A palisade wound around the town of Galister, named for one of the Loiysian heroes of the First War. It began as a fort under his command and, after the war, grew into a village and then a town. Newer segments of wood branched off from the old, original walls, to expand it to twice its original size. A century of weather put aged beauty into the spots of old timbers.
Several traders loitered outside the shut gate. One of them shouted up at the militia manning the ramparts. It sparked a heated conversation about their mothers, their accents, and what would happen should they meet on fair grounds.
Athia slid up via momentum as she pulled her kite back down and packed it. She twisted her board and slowed to a stop in the midst of the shouting.
“Sloooow down,” she said to the belligerents. “Listen, I’ve been hired out of Olstin to do some work here!” She took out a sealed letter and waved it at the militia man. “Let me in!”
“Can’t open the gate for nobody!”
The angry merchant took some pleasure in that. He turned to Athia, a bit of smug on his lips. “We can’t get in, you can’t. Too bad.”
Athia backed up and waved her letter. She shouted at the man on the ramparts. “Ten rens on the line here! You want to pay me when I go back and tell them I couldn’t get in?!”
Declaring she was going to be paid twenty rens would raise too many eyebrows.
The man spat and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. I’m coming down, no one else gets in!”
“That’s not fair,” the merchant said, spinning on Athia. “We’ve been here two days now.”
Spreading word of the lurker would just make the situation worse. They could be contagious, like a bad mood. The more people that knew, that dwelt on them, the more they more opportunities the Unseen would find to spread and advance.
She said, “you’re better off moving on. I’m here to deal with a groits infestation. Last thing you want is to deal with those vermin.”
His face scrunched in disgust.
The gate rose, just enough Athia could hunch down and pass. They waved her through, and she scurried in and didn’t look back as it fell. She flashed her writ and they let her pass.
Inside the walls, militia and the few local Tricorns patrolled. Few others walked the streets, a city of two hundred cooped up in their homes and shops. A few did move about, running quick errands or bringing food. People still worked, the sounds of hammers and smells of bakeries. Signs hung from buildings, most spelled correctly and well written. Odd for anything less than a large city.
Those who walked about passed words, asked news, but never strayed close to one another. Militia members eyed everyone like a rancher spying wolves. Their hands stayed on hilts and muscles tensed. That made the people skittish when they passed. The cycle went on with each small meeting.
A group of people huddled together in tents in the far side of the town. They wore simple robes, cheap and easy to make. None of them bore hair on legs or arms and none of their clothing differentiated for men and women. Androgynous and shoved aside? Could only be wayward Socratians.
Athia followed the militiaman to the town’s central hall, a long building with two stories and external stairs. Two men argued at a large table. One wore Tricorn blues with officer’s markings over a powerful frame, the other sported backwoods finery wrapped around a large belly.
“You stick to counting your beans while I keep this town safe,” the Tricorn lieutenant said. According to the info Athia got, it must be Gar.
The other man, Athia guessed him the local mayor Allain, said, “I was elected to lead Galister, not you. If I say we do things different, then that is what we do.”
Athia walked up on them, not noticed as their argument heated. She got close and elected to skip for the next few steps. Nothing quite diffused a moment like a good childlike skip into the conversation.
They turned to her, conversation crashing into her display with a dead stop.
“Hiyo! I’m here to help!” She held out her writ. “From Olstin, I know the gist of things.” She nodded to the lieutenant, “Lieutenant Gar.” Then to the mayor, “Mayor Allain.”
“Meyer,” the mayor said. “Meyer Allain, ehm, are you Athia Fensa?”
“Yep, Athia Fensa, at your service mayor.”
Gar put a hand down on the table. “Tell me you know how to find it, now, or tell me you’ll fall in line and do as I say to deal with it.”
Meyer turned to Gar, “you have no authority to make those demands.”
“People are dying and you are worried about decorum and trade.”
Athia cleared her throat. “I don’t know how to find it just yet, but I have experience with killing lurkers. Do you?”
Gar’s hard eyes locked on Athia. Seconds passed before he spoke, “no.”
She smiled, “then how about you listen to me? At least for a little bit.”
Meyer said, “go ahead.”
Athia sat down on the table, on top a small map of the town. “This place is too big to put a ward around. I don’t even know what kind of source you’d need to power it. Too big an act against the Unseen for any of the divine to do. Would cause some discord up there.”
She rubbed her chin while her other hand held her elbow. “What we can do, though, is make a small one and have everyone walk through it.”
“That’s it?” Meyer asked. “We could have it solved that easily?”
“Not quite. It’s possible this won’t work, but that will tell us something important. Whether or not it was invited.”
Gar folded his arms. “I’ve suspected cultists. Probably among those Socratian dregs.”
Meyer’s large fists clenched. “There is no cult in this city, foreign or local.”
“Like I said,” Gar growled, “you deny truth in favor of decorum. How many more will you let die before you admit the nature of the problem?”
“And how well have you done? Playing soldier, running around the town with a hammer and hitting anything that might break.”
Athia held up her hands. “Sloooow down fellas. This is what the Unseen does to us. Let’s be civil!”
Meyer said, “there is no cult. No one would have invited it.”
Gar’s eye twitched and his voice raised. “And when your circle catches nothing, Ms. Fensa, what will you do?”
Athia puffed out one cheek, head tilting to the side. She did hope her circle worked and resolved it then and there, though she knew better. If something got in here, in a large community with walls and seeming literacy, then it didn’t do so on its own. But an invitation didn’t mean a cult.
As it stood, the bog-skulk could be anyone in the city other than her. That meant a certain delicateness would be needed.
Maybe this wasn’t the job for her.
“One step at a time,” she said.