Three days had now passed since he'd left. The swamp was nothing but white, broken only by the bare bark of the sleeping trees.
Claude sighed and kicked his foot into the snow. He stared at the scene for a while, then sighed and turned back. He shouldn't have come. He'd thought he could get a couple niros crocodiles, but he'd forgotten they were all away in their burrows under the snow or the ice in the winter.
He should have studied their behavioural patterns more before deciding to hunt them. He'd taken so much time out of his schedule for this trip, three days had come and gone and he'd still not seen one.
He patted Jemmy's back and the black horse rubbed its snout against his leather hat a couple times.
"Alright, let's go back. You must be cold and tired."
He ascended the sled and slapped the reins, sending Jemmy back to town at a canter.
The cold cut through his clothes and nipped at his bones. Fortunately, the sky was bright, if not clear, and it wasn't snowing. He even thought he saw a ray of sunlight piercing the clouds in the distance. The 2nd month was halfway gone and winter had turned. Spring was still a ways off, but the snow had at least begun to thin. Another fortnight and it might just start melting properly. Winter would not let up for probably another two weeks, but the moment the first soil broke through the snow, everything would be green.
Spring was usually a happy season, and the omens of its coming welcome, but for Claude it was nothing but bad news. Spring did not make for good hunting. All the water made the swamp impassable. Even worse, even the animals he could hunt elsewhere would have lost, or be busy losing, their winter coats, and pelts taken in that time were all but worthless. The best season for pelting was late autumn into early winter when the pelts were full but the animals had yet to turn in for the long sleep.
Claude felt most pitiful at the moment. He was a transmigrator. Everything he'd ever read told him he should be some incredible being, a force with which to be reckoned. He was not. Instead he was just some meager peasant fighting to earn his food money. Was there a more pitiful transmigrator? If there was, he had never come across any mention of him. Life gave him little choice, however. His one skill was utterly taboo in the world, at least as far as the general public was concerned.
His family's sorry state was no ease on his mind either. His father had taken the reins of the household after his return. Lost job or no, he also seemed just as busy as always, but he had changed considerably. He counted his words carefully; there were days he said not one. He'd replaced them, instead, with smoke, which he now did non-stop from the moment he woke up, even before he'd gotten out of bed, until the moment he closed his eyes, even after having gotten in bed.
His mother was recovered and she'd returned to her usual, familiar, and comfortable role as mother and housewife. Angelina was at home far less now, spending most of her day at school. She was happy, which was the most important thing, Claude reflected. His bastard of an older brother had gone back to his old, pre-Claude habits. He'd moved back into the house and was living off his parents again. He'd taken to sweet talking his parents every chance he had, which was both a welcome and unwelcome change. It was an improvement on his sour old self, but Claude knew he had at least a dozen ulterior motives.
For his part, Claude had focused on doing his job, for which he was now unpaid for several months. He stopped by his parents' house every day, however. His intent, mostly was to bring up the money he'd spent to keep things going while his father languished in prison, but he'd not yet found the opportunity to. Upon reflection, however, he'd had more than a couple chances, he'd just chosen not to use them each time. He had a nagging feeling he would never forgive himself for trying to collect the debt, substantial as it was, from his own family.
He'd intended to do so in the beginning, thinking he could turn to hunting again to earn some money, but this time he'd not netted a single catch in the two weeks he'd been at it already.
Welikro had stopped by for a single visit at some point. He'd gone hunting with his father and brought Claude a goat thigh. When he heard about Claude's vain efforts, it took him nearly three minutes to be in a state capable of talking again, his stomach in dire need of a good massage. The only good game to hunt that time of year, he'd then explained, were deep in the mountains.
Despite his hint, Welikro warned Claude never to go deep into the mountains. The beasts there were ferocious, fearless, and numerous. Even worse than them, however, was Claude's unfamiliarity with the terrain. If he lost track of where he was for even a moment, he would never make it back out.
Claude had seriously considered going to the mountains, but he decided not to risk it after hearing his friend's warning. He didn't have to worry about wild beasts, but he was just as vulnerable to getting lost as anyone else, if not moreso.
Welikro, at some point thereafter, however, mentioned that they'd used a sled to go through Kemda Swamp before darting over the iced lake to Egret, and Claude had been reminded of the crocodiles. Which brought him back to where he was now, three days later.
He'd been too optimistic, he now realised. The swamp was much easier to navigate, sure, but the animals were all but gone. His food was running low, and he'd scanned most of the swamp and not found so much as a single pawprint. It was time to cut his losses and head home.
He'd wanted an alchemical array so badly he could taste it when he didn't have one. Now he had one, he realised he'd never considered whether he could actually make use of it with the state his finances were in. It had turned into a giant elephant and was now only gathering dust. Then again, if his father hadn't gotten himself arrested, he might have had enough money to finish his work on a flintlock musket.
Instead, he had nothing, and just eleven shaliuns. He wanted to buy the materials he needed, but the only place he could was Hurian's shop, and he had vowed never to do business with that damned fox again.
He might have another go at Blacksnake; they had their den back up and running so he could always pop in for some shopping. Right now it was his best bet, and he was considering it seriously. The garrison with Bidlir's thugs had been formed, but they were still being trained and would be occupied for a while more.
If he wanted to go after them, now was the best chance he would get. He'd thought about it a lot these last three long days, and had decided to go for it. The choice made, the excitement and anticipation were boiling in him. The only thing he was waiting for now was the right moment to strike.
When that time came, he would set off from the wood. The garrison and the keepers had built snow-ice walls around the town, leaving only the main entrance open, but he would not be going into the town through the main entrance. If Blacksnake got wind it might have been him, the keepers could bear witness that he'd never gone into town.
He headed home and waited a couple days, then set out for his mission.
The night was perfect. The night reminded him of the old saying 'kill when the night is dark; burn when the wind is strong'. It was new moon, and a light haze hung over town, obscuring the stars. One could only see by candle and lamplight.
Claude wore what had become his magic wear. A dark-grey robe with hoodie, his mask, and his shawl. He set out right after dark and arrived just as the last light of the day was being chased away by the black of the night. The ground was still solid, though most of the snow had melted, so he would leave little in footprints. He crested the hill and stared at the slum below. The alley he needed to take was directly in front of him.
The guards had lit a number of fires, but Claude saw no one manning them. They'd probably all retreated to a nearby outpost. He shook his head. Even if they were peering out of the building's windows, seeing from the darkness into the light was easy, but it was near impossible to see from the light into the dark.
That said, Claude remained cautious. He kept to the treeline as far as he could, then slipped to the embankment along the edge of the lake, and followed it to the buildings. It took him an hour, but he finally reached the spot where he could slip into town. He took out a roll of fish line and tied the free end to a nearby tree, the other end he tied to a bob, and tossed it town the slope. He might be able to jump the seven metres down without an issue thanks to Featherfall, but he would need help getting back up.
Satisfied the line wouldn't come loose, he leapt and floated down the slope. From there he headed for the alley. He took it back out to the edge of town and started looking for the secret passage, though he didn't know if it would still be there.
It took him half an hour, but he finally found the old hut. He stood outside it and perked his ears. The house was as quiet as the lake, so he went up to the door, on which he found a massive, crudely made iron lock.
He checked his surroundings to make sure he was alone, the cast Magus' Hands and Fine Control and set about picking the comically huge lock. It took him a minute to get the hang of it, but finally the lock opened with a satisfying click.
He shot into the hut and closed the door behind him before setting about finding the entrance to the tunnel. The room in which he stood was empty, but the other side had another locked door. This time it didn't take him as long to get it and the lock snapped open with a much crisper sound. He gave it a shove, but it didn't budge. He checked the seam and found a latch on the other side of the door.
He was not about to let wood stop him, and a Magic Missile later he was in the other room. The passage glared at him there, and he headed down it without hesitation, a pearl of light glinting above the palm of his hand.