Steam had begun to bead on the tiles on the walls and floor, a true sign that outside the inn the weather had taken a turn for the worse. ‘Snow for certain’ Talya said to herself upon noticing it.

“Snow?” Keri asked, looking at her with curiosity.

Apparently she’d said it louder than she intended. Luxury did make one lose all common sense, Talya thought, taking great care this time to keep it at the right side of her teeth.

“It’s gotten a lot colder, so I guess the snow that’s been threatening all morning finally arrived,” she explained.

“True is,” Melissa piped up from across the oversized tub.

Tub was the wrong word of course for a pond hollowed out directly in the granite, even if it fitted what it actually was. She didn’t think any cooper was capable of making a half barrel big enough to comfortably seat eight people in it.

For that matter, she did not understand how the inn keeper could make a profit at all but giving away this much hot water. Nor had she found any evidence of the massive water kettles he had to be heating to supply a bath this big with water. It wasn’t hot as in boiling, but still far warmer than anything she had ever experienced as a hot bath.

Keri distracted her by getting up, water streaming down her skin and a faint steam rising from it. The brunette quickly lowered herself back in the water again with a yelp, sending waves of water splash up to Talya’s chin as well as over the rim of the tub. It also brought a renewed whiff of the faint egg-like smell to Talya’s nose

“You’re both right. It is colder in here. I think I”ll stay in the water where it’s warm.”

“How does the innkeeper afford heating all this water?” Talya asked, her curiosity overcoming her reticence. “It must cost a fortune to carry enough wood up the road. And he doesn’t charge nearly enough to recover those costs.”

Keri smiled, “there’s a lot of stories, even a couple of surprisingly good songs about it, but the short of it is that the miners found that as you dig deeper into the mountain here it gets hot. And the many times great-grandfather of the current innkeeper found that the same thing happened under his inn, only a lot closer to the surface. So he dug a well and had an endless supply of hot water bubbling up.”

Talya glanced down apprehensively at the water that had suddenly gained an ominous quality to her.

Keri looked amused at her ill-concealed discomfort. Melissa though was neither concerned nor, apparently, surprised. And given that the tall blonde was terrible at pretending, Talya decided she knew of these things.

“How … does this even work?” she asked, trying to wrap her head around the notion of hot water coming up from the ground.

Keri shrugged, “nobody really understands it. There’s a lot of theories though. Some of the fanatics refuse to come here because they claim the god has cursed this place, and those living in it, with burning fire. They even regularly agitate for the King to destroy this town.”

Melissa clearly had not understood most of what Keri had said, but put in her own explanation, “World sky ice-cold is. World heart burn hot is. Hot heart rippling is and skin ripples follows. Hills and mountains making. And skin pushed up thinner it makes. Burning heat close to surface is. Cold water down in ground drips and back up boiling hot comes.”

“Huh,” Keri said, after the parsed the mangled syntax.

Talya echoed the sentiment silently.

“Goddess warns. Sometimes world skin breaks and earth heart fire out leaks. Terrible devastation is. Everything dead is, days or weeks in any direction running.”

“That … sounds impossible,” Keri said, after a long uncomfortable silence.

Talya was equally unconvinced, but nevertheless intrigued by the image Melissa had painted, “you’re not saying that digging too deep would cause these … fires to come out of the ground?”

It was Melissa’s time to shrug, “Only story know. Heart heat very great is. Greater than hottest fire is. Earth skin thick is so living can be and not burn. Digging too hot is before heart reaching.”

“It is true,” Keri said. “Miners report the heat getting too great as they dig deeper. Some of the richest ore and gem veins in the mines had to be abandoned because miners started to die from overheating.”

Melissa nodded emphatically.

“Still, it seems either impossible, or … dangerous,” Talya objected.

“Dangerous is. Yes. Also, possible making in cold living,” Melissa countered.

It didn’t ease any of Talya’s disquiet that possibly there were fires burning somewhere not too deep below her feet. The hot water was undeniably useful, but on the whole she preferred not to believe that what Melissa had told them was true. She would sleep easier if she didn’t think fires could break out of the ground at any moment.

It did make it easier to understand why there weren’t more people taking a bath though. The innkeeper had warned them that anybody who wanted to pay for time in the hot bath, man or woman, was welcome to it, but for now the three women had the room to themselves, and that would likely remain so for another candle-mark until supper time and the festival goers came back to spend the night at the inn. Though, if it actually had started to snow likely traders would be returning early. The lure of warming up in a hot bath was hard to resist.

“I hope it won’t get any colder,” Talya mused, to distract herself from Melissa’s uncomfortable theory.

Keri showed again that she had a quick understanding by commenting, “Guess it will get crowded in the tavern tonight.”

Talya nodded, not as pleased by that prospect as Keri clearly was. Melissa looked indifferent, but that could be because she hadn’t fully understand the conversation. And, the tall woman was holding it together only barely, and her tight mask of an expression showed it. She spent as much time as possible in the inn’s tiny garden that separated the two ground floor rooms they occupied from the stables that seemed far too large for the inn.

Oboru had spent the first day in that garden too, after they arrived in this dark and depressing town, meditating. Or so he had claimed. To Talya it looked like he actually had, though her knowledge came from imperfect teaching of what mages did when not making enough of a nuisance for her, or another of the Night Lord’s Talons, to be sent after them. The Mage-Priest didn’t take kindly to competition, and even less so to competition that proved to be unruly. Talya’s training had been concerned with mages who were a problem, not with those that were doing whatever the Mage-Priest ordered them to.

But unlike Melissa the mysterious mage had accompanied them exploring the town and festival grounds the second day, when they’d all recovered enough to get a bit restless after staying cooped up for a day and a half. Melissa had retreated into the garden with a pained expression at the thought of wandering the narrow paved streets. There was something odd about the blonde that Talya couldn’t quite place and hadn’t been able to spy out.

‘Oboru seems to have some ideas about her, though.’ she mused silently. She had not forgotten that the man had called Melissa a priestess, and while the other woman had rejected that notion rather strongly, it didn’t seem likely that the mage had made that observation on a whim.

If true, that potentially explained a few things that had puzzled her since her arrival in this land. Like the fact that her amulet had all but ceased working unless she got farther away from the group than she reasonably could without compromising the safety of her mission. And even that had not happened while they were recovering in this town. Granted, she hadn’t moved away from the others far enough to be absolutely certain, but on at least one occasion this morning she had gotten separated in the crowd for far and long enough that she believed she should have felt a tug from her amulet.

For all that she was pledged to the Night Lord, she was not particularly religious herself, Talya knew. Knowing about her God, and her inevitable fate, was entirely different from actually worshipping Him. If Melissa was actually a representative of a God, or Goddess as she mentioned a few times, then it was certainly possible that her innate or borrowed divinity would overshadow the imprinted faith from her amulet. It wasn’t a problem in the land the Mage Priest ruled, as those who had shared his faith. Where the Mage Priest barely tolerated mages, heathens and heretics were exterminated with extreme prejudice.

The barbarians of the southern mountains posed no threat either in this respect, for they worshipped nothing but their strength, brutality and prowess with weapons. And while they dressed it up in names and idols, that did not make it gods.

She had not encountered any believer in this land far to the south either, but it appeared that while they were rare they were not entirely absent. This clearly was not a contingency anybody had planned for, and one that put her mission, and her soul, at grave risk.

The way Melissa countered her amulet made her the most logical candidate for the enemy of her mission she had been told to expect, but the tall blonde had made no threatening movement towards, well, anybody. And before Talya had quite grasped the potential danger, there had been plenty of occasions where she could have acted before Talya would have been able to interfere. She was forced to accept, hard as it was for her to put that much faith in the success of her mission on the strange woman who barely spoke the language, that Melissa was not the enemy and could to a degree be trusted to protect the other two. Which was good, if scary, thing because there was no possibility for her alone to keep close enough to all of them. And not just for Brandt’s foolish insistence that they had separate sleeping arrangements for the men and women.

“Where are Oboru and Brandt?” she asked out loud as thinking of the rooms they didn’t shared reminded her of the men. The three women had  made it a habit from the first day to have this shared bath at the end of every day, before meeting up for supper at the bar room. At least Melissa and Talya were quite rigid about being scrupulously clean, with a thorough washing in the morning and a bath in the evening. Keri was less strict, but enjoyed luxuriating in the hot water.

The two men on the other hand were conspicuously absent, these past three days.

Keri managed an expression between a smirk and disappointment, “I believe they feel it inappropriate to share a bath with women.”

This raised eyebrows of both Melissa and Talya.

For Talya it was because, while she knew that many cultures placed great shame on men and women being together, any sense of shame had been beaten out of her. If it had been allowed to find root in her during her rigorous training from birth in the first place. Shame was a weakness the Talons weren’t allowed to have, and it was a weapon to use against their targets. Of course in a country that was dark four moons out of every year, and covered in deep snow another three moons, people tended to live close together greatly favouring warmth over any meaningless sense of shame for nudity.

“Difficult making hive protector being is?” Melissa queried cautiously.

That raised two other sets of eyebrows, one Keri and Talya had parsed that tangle of verbs.

“What?” Keri exclaimed, “what makes you think that? There’s no … ” she hesitated before asking tentatively for clarification ” a hive?”

After a brief pause to gather her thoughts she continued, “it’s just that most folks here think it is wrong for men and women to be nude in each other’s presence. Unless they are married of course, but even then.”

That explanation clearly made little sense to Melissa and with an exasperated sigh Keri tried again, “A lot of people believe that men and women should only get together if they want to make children. The church has been promoting that since forever, so it is no surprise really.”

“Men, women?” Melissa muttered confused. There was a lot of mental rearranging going on in her head as whatever she had been believing herself was turned upside town by Keri stating the obvious.

Keri narrowed her eyes and said, “you know men like Brandt and Oboru and women like, well, us?”

Melissa all but lost her eyebrows in her damp hair, and her eyes were round with surprise. “Are you animals?” she exclaimed more than she asked.

This caught both women by surprise, and startled a laugh out of Talya.

Before Keri could glare at her she climbed out of the bath and said, “I’m not touching that one Keri. You can try to explain. Me, I’m going to find out what is keeping the other two so long.”

She turned to Melissa and said starkly, “Melissa, you keep Keri safe. I’m not so sure we’re out of danger yet.”

From the way the blonde’s eyes narrowed, she wasn’t certain either.

Talya was almost entirely certain that Keri was the messenger she was sent to protect, and that quite possibly Melissa was unknowingly here for the same reason. But on the off-chance that it was Brandt after all she wanted to have a quick look to see what he was up to. The dangerous weakness she exposed herself to was that it might be that Melissa was the actual messenger. Keri had some basic knife training, but against an assassin sent against Melissa, or Talya, she would be not even an obstacle.

Suppressing a shiver she added, “And it has gotten a lot colder. Better dress warmly tonight.”

Talya forced herself to towel herself dry before getting into her clothes, despite the chilling cold that had penetrated through the thin wooden walls of the bathing room. Getting water, in any form, under your clothes was the quickest way to freeze to death in the harsh frozen lands of the Mage Priest. Still, had she not planned to go outside she might well not have bothered with getting thoroughly dry first. She was used to being cold, but didn’t enjoy it any more than other people.

Getting out of the hot water and thoroughly drying herself off was colder than was comfortable. It also was strange. In the training hall there were hot baths too, mage heated water rather than scary water that came out of the ground hot, but those were in rooms that were well sheltered from the snow and freezing air and howling blizzards that tormented the land during the dark moons. From what she had understood from Keri talking about this town, the weather was not so cold as quite that, but still there were snow storms and freezing cold that lasted for moons, and even winters where the snow fell deeper than a man could reach, and stayed that way for a moon or more. So, why was the bathing room so cold? Even if not heated by anything but the heat from the bath, it should still be better protected against the cold that an early snow could not make the air inside it get close to freezing.

It was … unusual … Talya decided, and unlikely that the innkeeper had built this bathing room so poorly. Unfortunately, taking a few moments to ponder the oddity did not lead to any insights so she reluctantly shoved it to the back of her mind, behind a whole host of more immediate concerns. The most pressing of which was to get her feet into her thick socks and fur-lined boots before she lost all feeling in her toes.

As she turned to leave the room Keri and Melissa were deep in conversation, both figuratively and literally with only their heads being visible above the water. Which was an achievement for an unnaturally tall woman like Melissa.

Quietly Talya slipped out of the room and then through the short hallway and out the door of the inn.

Outside she noticed how much colder it had gotten right away. The wind had picked up, not to the level of an outright blizzard, but certainly to the point where it tried to rip her cloak off with every gust blasting through the canyon like streets. And driven before the wind were thick flakes of snow falling from dark clouds that seemed to touch the roofs of the buildings.

This storm also made for a new challenge in navigating the town. Brandt had not exaggerated when he called this a maze, if possible he had understated the reality of it. When walking to the inn, and then during her first outing Talya had been able to orient herself using the position of sun, and of the stars during an illicit excursion at night that the others were unaware of. The clouds made all of that impossible, leaving only the direction of the wind. And even there the nature of the maze worked against her, for the wind of course tended to follow the direction of the streets. Navigating blindly by it would get her lost in a hurry.

Still, she needed to learn to find her way around the town. If only so she wouldn’t be dependent on Brandt, and when push came to shove could lead the others out again.

Eyeing the building across the street from the inn speculatively she pondered climbing its face and take the roof paths. With the snow blowing in hard it would be dangerous to clamber over the steep tiled roofs, for sure, but it also would make getting around easier.

Shaking her head mentally she decided against it. Even if she could use that road, Keri and Brandt could not, and she was not altogether certain that Melissa could either. She’d barely seen the woman climb up the cliff side when escaping from the Unnameable One’s Herald and had the impression of mere competence but no great skill. Seeing her climb down again had not changed that initial impression, though Keri was willing to give her points for sliding down a steep and rough rock-face in her skin. The abrasions and cuts she had suffered had been real, and the healer that Brandt had found for them had not been impressed with either the wounds nor with Melissa’s careless handling of them. She did grudgingly admit that just letting the wounds bleed out after having the grit washed out was the best thing she could have done, short of not getting hurt in the first place.

Instead of taking the relatively easy way, Talya waited in the shadow beside the door — not incidentally it was sheltered from the worst of the wind and cold — for some of the townsfolk to walk past. Bundled up and hunched they did not pay attention to what was on the street near them, instead intent of getting out of the cold as quickly as possible. They were ideal for Talya to try to learn how the people who lived in this town found their way through the maze. It was after all far too big to learn by heart, so there had to be a trick to it.

These people as they hurried along and paid no attention except to where they need to be going. Ideal for her to observe them.

As a stalking exercise it was pathetically easy. Talya expected it would have been easy anyway, even without the bad weather. From what she had witnessed of the people living travelling through their country, they were not exactly paying close attention to what was happening around them at the best of time. Which this obviously was not.

On the other hand, the cold and the poor visibility made it a challenge to figure out how the couple she was trailing knew their way around town. With hoods up and scarves tied closely around faces it was next to impossible for her to see what they were paying attention to as they walked down the streets.

After the first two attempts had failed to provide any insights finally she lucked out with a man who was clearly out-of-place in this richer part of town. He was making his way down the street slowly, and not just because he had to fight against the wind which had picked up a fair bit in the hour she had spent outside.

More importantly, Talya noticed that he was paying close attention to the buildings. Or, she realised, to certain unique features of the façades. Like the brightly lit store front at the corner of the big street they were on and the side street that crossed at an acute angle.

Talya let the man disappear around the corner. There wasn’t anything she could learn from following him around any further, and she wanted to find a quiet place out of the wind where she could observe other people to see if what she had guessed was right about how they found their way through the streets of this city of walls as Keri had called it. If she was right she knew how to find her way around town, but she would also be unable to actually do so without spending a lot more time learning the landmarks.

She had to give it to the engineers of this place that they had created a clever defence. Even if an invading army managed to breach the impassive walls, they would flounder in the city while the defenders knew the way by the little details on the otherwise same looking buildings. And since they were all stone, not to mention the myriads of lesser walls inside the city itself, there was no burning them out either. Each defender had to be chased down while they let the invaders in circles.

She had to remember to mention this little design to the Commander of the Protectors when she finally could manage to get back home.

Which didn’t feel likely right now, because she had the nagging feeling that they weren’t out of trouble yet. Had probably not even seen the worst of it.

That thought jolted her out of her contemplation. She shouldn’t be so certain about the future. Unless … she felt a faint tug from her amulet.

Reaching out gingerly, and mentally, she could feel its presence for the first time in days. It was only the barest of awareness, true, but she was incredibly relieved that it was there at all. She had lost the connection when first arriving at that inn. She’d got the impression that it was still working the next morning, but ever since that black night in the forest she’d not felt any connection at all any more. Even though on one or two occasions she’d been somewhat further away from the Melissa than she’d been that first morning.

Whatever had happened in the forest, and after, it had perhaps damaged her amulet but not destroyed it as she had begun to fear. Unfortunately, the amulet coming back to life — and that was more literal than she wanted to admit to anybody, even within the Talons — did not extend to a sense of direction to her target like it was supposed to.

Still, having it back at all was a spiritual relief far more profound than anything she had experienced other than the first time she was given her amulet and all that it contained.

Inexorably another question popped up in Talya’s head. Why had her amulet suddenly come back to life? Was it because Brandt was out of range?

If that were true then she had made some wrong assumptions, possibly including her reading of Oboru, and she was in deadly danger herself now.

Galvanised into action by a sudden sense of urgency she stepped out of the shadowed and secluded corner she had been waiting for another citizen to brave the snowstorm. She’d made the trip to the fairgrounds the day before, under the guidance of Brandt and of Keri in particular, both of whom had been here before. As was a habit with her so ingrained that she wasn’t even aware of it, she had paid close attention to her surrounding. To know where she could hide, or retreat, should she be attacked. And to know how to navigate the same place in the utter darkness of the northern winter nights. Using her newly found insight in how to move about she set to retrace her path to the fairground, only this time paying close attention of the memories of the buildings and other landmarks whenever Keri had turned a corner for no, at that time, discernible reason.

Before long Talya realised how the inhabitants of the town managed to find their way around without having to learn hundreds of landmarks. There were only a handful of central hubs in the web and all anybody needed to learn was the path between these, and how to go between these hubs and the places they wanted to go to. Learning her way around the town wasn’t going to be as insurmountable a task as she had begun to fear.

Feeling a lot more certain about her ability to find her way around town, or at least between inn and fairgrounds, Talya picked up the pace. If for no other reason than that she was definitely beginning to feel the chill. Not to mention that the snow was beginning to leak through her clothes. She was dressed sensibly, but definitely not for deep winter conditions in the northern lands.

Before much longer she found that a lot of people were feeling the same way about the weather, and their inadequate clothing. The occasional citizen, or visitor, it was hard to tell the difference in this weather and rapidly increasing gloom, that hurried down the street became a trickle, and then a steady stream. The fair obviously had ended early today.

She almost missed Oboru and Brandt in the crowd as they passed her going the other way. They entirely missed her, but then she had her hood pulled down as far is it would go against the wind and the snow it drove before it. Her fears about the nature of Oboru were allayed. Somewhat. He was a mage, which meant dangerous in her experience, and he clearly had some training to keep his expression neutral so she found it difficult to read him. Like Melissa he was an enigma and his presence here at this time and place was a little too convenient. Only the fact that he was stalked by the Unnameable One and had been all but destroyed by it on several occasions had allowed her to put some trust in his motivations, or lack thereof as the case might be. Actual trust though? That wasn’t going to happen ever for her.

Stalking these two would be a lot more of a challenge than the clueless citizens. Especially if she also wanted to be able to overhear the hushed conversation they were having. In truth, she didn’t expect to be able to overhear more than a few words every now and then. She probably would have better luck overhearing them in the room they shared, but, Talya had the impression that Brandt at least wouldn’t be so free to speak in an inn where he might be overheard as he was in a crowded street where nobody was paying attention.

And that made her all the more curious just exactly what the two men were talking about that they didn’t want the women to overhear.