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General

In the end, the matter was resolved in the same manner with which it had been initially pursued, to the acceptance of all and the satisfaction of none. However, since it was generally agreed upon that there could really have been no other conclusion, and since the failure came at no great cost to any person still living, even that shortcoming was destined to be forgotten.

It happened like this.

Two weeks and over five hundred miles ago, there came to the door of Aureon Mane a tremulous knocking, followed by a portly figure in a trim mustache. He was Janathan Barnes, and he was a lawyer of dim and fading repute in the lower city district. He introduced himself as only the former, and the excessive tidiness of the ugly beige tie attested to the rest.

"And what business does the law have with me?" asked Mane, but not unkindly. If anything, he decided, it was for the best that he had a visitor. These were slow, muggy days, and in the dismal heat of the office he had been marinating in an altogether unhealthy vat of boredom. Lighting an obscenely pungent pipe, he gestured to a large French chair on the other side of his desk, which the lawyer took with gratitude.

"It is not so much the law, Mr. Mane, as it is Her constituents." He had a high, breathy voice, caked with the dust of too many unfavorable courtrooms. "You understand, I am the solicitor of a most prestigious estate. You will have heard of it, I am sure... it is the house of Ermine." He was a disgustingly eager little man. As he held out the card of his employer, his hand positively shook with unctuous pride. Mane took the card, and flicked it into the ashtray with a look of disinterest. If this shook his visitor, it did so only briefly. "I am here because"-

"Come into more money, has he?"

"Well, yes, but... yes, how did you know?"

"How could I not?" Mane blew a little jet of smoke into the air between them, and watched the blurring figure of the lawyer with a passing fascination. "Ermine is one of those 'eccentric' people, isn't he? Just strange enough to be disliked, but just rich enough to get away with it. You know who I am, Mr. Barnes?"

"Well, I should think so. You're Aureon Mane. They say there's not a better hunter in the isle nor the continent."

"And they're right, too. See, Mr. Barnes, that's just the thing. Get down to it, and there's really only one reason that a well-to-do noble sends his lawyer to the home of the foremost killer in Europe, and that is because he craves a thrill. And if he craves it, why, he is certainly clever enough to have found a way to afford it. What is it this time? No, don't tell me. It's his Swiss accounts. What is he saying it is? I'd hedge money on another Peruvian windfall."

"Chile," muttered Mr. Barnes, then looked up with a timid fire in his beady eyes. "I say, Mr. Mane! If you had only told me that you and my client were already well acquainted, we could have saved ourselves a little time."

"We aren't. Well acquainted, that is. Did you want a cigar? You look rather sour."

"No, thank you."

"Hm. Just as well. Very good, then. What is it he wants of me? A tour of Africa? Perhaps a hunt across the wide expanses of the Gobi! Giant scorpions are all the rage this year. Wouldn't know from the looks of it, but you can't blame them. Deadly things, scorpions. Not enough men coming back alive to set a trend. Were you saying something?"

The lawyer was rustling through his briefcase, the soft hands wiggling fiercely, totally submerged in their element. At the hunter's voice, he looked up with a frown. "Yes. No. Just some papers, you understand. Can't go by hearsay with these things, it'd be entirely improper. Give me only one second... drat this smoke of yours, Mr. Mane! I can't hardly see the headers on my account statements." He shoved the spectacles on his forehead sharply upward, in a show of mild agitation. Still amused, still indifferent, the hunter watched him in silence. More clouds of smoke curled through the still air.

After a moment, the wet voice scattered the silence once more. "There we are. Not too wordy, as you can see. All you really need to do is sign on three, and then this sheet, here, saying you've read it all."

"If I didn't know better, Mr. Barnes, I would say that you seem to be suggesting that I do not, in fact, need to read it all." He accepted the bundle of papers with all the lazy grace of a tiger in the sun. Barnes settled back into his seat, flustered for some reason.

"Well, I am a busy man," was all he said.

Turning to the first page, pen in hand, Aureon gave a small snort of laughter. "That's the first clever thing you've said all day. Well done, Mr. Barnes." Then a frown creased the expansive forehead, and a few more pages were turned in a hurry, as if the hunter were searching for one phrase in particular, which he did not quite believe had existed in the first mention. At last, he looked up, the pen never having touched the papers, which were now lying to one side. Janathan's face was unreadable.

"What is it, tell me, that your Lord Ermine wants me to help him catch? No, don't tell me it's in the papers. Tell me, through your own lips, what he wants."

"It's... well... a dreambird."

"A dreambird. Also tell me, Mr. Barnes, have you ever heard of such a thing?"

"Well, no. But I'm not a traveling man, you understand. It's only natural that I not be too versed in the more... exotic sciences of our time. Now, if it were an antiquated modal of tax code... that would be different."

"Charming." The hunter leaned back in the heavy chair in which he sat, and the smoke parted before him like an ocean of gray. When he spoke, his voice was soft.

"When I was a boy, Mr. Barnes, I hunted lions on the savanna. Huge beasts, lions. They're bigger than most people think, and far too quick for their size. When I was older, I went after what you so lovingly call the more exotic creatures. I've killed dragons, Mr. Barnes. Dragons, and manticores in the hills of Ming. In Germany I was part of a team tasked with catching one thousand fairies for the marriage of a queen of the Maiaquin, and just last year I became one of only three men in history to shoot a janderkal. I am a hunter whose very name is legend whispered to children. All this to my name, Mr. Barnes, and yet I can tell you now with complete honesty... I have never heard of such a thing, as your Lord Ermine's dreambird. Never. And I have read so many books, and seen so very many places, that I can only tell your client this. What he seeks, cannot possibly exist. What do you make of that?"

"Well, I mean... that is, I say... well, you're making fun, sir, surely?"

"Never."

"But... a full million pounds, sir. One does not hedge one million pounds on a fantasy! In this day and age, too... surely, but surely there are things in this world of which even you have not heard?"

"If only that were so. Now, I do not profess to say I have unlocked every mystery in this world, Mr. Barnes, so don't fret so. But if a man can shoot it"- his eyes glowed fierce gold in the weak light of the room - "I have done so. Your dreambird is either fantasy or a mockery of my skill, and I'll have none of it. You can tell your master that if he can bring me a snipe as testament to his own merit, I shall possibly reconsider my stance on the matter. Wild geese will also suffice, at a certain quantity."

"I'm afraid I don't..."

"Four and twenty," snarled Aureon. "Now get out. I have no need of your money, and frankly, my dignity is worth a hundred sweaty noblemen."

"I say, there's no need to be uncivil!"

"There's all the need for it. This has been a waste of time."

"He's been planning this trip of his for months, Mr. Mane. Celerombi Umdrei, the dreambird! He says it again and again. Stands at that window of his any time it rains, and he'll say it, so quietly... He really is obsessed with it, Mr. Mane. You can't really know it doesn't exist? Surely, there is doubt?"

Only silence. Janathan squinted to make out the hunter's face, but the smoke was simply too thick. He stood, placing his dumpy hat back onto his matted hair. "Very well then, sir. Good afternoon to you."

"Just a moment." He stopped.

"Yes?"

"Those words... repeat them to me."

"Good afternoon?"

"No! The others. The dreambird... what did you call it?"

"Honestly, Mr. Mane, I'm not quite sure. It's just something he says. Lord Ermine, that is. When I ask him what it means, he says it is just nonsense. Old nonsense, but meaningless nevertheless."

"Never mind your client's boorish posturing." The silhouette leaned forward through the smoke. Now the eyes were visible again. They were glowing that same peculiar gold, and the knuckles arched over the wood of the table. "What did you call it?"

"Celerombi Umdrei," said the lawyer. Something in the air made him whisper the syllables, but they rang out all the same, inviting a silence that stretched too long to be totally natural.

At length, Mane repeated the words. Slowly, dragging out their weight, seemingly lost in thoughts as deep and winding as the smoke. The lawyer stayed standing, unsure of whether he was still to go.

"Mr. Barnes."

"Yes?"

"Tell your Lord that I shall accept his offer. But he must double his payment."

"Double it!"

"Yes, double. Bring me that new document, and we shall set out the very next week. You have given me more to think about than you rightly know. Have you ever played with a jigsaw, Mr. Barnes?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Great big puzzles, where half the pieces are just jumbles of color, but in the end you get a vista worth framing next to any hunting trophy."

"Well, I've certainly heard of them. But I never was one for puzzles. Not even as a boy."

"Ha! Well, yes. Yes, I can see that. Very well. Be along with your busy life, Mr. Barnes. I will be seeing you very soon."

He waited for the door to close, then watched the figure of the lawyer pass into the street, before turning very slowly to the shelf behind him. He knew what he was looking for: the first in what he could already feel would be a long series of pieces. But in the end...

His hand closed around the book: a volume of thin leather, hidden near the dusty bottom corner of his library. The inside cover bore the inscription:

"Property of Percival James Fawkes, being a record of his days in the jungles of Beng-Harai -- 1853-55"

Mane flipped it open, seemingly at random, but the spine had creased very strongly at the selected separation, so turned there at once. It was the entry for June 17, 1853, and it bore a sketch by Fawkes of an island located in the middle of the Rilmoron archipelago, which was almost directly opposite on the globe from Beng-Harai. There was no context at all on the page, and the next entry was nearly six months afterwards, and so Mane had always regarded this as a brief outbreak of madness, brought on by jungle fever. But the words inscribed upon the base of the island's two mountains now held a different meaning altogether. He traced them lightly with one finger, and tasted them with his tongue as the syllables raked over his vocal cords. Syllables not belonging to any language in the history of man, and whose meaning Mane had never even begun to understand.

Until now.

"Celerombi Undrei," he murmured.

The book snapped shut between his hands.

It happened like this.

December 19, 2019 00:35

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2 comments

11:05 Jan 04, 2020

This is fascinating! I loved your descriptions of the characters.

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19:51 Dec 26, 2019

Matched with you through the Critique Circle. And I am glad I was. Not sure if this is a story I would have picked to read, but your opening and introduction to the back story drew me in immediately. I could visualize both characters and enjoyed the story. Great read! My only suggestion making the flow tighter in the section where the lawyer introduces the contract (paragraphs from "After a moment, the wet voice . ." through "Turning to the first page,').

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