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Man's best friends

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Diogo Abrantes was being shipped back to Pontemagua. There would be people to watch him, and though Kahonstionekha didn't believe he could be helped, it was a more honourable way of dealing with an elder whose spirit had been corrupted than other options. But while Abrantes had been stopped from carrying out his final revenge and summoning the Devourer of Millions, the corruption lingered.

Urouk, the wizard, admitted that they couldn't be certain that the spirit's servant, the Am, was gone. Diogo hadn't dismissed it, and it had shown that it could appear and disappear at will. It was a tireless hunter, and left no tracks. Absent control or direction, it could strike at any time, following the agenda of its master. Why not exact revenge on those who had foiled Diogo Abrantes' plot?

The monster had nearly killed his sister once already, while he had been distracted examining Abrantes' last victim. The image of it standing over Joanna's body, splashed with her blood, was fixed in Kahonstionekha's visions. He wouldn't be distracted again until they were certain it was gone, and they were safe.

"I appreciate your concerns, I really do," his sister repeated. "But you can't stay with me all the time, and Major Harden is a perfectly capable soldier."

Harden was reasonably competent, and certainly he would feel motivated to protect Joanna if the Am attacked while they were together. Would it be enough? Maybe. "I will walk you to his ship."

She pursed her lips. "And leave me there."

"Tell me you won't come back alone."

"I won't. I'll ask for an escort. It would be proper, in any case - he'll probably insist on it himself."

Kahonstionekha nodded. It was a difficult concession. By the time dinner was finished it would be dark, and more difficult for humans to perceive any danger. Joanna had their mother's eyes, but she would be distracted… Maybe. Maybe it wouldn't matter who was there. But it wasn't his place to keep Joanna from living her life, no matter his concerns.

There were several times on the walk that he was sure, positive, he'd seen something out of the corner of his eye – lurking around corners or in the mists of the port city. But no one and nothing accosted them. Kahonstionekha exchanged brief greetings with the guards on duty before leaving Joanna in their company, frowning slightly as they helped her onboard the longboat. She looked back over her shoulder, smiling, waving him off. It was hard to leave her. Fear threatened to choke the air from his chest as he set out back to the Abrantes' manor alone.

If the creature attacked him on his own, there was no way that he could beat it. If it killed him, he couldn't protect Joanna, or any of the rest of the party; he had been so concerned for her that he had left himself vulnerable. Any of them could be its targets, but the others were all, as far as he knew, safe at the Abrantes' compound. The twisting streets of Porto Bispo offered many opportunities for ambush, with high walls and narrow alleys that completely blocked line of sight. Kahonstionekha kept a hand close to his axe. Again, he thought he heard, saw, sensed something, several times, just out of the corner of his eye, as though the creature was stalking him. But he was too alert; if it wanted to catch him by surprise, it would need to try harder. By the time he made it back to the compound, his heart was pounding in his chest, and sweat dripped from his brow.

It was only once he was back within the walls that he was certain he heard animal movement, and whirled around to face the creature…. But it was not the Am. It was Diogo Abrantes' bitch, the one he'd called Rainha. Her tail was low and her ears back, and she watched him anxiously from several feet away, her golden eyes cast green in the low light. The other dog, Soldado, hung back further, following her lead.

They'd been left behind. Maybe there was no place for dogs in the monastery where Diogo was being sent. Maybe he felt betrayed by how his own animals had turned against him.

Kahonstionekha crouched, making an effort to calm his nerves. It had taken the dogs a while to warm up to him, but they had proven their worth when they'd tracked their master to the scene of his crime. They deserved respect, not to be cast off and frightened. He whistled, offering his hand. Tentatively, Rainha approached. Soldado followed, and both relaxed enough after a thorough sniffing to be petted. The dense curly brown fur on their necks and bodies was almost oily to the touch, but their ears were as soft as a rabbit. Had someone else taken them into their care? Or had there been too much chaos? He wasn't sure who to ask, but maybe it wouldn't matter for now. The animals had come to him, and he wouldn't turn them away.

They followed him back to the room he'd been assigned, and he left the door ajar so they could leave if they needed – and so that he could hear Joanna returning. They sniffed around, familiarizing themselves with the smells, then curled up together on the bed, watching him. He wasn't sure if they'd eaten, so he shared some of the dried fish he had in his pack – they wolfed it down and whined for more, but they did seem to relax. He didn't have any water to give them at the moment, but there were troughs around the compound. They got a little excited when he took out his gun to clean, and he noted their eagerness to hunt. Another time, perhaps, when they themselves were not prey.

When he was finished that task, he decided to try and rest, sure that if he didn't hear Joanna return, she would come to tell him. The dogs were already sleeping, sprawled across the bed, and he decided not to dislodge them. Instead he found a comfortable spot in the room's chair, and tried to clear his mind for meditation. It wasn't easy – there were too many fresh horrific sights, stirring up old memories to add to the more recent shocks – but eventually the visions subsided.

He'd expected to be disturbed, but came back to himself naturally – slowly at first, and then with a sense of urgency and panic when he realized how late it must be. His start roused the dogs as well, and their golden eyes were fixed on him, alert. They followed him out of the room.

Joanna's was empty. She'd never made it back. He had to find her.

He knew the route she would likely take back, but he couldn't be sure. The dogs, though…he had them sniff her bed, the clothes she'd left behind, and set out. If the creature happened on him, so be it. But here, too, the dogs would be of service. He'd seen how they reacted to its presence, and that would give him some advantage.

At first the only trail they had to follow was the one she had left when Kahonstionekha escorted her to the Senecomecan vessel. The city was much darker now, with only the stars and a few candle-lit windows to provide illumination. It was enough for him to see by, but darkness pooled in threatening shadows down the crooked alleys. He heard figures lurking in a few, but these were only the city's mundane villains, and they held out for easier prey. The dogs did not deviate from their course. Either Joanna had set off on a different route to return, or she had never left.

It was only when he reached the docks that Rainha veered off down an unfamiliar path. By then, they were close to where the Senecomecan guards were posted. But despite his sense of urgency, hours had passed since she'd left. Whatever had happened, his chance to save her had passed while he'd been resting. If the army had sent an escort, they would want to know what happened to their men.

But they would have been missed before now. And if anything had happened to Joanna, someone would have sent news. Wouldn't they? Something wasn't right.

A pair of torches were set on poles on either side of the wharf, and the guards pulled themselves to attention as he emerged into the dim light. One of them called out for him to identify himself, but the other must have recognized him.

"It's alright, " he told his companion. "He's with the militia. Kahon, I believe?"

Kahonstionekha nodded. Unlike Asakonige'idaksi, he'd given up the fight to have his full name used long ago. Even when they tried, most of the round-ears couldn't pronounce it properly. He'd had enough exposure to Albionne now that it gave him no trouble, but his command of Pontemaguan was more shaky, and he was sure he butchered their names in turn. In the end, there were more important battles. "My sister – Joanna Tekeniehnita. She came here this evening to see Major Harden. She never returned to the Abrantes compound."

The guards exchanged a look.

"She left here several hours ago, in the company of the Major…"

They didn't seem concerned, not how he would expect if something were amiss. "Where is the Major now?"

They shared another look, the one he didn't recognize repressing a smirk.

"Ah." The familiar one looked embarrassed. "He hasn't returned either. But, ah, I believe they had a destination other than the Abrantes compound in mind, though Major Harden did not provide us with specific details…"

It took a moment to realized what the soldier was implying. She'd finally chosen to take him as a lover – that was fine, but her timing could be better. He frowned, then nodded at the men. "Thank you."

Kahonstionekha turned without another word, the dogs flanking his heels. For a petty moment he considered tracking her down and berating her for causing a panic. She was lucky he hadn't roused anyone else to come seek her out. He also considered delaying his own return to the compound, but he was already guilty of the same irresponsibility, of leaving without letting any of the others know where he had gone. They were much less likely to notice, let alone note, his absence.

His panic receded only slightly – he still couldn’t be sure that nothing had happened to Joanna. His annoyance provided some measure of distraction from worrying that the Am could set upon him at any moment, and the excursion had managed to kill some of the duller hours of the night. He returned to his room, rewarding the dogs for their service with some more dried meat as well as praise and affection. They resumed their position on the bed. Kahonstionka attempted a new meditation – not for rest, but to try and regain better control of his emotions. Being angry at Joanna served no purpose, and he was not her guardian, no matter how he felt. He asked the spirits to watch out for her, and burned some cedar to center himself.

It helped some, but he couldn't completely ease his worries. The monster could still appear at any time, but his frayed nerves were a bargain for the worse disaster they had averted. Perhaps he should take a cue from Joanna and, despite his earlier intentions, try to find a greater distraction. It was almost dawn, and others in the party would be rising to see to their prayers or studies.

Urouk was the most easily found, still in his room, books and some other objects Kahonstionekha chose not to give much thought to spread out on the small desk.

"I'm going hunting," Kahonstionekha told him. "Down by the river."

Urouk frowned, his short tusks exaggerating the expression into a grimace. "Alone? Do you think that's wise?"

Kahonstionekha nodded to the dogs who flanked him, tails wagging in patient excitement, looking up at him – and his musket – with eager looks. "Not alone."

The frown relaxed somewhat, and the orc looked thoughtful. "Are those Diogo's dogs? I suppose they'll give warning if anything happens."

Kahonstionekha nodded. If that weren't the case, he probably wouldn't go. While the area he planned to hunt would be outside of the area of the original ritual, he was not sure if the Am was bounded by it, and the travelling would still leave him vulnerable. Also, the dogs had been trained for hunting, and he was curious to see what all that might entail if he could get them to respond to him.

"Well, be careful, but good hunting." Urouk started to close his door, thinking they were finished, but Kahonstionekha held up his hand.

"Joanna stayed out last night." He ignored Urouk's inquisitive look – it was even less the orc's business than it was Kahonstionekha's. "If she returns before I do, tell her I have gone."

"Very well." Urouk gave him a more discerning look. "There's no reason to be concerned, is there?"

Kahonstionekha grimaced, but shook his head. "I am trusting that there is not." It wasn't quite true, but it would serve. Urouk nodded, but held his tongue. If Joanna didn't return before him, then any concern would be too late to help.

He tried to put that out of his mind as he made his way towards the edge of the town. Porto Bispo was in a delta where several rivers came to meet the great water. It lay on a point at the confluence of two, but there were others to the north and south of the town as well, and flocks of quick brown ducks could be found in many of the marshy areas to the north where the colony hadn't penetrated too far into the natural landscape. Kahonstionekha considered taking a canoe, but he wasn't sure how the dogs would fare. Besides, if the Am attacked on the water – and there was no reason to think it incapable – it would be more difficult to fight back.

The markers of newcomer settlement dropped away quickly. Most people travelled by boat to reach the interior of the colonies, so the paths were not well established. There were occasional signs of homesteads here and there, with smoke rising from hidden houses, or boats moored at haphazard quays, but it was not difficult to find a place where there was sufficient cover, and sufficient quarry, for his plans. Rainha and Soldado stayed at his side, though they were clearly excited and alert. He'd hunted with dogs before, back in his own land, and he'd observed some of the Charinisian techniques. It might take some time for them to learn to work together in a way that was comfortable and natural, but as spoiled as they were at the manor, Diogo had not been lax in their training. Kahonstionekha wasn't concerned that they would disturb the game without cue, or that they would endanger either him or themselves.

The area around the river was marshy, and he stripped off the cumbersome clothing he'd been wearing, wrapping it in a bundle and setting it in the crook of a tree for ease of retrieval. Hunting in these parts could be a little more hazardous than the rivers back home, as there were more dangers in the water – poisonous snakes and alligators – but he'd spent enough time in these southern lands now to read most of the signs. The weather had started to cool off from the sweltering humidity of summer, and they'd become uncommon enough that he wasn't too concerned. He carried his gun and his trident, with his powder and balls in a waterproofed leather bag strung over his shoulder. The dogs waited patiently, falling in line at his side, Rainha on the left and Soldado on his left, as he made his way more purposefully towards the river.

Years of experience with the weapon had made him a crack shot, but muskets lacked the accuracy of a good bow, and ducks were small and quick. You needed to get close to your quarry; the best way to do this was to settle in one spot and either hope they came on their own or try and call the birds in. The tall grasses along the edge of the water provided natural camouflage, and he found a comfortable edge of the bank. On his own river, they knew all the best spots for ducks, and hunters had built up natural blinds over the years to provide almost perfect cover. This was one of the better areas close to Porto Bispo that he knew of, especially for short trips out of the city, but it was more exposed than he preferred. A successful hunt required a great deal of stillness and patience. The dogs settled in beside him, sitting at his command and remaining calm and alert.

It was almost better than meditation – his mind had something to focus on, and he felt more at ease with the grass brushing against his skin and the cool mud pressing in between his toes. The presence of the dogs was a comfort too, as they were companions in his vigil. They only turned more alert when he tried a few calls to lure in some birds. When the first duck came close enough to shoot and Soldado gave a brief whine and scared it away, Kahonstionekha wasn't upset. He clucked at the dog, who gave him a contrite look and licked his lips. Apology accepted, Kahonstionekha gave him a pat on the neck, and one for Rainha as well. The bitch leaned against him in response, though she kept her eyes on the river, and they waited a while longer for the birds to settle.

The first duck he shot fell in the water, and both dogs tracked its descent with their eyes. He called Rainha after it, and she leaped purposefully into the river, swimming out directly from the shore to where the wounded bird floated. She swam like she was born to it, her tail pointing out behind her to help correct her course. Once she had it in her mouth, she swam back along the same course, bringing her directly to Kahonstionekha. He held open his hand and she dropped her prize, then shook the water out of her coat, tail wagging. The bird had no marks on it other than the musket shot. He praised her well, finding her fur was only slightly damp despite her swim – likely the oil in her coat kept the water out. Once he set the bird aside, she resumed her post by his side.

Soldado took the next duck – his response was the same, though his mouth was harder, and he required a command to release his prize. Kahonstionekha had to try a few different terms before he came up with the right one. Like his littermate, Soldado fell back into place one he'd been properly praised, eager for his next shot.

It was tempting to stay out all morning, or even all day, but the higher the sun rose, the harder it was to push away his concerns about Joanna. She was probably fine – maybe even better than she had been, after spending the evening with a new lover. But three ducks was respectable for a short hunt, and he let the dogs swim in the river as he strung them on a sinew by the beak and retrieved his clothes. On another morning, he might have joined them and caught something fresh for their breakfast, but it would already be late morning by the time he returned to the compound. More dried rations would have to serve.

As the wetlands gave way to signs of settlement, his unease returned. The dogs seemed to sense this, standing more alert, more wary of strangers. He couldn't quite blame them, though he worried about more otherworldly threats. That the dogs had no such concern was somewhat reassuring – dogs were held by some lore to be guardians of the passages to other realms, and protectors against incursions from the same. They were good to have around, and this pair seemed to have taken to him now.

He thought they might abandon him once they reached the compound, as the Abrantes had allowed them free run of the place, but they kept close. Rainha stayed at his side, while Soldado ranged more, staying within sight, sniffing and leaving his marks. The woman he dealt with at the kitchen when he brought them his game seemed wary, but relaxed when the dogs refrained from taking complete advantage of her domain once he'd brought them to heel. Kahonstionekha suspected that Diogo had made a point not to keep them in check, relishing the chaos they caused. With some work, it should be possible to restore their manners to something acceptable to colonial tastes.

With that errand settled, it was time to find news of his sister. That there had been no alarm when he returned was a good sign, but he knew she would be too busy to wait for him to return. Urouk had gone to tend to his own business as well, but he did find Asakonige'idaksi and Amatsula in the Abrantes library. She seemed displeased at whatever she was reading, and happy to put it aside when she heard him come in.

"Ahh, Kahnostionekha. How was your hunt?"

At least Urouk had let others know where he'd gone. "I shot some ducks, with some help."

She nodded, smiling at the dogs. "Are you keeping them? I think they'll be happier with you." Amatsula came a little closer, giving all three a closer examination. Soldado's ears turned back, and he hunched down. Other than sniffing the air and keeping watch, Rainha seemed unperturbed by the spirit.

Kahonstionekha shrugged, putting a hand on Solado to settle him. His tail wagged anxiously, but he turned his head up with a trusting look. "They aren't mine to keep."

Asakonige'idaksi snorted, waving at them. "I think they disagree. Look at them. Clearly they have good taste."

"It still isn't up to me." Though he couldn’t deny he was becoming attached.

"Pfft." She made a face. "Who would stop you if you took them? No one. They'd be better off. You know it, and so do they."

Did she see something in their spirits that told her this? Both dogs looked up at him now, golden eyes expectant. But still – the militia had already caused enough tensions with the Abrantes, and he didn't wish to insult their hospitality and make things worse. He frowned instead, changing the subject. "Do you know where Joanna is?"

"She and Caetano went to speak with Mother Cardoza, to sort out what to do with the book."

The book that Diogo had used to summon the Am, to commit his murders, and to try and summon the Devourer of Millions. He'd had notes as well, that someone would want to examine…. But despite all that, Kahonstionekha felt relieved, to know his sister was well, and busy. He could go to the chapel and wait, and leave Asakonige'idaksi to whatever it was she hoped to glean from the round-ears' lore.

Rainha and Soldado stayed with him, following their earlier pattern. He wasn't sure if they would follow him into the church, or indeed if he would be intruding there. There were voices raised in song coming from inside, which meant people listening within. It didn't seem likely that anything would happen here, but if it did, he would be close enough to lend aid. He could speak with Joanna after she was finished her business.

There was a small courtyard outside of the chapel, and he set himself there to wait, leaning against the wall. The dogs made a few rounds, sniffing intently at trees and patches of grass of particular interest, but they seemed bored. Rainha brought him a stick after a while, dropping it at his feet, looking as hopeful as she could. Once he picked it up, Soldado joined her in sitting eagerly at his feet. It would be a good test of their training. They'd shown that they would listen and retrieve what they saw, but Kahonstionekha wasn't sure how to command them to other tasks they must know. Besides that – it would be a better way to pass the time.

Rainha was the smarter of the pair. She learned faster what he wanted, and could adapt her training to new commands. Soldado followed her lead, but it was clear that he would rather simply chase what was thrown without having to wait for a release or other directions. With little to offer as reward other than praise it was hard to blame him, so Kahonstionekha tried to accommodate this, allowing them some less structured play time. It was an easy distraction, and he almost missed the chimes dismissing the service from the chapel. The people inside were starting to disperse when he called the dogs back to keep them from getting underfoot, but Rainha was caught on the other side of the door, and had to wind her way through the small crowd to return to his side across the courtyard. Kahonstionekha heard some annoyed grumbling as she passed among them, though as far as he could see she was not underfoot.

He was praising her obedience when a small group peeled off from those who were leaving the service and headed this way – it was Renata Abrantes, Dona of her family and nominal head of the city. Diogo was her father. It was because of the politics that Diogo had been sent away rather than meet another fate, and also that his involvement in the murders would be kept quiet. Kahonstionekha stood, straightening his posture. Rainha and Soldado stood as well, their tails wagging, as she approached. She didn't seem displeased at either Kahonstionekha's or the dogs' presence, though she had not been happy to learn the truth about her father. Two men followed behind her, one of whom he recognized as her husband, and the other one of her sons.

"Dona," he said as she approached. He nodded respectfully – her own people would bow, but it didn't feel right to follow their ways, and he opted to treat her as he would a clan head from another tribe.

"Kahnostionekha," she said in turn, returning his gesture. The men nodded also, but kept quiet and stayed back while she spoke to him. "I see you have my father's dogs." She looked down at the animals, her expression mixed.

He thought of what Asakonige'idaksi had said, considering his words before answering. "They have chosen to keep company with me, Dona."

She frowned. "They obey you."

"That is how they have been trained – to be commanded. It's what they expect." It seemed wiser not to mention her father directly. He didn’t want it to sound like an accusation. It was probably not how he would have worked with them if they come to him earlier, but he couldn't deny that it was effective. "They listen well."

"They listen to you," she said, a slight smile playing across her lips. Dona Abrantes held her hand out to Soldado, who was closer. He sniffed, then licked her, and her frown returned as she withdrew her hand.

"It took some time for them to trust me." It had – when he'd first encountered them with their master, they had been outright hostile, likely feeding off of Diogo's own feelings. But he'd spend time keeping watch on the old man, and their attitudes had softened enough that he could work with them when the time had come. Perhaps the trust had come after they'd found the Am and it had attacked Joanna – he wasn't sure.

"They were one of the few things that gave my father joy, but I hadn't yet determined what should be done with them. I can't say it would please him to have you take them, but I trust that you will take good care of them if I remit them to your care."

There was more going on in this decision that was obvious. It was evident in the look on her face, and in the looks exchanged by the men behind her. Possibly there were some family dynamics at play, or else she didn't want to have to see them regularly and be reminded of her father, or perhaps he had asked for something else to be done with them that she did not approve, or simply didn't trust that the disruptive behaviour he had allowed could be corrected. The offer, though sincere, felt like a compromise. But even if he had any reason to refuse, Kahonstionekha recognized that it was in the interest of the militia and their mission to mend their relationship with Dona Abrantes, and he nodded.

"I will."

"Then it is settled. Take them when you leave, and for now-" the wry smile made a brief return, "keep them out of my dining hall."

With another exchange of nods, she turned to go. Her husband looked as though he might have something to say, but he held his tongue and dutifully followed his wife out of the courtyard. A lone priestess lingered by the door of the chapel until all the other parishioners had left, but after she returned inside, Kahonstionekha was again alone with the two dogs.

When Joanna and Caetano eventually emerged from their meeting, they found him seated in the shade of a tree, with the two dogs resting beside him. He rose when they emerged, and the dogs pushed themselves up on their front legs, all three calm but alert. Caetano, sensing the siblings' need to speak, made arrangements to reconvene later and headed off to inform the others what had been decided inside. Joanna's eagle companion circled above, finally landing in the high branches of the tree to survey them all.

"I'm sorry," Joanna said once they were alone, "about last night. I didn't mean to worry you. It wasn't something I'd planned…"

It wasn't, Kahonstionekha sensed, something that had been entirely unexpected, either. But she seemed better rested and less pale than she had since the attack, and though she might have been annoyed by the meeting she had just left, it was evident that some of the tensions she'd carried had eased. "You are alright. You seem more yourself."

Joanna flushed and smiled, though she seemed concerned. She took a moment to consider him, her gaze passing over the dogs as well. "So do you."

Kahonstionekha nodded. If he searched for it in his heart, he could still feel the powerful fear that had gripped him the day before – that they could be attacked at any time, that they weren't safe, that the Am could return to finish its work, and he could lose his sister after all they had been though. Nothing in their situation had changed with the passing of a single day. But the fear had loosened its grip nonetheless, and he knew that any anger he'd felt had sprung from that same source. "Yes. I have new companions to help lighten my burdens." As though she knew he was talking about her, Rainha turned her face to him, her tail waving contentedly side to side. Soldado, ever following her lead, whined and shoved his head under Kahonstionekha's hand to be petted.

"You're keeping them?" She smiled, but Joanna was concerned – probably about stepping on the toes of the locals.

"They chose to come to me. But Dona Renata has approved their choice, and I will look after them."
His sister's smiled broadened, and she relaxed, looking at the dogs again. "I think they might look out for you too."

"Yes." It seemed likely. He smiled back. "And perhaps the next time you spend the night with Major Harden, you can take one of them to look out for you as well."

Luckily, Joanna laughed at the implication. "I will," she agreed, "and we can all feel a little better."