Horngate Witches, Book Four
Pocket Books (December 26, 2012)
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NEW GAME. SAME RULES. SHE FIGHTS. THEY DIE.
Max always does her job, no matter how brutal and bloody. That’s how it’s been ever since she was enslaved by a witch, turned into a supernatural warrior, and assigned to protect the coven of Horngate. But her job just got harder. . . .
Waves of wild magic have returned much of the world to a time when fairy tales were real and danger now lurks behind every tree and bush. As winter descends and food, heat, and water are harder to come by, many have turned to Benjamin Sterling for protection. Leader of the Earth’s Last Stand cult, Sterling claims to be the Hand of God, but his power and charisma secretly come from a dark and terrible source. With devout followers eager to do his sadistic bidding, he has his eyes on Horngate and its magical inhabitants. To save those she loves, Max will knowingly walk into a trap. But when the cult strips Max’s soul bare for all to see, will even Alexander—her lover and her strength—remain? And if she were to lose him, what does it matter if she gains the whole world. . . .
Praise for Blood Winter:
The fourth outing in Pharaoh Francis’ gut-wrenching series finds the characters facing winter, food shortages and the loss of fellow warriors. As always, the relationships in these books are complex, knotty and subject to misinterpretation; so along with knife-edged danger, there are plenty of emotional bombs to be dropped. Truly dark urban fantasy at its best! -Romantic Times
“The story was engaging, well-paced, amusing, emotional, exhilarating, intense…I mean, I could just go on and on. It was just superb urban fantasy. So what are you waiting for, hmm? Go grab yourself a copy right now!” – The Demon Librarian
“The Horngate Witches is one of my favorite Urban Fantasy Series and it seems it only gets better with each book. “ – Gimme the Scoop
“What I love the best, is she has created such wonderful characters, who you cannot help but like. I loved Max, as she is one of the best female kickass heroines. Francis’s supporting characters within Horngate, including the witches and shadowblades are awesome. Terrific writing by Diana Pharaoh Francis, and Blood Winter was a fascinating read.” – The Reading Cafe
What is this stuff?”
As Tyler complained, he brushed at his clothing. A streak of bright red dust clung to the shirt wrapping his lean, muscular frame. His long blond hair was tied at the base of his neck, and he sported a Three Musketeers-style mustache and beard.
Max sipped at the concoction in her glass, wincing at the thick, syrupy taste. Now that food was getting a lot harder to come by, Magpie, a Circle-level witch and the covenstead’s cook, had come up with a high-calorie drink made from honey, berries, and who knew what else. It tasted like the worst kind of cough medicine, but Shadowblades and Sunspears didn’t have much choice. They needed a minimum of twenty thousand calories a day each to fuel the spells that created them, and going to Costco or Walmart for tubs of peanut butter and pallets of power bars was no longer an option. The Ugly Juice, as everybody was quietly calling it when Magpie’s back was turned, was the only answer they had come up with.
“Maybe you rubbed up against something,” she suggested unhelpfully as the red smudge refused to budge. “Or someone.” She lifted a brow suggestively.
“The same something—or someone—you rubbed up against?” He glared at her arm. His blue eyes burned in his narrow face, and he spun a knife around the fingers of his left hand. It never seemed to leave his grip anymore. Like a deadly security blanket. He was perpetually angry, always needing to move. As if he was hunted.
Max glanced down at herself and frowned. A streak of red dust ran down her forearm. She wiped at it. The stuff might as well have been spray paint. She shrugged and gave up. “Probably something one of the witches concocted. Likely Kyle,” she said, wincing again.
Her brother had all the power of a Triangle witch and all the training and self-control of a toddler. He tended to experiment with spells before considering the consequences, with frequently messy and sometimes dire results.
“He needs a keeper,” Tyler said, taking half a biscuit drenched in gravy and offering it to the beast lying at his feet.
The Grim stared up at him with unworldly green eyes for a long moment, before closing Tyler’s entire hand in her jaws and scraping off the biscuit, leaving welts across his skin. The creature was at least two hundred fifty pounds of pure muscle and stood about three feet tall at the shoulder. Her bearlike fur was blue-black, developing into a ruff behind her heavy, square head. Her tail curled around her legs.
“Nice doggy,” Max said, eyeing the scrapes on Tyler’s hand. His healing spells kicked in instantly, and a moment later they vanished. “What’s she do when she’s pissed off at you?”
He looked down at the Grim. The beast looked like a cross between a dog and a bear, but she was something far more magical and dangerous. Not to mention unpredictable, moody, and very possessive of Tyler.
He grimaced, and then the corner of his mouth turned up reluctantly. “It’s not what she does when she’s pissed that’s the question, it’s what she does if she isn’t. That I’m still waiting to find out.”
Max snorted. “You do seem to attract sketchy women.”
“I was thinking of the witch-bitch herself. Giselle.”
He chuckled. “You’ve got a point there. Apparently, I like hard-assed women with vicious tendencies.”
“Good thing, too, given that you’re surrounded by them. And sleeping with one,” she said, jerking her chin at the Grim. “Does she hog the bed?”
Tyler winced. “More like I am the bed. I usually wake up with her sprawled across me and with a mouthful of dog hair.”
“Shut up. What about Beyul? Alexander’s Grim doesn’t exactly strike me as the sort to sleep at the foot of the bed.”
“He likes the couch.”
“What about Spike?”
Spike was a Calopus and looked a lot like a silver wolf, except for the two thin horns that curved from her skull and the multitude of poison spines along her back, chest, sides, and tail. She had taken a liking to Max and had become her regular companion. Just at the moment, she slept under the table, her chin resting on Max’s foot.
“The couch is big enough for her and Beyul both.”
“You and Alexander are probably too loud and energetic for either beastie to sleep well if one of them tried to share the bed. But maybe they like to watch,” Tyler said, waggling his brows up and down. His knife still spun between his fingers.
Max flushed despite herself. She wasn’t used to having someone special in her life and in her bed. Ever since becoming a Shadowblade, she’d kept everyone at arm’s length, resorting to one-night stands to scratch her sexual itches. But then Alexander had come along and changed all that. Sort of. She was still trying to figure out how not to fall back into the habit of closing him out. During the days in bed, when she could float on the amazing feelings he awoke in her, things were just about perfect. But then nights came, and she had to deal with all her fears and knee-jerk patterns of shutting down rather than dealing with too many conflicting emotions. Alexander had a lot patience, but it was running out. After that— After that was something that was starting to give her nightmares.
“Maybe they do watch,” she said with a shrug. “’Course, I wouldn’t know. I keep busy, you know.”
“Which reminds me, where is the fair Alexander tonight?” Tyler glanced around at the other tables in the covenstead’s dining commons, where several other Shadowblades and Sunspears were eating. “You didn’t forget to unlock his handcuffs, did you?”
“No, just wore him out. Turned him into a puddle of satisfied man-goo.”
“Way too much information,” Tyler said, sitting back and making a face.
“My mistake. Let’s change the subject. I don’t need to hear any more about your sex life. What’s the schedule for tonight?”
Max sipped her Ugly Juice before answering. Tyler was going to hate her answer. “I am leaving you in charge of the Blades for a while.”
He straightened, and his knife stopped spinning as he held it tight in his fingers. As if he was about to cut someone’s throat. “Why? Where are you going?”
“Well, that’s the fun part. I’m going to town.”
Tyler scowled. “Town? What for? Every idiot in Missoula has formed up into armies and gangs, and they’ve been fighting over food, gas, water, and territory. They don’t take to strangers. They shoot first and ask questions later. You know as well as I do that the last time we sent anyone into town, they barely got out in one piece. You can’t dodge a rifle bullet, and you won’t see it coming.” His words spilled out in a froth of worried anger.
Max kept her voice even. “The problem is, we have no idea what’s going on down there. Giselle wants me to find out.” She hesitated. “I’ll be fine. I’m not going to get hurt.”
“Right. That’s what Niko thought, and now he’s dead, along with how many others? I bet our indestructible angel friends thought the same thing, and where are they? Laid out in a stone vault like corpses, neither dead nor alive. It’s bullshit. We should stay the hell out of Missoula until they sort themselves out. When the dust settles, we can go find out what’s what. Most people think the only good witch is a dead witch—and the Change has only made them believe it more.”
She sighed quietly. Niko had been her best friend. Tyler’s, too. Losing him was beyond painful, and Tyler had reacted by being both wildly reckless with himself and more protective of everybody else. But Max wasn’t made to stay locked up safe; she was a weapon. She still had a job to do, and hiding in Horngate wouldn’t get it done. She told him as much.
“Then I’m going with you.”
She shook her head. “I’m taking Alexander. You’re staying here.”
He stared at her, his chin jutting. The Grim beside him rose and growled, her green eyes lighting with emerald sparks. Max wasn’t sure if the beast was threatening her, threatening him, or just generally commenting on the noise.
“You don’t trust me to have your back,” he said finally. “Is that it? You think I got Niko killed.”
“No,” she said emphatically, leaning forward and grabbing one of his hands. “Bad luck got Niko killed. Bad luck and bad magic.” She sat back, her fingers tapping restlessly. “Besides, Alexander was there, too. I don’t blame either one of you.” I blame me. “The fact is, I’m saving you from living hell. You really don’t want to come with me today.”
He didn’t give an inch. “Oh?”
She sighed. “Remember what you said about Kyle needing a keeper?” Max lifted her hand to her brow in a casual salute. “Head keeper reporting for duty.”
His lips slowly widened into a grin. “That does sound like a good time. Let me know when you’re ready to bury the body. I want to help.” Then he frowned. “He’s a liability in town. Why take him?”
“Oh, it gets better. Tory and Carrie Lydman are going, too.”
He goggled and shook his head. “Explain to me why you are taking a stupid witch and a pair of teenagers—one of whom is a bitch on wheels—into a war zone. Use small words. I’m feeling slow.”
“Because Giselle wants me to mingle and spy, and Kyle and the girls are about as close to ordinary people as you can get for Horngate. Add in that Tory and Carrie have been threatening to sneak off by themselves, and Giselle figures that they’ll get it out of their systems and be useful at the same time.”
“That’s insane. I can’t believe their parents agreed.”
“The girls are of age. And as crazy as it sounds, Giselle is right. We need intel on what’s going on in Missoula. Not knowing is like having a bomb in the backyard and guessing when it will go off.”
Tyler rubbed his lips with his knuckles. “Kyle’s a loose cannon. He’s just as likely to chase butterflies into a hornet’s nest as help you.”
“I’ll handle him,” Max said. “Even if I have to club him over the head. But he’s good to have around, just in case. His magic could come in handy if we run into serious trouble.”
“Trouble? Tory and Carrie are nothing but trouble. You won’t be able to escape it,” Tyler scoffed.
“The girls are excited to help. They think it’s all a game. And since we’re going to start at the River Market, I’m sure they’re hoping to find a new pair of shoes or some makeup.” Max rolled her eyes. Teenage girls. Pre- or postapocalypse, their priorities never changed.
“Aren’t you ready yet? We’re all waiting for you.”
Max glanced up at the nineteen-year-old girl standing in the doorway, keeping her expression neutral. Tory was her niece—a walking tornado of hormones and emotion. As Tyler said, a bitch on wheels. She was stubborn, angry, resentful, and mouthy, and she had a knack for getting on Max’s last nerve.
She scanned Tory slowly from head to foot, taking in her fashionably ripped skinny jeans, her low-cut rhinestone-studded shirt revealing the top of her lacy bra and a healthy amount of cleavage, and a pair of spiked boots. Her golden hair hung loose to her waist and was curled and teased. Her full lips sparkled with gloss. She looked, in a word, sexy. Sexy as hell. Max glanced at Tyler. He stared with widening eyes, his mouth dropping open.
Men. They were so easy.
She looked back at Tory. “You know you’re not going hooking on the Vegas Strip, right? You may want to tone it down. We’re trying not to attract a lot of attention.”
“You may be, but I’m not,” Tory said, jabbing her thumbs into her back pockets so her full breasts thrust out. Tyler nearly choked. “You want information. Boys see a hot body, and they do nothing but talk. Their brains drop to their dicks, and they get diarrhea of the mouth.”
Max couldn’t argue with that. If she needed proof, there was Tyler. She shook her head. “Your mother is going to love this. She’ll kick my ass.”
Tory tossed her hair. Her face was round and sweet. Camouflage. Max was pretty sure that at nineteen, the girl could chew up most people and spit them out without breaking a sweat.
“You know, the world doesn’t revolve around you,” Tory said.
“Are you sure, Buttercup?” Max drawled, clamping down on her irritation. “You want to go into town, but you’re not going anywhere without me. That pretty much means I’m the center of your universe tonight, doesn’t it?”
Tory’s cheeks flushed red, and her eyes snapped with fury. She dropped her hands to her sides, her fingers curling into fists. “Yeah? Well, you need my help, too—besides, once I talk Giselle into making me a Shadowblade, I’ll be able to do anything I want, whenever I want, just like you.”
Max met her niece’s gaze for a long moment and then glanced at Tyler. His body was chiseled in stone. She could feel his emotions flaring hot and wild. It had been just a bit more than a month since Niko had died, adding to the too-long tally of Shadowblades and Sunspears Horngate had lost since the Change—when the Guardians had flooded the world with magic. Both Max and Tyler knew that those supernatural warriors needed to be replaced in order to protect the covenstead, but the reality was too much to handle right now. The grief was still too raw.
Abruptly, Max swigged down the last of the Ugly Juice and stood. “Let’s go,” she said, and led Tory out of the dining commons. Spike trotted behind them.
Tory kept abreast of Max despite her aunt’s fury. It was actually impressive. Most humans cowered around an aroused Blade, much less a full Prime like herself. But then again, Tory was a burning ball of anger and resentment. Fear was a foreign concept to her.
Max slowed, reaching down to scratch Spike’s ears. “You ready to give up going out during the day?” she asked. “Because Shadowblades fry—literally—in the daylight. Poof! Burn to ash in a matter of seconds. Or Giselle could make you a Sunspear, but they have their own problems. The dark poisons them. Sometimes slowly, but within an hour or so if they don’t get inside.”
“You just don’t want to give me the chance to be like you,” Tory said, stepping in front of Max with her hands on her hips. “You still hate Giselle for turning you, and you think just because you don’t want to be a Shadowblade, nobody else will, either.”
Max considered the accusation. Six months ago, there might have been some truth to it. But things had changed. Max had changed. She no longer resented being turned. She liked what she was. It allowed her to protect the people she cared about.
Except for Niko.
A worm of grief wriggled through her heart. At least she could protect them better than if she were still human. And if Tory were turned, the girl could at least protect herself. Still, Max doubted she had the slightest clue what being a Shadowblade really entailed.
“You won’t be able to have kids,” she said. “So you’ll want to think about having one before you’re turned. You have to eat a minimum of twenty thousand calories a day, more if you get into a battle or have to run thirty or forty miles or toss around a few cars. That’s not so easy with food getting scarcer. You’ll have healing spells, but you’ll need them. You’ll end up hurt a lot, and I’m not talking hangnails. Broken bones are easy, but you’ll get shot, knifed, burned, mauled, shredded—all in a day’s work. That will happen with depressing regularity for your entire life.
“The healing spells won’t help with the pain. That’s all yours. Let’s hope you have a high tolerance. You won’t age, as you can tell.” Max gestured at herself. At fifty years old, she still looked the way she did when she was twenty-one. She looked more like Tory’s sister than her aunt. “That means you probably shouldn’t fall in love with any ordinary humans. They’ll age and die long before you do. Then there’s the binding. Most witches bind their Blades and Spears. There are some good reasons for that—Giselle will know when you’ve been hurt, she’ll be able to summon you when she needs you, and she can help you heal faster through the binding. On the other hand, you won’t be able to ever get away from her, and you’ll be stuck serving her unless she releases you. Or you die. That works, too.”
“You’re trying to talk me out of it,” Tory said. “It’s not going to work.”
Max shook her head. “That’s not it at all, Buttercup. Giselle got me drunk and asked if I wanted to be superstrong, never age, never get sick, all that sort of thing. I said sure—who wouldn’t say yes? But I thought it was all a joke. Next thing I knew, it was months later, and I was a Shadowblade, chained to serve her. I was a slave. Things might have been different if I’d really been willing. I just figure you ought to make an informed decision.”
Tory sniffed and pushed her hair behind her ears. “Don’t call me Buttercup. I know what I’m doing. But Giselle says she’s not going to do it. I know why, too. It’s you. She doesn’t want to piss you off, for some reason.” Despite the defiant edge to Tory’s voice, Max could tell the girl was thinking about what she’d said.
“I’m not going to stop you. Turns out I’m pretty happy being a Shadowblade.”
“So you’ll talk to Giselle?” Tory’s expression suddenly glowed with passionate hope, the kind only the young and naive can really feel.
“Sure. But don’t be in a hurry. You’ve got to wait until you’re twenty-one.”
Tory’s joyous triumph collapsed. “What? Why?”
Max shrugged. “It’s a magic number.”
“But people don’t have to be exactly twenty-one, right? Alexander was twenty-five when he was made.”
Max’s brows rose. How the hell did Tory know that? She swallowed her curiosity and the sharp jab of jealousy that accompanied it. It wasn’t as if Alexander didn’t have a right to tell people about his life. “He was turned more than a hundred years ago by a flesh witch. Maybe she didn’t care about the numbers. Giselle does.”
“Couldn’t Uncle Kyle do it if Giselle won’t?”
“Only if he wanted to be banished from Horngate—or killed. Giselle won’t tolerate anyone stepping on her toes.”
“Killed?” Tory repeated, her eyes widening.
“Yep. Oh, that’s another thing about being a Shadowblade, Buttercup. You’ll be killing things. Maybe people, maybe creatures, but you’ll be spilling a lot of blood. Sometimes you’ll use weapons, sometimes you’ll kill bare-handed. Get used to the idea. That’s a major part of the job. If you want, I could take you out hunting to see how you do with that.”
Tory swallowed and didn’t answer. Instead, she spun around and started up the corridor in silence. Max fell in beside her.
The heart of the Horngate covenstead was a mountain fortress west of Missoula. Giselle and the coven witches had carved a warren of rooms and passages, enough to house hundreds of people, with room to expand if needed. Max and Tory headed for a newer chamber on the northeast side of the mountain.
It was an expansive space with low ceilings. Vehicles were parked in rows. Max headed for a dark green Suburban. Kyle, Carrie Lydman, and Alexander were already waiting. Carrie was dressed much like Tory. Together, the two were stunning. Max had little doubt that men would certainly get diarrhea of the mouth upon seeing them.
Kyle was bouncing on his toes like a five-year-old at Disneyland, and Alexander stood at the rear of the Suburban, the back doors open as he checked supplies. At six feet, he was just a few inches taller than she. His skin was the color of tea, as if he spent all his time in the sun. His short hair was black. A close-cut goatee framed his mouth. He was lean and muscular, and it made Max drool just to look at him.
He looked up as she and Tory entered, his dark gaze smoldering. Max shivered, resisting the urge to drag him off to a closet and have her way with him.
She took hold of herself, suppressing her reaction, keeping her face from showing her hunger. She was Horngate’s Shadowblade Prime, which meant she was in charge of Alexander and the rest of the Blades. She needed to stay focused on her job. She didn’t need anybody else dying on her watch.
She crossed to glance inside the back of the Suburban, sidling away from his hand as he reached for her. He pulled back, his mouth flattening, his eyes flashing hurt annoyance. Max clenched her teeth. What the hell did he expect from her? But she knew the answer. He wanted public acknowledgment of their relationship. The trouble was, she was still trying to figure out exactly what their relationship was. She cared about him—loved him, she corrected herself acidly. She might as well admit it to herself, even if she was too much of a coward to tell him.
She didn’t have much experience with long-term relationships. She’d only had one serious boyfriend before Giselle had turned her, and she’d fumbled that. She was like a child figuring out how to do calculus.
With a silent sigh, she pushed aside her internal turmoil. She’d work on fixing her head later. Now she had to get everybody in and out of Missoula alive.
Inside the back of the Suburban was a row of six shotguns upright in a rack. Beside them were six bandoliers with shells and grenades. The latter were witch-made. There was also a chest containing a variety of other weapons, including handguns, clips of bullets, knives, witch chain, canisters of salt, iron filings, mixes of herbs, tubs of healing salve, bandages, charms, light and dark sealed sacks, and duct tape, plus jerky, homemade high-calorie energy bars, and two jugs of Ugly Juice.
She and Alexander were both already wearing tactical vests, the pockets bulging with a variety of supplies. Max’s .45 was holstered on her hip, and she had her two favorite flat-bladed knives strapped to her arms. Around her neck was a gold torque that could stretch itself into a garrote, a wire-thin rope, and other useful shapes. She had a Glock 9mm tucked into an ankle holster and a combat knife in her waistband.
She glanced at her companions. “Ready? Remember, we’re going for the single purpose of intelligence collection. We’ll have to park away from the River Market and walk in. We don’t need anyone noticing that our vehicle runs on magic. Once there, try to blend in. The word is that the market stays lively late into the night, with a lot of buying and selling, not to mention gambling, whoring, drinking, and who knows what else. It can turn into a free-for-all pretty quickly. Stick close to me and Alexander—and Kyle? Don’t do anything witchy unless you have to.”
Her brother looked at her innocently. Kyle never planned to be stupid and reckless, he just followed his idiot impulses. Babies had more sense than he did sometimes.
Max’s eyes narrowed. A smudge of the red dust streaked Kyle’s pale blond hair above his left ear. “What is that stuff?” she asked. “Do you know?”
“What stuff?” he said, even as Alexander came around the front of the Suburban. Beyul, another massive Grim, padded at his side.
“It’s on you, too,” she said, pointing at Alexander’s boot.
He glanced down, his brow creasing.
“What is it?” Max held up her forearm to show her splash of red.
Tory and Carrie examined each other. “We don’t have any of that junk on us,” Carrie said with clear relief, no doubt relieved that she didn’t have to worry about it staining her clothes.
“It doesn’t come off,” Max said. “Tyler had some on him, too.”
Kyle ran a finger over her arm. Pale blue magic flickered along his fingertip, and Max’s skin tingled. He pulled away, looking intrigued. “Could be magic-related. I need to do some experiments . . .”
“Not now,” Tory said, grabbing his arm and shoving him toward the door of the Suburban. “We’ll never get to town if you go off experimenting, Uncle Kyle. After all, it’s just a little color, right?”
Max had to agree. The stuff didn’t seem to be dangerous, and if Kyle went off on a mad-witch-scientist tangent, they might not get to town for another week or two.
“Load up,” she said as she slammed the two rear doors shut. The two girls pushed into the front seat beside Alexander, who was driving. Max let Spike and Beyul into the rear seats and then slid in beside Kyle.
She was just shutting her door when a jolt shuddered through the air and a hail of needles ran along her nerves. The walls of the mountain fortress trembled and groaned. A split second later, the alarm chime vibrated through the air. It reverberated through Max’s skull, making the marrow in her bones ache. Something had crossed the covenstead’s outer ward line, something magical that didn’t belong.
“What now?” Tory demanded. “Let’s just go.”
Max hopped out. “Trip’s canceled,” she said, her Prime rising hard. Her humanity flattened beneath the predator, her senses sharpening. With that came blinding rage. No one—no one—was going to get away with attacking her home again. She didn’t care what she had to do to protect it and the people within. This was her home, her family. She’d kill anyone who threatened them.
“Tory and Carrie, get to the Great Hall with everybody else,” she ordered hoarsely, her lips curling back from her lips in an animal snarl. “Kyle and Alexander, you’re with me.”
“I want to come with you,” Tory said, her voice tense but resolute as she stepped in front of Max.
“No chance, Buttercup,” Max replied, her fingers curling in an effort not to pick the teenager up and toss her out of the way.
“I can handle myself. Give me a gun.“
“When pigs fly. Get back to the Great Hall before you get yourself killed,” Max said. “That’s something else Shadowblades do—obey orders.” Max shoved past her, Spike loping at her side. Alexander and Beyul followed close on her heels, with Kyle bringing up the rear.
She pushed out into the night air. She could feel the wrongness in the wards and smell Divine magic. It came from the south.
She led the way around to the front entrance. The rest of her Blades had spilled out into the night, waiting for her, all armed to the teeth. A few Grims nosed around curiously.
Max turned to Tyler. “Where’s Giselle?”
“On her way with Gregory and Judith.”
She looked over her Blades. She probably ought to wait for them. “Tyler, Alexander, Oak, Nami, and Simon, you’re with me. We’ll scout ahead. The rest of you follow with the witches.” She looked around at them all. She scowled as she realized that each one was smudged with some of the red dust. She’d have to ask Giselle about it later.
“Whatever’s going on out there, watch one another’s back. Nobody dies tonight. Got it?”
Sober nods went all around the group, and a minute later, Max and her companions were loping across the steep ridges south of Horngate, each one a messenger of death for whatever lay in wait.