Where the Wind Blows Wild: Part Five
Kanrik woke slowly. He was blissfully warm, wrapped in thick blankets. He opened his eyes without moving the rest of his body. He hadn't surveyed the scene as thoroughly as he would have liked the previous night. He'd seen to it that Hannah was safe and well-wrapped in her own blankets in the place closest to the hearth, then gone straight to sleep.
The Stone Shepherds lived in a cave, but it had clearly been expanded by hand, and walls had been made to create various rooms. There were several different hangings that softened the stone, and the wooden tables looked as nice as anything that Kanrik had stolen before, though clearly made to different standards than regular Neopian furnishings – taller and thicker in the legs.
Something smelled very good – some sort of oat-and-fruit breakfast. Kanrik's stomach growled, and with no small degree of regret he pushed himself out of the covers.
Hannah was sitting on the floor not far from him – she'd been out of his line of sight. She was holding a fairly large bowl that was still probably child-size by the standards of the Stone Shepherds. She smiled at him. "Breakfast! Magjan's a fantastic cook – her breakfast mash is better than Corby's back at the inn, though don't tell him I said that."
Kanrik grinned at her as she handed him a spoon – he saw that Corbin, Kell, and a little Stone Shepherd were all sharing a bowl, and the two big ones, Svar and Magjan, were sharing another. "Corby makes good coffee, good chowder, and good bacon. Everything else is secondary." He took a bite – it was good. "Mmm. Thank you, ma'am." It never did any harm to be polite. Magjan grinned broadly – and with a Stone Shepherd's wide mouth, that was a lot of smile.
Kanrik looked around again, and realized that the Arnsian statue was sitting on a table where Magjan had been preparing food. He said, "So. Answers. That's Svar right there?"
Svar nodded. "And Mordecai. He and Arnsian were friends. Then not."
It seemed that Svar's somewhat broken Common wouldn't be up to telling the story. Kanrik looked at Corbin and raised his eyebrows delicately – that seemed to unnerve the Ogrin. Corbin said, "My brother and I call ourselves the Monster Hunters. But that's not a good name for it, really. We try to protect everyone – follow weird stories around to try and keep all Neopians living in peace. Our family's been doing it for generations. Our father, our Uncle Kai, and our aunt Bettina before us, and before them our grandfather Mordecai and his friend Arnsian. Until Granddad and Arnsian fought. The Monster Hunters believe in keeping the folk we work with secret. Svar doesn't want half of Neopia tramping up here getting into his business and gawking at his family."
Svar rumbled, "Khijik testing young wings. Dangerous time for all around." He smiled, and the kid – Khijik – kicked his hooves.
Kell added bitterly, "However, Arnsian had some art talent and decided it would be best to share the people we met with all of Neopia. The moron."
Hannah asked, eyes wide, "So his sculptures and paintings are real?"
Corbin nodded. "Just about all of them. And no, I'm not telling you what they are or where they live."
Hannah's shoulders fell slightly. Kanrik decided that he'd have to steal her some of Arnsian's work for her next birthday. Corbin continued, gesturing, "So we knew we had to do something when we heard that the statue of Svar had ended up in Brilforge. Neither of us liked stealing it, but we were telling Svar before you two woke up that some people have already put their legends together with the statue and drawn some conclusions."
Kanrik muttered, "Masila."
Magjan raised her eyebrows. "Bitter. Long story?"
Kanrik nodded. "Very long. Her blood's colder than the wind up here. She doesn't care whom she hurts in order to get what she wants. And I'm not just saying that because I was one of those casualties." And he'd done a large number of stupid things in the process. Looking back on it, he wished he could have slapped his slightly younger self for listening to that two-faced schemer. She'd played him like a Fyora-forsaken piano!
Svar nodded once, grimly – and with those teeth, grim was extremely grim. "Family is in danger. Mhisghrashk are in danger. Sire of young ones warned me. Over and over, warned me." There was a strange gleam in his eye. Kanrik decided that while the Stone Shepherd's form was hulking and brutish, and his Common was limited and thickly accented, there was a sharper mind in that big skull than in many of the people Kanrik worked with on a daily basis.
Kell said, "Surely you can handle Masila, now that you've got warning. You dealt with her before, right?"
Hannah winced over her spoonful of mash. Kanrik sighed – he hated admitting it, but false bravado in this situation would get them all killed. "I didn't deal with her. I dealt with Galem. Masila just waltzed off as soon as she realized that the battle had gone against Darkhand. Last night was the first time I've seen her in person since the Ice Caves."
Khijik gave a rather squeaky rumble, and Magjan and Svar rumbled back at him. Corbin explained, "Their language is so different from ours that it's hard for them to make the necessary sounds. Khijik is too young to speak it yet, and so he hasn't really learned. Of course, it's just about impossible for Neopets to get their mouths around the Stone Shepherd language, no matter how old they are."
Kell sighed. "Communication issues aside, how are we going to keep Marius and Masila away from the Shepherds?"
Hannah pointed out, gesturing with her spoon for emphasis, "I think figuring that out is kind of the whole reason we're talking right now?"
Kanrik knew Hannah – she was as happy as a clam right now, meeting the Stone Shepherds. She'd make a good scholar if she wasn't so fond of travelling, the open air, and disreputable company such as himself. Her friend Armin was more cautious – he flatly refused to come along on any jaunts that included theft or smuggling.
Corbin sighed. "Well, here's what we need. We need to keep Marius and Masila from exposing the Stone Shepherds. We need to do it in a way that will keep them from doing it even after we've left."
Kanrik added, "We need to rip Masila's operation here out by the roots. Otherwise she'll be causing trouble sooner rather than later." And he knew that, the first chance she got, she'd try to hurt him or worse, hurt someone he cared about, like Paselle, or Mortman, or Hannah.
For a second, he was tempted to tell Hannah to sneak out of here and take a flying ship back to Happy Valley, to keep her away from Masila. But he knew exactly how well Hannah would take advice like that, and decided that he'd rather not subject himself to her justified reaction. Kanrik was half-tempted to run away himself and come back with Paselle – that crazy Cybunny wouldn't mind a chance to get in a fight with Masila. But after seeing that Masila was up to something, even his conscience twinged at the thought of just leaving her here at large.
What could they do? He said, "Masila apparently needs Marius. Or at least his money. We'll need to take care of him, too."
Kell said, "How? He's got his fingers in the pies of half of Brilforge. And he's absolutely rolling in cash. No one's quite sure where it comes from – we asked a few questions. There are some rumors. No one has proof – no one wants to risk making Marius mad."
Hannah's ears perked up. "That's it!"
Corbin frowned. "What's it?"
"The money! Kanrik, you said it yourself. There's no way a small-town mayor got as much money as he had legitimately. And if he's trying to keep his dealings secret, that means it's a weak point. Find out where he's getting that money, and disconnect him from its source – he loses his reputation and any resources he could use to hunt down the Stone Shepherds, and Masila's left with nothing."
Kanrik said, "And it'll be easier to go after him than try to attack Masila directly." Even though she was his enemy, he didn't relish the thought of that. She was smart. Too smart for a person with absolutely no scruples.
Svar frowned – he'd turned back from his conversation with his son. "Dark dealings. Shadowy."
Kanrik shrugged. "There's not a lot we can do about that. These are shadowy people."
Svar raised one heavy eyebrow. "As are you."
Kanrik wasn't sure what to say to that, especially as he couldn't deny it without Hannah bursting out laughing. But she smiled at him and took his hand, squeezing it gently. He grinned back at her.
Corbin said, "So we do more nosing around to try and figure out where Marius's money is coming from. Without getting ourselves in over our heads."
Kell snorted. "We've been in over our heads this whole Fyora-forsaken time."
Potentially. Kanrik didn't make a habit of admitting things like that, though, as it tended to be self-defeating. They'd found themselves in this mess, and they needed to find their way out of it. How much of a mess was under consideration was only a minor detail.
Magjan said, "Eat. Build strength."
Kanrik allowed her to ladle more of the hot mash into their bowls – he was still ravenous after the long, cold night they'd had. Hannah was as well. She attacked their second serving like a starving Werelupe, and little Khijik's squeaky tone was clearly impressed as he watched.
Kell said, "Okay. Eat. Plan. And, oh, we gave the statue to Svar. It's an image of him, after all."
Ah. So that was the excuse they were going to use. Kanrik decided it wasn't worth arguing. They'd have to break into Marius's house again at least once, and he'd pick up something to make this trip worth his while. Hannah was obviously perfectly satisfied with the outcome, gazing around the cave as she ate.
Kanrik turned his own gaze inward, picturing the house, picturing their enemies, and beginning to formulate a plan.
To be continued...