"There!" hissed Barios, priest of the Pyre Lord and chief aide to the Disciple Nagoyan. "I feel it!" The unholy magician had not understood why his spell to awaken Eairon's Falcon had failed, but after several days' delay he felt at last the surge of contact, the link magically falling into place in his mind. He raised his eyes to the night sky and saw it, brilliant and shining, as plain as day, a coruscating bar of bluish-green light extending for miles above him.

The tall, lean, brown-haired man did not look like the popular image of a heretic priest. He'd worn the Burning Hand's sigil openly to face his enemies, hoping to put them off guard with the implied threat suggested by his costume, but now he wore a simple green shirt and leggings beneath a fur-trimmed leather vest, common garb worn by thousands of men in western Lunar. A heavy longknife hung sheathed at his waist; he was quite proficient with the weapon.

"What's that?" asked the captain of his soldiers, the man who'd assembled the mercenary troop that had fought and died alongside Barios. He hadn't taken the whole force into battle, believing the ambush to be sufficient for its work. That had been a tactical error, but it did at least leave him with resources to draw upon.

"Eairon's Falcon has taken wing."

"I thought you failed at that," the captain said bluntly. The man seemingly had no fear of him, which gnawed at Barios's heart. There was little he could do about that, though; the captain was in the Disciple's employ rather than the priest's and therefore held equal authority to Barios in temporal if not religious matters.

"One of two things has happened. Either the weak-kneed lapdogs of Althena have activated the Falcon and my previous attempt to awaken it was enough to let me follow the trail, or else my spell was simply delayed in its effect."

"The latter."

Barios scowled.

"And just when did you become an expert on the magic of Eairon's Falcon?"

"I'm not. It's obvious, though. So long as we don't have the falcon, the Red Dragon Aura is safe in Eairon's Vault like it's been for three centuries. If the Church was actually going to use the falcon, it would do so with a major armed expedition, which takes time to raise. Presuming that they weren't bright enough to just hunt up the White Dragon and let him retrieve the Dragon Aura."

"Then we need only worry about the Prairie Tribesman and his companions."

The captain raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Granted, they're an irritatingly persistent lot, but what makes you think they'll be able to even follow the trail?"

Barios sneered, happy that he suddenly had the upper hand in the conversation.

"The priest is a Seer, you fool. He can see the magical path as well as I can. Believe you well, they'll come chasing after Eairon's Falcon with the forlorn hope of recovering the Red Dragon Aura before us."

"Forlorn?" the captain inquired with a mildness that had razor-edged steel lurking beneath. He hadn't appreciated Barios's tone or being called a fool--which was as it should be, the dark priest conceded. Anyone worthy of power should take pride in it, not cower meekly. Defiance was how true order was established, the strong forcing the submission of the weak. "So far, every time they've encountered your little cult, the best you've managed is to run away."

Barios scowled again. The man's mockery was offensive, but what was truly galling was the knowledge that he was right. No man prospered by self-delusion, and the plain truth was that Alynd, Jyrian Mageborn, and the others had defeated the minions of the Burning Hand, including Barios himself, on multiple occasions. What was also true was that regardless of his desire to crush them for their effrontery, Barios had more important duties than eliminating these foes. Only he could see the falcon's magical trail, thus only he could lead the way to Eairon's Vault. If he died seeking revenge, their greater purpose would be thwarted.

That would not, he suspected, make for a pleasant afterlife for his bartered soul.

"They have to be stopped," he declared. "As you say, there are scores to settle between us. Yet I must follow the falcon, and including the priest they have three spellcasters among them. Your troops wouldn't stand a chance."

"You're right about that. With the losses at your ambush there's only four or five left I'd dignify with the name of soldier; the rest are bandits and tavern scum. The fact is, there aren't that many people even in those ranks who will work openly for the Burning Hand. Robbery, arson, murder, and torture don't bother them, but oh no, mustn't challenge the Goddess's authority, just all her commandments." He spat into the fire. "Hypocrites."

"Yet you are willing to take our coin."

"I'm hired to do a job. I don't care if my master is the Vile Tribe, the Lion Knights, or anyone in between. I kill people. I'm good at it. What difference does it make whom I kill or who orders me to do the killing?"

"Your words make you sound fit to be one of us."

"Thanks but no thanks. I don't go on bended knee to any god. I make my own fate, and the only thing I trust is this." He slapped the jeweled hilt of his broadsword.

Barios shrugged dismissively.

"As you will. It would do nothing to stop Alynd and his group in any event."

"Once you retrieve the Dragon Aura, they won't have any way to keep following, will they?"

"No, the trail follows the falcon, not what it guards."

"Then there's an easy solution. Find someone else to fight them for you in a delaying action."

"How?"

"There's a map in my saddlebags. Let me get it, and I'll show you some ideas."

A/N: With considerable regret, I have come to the decision to place Crimson Hope on indefinite hiatus. I've got way too much on my plate just now (and not just with writing, either; sometimes it rather surprises me that I'm able to write as much as I do while keeping up the obligations of a full-time job and an even more full-time marriage!). I actually have the next six chapters "in the can," as it were, so it would be possible to drag this out for the next three months, but I felt it best to stop here, at the break between arcs, rather than starting the chase after Eairon's Falcon and ending it halfway through. I rather regret doing this--I've been keeping up this story for well over a year, now!--but it's something I do feel that I need to do. For those of you who may be disappointed; I apologize for the inconvenience, and I hope that in the future I'll be able to pick up the story where I left off.