can make shadows Dance like light,
A Healer whose soul is too heavy for flight.

And others, still others, a Fox and a Hound,
A dream of regrets, and a dream never found.
Which is which, you ask? I'll never tell,
For my Oracle's words shall weave as a spell.
If I speak, I'll decide, and decisions should wait,
Till a Warrior decides to challenge the Fates.

You'll wander, oh, wander, the wasteland vast,
You'll wonder, oh, wonder, if it's all moving too fast.
And it is, oh, it is, but you're having fun,
For your love, false love, is like touching the sun.

Friends come and friends go-Death waits in the wings,
And my words are like rain, only pooling in springs.
You'll listen not, you'll do what you will,
And I'll wait till the end of it all for you still.

So fly, me dear bird, fly away free,
For I know, in the end, you'll come back to me,
The King of the Fools, the King of the Jest,
For he is the one who loves you the best."

And then the Harlequin pressed a loud, smacking kiss to Jerrick's lips before pulling back, tumbling away from him with a jeer. "Now how was that, my Jerrick-dear? Shall I tell you more prophecies that you cannot decipher, refuse to comprehend?" He cackled, jumping over the bed and dashing from the room before Jerrick's befuddled mind could even begin to put together a reply.

Silence reigned for a moment, until Jerrick's mother decided to speak.

"Well, that was certainly…different," she said, seemingly as shocked at Jerrick himself. She didn't ask what words the Harlequin had whispered as tenderly as a love ballad; she wasn't certain that she wanted to know.

"He kissed me…"

"Yes, dear, he did."

"He kissed me…"

Lyra blew out a puff of air. "Yes, dear, we've already established that fact."

"But, Mother, he kissed me."

"Why are you so surprised? The Harlequin has loved you since the moment you were born."

Jerrick at last gave in to his frustration, growling out an expletive that made his mother glare at him. "Loves me? That's simply an old and worn joke between the two of us."

Lyra simply looked at him. "If you say so, dear."

"Mother!"

"Jerrick, hurry up and pack. Traitors and heartless people wait for no one—certainly not the man who rides to stop them."

Jerrick shook his head, shouldering his pack. "You're crazy, Mother. You know that, right?"

She smiled, rising to her feet. She embraced him, stepping back to ruffle his hair, ignoring his scowl. "Of course, dear. Your father often said the same thing in the short time I knew him."

Jerrick made not reply to that. Instead, he bowed to his mother, as a son should, and saluted his Clan Senior, as a Hunter-Companion should.

"Go, now, Jerrick. Ride with conviction, ride with fire. And ride with love in your heart, the love that I and the Harlequin have freely given to you."

He left, then, left his mother standing in his room. He didn't want to see the tears that would filter through her dark lashes, the trembling that would begin in her hands. She had never liked to see him ride out before, even on simple training missions. And so he walked onward, alone, to meet his companions and take up his duty as one of the Goddess' Hunters.

***

In the shadows of the hall, huddled on the floor with his arms wrapped around his knees, the Harlequin watched Jerrick disappear down the darkened stone corridor. And he wept once he was gone, wept like a child, as he watched the first steps of the apocalypse begin.

"Ah, I know you no longer, Jerrick, my love. The man you were, the man you will become… I have no choice in this matter, though." He laughed bitterly, the tears making his makeup run like a tragic mask. "When has the Oracle ever had a choice? To seek, to find, to loose, unbind. To bend, to break, to shatter, unmake. Thus it begins and thus shall it end. The Oracle's choice is clear: I have none."

*****

"Are you sure he's really out there?" Micah asked for the second time that hour, glancing at his companion with doubt in his bright blue eyes. They were two days out from the City of Night, and had at least another three to go before reaching West Point. Missy would be leaving them later that day when they rendezvoused with her friend in a small town called Kerricksville.

Jerrick sighed, leaning across his horse's neck. He was hot, tired, and more than a little cranky; crossing the desert-like terrain that made up Garrison Home territory often made him that way. Thankfully his horse, a nice, stolid and raw-boned gelding named Black Pea, seemed to think the day was a simple walk in the park and was relatively unaffected by the heat. "Do you see that speck off to your right at about five o'clock?" he asked. "The one that keeps flashing every now and then?"

Micah nodded, wiping at the sweat that rolled down his face. "Yeah, I see it."

"That's Shen Li's fox," he said, running his fingers through his horse's thick main, laughing when Pea snorted at the gesture. "He wears a thick metal collar that seems to be made out of something like platinum. That's what's catching the sunlight."

"Doesn't that make him more noticeable?" Missy asked her question while smacking at the horsefly trying to feast off her bay mare's blood. She apologised when the horse squealed, pinning her ears back. "You're so temperamental," the blonde murmured, patting the mare's neck gently. "I was only trying to be nice."

Shaking his head, Jerrick stood in his stirrups, peering at the terrain ahead. "The only reason we can see him is because he wants us to see him. It's Shen Li's way of reassuring us that he's out there." Sitting back down in the saddle, he kicked his feet free of the stirrups, stretching his long legs. "I think that's Kerricksville up ahead. We'll wait about an hour to give the horses a rest and contact Missy's friend."

"Sounds good to me," Micah replied with a sigh. He was saddle sore and not enjoying it one bit. "Have you ever thought that we're doing this whole mode of travel thing wrong?" he asked his friends after a moment, wincing as he stretched. "I mean, we have electricity, telephones, radio, television, and yet we still ride horses everywhere."

"I have thought about it a time or two," Missy said with a giggle. "But you know what I think about even more?"

"What?" Jerrick asked, taking the bait with a fond smile.

Missy pointed upwards to where the sky was tinted faintly with an ever-shifting Shadow of pale purple-black. "That, the Shadowwall. "It's been up for over two thousand years; no one's been around that long, and our records don't go back that far. What's beyond it, I wonder? I mean, we know that the Goddess had the Majin and the Shadowclans erect the wall to keep the Shadowspawn from spilling out into the rest of the world, but I can't help but wonder what it's like out there, ya know?"

Micah nodded, lips pursed. "Kind of. But in some ways, I hope we never have to find out, Missy. I mean, if the Shadowwall were to fall…"

"…then Hell would reign on Earth," Jerrick completed grimly. It touched a little too close to home for comfort, the thought of hell on earth. What was going on in West Point at that very moment was already a taste of what their hell on earth could be like.

The rest of the ride into Kerricksville was silent, all three thinking their own thoughts on the various matters at hand.

Missy was determined to bring the truth to light for all of the Hunters to see. She knew that the television broadcast had only been seen in West Point, and the Yndeisho were too cowed to do anything about the atrocities at the moment. Not that she blamed them for a minute. But now she felt it was her responsibility, with the tape Mel Yndeisho had sent to her, as well as the information he had basically risked his life and his mage's life to give them, to show the High Council just what was afoot in the Shadowlands.

Micah was angered by what was going on, but was unsure of what he could do about it. He would support Jerrick in whatever he chose to do; there was no question about that. But the events that had occurred in the past day had served to seriously disillusion the young Hunter-Companion, and he was now extremely uncertain of his future.

And Jerrick felt as if the weight of the world were upon his shoulders. He knew that he was the best the Hunter-Companions had, a fact, not a bragging point, and that didn't make him feel any better about what he was doing. The Harlequin's words weighed heavily upon his head and heart, as did the memory of his biting words that he left the Harlequin with. Jerrick only hoped that he knew the words hadn't really been intended for him, that they had been said when the full-weight of helplessness lay upon him. And he hoped that he would see the Harlequin soon, so that he could apologise and make reparations.

But he wondered again, with thoughts of the Harlequin coming and going like smoke, how things could have digressed to the point where humanity was beginning to cross the line that even the Shadowspawn avoided. He had watched the tape the Yndeisho had sent before they left the City of Night, and even he had lost the contents of his stomach when it was over. To summon Medial demons and turn them against other humans, against Hunters, was a truly despicable thing to do. And just what was he supposed to do with this mage that they were to escort, when he knew that she was being sent to the City of Night to cause trouble?

"You know, even if they get the commander of that Cadet squad out alive, she'll probably commit suicide," Missy murmured out of nowhere. The two men agreed with her though; after having to see her Cadets—Hunter children that were hers to train and protect—tortured and killed when she could do nothing would make her feel as though her honour was lost. And though she was married and may very well have children of her own she would be leaving behind, it was likely that her clan branch would attempt to make reparation to the Cadets' families for years to come. For Hunters, it was simply "the way."

—a dream of regrets, and a dream never found—

Damn the Harlequin and his invasively worded prophecies, Jerrick thought with a silent snarl. They tumbled through his head, never in order, but tangled like the threads of his mother's sewing box. Each time he though he had them straight, he'd find a knot or a split—or, worse, that two threads had twined together.

Prophecies were such a bother….

Kerricksville was a "blink" town—if you blinked while riding past, you'd miss it, easily—but its inn was a rather nice establishment. They stabled their horses, pulling the tack from their backs and rubbing them down, giving them water and feed. Then they made their way into the inn's main room, pausing in the threshold to adjust their eyes to the dim lighting.

"Welcome!" A portly man lumbered forward from behind the counter, wiping his hands on his grease-spattered apron. He glanced at their attire, smile growing. "Ah, Hunters I see. What can I do fer ye?"

Jerrick smiled politely, bowing to the innkeeper. "We've already paid your stable keeper for feed, water, and an hour's shelter for our mounts, but if we could find our midday meal here, it would be greatly appreciated, sir."

"Of course, of course," the man said, bustling forward and directing them into the dining room. "Midday meal should almost be ready. Just let me go back and check with my wife."

The three Hunter-Companions seated themselves around one of the small round tables, relaxing their weary frames. "Are you sure we can't stay here a bit longer than an hour?" Micah muttered. "My ass hurts!"

Missy smirked, twirling a blonde curl around one finger. "I'd take that in another way if I hadn't been sleeping in the company of both of you the last two nights."

Micah snorted at the woman, closing his eyes as he raised his hand lazily and made a rude gesture in reply.

She giggled. "I'd love to, Mai-chan, but I'm afraid we just don't have that kind of time."

"Not with the way you get in bed," the blue-eyed man said drolly. "It's like "quickie" isn't in your vocabulary."

"I just like to enjoy myself, that's all. Besides, it's not like you've ever complained before."

Jerrick cracked a smile at their banter, pale eyes twinkling with amusement. "Hush, children, the innkeeper's bringing us food."

"Thank the Goddess," Missy declared, rubbing her hands together. "I'm starving!"

"Here you are, sirs, madam." The innkeeper smiled, setting down three plates of roasted chicken and vegetables. "My wife will be out with the rest in a moment. Is there anything else I can get fer ye?"

"If a woman by the name of Kiisa Redfern comes in looking for a Hunter party, could you please send her this way?" Missy asked with a sunlit smile. "I'd appreciate it very much."

"Of course, madam," the innkeeper replied, another broad smile splitting his face. With that he bustled back towards the kitchen.

The three bent to the task of demolishing the meal before them, barely noticing the innkeeper's wife long enough to thank her for the bread, butter, ale, and sweet bean cookies that she brought out them. Their troubles were forgotten with the immediacy of the food at hand, and even thoughts of the Harlequin fled Jerrick's mind.

At least, for a few moments.

* * *

Wiping the remains of her meal from her mouth, Missy said with a sigh, "Now that was good food."

Micah nodded in agreement, wiping his finger across his plate to get the last of the sweet sauce up. "Yes, but we've been here for nearly forty-five minutes already, and we still haven't seen your friend yet."

As if it were some sort of signal, a tall, strikingly featured woman strode through the doorway connecting the inn's entryway to the dining room. Her dark brown hair was arranged simply yet artfully in a series of braids, which eventually joined to a single plait at her back. The robes she wore were much like her hair; simple yet elaborate, the cut very much like what the women of Jerrick's or Micah's clans wore when not on duty. In the heat, the three layers of varying gold silk had to be unbearably hot, but you couldn't tell by the woman's expression.

Missy smiled brightly at the woman, jumping up from her seat and rushing forward to greet her. "Kiisa, it's been awhile," she said, holding out both hands.

Kiisa accepted the hands with a laugh, leaning forward and placing a kiss to the diminutive blonde's lips. "Far too long, you naughty Ynzhara," she murmured huskily. She looked at Jerrick and Micah with hooded sloe eyes, the smile on her face growing. "And who are these delectable looking gentlemen, might I ask?"

The blonde woman led her friend over to the table, pouring ale into an extra mug and handing it to her. "Kiisa Redfern, these are two of my fellow Hunter-Companions from the City of Night. The one with the spiky hair that won't behave is Micah Ynmari, and the giant with the pretty eyes is Jerrick Ynyami."

Arching an eyebrow, Jerrick repeated drolly, "Pretty eyes? Since when do you think I have pretty eyes, Missy?"

Giggling mischievously, Missy replied, "What did you think attracted me first, Jerrick? The first time we met you were covered head to toe in mud and your eyes were the only things readily discernible." She smiled slyly, sipping from her glass. "Of course, I eventually learned that you had other eye-catching… attributes."

"Isn't that rather bawdy, even for you?" Kiisa asked with an arched eyebrow.

Holding up her hands in front of her in defense, Missy shook her head. "I've got nothing on Micah, over there."

Micah grumbled something unintelligible under his breath, sapphire gaze quelling. Jerrick had to laugh at his expression, laying a reassuring hand on his friend's arm. Leaning over, he whispered, "I'll make it up to you later."

Snorting, the black-haired man smiled nonetheless and shook his head. "You'd better."

Kiisa, who'd overheard the entire exchange, shook her head with a peal of laughter. "Ah, I forget what a lively bunch you Hunters are! With the way you carry on, it's a wonder the Shadowlands aren't awash in pretty, magically-enhanced humans."

"We have a tendency to die too often for that," Missy said, shaking her head. Looking at her friend with pain evident in her eyes, she began to explain the entire situation. "We thought it was dangerous enough for us just dealing with the Shadowspawn, but we're discovering that, perhaps, we are endangering ourselves more than the Shadowspawn ever possibly could.

"Firstly, we've been receiving complaints lodged against Garrison Home. There have been a large number of injuries and fatalities in the area recently, and most of them are to Hunter-Companions and the mages they are protecting. As I reminded our commander before we left, for every two mage deaths there is at least one Hunter-Companion death as well. The Hunter-Companion/mage Bond isn't something that most people take seriously, but someone out here is, and Garrison Home isn't doing anything about it."

Tapping a finger against her chin, Kiisa closed her sloe eyes and pursed her lips. "That doesn't really surprise me much, I'm afraid. Ever since Aisibeth Ynraevyn took over the clan thirty years ago, things have been unravelling in this area. Not only that, but she hasn't gone home much in the last half-dozen years; she's left her three daughters in charge of Garrison Home and its surrounding territory. Between them, those three girls might have one brain, and whatever is up in that grey matter isn't good. I hate to call a Hunter a bad seed, but those three defy everything I know about your kind."

"What do you mean?" Jerrick asked in confusion. "We haven't had any complaints against Garrison Home until about six months ago."

"Again, I'm not surprised. Aisibeth is a High Council member, and she's driven and determined; when Vallidan Yncorwyn steps down, whenever that may be, she wants his place as head speaker. If anything wrong goes on in her home territory, she's going to do her damnedest to cover it up. She's bigoted, as well, though not many know it. She absolutely despises men, which makes me wonder how the hell she managed to stand one long enough to not only get pregnant once, but four times."

Dark eyebrows sloped dangerously over pale green-blue eyes. "Wait a minute, what do you mean four times? You just told us that Councilor Ynraevyn only had three daughters."

"Correct," Kiisa said, smiling thinly. "Councilor Ynraevyn only has three daughters. She also has a son, whom she has treated with nothing but disdain since the day he was born. If she could have, she would have drowned the boy at birth, but her attendants advised against it because of the portents sent to the city by Delphi.

"As it is, though, the boy hasn't been home since he was ten years old. That was, what, seven years ago? eight? His sisters lit a set of fireworks off next to the boy's head as a prank when he was sleeping out on the Ynraevyn Compound grounds, and it burned the poor dear's face something awful. His mother did absolutely nothing about it—as a matter of fact, she took one look at him and told him that he'd never be of any use to her, and then turned to the girls and told them to do a "more thorough job" the next time."

"How do you know all this?" Micah asked suspiciously, leaning across the table. "You sure know an awful lot about the situation for someone from the City of Angels."

Kiisa shrugged, an elegant gesture that set off a brief flare of topaz and clear crystals in her hair. "I am Clan Yntsumei's eyes and ears inside of the High Council Compound. It is my job to know such things, and to…to share them with the right people. When Missy called and asked for my help in sharing the truth with the High Council, I sought permission from my employers directly. As you know, Clan Yntsumei feels strongly about children, and they want justice as much as everyone else does. Which is why when we heard about the Yndeisho situation, we agreed to help; Clan Yntsumei will be ready to move to West Point and the City of Night at a moment's notice. We need justice."

Justice… Ah, such a word reminded him of the old tales from the Kagekoku Monogatari, tales of the Archangel of Justice, Sariel. He had helped to write the Hunter credos, so very long ago. It was too bad that he had disappeared; they could really use some divine help right now.

Could they bring back the justice that the Hunters had been famous for for over two thousand years? In the pit of his stomach, there was a sinking feeling, and Jerrick knew that no matter how hard they tried, things were beyond their control. The Harlequin knew it too, for though Jerrick hadn't been able to puzzle out the meaning of all of his riddles and metaphors, he knew that much had underlined the pale creature's words. The Shadowlands had been in a downward spiral for only the Goddess knew how long, and no one had noticed; at least, if anyone had, they hadn't bothered to share the information. And he railed against that pessimistic part of himself, that part that told him his hands were tied, that there was absolutely nothing he could do. There's always something, always an answer… I won't—can't—believe that our end has already been decided for us without a chance to fight it.

He jumped in surprise as Kiisa touched his hand, her gold lacquered fingernails tapping against his hand guard. Smiling faintly, the mage formed a small sigil across the guard, the unfamiliar symbol glowing with a faint red hue. "What—"

"You cannot escape destiny, Jerrick Ynmari," she told him softly, her sloe eyes hypnotic as they held his gaze; everything else faded from thought as her eyes held him, as she spoke. "Everything that occurs…occurs for a reason. We may not like the reason, nor may we like the consequences, but it is destiny. You can change things, Jerrick, and perhaps save some of that which you would wish to save, but you will not be able to save everything. This is not your time, or your place, to make things right. He wishes it were otherwise, but even he knows of the futility he has in this mortal coil. But, do not spurn him, though you would wish it: spurn him, and all will be for not. He wishes for the "now," but knows it cannot be, and so he will laugh and jest and flirt in forced-falsity. However, in the future…in the future he will be a light to hold, to keep safe, to cradle to your soul, but you may not recognise him before it is too late. Make sure that you protect the light the Goddess gives into your care, or when the Fall comes upon us completely, the Relics will not be able to restore the balance."

Jerrick blinked, looking around in confusion. He'd thought… Glancing at Micah, he found his friend attempting to sneak the last cookie out from under Missy's nose while the blonde was busy talking to Kiisa. Scowling, the brunette crossed his arms over his chest, wondering what he had been thinking about moments before. It had seemed important, but he couldn't for the life of him recall what it had been.

"Well, I think it's best that we head our separate ways now," Missy said after a moment, shaking her head and sending her curls tumbling about her shoulders. "Kiisa and I don't want to attract undue attention, so we're going to ride into the City of Angels rather than Gate in. In other words, we've got about a two days' ride ahead of us." She frowned briefly, then looked at Jerrick with a smile on her face. "You and Micah take care of each other, bitch. I don't want to be hearing any tales of you two being eaten by a rabid Old Family mage."

Micah laughed, licking sweet bean paste from the tips of his fingers. He made a flicking motion with them when he was done, bright blue eyes shining with amusement. "Never happen, Missy. Never happen."

Jerrick smiled along with them as they finalised communications, routes, and alternative routes, but deep inside his heart of hearts he couldn't help but think that Micah may have spoken too soon.