TA White

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“Birdon Leaf hasn’t responded to roll call in over seven months.”

Hunched over his desk, the man squinted through a set of bifocals at a report on a disturbing trend that had been on the rise in the eastern part of the Highlands. He didn’t bother looking up as he gave his reply. “That village tends to run its pathfinder a little thin. I wouldn’t worry about it yet.”

The younger pathfinder waited at the desk, her hands fidgeting at her sides.

The man looked up, his glasses giving the impression of a bird. This was helped along by the tuffs of hair sticking up all over his head. “Was there anything else?”

“It’s just that Pathfinder Shea was assigned to that village, and her name wasn’t attached to any of the reports coming out of there for several months prior to our sending out a roll call.” She bit her lip and clasped her hands in front of her, one finger rubbing the inside of her wrist.

He frowned and his gaze went distant as if he were having an internal conversation with himself. He sighed and sat back.

The younger pathfinder rushed to add, “It could be like you said. She could be out on assignment and just hasn’t had the chance to respond.”

The older pathfinder tapped his quill on the desk and studied the younger woman from under lowered brows. She was new. Not quite trained yet and prone to panicking over the least provocation.

“It’s not like Shea to miss a roll call,” he finally said. Especially given that debacle in the Badlands. Poor kid hadn’t been entirely at fault but had suffered the cost all the same. The labels of troublemaker and bad luck had followed her until the guild banished her to the backwards of beyond.

If any other pathfinder had missed roll call like this, he would have already waved away his assistant’s concern. Seven months or longer wasn’t really that long to go without communication from some of these villages. When a single trip could take up to a year, a pathfinder had to be given some leeway in sending word back to the Keep.

Given it was Shea who’d missed roll call, a woman who never missed anything in her life, he could understand why his assistant was hovering over his desk while he tried to make heads or tails of this report. No one wanted to be responsible for losing track of Shea Halloran due to negligence.

His assistant bobbed up and down, almost quivering with excitement. “Shall I send one of our Eyes to investigate?”

He frowned, already regretting the amount of paperwork this would generate and the time he would have to waste coordinating resources. “I suppose.”

His assistant leaned forward, saying in a hushed voice, “You know she will have to be told.”

His frown became even more pronounced. A disgusted huff escaped him as he lumbered to his feet, his bones crackling as he moved, like he was some ancient machine of their ancestors that needed oiling. An apt description since he could feel every one of his years when the air held a crisp hint of the coming winter.

“I’ll be the one to inform her. Speak with the quartermaster to begin arrangements.” His face was grumpy and his voice crotchety as he moved toward the door.

“Alone?”

He gave her a gimlet glare. “Were you planning on volunteering?”

She shook her head, her eyes getting even wider despite all odds.

“I didn’t think so. It’s best not to ask stupid questions.”

She rolled her lips between her teeth and stared at him in repentance.

“Have the arrangements finished by the time I get back.”

“Of course, master.”

He sighed. These young ones made him feel so old sometimes.

The heavy wooden door creaked open as he plodded into the hallway, making his way toward the tower, his old bones already protesting the coming exertion. He passed several pathfinders, each finding better things to do given the grumpy expression on his face.

As he approached the tower, a young man with eyes the palest blue descended, whistling a jaunty tune. The sound trailed off as he noticed the old man.

“Pathfinder Whelan, it is a rare occasion to see you outside of your cave,” the younger man said referencing Whelan’s habit of isolating himself in his offices and seeing no others for long spans of time. “What brings you to the tower?”

“Pathfinder Reece, you are as nosy as you’ve ever been,” Whelan said, feeling out of sorts at the coming climb and the thought of facing her.

Reece flashed a charming smile, his eyes alert as he studied Whelan. “It is a trait that has served me well in the past.”

Whelan made his way up the steps, holding tight to the railing and cursing the coming climb. “I’m sure it will soon. I wouldn’t go too far if I were you. I’m sure she will call for you shortly.”

“Oh, why’s that?” Reece asked.

“A pathfinder has missed role call and this one has a special tie to you.”

Reece’s head tilted and then understanding dawned. “Shea.”

Whelan cackled. “That’s the one. I’ve no doubt that they’ll pull you into a special assignment before too long.”

Leaving the other pathfinder behind, Whelan continued up the long steps. For the amount of trouble this was going to generate, that girl had better be involved in something dire or he’d have her head.

Prologue

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