* * * * *
Amaranthe ran alongside the frozen lake, thighs weary, calves sore, ragged breaths steaming before her. The short sword belted at her waist felt ten times heavier than it was. An inch of fresh snow blanketed the trail, and thick flakes wafted from the steely sky. They stuck in her lashes and melted down her flushed cheeks.
The marker came into view, and she dug a pocket watch free as she passed it. She groaned at the time, shoulders slumping.
"Maybe I can blame the snow," she muttered. "Or the cold. Or maybe I can blame—" She rounded a bend and almost tripped over two bodies sprawled across the path, "—the dead soldiers on the trail," she finished, voice cracking as the breeze shifted and the butcher shop stench enveloped her.
The soldiers, recognizable by their black uniforms and military-issue pistols, had died recently: slit throats poured steaming blood onto the white trail. A tangle of scuffs and footprints trampled the snow around the bodies, but no trails led away from the scene.
Exercise forgotten, Amaranthe yanked her sword free. She crouched and surveyed her surroundings, wondering where the killer had hidden to launch the ambush—and wondering if that killer might be there now, waiting to do it again.
Without their foliage, the skeletal apple and maple trees lining the lake offered little cover. A hundred meters ahead, the industrial section of the city began. Deep, dark alleys ran between warehouses and factories whose smokestacks belched black ribbons into the low gray clouds. Anyone hiding in those alleys would have had to race across a field of snow to reach the soldiers though. Closer to her, a gas lamp sputtered at the head of the first of hundreds of docks lining the waterfront. The dark hollow beneath the boards held her gaze. Between the snow and the coming dusk, the lighting was poor; someone might well have hidden beneath the dock.