Sofia had visited the seedy parts of Marurbo before, hiding under her cloak while seeking out spirits, but none so bad as this. There were parts of the capital city where wages were low and troubles were high, where the city guards treaded lightly and people kept their mouths shut when questioned about a crime. But they were good people at least, hard done by and looking for answers in the wrong places, and perhaps not quite as upstanding of citizens as they might have been, but still decent at heart.
The Cloak & Dagger was a different sort of place. The tavern was tucked away, the entrance easy to miss, the sign above the door partly rotted. The people inside were not good, or even decent, and Sofia saw the still, silent way that they looked at her, as though they were weighing whether they could get away with murdering her for her clothes. She had left the gown behind in favor of a simple blue dress stolen from a closet, and of course the crown was gone, but she knew that she didn’t even come close to fitting in.
Henry walked through the crowds with a knowing smile on his face, as though he hadn’t just narrowly avoided death at the hands of the pretender king of Donkerk. He’d related his misadventure in the mental realm to Sofia, which had not particularly brightened her mood. This place they were in was making it all worse. But Henry sidled up to the bar like he had been here a hundred times before.
“I’ll have the King’s Piss,” said Henry.
“We’re all out of the old vintage,” said the barkeep, a grimy man who didn’t look like he’d bathed in the last decade. “Will the new do?”
“It’s always better if its had time to marinade,” said Henry.
The barkeep grunted and walked over to where the bar was hinged, lifted it, then gestured Henry through. Henry in turn gestured to Sofia, who followed behind him simply because she didn’t want to be left in this place. They descended down a set of stairs so steep that they were close to simply being a ladder and emerged into a surprisingly spacious room lit by a white half-dome figure in the center of a table. There were two men sitting there who rose as they entered. One was a large man with thick, sausage-like fingers and a beard that was black as coal — three of his fingers were missing. The other had greasy hair that framed an angular face — he was missing one of his pinkies. There was a third person sitting at the table with them, a woman, but she didn’t rise from where she was sitting.
It took Sofia a long moment to place the two men. She had met them at Henry’s cottage. He had introduced them as his fathers. They were the men who had kidnapped her when she was five years old.
“What are we doing here, Henry?” asked Sofia.
“Sofia, let me reintroduce you to my fathers,” he said. “This is Omarr,” he said, gesturing to the large one, “and this is Hirrush,” he continued, gesturing to the thin one. “The last is Adrianna, who you haven’t met, she’s a family friend.”
“And a witch as well?” asked Sofia. “Involved in my kidnapping?”
“Yes,” replied Adrianna. She sipped from the mug in front of her.
“We need help,” said Henry. “They can offer it.”
Omarr and Hirrush looked at each other.
“Dad, you’re going to have to give Sofia her memories back first,” said Henry.
“They were erased,” said Hirrush. “I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
“You took a record of everything in her head when she first came to the cottage,” said Henry. “Then imposed that onto her mind right as she left. There’s no way that you could have done that without feeling the differences and smoothing them out. You would know what the representations looked like. You’re a mentalist, you wouldn’t have forgotten, it’s just a matter of imposing them onto her mind.”
“Minds change,” said Hirrush. “It’s been eleven years, only a cultivated mindscape stays static for so long, and those change in different ways.”
“I don’t want him in my head,” said Sofia.
“Do you trust me?” asked Henry.
“I do,” said Sofia, without hesitation. The problem was that she didn’t trust his fathers, but she knew how this would go ahead of time; Henry would say that he trusted them, and she would either have to say that wasn’t good enough for her, or she would assent. She had already decided on the latter, so why even have the conversation?
“And that’s very nice,” said Hirrush, “But even if I thought I could do what you’re asking Henry, you know the other reason that I can’t. I would be having migraines for a week. You may have noticed that we’re at a critical juncture?”
“What I need from you goes deeper than just this one request,” said Henry. “And if you’re going to be under for an extended period to delay the backlash, better to have this thing done beforehand. Especially if we won’t have a chance to later.”
“Again,” said Hirrush. “We’re at something of a critical juncture right now. The king has died and his son is looking to change things. We came to Marurbo looking to lay low and blend in, but if a true amnesty is on offer, or if dark magic is going to come out into the light like everyone seems to think it is, then we have a real opportunity to be at the forefront. We’ve never felt like this kingdom was ripe for change, but …” He turned to look at Omarr. “This might be the chance.”
“Do you think he’s good?” asked Sofia.
“Our new king?” asked Omarr. “No, of course not. Everyone’s heard the stories by now. He doesn’t want to bring dark magic forward because he’s an altruist, he wants power. Same reason he has his thumb placed squarely on the oathkeepers, more than his father ever did. But wanting power isn’t the worst thing in the world, it’s what you do with it. And that’s where the real worry comes from, because no one knows what Rowan might do.” He stared at Sofia for a moment. “I’m sorry we took you, by the way. It was wrong.”
“Wrong,” spat Sofia. “But on balance, neutral.”
“No,” said Omarr. “Wrong on balance.”
Henry raised an eyebrow at that. “You never told me that,” he said.
“Well we don’t like to flaunt our mistakes,” said Omarr. “And we knew you’d never make a mistake like that anyhow. That venture cost us more than we’d thought it would, brought in less than predicted, and the ferocity with which the king went after dark magic was at least partly on our heads. All that beyond what your —” his eyes flickered between the two of them “— what the princess suffered.”
Sofia summoned the Boreal Crown on top of her head. Every time it became easier; it landed in place, not so much as disturbing a hair on her head.
“I’m queen, actually,” said Sofia, careful not to put any force behind it lest she find herself in a perfect bespoke gown again.
Omarr and Hirrush gave each other a worried look. Adrianna drained the last of her mug. “And what does that make Rowan?” asked Omarr.
“That’s what we wanted your help with,” said Henry.
“It makes him a short-lived king,” said Sofia.
Hirrush stood in his mindscape, back again for the first time in six years. It was more or less how he had left it. When he’d done his first explorations of the place and begun making refinements to it, decades ago now, it had been a sharply defined place. Now it was showing not just wear, but a softness, a rounding of edges and concession to life as practically lived. This was an opportunity to set things right, but there was little that needed to be done; his memories all came into his mind crystallized thanks to his training and he had not drifted terribly much. He had heard that minds were slower to change in middle age, but hadn’t had much opportunity to see that in action. He had never really thought that he would become old, yet here he was, most of the way there.
Henry stepped into his mindscape. The boy was tall and handsome, well-muscled and with a seriousness to him that he had lacked when he’d left. He and Omarr had never really discussed what they had wanted out of raising Henry, but they had gotten far more than they had expected, or, frankly, deserved.
“There are some things I’d like to talk about before we begin,” said Henry.
“Things you want to keep from the girl?” asked Hirrush.
“Not really,” said Henry. “Things that she wouldn’t understand, that I wouldn’t want to have to explain, that would only cause her to worry about things that she can’t affect. And she’s not ‘the girl’, she’s the queen. I’d like if you treated her as such.”
“You want me to show her the same respect I’ve showed the king over the years?” asked Hirrush with a raised eyebrow.
“I suppose not,” said Henry. “Treat her as someone I care deeply about?”
Hirrush bit the inside of his cheek. “Which is why you want help with a coup?”
“A counter coup,” replied Henry.
“Hrm,” replied Hirrush. “You know I’d be more willing to help if this was a cynical ploy for you to place yourself as the power behind the throne? I suppose that says something terrible about me.”
“You want me to succeed,” said Henry. “You and dad have always felt that success was created through selfishness. Every time you did something that was altruistic, it was with the idea that you were being foolish and hurting yourselves.” There was a calm in his voice and a steadiness in his eyes that Hirrush had never seen before, or at least never noticed. “It was the same with raising me.”
“You’ve always been perceptive,” Hirrush nodded. “I don’t want you to think that we ever regretted your childhood, whatever we might have thought about the sacrifices it entailed.” They had an awkward silence for a moment. “So what is it that you wanted to speak about away from sensitive ears?”
Henry pulled a silvered sword from the air and carefully handed it to Hirrush. Hirrush looked it over and swung it once through the air. It was well-balanced, but nothing terribly spectacular, not in comparison with the sorts of constructs that could be created within the mind. He flicked it with a finger and listened to the sound of the metal. Again, there was nothing terribly interesting. And yet, when he ran his mind over it …
“You’re not sustaining it,” said Hirrush. “What exactly is this thing?
“I don’t know,” said Henry. “I was hoping that you could tell me. I acquired it from Rowan. He was trying to attack me with it.”
“Hrm,” said Hirrush. “Show me the memory?”
Henry hesitated. “I’m not really that sure how to share something like that,” said Henry. “I mean, short of moving the physical instantiation of the memory in and having you unravel it …”
“You haven’t been keeping up with your studies,” said Hirrush. “Prospero, third volume, I know it’s in your head.”
“I’ve been busy,” Henry protested. “I have all the volumes, but synthesizing that information takes time, and I haven’t exactly had a use for Prospero until now seeing as I haven’t met many other mentalists.” He paused. He’d been stalling for time as he reviewed the text and Hirrush imagined that Henry had now gotten to the fiddly bits. Hirrush suppressed a smile. He had always enjoyed watching Henry figure things out. They had given him an education to be proud of, but much had to be credited to the boy himself. Hirrush had no doubt that Henry would perform the memory display flawlessly, even on short notice.
“Okay,” said Henry. “I think I’ve got it.”
And with that Hirrush felt the sensation of a memory being thrust on him.
When it was over, Hirrush returned to his mindscape, where the clouds beyond his spar of rock had turned pitch black and roiling. He smoothed them with a thought.
“Okay,” said Hirrush. “You need a wider breach if you want to bring across something so large as the seed that Marigold apparently left in your mind. Marigold … I’ve known of her for a long time, but expected that it was more rumor than truth, that she was a small fish in an important pond. Apparently it was all true. But to the meat of the matter, you’ve already come to the conclusion that you’re about to ask me to draw, so just say it.”
“Rowan is using some variety of spirit signaling and arbitration in order to obtain physical constructs in the mental realm, perhaps along with other benefits,” said Henry.
“Dark magic,” Hirrush nodded. “The armor, the swords, the excess of clones … and who knows what else. His range as well, I might say, if I knew the layout of the castle well enough.” Henry willed a map into existence, which Hirrush glanced at long enough to crystallize a memory of it. “Why no one has ever written about it before … I suppose mentalists are vanishingly rare, dark wizards aren’t too much more common, and those who feel the urge to write prohibited books on the subject which are valuable to an audience of perhaps two or three people — but what’s he giving up? What’s the cost for these things?”
“And what can we do about it?” asked Henry.
“You have a sword of your own,” said Hirrush, hefting the sword that he now moved much more carefully. “That evens the playing field a bit. His technique isn’t terribly good as far as actually fighting in the mental realm, since he leans too heavily on both his skills in the physical realm and the tools he’s conjured up. I’d suggest that we try to bring ourselves up to speed on how dark magic works in the mental realm, but I worry about the sacrifices it would need, let alone the time. I can stay under for a week, but probably no more if I’m being fed on broth and gruel, not unless you want your other father to put a hole in my neck for meat slurry.”
“Sofia will want to move faster than that,” said Henry. He had a worried look on his face. “I agree there’s no time for doing basic research. I’m going to practice breaching with Marigold, and with you along, and a knowledge of what that sword is capable of, we can work on the mental realm as one half the puzzle.”
Omarr and Sofia sat together at the table; the witch Adrianna had tried to continue some conversation with Omarr, but he had kept glancing at the two prone bodies beside him, causing her to give up and head up the steep stairs. Sofia’s eyes had wandered for a while, looking around this small space whose most proper name was assuredly ‘hideout’, but after some time had passed she stared at the table, thinking about what was needed to restore her to the throne.
“Left you to the wolves, did he?” asked Omarr.
“Hrm?” asked Sofia.
“Henry left you here to talk with me,” said Omarr. “Not something you seem inclined to do.”
“No,” said Sofia. “And I doubt that his intent was that we talk without mediation. The outcome of that wouldn’t please him, I don’t think.”
“Because I’m a dark wizard?” asked Omarr. He pointed to the light in the middle of the table, a half sphere that glowed with a pure, soft white light. “Do you know what the penalty for creating something like that is?”
“No,” said Sofia.
“Death,” replied Omarr. “It’s a ritual that takes twenty minutes of preparation, the leg bone of a chicken, and the burning of some candle stubs, but that’s it. No one harmed, chickens aside, light enough for half a day, and that’s enough to put someone to death. Does that sound just to you?”
“The purpose is not to punish the crime,” said Sofia. “It’s to punish the practice of dark magic. It’s to stop dark magic in its tracks. You begin with a ward like this which gives off light, but in the end you’re doing what they did in Neth.”
“The effect will be the opposite, of course,” said Omarr with a feral smile. “Tell a man that something like this is punishable by death and sure, there are a fair few who will decide that an oathkeeper’s sword is no risk worth taking. But there are others who will think they’re more clever than the crown, who see that the crown cares nothing for the actual ritual itself but only the consequence some many rituals down the road. So if he needs a light, well, he’s got some chicken bones handy, plus the stubs of some candles, and he’s seen maybe four oathkeepers in his life, and so,” Omarr gestured at the shell of white light in front of him. “And then, with some exposure to some other rituals, he’ll go further. He was already going to kill that rabbit he’d caught in his trap, so why not get something more out of it? At every step he’ll think to himself, ‘Well, the crown wasn’t trying to stop people like me, it was trying to stop stupid people who would slip down this moral slope’. By the time he’s doing something truly vile, something not even I would do, he’s become accustomed to avoiding the oathkeepers, to not speaking his secrets, and so on.” Omarr paused. “And then there are people like me, who see an injustice and run towards it. Tell me that there’s a law not to wear red hats, and what else could I possibly wear?”
“And what’s a truly vile thing that not even you would do?” asked Sofia.
Omarr snorted at that. “Well I have to assume that Henry’s told you everything, don’t I?” Sixteen was far too young for a first love, in Omarr’s opinion. You were supposed to go through a series of loves, fumbling and awkward, and then sometime in your twenties settle down with someone whose soul sung to you. “You know that we kidnapped you,” said Omarr. “Soon enough you’ll have the memories of that time, if only because Henry thinks its important. Do you ever wonder why you were safely returned to your father?”
Omarr had no idea what the answer would be. He had always heard it said that it was bad argumentative technique to ask questions that you didn’t know the answer to. That assumed that the purpose of argumentation was to win though, not to find out something that you hadn’t known before. Sofia’s answer would be illuminating either way; Omarr couldn’t resist knowing, which was one of the reasons he had become a dark wizard in the first place.
“I never really considered it,” said Sofia after a moment’s hesitation. “Partly I think you did well enough that you were simply inscrutable. You wiped away my memories of you and passed without a trace, meaning that the only thing anyone knew was that a witch had walked along the bottom of an ocean to take the gold. So how could I have wondered at your motivations for anything?”
“Are you really so incurious?” asked Omarr.
“No,” said Sofia with a frown. “But I was taken when I was five years old. The motivation for the crime was an obscene amount of money, which was so clear that I never examined it again when I was older. If it was all about money, why give me back at all? Why not slit my throat and bury my body in the woods? Maybe for reasons beyond basic human decency, but … alright. There are vile things even you wouldn’t do.”
“So,” said Omarr. “What’s to be the queen’s policy on dark magic, once she’s returned to her throne with the help of yours truly?”
Sofia pursed her lips. “I think that rewarding you for helping me would be a very queenly thing to do, but changing the very laws of this country would rise to the level of outright corruption.”
“So we might be put to death?” asked Omarr. He nodded to the unconscious form of Henry. “The queen might open her reign with the death of her would-be king?”
“Nothing is set in stone,” said Sofia. She looked down at her hands. “Though of course I would never want to hurt Henry.”
“Never want to?” asked Omarr. “But might, if it came down to it.”
“We were talking about the kingdom,” said Sofia. “And what costs we might pay to preserve it. I didn’t mean … only meant that if Henry’s death accomplished a great good, I wouldn’t want to have put my foot down and said that there was absolutely nothing that I would ever do if that thing would hurt him. I want to be honest about how I weigh such things.” She swallowed. “Sometimes there’s a sacrifice to be made.”
“You’re thinking of your half-brother?” asked Omarr.
“What?” asked Sofia. She looked at Henry. “No. I wasn’t. We won’t have to kill him, only … overpower him, I suppose, make him stand trial, answer for his crimes. That’s what my father would have wanted.”
“Sure,” grunted Omarr. He would have to make sure that their plan of attack accounted for her weakness; he wasn’t about to go up against the might of the oathkeepers and a dark wizard with the handicap of trying to take Rowan alive. Especially not if he was a mentalist, for whom prison was a much more difficult prospect.
He began to say something else, diverting her attention to the topic of Henry, before realizing that her eyes had glazed over; the work was being done, her memories restored.
“You made a vow that you would be my knight!” said Sofia, almost as soon as Henry had risen back to the physical realm. She was grinning at him, biting her lower lip.
“I don’t really remember that,” said Henry. “Sorry.”
“We were sitting in that shed — the one that we walked between the realms to just a few days ago! — I was on the block of onyx, kicking my legs, and talking about how I was going to need a knight some day, and you said that it would be you! How can you not remember that? Aren’t you a mentalist?”
“I wasn’t when I was five years old,” replied Henry. He smiled at her. “But I think I’d stand by that promise today.”
“There was a goat,” said Sofia. “A big one horned goat, Frederick was his name. We raced to him all the time. I was so much faster than you Henry, I can’t imagine that you couldn’t beat me in a race now. And Chippy!” A mixture of emotions crossed her face, then she turned to look at Omarr. “You blew up the cottage. You blew up Chippy!”
Omarr raised an eyebrow. “No,” he said. “We placed wards over him to keep him safe. Of course now he’s a spirit of a place that —”
“He was the first spirit I ever interacted with,” said Sofia. If she had listened to Omarr, she wasn’t showing it. “I pulled him into the world without even really knowing what I was doing. In fact, I think I must have been doing that a lot, especially lately. It’s not just that shy spirits come out to greet me, it’s that they come through from the spiritual realm.” She stopped for a moment, smiling at the white shell of light in front of her. “You made me eat peas!” she said to Omarr. “And fed me cookies. You were —” again, a confusion of emotion on her face as she flickered between hatred, confusion, delight, and fear, “— you were actually quite nice to me. You’re really very decent for dark wizards.”
“Mildly decent regardless of our field of study,” said Omarr.
“Was I really there only a week?” Sofia asked Henry. “I mean, surely … it seems like it was longer, like I had been there forever. We … we spent so much time together. I was so mean to you! You were showing me all of these treasures you’d found, a goat horn and a small vial with a grasshopper in it, and I just didn’t understand any of it then, but I understand it now.”
“It was a cricket,” said Henry.
“Yes!” said Sofia. “That’s exactly what you said, you were quite insistent.”
“The memories are all coming back at once,” said Henry. “And they’ll be very clear for a while, as though they were all things that just happened a week ago, only layered on top of the actual last week you just had.” He watched her carefully. “I was watching Hirrush do it, he did fine work, but memories inherently contain emotion, so you’ll feel some of that for a few hours, maybe more, we’re not entirely sure. Erasing memories isn’t done too often, and putting them back is done even less often than that.”
“Just give me some time,” said Sofia. “I’ll be back soon, I can feel that already, but let me spend as much time reveling in our past selves as possible.” She narrowed her eyes at Henry, but her grin stayed on her face. “Was I your first crush?” she asked. “Because you were mine.”
There was some sort of commotion from upstairs, with the sound of stamping feet and chairs being knocked over. There was little insulation between the upper floor and this secret room, allowing plenty to be heard, but the only words heard were ‘you can’t’ before there was a loud crashing sound. Omarr reached forward and stuck his finger through the ward that was giving them light, then drug it across and broke the circle he’d placed. The basement plunged into darkness that was quite temporary, as Omarr was already striking a match to light one of the candles on the table. The weak matchlight illuminated a figure in tawny armor coming down the stairs with a gleaming sword in his hand.
“Stop,” said Sofia’s voice. With her word, every candle in the room illuminated, providing a light that was nowhere near what the chicken bone ritual had provided. As Henry’s eyes adjusted, he could see Ventor rising from an involuntary kneel. “Stop,” said Sofia again, with a firm tone of command amplified to absurd levels by the crown. Ventor staggered and knelt again with his head bowed down. He struggled up to his feet, lurching slightly with the strain. “Rector Ventor, I have returned to the castle, the mission given to you by my father is complete.”
Ventor stopped, but only for a moment before moving toward Sofia. Henry stayed where he was, knowing how badly the fight had gone last time. Omarr was silently preparing a ritual and glancing at the body of Hirrush, which was still in the mental realm.
“He said that I must return you to the castle,” said Ventor. “The words bind me, their meaning too clear.”
“Stop,” said Sofia again. Ventor stood stock still. Sofia stepped toward Ventor and placed her hand on his chest. “I gave you a chance to revoke your oath of your own accord. Now I must force it.”
The Strangheid began to change. It was composed of interlocking plates, a masterwork beyond the ken of any blacksmith. Those plates began to dark, bend, and curl up like dead leaves on a tree. They began falling to the ground, one by one, where they chipped and shattered.
“No!” screamed Ventor.
“Stop,” said Sofia again. The crown was working even without her words, but when she spoke a command to him that seemed to reinforce her intent and seize him tight. “I’ve sent the Strangheid back to the spiritual realm,” said Sofia. “You have made an oath not to eat and an oath not to drink, both of which are now impossible for you to keep for more than a few days. Stop. You will be forced to break your oaths then. Break now, of your own volition. Stop. Do what is right.”
Ventor was crying. His eyes were closed and the tears were streaming down his face. The armor had fallen away from him in pieces until none remained, leaving only a dirty, threadbare loincloth beneath him. How long has he been wearing the armor? He wouldn’t have had a change of clothes since then. There was a stench coming from him that permeated the room as skin which had spent years away from the light of day was uncovered.
Sofia didn’t flinch away from the smell or the sight. “Hold still,” she said. She placed her palm on the bare skin of Ventor’s chest as he sobbed. Sofia closed her eyes as Ventor sobbed. “The spirits think you’ve breached your oaths.”
“I did,” cried Ventor. “I have. I-I, I wanted only what was best, only to not have it be in vain, a wording not quite right, it wasn’t —”
Sofia opened her eyes and pulled her hand away. “Sorry,” she said. “I tried to negotiate with them, but they were unwilling see things from my perspective.”
Ventor dropped his magic sword to the ground and fell to his knees. “I am sorry, my queen.”
“Rise,” said Sofia, with the same tone of command. Ventor rose to his feet as though lifted there and stuck in place. “You will pledge your vows again. I will retain your services. The oathkeepers have turned against me; I will need your advice.”
Ventor nodded. He straightened up and wiped the tears from his eyes. It was only at this point that he noticed Henry, and sitting beside him, Omarr and the unconscious Hirrush. He picked the sword up from the ground in one swift motion and held it before him. The point of it trembled with weakness though; this was a man used to bearing its weight with an ease he no longer felt.
“We’ve made our own pledges to the queen,” said Omarr with a curt nod to Sofia.
Ventor’s sword wavered. He let it fall to his side again, which Henry imagined was more a matter of exhaustion than because he accepted that explanation. His eyes went to the table, where there were scraps of food leftover from a meal and several full tankards of ale.
“You can eat,” said Henry, which was all Ventor needed to hear.
“Not all will turn on you,” said Ventor. “Not all have pledged the Oath of Fealty, for a start, and some of those who have will break their vows as soon as they have seen the trueness of the crown on your head. That leaves only the remainder. Most of them will be good men who see the following of their oaths as a virtue, even — perhaps especially — when those oaths are in error.”
An hour had passed since Ventor had arrived. He was clothed now, though the clothes didn’t fit him. Omarr had gone upstairs to tend to the trouble Ventor had caused, then after that, had dragged Hirrush’s body away somewhere. Henry hadn’t seem concerned by this, so Sofia chose not to be concerned either. For the time being, it was best to keep the former oathkeeper and the dark wizards as far away from each other as possible, or at least to keep the time they spent together short.
Ventor was speaking as though he hadn’t lost his power. He had a clipped, curt way of speaking that Sofia remembered from his time as a castle rector. Now that his tears were gone and he had eaten his weight in food, he was back to speaking like a professional. Sofia had trouble making sense of it until she remembered what Henry had said; there were underlying truths that couldn’t be wiped away from the mind, as much as you might wish that you could. Sofia couldn’t tell which way it was with Ventor. Was he calm and collected, hyper-focused to a fault because of his essential nature, which was why it was so easy for him to shrug off decades of lost progress with his oaths? Or was he distraught to his core by the loss and only attempting to cover it now, as Sofia had done when her father had died? This wasn’t simply an academic question, because if Ventor was unstable and teetering on the brink of collapse, he couldn’t be depended upon.
“We’re going to have to talk about a quick strike,” said Henry. His eyes were normally kind and warm, but a coldness had overtaken them now. Or perhaps the swell of memories was confusing her understanding of who Henry was. Perhaps he had been kinder as a child, more innocent, unweathered just as Sofia had been. Those memories were so recent to her, so different, and she was still slightly unbalanced by them at a moment when she could ill afford to be. She knew why Henry had wanted it done though; he was preparing for the death of his father, which might be coming quickly.
“A quick strike,” said Sofia. “Meaning?” But she knew what he meant. She urged herself to keep an open mind.
“We make our way to the border of the castle,” said Henry. “Ulf will bring us to Rowan, preferably when he’s defenseless, or as close as he’s liable to get. Then … you have to understand that it’s dangerous to keep a mentalist imprisoned, because he can venture forth from his mind and into others. There are some methods of doing it, if you can get him far away from anyone he might harm, or if you have his cooperation, but … it’s difficult and dangerous. And you have have to understand that it’s dangerous to keep a dark wizard imprisoned, because with nothing more than his hair, nails, skin, blood, and bone he can escape. The conditions you’d have to keep him in would be cruel and inhumane, with his legs shackled and hands permanently bound.”
Sofia waited. She could stomach it, but she didn’t want to be the one to propose it. Henry seemed to realize this just in time.
“We should kill him,” said Henry. “Capturing him would be extraordinarily difficult and would be far more likely to result in our deaths.”
“Assassination,” said Sofia. The word felt rotten and sour in her mouth. “There’s a problem. I don’t think Ulf will carry us. We left on … bad terms.” That wasn’t the right word for it, but to Sofia it had felt like a final sundering of the bond between them. She had known that she had been asking a lot of him, but it was only when she’d pushed that she’d begun to see the scope of his unwillingness. And she had pushed on anyway.
“Well,” said Henry. “Okay, then we can sneak into the castle —”
“Even disguised you are too recognizable,” said Ventor. “I recall the level of security that was in place when the queen was stolen from us and have to imagine that Rowan has pushed it higher. I must also assume that if he has the fealty of the oathkeepers he’s been every bit as cavalier with that power as I always imagined he would be. They will have no leeway in their actions.”
Sofia frowned. She took her crown from her head and ran her fingers over the band. She felt like complaining or making pitiful noises, but that would have accomplished nothing. She had to start thinking like a queen, if that was what she wanted to be.
“We need allies,” said Sofia.
“The dukes?” asked Henry. “That will take time that I’m not sure we have.”
“Not the dukes,” said Sofia. “Something closer to us and much more powerful. I’m a spirit caller; I think it’s time to call some spirits. The only question is how we get into the castle.”
“I have an idea,” said Henry. “But you might not like it.”
Henry looked at the cold, dark water of the Lenten River, which was rushing by the small dock downstream of the castle. It was dark and stormy on the day they’d chosen to make their assault. Henry and Sofia had argued with each other about whether this was a benefit or not, though it was the sort of argument that mostly serves to cover for nervousness. Henry thought that on balance it was probably good for them, since it would muffle sounds.
He dipped into the mental realm for a moment and checked his breaching room. He knew what Rowan’s mind looked like and was relieved to see that it was still nowhere in sight. Hirrush had transfered the seed of Marigold over to Sofia, which had taken three attempts. He hoped that this would give her something of an immunity to Rowan’s attacks. That left Henry as a target, but Hirrush had seemed confident that he would prove a match for Rowan, dark mental magic be damned.
Henry slipped over to Hirrush’s mind along what was becoming an easy, well-worn path. He was his father’s only link to the world for the time being. When Hirrush came back to the physical realm, the price would be a painful, splitting headache that would leave him incapacitated, so he had stayed under for the three days they’d taken to gather resources and plan.
“Still no luck getting into Sofia’s mindscape?” asked Hirrush.
“No,” said Henry. “I think the sword might have permanently barred my path.”
“That’s inconvenient,” said Hirrush. “I’d prefer we had a group conversation.”
“Has she said anything useful?” asked Henry.
“Many things,” said Hirrush. “She studied Ibrahim closely, since he was her primary rival. I don’t think the real Marigold was able to anticipate all this, but she knew that Ibrahim would be involved somehow, whether as a teacher undone by his pupil or as the guiding force. It’s seeming increasingly unlikely that it’s the latter, but a study of Ibrahim is still instructive, since it tells us about what tactics Rowan is likely to employ. Though I doubt that Ibrahim knew much about using dark magic in the mental realm, so perhaps not. Maybe when this is all done, if I live through it, I’ll go see this Sister Marigold.”
“She’s stuck in the mental realm,” said Henry. “Your headaches might make a visit problematic.”
“It’s easy to forget about the headaches when they’re in the future,” said Hirrush.
“Are you ready?” asked Henry. “We’re about to make our move. We’ll leave your body in the basement and come back for you once it’s all over.”
“You’d think from the way you’re fretting that this was my first time doing something reckless,” said Hirrush with a smile.
“Sorry,” said Henry. He calmed himself. “I don’t think I’m unduly worried, but checking in with you isn’t helpful. Good luck.”
“Same,” replied Hirrush.
Henry stepped back into his own mindscape for just a moment, to check whether he could see Rowan from this distance, then moved back to the physical realm. Sofia was now sitting beside him, holding his hand.
“All good?” she asked.
“As good as it’s going to get,” said Henry. “We’ll be safe in the mental realm until Rowan notices us, then after that it’s up to Marigold and Hirrush. I’ll join them if I have to, but I’m not sure that our challenges in the physical realm aren’t the more difficult of the two.” He touched the sword that lay at his side. Ventor had given Ravener to Sofia, handing it over like a sacred relic, which it basically was. Once he was out of sight, Sofia had handed it to Henry with none of the pomp and circumstance. Ventor had decided that he wasn’t coming into the castle with them.
“Let’s go then,” said Sofia. She reached into a pocket on her blouse and touched the tooth she’d been given, which still had a smudge of wax on it. Omarr was standing on the dock far behind them, next to where the body of Hirrush was slumped. They were all getting rained on, but it was light rain for now, not a soaking downpour. Sofia stood up, gently laid the tooth down on the dock, and crushed it firmly under her foot.
In an instant, the rain above her split apart, falling to either side of her instead of landing on her. Water flowed away from her, wicking at the ends of her sleeves and then shooting off to the sides. Within half a minute she was dry again. Henry stepped forward and got under the protection of her ward, which caused the sword Ravener to glow briefly. The ward wasn’t meant for two — to the extent that the ineffable spirits that created wards intended them to be used for things — but if they stayed close they would both have breathable air.
Omarr crushed a tooth beneath his boot and another ward sprung up around him. He picked up Hirrush’s body and positioned it so that it was warded. The teeth were twins, pulled from the same mouth. Omarr hadn’t said where he had gotten them from, but had promised that it would be both ethical and humane. Henry had his doubts about that, but he and Sofia had kept silent for their own reasons.
The dock had a ladder for swimmers, which they used to climb down to the river floor. Henry climbed just before Sofia, so that his head would still stay in the bubble as he made his descent. He could feel the cold water rushing around his body though, and thought for a moment about whether the current would take him away if he weren’t holding onto something. He decided that it probably would, which was why staying close to Sofia was going to be important.
They trekked together across the bottom of the Lenten River. It was dark and cold, though not quite too dark to see once their eyes had adjusted to the lack of light from the stormy skies above. The bottom of the river should have been muddy, but their ward dried it out as they approached, offering them solid land to step upon, sometimes mixed with slippery seaweed or algae that grew there. That would have been quite the ignoble end for Henry: slipping on a bit of seaweed and being taken away by the currents of the river, likely to have his head bashed against a rock and then die. He was fairly certain that prophecy still awaited him, but he was very careful about his footing all the same.
After fifteen minutes of slow movement, they reached the spar of rock upon which the castle had been built hundreds of years ago. Sofia briefly touched her bracelet with her head bowed, then pressed her hand against the rock. She pushed against it, softly at first, then harder. When she pulled her hand away, nothing had happened.
“What’s wrong?” asked Henry.
“It’s not working,” said Sofia. She touched her bracelet again, running her fingers over it.
Henry reached down to the river bed, making sure to stay close to Sofia, and picked up a weathered rock. When he handed it to her, Sofia crushed it in her fist, deforming it into a cylinder that showed the negative space of her hand. Henry lifted the sword from his side and wordlessly tapped it against the rock. It glowed when passing through the bubble ward, but upon striking the rock it flared, shining bright enough to illuminate the river around them.
“It was always rumored that dark magic kept this castle intact,” said Henry. “It dates back to the Nethian Empire, after all. I didn’t really think that even if the rumors were true that it would stop us.”
“What do we do?” asked Sofia.
“Can you break it?” asked Henry. He was becoming more convinced by the day that every story told about the spirit callers was correct; that they were capable of matching every legend told about them and then some. When she had stopped Ventor and stripped away his armor, she had said that she’d tried a negotiation with the spirits to allow him to keep his power. When he’d asked her about it later, she hadn’t been able to explain what she meant by that. At his urging, she had tried to give him an oathkeeper’s powers, but she’d found the attempt frustrating and it had proven fruitless.
Here though, she was eager to try. She laid her hand back on the stone and closed her eyes.
“It’s been a long time,” said Sofia, almost muttering to herself rather than speaking properly. “You made the exchange and erected the ward, but the binding was tight and no ward is meant to stand that long. You were … hoping that the castle would be attacked, that the ward would be chipped away at until it was no more, but it never happened, and the stress and strain of it made you want to break the pact that you had made. It was … only the force of the others, the fear of what they would do or say, that was what kept you going with this ward whose payments — costs? — whose antecedents are so far in the past you can scarcely remember them. But I’m here now, to release you from the burden. This is my castle, by right of my birth and the crown I wear on my head. Its wards were placed by men who must have been my long ago ancestors. I release you from this duty.”
Sofia’s hand began to sink into the stone and she let out a sigh of relief.
“No one has ever spoken to a dark spirit, not in hundreds of years,” said Henry. He wanted to ask whether she could do it the other way around, now that she had made a connection. Could she intuit her way towards getting a spirit to do something for free, without ritual or sacrifice?
“They aren’t dark spirits,” said Sofia. “They’re just spirits that believe in a set of rules. I don’t think that they care about people. I’m not sure they know people exist, to be honest.”
“They?” asked Henry. “It was more than one?”
“I’ve been feeling the attention of the one in charge of the bubble ward for as long as its been up,” said Sofia. “But there’s nothing to say to him, unless you’d like to drown.” She began using both hands to pull the stone apart, making an opening. They would have to dig up to get into the castle basement, but unless they were spotted in the mental realm, they would be able to enter the castle quietly and without raising any alarm. Rowan certainly couldn’t be in the mental realm all the time, waiting for them every moment.
If Rowan hadn’t been a mentalist, he would have been in a state of constant panic. As it stood, it was only regular trips into the mental realm that allowed him to keep his cool. He wanted to go into his mindscape and find the piece of himself that was responsible for this pure terror so that he could tear it out, but he realized that this was simply anger taking the place of the proper seeking of solutions, which meant that there was more to tamp down. Every trip into the mental realm began with squelching a laundry list of emotions so that he would be able to function properly.
“We’re going to prepare a counterattack,” said his thoughtform of Sofia in the grand throne room he’d built in his mindscape.
“When?” Rowan asked her.
“As quickly as possible,” she replied. “We’re going to gather our forces, which will take some time, and we’re going to make some plans, which can’t really be done concurrently until we know our forces, but sooner is far better than later, not just so we can put you to death quickly, but because my eventual rule grows harder with every day you stay in control.”
“You would put me to death then?” asked Rowan.
“Yes,” said Sofia. “I won’t want to, but my advisers will tell me to, so I’ll agree. After all, the only reason that you ordered the rectors to arrest me rather than simply kill me is that you thought they might disobey.”
Rowan buried his head in his hands, then noted his despondency and changed his emotions to rid himself of it.
“What form will this counterattack take?” asked Rowan.
“You have no idea, which means neither do I,” Sofia answered. “I’ve changed over the last few months in ways that you don’t know deeply enough. I travel with a boy who might as well be my husband, and all you know about him is that he’s a strong mentalist who claims to also be a dark wizard. I left with him, so presumably he’s going to be helping me mount this counterattack, but beyond that you don’t have enough information.”
Rowan looked around the throne room. He had a dozen thoughtforms present, though he was keeping the others silent. She was right that she wasn’t likely to be a very accurate representation of his sister. He had never really known Sofia that well when they were growing up together and now she was only a shade of the same person. She was unpredictable, which was bad, and she had the weight of the accursed Boreal Crown on her side. Everything that he had done to keep power without that crown was on the edge of becoming undone. The only leverage that Rowan had were the oathkeepers, half of whom he was certain would defect from their oaths if pressed to hard. The amnesty for dark wizards was already walking a fine line with them, but it was necessary if he wanted a second source of power to defend his reign. He had thought that even before his sister had shown up. Now that he’d had a chance to read through many of the books that had ended up with him, he was even more certain that it had been a good idea, even once factoring in the opinions of the oathkeepers.
The path in front of Rowan had been clear for quite some time, since those first panicked moments when he’d realized that his father’s crown was not coming to him. Rowan had checked in on all the bastards his father had left, and seen no crown among them, which meant that either Sofia had it or it had disappeared from the face of the planet entirely. His plan had been rather simple. Imprison the three eldest bastards in the deepest dungeon of the castle, then kill or capture Sofia. So long as he could keep the wearer of the crown contained, he could maintain power with his false crown.
The meeting with Sofia has been one of errors. He hadn’t known for certain that she had the crown, but he should have treated her as such. He had told the oathkeepers to kill her, not to capture her. And he had forgotten that she had powers of her own — or perhaps not forgotten, because the memory was thankfully intact, but had not properly planned for. To top it off, he had overestimated her mentalist.
These were all things that Rowan could learn from and adjust to. The next time he saw the mentalist, he would kill the boy outright, as quickly as possible and without any caution against tricks which were not coming. With the oathkeepers there was a balance, because they could still disobey him and forfeit their oaths, but would an order to kill have been going too far? Rowan wasn’t entirely sure. Despite having gone into their heads on a number of occasions, Rowan didn’t fully understand what it was that drove them, which meant that he didn’t fully understand how to control them. They could be pushed to do things that they didn’t want to do — that was the life of an oathkeeper — but there were breaking points for all of them. Rowan had lost of third of their number since Sofia’s return.
At any rate, the Boreal Crown was a complication of great magnitude, an unfairness that nevertheless needed to be dealt with. The world was a cruel and twisted place to reveal to Rowan that he was a bastard only after the king was dead. That he hadn’t come across a memory that implied as much … well, it was possible that the king had only suspected and not known, possible that he had never actually spoken to anyone about it, and that would have left no memories to find. Rowan glared at the thoughtform of his father — not his father, in truth — standing in the throne room. There was no use for it really, not anymore, but he had kept it around on the off chance that there were systems set in motion by the late king.
“What would you do, in my place?” asked Rowan.
“I would abdicate and never show my face in Donkerk again,” said King Aldric. “Your half-sister is the rightful ruler, and though she suspects you of much a silvered tongue could have allayed her suspicions if you had told her that you were simply unsure of where she was and trying your best to ensure that there was no coup. You could have been a trusted adviser to a queen who has no interest in rule, were you not so blinded by a lust for power.”
Before Rowan could make a response, a thoughtform of himself came in from the breaching room; he absorbed it immediately, merging its thoughts and memories into his own. That was another advanced technique that he only had enough power for because of dark mentalism. He had little time for self-satisfaction though, and moved to the breaching room at once, where he could see four faint marks at the edge of his range. The counter-attack wasn’t coming soon, it was happening now.
He breached into Sofia’s mind immediately.
The deck of the ship was far more calm than the last time and though dark clouds moved overhead, the seas themselves were gentle, barely enough to roll the ship. Standing on the deck of the ship, looking directly at Rowan with something approaching a feral grin, was Sister Marigold. Her form was seven feet tall, dressed with a stylized wimple that was almost alluring.
“This place is under my aegis,” said Marigold.
Rowan drew one of his silvered swords. The army of thoughtforms had worked imperfectly last time, lacking the full punch of Rowan’s mind. Against Marigold, they would simply die and lose their swords with them, burning resources that Rowan didn’t have to spare. The thoughtforms created by his dark mentalism could be killed, just as normal thoughtforms, but they didn’t come back with an act of will.
“How did you defeat Ibrahim?” asked Marigold. “Was that sword the only trick you used?”
Rowan went after her, hard. He was armed with a paucity of information here; he didn’t even know whether she was breached into Sofia’s mind or whether she was a seed placed here, or transfered, or perhaps she was someone else in disguise. He had no time to find out the truth, not if Sofia would be making her way towards him. The solution to any of those scenarios was the same; attack and kill Marigold.
She caught his sword again, as she had done in Henry’s mindscape, plucking it from the air as though it were a slowly moving piece of paper. Her grip was like iron, fixing the blade firmly in place, but Rowan was prepared for this and simply released the sword to draw forth another from his mind. He was nearly able to continue the sword stroke, with only a slight pause in the middle, but his strike didn’t hit home. Marigold had twirled away from him … but now she was holding his sword in her hand and standing as though she had dueled a thousand times before.
Rowan managed to increase his size to meet hers, canceling out any advantage she might have in terms of reach, then attacked again. His armor would protect him here, allowing him to fight more recklessly than her. He swung at her once, then twice, each time missing due to the way the air seemed to bubble and warp around her as the sword approached. She struck him on the chest, a blow which he was half a beat too late to parry away, but the strike did nothing but make sparks against his armor.
She was too fast to hit and had too many tricks besides that. She was stronger than Ibrahim had ever been, Rowan was certain of that. He felt himself losing before the final blow actually landed. Marigold’s sword, taken from him, had hit him in the neck. He felt nothing of it but a sharp pain and a disorienting sensation as he found himself back in the breaching room of his mindscape. He tried to launch himself back into Sofia’s mind, but found the way barred to him. He had never tested the effect of knocking someone from a mindscape with the sword; he felt lucky that the result was not minddeath, but being unable to strike Sofia from a distance was a serious blow. He swore loudly, quickly fixed his emotions, then dove back in, targeting Henry’s mind this time. It was time to see how much of a defense Marigold was offering, whether she was a seed or physically in the vicinity.
Henry’s mindscape was a small, flat island of weathered rock, dotted with fir trees whose roots dug into the shallow soil. The cottage must have been the gateway to the bulk of his mind, where all of the structure a mentalist needed would be. It would need exploring, once he was dispatched.
Rowan had only been in the mindscape for a moment when a man with gray hair stepped in to join him. He was completely unfamiliar to Rowan, which added another layer of uncertainty to the proceedings. There were four minds in total that had come into Rowan’s range, only two known to Rowan, could there possibly be three mentalists among them? But this line of thinking was cut short as soon as a second man joined the first. He was tall, with bright purple robes and a completely bald head. His identity, at least, was no mystery, since Rowan had seen him a thousand times before.
“Ibrahim,” breathed Rowan. He felt the urge to swing his sword wildly at his former teacher and clamped down his emotions again before he did something stupid.
“You thought me dead and gone?” asked Ibrahim. “You should have killed me, you fool.”
Rowan shifted, uncertain. He had thought before that he should have gone hard against Henry and not waited, but here, with Ibrahim back in play? How long had Sofia’s mentalists had access to the castle? Rowan hadn’t completely stopped the flow of traffic in and out of the castle until after she had returned, which meant that it would have been possible, if only just, for a mentalist to have crept in and … what, gone past the antechamber of his mind and reconstructed him? Rowan drew one of his silver swords, but made no movement.
“Who is that?” asked Rowan, moving the sword slightly to point at the gray-haired man.
“His name is Hirrush,” said Ibrahim. He paused slightly. “He was a friend and later rival, until we had something of a falling out.” Hirrush scowled at that. “He trained Henry, just as I trained you. I suppose he did better than me on that count. Now he’s saved me, so that I might show you the error of your ways.”
“I have surpassed you,” said Rowan. It was a stupid thing to say; he tamped down his emotions again, this time quashing a feeling of smallness.
“You used tricks,” said Ibrahim. He snapped his fingers; clones of him popped into existence, nearly three dozen, all carrying swords of their own. “The problem with tricks is that you can only use them so many times before they’re known to your enemies.”
Rowan summoned an army of his own, all of his thoughtforms, each armed with a sword of its own. It was a highly unconventional way to fight within the mental realm, but Rowan had the advantage of having actually done it before. He sent his thoughtforms forward with a simple command and hoped that they would do.
His side quickly did its work, as Rowans cut down Ibrahims. Hirrush, the anomaly, was watching it all carefully, as far removed as possible. The problem was that more Ibrahims seemed to be coming in as quickly as they were dispatched, popping into existence with swords and moving to reinforce. And his thoughtforms were not entirely without losses, though they were rare in comparison. There was something odd going on here, some element that didn’t quick make sense. Rowan realized what it was as soon as he paid attention to an Ibrahim being cut down; its sword vanished with it, instead of clattering to the ground.
He pulled his thoughtforms back all at once, leaving twenty versions of Ibrahim standing in front of him, with the true Ibrahim and the man Hirrush behind them. One of the Ibrahims approached on Rowan with his sword drawn before him. But that was no true fight, because Rowan could see now that Ibrahim wasn’t using thoughtforms at all — he was using mindless illusions. Rowan cut the illusion down and watched it blink from existence, sword and all. At the same time, he saw his sword begin to rust in his hand, and called forth another one.
“Tricks,” seethed Rowan. How many swords had he just lost? He had built a stockpile of them, but now only three remained there, aside from those laying on the rocky ground in Henry’s mindscape. And how many thoughtforms? He was down to just six. He hadn’t been fighting the same battle that Ibrahim was. Ibrahim was wearing down Rowan’s resources at no cost to his own. Rowan cleared his emotions again, wiping away the rage and humiliation along with the regret. It shouldn’t have been necessary to alter his mind so often, but he was in a fundamentally upsetting position.
“Who are you to decry the use of tricks?” asked Ibrahim. His eyes were alight. He approached on Rowan, showing no fear. A silvered sword appeared in his hand, and it was impossible to tell whether this was just a creation of will or the true thing. Was this what was going to happen to Rowan? Was he to be forced from mind after mind by superior opponents?
As they moved to clash, Ibrahim changed shaped, sprouting black claws that kept the sword in his grasp. It was a more subdued version of the creature that Ibrahim had become in their last fight, tempered by practicality. Did Ibrahim remember any of that? Would he make the same mistakes? A first clash of their swords proved that at his was no illusion; the swords could cut through mental implements with ease. Ibrahim changed form again, his black claws becoming ocher pseudopods, giving him a greater reach and an ability to dance away from Rowan’s swipes and some leverage when a strike was parried. Rowan was constrained to his from; the black armor he wore was as real and unchangeable as the swords they fought with. It was too valuable to shed though; it saved him from being ejected from this mind more than once.
As Ibrahim was undergoing another transformation, his parry was slightly off-balance. Rowan’s sword bounced off Ibrahim’s and went down, where it bit into Rowan’s leg. Ibrahim popped out of existence, allowing his sword to fall to the ground. Rowan whirled on Hirrush, who had stayed silent through this entire battle. One last opponent, then unless Henry showed up to defend himself, this mind would be freely destroyed.
“You’ve seen what I can do,” said Rowan. “This is clearly not a battle you wish to fight.”
“Oh?” asked Hirrush. “I would say it’s a battle that I very much want to fight, which is the entire reason that I have made sure to see what you could do before we engaged.”
Rowan stopped in his tracks. “If you wished to win, two on one would have given you more of an edge.”
Hirrush laughed. “Two on one? Is that what you think it would have been?” He shook his head. “Ibrahim trained you inadequately, if you can’t see through such deceptions. You’ve only been fighting a single person this entire time.” His stance shifted slightly and yet another silvered sword appeared in his hand. “Only now, I’ve watched your fighting style and seen your tricks. I’m glad my impression of Ibrahim was close enough to pass muster though. It means that miserable bastard deserved what you did to him.”
“Whatever they’re offering, I’ll double it,” said Rowan. He would have been sweating, had this not been the mental realm. The swell of emotions inside him was beginning to grow beyond his control, not if he wanted to focus his attention elsewhere.
“Double it?” asked Hirrush. He grinned. “You’ll put two sons of mine in control of this country?”
“In control of —?”
Hirrush attacked. The sword that Rowan put up in defense was bypassed by a razor margin, and the tip pierced Rowan’s throat, a painful sensation that catapulted him not just from Henry’s rocky mindscape but into the physical realm where he sat up in bed coughing hard.
Rowan sprang to his feet and flung open the door to his chambers.
“Alert the others,” he said. “We have company.”
Sofia twitched her fingers as she walked down the hallways. She was in the lead, with Henry and Omarr just behind her. Hirrush had been left in the castle basement, locked in a room that Henry had sealed shut with a dark ritual whose cost was a vial of blood. Sofia had frowned as he’d done it, but the water-repelling ward still cloaked her. She had decided on allowing some level of dark magic tonight and speaking out against it would only be an act of hypocrisy, even if she saw it being used for something that she didn’t feel was wholly necessary. Tonight was not going to be a good night, no matter what happened. It was better for Sofia to make peace with that as quickly as possible.
They met their first two oathkeepers mere minutes after they had entered the castle proper. Both men had stopped and looked at them with incredulity, but they drew their swords all the same.
“Stop,” said Sofia. She kept her voice low, but the command of the Boreal Crown flowed through her words. “I am the true ruler of Donkerk. If your oaths command you to go against me, you must break them. All that I ask is that you do not interfere. If the wording of the commands you have been given has any leeway, take it.”
She had gone over this with Ventor. He disliked the idea of telling an oathkeeper to break his oaths; it was an abuse of the power of the crown, in his opinion. But there didn’t seem to be a way around the oathkeepers, not unless they could be subdued without risk, and they hadn’t been able to figure out a way of doing that. She had asked Henry directly whether it was possible to do it via mentalism, but he had hesitated and said that it wasn’t, which certainly said something more than a direct no. Something had happened to Ibrahim, after all. But she hadn’t pushed Henry, because the thought of what he might be shuffling to the side was frightening to her. She trusted him to tell her what she needed to know and to be her shield from that which would hurt her. The strength of the revealed memories had begun to fade, but they’d layered an additional richness onto her relationship with him. She could see now why he’d chosen to follow after her. Any doubts she’d had about his intent had been erased. (This still left all the doubts about his methods and morals, but those were thoughts she could not yet afford to explore.)
One of the oathkeepers listened to her plea and dropped his sword with a sigh. The other advanced on them, though his sword shook. Perhaps he was hoping that they would incapacitate him, or break his bones rather than his oaths. It was possible he even thought it might be possible for him to win this fight, even going up against the crown. They were two teenagers and a grown man whose beard was shot through with gray.
Sofia snapped her fingers and called forth a spirit. The spirit of the Lenten River came forth, materializing in the hallway around them. It was as thick around as Omarr’s waist, supported by clawed feet that called to mind a chicken, with small blue scales, so long that it doubled back on itself to fit. Its mouth was lined with five rows of teeth, each razor sharp. Its eyes were unblinking.
When it appeared, it was braced against the walls with its chicken-like feet, but at a thought from Sofia it sprang forward and struck the oathkeeper in his chest. He was slammed backward, hard enough to kick up dust from the wall, but he quickly climbed to his feet and moved to strike at the spirit. It struck him again, as his sword bounced off its scales. This time its teeth bit into his chest plate, rending the metal with a thousand teeth and a terrible sound. When the oathkeeper backed away, the armor covering his stomach was gone and blood began to flow from more cuts than Sofia could count. He sagged to the floor with his sword held out in front of him.
Sofia snapped her fingers again, calling the spirit to heel. That was accompanied by a wave of emotion and a thirst for more. The Lenten River claimed dozens of lives every year, from swimmers to fishers to merchants sending their rafts. The spirit reflected that.
“Can you save him?” Sofia asked Omarr.
Omarr grimaced at the prospect, but reached into the bag slung over his shoulder. He pulled out a femur of uncertain origin (and species) along with three candles.
“This will give him more blood to work with,” said Omarr as he set up the ritual. “I’ll have to scar him to seal the wounds. And I don’t mind saying that I don’t think we have the time for this.”
“Dark magic?” asked the oathkeeper who had broken his vows. His face was white as a sheet and his eyes kept moving to the river spirit, which was clinging to the ceiling and staring at him.
Henry had been leaning against the wall since just after the fight had concluded, but he opened his eyes suddenly. “Hirrush thinks that the battle for Sofia’s mind has concluded already,” he said. “And for mine as well. That means that Hirrush and Omarr are the only ones at risk from mentalism.”
“Can we keep to corridors?” asked Omarr as he lit a candle. “This spirit is more capable than I’d expected from your description, at least in close quarters.”
“He won’t go high up in the castle,” said Sofia. He was the spirit of the Lenten River, here only because the rock upon which the castle was built was, in his thinking, a part of his domain. The river had been trying to wear away at that rock for centuries, eroding it until it no longer existed and the castle fell down to be swept into the Juniper Ocean. “And we’ll have to pass through a courtyard to get to Rowan’s room, if that’s where he is.” She looked to Henry. “Do you know where he is?”
Henry closed his eyes again. The oathkeeper screamed in pain as Omarr completed a ritual that scabbed over his wounds in an instant. When Henry returned to consciousness, he was startled by the ongoing scream, but he settled down easily enough. “He’s on the move,” said Henry. “We think he was in his room, but he’s traveling now, maybe to the throne room.”
Omarr completed a second ritual, which was strong enough that Sofia could feel it in the spiritual realm. There was a trade being made there, one with no malice or real thought on the part of the spirit. It felt perfunctory, a job being swiftly and silently performed, like a tavern owner wiping down the bar at the end of the day. This trade of bone was so banal it was hard to see it as evil. Would the spirit be so dispassionate about a life being taken? Sofia hoped that she would never find out.
The sound of an alarm bell being rung echoed through the castle. That was no particular surprise; Rowan had seen them coming in the mental realm, and they knew he’d seen them, so why bother keeping everyone else in the dark?
“We’re ahead in the mental realm,” said Henry. “But at this rate we’re going to have to face down every oathkeeper in the castle. Try calling Ulf?”
Sofia held out her hand and wiggled her fingers, trying to feel the texture of the spiritual realm. The castle was Ulf’s domain. Where she’d gone wrong with him was in trying to remove him from it. During her time with Ulf in the castle, she had never had to call him before. He had simply wanted to be next to her, most of the time, so he had been. When she would return from her nighttime excursions, Ulf would be waiting for her like — well, like a dog, come to think of it. She had broken his trust though and forced him to violate a part of himself, so why would he come now? Sofia had called in the spirit of the river, but that had been as simple as dipping her fingers into the river. Spirits were attracted to her, even those in the spiritual realm, but Ulf already knew her about as well as any spirit ever had. Curiosity or reverence or whatever it was the spirits felt toward her wouldn’t compel him.
“I can’t reach him,” said Sofia. “Sorry.”
“Can the Lenten spirit take us?” asked Henry.
“He could take us into the water,” said Sofia. That was his home. This place was his to tread on by virtue of the fact that the water surrounded it, but higher in the castle the spirit would consider his duty done. “The other spirits, if there was room for them … maybe. But this is Ulf’s domain. It’s not proper for them to be here in the first place.” But ‘proper’ wasn’t the right word. That was language taken from her own background and upbringing.
“Let’s get going,” said Omarr. He looked at the oathkeeper who had broken his oaths. The man’s face was pale. “You watch him, make sure he doesn’t die. He’s lost blood, but I’ve given it back to him, the only thing to sorry about now is him moving around too much or reopening the wounds, which is liable to kill him.”
He bowed to Sofia. “I wish you the best,” he said. “But I will have no hand in dark magic.”
“Alright,” said Omarr, before Sofia could respond. “I gave him about six pints of blood, you shouldn’t have too much trouble removing them again with that sword of yours.”
“Silence,” Sofia said to Omarr. She was careful not to let the Boreal Crown push on him. She turned to the oathkeeper. “I will not ask your to violate your conscience, but please stay with him and ensure that when he’s sensate he understands how badly injured he was. And tell him that I’m sorry.”
They left the two oathkeepers behind and walked down the corridors again. Omarr carried a small, dagger in one hand, while Henry stopped every so often to dip into the mental realm for an update. The river spirit crawled over the walls alongside them, occasionally making a chittering sound. It was Sofia at the lead though, in part because the crown allowed a chance for diplomacy, and in part because that was the proper place for a leader.
The next two oathkeepers they came across were jogging down the hallway, moving toward the sound of the alarm. The spirit of the Lenten River was upon them at once, taking a number of blows from their swords as it bit the armor away from one of them. Sofia commanded the spirit to stop and return to her, but it was a strong spirit and less amenable to her direct command. The spirit liked to hurt and maim; as she watched it spin from one oathkeeper to the other, working its jaw wide, Sofia began to see that in many ways it was more of an evil than those spirits that Omarr had been dealing with. She was certain that Henry would tell her that evil just wasn’t like that, so she chose to keep her thoughts to herself. The spirit of the Lenten River killed three oathkeeper, then spun around in place, looking for more.
Sofia had called this spirit to the physical realm. There was some effort involved in sending it back to the spiritual realm it had come from, but she managed it just fine. She had done the same thing with Ventor’s Strangheid armor, but this was far more personal.
When the spirit popped out of existence, Henry raised an eyebrow at her.
“We were going to lose him anyway,” said Sofia. “We need to go up these stairs, which will take us too far from his domain.”
“Okay,” said Henry. “Let’s go.” When he looked at Omarr though, he stopped.
Omarr’s nose was bleeding and his eyes were unfocused. There were no signs of injury, nor any obvious way he couldn’t have gotten hurt — at least, not obvious in the physical realm. Sofia moved to ask Henry about a possible attack in the mental realm, but he had gone vacant and still, a sign that his thoughts had run along the same tracks as hers.
A few tense minutes later, Omarr shook his head violently, splattering blood around the hallway. He gasped as though he’d been underwater and stared at Sofia with wide eyes and clenched fist before he seemed to realize that she wasn’t an enemy.
“That was a rush job,” said Henry. “But without my father helping us I don’t think that we stand a chance, not if it’s just your crown and spirits.”
“Snnna,” said Omarr.
“What happened?” asked Sofia.
“Rowan attacked,” said Henry. He looked Omarr up and down. “Hirrush had used a number of tricks to beat him when they battled over my mind, but with those tricks depleted, Hirrush took an unlucky hit and was barred from Omarr’s mind. Rowan didn’t kill him outright, so I was able to go in and …” He looked at Omarr’s pupils, which were dilated. “I’ve helped with a reconstruction before, but that was physical damage, with Hirrush in the lead, and months of time.”
“We need to pass through the courtyard,” said Sofia. “It’s a choke point. Should we leave him behind?”
Omarr was breathing heavily, but his eyes focused on Sofia when she asked her question. In response, he reached deep into his bag and pulled out a jewel-encrusted dagger. He stabbed it into his chest and pushed it downward. His clothes burned away where the dagger touched them, leaving a line of charred tissue clearly visible behind it. When he’d gone past his navel, he dropped the dagger to the floor and howled, then pushed his way past Sofia and Henry as his body began to change shape. Henry ran after him, as did Sofia.
Omarr knew where the courtyard was, even in his disorientated state. By the time he had reached it, he had four horns growing from his head and lengths of sharpened bone sticking out from his hands. His skin had turned a sickly pink to contrast with the blackened scar down his front, and his features were no longer entirely human. Sofia prayed that this was simply temporary, like the time that Henry had given himself long claws.
There were oathkeepers waiting for them, as expected. The hideous beast that Omarr had become charged toward them, taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder in the process. He showed no signs of stopping though, and struck one of them on the side of the head, snapping his neck. Whatever ritual he had used to alter himself was one of utter power, capable of making him more than equal to an oathkeeper at the height of their vows. He parried a sword with his hand an grabbed his attacker by the leg, swinging him to the side and then bashing him against a wall. There were two many of them though, more than a dozen here, so Sofia wasted little time in calling forward her next spirit.
The spirit of Marurbo was so tall that this courtyard was the only place that it could effectively fight. It was a civilized spirit, made from cast-off bits of buildings and discarded pieces of industry, with a dormer for its face and lit lanterns on either side of its swinging head. It was nearly twenty feet tall, though its form was short and squat, like a pot-bellied pig. It reached a hand made of broken marble toward the nearest oathkeeper, who dodged out of its way. A faster swipe of the spirit’s hand was not so easy to move away from and saw two of the oathkeepers slapped against the wall. Sofia recognized one of them as her former guard and raised a hand to her mouth in horror.
Henry grabbed Sofia’s elbow and led her into the courtyard. “You have to help,” he said.
Sofia shook her head, but he was right. This was a slaughter, one she couldn’t pretend that she wasn’t a part of. “Stop!” she called to the oathkeepers. The moment of hesitation it caused them allowed an opening for Omarr and the spirit of Marurbo to continue their rampages. While Sofia had been occupied by the incredible sight of the spirit, Omarr had left a trail of bodies behind him, though he was staggered now and bleeding profusely from a number of wounds.
“Stop!” Sofia cried again, but this time instead of standing still she rushed forward, toward the opposite end of the courtyard. Henry followed quickly behind her with the sword Ravener drawn and ready, as though he would be any good in this fight. She appreciated it all the same; the insanity of facing down the oathkeepers was a sign that his love was true, and that was something worth holding onto.
They rushed their way through the corridors of the castle, with Sofia praying that they would be able to avoid any oathkeepers. The familiar halls looked frightening now, each one possibly holding a traitorous guard. Sofia had no idea how many of the oathkeepers Rowan had managed to convince, but the courtyard had clearly been the center of his plan. Henry stopped every once and a while to dip into the mental realm and get some information from Hirrush; twice he guided them down a different path than the one Sofia was thinking of, presumably to avoid seeing anyone. Their journey was eerie and lonesome, especially since Omarr had been left behind to battle it out. Sofia had never thought that she would miss the man.
When they reached the throne room, they were greeted by two oathkeepers standing in front of its door. Both drew their swords, but one turned on the other, sliding his sword up between the other’s armpit. As the wounded man fell to the ground with surprise on his face and blood coming out from his lips, the oathkeeper who had stabbed him removed his helmet. Sofia recognized him immediately by his thick mustache. She had spent the past few years calling him Walrus; he had been one of her guards, her jailkeepers.
“My queen,” he said, falling to a bow. “I waited until the opportune time to break my vows. Your brother lies beyond these doors, undefended. I am now without the strength of my decades of oaths, but I will serve you in whatever way you desire.”
“I — I thank you,” said Sofia. She stepped forward to open the door to the throne room.
Henry moved a hand in front of her to bar her path. “Can we speak for a moment?” he asked.
Sofia glanced at Walrus, then nodded. “Certainly,” she said. They stepped to the side as Walrus watched them.
“Did he take the Oath of Honesty?” asked Henry in a whisper that was barely audible.
Sofia hesitated. For much of her time in the castle, she had considered the oathkeepers as something akin to furniture, and in her less charitable moments she’d thought of them as jailers. Even when she knew that wasn’t right, it was the pattern of thought she had reverted back to time and again. She should have paid more attention, based on the urgency with which Henry was asking, but she couldn’t recall which oaths he’d taken.
“I don’t know,” said Sofia, matching his volume. “Why?”
“If he’s taken it, then we’re fine,” said Henry. “But I’m worried that if he’s under no constraint to lie, his oaths might still be —”
Walrus took that moment to strike. He moved with lightning speed, fast enough that Sofia was barely able to get an arm up to block, but the sheer strength of a powerful oathkeeper meant that a single hit would sever her arm, or at least break it and leave her badly bleeding.
Instead, a blur of fast-moving blue and white porcelain interrupted the strike. When Sofia found her footing again, she saw Ulf gripping the sword between the porcelain shards that passed for his teeth. He must have been watching her from the very moment she entered his castle, waiting for the right moment. Walrus pulled his sword from the spirit’s mouth with some effort, but his attention was now turned toward it rather than Sofia. As Ulf took a few steps forward, Walrus took a few steps back.
Henry drew his own sword, Ravener. “Come on,” he said. “We can end this now.” He rushed to the throne room door and pulled it open, taking the lead. Sofia followed after him.
The throne room was lit not with candles, but with several half-shells of white light. Rowan sat on the throne, looking through a thick book. Several others were stacked beside the throne, some opened and others askew. To one side of the throne stood a woman in a simple shift with a vacant expression in her eyes.
“Hello sister,” said Rowan with a glance up at her. “I take it you’ve come to bargain?”
“You use dark magic openly now,” said Sofia, gesturing to the shells of light.
“As do you,” said Rowan, waving an idle hand in Henry’s direction.
Henry advanced, keeping his eyes on Ravener. He stopped when the tip began to glow, then crouched and looked at the ground. He looked toward Sofia and shook his head.
“Your brief period as pretender has come to an end,” said Sofia.
“How do you imagine this looks from the outside?” asked Rowan.
“I don’t particularly care,” said Sofia.
“If that were true, you would make a spectacularly bad queen,” said Rowan. “But you do care, because the crown’s image is one of its greatest assets.” He set the book to the side. “To an outsider, it would look as though you killed the rightful king using dark magic in order to take his place, killing what I assume were scores of loyal oathkeepers on your way here.”
Sofia stared at him in shock. She had considered how she would explain all this after the fact, but that calculation had never taken into account the idea that she was the usurper. Perhaps she had been holding out hope that they would be able to capture him alive, in order to put to rest any idea that he was the rightful heir. Or perhaps she had thought that the fallen oathkeepers would back her up — but would they be credible enough? Or simply dismissed as proof of a conspiracy?
“You understand now,” said Rowan. “Which means that you didn’t understand before, which is further proof that you would make a terrible queen.” He stood from his throne and began to pace. “I made you an offer which you rejected,” said Rowan. “We could have lived a fiction, where the crown had chosen me instead of you. But that fiction obviously won’t work anymore, and there’s no deal that we can make, because there exists no trust between the two of us. So we’re at an impasse.”
“This is a killing ward,” said Henry. “Don’t cross it. There are others beyond it, probably also meant to kill through various means.”
“A dark wizard at your age,” said Rowan with a cluck of his tongue. “I’ve only lately been brought these tomes to study, one of the benefits of the amnesty I put out,” he gestured to the books around him. “But mentalism had made me into a quick learner, and synthesizing all this information has been a breeze.”
The sound of fighting now came from the hallway outside the throne room, but they all ignored it.
“You’re counting on wards to stop me?” asked Sofia. She stepped toward the line that Henry had indicated began twitching her fingers. She could feel the ward and the spirit that was behind it. It was a contract, nothing more, and contracts weren’t entirely inviolable. It was a matter of convincing the spirit that it could get by with fulfilling the contract in another way, or that its contract wasn’t so necessary.
The first was a lightning ward, which she bargained down without words. She stepped through it with a jolt that arched her spine with pain, but otherwise left her unharmed. The second was a ward of lacerations, which she convinced to act upon her clothes. As she stepped through her dress was shredded, but tilting her head up and assuming a regal posture was enough for the Boreal Crown to make her a full red and gold gown to replace it. The third and final ward was one meant to roast her in flame; it warmed her instead, almost hot enough to leave her cheeks pink, but not entirely unpleasant.
“How?” asked Rowan. His hands were shaking.
“I am queen,” said Sofia.
Rowan pulled a jeweled dagger from his cloak and at the same time, grabbed the arm of the vacant woman next to him to pull her closer.
“Stop!” shouted Sofia, putting the full command of her crown behind the word.
While that slowed Rowan, his white-knuckled grip on the dagger did not relax, and he fought through whatever the crown was doing to his mind. He sunk the dagger to the hilt in the woman’s neck and allowed her to drop to the ground. Sofia felt a solemnity from a spirit, so powerful that she was momentarily stunned by it. She tried to negotiate with it, to tell it why it was wrong to complete this ritual, or that it should revoke the benefit it was about to grant, but she was struck with a lack of understanding and nearly blinded by its power within the spiritual realm.
Rowan warped and twisted as his body began to change. Omarr’s transformation had been horrifying, but it had at least been ordered and symmetrical. Rowan’s arms grew at different speeds, extending first one down to the floor and then the other. His skull split open at his forehead and then mended itself back together with three new sockets to hold extra eyes. His shirt split open to reveal a chest that was a mess of blood and bone, quivering out-turned ribs and flesh that seemed to move of its own accord.
Henry stepped in front of Sofia with Ravener drawn. He had a look of steely determination that made Sofia’s heart swell. Rowan swiped at him, but Henry was ready and offered a parry that cut down to bone. Rowan’s teeth had grown in his mouth as his jaw unhinged; Sofia wasn’t even sure that he was capable of screaming in pain.
Sofia watched helplessly as Henry fought the beast that had once been her brother. The spirit that had allowed this creation rejected her pleas, Rowan was barely responding to the Boreal Crown, and she was completely unarmed.
Henry parried the attacks that Rowan sent his way, but the transformation was still ongoing as power was funneled from the spiritual realm into the physical. Rowan was getting faster and stronger. It was dark magic though, and Henry would know dark magic far better than Rowan did, which would give him an edge, wouldn’t it? Yet Sofia felt herself backing away from Rowan in lockstep with Henry, who was fighting a retreat. Henry blocked another blow, again cutting into the flesh of Rowan’s extended fingers, but he slid back on his heels for a moment before finding his footing.
With a faint sound of porcelain on flagstones, Ulf entered the room. Blood covered much of his body, staining the shards of plates and bowls that he used to make up his form. He stopped to look at the scene only briefly, then took off at a sprint, not toward Rowan, but toward Henry. When the spirit struck Henry, the pieces of porcelain spread out and covered him, adhering to his clothes without cutting him and assembling themselves into something approaching armor within seconds.
Henry moved faster now as he parried, moving eagerly to meet Rowan’s swipes. When he ducked under an attack, his armor morphed itself, thrusting up cutting edges, one of which sent one of Rowan’s fingers spiraling off to the side of the throne room. Henry was on the attack now, slicing at Rowan’s hands with a blood-warm sword. For a moment it looked as though Henry’s victory was assured, but then a startlingly fast feint from Rowan allowed an attack through. Rowan’s claws hi the armor and were shredded by it, but he’d struck hard enough to send Henry flying into the wall. He fell to the ground and slammed his face into the ground. Sofia said a silent prayer, but Henry didn’t move.
The monster that Rowan had become made noises with his mouth, guttural sounds that Sofia assumed were meant to be a taunt or a cry of victory. Henry still wasn’t moving; his sword was too far away for her to reach. Sofia backed away slowly as Rowan stalked toward her.
She was too high in the castle for the spirit of the Lenten River to rescue her. The spirit of Marurbo was too large to fit within the room. Ulf was a piece of armor now, his existence in the physical realm now wholly different. She had no defense.
Sofia took the crown from her head. This was the spirit of Donkerk, who her ancient ancestor had once convinced to become a crown. It had existed in the physical realm for hundreds of years, through revolutions, rebellions, and civil war, sitting on the heads of dozens of kings and queens.
It took only a slight nudge for Sofia to push the spirit of Donkerk back into the spiritual realm. The golden crown transformed immediately, turning into mud and twigs that fell apart in her hands.
Rowan began to laugh. That, at least, was not beyond his current capabilities, though it was a foul and hideous thing.
Sofia held her hands at her side, twitching her fingers. She was moments from death, she knew, but she could feel the spirit of Donkerk in the spiritual realm. It was an elder spirit, vast and powerful, with more age and more weight to it than any Sofia had yet met. It was intelligent too, Sofia could feel that, not the mere animal intelligence of house or woodland spirits, but something greater. Sofia talked to it wordlessly, as quickly as she could. What she wanted seemed like a violation of rules whose existence she barely understood, but the spirit of Donkerk touched Sofia with warmth and grace.
Dark magic was a compact made with a spirit. It required three things. The first was a sacrifice, so Sofia plucked a hair from her head. The second was a ritual, so Sofia drew a sign in the air with the tip of her finger. The third was intent, so Sofia thought what she’d told the spirit she was going to think.
She could feel the ward spring up around her. She saw Rowan cross it. And then, in accordance with her intent, she saw him die.