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Chapter Nine

From the shadows, Fezhmorbal watched the entrance through which Hwe’tsara, Suzerain Ormalg’s liege in Forkus, would appear.

He hadn’t long to wait. The greater x’qao stamped into his own court in a manner appropriate to the large, heavy monster that he was. “Where’s that stoop counselor of mine?” Hwe’tsara demanded of his lieutenant and seneschal, Kh’shra, a young but promising arurkré.

Not waiting for an answer, he bounded upon the crude dais. His harrows and senior scythes stepped back: not out of fear, but to place themselves beyond the unmindful agitation of their liege’s wrath. Hwe’tsara stalked toward his roughhewn throne—and stopped: his tribute bowl was waiting, forgotten, on its seat. It was filled with day-old offerings of dead insects and strips of flesh.

The x’qao stared at the bowl as if it had spat at him. Then, furious, he slapped it away. Shattering at the impact of his rough palm, the receptacle’s fragments flew toward the far end of the chamber as a widening cloud. Fangs dripping, he raged, “When I find Fezhmorbal, I shall rend—!”

“I am here, Your Horror. In my accustomed place.”

Hwe’tsara started as if impaled. “What—? When—? How dare you enter my stronghold without sending word, without finding me first?”

Fezhmorbal bowed, careful not to react to the x’qao lord’s complaints since they were completely contradictory. “Apologies, Terrible Hwe’tsara. I was not aware the protocols had changed since my last visit.” Which they haven’t, of course.

Fezhmorbal noted that, just behind him, his new adjutant had barely stirred at the x’qao’s tantrum. Promising. His lieutenant Gasdashrag would likely have gulped audibly at the violent display.

The tall, broadly built x’qao slumped into his throne as if he’d never been on the verge of homicidal hysteria. But the monster’s furtive glances told Fezhmorbal that Hwe’tsara felt his failure: that once again he’d lacked the ruthless dispassion that a liege must always maintain in the presence of his lessers. And so he keeps looking over to see if I shall sneer or put on a superior air. I’m not stupid, you abomination. If I did so, that would be the end of my race’s infiltration of your court—and maybe my existence, as well.

In the awkward silence that followed, the smaller, ubiquitous x’qa—bestial ’qo and lean q’akh—crept forth from their lairs in the shadows of Hwe’tsara’s great hall. He stared at them and then Fezhmorbal in mounting irritation. “Well, where have you been, counselor?” he snapped. “A dubious title, since you have not been here to share your equally dubious wisdom.”

Fezhmorbal inclined his head slightly. “As we discussed, Your Horror, the task of retrieving your goods and punishing the thieves promised to be a long process. Once we ascertained that they fled north along the great river, we knew it meant a long pursuit. I have been securing additional forces and sources of information to aid in the search. Happily, those efforts have produced new information.”

“Yes, which you didn’t report personally, as you should have. I should skin you alive for having the nerve to send me a written report instead, scrawled in some vague sigils.”

“My apologies, Dread Liege. I shall endeavor to ensure that the scribe redrafts it more precisely and plainly.”

“And how will that help?”

“I presume the problem is that the report was not legible, Your Horror, inasmuch as it was written in x’qao Deviltongue.”

Hwe’tsara’s eyes quivered in their sockets. His harrows, all literate, were utterly still, as was his far more clever and capable arurkré lieutenant.

Fezhmorbal managed not to smile. So: you can’t even read, though you still cling to the hope that some transformation will yet mark you as an arurkré. Learning that the x’qao had unwittingly revealed himself to be illiterate would have been gratifying enough, but to witness it was delicious.

Hwe’tsara recovered quickly, however. “A scribe incapable of rendering your report readable to a discerning eye will do no better a second time,” he scolded haughtily. “Fortunately, my lieutenant has had much experience deciphering the rude scrawls of several species, and so was able to read it out to me. Kh’shra, synopsize that tiresome document, that the deciqadi themselves may confirm that we have the gist of its crack-brained composition.”

Kh’shra nodded promptly and addressed his monotone summation to Fezhmorbal. “Your lieutenant Gasdashrag arrived in Khorkrag, where he learned that Ulchakh, a known trader from Achgabab, had been there just days earlier. Since the thieves’ trail included what appeared to be h’achgai tracks, he visited the trade station that his species maintains there. However, your lieutenant surmised that Ulchakh’s visit was also to determine if it was safe for the humans to use the ferry to cross into the town.

“Ulchakh’s return to the other bank was prompt, no doubt because the mood in Khorkrag was too dangerous for the humans. My liege Hwe’tsara’s nearest peer in that place—Inikgolg—placed bounties on them even as the spring rains subsided. Gasdashrag visited him and provided funds to increase the size of those bounties.”

Hwe’tsara interrupted, glaring at Fezhmorbal. “You and your lieutenant are very openhanded with my wealth, Counselor.”

Fezhmorbal shook his head slowly. “Not so, Your Horror. The funds used by Gasdashrag were mine, not yours.” He expanded in response to the x’qao’s disbelieving stare. “I would of course be grateful should you deign to defray some of those costs. However, I was resolved to spend that coin without recompense to demonstrate how we deciqadi are more than a match for any group of humans, and are both a safer and superior alternative to those you keep at great expense in your stable.”

Hwe’tsara’s attempt to appear unsurprised and unimpressed was uneven, at best. He gestured for his lieutenant to continue.

Kh’shra did so in the same dull tone. “After the bounties were increased, the groups that departed Khorkrag to seek humans in the wadi country doubled and were larger. They were also encouraged by rumored sightings of Legate rads.”

Hwe’tsara nodded to Kh’shra, who stepped back. “So you see, we have heard your ‘news’ already, Counselor.”

“With trembling respects, Your Horror, you have not.”

Hwe’tsara’s frown was angry, likely because he had a foreboding that, once again, he had missed some subtlety in Fezhmorbal’s earlier words. “Kh’shra’s summary was complete, without error.”

“That is true, Dread Hwe’tsara. But this is not the new information of which I spoke. Gasdashrag has, in the interim, discovered more. Much more.”

Rage and curiosity waged a pitched battle for control of Hwe’tsara’s face. When words finally rasped out of his mouth, they were more snarl than speech. “Well, do not keep me waiting, stoop!”

Fezhmorbal offered a long bow, long enough to ensure that his own face did not reveal his satisfied gloating. So you insult my race with a slur instead of seeking to correct yourself. That is yet another reflex that keeps you weak, x’qao. And yet another reason why, soon enough, you will only retain that throne if we “stoops” are here to keep you in it. “If it pleases you, Your Horror, I would have my new adjutant present the new information, and so, become known to your court and acquainted with your needs.”

Hwe’tsara’s eyes narrowed. “Is that him, skulking behind you?”

“That is she, Famed Hwe’tsara. And yes, Qudzorpla is indeed a redoubtable warrior.” Which, knowing your prejudices, you will simply accept—and so, not question if she has other, far more important, skills.

The x’qao lord did not disappoint Fezhmorbal’s expectations. “You allow females to become warriors, like the trogs?” He shook his head. “You bloodbag species are all either mad, blind, or both. Yes, yes: the she-stoop may step forward and report. But quickly!”

Qudzorpla—as tall as Fezhmorbal and almost as muscled—advanced and announced, “I am honored to present in the court of the Dread Liege Hwe’tsara!” Who impatiently waved away the honorifics, even though omitting them would likely have resulted in her evisceration. “Gasdashrag has communicated these further significant developments. A caravan from the city of Fragkork, bound to stop in Khorkrag before continuing on to Forkus, is now extremely overdue.”

The x’qao seemed puzzled. “Was it sent by Sirvashwekh, Fragkork’s Ormalg-sworn liege?”

“No, Your Horror. The caravan was sent at the behest of Liege Azhdrukh, suppliant of Zhyombphal.”

“Then, as it does not concern the interests of my suzerain, it is of no concern to me. Why do you even mention it?”

“Gasdashrag has heard rumors that it may have been attacked by agents of the Legate, those whose rads were sighted in the wadi country.”

Hwe’tsara sat straight. “And is there speculation why the impertinent bloodbags would strike a caravan at such remove from Forkus?”

“Two conjectures have arisen, Dread Liege. Firstly, the caravan’s primary cargo was intended for Liege Suradán of Forkus, also suppliant of—”

“Yes, yes: another suppliant of Zhyombphal—whose domains in Forkus border the Legate’s. So you conjecture that the bloodbag Tasvar intercepted the caravan anonymously and at distance so as not to instigate a war with his neighbor here on our streets?”

“It is believed so. However, the more valuable parts of the cargo give rise to the second conjecture.”

“And this valuable cargo is—?”

“Humans, Your Horror. Azhdrukh is reportedly liquidating his stable.”

Hwe’tsara leaned back, eyes narrowing. “Yes, those two factors might draw the Legate as far north as Khorkrag. But I am still waiting to hear how this bears upon my stolen property and destroying the thieves.”

Qudzorpla nodded tautly. “As Gasdashrag reported last time, there were already rumors that a Legate force was in the area. That propelled even more bounty-hunting bands into the Orokrosir. However, within two weeks, Khorkrag saw many of these groups begin to return. Or rather, what was left of them. Several smaller ones were apparently destroyed outright, their survivors absorbed by rivals. However, one of the largest and oldest bands was reduced to a handful of survivors. Another great gang—gathered expressly for bountying by a newly arrived shaman, Zhathragz—disappeared without a trace.”

Hwe’tsara leaned forward. Even Kh’shra’s horned brow rose slightly.

“Gasdashrag had no direct contact with the survivors of the first group. But they reportedly claim to have been ambushed by a well-concealed force. If they are to be believed, the enemy broke them with unusually accurate and rapid fire from larger bows and crossbows.”

Hwe’tsara raised a long-taloned hand. “Crossbows? On the Orokrosir?”

“Yes, Your Horror. The ambushers targeted commanders first, hitting the x’qao leader in the first volley and then repeatedly thereafter. He never had enough time to organize a response.”

Qudzorpla lifted her wizened chin. “Whether a grim fact or a lie to justify their cowardice, the survivors swore that any who did not flee were slain or soon would be. The attackers did not close until the group had been scattered and its leaders eliminated. That is the limit of the new information.”

Hwe’tsara sat back slowly. “Spring hunting and raiding are beneath my notice, but had such ambushes ever occurred before, I would surely have heard.”

Qudzorpla nodded. “Gasdashrag reports that the opinion in Khorkrag agrees with Your Horror’s assertion: from the lowest trogs to the most powerful lieges, there was surprise and disbelief.”

The x’qao liege waved the female deciqad back with one hand, pointed at Fezhmorbal with the other. “I will hear what you make of all this, Counselor.”

He nodded. “The attackers’ tactics, weapons, and audacity have no doubt brought you to our own conclusion: this was the work of humans. The only other species which routinely executes plans with such care and forethought is my own. While it is not impossible that other humans may be responsible, logic suggests that this is the work of forces already known to be in that region: the Legate, the thieves, or perhaps both operating in concert.”

Hwe’tsara’s clenched fists made a stone-grinding sound. “I want them found and destroyed.”

“First we must confirm that the thieves had a hand in these attacks. Otherwise, acting upon these reports will neither recover your property nor avenge you upon those who stole it.”

With a visible effort, the x’qao leaned back. “How do you propose to determine the ambushers’ identity? By scouring the wadi country?”

Fezhmorbal shook his head. “This enemy is too canny to remain in one place after mounting such attacks. So it is already too late to seek them in the Orokrosir. Rather, we must ponder the question, ‘where are they headed?’”

“Achgabab? Ebrekka? Some secret haven?”

“All are possibilities, but I consider a secret haven unlikely. Independent humans are loath to hide so far away from cities, which augment their greatest advantages. So we must first determine if one or both groups are involved and, if both, whether they acted as one combined force or a number of smaller ones.”

“Yes, yes,” the x’qao lord muttered pettishly. “But do any of the survivors’ reports suggest that the attackers had access to artifacts such as those the thieves stole from me?”

At last, a productive question. “No, Your Horror, but it is entirely possible that survivors might have witnessed the effects of such devices yet failed to understand what they were seeing.”

Hwe’tsara slammed his hands down on the arms of his basalt throne; the impact of his claws sounded like gunfire. “But if it was the thieves, why mount these attacks at all? Why not stay hidden, if they fear pursuit?”

“That, Dread Liege, is not merely an excellent but pivotal question—because there is no logical reason why a Legate force would do so. Even if they traveled from Forkus to intercept the missing caravan, they would surely flee to their nearest stronghold or station afterward. A detour to damage seasonal raiders and hunters from Khorkrag is a risk without strategic gain or purpose.

“However, if the ambushes were carried out by the thieves, there is a plausible, if unusual, reason they might have done so. Particularly if they suspect, or know, that they are already being followed by your forces.”

Hwe’tsara shook his square, massive head. “You speak riddles, deciqad. If so small a group knew they were already being pursued, they would flee even faster and farther than the Legate’s bloodbags.”

“Not if the thieves are both clever and very audacious.” Fezhmorbal leaned into his explanation. “Bold thieves often choose to do what pursuers least expect—in this case, preemptive counterattacks on forces friendly to us. In short, they turn the tables by hunting the hunters’ allies, hoping to confound us with contradictory actions.”

“Let us presume they know we shall ponder questions such as, ‘If the attackers are the thieves, why don’t they flee? If they wish to hide, why do they attack? And if they have already attained their objective, why do they ambush bounty hunters?’ All to puzzle us.”

“But to what end?”

“To make themselves inconsistent, and so, unpredictable.” Fezhmorbal raised a thin, leathery finger tipped by a long, yellowed nail. “However, they have been utterly consistent in one regard: their demonstrated ability to not only destroy groups sent to seek them, but to do so with absolute impunity.”

Hwe’tsara nodded. “Thereby chasing most of the bountiers out of the Orokrosir.”

Fezhmorbal matched his patron’s nod. “From which, I predict, the attackers promptly withdrew.”

The x’qao’s fangs rasped like bones grinding bone. “And by the time the mewling trogs creep back out, their trail will be gone.”

Fezhmorbal kept his voice level and, he hoped, calming. “However, as I remarked at the outset, their trail matters less than our ability to project their destination. And in that regard, the ambushes and the missing caravan may have, quite literally, a significant point in common. A map point, to be precise.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I refer to Achgabab. Consider, Your Horror. There was word that Azhdrukh’s caravan passed Fragkork’s southernmost town, Zhukhu, as it journeyed along the great river. This means its path would bring it due west of Achgabab.”

“But the Orokrosir and ambushes are due south of Achgabab.”

“Yes, Dread Liege, but at almost exactly the same distance. And let us not forget that Ulchakh was last reported to be traveling with the thieves and that his final destination was Achgabab.”

When Hwe’tsara brooded rather than responded, Kh’shra leaned forward. “My liege mentioned Ebrekka as a possible place to which they might safely retire. You have not addressed that.” His master looked up, nodded vigorously.

Fezhmorbal inclined his head. “Two factors make it less likely. Firstly, the last marker left by our two trog agents among the thieves indicate that they traversed the river well north of Khorkrag.”

Hwe’tsara stirred. “Which they accomplished how?”

“We do not know. But however they managed that feat, the point where they crossed is on the most direct approach to Achgabab. Ebrekka is almost twice as far and well to the southeast.”

“You had a second reason they were unlikely to head there?”

Fezhmorbal shrugged. “As Your Horror knows, although the Mangled are proficient at trade and growing moss, they have little skill at, or in interest in, fashioning implements of war. Besides, while useful, the Mangled are not the best partners for these humans, and vice versa.”

Hwe’tsara scowled. “They’re too cowardly. Even for humans.”

“Yes, but I meant that humans prefer activity—training, hunting, fashioning tools—over hiding. Obversely, h’achgai have the same inclinations as humans and many useful skills to support a warrior band.”

“Warrior band? We are speaking of thieves, Counselor!”

Fezhmorbal kept his voice low and agreeable. Which he hated. “They are indeed thieves upon whom you must be avenged. However, their actions and methods are not those of skulkers, but soldiers. And that is consistent with their foray into the Orokrosir. Mere thieves would never conceive of it.”

Hwe’tsara tilted forward ominously. “Very well. They mimic ‘warriors.’ How do you propose to kill them and retrieve my goods? Certainly you do not mean to attack Achgabab itself. The few lieges foolish enough to attempt it were so weakened by the losses that their rivals consumed them.”

Fezhmorbal nodded. “Our only reasonable strategy is to watch the approaches to Achgabab, albeit at a distance. That in turn will require additional and more capable forces, including x’qai who are bonded to kiktzo. In that way, I can watch from beyond the reach of our quarry’s eyes.”

Hwe’tsara sat straighter in his stony throne. “Your phrasing—‘I can watch’—is figurative, surely.”

And now I start breaking you to the yoke of depending upon deciqadi. “With regret, Your Horror, I meant it quite literally. In order to pursue your interests decisively and with adequate strength, I must bring almost all my remaining assets to that region. Without them, we cannot watch for, much less respond to, the thieves’ movements across so wide an area. It was to this end that I presented Qudzorpla to your court today.” He nodded in her direction; she inclined her head toward the throne. “She shall report all developments to you in my place.”

Hwe’tsara’s neck stiffened. “You speak of ‘pursuing my interests.’ My interests are best served by having you here, Counselor.”

And so you walk into yet another trap of your own making, fool. “Your Horror is kind to say so, but you have so often been displeased with my efforts that I feel at pains to prove myself worthy of your regard.” And also, while away, I am free to increase my own forces and set my race’s plans in motion. “Additionally, avenging you upon the thieves may not only require more assets but direct guidance. Gasdashrag is quite capable, but this is his first outing as war leader and the mission has become unexpectedly complex.”

And now to bait you in even further. “My only misgiving is how long it may take for me to gather more servitors to our banner, particularly x’qai with blood-bonded kiktzo. With every passing day, we lose initiative.”

Hwe’tsara frowned, held up his hand. “I am swayed by your logic as well as your determination to redeem yourself in my opinion—”

You are swayed by only one thing: the way my “regret at failing you” flatters and reassures your crumbling ego.

“—and so I will not merely allow you to depart from this court, but shall make you a gift of the servitors you most need. From my own host, I shall provide four x’qiigh with blood-bonded kiktzo. Thus you shall need only to recruit whatever trogs and other bloodbag species you deem necessary.”

Fezhmorbal bowed low, dared not smile. Just the assets I needed. And it will be simplicity itself to discern which of the kiktzo are actually blood-bonded to you, Hwe’tsara. What a sad misadventure that they shall also be the first to perish. “Your generosity humbles us, Great Hwe’tsara.”

The x’qao almost preened. “More generous than you know, Counselor. Two of those who I remit to your use also have blood-bonded kiksla, which are skilled at sensing x’qai deep in the sleep of the sands. Be warned: such x’qa are ravenous when they awaken, so you must have much meat on hand. But once their feeding frenzy subsides, and if they are given regular opportunities to hunt and gorge, they may prove receptive to taking service with one who is not a x’qao. That assumes the person is a sufficiently strong leader. Perhaps you shall prove so.”

“Your Horror’s opinion is most kind.” And needless; I have bent many x’qai to my will with far fewer inducements.

Hwe’tsara seemed to grasp after a few, final strands of flattery in exchange for a last morsel of sage advice. “Normally, I would also recommend that you gather masterless deadskins from the streets, but they have grown scarce of late.”

Fezhmorbal frowned. “I have heard the same, that many have disappeared at night without leaving any spoor of kill or combat.”

The x’qao nodded. “Insofar as more typical servitors are concerned, I shall send word if I hear of a broken gang you might absorb. But do not count on it. Indeed, you may count on only one thing: that if you fail to keep me apprised of your progress, I shall be dangerously displeased. Now go, Counselor, before the q’akh grow too enamored of the scent of your stringy flesh.”

* * *

As Fezhmorbal exited and his waiting praakht and prakhbrai kajhs gathered around him in a tight protective ring, Qudzorpla was counting her steps. “What are you doing?” he asked in their native tongue.

“Ensuring we are sufficiently distant before I speak,” she muttered. “Forty-nine, fifty.” She turned toward him abruptly. “War Leader Fezhmorbal, do you think Hwe’tsara was testing us by asking about the deadskins? That he suspects we are behind the disappearances?”

Fezhmorbal shook his head. “No. I know this variety of x’qao. Neither pureblood nor arurkré, he lacks both the mental discipline and patience to seek ploys within ploys. He will not suspect that my shared perplexity over the disappearance of deadskins was simply misdirection.”

“How do you mean to get them out of Forkus, though?”

The deciqadi war leader’s smile was vinegary. “Do you actually believe they are still here?” He jerked his head to the north. “They are waiting with newly recruited praakht, grat’r, and a few x’qnarz at the edge of the wastes. They shall meet my group at the river and parallel us. At night we shall camp together.”

Qudzorpla frowned. “You mean to go north by boat?”

“How else? I purchased two h’achgai ships the same way I arranged payment for our spies among the thieves: a bondward, retained through a third party.”

Qudzorpla leaned closer, whispered even though they were still speaking deciqadi. “I still do not understand why you ordered me to withhold the additional news we received from Gasdashrag this morning.”

Fezhmorbal nodded approvingly. It was a prudent question; Qudzorpla would do well in her role. Assuming she was not devoured first. “Before I answer, remember this: never tell an outright lie to x’qai. Some possess a Talent that detects absolute untruths. Now, I had you withhold Gasdashrag’s latest report because too much information at one time only frustrates x’qai. Even though they thirst for it.”

“Is it because they cannot hold very much in their minds?”

“No, it is because most of them cannot control their impulses. Every new fact excites them. That excitement accumulates until, in the end, it hardly matters whether the news is good or bad; their agitation builds into rash action, often blind violence. So it is wiser, and safer, to parcel out what we have learned gradually.”

“Still, would it not have pleased him to learn that Gasdashrag sent a small expedition of his own to observe the bountiers in the Orokrosir?”

Fezhmorbal shook his head. “Perhaps, but it might have led him to ask if and why Gasdashrag remained in Khorkrag. That question would have put us on the horns of a dilemma. Either we lie and claim he was still there, or reveal that he has already traveled north and found the site of the battle that destroyed Azhdrukh’s caravan.”

Qudzorpla nodded as they approached their base: a small, but tightly fitted paleolithic pyramid. “Had Hwe’tsara learned the fate of the caravan, he would surely insisted we attack.”

Fezhmorbal shook his head. “Not just attack, but attack according to his instructions—which would have been the product of his spleen rather than his brain. And given his thirst for vengeance, we would have been unable to dissuade or distract him enough to withhold the even more troubling details Gasdashrag reported.”

“Such as?”

“Such as the complete lack of graves where the caravan was struck.”

Qudzorpla nodded. “Meaning that no humans died in the attack. Hwe’tsara would have become incensed.”

“He would have become ungovernable. Particularly if he had pressed us further and we had to report that there were almost no signs of praakht casualties, either. Which suggests most of them were captured and added to the humans’ own ranks.” Fezhmorbal shrugged. “The thieves did not simply prevail; their victory was entirely one-sided.”

Qudzorpla shook her head. “Hwe’tsara could not have borne it. He would have ordered a wild attack just as we’ve learned that our quarry must be approached with greater caution than we anticipated.”

Fezhmorbal nodded as he gave the day’s countersign to the two deciqadi guarding the entrance to their small stronghold; too many of Forkus’ denizens possessed Talents that could trick the eye, the mind, or both. As they emerged into the small courtyard, he confirmed her projections. “By all appearances, the ‘thieves’ are growing stronger, bolder, and finding allies. We could refuse Hwe’tsara’s orders, of course. He might even elect not to force the issue. But he would remember that as a slight, making it far more difficult to seduce him into dependence upon us.”

Qudzorpla squinted into the rapidly setting sun. “So by withholding the most inflammatory facts, you have preserved our freedom of action in dealing with these humans. Masterful, War Leader.” She glanced at him. “So, what action do you mean to take?”

Fezhmorbal sat, glanced at the empty place beside him on the basalt bench. “I intend to wait and watch.”

“Watch?” she repeated. “Not seek, or hunt, or close with them?”

Fezhmorbal bared his teeth in what was not a smile. “Consider the viper, Qudzorpla. It spends much time watching, and almost as much approaching, before it strikes with great suddenness. Does it not?”

“Most certainly.”

“Then tell me: is the watching not part of the viper’s attack? Perhaps the most important part?”

She frowned deeply. “I have never conceived of it that way.”

“That is because you are young and eager to prove yourself.”

“And you are wise and patient.”

“Possibly. Or, possibly neither.”

“Why so?”

Fezhmorbal studied the crisp edge of the late-day shadows that cut the courtyard into hard geometries of light and dark. “Because I find these thieves, these humans, singularly troubling.”

Qudzorpla nodded. “They seem less threatening than many Legate war companies, and certainly less so than the harrows to which they have been compared.”

Fezhmorbal nodded. “So I tell myself daily. Yes, they seem clever and deadly, but as you say, not more so than other human war bands.” But as if speaking it aloud, that truth sparked a sudden understanding of his deeper misgivings. “It is not what they have done that troubles me, but what they have not done.

“Their equipment led observers to mistake them for a dozen harrows. Surely, then, they could have made any number of highly advantageous alliances here in Forkus. But instead, immediately after retrieving their comrade from the hovel, they started upcountry.

“Why? And if it was a new safehold they sought, surely the great city of Uhrashgrukh would be the logical choice. It is not much more than a month’s travel to the east and offers many opportunities for their kind. But instead they pressed north just as far, toward the obscure oasis at Achgabab.”

“It makes no sense,” Qudzorpla agreed.

Oh, but it might, Fezhmorbal thought uneasily. There is another objective that might pull the humans north into the high desert. But I dare not mention it.

At least, not yet.

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