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Authors: Philippa Ballantine

Hunter and Fox

Published 2012 by Pyr®, an imprint of Prometheus Books

Hunter and Fox
. Copyright © 2012 by Philippa Ballantine. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

Cover illustration © 2012 Cynthia Shepperd
Cover design by Grace M. Conti-Zilsberger

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ballantine, Philippa, 1971–

Hunter and fox : a shifted world novel / by Philippa Ballantine.

       p. cm.

ISBN 978–1–61614–623–8 (pbk.)

ISBN 978–1–61614–624–5 (ebook)

1. Good and evil—Fiction. 2. Imaginary places—Fiction. I. Title.

PR9639.4.B39H86  2012
823'.92—dc23

2012004776

Printed in the United States of America

T
hanks first to Lou Anders, the editor who took a chance on this strange land and tormented woman. I am delighted to have a chance to work with him. To Laurie McLean, my agent, whose eye was first caught by this story, and who never gave up on it. To Gabrielle Harbowy, whom it is a delight to work with again. I love how the world turns but friends still find each other. Finally, and most certainly not least of all, to my husband Tee Morris, who is my strength and inspiration and travels with me through all these worlds hand in hand.

T
o hunt a man was not meant to be an easy thing—however, it had become a fixture in the life of Talyn the Dark.

Her fingers clenched in the razor-sharp hair of her mount. The creature resembled a great war horse but possessed a heart that was as tumultuous as the Chaosland beneath its hooves. Talyn was aware her thoughts should have been full of guilt, but they were as empty and barren as the scene she looked out over.

How many mothers and fathers had she killed? How many promises of vengeance had she heard? More than it was possible to count. Generations had grown and come to claim revenge for some ancestor or other, yet none had ever succeeded. It was immutable proof that there was no justice in the world, no higher power to hold her accountable. No hope for redemption.

Between her thighs, Syris the nykur tossed his green shaggy head—the sound of his saberlike teeth sliding against each other set her nerves on edge. No one had ever tamed a nykur before, which made Talyn even more feared by the general population. Yet even she had not dared to put a bridle on him.

By knee pressure alone she guided the creature down from the rough granite foothills toward the village. Above, a storm was gathering; purple-gray clouds were running across this half-tamed landscape that reeked of salt and bitterness. The howling winds full of stinging sand tugged her dark hair free. She pushed it impatiently out of her equally dark eyes and focused on the ragged little settlement where her prey awaited. The village, ramshackle and nearly abandoned, rattled under the assault from the oncoming storm like a child's toy shaken by an unkind hand. Talyn had not timed her visit with the weather in mind, but it was appropriate, considering her mission.

The rider and mount passed under a lightning-blasted tree hung with totems that clacked and clattered in the gale. The yellow skull of a dead cat twisted mournfully as the wind straight off the Chaoslands whistled through its eye sockets. The Bone Lord could not protect the village from the Caisah's bounty hunter.

These people knew why she was here. They scattered before her like chaff, rushing to the perceived safety of their homes. Parents tugged their children closer as she passed their doorways.

Talyn's forefinger idly traced the engraved swirls and flourishes on the flintlock pistol that rested against her leg as her gaze slid from house to house. The ebb and flow of time and possibilities ran through her Vaerli senses in ways none of these villagers could possibly understand. The yester-thoughts in this place murmured of full harvests and joyous celebrations, but the future-thoughts uttered dire warnings of silence and death. The human-shared human willpower, the malkin that held this place static in a world of chaos, was fraying and disappearing. Talyn rode in, not as the soldier of destruction but merely as one of its scouts.

Shifting in her saddle, she smiled bitterly. The racing heart of her prey sounded loud in her ears; he had nowhere to hide. The Hunter dipped into the stream of time and found her prey in the crippled house farthest from the road. His footprints in the gray earth led to the door, the ripple of before-time telling her he had only just fled there.

A woman came out of the house, thin arms crossed in front of her, a hard look tinged with weariness in her eyes. Like everyone else, she must have recognized the small woman with the golden-brown skin and dark eyes atop the green beast, even if Talyn hadn't been wearing the black chainmail and the scarlet cape of her master. The Caisah used his Hunter to maintain control at the dusty edges of his empire, and everywhere she went, fear followed.

The tension in the air finally reached the nykur, and Syris surged back on his hind legs, twisting under her like a mini tornado. The Hunter held her place atop him easily by tightening her knees and leaning forward. Her black eyes never left the woman in the doorway. After the nykur returned to his hooves, prancing and snapping, Talyn slipped off his back and walked the scant distance to the doorway.

Being shorter than the other woman, the Hunter was forced to look up. Talyn, though, was not the one who flinched.

This woman was his wife. The Hunter could read that easily enough. The foolish creature felt she had to put up some sort of show. It might be pointless, but he was the father of her children and that still meant something to her.

Why Esthelon the carter had drawn the Caisah's attention was unknown. He was a very small target, hardly worthy of Talyn. She didn't try to understand her master's motives; she only obeyed and was rewarded.

Esthelon had been crouching behind the door, sheltered by son, daughter, and wife. Silence lingered for a moment, and then he made a run for the low scrub behind the house. Talyn stepped into his path, moving so fast in the before-time that to him she must have appeared a blur. In slow motion the tired, dirty man pulled a dagger from his coat, aiming for where he presumed her heart to be while panic contorted his features.

Always there was an instant where Talyn was tempted by the before-time. The knife moved in a silvered arc, and it would have been very easy to move into it or even just watch its descent, but the Caisah's oath held her faster than any death wish she harbored.

So instead Talyn stepped inside his guard, dragged his arm down, and buried the knife in his chest. Time snapped back when the man fell to his knees, and Talyn was there, standing above another bloody corpse.

In a Vaerli there should have been some reckoning, some empathic link between her and her victim. None came. That inkling of compassion had been lost a long time ago.

The children didn't know that. They dashed past their mother, whose face had slipped into her hands. The little boy threw himself on the cooling shell that had only recently been his father, but the bright-eyed girl stood staring up at her. The rest of the world faded to insignificance. It was only the two of them in it.

Her little dirt-smeared face glowed with sudden shock and hatred, and she spat out one word. “Talyn.”

It was a curse in their tribal language—a demon of death, whom they believed claimed the lives of the innocent. Every Chaos storm was heralded by its arrival, and they locked themselves away praying to whichever Scion of Right they followed to protect them.

It was an appropriate name, and she had taken it on with no sense of fear. After all, her own had been stripped from her—gone along with the person she might have been before the Harrowing had killed most of her race and scattered the remainder.

Talyn nodded to the little girl, respecting her anger but expecting little from it. Then she pushed the sobbing brother from the corpse. The Caisah was not a trusting man—he needed evidence. Striding to her mount, she flung the remains over Syris' back, and then mounted up behind them.

She turned Syris quickly and did not look down into the eyes of the grieving. It wasn't that she feared them—it was just always the same. She couldn't face the dire repetition of it. Talyn rode out of the village and no one moved to stop her.

Returning to the road, she kept Syris to a slower pace than he might have liked; neither of them had any real reason to hurry back to V'nae Rae where the Caisah waited for his bounty. They had just climbed to the top of the first peak a mere mile from the village when Syris arched his neck and pranced sideways. She heard a distant and deep rumbling.

Only these two things gave her a moment's warning before the landscape tilted. Luckily both she and her mount had plenty of experience with the vagaries of living in a constantly changing landscape. The skree slope buckled, but the nykur danced lightly atop the shattered rock, keeping his footing as well as any mountain goat.

It was only a momentary change, a perfectly expected shift as the Chaosland to each side of the road pushed upward, yearning toward becoming a mountain. By next week its aspirations would be realized.

This was what the world had been like before the arrival of the peoples, when it had been just the Vaerli and the Kindred. Now there was stability and control—concepts that Talyn still bristled against.

Still, that was not the only surprise the Chaoslands would throw at her today. An abrupt pain stabbed through Talyn, as though a needle of steel was passing from one side of her head to the other. It was so unexpected that she almost cried out. Instead she gripped Syris' mane and clenched her teeth against the agony. For the briefest moment she feared a Kindred was walking in her shadow, but those guardians of the land had long ago abandoned the Vaerli. No, Talyn decided, it had to be the Second Gift—a power that some called Kin Sense.

Lifting herself in the saddle, she scanned the landscape for signs of life with a flutter in her belly that might have been fear or excitement. Nothing. The gray of the skree slope was empty, and the only noise was the wind blowing over the sharp edges of rock.

The Caisah was indeed cruel, taking all other Vaerli Gifts but leaving this one. Thanks to the curse he'd placed on her people, to touch another Vaerli would result in both their deaths. However, Vaerli could still sense others of their kind. It was a little twist of the knife—something that her master excelled at. That moment of searing pain had to be a before-time echo of a Vaerli somewhere nearby meeting death all alone. There was no other explanation that made sense. Despite all the time that had passed and distance between them, Talyn dipped her head in a moment's contemplation. She would not have named it a prayer.

“Where does a story start?”

Looking out into the gathered audience, full of dirty, unhappy faces, Finnbarr the Fox didn't really expect an answer.

It was how he had been taught: begin each talespinning with a question to make the audience consider. This was the one he always used. It was his mark. But the crowd tonight barely looked up, more interested in their beers or the tavern's hollow-eyed wenches.

Finn did not lose faith, though. He'd been doing this for years, and he did not earn his living by giving up. His teachers, the legendary Talespinners of Elraban Island, had instilled in him a love of the story, and it didn't matter how few listened. Just one made it worthwhile.

Tonight he felt the familiar cloud of melancholy sweeping through him, and after that uncomfortable truths came bubbling up. Sometimes the tales chose themselves, his teachers had warned.

A few of the audience lifted their eyes to the tall man with the crop of unruly red-gold hair in the corner of the darkened inn. He read it in them; they wanted some relief from the misery of their lives. But he would give them something else altogether—the truth.

Hooking a chair closer with his foot, he brushed his hair from his eyes as best he could, and began. “The story starts in you.” He easily gave away the answer it had taken him twelve years to learn. “I've traveled through all of Conhaero, walked with Blood Witches, dined with high Praetors, and scrabbled for scraps with the lowliest street urchin.” They laughed at the image. “And yet every time I tell this story the Caisah seems somewhat displeased.”

He barely heard the ripple of consternation pass through his audience—the story was already taking him. It wouldn't matter if a garrison of Rutilian guards broke through the door at that very instant—only by killing him could they have stopped the story.

So Finn told them the tale of life before the Caisah, in the time just after the Vaerli had summoned the various races to Conhaero from the White Void. “It was a golden time,” he whispered to them. They had to shift their chairs closer to the stage to catch his words, and many of them did.

Finn's voice dropped into the cant of talespinning, reaching out to find the vulnerable places in the people's hearts. If he disturbed them with mention of the Caisah, he now took hold of them and washed that fear away.

He told of the Kindred who then were unafraid to walk the earth, and the Vaerli who were their allies. Finn murmured of how though the newcomers to Conhaero had been torn loose from their gods in the White Void, they had found among their own ranks scions who had led them to this land. Even now, they could still appear to their believers. “The Lady of Wings herself has been seen only a few miles from this place,” he continued in a reverent tone.

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