Peter Moon lay on his back under the forest eaves, staring up into the flickering snowlight with the fixedness of a marble effigy. His torso gaped like that of one of Dr. Sang’s anatomy subjects, and a frosty slop of guts lay stiffly on his lap. Fox closed his eyes against the sight, and drew the crackling air in through his nostrils. Around him, the oaks and hemlocks seemed to jostle closer, a threat the Inspector felt as a cold, arboreal malevolence. He wished himself back in the familiar shadows of the City, and Sang’s words came back to him with renewed significance. The ways of the Wild are not like those of the City. There is a wall between us for good reason…
Gideon Crowe crouched a few feet from the dead Constable. He did not avert his eyes from the horror. Again, Fox was reminded of a raven at a feast.
“Indeed, Mr. Crowe. Gruesome and tragic.”
Crowe glanced up, his dark eyes registering surprise and humor at the Inspector’s acid tone. He stood and pointed at the snow around the body.
“Naught but the tracks of a beast this time. Do you think this one’s a murder, Fox?”
Crowe’s voice was quiet and even, but Fox thought he detected laughter lurking in it. Damn the man! Fox couldn’t make sense of the deputy’s interest. This wasn’t a matter for the palace. It might not be a matter for the City Police, except …
“The blood’s gone,” he said.
“The blood. It should be everywhere, but there’s only a very little about poor Moon’s body. Just like the one yesterday, after that strange naked girl ran from the scene.” He raised his eyes to Crowe’s. “What the devil is going on here?”
The deputy turned and stared off into the endless forest. The snow had slackened to the occasional fat flake, spiraling with slow grace to earth. A lovely, feathered bit touched Crowe’s cheek, and he flinched from it as though burned.
“You’ve not been beyond the wall before, have you Inspector?” he asked. “In fact, you’ve not been with the City for long.”
Fox bristled. “What’s that got to do –”
“I asked for you especially, because you haven’t yet been infected with the City’s fear of the Wild. Because your record is excellent, because you’ve been rewarded for your bravery more than once, and because I need a man here who can act without hesitation. I hope I’m not wrong on the last count.”
Fox suffered a brief paralysis of outraged astonishment. “You asked … you need … ? What have you to do with this at all?” Constable Moon was forgotten in the sudden glare of conspiracy. “The palace has no interest here. I was sent to investigate murder.”
“And so you shall, Inspector. But you’re wrong about the interests of the palace. Come and look.” Crowe waved him over to a lightning-scarred oak and pointed at the snow.
A single footprint lay in the thin shade of the tree, slender and bare. Fox observed the delicate imprint of each toe, the slight marks of the ball and heel that together were smaller than the heel of his hand. The foot had barely pressed the snow, and only the deep cold and the shelter of the massive oak had preserved the print. He reached toward it in wonder, but did not touch it. Crowe tapped his shoulder, and Fox looked up at the rough bark of the tree. Something red clung there. A wisp of scarlet wool. When he tried to gather it, it melted into a familiar, oily slick on his fingers. Blood.
“I don’t understand,” he whispered. He held up his besmeared fingers for Crowe’s inspection.
The deputy turned to the horses and tugged two long rifles from their bindings. They were fine weapons, and gleamed with restrained violence. Crowe caressed first one, then the other, before thrusting one toward Fox.
“I thought you should have a proper firearm. Our quarry is as deceptive as it is dangerous. We call it a red mage, for it has magic in it, but some know it as a winter wraith. It comes with the first snows, it commands the wolves, and it needs blood to grow strong. It is a merciless killer. Left unchecked, it will empty this village. I have hounded it across the mountains where winter comes early, and I will have it at last.”
Fox gripped the rifle in nerveless fingers. The world was tilting again, warping with the crazy abandon of nightmare. “But, this is the footprint of a child,” he said without conviction.
“A child who wears the lifeblood of Constable Moon as a cloak,” said Crowe. He slapped the rumps of the horses, and they surged away toward the village, leaving the men alone in the watchful woods.
to be continued…