Category Archives: Glimwarden

Glimwarden, Chapter 3

Melanie

Melanie Masters was running out of books.

Such a thing hadn’t seemed possible when she’d first started reading. The town library had seemed cavernously large, its selection not so much robust as it was daunting. She had started with suggestions from the librarian, a stooped old woman Melanie felt some affection for, but that had lasted her only two weeks. From there she had expanded her scope in other directions, first by getting recommendations from other people and then by using the books themselves to guide her. In The Cafard’s Contradiction the heroine Odessa was smitten with a book titled Eden’s Waltz. Melanie had loved The Cafard’s Contradiction, so she had sought out a copy of Eden’s Waltz, on the theory that if her favorite author had loving that book as a central character trait of the heroine, it must be worth reading. (It was with some dismay that Melanie realized Eden’s Waltz was an overly sugared coming-of-age story mired in its own unreality. The author of The Cafard’s Contradiction was using the book to say something subtly unkind about Odessa’s naivete.)

Eventually Melanie had hit her first wall. The library had thousands of books, but it contained only a small fraction of all books. Following trails often led to her frowning at two books like Frea’s Adventures in the Realm of Dust and Freedom from Death, thinking that if the alphabetization were any good The Freckled Fox should have been right between them. There were other books within Light’s Hollow, those held in private hands, and sometimes Melanie was able to borrow from those collections, especially when it became known that she read at an incredible speed and returned books both quickly and in good condition. It was still the case that Light’s Hollow contained only a small number of the total number of books that existed in the world. Worse, there were some books which had once existed but had fallen into obscurity, their authors long-dead and the last copy of the book eaten through with worms some hundred years ago. The supply of books was sadly limited, and it grew smaller with each one consumed.

In a way, work at the Black Mare was a blessing in disguise, because it meant that Melanie was spending time not reading. While this was not her preferred state of affairs, it meant that the dwindling supply of available books (and more importantly, books worth reading) would last much longer. She still brought books down from her room above the Black Mare, of course. There were long periods of time when the demands of the tavern were few and she could splay a book out over the bar with few interruptions.

William Wright was one of those interruptions.

“What are you reading?” he asked, a few minutes after she’d poured him a mug of sagewine. He’d given her just enough time to starting reading again. The question he’d presented to her was, in her opinion, one of the most annoying things that one person could ask another.

“It’s a turnabout,” said Melanie. “Vultures of the North.” She looked back down at the book, hoping that William would take the hint but knowing that he wasn’t the kind to stop so easily.

“What’s a turnabout?” asked William.

Melanie put a finger on the line she’d been reading to mark her place. “A turnabout is one of the elemental genres,” she said. “Someone gets into trouble, then gets out of trouble.” She paused slightly, weighing the choice of elaborating further or inevitably fielding another question from William. She took the lesser of two evils. “In this particular case, Larkspur is a cobbler who gets cast out of his city following an altercation with their mayor and ends up wandering through the wilds, until presumably gathering enough strength to come back and get justice against the mayor. But I say presumably because I haven’t finished it yet.”

“Does that appeal to you?” asked William. “Stories about glimwardens?”

William didn’t care about the answer. William only cared about her, and his questions were only his way of obtaining some of her attention. She wasn’t entirely sure whether he believed that this was a precursor to courtship or whether he simply enjoyed speaking with her, but his affections were most assuredly not mutual. Unfortunately, William came from a family of moderate wealth, and that was a fact worthy of some consideration for Melanie.

Stories had a way of making financial hardship seem exciting. When a pauper appeared on the page, he was inevitably full of pluck and ready to make a name for himself, which he inevitably did. There were exceptions to this rule, especially within the pitchover genre, but being poor was usually easily escaped through dashing heroics. Melanie had not found poverty to be so exciting. She held an enormous debt to the Colsum family, courtesy of her wayward father’s efforts to keep the Black Mare afloat. Barring a stroke of incredible fortune, she would be paying off that debt until the end of her life.

William’s family had money, more than most of her tavern’s patrons. Beyond that, a marriage would lessen her obligations by half. That meant the sensible thing to do would be to chatter away with William and convince him that she was a girl worth marrying despite the debt. Of course, she could wait to tell him about the debt until after they were married, but she didn’t think she could stomach doing that to him.

“Larkspur isn’t really a glimwarden, he’s a cullion, because he isn’t pledged to a town, at least not so far. But he’s not a bad cullion,” said Melanie. “So far he’s spent most of the book meeting various people in the wilds, either caravans or runaways or magical people. More than you’d expect, really. But generally I don’t like stories about the glimwardens, not unless they’re fighting each other. You can only read about the glimwardens making some heroic stand against the darklings a limited number of times before you have to put the book down and find another. I like conflicts between characters.”

William nodded along to this, though Melanie doubted that he cared about what she was saying.

“I’ve heard that they’re going to induct some new glimwardens in preparation for the eighth lantern,” said William. “I was thinking that maybe I should float my name.”

“What do you mean by induct?” asked Melanie. “I thought that anyone could become a glimwarden just by eating enough hearts. That’s how Larkspur does it.”

“Well, sure,” said William. “But that’s dangerous, going out on your own and trying to get lucky enough for long enough to obtain real power. It happens in stories, certainly,” he waved in the direction of her book, “But in Light’s Hollow new glimwardens are created by the existing glimwardens. They take you out into the woods with them and feed you the hearts themselves, so there’s no risk at all. All for free, if they decide that you’re worth having, so you don’t have to put in an order for the hearts like the runesmiths do.”

Melanie frowned. “Then how are you going to get them to accept you?”

“Well, the first thing I’ll do is let them know that I’m interested,” said William. “Then I think I’ll go track Sander down and talk to him for a bit, maybe at home where I might be able to meet his father.” He beamed at her with a look like a puppy dog seeking approval.

Melanie looked down at her book. She was well aware of the differences between stories and reality, but the problem was that her experiences accumulated from books dwarfed what she had learned from the world. She had never been properly courted and only knew a handful of married couples, but she had seen thousands of men and women come together under all sorts of circumstances in her books. It was only natural to defer to fiction in those situations where she had no worldly experience. Aside from running the tavern and being burdened with crippling debts, she had practically no experience with the world at all. Didn’t it pay to at least see what hundreds of authors had to say about such matters, even if they were only trying to entertain their readers?

In the stories, William would almost certainly have been a villain. Heroes didn’t seek out power, they had power thrust into their hands by a mysterious old man who had suffered a mortal wound. Or if they were seeking power, it was to fulfill some grand quest, not just because they wanted it. There was a world of difference between seeking the Elder Blade because you wanted to have it for yourself and seeking it because there was a tyrant that had killed your family and needed to be put down. But in the real world, maybe that was just how things went. Maybe most people got to their position in life simply by setting a goal for themselves and pursuing it, rather than because there was some strong compulsion placed on them.

Normally, Melanie cast herself as the heroine. She wasn’t pretty enough to be a traditional heroine, given that her eyes were too small and the hair on her arms was far too thick and dark, necessitating long sleeves to hide it most of the time. In one of her books, these aesthetic deficiencies might have been forgiven, as she was an orphan saddled with an enormity of debt by her wayward father. Part of the draw of stories was that things always got better for people like her.

In these particular circumstances though, Melanie recognized something unheroic in what she was doing. She had no interest in William, aside from the possibility of marrying him and thereby sharing (if not actually reducing) the debt she owed to Colsum. A shrew trying to marry someone for their wealth was an archetypal villain, usually of a small drama. That wasn’t to say that in the real world people never married for pragmatic reasons and learned to love each other afterward, but Melanie’s experience with stories eclipsed what she knew about common marital arrangements in Light’s Hollow. She felt a tug of wrongness at the thought that she might be doing something villainous.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to your book,” said William. There was something pained in his voice. Melanie realized that she’d been absently staring at the front cover of the book while thoughts were circling her head. That was a bad habit, but one that most people readily forgave.

There were things Melanie could have said to William, but she went back to her book instead. William left soon afterward without saying goodbye, but by then Melanie was too wrapped up in the adventures of Larkspur to notice.

It was nearing dinnertime when her aunt Linda came through the tavern doors.

“Melanie!” cried Linda. She had long gray hair and a wiry look about her, like one of the machines she had once done work on. She still had a slight hunch to her from years spent over a workbench. “Still with your nose in a book?”

“Hello Aunt Linda,” Melanie replied. She put her finger down to mark her place. “What brings you here? An early dinner?”

“If I eat, it will only be because I love the smell of your cooking,” replied Linda with a wide smile that made Melanie uncomfortable. “Can an aunt not visit her niece?”

In truth they were second cousins on her mother’s side and none too close. The Linwell clan had never liked Gavin Masters, partly because he was from a far away town and partly for reasons that Melanie had never probed too deeply at. Once Melanie’s mother had died, the Linwells began seeing her as nothing more than Gavin’s daughter. After her father left, she’d made one disastrous attempt at getting aid from them. Now Melanie had no one she considered a friend on that side of her family. Linda was the one exception, but she was friendly with everyone. The woman collected friendships like she meant to exchange them for something.

“Would you like some soup then?” asked Melanie. “It’s fiddlehead and river shrimp in a chicken broth today.”

Linda waved a hand. “Oh, don’t bother. I’m here because there’s something I think you might be quite interested in.” She leaned forward. “I’ve been talking to Colsum about your debt.”

“It’s my father’s debt,” said Melanie, almost automatically.

“Yes,” said Linda. “Of course, but you’re stuck paying it unless you want all this to go away.” She waved a hand to encompass the tavern and everything in it. You’re stuck paying it, unless you want to be homeless and jobless. “That’s just what I wanted to converse with you about.”

“You’ve gotten some leniency from Colsum?” asked Melanie.

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” replied Linda. “He agreed to lower your monthly payments a small amount to give you some breathing room, if you’re willing to do something for him — for us, really.”

“Go on,” said Melanie.

Linda leaned forward further and placed her hands flat on the counter. “You’ve heard that there’s to be an eighth lantern, yes? Well, I managed to get a very important concession from the chief glimwarden. I’ve just come from a meeting where we’ve agreed that the next glimwardens will be chosen by open competition rather than the arcane and opaque processes of the glimwardens. It seems likely that any young person who has any interest will be in the running. Colsum has expressed some enthusiasm for supporting a few likely candidates. And of course should you become a glimwarden proper, Colsum would offer some monetary compensation by way of congratulations.”

“You … want me to become a glimwarden?” asked Melanie.

“It’s in your blood, after all,” said Linda. “Your grandfather on the paternal side was chief glimwarden of Scinan, if I recall, and you the last of his line? It’s practically foreordained that you should follow in those footsteps.”

The cynical side of Melanie — a rather large side, truth be told — immediately saw this as a play for power. Aunt Linda rarely came bearing unconditional support, or at least no support so great as to cost her anything. Moreover, Linda was in league with Colsum, who held the debt that sat like a noose around Melanie’s neck. It would be useful for Linda and Colsum to have leverage over a glimwarden.

“Let Colsum know that I accept his offer,” replied Melanie.

Linda clucked her tongue. “It’s a pity no one taught you how to negotiate,” she replied, but she seemed happy all the same.

Melanie shrugged. “I made up my mind. I imagine if I tried to negotiate with a man like Colsum I would come away worse than if I accepted his first offer.”

“Well,” said Linda. “I’ll negotiate on your behalf. I’m afraid that with this little arrangement some deception might be required, if only to keep Seaborn and his cronies from prejudice against you. Better this relationship is kept secret. The competition is supposed to be fair, that’s the whole point of it, but I imagine that they’ll have their tricks. I also imagine that I’ll come up with some of my own.”

“I understand,” replied Melanie. Her mind was already elsewhere. She had no illusions about the glimwardens being beacons of goodness that selflessly fought against the darklings, not in the real world, but she had been offered a way out from under the debt, even if it had its own costs. As was her habit, she fell back to the stories of the glimwardens and the darklings, trying to find some handle on the new situation.

❧❧❧

Melanie had been promised to the Black Mare from an early age. If everything had gone according to plan, she would have worked under her father, taking over the business with her eventual husband at the age of thirty or forty, after which she and the tavern would grow old together. Because things did not go according to plan, she was wed to the Black Mare early, at the age of fourteen, only barely old enough to take on her father’s responsibilities. At the time, there hadn’t seemed to be any alternative.

The Black Mare was now a prison, and Melanie’s marriage to the tavern was an unhappy one. She ended every day feeling drained by the work and woke up with a nervous dread that only new stories could cure. This was one of the reasons that she read during lulls. Her only true free time was at the end of the day, after the last patron had stumbled their way out the door and the chairs had been put up on their tables. That was always the nadir of her depression, because it meant that tomorrow was a new day, when it would all have to be done over again. Melanie stayed up late more often than not, reading by the flickering light bulb in her room that she couldn’t afford to have fixed.

Tonight was different. A path had opened up in front of her, one that was valuable mostly because it promised a change of pace. She wanted desperately to dive back into her books, but there was too much fresh thinking to do. She had never been one to shirk duty because there were stories to read and now was not the time to start. She went up to her room on the top floor of the Black Mare, then went out the window to sit on the tiled roof and think.

The story of Pater John and Lillis was about a man given a sword by a handsome devil. Pater John was instructed by the devil to kill a witch in the woods, but when he reached the witch he instead found that she was a beautiful woman. She convinced Pater John to use the sword to kill the devil, which he did, but after that was accomplished she devoured Pater John whole, sword and all. That had been the first story that Melanie had thought of. If she was Pater John, then Colsum and aunt Linda were, collectively, the handsome devil, and the darklings (or perhaps service to the glimwardens) were the witch. Of course, no one wanted to be Pater John, who was just a patsy for two evil people, but Melanie was having trouble thinking of how to prevent herself from facing the same fate. It wasn’t like Pater John would have been safe if he had only kept to his deal with the devil.

In the story of The Reclamation, Lysander was forced into stealing a mythic dagger from an expansive vault in a duke’s manor. The dagger eventually made him so powerful that the men who had forced him into stealing the dagger were mere pests to be swept aside with a wave of his hand early in the second act. Colsum and Linwell were big enough forces that they couldn’t ever be discounted, even if by some miracle Melanie were to become the chief glimwarden, but it was an attractive fantasy all the same.

Then there was the story of Counting Promises, which —

“Mind if I come up?” called a voice from the ground.

Melanie looked down to the dark street, where Sander Seaborn was standing in the dimly-lit street. He was looking up at her with a grin on his face and his hair hanging down so the curls of it ended just above his eyes. Melanie frowned at him, but she had no idea whether he would be able to make out her expression in the dark. It crossed her mind to object to his company, but she didn’t have the willpower for it, not at the end of a long day.

“Sure,” she replied. “I’ve locked up for the night though.” The city had gone dark and quiet, save for Sander.

“That’s no problem,” replied Sander. He ran to the side of the building, where there was a drainpipe, and began climbing up it, using the mountings as handholds and footholds. Melanie began to worry that something would happen, that he would break her drainpipe and fall to the ground, leaving her with an expense she didn’t have the money for, but soon he had a hand on the roof and heaved himself up. He brushed the dust from his pants and smiled at her, then sat down next to her and looked up to the sky.

“The stars look nice tonight,” he said.

“You always say that,” replied Melanie. She looked up at the stars for a moment, then leaned back until her head was resting on the tiles of the roof.

“Maybe I just come by when the stars are looking particularly nice,” said Sander. “Is there a reason you’re not reading?”

“Yes,” replied Melanie.

“Ah,” said Sander. He shifted around and took his eyes from the stars to look at her. “Well, if you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine. Did you want to hear about my day, or did you want to just sit here in silence? I might be able to distract you from whatever you were thinking about, if it’s something that you don’t want to be thinking about.”

“Sure,” said Melanie. “Go ahead. My thinking wasn’t going in productive directions anyway.”

Sander turned to look at the stars again and leaned back so his position mimicked her own. That was something she’d noticed about Sander; he often acted as her mirror, sitting how she sat and adopting whatever pose he saw her taking. She doubted that it was intentional, but it irked her slightly for reasons that she didn’t entirely understand.

“I fought a darkling today,” said Sander. “Went off into the woods with my mother’s sword and slew it. It wasn’t quite how I imagined it would be, but it felt good all the same, there was a rightness that my apprenticeships never had. My father was furious, naturally, but there’s not much that he can do about it. On top of that, when he came back from the city council meeting he said that they were going to go ahead with a new lantern, which means that I might have a shot at being fed the hearts instead of having to gather and eat them all myself.”

“You left Light’s Hollow?” asked Melanie. She was feeling more awake now and watching Sander more closely. He hadn’t taken his eyes from the sky.

“Just for a bit,” he said. “Only long enough for a darkling to come find me. I thought that I would be more frightened than I was, but I came away with just a scratch.” He rolled up his pant leg to show her what seemed to be a black wound in the dim light. Most likely it was just bloody.

“You can’t go doing things like that,” said Melanie. “Life isn’t like the stories.”

“Does that sort of thing happen in stories?” asked Sander.

“Well … yes, of course it does,” replied Melanie. She had told herself, when she’d heard him call up to her, that she wouldn’t let herself get flummoxed by him. “The Mulberry Millions, Specter’s Languish, The Payment of Abigail Long … if it wasn’t the stories that got in your head, what on earth made you think that you wouldn’t meet with your death?”

“Oh, well I got to wondering,” said Sander. He settled himself in. “The glimwardens are part of a system. New glimwardens are created by old glimwardens with a gift of a thousand hearts, or in some rare cases the purchase of a thousand hearts.” He moved his hands when he spoke and took on an animation that Melanie had rarely seen in anyone else. “However, if that’s the case, it really makes you — or at least, me — wonder who the first glimwardens were. By definition they couldn’t have been helped along by those who came before them. So they must have gone out and killed the darklings on their own, without any special abilities, right?”

“It seems a tenuous conclusion to pin your life on,” said Melanie.

“Oh, I was just giving the short version, of course I spent a lot more thinking time on it than just that,” said Sander. “Actually, it was partly that I was trying to get to the heart of a different matter, which is what people did before the lanterns, if there was ever a time before lanterns. There are all sorts of scholarly theories on what the world was like before them, sometimes even positing a time before the darklings, but it’s all just speculation, all hard to prove. At any rate, I came away fairly confident that people once fought the darklings without the benefit of the bind. Maybe going out there wasn’t wise, but I think the results speak for themselves.” He looked down at his leg. “Well, maybe they don’t speak for themselves as loudly as I’d like.”

The air was rapidly cooling, which left Melanie room to bid Sander farewell for the night. She found herself staying her tongue though. There was something grating about Sander and the easy way that he spoke to her. Melanie wouldn’t ever push him off the roof, but she’d read farces where that sort of thing happened, and she could understand it better now having experienced such visceral annoyance. It didn’t seem to matter that she gave him little in their conversations, or that she never encouraged him. He had simply decided that they would be best friends. No, worse than that, he had decided that they already were best friends, that it was a done deal, accomplished and final.

The sad fact was that in deciding that he would be her best friend, that was what Sander had become. There was no one else who looked forward to seeing Melanie, no one whose face lit up quite like Sander’s. There were regulars at the tavern and a vanishingly small number of suitors, but Sander was the only person she was able to call a friend, just as her aunt Linda was the only person that she could call family.

“Is your father terribly angry with you?” asked Melanie.

“Hrm?” asked Sander. He’d been looking at the stars again. “Oh, we haven’t even talked about it yet, that’s how bad it is.” He shivered slightly as a breeze swept over the rooftops. “When my mom and dad fought, he would stay silent for hours, then let loose some thought that he’d been brewing. Mom was more of a flash-in-the-pan type. She would roar at him until her face turned red from yelling, then after a few minutes she’d lose her steam and settle down, until she forgot all about whatever they were fighting about, right up until dad brought forth whatever thought he’d been working on. They ran in cycles like that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Melanie. This was exactly the sort of vulnerability that no one but Sander ever showed her. It was irritating, because she had never done anything to earn that from him, but it was also endearing, and all the more irritating because it was endearing. “I never knew that things were so unhappy in your home.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,” said Sander. “We were happy, by and large, but I think that being glimwardens put some strain on their marriage. Dad always wanted her to be safe, always wanted her to take as few risks as possible. I don’t know if you remember it, but when we were about eight years old they took a traveling lantern to the mine radial thirty from here. Mom wanted to be one of the glimwardens accompanying it, but dad forbade it, and he wasn’t even chief glimwarden then, so he didn’t have any more authority than that of a husband over his wife, which mom had never believed in in the first place. That was a fight that lasted for weeks.”

Melanie said nothing. What was there to say? What did Sander want to hear from her, if anything? Was this the time for her to express some sympathy, or to unload some of her own problems onto him in a show of solidarity? There was a part of her that wanted to talk about her own parents, one dead and the other gone, or the debt that she had taken on her shoulders, or the family that had abandoned her. Yet that would have been the same as admitting that Sander really had wormed his way into her confidence.

“Anyway, dad and I haven’t had our fight yet. He’s still stewing, but that’s what he does,” said Sander. “And I do understand where he’s coming from, he lost his wife to the darklings and doesn’t want to lose his son as well, but doesn’t that seem a little bit selfish? I can’t let the course of my life be determined by my father’s fear of me getting hurt or killed. At the same time, it’s hard to tell someone that you empathize with them but are going to go ahead and defy their wishes anyway. It feels disingenuous. Maybe it is.”

“Why do you want to be a glimwarden anyway?” asked Melanie. “Why is it so important that you’re willing to have this fight with your father? Why risk your life?”

“I ran out of books,” said Sander.

“You … what?” asked Melanie. The conversation had taken a turn in an unexpected direction, as it often did with Sander. This wasn’t the first time he’d said something to catch her off guard. Thinking back, it wasn’t even the first time that night.

“I ran out of books,” Sander repeated. “My mom always pushed me toward them, since she and dad weren’t intellectual themselves. She figured that if I wanted to wield a sword or fire a pistol they would have an easy time showing me how to do those things, but everything else I would need to learn from somewhere else. So she got a bunch of books for me and taught me to read early, to make up for the fact that it was one of their weak areas. And I loved it, I just absolutely loved it. The books had all the answers. They knew why the sky was blue, why lemons taste sour, how the trees grow, on and on until I was teaching myself calculus and going through Mr. Pellin’s book of human anatomy.” He paused. “Sorry, I’m talking too much.”

Sander let the silence linger. Melanie was supposed to tell him that he wasn’t talking too much, but she wasn’t sure whether that was true or not. This had been one of their better times together, in part because it seemed that Sander had real things that he wanted to talk about. It was alright if he talked.

“You don’t mean all the books,” said Melanie. “You mean … just the science books.”

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” said Sander. “Science is a little bit narrow, I mean math and engineering too.”

“Practical texts,” replied Melanie.

“Yes,” said Sander.

“It’s funny how different we are, don’t you think?” asked Melanie.

“Why do you say that?” asked Sander. “I’ve always thought we were two of a kind.”

“Nevermind,” said Melanie. If he couldn’t figure it out, she wasn’t about to tell him. Perhaps he thought that books were one of the things that made them friends, as though there was any similarity at all between the things she read and the things he read. “You were explaining to me why you risked your life,” she said. “And for some reason you started talking about books. I have some work to do in the kitchen tomorrow morning, so I’ll probably turn in once I’ve heard your explanation.”

“Hrm,” replied Sander. “What are you making?”

The problem with Sander — or at least one of the problems — was that he wasn’t just bad at taking hints, he was also bad at understanding her when she was being quite direct. She had met with him enough times now to know that he would spiral a conversation out until he had simply run out of things to talk about, then continue staying there until they were sitting in silence together.

“I’m baking plum bread,” replied Melanie. “Now tell me how you decided it was a good idea to go into the woods by yourself. You had run out of books.”

“I had run out of books,” Sander agreed. “There was nothing left for books to teach me. I don’t mean that to sound cocky, like I know everything that there is to know, but it’s hard for me to explain it without giving that impression.” He glanced at Melanie. “Right, so I had delved into the books. I raided the libraries of anyone who would listen to my pleas. I got done with all the books that Light’s Hollow had to offer. But I had loved the process of learning, that feeling of new understanding clicking into place, and I wanted more. So I started an apprenticeship, thinking that surely I would be going through a process of learning there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be, since apparently apprenticeships are filled with processes more than they are with proper learning. When I was an apprentice runesmith I spent half my time filing away the flash on freshly cast runes or cleaning out molds. There was learning to be had, but most of what I was learning was how to be perfect at small, physical skills. It was all rote, even engineering.”

“But being a glimwarden isn’t,” said Melanie.

“No,” replied Sander. “For a start, you have a signature, an ability that’s unique to only you. There’s no one that can teach it to you, no one that’s gone over all the possibilities a thousand times before, it’s yours and yours alone.”

“I’m not so sure that’s true,” said Melanie. “In Bakers and Bollards it’s a plot point that any sufficiently skilled or powerful glimwarden can duplicate the signature of someone else. Iguro uses it to frame his brother. And in The First Liar, there are twins with identical signatures. There are other stories as well, but those are the examples that spring to mind.”

“Alright, maybe,” said Sander. “But those are just stories, so it’s hard to know whether the author did any real research. That just brings me to my other point, which is that there are practically no books on the glimwardens. It’s all knowledge passed down from glimwarden to glimwarden, very rarely written down for posterity because there’s always going to be someone to take up the mantle. Maybe it’s that a town without veteran glimwardens is quickly swept from the map by the darklings, or maybe the job just doesn’t attract strong intellects, but there’s so little to be found in books that they’re barely worth reading.” He paused. “I read them anyway, of course.”

Sander didn’t read stories. He looked past the books about the glimwardens like they didn’t even exist, all because they laid out their information in a way that he was unaccustomed to, or perhaps even actively disliked. Despite having two glimwardens for parents, Melanie was fairly certain that she knew more than he did. Yes, some of what she knew came from authors who had embellished or outright fabricated their details, but she had read enough that she felt she could make up for that.

“It’s getting late,” said Melanie.

“I know,” replied Sander. He stood up and looked out over Light’s Hollow, with a quick glance at each of the colored lantern lights that were in view. They shone on, into the darkness, marking a safety that he had decided to forsake — as had Melanie, now that she thought of it, if she really was going ahead with trying to become a glimwarden. “Thank you for talking with me,” said Sander. “I think it helped me straighten some things up. And hopefully I at least helped to distract you from your problems?”

Melanie gave him a noncommittal shrug, but the truth was that he had. She had forgotten about the debt, at least for a time. Normally that was a feat that only the best of books could accomplish.

“Well, I have to get going,” said Sander. “I’ve got a fight with my dad to prepare for.” He stretched slightly, then jumped down from the roof without another word.

Melanie stayed where she was, even though the cold night air was starting to get to her.

 

Glimwarden, Chapter 2

Philip

The city council had four members, but because four was an unlucky number, it was usually referred to as three members and one officiant: the mayor. It was that extra member of the council that Philip clerked for. The council members were technically equal, but the mayor represented the city of Light’s Hollow as a whole, rather than any individual faction. Philip was expected to be mayor some day, not just because he was the mayor’s clerk, but also because he was the mayor’s son.

Light’s Hollow had never been a particularly political town. Philip had read a number of his father’s books which described how governance and commerce were handled in the wider world. He often wondered what it would be like to have to keep track of so many things. In other cities there were elaborate voting systems designed to balance a variety of interests, long-standing coalitions of aligned interests, and different governmental bodies split out for different tasks, sometimes acting in opposition to each other. In Light’s Hollow there was only the city council, with four members who made every decision worth making.

This wasn’t to say Light’s Hollow was completely devoid of politics. There were, after all, eleven thousand people, most with their own opinions about how the city should be run. During open sessions, the city council had to hear the complaints and requests of the most opinionated citizens, and of the four members, only the chief glimwarden, whose position wasn’t elected, was truly insulated from the ravages of public backlash. Any proposed change to taxes, fees, licenses, or laws was hotly debated. For all that, there were no real political parties and the elections were few and far between.

This week’s session was closed to the public, which meant that only the council members and their aides were present. They gathered together in a large meeting room that looked out on the Chancellor’s Lantern, at the heart of Light’s Hollow. The lantern was the oldest building in the city, built of worn gray bricks that had been pulled up from the land itself rather than pressed from clay like most of the shops and houses around it used. Before the meeting started, Philip Phandrum took a moment to look at the white light perched on top of the lantern, a reassuring reminder that the hava was still burning brightly within. He had lived his whole life within the invisible light the lantern cast, protected and safe. He had paid enough attention to his elders to know that the world outside was hostile. He held little fear for the outside world, only a practical appreciation for the pleasures of not being eaten alive.

He turned back to the meeting room and the notepad in front of him when Samuel Seaborn came in through the thick double doors. The chief glimwarden’s armor was visibly stained with thick black gore. He strode to his seat with purpose and sat down without saying a word. Unlike the other council members, he never brought any aides with him, nor did he take any notes. If it had been anyone else, Philip would have taken this for showmanship, meant to impress upon others just how stoic and strong he was. Glimwarden Samuel Seaborn wasn’t just pretending to hold the council as at arm’s length though, he was being true to himself. He had the position on the council for reasons of seniority, and would doubtless have handed the duty off to someone else if he had been one to shirk his responsibilities. In Philip’s opinion, that sense of duty was one of the most useful levers by which the chief glimwarden could be moved.

“Are we starting?” Samuel asked a few moments after he sat down. His voice was low and gravelly, like Philip imagined a bear would sound if you woke it from hibernation. Samuel was almost always the last to arrive and usually the first to leave. He sat through the meetings like he had somewhere else to be.

“I suppose so,” said Mayor Phandrum, Philip’s father. They had the same pale blue eyes and angular features. Philip was proud to look like his father, and he knew that if he was ever called to take over the position, the physical similarity would be an important asset for the election. The mayor had often remarked in private, when he was simply a father, that people cared more about the person than the policies. You could talk all day about crop yields and tax rates, but when it came to a vote, the masses would go with the man they trusted. It was a naive view of politics expressed in an empty platitude, in Philip’s opinion, but the senior Phandrum was given to those. Philip tried not to hold that against his father. At any rate, Philip had seen the currency in their resemblance and had worked to enhance it; they shared a tailor and a barber, and though Philip was only sixteen, he had often heard people remark on how adult he looked. He was his father’s aide and took the official minutes from the council meeting, which was a small duty that nonetheless kept him in the public eye. Philip was undeniably being groomed for a position of power, which, in Light’s Hollow, meant one of the four seats at the city council.

“I hereby call to order this closed session of the city council of Light’s Hollow,” said the mayor. He gave his gavel a perfunctory tap that echoed around the room. Philip suspected that was his father’s favorite part of the job. “The first order of business is the matter of fishing quotas,” said the mayor, looking down at his notes. His father didn’t need the notes; the day before the weekly council meetings was spent reviewing the agenda and trying to find the lay of the land, an exercise that Philip had been involved in every week for the past two years.

“We should skip ahead,” said Sam. “We can talk about quotas in the open session, if we really have to. The closed session needs to be for things that aren’t public. What are we doing about the eighth lantern?”

Linda Linwell had raised the topic of the eighth lantern two weeks ago. It wasn’t a new item that was added to the agenda, but instead an offhand comment during one of the open sessions when a tenant farmer was complaining about the allocation of land and the burdens of working rented land. Linda had said, “Well perhaps when we construct the eighth lantern you might be able to find some land of your own.” That had caused some murmuring among those present. More questions were immediately posed on the matter, sidetracking the farmer’s question about remediation. The city council hadn’t discussed a potential eighth lantern in the slightest, of course, and the mayor said as much in a more diplomatic way, but the match had been struck and the kindling had caught fire. Now it was only a question of whether the fire would start up in earnest or peter out.

“I’ve made my feelings on the matter clear,” said Linda. “Land is the most valuable asset in Light’s Hollow. The lanterns are what allow land to be farmed on, what allow a place for houses and businesses, what gives us space to breathe, live, and play. Every problem this city has relates back to a lack of space. There have been five deaths from the darklings in the past year, all healthy people struck down in their prime because they felt compelled to take risks and go beyond the safety of the lanterns. The marked increase in crime, the unrest among the tenant farmers, the overfishing of the lakes, all can be attributed to a simple lack of land. It is our duty to rectify that.”

Sam leaned forward and laid his hands on the table in front of him. For a moment Philip thought that the chief glimwarden would dismantle the argument piece by piece. Overfishing had been a problem since time immemorial, there was nothing recent about it, so there was no reason to expect that adding another lantern would correct it. There wasn’t really unrest among the tenant farmers, at least not that Philip could see, there had only been a single complaint at the earlier city council meeting, and that was a question of Carter Colsum’s greed. If the new land was auctioned off as it had been in times past, there was no reason to think that Colsum wouldn’t end up with the bulk of it. That left the increase in crime and the question of those who had died to the darklings, both of which were too complex to be simple evidence in favor of adding more land. Samuel Seaborn could have brought up any of those points, but then he wouldn’t have been Samuel Seaborn.

“That’s trumpery,” was his simple reply. “You want to line your own pockets.”

“I’ve spoken at length about the conflicts of interest inherent in my position,” said Linda. “The point stands. People need room to breathe and grow, and with every new member of the community, we require more land, not only for farming, but so that people can find some quietude away from each other. Land leads the way to peace and prosperity.”

“And how much will the engineers demand from Light’s Hollow in order to have that lantern built?” asked Samuel. His voice was a low growl. “How many glimwardens will die defending that structure while it’s built, or gathering the required hava? We’d have to be lucky to escape without injury.”

The mayor tapped his gavel once. “Control your tone,” he said to the chief glimwarden. “You have two good points. The first is that there is a cost associated with the building a new lantern. It is our duty as city council to make a careful consideration of how the wealth of our citizens is spent. While Glimwarden Seaborn’s comment wasn’t courteously phrased, we must still have an answer. At the same time, Glimwarden Seaborn has a legitimate concern about the strain that an eighth lantern would place upon the glimwardens, both during the lantern’s construction and in terms of ongoing costs. We should not be discussing whether to build the lantern or not, we should be discussing the merits, risks, and costs instead, before we arrive at the question of whether or not to do it. Speak about the problem first before seeking a solution.”

Gregor, the fourth member of the council, coughed into his hand and cleared his throat, readying himself to speak. He was the oldest person sitting at the table, with hair that was nearly pure white. He had been slipping for the past two years, speaking less than he had before and not adding much to the conversation. His grandchildren were his aides; they said little at the council meetings, which only served to call attention to his deteriorating condition. Philip wasn’t quite sure why the other council members hadn’t taken any action to remove him, but it was possible that they all really believed that it was better to wait another year for the next election. Philip knew that his father had spoken to Gregor in private, but the old man had shrugged off the suggestion of an early retirement.

“Eight is unlucky,” Gregor said. “One is fine, that’s the number of unity. Three is good, the trinity of the natural rulers. Four is three and one, a trinity and a unity, just like this council, so long as the parts are three and one it’s no problem. Six is the hexagon, the number by which we divide the working classes. Seven is just six and one again, the hexity and unity bound together, one surrounding the other, our current configuration. Two and five are the ones left out. It was during those times that Light’s Hollow lay unstable, when the greatest tragedies of our city occurred. Famine, drought, war, executions with blood running red down the streets. Those numbers, two and five, have always been portentous, to be avoided if at all possible. Eight is worse than them though. We cannot have eight, not as our foundation. Doom would follow.”

The room was silent for a long moment following this.

“Gregor, do you mean that we should build an eighth and ninth lantern concurrently?” asked the mayor. This was the first time during the meeting that Philip was in disagreement with his father. There was no sense in listening to the senseless. Gregor Golland had been a pillar of the community for a long time, but when a pillar began to rot out, only a fool kept it around out of sentimentality.

“An eighth lantern will cost lives,” said Sam, barreling right on ahead. “We need more glimwardens in advance of the lantern being built. That means we need a greater share of the hearts we bring in. I’ve talked about that time and again, I know where everyone stands on the matter. If this council won’t increase the warden’s share, we’ll be stretched too thin.”

“Do you know where I stand?” asked Linda. She steepled her fingers. “If we were to agree to an eighth, I would be willing to make concessions. I fully admit that we would need another glimwarden to keep the extra lantern fed —”

“One glimwarden?” asked Sam. “That’s the paltry offer? We have twenty men and women for seven lanterns right now and that’s barely enough to keep us stable when one of us takes an injury.”

“There are another hundred men and women in the reserve,” she said. “Not equipped or trained as well as you and yours, not as full of the bind, but capable all the same, should the need arise.” She held up a hand to halt his objections. “But if we were to agree on three glimwardens, raised up to power through a portion of the city’s share of the hearts, I would need concessions in turn, like some say in who is to be selected for the honor.”

“Eight is unlucky,” Gregor repeated, slipping his words in.

“Absolutely not,” said Sam, not missing a beat. “No one knows the battle against the darklings like those who are already fighting it. I won’t take on someone who’s a burden because you crave power.”

“The glimwarden have long had a stranglehold on who joins their ranks,” said Linda with a frown. The language was harsher than she normally used.

“I will remind the two councilors that we have not yet decided to build an eighth lantern,” said the mayor. “By the time the next closed session comes around, I would like some reports on likely costs so we can make our decision. Perhaps the matter can be conducted another day, or given some time to explore —”

“We could have a competition,” said Philip. He wasn’t supposed to speak at the meetings unless spoken to, but his suggestion wasn’t immediately put down, in part because it begged for questions to follow.

“I won’t sully the name of the glimwardens with a game,” said Sam with his arms crossed in front of him.

“Not a game,” said Philip. Sam was the one to convince, the one most likely to use the power to say no. “You said that you don’t want to take on someone who’s a burden, right? You don’t want Councilor Linwell to have the power to put whoever she wants in the new position.” He turned to Linda. “And you don’t want the new glimwardens, whose power will be provided in part by the city’s share of the hearts, to be the beneficiaries of nepotism, bribery, or something else untoward.” He turned back to Sam. “Not that they would be, of course.”

“Of course,” said Sam. Philip could tell that the man’s pride had been wounded, which was exactly the idea. Hitting a man’s pride was a dangerous thing, but Philip hoped that in this case it would provide some motivation.

“If you owned a shop and were thinking of taking on a new worker, you get to know them first, and you do a trial if you could,” said Philip. “All I’m suggesting is that Light’s Hollow might benefit from something similar. If you set the criteria that are important to you in a glimwarden, then you can evaluate all the candidates on that basis. It will be more fair to them and more likely to get a good result.”

Sam Seaborn grunted.

“Well I think it’s a marvelous idea,” said Linda, which was such a disastrous thing to say that Philip wondered whether it was calculated as such. But no, Linda had always been easier to read than she thought she was. This was true excitement at the prospect of interfering with the glimwardens.

“I’ll think about it,” said Sam, to Philip’s surprise.

“We can schedule a private meeting in my chambers,” said the mayor. “I agree that a spectacle would be unbecoming, but my aide’s idea had some merit to it, by my estimation.”

Philip kept himself from smiling.

❧❧❧

The ink had barely dried on the meeting minutes when Philip set out for the edge of the city. His father would need help, Philip was certain of that. Over the course of the next few days a number of conversations would take place between the mayor and the other members of the council. Linwell and Seaborn hated each other and rarely spoke outside the meetings, which meant that any actual agreement would have to be mediated by the mayor, especially given the recent decline of Golland, who had shouldered some of the burden of peacemaking in the past.

The founders of Light’s Hollow had structured their city council to favor the status quo. A tied vote always broke in favor of inaction and Philip suspected that the entire reason to have four sitting members instead of three was to ensure that deadlocks were common. The founders might have believed that deadlock was a valuable tool to ensure a conservative approach to governance, but it was difficult to know as they hadn’t left much in the way of explanation. This system of voting had two common outcomes, the first of which was three people teaming up to push through some change over the objections of the fourth, and the second of which was a dissenter trying to convince a single one of the other members. Linwell needed to secure the votes of Philip’s father and Gregor Golland if she wanted her eighth lantern, while Seaborn only needed to convince one of them. This had been their pattern for going on three years now, with the outcome most often being decided in Linwell’s favor. Philip knew that his father leaned toward the building of an eighth lantern, even with all the controversy it would surely bring. That left Gregor Golland, whose mental health was obviously poor. It was entirely possible that Golland would have to be replaced, which would mean a new election ahead of time and all the headaches that would come with that, especially with the question of the eighth lantern hanging in the air.

Philip’s father would need help, but that had to come later. Today was the day for radio.

City hall was next to the central lantern of Light’s Hollow, with the white light of the Chancellor shining on top of it. The Chancellor’s color was supposed to be gray, but the engineers had long ago given it up as nearly impossible with the chemicals that they had access to. The same was true of Rogue’s Lantern, whose light was supposed to be a dark brown but instead shone almost orange instead. It was that lantern that Philip headed towards, taking the miles slowly and trying to put his thoughts in order.

Taking over Light’s Hollow would be easy enough. He had been born into a position that removed much of the work that would otherwise be involved with that. At the age of sixteen, Philip was better suited to become the next mayor than anyone else in Light’s Hollow. Mayor of Light’s Hollow was currently as high as a citizen could climb, offering the maximal amount of authority over other citizens. Philip’s rule wouldn’t be absolute at first, but that could certainly change. The founders had laid down an ironclad, unchangeable document, a set of laws that was to guide the town through the ages. That document was only as powerful as people allowed it to be, and only as ironclad as anyone cared to enforce. Becoming the dictator of Light’s Hollow would take a few years from the time Philip assumed the mayorship, perhaps less depending on whether useful allies could be easily maneuvered into the remaining council positions.

But what would the point be? There was nothing that Philip particularly wanted to accomplish with political power like that. The problem of taking power was an interesting one, but the end result — actually ruling — was not. He might take the opportunity to write up a better founding document that had none of the problems or loopholes that the existing one had, but he didn’t actually need any amount of power just to write something like that. Again, it was the problem that interested him, not the solution. The problem could be worked out on paper, or perhaps theorized about with a few close friends, if Philip had any of those. There just wasn’t much pleasure to be had from replacing a fairly competent document with a masterful one.

What Philip wanted was a challenge. If it was the problems that interested him, then it seemed like the solution was to go find more and better problems to put his mind to. To some extent this could be accomplished by simply creating the problems himself, but he knew that there would be something false in that, and it would be not only morally wrong but politically dangerous as well. Unfortunately, it seemed the Light’s Hollow would never be so interesting as Philip wanted it to be.

Philip arrived at the Rogue’s Lantern and the buildings that surrounded it, then continued down the road that went to the edge of the lantern’s light. The white marble bollards that marked the edge of safe territory were already visible. If Linwell got her way, those bollards would be moved back and new ones would be quarried and finished as more land fell under the dominion of man, taken from the darklings. It was a happy thought for most people, but Philip had seen nothing to suggest that the addition of another lantern would substantially change anything.

When Philip heard the distant bells marking two o’clock, he hurried forward, not wanting to be late.

Philip strode right past the bollards, walking another twenty feet onto soft grass before he knelt down to fiddle with the radio. So far as Philip was aware, the radio had first been invented to measure the strength of the lanterns. The engineers still used something similar, not much more than a row of tiny bulbs with miniature filaments that lit up to show how intensely the lanterns were emitting. If you translated it to sound, you would hear the persistent hiss of the lantern, which is why it was necessary to go beyond the bollards in order to have a clear conversation with anyone outside Light’s Hollow, though static still plagued the transmissions between towns.

Philip began unfolding his antenna, keeping one eye on the open field around him, looking for darklings. The bollards marked a cutoff, but it was really a slope. Past experience had shown that few darklings would approach this close. Philip wouldn’t have wanted to spend the night so far from the lanterns, but for a brief portion of the afternoon it was perfectly acceptable. Still, it wouldn’t do to suffer an unlucky death when there was so much left of his life. He finished setting up the antenna, then connected a wire from the battery to the radio proper. Static immediately began flowing from the speakers, but it was quiet enough to talk over.

“Wind’s Voice to all who would listen,” Philip spoke into the microphone with a thunk and click of its button.

There was only static from the other end for a moment. ‘All who would listen’ was really only a matter of courtesy. The number of radios was quite small, they could only be effectively used outside the lanterns’ full protection, and he was speaking on a specific frequency at a specific time. Talking to someone over radio required arrangements ahead of time, either through caravan mail service or through prior radio conversations. It wasn’t the sort of thing that anyone would just randomly listen in on. There would only be one person who would receive his message.

“Legal Multiplier receiving,” came a voice from the other end. “How was your meeting?”

“I offered a suggestion that was well received,” he replied. “Linwell likes it, and I think that Seaborn is going to come on board in the near future. It’s a stepping stone that people will remember, so long as it goes well, but I think it will play well with the public even if the measurable outcomes are poor. How are things going on your end?”

Philip didn’t know the name of the woman he was communicating with. The fact that it was a woman was obvious from the voice, but aside from the call-sign of Legal Multiplier, Philip knew practically nothing about her. She was full of interesting information, but very little of that information was personal in nature. She lived in the city of Gossom. It was some thirty miles away, with only three lanterns, but Gossom had significantly more trade than Light’s Hollow, which meant that Legal tended to know more about the wider world. Philip suspected that she had other radio partners as well, but she’d never admitted to it. For the most part, she was an ideal conversational partner; she listened well and spoke intelligently, and because she was so far away, there was practically no risk of any information shared with her leaking back to Light’s Hollow. Philip never told her anything too sensitive, just in case.

“Do you have an up-to-date map of the region?” asked Legal with the persistent hiss of static behind her.

“Not with me,” said Philip. The button made a deep thunking sound as he pressed it.

“Well, there was a town called Langust about fifty miles away, radial thirty-two from Gossom,” said Legal. “The operative word there is was. Only one lantern, but it had made it through the early years. The caravan came in three days ago with six oxen hauling a traveling lantern and what was left of the town huddled around it. There were about three hundred survivors and we had a mad scramble to find temporary housing for all of them. Their total mortality rate, including both the initial collapse and their journey over here, was seventy percent. They had ten glimwardens when they left and only two when they got here. I don’t know how eager any of them are to move, but it’s likely that Light’s Hollow is going to get some of the overflow with the next caravan we send over.”

Philip mulled that over. “Any word on the cause of failure?” he asked with a click of the switch.

“The lantern went out,” said Legal. She had a soothing voice, but Philip could feel her numb horror, which she was trying to cover up by sounding clinical. Philip enjoyed insights like that, because it meant that he was coming to know her. “It happened at two in the morning and wasn’t noticed right away. Their alarm system hadn’t been tested in a long time and failed for some reason, but they never managed to investigate that because all their engineers were woken up and put to work getting the lantern shining again. The darklings had killed a few dozen people before the town started to wake up. Everyone moved to a fortified position in the center of their settlement after that, with more deaths along the way. The glimwardens formed a defensive perimeter against the darklings, trying to buy the engineers time with the lantern, but here the story starts to diverge depending on who’s doing the telling. The traveling lantern was brought out at some point and filled with what was left of the heart from the lantern. At some other point, either before or after that, some of the hearts were consumed to make more glimwardens. Most of the new wardens died in the fighting. Three days after the lantern went out, they decided that they needed to leave if they wanted any hope of survival.”

“They should have been able to use the traveling lantern indefinitely,” said Philip. He was lost in thought, trying to imagine what it had been like. Legal hadn’t described the loud conversations that the people of Langust must have had with each other, but that was all that Philip could focus on. The decision to use the traveling lantern would have been a difficult one, but cannibalizing a portion of the hava to make new wardens … who had decided on that? How had they been chosen?

“They couldn’t have used the traveling lantern indefinitely,” said Legal. “Perhaps their glimwardens could have harvested enough hearts on a consistent basis to keep it going, but eventually they would have run out of food. I agree that they could have had more time, if they’d wanted it, but the problem with the main lantern appeared to be intractable. It’s unclear how much they had stored in their granary. Either way, after a full day had passed the darklings were tearing into houses and ripping up crops on the outskirts. Perhaps they could have gotten the lantern working again, given a week or two, but they would have been close to starving by that point. They would only have reclaimed a destroyed town. Come winter, most of them would have starved.”

“Better for them to go early than late,” said Philip with a nod. He looked out at the green grass and swaying trees beyond them. It was peaceful here, but the darklings were always laying in wait. “So how did the rest of them die?”

“You caught that, did you?” asked Legal. “Langust started with a thousand and ended with three hundred. Their stories don’t account for it. We think that perhaps there was some infighting, but it would have to have been ferocious to leave so many dead. There’s something that they’re hiding. We’ll get to the truth soon enough, but no one here wants to interrogate people who have lost so much so recently.”

“Your people would prefer being polite to being secure,” replied Philip. He shook his head.

“A strong argument,” said Legal. “But it would mark you as callous, even if you’re right.”

“I would be careful of my phrasing,” said Philip. “I’m always careful with my phrasing.”

“Am I the only one you’re not cautious with?” asked Legal.

“You, and my father,” Philip replied.

“That’s not true,” said Legal. “You only pretend to be honest with him. You’ve said as much, I read between the lines. For all I know, you’re only pretending with me as well. Turning those gears while pretending you care.”

Philip looked at the speaker and frowned. “I apologize if I’ve given you the impression that I’m insincere,” said Philip. For a long moment the sound of the button clicking down echoed in his ears. Legal was supposed to be an ally, someone he could bank on if he ever wanted to venture away from Light’s Hollow. Gossom would just be a stop-over, but it would be better if he had a contact there.

“I’m sorry,” Legal replied. “I’ve had a lot to do here with the refugees coming in. I should probably end our conversation here so I don’t say something foolish.” There was a long pause from the radio. “I’ll talk to you again next week, same time?”

“That sounds good,” replied Philip. He tried to keep the strain from his voice. “Wind’s Voice out.” He shut off the radio before waiting for a response.

People liked Philip. He kept a neat appearance and carried himself like an adult. He was intelligent and, more importantly, diligent. He was always willing to lend a helping hand to those in need, and he took it upon himself to offer aid even when it wasn’t requested. While he had thought about how this behavior would reflect on him and help or hinder his chances to fulfill his desires, and while he had come to the conclusion that helping people was to his benefit, he didn’t think that it would be fair to say that he was kind and helpful only because he thought there was something in it for him. No one had ever levied that accusation against him, but he worried that someday they would, and there would be no way to prove otherwise.

Philip didn’t like people. He didn’t hate people, not as a general rule, but he just didn’t feel the warm glow of affection that others claimed to. There had been a time when he’d thought that everyone else was like him. It was conceivable that no one felt a warm glow of affection towards others, that it was all just a pile of motivated lies meant to deceive others. After all, Philip faked his way through plenty of conversations, giving practiced smiles when social conventions dictated that this was necessary, so why shouldn’t it be the case that everyone else was engaging in mere signaling as well? This theory didn’t hold up under scrutiny though. For one thing, many people were terrible liars. To suppose that there were faking their interactions was to suppose that they were competent liars, or that they were good at one sort of lie but bad at others, or that their transparent lies were just another, more complex form of signaling something. But if that were true, then it meant that Philip knew even less about other people than he thought he did. He had reverted back to a simpler hypothesis; he was unique in some regard, at least among the population of Light’s Hollow. Social interaction did not come naturally to him, so he studied it, and in studying it, became better at it than anyone else seemed to be.

That was why he spent so long in confusion over Legal Multiplier’s rebuff. They had known each other for months now. She was aware of the sort of person he was. She was of a cynical disposition herself, always ready to take the dim view of people or to pick apart their motivations in gory detail. Philip didn’t believe that she was like him, but she was the closest that he had found thus far. He had said nothing that was too far outside the norms of their relationship though. Perhaps she was right that she was under some strain from the refugees, but it seemed likely that instead of the strain causing her discomfort with him, it instead served to expose some underlying problem with their relationship.

If it had been a windy day, Philip might not have seen the darkling. Since the grass and the leaves weren’t rustling, its movements betrayed it. It was black as jet, the color of a night without stars, and what passed for its head was turned towards Philip.

Philip didn’t blink. It was unusual for the darklings to come so close to the border, but the border wouldn’t have been where it was if darklings coming this close was unheard of. Philip felt no fear at its presence; it was a good hundred yards away from him, and it cost the darklings something to come even that close. He didn’t think about the darklings often. They were a feature of the landscape, a constraint that organized society operated under, the same as the need for drinking water and adequate food. There were lanterns to keep them at bay and glimwardens to keep the lanterns fed, which resulted in two of the largest grips on political power.

Soon, if Philip got his way, people would be competing for the right to one of those grips. Most wouldn’t be motivated by politics, they would seek personal pride, material wealth, or social standing. Yet political power was there for the taking as well, if anyone wanted it. Philip watched the darkling with unblinking eyes as he idly touched the knobs of his radio. There was going to be a competition for the new glimwardens. He could enter it himself. Philip mulled over the merits of the idea as the darkling turned away to disappear back into the woods.

Glimwarden, Chapter 1

Sander

Light’s Hollow was surrounded by bollards of creamy white marble, spaced out like gapped teeth around the domain of the seven lanterns. They were a warning to anyone that got too close to them, and an ominous reminder of the darklings that stalked the world.

Sander stood next to one of the bollards, looking out into the woods, which were strikingly green now that the spring showers had come and gone. He held his mother’s sword in one hand, pointed down, with its tip dug into the damp earth to counteract some of its frenetic energy. It was often remarked that he was a handsome boy, now on his way to becoming a handsome man, but a survey of his features would have revealed that this wasn’t quite true. Instead he had a handsome soul, one which made up for certain deficiencies in the contour of his nose and the spacing of his eyes. For his part, Sander rarely looked in mirrors. If his hair didn’t get in his eyes every now and then, he might have been able to go weeks at a time without remembering that it was blond.

A small rabbit skin bag was slung over one shoulder, with more food than he would need for this short trip, and a waterskin that was full. Sander reached toward the bag to pull out an apple to eat, then paused with his hand halfway there. He decided that he wasn’t really hungry, only nervous and trying to delay himself from doing something he’d already committed to. His mind was playing tricks on him, putting imagined obstacles in the way of his quest. The woods were waiting. Sander took one last look back toward the direction of the nearest lantern, Healer’s Lantern, where a small blue light indicated, even from far away, that the engine was working steadily at keeping the monsters at bay. Then Sander took his first step past the line of bollards, with his mother’s eager sword held out in front of him.

Four days ago, Sander had decided that his third apprenticeship wasn’t working out any better than his first two had. The feeling had started in the morning, when he’d been asked to file down the burrs left over from a series of brass castings. There had been reasons that he’d been interested in runework. He’d thought that it would thrill him where both accounting and engineering had not. Filing down burrs was incredibly tedious though, and worse, didn’t allow him to use his hands to take notes on whatever was occupying his mind.

His father had said that not everyone could find a trade that they enjoyed, that most people couldn’t, but Sander had found that so grim that he chose not to believe it. Sander didn’t often go looking for traces of misery in the world, but even when he had, he’d never found it in the trades. To think that people were routinely unhappy with their jobs was to posit a world where most people were miserable for a good portion of their day, and that simply didn’t square with his experiences. It was possible that people grew into loving their trades. Perhaps Mr. Frances had hated being a runesmith’s apprentice twenty years ago, just as Sander hated it now. But when did a person grow to love something? What would happen if three years had passed and Sander was still as miserable as ever? It wasn’t a risk he was willing to take. In Sander’s opinion, it was better to find happiness in the present than sit around and wait for it to come to you in the future.

Now Sander was embarking on a fourth apprenticeship with sword in hand. He had told no one where he was going, though he’d left a note in the bottom of his dresser drawer for his father to find if the worst happened. He was now set on his course. He had resolved that he would stride into the woods, kill a darkling, eat its heart, and become a glimwarden.

The plan had seemed blisteringly stupid when Sander had first come up with it.

Sander walked past blackberry bushes and pear trees as he made his way toward the woods. The first hundred yards beyond the bollards were filled with the bounty of the land, planted there by generations past and now grown wild. The white markers implied a sharp stopping point beyond which no one was safe, as did the maps of Light’s Hollow which showed a thin line segregating the town from the wild land beyond it.

The reality, not quite a secret but known by few, was that the lanterns repelled the darklings in accordance with the inverse-cube law. That meant that the line only marked a small difference of degrees so far as danger from the darklings went. The city council liked to pretend that there was a strict inside and outside, separate and inviolable.

Sander had a natural attraction to abstractions, which grew from his love of math. The problem was that the city council of generations past had been using the wrong sort of abstraction. The construction of a physical representation of the faulty abstraction in the form of marble columns sticking up from the ground had only exacerbated that. It would have been bad enough if there were static values in play, so that the abstraction would be “gliminance is equal to a given number of Watts per square meter at this marker”. But Sander had apprenticed as an engineer for long enough to know that this abstraction would have been false as well. The lanterns didn’t shine their invisible light at some constant rate, it varied based on what the engineers were doing and how many darkling hearts were available to fuel the lanterns. So at best, the markers were an abstraction for “the engineers are trying their best to keep gliminance greater than or equal to a given number of Watts per square meter at this marker”.

It seemed like a small distinction, but when Sander had unraveled the relationship between representation and reality, he’d begun to lose faith in the superiority of the adults. At ten years old, his father had barred him from becoming a glimwarden, and he had simply accepted his father’s judgment. Now, at sixteen, he had finally gone from thinking that his father might not be right, to thinking that his father was likely wrong. Yet no amount of protestation would overturn the command that his father made six years ago. His father was determined to bar him from pursuing the one trade that actually interested him.

The rule his father made was just an abstraction though. It didn’t actually mean that Sander wasn’t allowed to become a glimwarden, it only meant that his father didn’t want him to, and would put up barriers in Sander’s way. “You will not become a glimwarden” became “I will attempt to prevent you from becoming a glimwarden”. All that really meant was that Sander had a number of avenues cut off to him. Becoming a glimwarden wasn’t really like learning any other trade, and it was by no means certain that taking the traditional path would have worked out, but that was still something that Sander would have tried before heading off into the woods alone. In a way, his father had forced this course of action.

The sword led the way, propelling Sander forward against the strength of his reflections and doubts. It had no animating intelligence, only the brute rules of runework. The pull Sander felt from the blade was just the result of walking with it in front of him, the natural response the blade gave to someone moving it somewhere. It was hard not to imagine that the sword had a mind of its own though, that it was imbued with the spirit of his mother, and that she was guiding him to his destiny. Sander would normally have put such a foolish thought aside, but he kept it close to his heart instead, warming him like an ember. He was sure that his mother would have approved of this quest.

Beyond the bounty of fruits and forage that grew just past the markers were the woods themselves. There were forested areas within Light’s Hollow, sections of woodland like Cooper’s Park and Lyman Row, but they were manicured in a very deliberate way. The wilds Sander now stepped into were raw and untamed, sometimes marked by scars from pitched battles with the darklings, but never touched by an ordered hand.

When sitting in the middle of Light’s Hollow, Sander could see purpose in how every stone was laid and in the planting of every tree. Where there was no obvious pattern in the gardens, there was almost always an unobvious pattern, a golden spiral or a fractal design meant only to evoke the feeling of natural processes. In the wilds, there wasn’t even a suggestion of order. Things simply happened, with intelligent reasoning thrown out the window. It was frightening and thrilling at the same time.

Sander took his time as he walked, looking at the birch trees that had planted themselves according to the wills and whims of the winds and rains. He stopped to touch a cluster of bluebells, the delicate flowers opened wide to the morning air. There was a disorder here, but it was an ordered disorder, chaos constrained by complex rules too deep for any person to understand, try as they might. It was explicable in theory, not in practice, and so held a deeper allure than what passed for beauty back in town.

He was half a kilometer from the markers when he spotted his first darkling. It was coal black with a faint trail of black smoke behind it, and eyes that were visible only by their black sheen. It saw him at almost the same moment that he saw it, and turned its head towards him with black teeth instantly bared. There were books that said the darklings were like shadows projected on the world, but Sander knew at once that this wasn’t true. If the darklings perfectly absorbed light, he wouldn’t have been able to make out the scaled textures of its skin. The books were right that it wasn’t organic though. It wasn’t even doing that much to pretend to be. The teeth came up cleanly from the jaw, with no space for gums, and when it briefly closed its mouth whatever material it was made from seemed to meld back together, as though the mouth was only a convenient arrangement of its flesh that could be dropped at any time.

Sander thought all those things as the darkling loped towards him on its four long legs. It moved with an unnatural gait that Sander had to stop himself from analyzing. As much of a contrivance as its mouth might have been, Sander had no doubt that it was capable of biting. He steadied himself and began to swing his mother’s sword, letting it feed on its own speed as he twirled it in circles. At a certain point it was effortless to maintain the figure eight shape he was making in the air. He had practiced this for hours in the safety of his room.

The darkling dashed toward Sander at its full speed, feet deforming as it put less attention into maintaining its appearance. When it reached him though, it extended a perfectly defined set of razor sharp claws — which were promptly cut from its body by the spinning sword. Sander nearly dropped his weapon from the impact, while the darkling shifted its momentum to run past him.

As Sander began spinning his sword again, he watched the darkling closely. The black skin was pulsing towards the wound, which was reforming itself to its previous form. Inky black drops fell down to stain the forest floor though, and while the darkling would be fully functional in a handful of seconds, it had still been hurt. Killing a darkling wasn’t supposed to be about making a killing blow, or even removing its body parts one by one, it was about inflicting enough cumulative damage that it was left with no reserves. Sander had his sword moving again, spinning in front of him, ready for another round.

The darkling was more cautious this time. It paced around Sander, miming a snarl with its pseudomouth but utterly silent. Sander kept his sword in motion, the better to leverage its special properties. When the darkling attacked again, going low for Sander’s legs, Sander altered the angle of his swinging sword and brought it in for a deep cut into the darkling’s midsection. The darkling managed to bite him in the exchange, leaving a bleeding wound in Sander’s leg that caused him to bite his tongue. A second swing cut through the darkling’s midsection entirely as it turned away, though the darkling healed back together in a mere moment. Sander was starting to feel good about himself until he tried to bring his sword back into its rotation and felt it slip from his sweaty fingers.

Sander watched in horror as his mother’s sword traced a graceful arc through the air. It landed blade-first in a patch of moss, buried a foot into the ground and looking like something from a storybook. His mother’s sword was a good twenty feet away from him. The darkling gave no sense that it understood what had happened, no narrowing of its eyes or gleeful laugh, but Sander felt a cold sweat all the same. To go into the wilds with the intent of killing a darkling was risky with a magic sword. Doing it bare-handed would simply be insane. His two options were to fight the darklings with nothing but his fists and feet, or to run after the sword and hope that he could outpace the darkling.

Sander ran. The darklings were silent creatures, for the most part, but he could still hear the sound of its footfalls behind him. He reached the sword in half a dozen long steps and pulled it from the ground, trying to turn around to face the darkling as he did so. Unfortunately, he had forgotten that the sword acted on all acceleration, and pulling it from the ground certainly qualified. The sword rose faster than he’d anticipated and the leather-wrapped hilt slammed him in the shoulder, pushing him backward. That turned out to be a stroke of luck as the darkling went sailing past the position he’d only recently occupied. Through this, Sander had managed to somehow keep his grip on the sword, and when he recovered his balance, he slowly brought the sword to bear, still and steady this time, working against its tendency to move. The darkling came at Sander again, pushing off against the forest floor with unbridled power.

The sword went from standing still to a forward strike in an instant. The motion was more like thrusting a spear than a proper stroke, but it caught the darkling in its mouth, shearing through its black teeth and straight into the bulk of what passed for flesh. Its momentum carried it forward, until its fangs were nearly touching the hilt of the sword. The creature gave no howl or scream as it fell to the ground and died, it simply lost its ability to hold itself together. The scales on its skin melted away first, leaving a watery black shape with no texture. The teeth followed soon afterward, then the legs dropped out from under it, sinking a mass of black down to the ground that spread out into a puddle. Sander was breathing hard, trying again to hold his sword still as he pulled it from the black morass. He was searching the wreckage of the darkling, trying to find — there, the heart, a small orb the size of a circle made with his thumb and index finger.

Sander lodged the sword into the ground, stilling its desire for movement, then reached down to pluck his prize up. The heart was a light yellow, the color of a breaking dawn. He popped it into his mouth, trying not to give it another thought. It tasted strongly of ash. He bit down hard on it and was rewarded with the feel of the heart popping into two separate spheres. Another bite turned those spheres into smaller spheres, and Sander kept biting down until his mouth felt like it was full of marbles. He swallowed them down as fast as he could, trying to keep as much of their power as possible, nearly choking in the process.

And then like that, he was done. The darkling had been found and killed, its heart recovered and eaten. That didn’t make him a glimwarden, and he didn’t even feel all that different, but he had accomplished something real and meaningful, for what felt like the first time in his life. An idiot grin spread onto his face. He carefully checked the wound on his leg, but thankfully it was largely superficial, even if it did sting. The bleeding had mostly stopped. He’d be able to hide it from his father easily enough. He would practice more before his next outing, both to get a better feel for the sword and to replay the fight in his head. He would wear gloves next time, gloves with grip to them, or talc to keep his hands dry. With some real world experience, becoming a glimwarden would be easy. He felt a bubbly euphoria that he’d never felt at any of his apprenticeships, one he doubted would ever be replaced.

The giddy feeling lasted until he was within sight of Light’s Hollow. He heard the sound of a tree falling down behind him, and he turned to see what had caused it. He was met with the sight of a darkling that stood fifteen feet tall. It was striding towards him on thick legs, using its spindly front arms to maneuver the bulk of its mass rather than to propel itself. Its eyes were as big as plates, taking up most of its head, black but highly reflective. It had Sander in its sights.

Sander ran and tried to ignore the renewed pain in his leg. The sword seemed to guide him on as he made for the white markers. He risked a look behind him to confirm what the sounds of destruction behind him were telling him, then snuck a second glance, then a third. Each time, the darkling was closer. Its legs were too long and too powerful. Yet Sander entertained the notion of a fight for only a few frantic seconds before discarding it entirely and focusing on where he was putting his feet.

He was moving through the fruit bushes now, within a stone’s throw of the nearest marker, but the darkling still followed, now only a few steps behind him. It was close enough to the lantern that it was being torn apart at the seams, but it was big enough that it could simply shrug off the damage, at least in the short term. Sander couldn’t help but look at it again and again, taking his eyes off the ground in front of him. It was changing shape in response to the force of the lantern tearing at its binding energy, first abandoning its forelimbs and then collapsing in on itself, until it was little more than a swollen black mass with a loose mouth and thick legs.

Sander stumbled and fell, having taken his eyes off where his feet were landing for just one second too long. His mother’s sword, always seeming to have a mind of its own, flew forward as he lost his grip on it. For his part, Sander tumbled and slammed his head into something hard. There was a brief moment of sharp pain, followed by disorientation. The darkling reared up and moved its body like a snake, extending its gaping maw towards Sander.

A thin green line shot through the darkling from somewhere beyond Sander’s vision, in the direction of town. The darkling had already been weakened by its proximity to the lantern, and the beam tore through what remained, popping the creature like a black soap bubble. Sander tried to shake off the head wound, but the only result seemed to be a tight, clenching pain.

The chief glimwarden of Light’s Hollow stared down at Sander with his twin axes clenched in his meaty fists. A frown showed through his thick red beard as he stared down at Sander.

Sander sat up and rested his back against the marker.

“Hi dad,” Sander began.

❧❧❧

“I can explain,” said Sander.

“Explain,” replied his father.

The problem was that he couldn’t explain it. He had convinced himself about what he was doing, but he knew that these explanations wouldn’t convince his father. They’d already argued about the matter enough that any conversation they had now would almost certainly just have been a retread of the ones they’d had before, and those Sander had been better prepared for. Here and now, with his head hurting, there was nothing that Sander could say that would absolve him of his guilt or make the betrayal sting any less. He’d heard his father’s prohibitions and ignored them. There was no explanation he could offer, because they both possessed all the facts in question and both knew each other’s arguments.

His father waited a few seconds, but when no words were forthcoming, he stalked away. Sander thought perhaps that would be the end of it, or maybe the beginning of some new and tense relationship between the two of them, but his father knelt down in the grass and pulled something up. He came back with the darkling’s heart in his hand. It was the size and shape of a ripe melon and shone a dark crimson where the light caught it. Sander’s father squeezed it, forcing it to split into two spheres of equal size. He held one of these under his armpit, then repeated the process with the other, gaining two smaller spheres again.

“Eat,” said Sander’s father. He tossed the smaller sphere to Sander.

It was still five inches across, so Sander began breaking it down more, until he had a sphere small enough to fit in his mouth where his teeth could do some of the work. The pieces that he had in his lap weren’t visibly evaporating, but it might have been clear to the naked eye if there had been a good backdrop. If they weren’t consumed or put into a lantern, the darkling hearts didn’t last long. They melted away faster than ice, leaving no trace of their power behind. When Sander had swallowed down the small spheres, he grabbed another piece and continued eating. His father watched him silently the whole time.

“Why?” Sander asked his father between pieces.

“Why am I asking you to eat?” Sander’s father asked. Sander nodded. “You went out on your own and came back without anything too bad happening,” his father replied. “I can see the shadow of the bind on you. No matter what I say or do, nothing short of keeping you locked in the house will stop you from going out again. If that’s how it’s going to be, I would rather give you the best chance of coming back in one piece.”

Sander dutifully ate the pieces of the darkling’s heart while he tried to keep his eyes off his father. There would be a reckoning as soon as he was done, there was only a question of what shape it would take. He was relieved when he saw Merry walk into view, since at least that meant that there was someone around to take his side. She had her pistols stuck in holsters on her thighs and a long dagger strapped to her wrist, but there was no tension in the way that she walked. She gave Sander a lopsided grin. He never would have said it where his father could hear it, but he’d taken to thinking of Merry as his honorary replacement mother.

“I always miss all the fun,” said Merry.

“My son defied me,” said Sander’s father.

“It’s what his mother would have done,” replied Merry. “No, I take that back, Gloria would have punched you out and then gone off to fight the darklings, just so she could have danger facing her from both ends. She always hated taking orders. Sander’s not so bad as that, mind you, he wouldn’t take action just to thumb his nose at you. Gloria had a spiteful streak in her. I think half of what she did in life was motivated by people telling her not to do it. If I recall, that’s why she married you.”

Sander’s father grunted and turned to look at the woods.

“Have you thought about the politics?” asked Merry.

This was met with another grunt.

Merry turned her attention towards Sander and bit her lip. “Have you thought about the politics? It makes Linwell’s plan for an eighth lantern far more likely, not that she wouldn’t have forced the issue.”

Linda Linwell was one of the four members of the city council. Sander’s father was another. This was the first that Sander had heard about a plan for an eighth lantern, though it was only logical to think that another one would be added soon. He had no real idea why his father would be against it though. His father was sparse with his words at their evening meals, when they weren’t embroiled in some sort of argument. Sander popped the last sphere into his mouth and chewed it down until the pieces were small enough to start swallowing.

“What are the politics?” asked Sander, his mouth still full.

“The politics,” said Merry, with an imperious voice, “Is that Linwell wants a new lantern constructed in order to put some money in her pocket through payments for the construction. A new lantern means three square miles of new land available for farming, which the city council puts up for auction and the Colsum family buys most of, which also helps out Linwell because she’s spent a long enough time with her lips firmly planted on Colsum’s —”

“Enough,” said Sander’s father. He ran a hand through his thinning hair and turned away from the woods. “Merry, you’ll watch your tongue. Linwell is a snake, but I won’t have you spreading rumors.”

“If Sander is trying to become a glimwarden without our aid, that weakens your position,” said Merry. “Point is, the city council meeting is today and I think it’s best to keep this whole thing —” she made a vague gesture towards Sander, “— under wraps until after that. Anyone in the Auxiliary will be able to tell that he’s got some bind to him now.”

“Fine,” said Sander’s father. “Take him.” He stalked off back towards the center of Light’s Hollow, stopping only to pick up the fallen sword that had once belonged to his wife.

Merry waited until he was a fair distance away before kneeling down and wrapping Sander in a hug. “Finally!” she exclaimed. Her cheeks were rosy. “Fresh blood. I never figured you for it, but it makes sense when I think it over. Any idea what your signature is yet?”

Sander blushed. “Not yet, no,” he replied. “I’m … I don’t actually feel that much different, to tell you the truth.”

“Oh, you’re just a weakling right now,” said Merry. “I’ve just always thought new signatures were the best part about someone joining the ranks.” She stood up and reached out a hand to help Sander up from where he was leaning against the marble bollard. He gratefully accepted. “The second best part is training though. Right when you’ve first got that scrap of power and it seems like the whole world is unfolding ahead of you, nine arches I wish I could start from the ground up sometimes. Of course, I’d have to remove all of my knowledge as well, because if I started from nothing now I’d have none of the learning left to do.” She stretched out and looked toward’s Healer’s Lantern, the nearest to them. “Your father will calm down, given some time. We’ll see how the city council meeting goes.”

“It’s always so hard to tell what he’s thinking,” said Sander. He sighed and looked at the ground.

Merry shrugged. “I think that’s one of the things that Gloria liked about him. He was an enigma. It’s the most frustrating thing about the man, in my opinion. Figuring out what he’s thinking is like pulling teeth. Worse, there’s not really any point to it. He’s not making life easier by being so opaque.”

“But you do think he’s mad at me?” asked Sander.

“Oh, certainly,” said Merry. “Angry, but he’ll be putting some thought to the matter while he walks.” She cocked her head to the side. “You’re thinking of going back out?”

Sander rubbed his head and looked down at the gash in his leg, which was beginning to throb with pain. He’d made it worse by running on it, but there hadn’t been much of a choice. “I’m not going out again today, but maybe tomorrow.”

Merry laughed. “I meant ever. Most amateurs are once bitten twice shy. And I suppose it doesn’t matter what your father has to say on the matter?”

“No,” replied Sander. He straightened his spine. “I’m going to become a glimwarden. There’s nothing he can do to stop me.”

Merry rolled her eyes. “Alright, well then consider me the second person to sign on to making sure that you don’t get yourself killed in the process. Operation Delirious Demon, we’ll call it. Now, let’s you and I take a walk to Brand’s cottage while we lay low.” She checked her holsters, tugged at the strap that held her dagger in place, then cast a glance towards the forest. “Have you done much reading on the bind?”

“I’ve been trying to learn how to fight without it,” said Sander. “It didn’t seem prudent to delve too deeply into abilities that I don’t yet have.” Besides that, his father would have noticed if books on the subject started showing up at the house.

Merry started walking and Sander followed after her, trying not to limp. “Have you ever stepped outside on a cold winter day and felt the heat radiating out from you?” she asked. “A day with no winds licking at your face, so it was just heat coming out and cold seeping in?”

“Sure,” said Sander.

“The bind is like that,” said Merry. She tossed her hair. “If you pay attention, you should be able to feel a trickle of it coming off from you.”

Sander looked down at the pale skin of his forearm. He couldn’t see anything there, or feel it. He touched the fine hairs of his forearm with the tips of his fingers and seemed to get nothing back but a faint sense of static electricity.

“I can see the shadow of the bind on you,” said Merry. “Yours is a candy red, I’m sure it’ll be quite bright once it comes in. It’s close to your mother’s shade, actually. That shadow is just the bind working its way out of you, like warm cheeks on a winter’s day.”

“So wait, you can literally see it?” asked Sander, turning from the inspection of his arm. The seven lanterns were metaphorical, casting invisible rays into the symbolic darkness. He had heard the glimwardens talk about the shadow of the bind before, but had never realized that they were talking about something real instead of imagined. “Why can’t I see yours?”

“Because you’re weak,” replied Merry. There was no malice in her voice. “But also because I’m not using particularly much of the bind right now. If I were fighting, you’d more than likely see my aura around me.”

“Can I get a demonstration?” asked Sander.

Merry quirked her lips. “Don’t tell your father. He’s of the opinion that we should stay fully charged at all times. But I’ll burn off only about an hour’s worth and hope that we don’t see battle anytime soon, alright?”

Sander nodded.

“And by we, I mean me, naturally, since your father would kill me if I let you go running into another fight,” said Merry. “Alright, watch my dagger?” She flipped it from her sheath in one smooth motion and held it in front of her like she was getting ready for a slice. The dagger gave off a faint glow of amber for a brief second as Sander watched it.

“What was that?” he asked.

“So you saw?” Merry asked. “Well that’s good. What you saw was the bind made manifest. I put some of my power into the blade.”

“And you’re going to teach me how to do that?” asked Sander.

“All that and more,” replied Merry. “Assuming that I can talk some sense into your father.”

Glimwarden, Prologue

The original settlers of Light’s Hollow had come to the valley with only a single lantern to ward off the darklings.

The lantern was small and inefficient, carried on a wagon that was pulled with four oxen. There had been only two glimwardens to keep it fed and two engineers to keep it running as they’d made the journey west from Tor Ellsum. Their caravan, some fifty people in total, was a single spark floating away from the bonfire, trying to find some place to catch so that another fire of civilization could start.

They eventually found a river which they could not easily cross, and because they had gone far enough, they settled down and founded their town with little fanfare. The land was slowly turned toward human purposes as it was cleared, plowed, and seeded. Trees were cut down in the nearby woods to make houses where people could work or live. The ball of hava at the heart of the lantern grew in size until eventually the lantern sat in the center of its own large building, now with a full squadron of glimwardens to keep it fed and a cadre of engineers to keep it running. The small spark that had drifted away from Tor Ellsum found dry tinder and started a blaze.

This is not to say that this small community was free from trials and tribulations. In the winter of the second year, the lantern went out for a harrowing three days. A quarter of the people in Light’s Hollow died in the darkling attacks, including two of the five glimwardens, before the engineers could get the lantern working again. Eight years later, a terrible drought caused a famine that claimed many lives. Twenty years after the founding of Light’s Hollow, a fire destroyed four businesses and nearly consumed the building that housed the town’s lantern. If these incidents had been closer together, the town might have fallen into a downward spiral from which there was no escape, but they were spread out enough that these calamities left only scars.

A first generation begot a second and the second begot a third. The lantern grew in size, making more land safe for farming and settlement. The glimwardens killed the darklings near town and kept the lantern fed with their hearts. Eventually a second lantern was constructed, doubling the available area and making the town more secure. If one of the lanterns went out, there would be a haven for the farmers to flee to and a base of operations for any efforts to restore the failed lantern to life. The second lantern marked the beginning of a long period of peace and prosperity, one that saw the construction of more lanterns and a rising population, not just growing families, but immigrants from the east, those fleeing disasters or seeking a simpler life than the great cities could provide.

By the time the fifth lantern was built, Light’s Hollow had entered into a period of stability. The frantic energy of the early generations had faded away, as had the burgeoning growth of the middle generations. The city still grew, but its pace was now slower, more measured. The focus was no longer on claiming more land, but on making the land better. The streets were properly paved, the public gardens were well-manicured, and the city began to take on some of the same systems of rules that their ancestors had fled from. Two more lanterns were added, over the course of centuries instead of decades, bringing the total to seven, seven shining lights arranged like a hexagon, with the Chancellor’s Lantern sitting in the middle, surrounded by the other six.

Our story begins not at the center, but at the outskirts, not with the noise and movement of the city’s eleven thousand souls, but with a single young boy with golden hair standing at the very border between the shining lights of civilization and the dark, wild woods.