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?”
“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.”