Sofia was faster than him, and that bothered Henry. She sprinted across the short grass with bare feet, her red hair floating on the wind behind her. He couldn’t keep up. He’d thought that she would tire herself out, but instead she just kept running, running in circles around him, or running away from him, making him feel slow and stupid. He didn’t feel bad when his fathers were faster and stronger, because they were bigger, but Sofia was his size. While he might have graciously accepted losing a race to her, he’d lost every race.
“Race you to that goat!” called Sofia, pointing at Frederick, an old goat with a long, curled horn.
Henry saved his breath and simply ran. For a moment he thought that he’d make it there before her, but then it became obvious that she was just toying with him. She ran like a streak of lightning to beat him by a full three seconds. Frederick lifted up his head and looked at them in the goat’s equivalent of surprise, which involved chewing on cud and slowly looking back and forth between them.
“I’m tired of racing,” said Henry.
“Because you lost?” asked Sofia. Her smile was a little bit mean.
“Can we play make believe?” asked Henry.
Sofia huffed, then shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll be a queen and you can be my tiger.”
“What’s a tiger?” asked Henry.
“It’s a big cat,” said Sofia, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world.
“I don’t want to be a cat,” said Henry. “Can we play inside? I have toys there.”
Sofia seemed hesitant, but nodded all the same. She liked him better than she liked his fathers. She’d been with them for two days, sleeping in the bed they’d set up beside his own. While she seemed fine while it was just the two of them, she was much more subdued when his fathers were around. He didn’t know whether it was because they were grown-ups, or because they were dark wizards, or because they had kidnapped her, but he could imagine that she was thinking about all those things. Omarr had been watching them from inside, but said nothing as Sofia dashed into the house and up the stairs with Henry close behind her.
“You have a small room,” said Sofia, and not for the first time. Henry didn’t know if she was right or not; this was the only home he’d ever known. Certainly his room was smaller than any other in the house. It was fitted into a corner of the house where the eaves dipped down low enough that his fathers had to duck, but it had a large window and plenty of space to put his toys down on the floor, even with the second bed tucked in for Sofia. His fathers had built in cabinets and drawers all over. Henry had stuffed them with all sorts of things that he’d collected from around the cottage and the lands that surrounded it. He had a drawer filled with interesting rocks in a variety of colors and shapes, dried flowers that he’d pressed into books with Hirrush, and bits of animals — the horn that Frederick had lost when he got his head stuck in a fence, a bird’s nest that had dropped from the crabapple tree, and a small turtle shell, among others.
“Do you have any real toys?” asked Sofia as she looked through the drawers at all of his treasures.
“What are real toys?” asked Henry.
“Things that are meant to be toys,” said Sofia. She picked up a tiny vial with a dead cricket inside. “This isn’t a toy.”
Henry took the vial from her. It had been one of Hirrush’s, but it had been dropped and developed a crack down the side. Henry had added it to his collection. The cricket had been found later. “He’s a mummy,” said Henry. “Trapped in his tomb, like the kings of the dead pyramids in the Scour.” He smiled, and look up at Sofia. “Don’t you make believe?”
“I do,” said Sofia. “But I make believe with real things. We could make believe that the grasshopper was alive in his bottle —”
“Cricket,” Henry corrected.
“— but he’s not a mummy at all,” she finished.
“That’s boring,” said Henry.
“If you had real toys it wouldn’t be boring,” said Sofia. She sat down on the floor, with her skirts around her, looking idly around the room.
“We could build a toy,” said Henry. He began to look into the drawers, which Sofia had left open. He pulled out a handful of utensils — two forks and a spoon, each with their imperfections, though not quite unusable. If his fathers knew he had these in his room, they would take a hammer and straighten the tines, then stick it back in the kitchen drawer. He laid the forks side by side, then picked up a teacup with a chip in it and placed it between them. He laid the spoon into the cup upside down, with the bowl of the spoon sticking out. “There, it’s a bird,” he said.
“It is?” asked Sofia. He could tell that she was only humoring him because she was bored, but that was okay.
“The forks are his legs, and the spoon is his neck and beak,” said Henry. He picked the assembly up, and pressed the forks against the sides of the cup. He made the bird walk by picking up the cup and moving the tines of the fork across the ground. The spoon slid around in the cup, and threatened to tip out.
A brief frown seemed to cross her face. She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “What does he eat?” Sofia asked.
“Pebbles,” said Henry. He walked the teacup bird over to where Sofia had set down a few of the rocks from his collection, and then used the spoon to pick them up one by one and put them into the teacup. Sofia watched for a while without saying anything. Privately, Henry decided that his cup-bird wasn’t eating the pebbles, but collecting them for a nest. The nest would be built someplace high up, away from the predators. He wasn’t sure what the cup-bird ate, just that it wasn’t really pebbles.
“He should eat noodles,” said Sofia.
“Noodles?” asked Henry. He looked up at her, and for a moment saw that her face had softened. She grew suddenly serious and turned her nose up at him.
“Noodles,” she repeated. “He should eat people food. He should slurp it up.”
Henry nodded, and continued to walk the bird around the ground. It was an awkward walk, with the tines occasionally poking into the small cracks between the floorboards.
“Do you have any noodles?” asked Sofia.
“We eat noodles sometimes,” said Henry. “I don’t know.”
“You should check,” said Sofia. “He’ll get hungry if he’s got nothing to eat.”
Henry set the bird down, and it became two forks, a teacup, and a spoon again, right until Sofia picked it back up. Henry glanced back at her as he got to the stairs, and saw a faint smile on her face. He was certain that when he got back, she would have invented all sorts of new rules for the bird.
“Dad, do we have noodles?” asked Henry from halfway up the stairs.
“Pasta?” replied Hirrush. “No, none cooked.” He was laying on the padded bench next to the fireplace, which contained nothing but a pile of embers that he occasionally stirred with a poker. His headache had gotten better, but it had still left him practically useless. Henry didn’t like see his father hurt like that, but both his parents had assured him that there was nothing to be done.
“Can I cook some?” asked Henry.
Hirrush opened one eye and looked at Henry. “I don’t think we have any.”
“Oh,” said Henry. He turned to go back upstairs, then turned back to his father. “We’re playing.”
“Good,” said Hirrush. His smile was strained and faded quickly. Omarr came in from outside and sat down in a chair next to Hirrush with a worried look on his face. Omarr gave a similarly strained smile, though obviously for different reasons.
Henry marched back up the steps to his room. He liked Sofia, but he imagined that she would tell him that they always had noodles in her castle. Before he could say anything though, he saw the cup-bird moving. Sofia had backed away from it. She was staring at it in wonder.
“What did you do?” asked Henry.
The forks that made the bird’s feet had bent. As the bird walked forward, Henry could see the metal hinging like a real joint. The whole thing was animate, the spoon-head dipping and bobbing like a gardener snake sniffing at the air. The flat of the forks held firmly to the side of the teacup without anything keeping them in place. It moved like it was its own creature.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Sofia softly. Neither of them could take their eyes off of it.
“Dad!” called Henry, without looking away from where the assembly of utensils was exploring the floor.
Omarr came up the stairs slowly, but stopped dead in his tracks when he saw what was in the room. “What have the two of you been doing?” he asked slowly. He slipped a penknife out from one of his pockets and poked it into the side of his index finger, which drew blood. Henry had seen this one or two times before, enough that it was almost boring, even if it was dark magic. Omarr spread the bead of blood over the tip of his finger, and pointed towards the cup-bird. The bird showed no reaction.
“It’s a house spirit,” said Omarr. He wiped his bloodied finger on his shirt. “We’ve never had a house spirit.”
“It can’t be,” said Henry. “We made it.”
Omarr looked at him carefully, but didn’t seem to have much of an answer to that.
Adrianna was having second thoughts.
Marurbo was the largest city in Donkerk by a wide margin, situated right where the Lenten River met the Juniper Ocean. The king’s castle was situated on a broad stretch of rock that split the river in two, right at the river’s mouth, but the city itself spread out on both sides of the river, the two halves stitched together by five separate bridges. It was said that a million people lived in the capital, and it was the center of both trade and industry for Donkerk and for hundreds of miles past it (though much of that area was desert, ocean, impassable mountains, or the Scour). Two weeks ago, the largest city that Adrianna had ever been to was Leshampur, which barely rated as a city at all. The capital had too many people and too much noise.
She sat in her room at the inn, and listened to one of the criers. There had to be hundreds of them in the capital, each staking out their own corner of the city. Omarr had come down with her, and on one of their first days in the big city she had asked him what kind of pay the king provided for that kind of work. He had laughed and told her that the criers were the ones that paid the city. A license for being a city crier ran into the hundreds of silvers. The criers made their money by yelling out enticements for the local businesses, driving people into taverns or shops whenever there wasn’t some pressing royal decree to be read out, a service which those taverns and shops paid handsomely for. The service of a crier, Omarr explained, was the difference between riches and ruin.
But Omarr had gone, and now she was stuck listening to the crier outside her window yelling in his booming voice about pickled fish.
It had been nerve-wracking when Omarr had left for the castle. After an hour had passed, she’d been sure that her door would be broken down by a whole squadron of oathkeepers, even though the whole plan was that Omarr would travel the Shadows Between Realms with the princess and end up back at the cottage some ten days of travel away. But Adrianna hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that something either would or had gone horribly wrong, and though Omarr didn’t even know which inn she was staying at — a precaution against his capture and torture that had done nothing for her confidence — she was certain that she was only minutes from some terrible fate arranged by the forces behind the king. She had been a milkmaid before her gran had died, and while she dealt with matters beyond the understanding of the common people, she still felt like she was horribly out of her depth, even after six full years of being a hedge witch. She wondered whether she would ever feel like her gran must have felt. Adrianna had to refer to the books constantly and trudge out to the leaning cottage to consult with Omarr and Hirrush. The few times she’d seen her gran use witchcraft, she’d done it with a confidence and power that suggested she could have thrown away her books long ago.
Armed men never showed up at her door. Eventually she’d had to go down and buy a bowl of soup. She ate it slowly, and was still sitting at one of the ale-stained tables when word first came that the princess had gone missing. She had asked whether the princess had run away or been taken, and though no one seemed to know, that at least told Adrianna that the princess had been taken, which almost certainly meant that Omarr had lost a finger and carried her through the Shadows Between Realms. The ritual was a powerful one that they’d dug up from some book or another, and though they had never used it before, Omarr and Hirrush had seemed confident enough that it would work. That faith had apparently been rewarded.
She sat in her bed, and listened to the town crier repeating the same things over and over again with only minor variations. Her job now was to wait.
The crier began to call the phrase “Eighteen fallen march on the waves” around noon on the third day. That was part of the instructions that Omarr had left behind when he had taken the princess. The king was signaling that the ransom would be paid. It was Adrianna’s cue to leave the inn and take up her part in the scheme. Her heart was beating fast, and her hands were already sweating, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. She wore a long dress that covered half-calf trousers, and a vest whose small pocket she patted a third time, just to make sure that the teeth were still there. She walked down to the docks, and found the small alley sheltered from view that she’d picked out several days ago.
Adrianna pulled one of the two teeth — top front incisors, mirrors of each other — from her pocket. The place where Omarr had written on it — when it had still been in the man’s mouth — was smudged, but she could still make out the circle he’d drawn. Omarr had killed the man with practiced ease. Though she knew it shouldn’t have an affect upon her, she couldn’t help but feel a little queasy.
She wasn’t sure how Omarr had found the man, and she hadn’t asked, but on their third day in the capital Omarr brought her to a tall, narrow house in a seedy part of the sprawling city. They’d made their way through a gathered crowd of solemn faces that spilled out into the creaky hallways. People watched them, but said nothing. Conversations died as they approached. Most of those they passed had the same hooked nose and high cheekbones, and all had straight black hair. Omarr moved like he knew where he was going, and people parted for him, giving him more room than even his broad shoulders needed. The house didn’t seem to be laid out with an particular plan in mind, but each room held people, all looking bleak. Eventually the seemingly endless series of doorways, hallways, cheap furniture, and musty smells gave way to a bedroom.
The man was old, though not so old that he should have been dying. He had the same nose as the men and women they’d passed on the way in and the same straight black hair, though it was streaked with gray. His eyes were watery and his skin was loose. He looked at Omarr with distaste. Omarr closed the door behind them, giving them privacy from the dozens of prying eyes.
“Well,” Omarr had said with a gentle smile. “No cold feet?”
The old man shook his head. “Two hundred gilders.”
“Two hundred,” agreed Omarr. “Does your family know?”
“You saw the looks,” said the old man. He coughed violently. Omarr watched with a frown. “You best pay my sons, else they’ll pulverize you.”
“So long as they don’t try to do that after they get their payment,” said Omarr. “Else I’ll sprout a set of wicked claws and rend them to pieces.” His voice was loud enough to carry past the door. “Seven trueborn sons?”
“Eleven,” said the old man. “Seven of them trueborn, at the least. I was told it wouldn’t matter if I had more, so long as it was at least seven.” He licked his dry lips. “Will this hurt?”
“Suffocation doesn’t hurt, if done right,” said Omarr. “And I give you my word that I’ll be doing it right, as little as that might mean to you. You’ll feel a sense of panic. You might try to fight back against me, but know that you’re doing this for your family. That animal instinct to fight won’t serve your interests.”
“Death,” said the old man. He closed his eyes. “Do what you will.”
Omarr stepped forward and used his thick fingers to lift the man’s upper lip. There was no protestation from the man, just a slight flinch and a tightening of his closed eyes. Omarr took a black pencil from his pocket and made two quick circles, one on each of the incisors.
“The symbols themselves don’t matter,” said Omarr. He kept his voice conversational. It took Adrianna a moment to realize that she was talking to him. “There are a number of rituals with a delayed effect that call for a symbol to be marked on the focus, but the mark is just to get the spirit’s attention. Most of the time when you see something fancy, a hundred lines each just so, a carefully precise ellipsis or angles measured in exact degrees, all done up in pretty colors — most of the time, a circle made in waxy charcoal will do just as well.”
Omarr took a pillow off the bed and pressed it to the old man’s face. Omarr was a big man, with a meat to his body like a bear, but he was friendly too, and in general he showed nothing of the obvious danger that a man like Hirrush presented. Adrianna had expected to see him conflicted, or saddened, but his face betrayed nothing of that. He was workmanlike, pushing the pillow firmly into the old man’s face, and when the old man began to kick and thrash, Omarr moved his head back from the flailing hands and put more of his weight into it. The thrashing became weak and feeble, then stopped entirely. After three full minutes had passed, Omarr pulled the pillow away and felt for the man’s pulse.
“I didn’t even learn his name,” she said softly.
“Mendel,” said Omarr. “Mendel Lavit, may he rest in peace.” He pulled a pair of pliers from within his tunic and turned to look at her. “He and I made a fair exchange, and I hastened an end that he knew was coming. He was in pain. Now, I’d recommend that you look away — this part you don’t need to see.” Adrianna heeded his advice, but that didn’t help to block out the wet crack as Omarr extracted the two teeth he’d marked.
When she turned back around, Omarr was setting two hundred gilders on a bedside table. The old man — Mendel — he looked almost peaceful, if not for the blood that dripped from his mouth. Omarr had wiped his hands on the bedspread, but they were still stained red.
After they were out on the street, having walked past the silent house full of Mendel’s sons and daughters, Adrianna finally asked.
“Why did you bring me?”
“You agreed to this,” said Omarr. “Six years as a hedge witch and still it’s a lesson you haven’t taken to heart. We sat in the cottage with you. We explained the plan. We said a man with seven trueborn sons would have to be suffocated for the spell we needed. We explained that we would find a man who was willing to give his life for a little gold, or if possible, who wanted to die. Mendel had days left to live. Maybe hours. I waited patiently, to give him as much time with his family, but don’t you see the point I’m trying to make?”
Adrianna shook her head.
“Talking is one thing and doing is another,” said Omarr. “There are good things — truly good things — that make our stomachs wrench. There are paths that we don’t follow because we feel some revulsion towards them, even when they’re the correct ones. And it goes the other way too! People think that they do the right thing just because that’s what makes them feel good, even when they’re visiting some horror on a stranger.”
That had been days ago. And now Adrianna stared at Mendel’s two front teeth, taken from his skull just minutes after he had died. It was far too late to back out, but some small part of her wanted to. Omarr had said that each tooth was good for four hours, but neither of them wanted to test it. Adrianna waited at the docks until she spotted the one ship flying a blue-green flag, then began to strip her dress until only the short pants remained. She put her hair back in a bun and picked up the reinforced pack that she’d stashed behind a crate. The last bit of preparation was to crush the first tooth with the heel of her boot. Once it was done she began to count the minutes remaining.
Adrianna moved to the edge of the wharf, between the two buildings that sheltered her from sight. She knelt down reached with her toe to dip it in the water and couldn’t help but smile when she saw the water move away from her. The spell had worked. She sat on the edge for just a moment, readjusted the straps on her backpack, then pushed herself off. Instead of splashing down into the water, it parted around her and swallowed her up. She landed with her feet on dry sand. She was at the center of a bubble of air, with water all around her.
It was time to collect the ransom.
“It’s not possible to summon a spirit into corporeal form,” said Hirrush. “They come on their own, not at the beck and call of people. Certainly not from anything a child could do.”
They’d sent the children upstairs just after an early dinner and now sat together at the table. Omarr had carried the spirit down, holding it gently, as far from his body as he could. When he’d set it on the table, it had paced in circles for a few minutes, then curled into a small ball by flipping the cup over and bending all the utensils up inside it. Every once in a while it would lift its cup up slightly, then settle back down again.
“Perhaps it came on its own,” said Omarr. He tugged at his beard, which he did when he was nervous. They’d kidnapped the daughter of the most powerful man around, but the small house spirit that sat on their table felt more troublesome. The kidnapping had been carefully planned, and the point with the largest chance of complications — stealing Sofia from within the castle — had gone off perfectly. The spirit seemed to herald an unraveling of their scheme, though neither men quite knew how.
“It didn’t come on its own,” said Hirrush. He’d claimed his headache was mostly gone, but he still sat hunched in his chair and cradling a cup of tea. “The odds against it happening now of all times is astronomical. This cottage has been in the family for three generations and the land around it for even longer. A hundred years for the spirit of this house to manifest it and it does it now, in the small window of time when we’ve got a stolen princess here?”
“The children claim they made it,” said Omarr. “That they put it together. It animated on its own, to hear them tell it.”
“Equally impossible,” said Hirrush, but he didn’t sound sure of himself. “But you’re right, that’s an important piece of information. It’s a clue.”
“What’s our worst case?” asked Omarr.
“Besides Adrianna getting caught, giving us up, and the king’s men torturing us to death?” asked Hirrush. “I should have gone into the witch’s mind and removed every trace of us from it. If I were as I was at my peak …”
“You’re still bitter,” said Omarr. “I don’t blame you for that one bit. But even at your peak you wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it, not when you had to stay back.” Hirrush grunted and looked away. “The past is painful enough without magnifying it.”
“Okay,” said Hirrush. He kept his eyes averted, then let out a sigh and turned back to Omarr. “Thank you for keeping me grounded.”
“It’s possible that my jaunt between the realms pulled the spirit through to the physical world with me when we made our exit,” said Omarr. “That creates a wrinkle, but not a big one. It would actually have some interesting applications, if it were true.”
“Unlikely,” said Hirrush. “The whole point is to take a bubble of physical space outside the realms. It’s mentalist theory applied to physical reality, mediated by spiritual entities. While you were in transit, you weren’t touching the spiritual realm at all, it shouldn’t have been possible to disturb it. And we interact with the spiritual realm every time we do dark magic, so if all it took was influence on the spiritual realm we’d be swimming in the things — one for the house, one for the farmstead, one for the creek — no, it shouldn’t have been that.”
“Shouldn’t,” said Omarr.
“Point taken,” replied Hirrush. “Shouldn’t, but might’ve.” He tapped his fingers on the side of his cup. “It could have been one of the children.”
“A spirit caller,” said Omarr. “A creature from myth.”
“We have to strongly consider the possibility,” said Hirrush. “The question is whether it was Henry or Sofia.”
“If it were the princess, I would think that we’d have heard about it,” said Omarr. “I did my research. She’s nothing special, so far as little girls go. Nothing to connect her with spirits in any way.”
“I think I’m partial to the theory because it wouldn’t change anything in the near-term,” said Hirrush. “If it’s Sofia, she’ll be back in the castle shortly. If it’s Henry, we can cross that bridge later.”
“And for now we do nothing?” asked Omarr. He pointed to the spirit that was curled up on their table, the edge of one fork sticking out from under the cup. “We don’t have much of a choice but to live with this spirit, I suppose?”
“I can comb through the books,” said Hirrush. “But we’re stuck with it.”
“They named it Chippy,” said Omarr. “They decided when I was putting them to bed.”
“Ah,” said Hirrush.
“Because of the chip,” said Omarr.
“Yes, I understood immediately,” said Hirrush. He rubbed his temples. “I’ll be glad when this is all over.”
“Will you still be able to go into her mind?” asked Omarr.
“No real choice, is there?” asked Hirrush. “Even if Ibrahim weren’t waiting back at the castle, she’d only have to talk for a few hours before descriptions of us went out to every town in the kingdom.”
“Do you regret picking her?” asked Omarr. “Do you wish we’d gone for easier prey?”
“We’ll never have to do this again,” said Hirrush. “And for my part, I’ll enjoy hearing stories about this for years to come. It’s petty, but so few people get to put egg on the king’s face.” He reached forward and touched the spirit with a fingertip, but it moved only slightly before settling back down. “We’ll figure this out later. But I suppose in the meantime that we’ll have to deal with having a house spirit.”
“Look at this,” said Rowan, pointing to a picture in one of the books.
Ventor leaned forward and dutifully took a look. The scale was given by a man who stood beside the beast. The top of the man’s head came even with the core of his monster’s spine. The beast had enormous claws on both its front and back legs and a swollen rib cage so large that it nearly touched the ground. Its head was small and its eyes beady.
“They used it to carry them around,” said Rowan. “There was a hole in the side. You could slip in and have it take you wherever you wanted to go.”
“A disgusting perversion,” said Ventor. “Do I need to remind you again that you were looking for some clue as to what happened to your sister?”
“Don’t you see?” asked Rowan. He smiled wide. “Maybe she was taken by this thing, or something like it!”
“You think that a monster of incomprehensible horror scaled the walls of the castle, snatched up the princess, and retreated, all without anyone seeing it?” asked Ventor. He was honestly curious whether the young prince thought that likely.
Rowan’s face fell. “No.” He turned back to the book, looking at the pictures more than reading the descriptions. “But it’s not incomprehensible, because people rode them around.”
“Incomprehensible to you or I,” said Ventor. “Not to the people of Neth. Such abominations are thankfully a thing of the past.”
“Could someone make one?” asked Rowan.
“No one knows how,” said Ventor. “The knowledge was either lost or destroyed. I firmly hope that it was the latter and not the former. In the heyday of the Empire they had beasts that could outrun even me, and I can run mightily fast. With dark magic there is always the threat that some secret will be uncovered again, or that some lost tome will be brushed off and sold to the wrong person. I very much doubt that you’ll find the answer in any of those books, but if I had to guess, whoever took her was a practitioner. There were kidnappers who worked very similarly to this some years ago, and they were dark practitioners. It’s a likely bet that these are the same men, or closely related.” His obligation to guard the prince had not left Ventor much time to keep abreast of the latest developments, but he had seen enough oathkeepers running by to know that something important was happening.
“But someone could rediscover how to make this monster, couldn’t they?” asked Rowan. “If they tried enough times?”
Ventor gave him a stern look, and not for the first time. He reminded himself that he wasn’t responsible for anything but the boy’s safety. “It’s possible,” said Ventor. “Which is precisely why we work tirelessly to stop the dark practitioners from gaining a toehold.” Ventor pointed to the picture the book was open to, a snake-thing with foot-long fangs and a whip-like tail. “This is a collection of the horrors of the Nethian Empire. The cost to create such a beast would be measured in bone and blood, or more likely in human lives. The Neth thought nothing of trying over and over, spilling blood by the gallon, stacking corpses like cordwood, until they arrived at this. There once was a set of instructions to create this creature, paid for in horrors above and beyond what the creature itself cost.”
Rowan frowned at that and closed the book. “There’s nothing in here about taking people anyway.”
“No,” said Ventor. “I’m sorry, but your search was doomed to failure. If there had been some scrap of information in these books, the sages would have already known it. Knowledge is their domain.”
“So they know dark magic?” asked Rowan. He reached for another book from the pile, which he’d been slowly going through one page at a time, skipping most of the words. Ventor had broached the subject of the prince’s studies to the king, who had seemed utterly unconcerned — though of course he had other things on his mind. Still, Ventor sometimes wished that the history and practice of dark magic had been more thoroughly scrubbed from the world. He wished that the library books could be burned, to erase so much as a trace of the evil empire and their terrible practices.
“No,” said Ventor. “The sages know the outcomes of dark magic though, and that is enough. Snatching a girl from within these castle walls is not a possible outcome of dark magic, at least so far as we know it.”
“Unless someone tried enough times?” asked Rowan. He furrowed his brow. “If they kept killing people over and over until they made something that worked?”
“No,” said Ventor for the third time. He pointed to the book with its pictures of the gruesome monsters Neth had spawned. “Dark magic works in flesh.” He pointed to the second book. “Dark magic works in wards. The flesh is what seduces the dark wizard, but the wards are what makes him truly dangerous. Yet with proper planning, even the greatest dark wizard is no match for an oathkeeper.”
Among its many other qualities, the Boreal Crown was as light as a feather. It sat atop King Aldric’s head, perfectly centered, its golden thorns reaching towards the clouds. Each thorn was thick enough that the crown was often compared to a deer’s antlers. Aldric had grown tired of being called a young buck within weeks. Though the seas rocked their boat, the crown stayed firmly in place. Aldric barely noticed it was there.
“It is not enough to get my daughter back,” the king said. The crown cut through the noise of the waves around them, and conversations stopped in their tracks. It was possible to reign in the effect, but usually there was no point. “They have not just stolen my daughter, they have made a grievous insult against the crown. That cannot stand.”
“There is risk, your majesty,” said Baktar, a sage with round glasses and ratlike teeth that he kept covered with his lips, even when talking, in a way that only served to draw attention to his mouth. “You must instruct the oathkeepers not to kill, or even badly injure whatever they find down there. If they do, they might be destroying any chance for the safe return of the princess.”
“There is no guarantee that anyone will be down there,” said Langauld, a sage with thinning hair and a mustache that seemed to be making a good attempt at compensating for it. He was the older of the two. “If they are capable of retrieving the gold from a thousand feet below the surface, as we suspect they must be given their demands, there would be no rush for them to claim it. They would only need verify that we have in fact dumped the gold from the side of the ship, and then return days or even weeks later to collect at their leisure.”
Aldric nodded along. He was glad that he had brought only the two sages, for if he’d brought a dozen he had no doubt that he would receive at least that many points and counter-points, addenda and corrections, on and on until he had lost all interest. For a time he had tried to make it known that the sages could not curry favor by being contrary, or by adding extraneous detail, but he had eventually realized that the sages cared less for his approval, and more for the approval of their peers. He rarely spoke with the full council anymore, and instead picked two or three from the bunch to stand in for the others. No doubt the subject had already been discussed to death and back again, and there was no reason for them to have it out in front of him.
They had all been in agreement that he had no place on the ship, but he had ignored them. It was bad enough that his only daughter had been taken. He couldn’t be seen as weak. There was a dominant idea among the both the commoners and the lesser nobility that the Boreal Crown secured the royal line against intrigue. It was, after all, not possible to steal the crown, as the king could command it to his hand with a thought. Even assassination would only transfer the crown to some other member of the royal line. Yet the royal history of Donkerk was littered with examples of the complexity of the powers, if anyone cared to look. King Elthar had been a puppet of his mentor, controlled in every respect after his father’s death. King Ganduin had been poisoned into a deep sleep, and a duke had worn the crown for three months, claiming a false lineage. Now, even if Sofia could be safely returned to him, there were those who would see that blackmail might be a path to leverage.
“Lower the anchors,” said Aldric, when he was informed that they had reached the appropriate spot.
He would find the men responsible for taking his daughter, and he would punish them for all the world to see.
Adrianna walked downhill along the sea floor, keeping her eyes pointed in the direction of the ship she’d spotted from the wharf. It was hard not to stare at the hidden world she was passing by, but the old man’s death had bought her eight hours of free movement, and she couldn’t bear the thought of wasting it. There was also the thought in the back of her mind that she would be killed almost instantly if she hadn’t gotten out of the water by the time the spell reached its end. She watched carefully for fish, but the few she spotted seemed to shy away from her. The ground was bone dry beneath her feet, courtesy of the same spell that kept the water away from her and the air pure. As she walked towards the ship, she put more and more distance between herself and the surface. The air grew colder, and the bubble grew smaller, but Omarr had told her to expect those things. It got darker, and Adrianna forced herself to think of all the things her share of the money could buy. It didn’t entirely work as a distraction.
She had been walking for ten minutes when a vial of blood she’d been carrying in one of her pockets burst. The blood was her own, taken much earlier and mixed with a liquid that would keep it from clotting. As soon as it happened, she knew what had happened — the ritual kept her breath from fouling the air, but did nothing for the pressure. The vial had been corked and sealed, with the intent that it could be broken by throwing or crushing it. As she’d gone deeper, the pressure had gotten to be too much. The vial had been intended as an emergency measure in case something had gone wrong and the king’s men had planned some counterattack — to throw up a quick ward or sprout claws to fight back. Adrianna had two more vials, which seemed to be intact, but she broke the wax seal and pulled out the cork to keep them from bursting as well.
She saw the ship lower two immense, round anchors, one on each side, drifting to the sea floor on long chains like tendrils, and she hurried her pace. When the plan had been explained to her, she had thought that she had gotten the easy end of the deal, but now she was having second thoughts. If she could have sacrificed a finger to collect the gold and be home again, she likely would have, but that only proved that dark magic was not best practiced when a witch was motivated by temporary concerns. The sea floor was cold and dark, and she imagined shapes moving around her.
The gold bars began to drop down shortly after she got under the ship. There were twenty of them altogether, and Adrianna stood back as she watched them plummet down and tumble in the currents. Each one hit the seafloor with a plume of kicked-up sand, and she tried to mark them carefully. When the last had fallen, she spared a last look up at the ship and walked over to the nearest bar of gold. As it passed into her bubble, the water was pushed away from it. Dull metal gleamed in the faint light. It was cold to the touch, the heat robbed by its descent, and it was heavy in a way that felt unnatural. She had practiced with a bar of lead, but it still shocked her just how heavy a small amount of gold was. In total, the king had dumped five hundred pounds of gold into the ocean.
The two anchors of the ship rested nearby, each connected by a long chain. If Adrianna had known more about ships, she might have questioned their shape, or how they sat on the seafloor. As it was, she had put the first two gold bars into her reinforced pack when she saw a stream of bubbles coming from them.
Adrianna was on her guard almost immediately. She stood up, pulled a wickedly sharp knife form its sheath, and clutched at the two unbroken vials of blood with her other hand. Her first thought was of sharks, though of course that made no sense. Her second thought was of another dark wizard come to challenge her. Omarr and Hirrush had scoffed at that idea, given everything the king had done. Besides that, the ritual she was using to walk on the seafloor was far from well-known. Yet each anchor now seemed to be divesting itself of a shape, which couldn’t mean anything good. Adrianna wanted to run, but the ground here was a fine sand, and she was carrying sixty pounds worth of gold.
The white shapes resolved themselves into pale men. They swam quickly and powerfully towards her. It shouldn’t have been possible for them to be so far down. They should have drowned. They were oathkeepers, almost certainly, but even then they shouldn’t have been able to ride the anchors down and stay beneath the waves for so long. Omarr had taken an inventory of the oathkeepers, just to ensure that none of them had a relevant power that would stop the whole scheme before it started. Yet there was no way that Adrianna could deny the speed at which they swam. She had only seconds to decide whether she should fight or flee. She had two vials of blood and a dagger, a tooth that would provide for another four hours underwater, and two gold bars. Omarr had said that properly prepared, an oathkeeper was no match for a dark wizard, but there were two of them, swimming towards her with bare chests, and she was far from prepared. Yet she couldn’t outrun them either.
She threw the first vial to her feet and used it to shape a second ward around her, this one against physical intrusion. Her concentration was shaky, but it would buy her a handful of minutes. The second vial she poured over her hands, wetting them with her blood. Four quick cuts with the dagger were enough to call the spirit’s attention. It was sloppy, and the results weren’t quite predictable. Her hands trembled and ached as the magic took hold of her bones and flesh, and the claws erupted just seconds after the first oathkeeper hit her shield.
The force pushed her backwards, and she tumbled to the ground. The oathkeeper pounded down against her shield with fists that seemed to move in slow motion in the water. The water was likely the only thing that restrained his power enough that her ward stood up to the hammer blows of his fists. He was older, and had a slightly frantic look on his face. The oathkeepers were known for their willpower, but even then, fighting under six hundred feet of water while holding his breath must have been panic inducing.
Adrianna struck out, raking her claws across the oathkeeper’s chest. Omarr had said that they would slash straight through muscle and skin, raking across the bone, but either the water was slowing them too much, or the oathkeeper’s resilience neutered them, because her attack seemed to do little more than cloud the water with his blood. His assault on her shields continued unabated. Adrianna scrambled backward, and he swam after her, soon joined by the second oathkeeper. She lashed out with her claws, striking at their arms and legs. She had only seconds before the ward would give out. They’d be able to suck in the clean air from the bubble around her, and pin her to the ground.
The dagger had fallen to the ground beside her, and she snatched it up awkwardly with her clawed hands. She had seen Omarr prepare the ritual, and he had talked her through it. Spit and blood around the finger, a freely flowing wound, and a word to bring the spirit’s attention. Adrianna spit on her fingers, then sliced at them with the dagger. The ward broke, and an oathkeeper’s bloody hand reached forward to grab her, but then she was in the cold blackness between the realms.
King Aldric watched silently as the anchors were drawn up. Five hundred pounds of gold had been dumped into the ocean, and whatever had gone on down there was sadly beyond his power.
The anchors had been made from a pair of disused temple bells, each large enough to hold a man inside once the clapper had been removed. They had cleared out one of the drydocks and tested them in the middle of the night, and worked without sleep to get them in working order, with weights at the bottom to prevent it from tipping. A man couldn’t dive down to six hundred feet — not while also hoping to fight a battle with a dark wizard — but the oathkeepers had been lowered with the anchors, and that would give them a slim chance. Of course, as the sages said, it was just as likely that the dark wizards would watch from afar with a spyglass and pick the gold up at their leisure, even if it meant that they had to scour the sea floor for it. Not for the first time, King Aldric considered the ramifications of putting a dark wizard into his employ. It would have to be done in secret, a tool hidden away from the oathkeepers, the sages, and the rest of the nobility, but it would still be possible. There were condemned prisoners whose life could be put to use. It would be distasteful, but the king could not decide whether it would be truly immoral. But to voice that out loud would weaken him in the eyes of his allies, and the men under his control.
The first anchor was raised onto the deck, heaved up by the oathkeepers, who still had difficulty maneuvering it. Rector Orrigold tumbled from it, bleeding from dozens of cuts all over his body. The oathkeepers had consulted among themselves and decided against wearing armor, on the theory that if there was anything to see under the water, the armor would slow them down far too much. Rector Orrigold was sixty years old, though it was hard to tell be looking at him. A pair of medics attended to him, trying to staunch the flow of blood. He was a muscular man, as most of the oathkeepers were, the benefit of intensive training that only added to the power of his oaths. His life’s blood seeped out onto the deck.
“A witch,” he said, trying to move the medics aside. “A lone witch, with air all around her. We tried to retrieve her, but she vanished when we breached her wards. Rector Perrin ran short of breath as we swam back to the bells.”
King Aldric nodded. Orrigold had taken the Oath of Silence before Aldric had even been born, and had broken it now to deliver this information, and the only reason that Orrigold would have done that is if he knew that he was dying. Seventy years of oaths, and more power than most men could hope for in their lifetime, gone in an instant. The witch had escaped, but at least they knew that dark magic had been involved. The sages had told him that dark magic was incapable of pulling his daughter from the castle, but here was proof that they did not know so much as they supposed.
If the oathkeepers had managed to capture the witch, they might have had some leverage. As it was, it was unclear whether he would ever see his daughter alive again.
Hirrush had been nursing his headache and watching the sun go down when Adrianna stepped out of the darkness and immediately collapsed onto the floor of the cottage. He went to her immediately, trying to ignore the pounding pain in his head, and turned her over. She wasn’t moving, and blood was trickling from her ears. Both hands had taken the shape of claws, one of which was missing a finger.
“Omarr!” he called. “Adrianna’s here!”
Omarr had been outside, but rushed in right away. He swore when he saw her. “Check her eyes,” said Omarr.
Hirrush lifted her eyelid, and a bloodshot eye stared back at him. Omarr swore again, and rushed back outside. Hirrush began to strip Adrianna’s clothing off, using a knife from the kitchen to cut it away instead of bothering with trying to remove it the proper way. He didn’t know quite what was wrong with her, but clothing would do nothing but get in the way for whatever Omarr was thinking.
“What’s wrong with aunt Adry?” asked Henry. Hirrush turned to look at the stairs, and saw Henry and Sofia standing there, watching him.
“Henry,” said Hirrush calmly. “I want you to take Sofia upstairs and not come down until we get you.”
“Is she going to be okay?” asked Henry.
“I don’t know,” said Hirrush. “Go.”
Henry dashed towards the table and scooped up the spirit, then hammered up the stairs with Sofia close behind him. Hirrush would have to have a talk with him later about obeying instructions, but for now, Adrianna would have to take priority. He had pulled the immensely heavy pack from her back just as Omarr came back in, with Frederick, their oldest goat, behind him.
“Diver’s sickness,” said Omarr. “There’s a huge amount of pressure when you’ve got six hundred feet of water sitting on top of you.” The goat seemed pleased to be in the house, and showed no reaction as Omarr grabbed the knife that Hirrush had been using. “Diver’s get sick when they come up too fast.” Omarr took a half-empty cup of tea from the table, and poured it out over Adrianna. Two feet from her, it hit an invisible ward and slid off in a curve towards the floor. “She must have made the whole trip all at once.”
Hirrush nodded. He and Omarr worked closely together, but neither had seen the point in duplicating their knowledge. Hirrush had cobbled together the ritual for moving between the realms, while Omarr was the one that had unearthed the spell to ward against water — one that they’d routinely used in their life before Henry. “What do we do?”
“Treat the symptoms,” said Omarr. He patted the goat on its flank. “Sorry old friend, but this is a time of need.” He looked to Hirrush. “We’ll likely need more, if we want her to stand a chance at a decent life afterwards. A half dozen chickens, a human femur, and blood from one of us. Best to do it when the damage is fresh.”
Hirrush nodded a second time. “I’d be willing to give far more for her, even if we didn’t need to know what went wrong.”
Adrianna woke up to a spoon pressing against her face. She shook her head slightly, and felt the world shifting around her.
“He likes you,” said a boy’s small voice. He sounded very far away. Adrianna opened her eyes, and had to blink a few times before Henry came into focus. Right next to her face was a collection of silverware and a chipped teacup, which were moving of their own accord.
“Don’t move around,” said Omarr. “You’re going to need some time to recover.”
Adrianna looked around the room. Omarr and Hirrush were both there, and next to Henry was a small girl. She nearly laughed at the absurdity of seeing the princess of Donkerk sitting in the dark wizards’ cabin. Instead she coughed, and tasted blood.
“You need to tell us what happened,” said Omarr. He leaned down next to her and held her hand.
“The oathkeepers came for me,” said Adrianna. Her voice croaked. “The anchors weren’t anchors at all. They were pockets of air. I should have realized, but I’d never even been on a boat before.” She breathed in, and her chest felt tight. “All that gold is sitting on the ocean floor now. Maybe they even grabbed it back.”
Hirrush stepped to the side and gestured towards the table. “Not all of it, anyway.” The two gold bars she’d grabbed sat side by side. She had nearly forgotten about them. The whole fight was a blur.
“I had claws,” she said. “I put up a ward. They were pounding away at it, and I kept slicing through their skin, but they just didn’t stop. They must have been holding their breath the whole time, but they didn’t seem to care. They only wanted me dead.”
Omarr and Hirrush looked at each other. “Did they get a good look at your face?” asked Hirrsuh.
“No,” said Adrianna. “I don’t know. It was cold and dark down there.” She looked back and forth between the two of them, trying to ignore the children. “I’m not going back to the capital though. They won’t expect us to be so far away. They won’t come looking.”
“Hrm,” said Omarr. “No one needs you to. Those two bars, melted down, sold off to the right people … it will be enough.”
“Enough,” said Hirrush. “And it would be worth it to make another trip down to see whether they recovered the rest.”
“I have the other tooth,” said Adrianna. She reached for her vest and realized that she was wearing different clothes. The thought of the two dark wizards undressing her brought a brief, irrational shame that she worked hard to suppress. All three of them had seen enough bodies to know better. They had almost certainly saved her life. If she’d gone with her first instinct and pushed through the shadows to her own house instead of theirs, she would have died. “How long was I out?”
“The better part of a day,” said Omarr. “We need to get this one home,” he said slowly, gesturing towards Sofia. She looked at him with a small, unhappy frown. “Enough playing with fire.”
“Can Henry come with me?” asked Sofia.
Henry smiled. “I’m her knight,” he said with a look towards his fathers. “When Sofia is the queen, I’m going to have a castle all of my own.”
“We’ll talk about it,” said Omarr. “For now, how about a cup of tea for all of us?”
Ibrahim strode down the corridors of the castle, listening to the clicking of his heels against the flagstones. He preferred the indirect routes that had little traffic, most of the time. Mentalists were rare, and there were all sorts of rumors about what they could do, enough so that he got frightened glances from commoners he passed by. He had done nothing to correct the public perception of him, though he had at least spoken with the sages enough that they wouldn’t make unreasonable demands of him. In the wild fantasies of the commonfolk, the royal mentalist was capable of scooping out a person’s mind and replacing it with his own, or laying bare all of their secrets while engaged in casual conversation. The last thing that he needed was for the king to ask him to do any of those astonishing feats.
Sofia had been discovered wandering the corridors of the castle just after dawn, rubbing her eyes and stretching out like she hadn’t been missing at all. She had been hugged by her father, seen to by the royal physicians, and now it was time for him to delve into her head and see what could be extracted. The princess seemed to remember nothing of the missing five days, but it was unclear whether this was some unknown form of dark magic, the result of some alchemical concoction, or whether the memories had simply been repressed. It was his job to find out which it was, and if possible, give the king’s men a trail to follow. He hadn’t heard the full story, but something had gone wrong with the ransom.
“Do not touch her mind,” said King Aldric, in the voice of command that was utterly unique to the Boreal Crown. It seemed to press down on a person, and compel obedience. The effect was easy enough to recognize and shrug off, even for someone without decades of practice in controlling his own mind, but Ibrahim let himself feel it. He had no pretensions towards altering the child’s mind in any way. “Go inside. Look carefully. But change nothing.” Ibrahim nodded.
They were in a room next to Sofia’s bedroom, with a thick stone wall between them. Material provided no resistance to mentalism, though distance did. It would have been easier to make the connection if he had been allowed to administer a sedative, but he hadn’t dared to ask the king. Instead, Ibrahim sat down in a stuffed chair that had been prepared for him, closed his eyes, and entered his mindscape.
It was an enormous structure composed of crystal, the whole of it suspended in a rounded glass bottle that tumbled through the stars. He stood in the entryway only briefly, then teleported himself into the viewing room. The room was a crutch, but a convenient one that he had never quite gotten rid of. The king was easy enough to see, and the oathkeepers that swarmed all around them. The view gave little in the way of direction or distance, but it was possible to probe at the connection and make a guess at relative location. Ibrahim checked each mind in turn until he found that of the princess, a small mind that was still growing, not yet set in its ways. Ibrahim pushed against it, feeling less resistance than there should have been, and stepped onto the deck of a ship at sea.
His thoughtform was waiting for him. He had planted it just after she had learned to speak. Though he had told the king that it was to provide a defense against other mentalists, in truth the defense was so minor that it was hardly worth the effort. He had read, in one of the many books he had purchased with the king’s money, that an early thoughtform would have a subtle effect on alignment as time went on, and since there was no downside — and because he was concerned above all with his security — he had made it a point to plant one in both of the royal children after securing the permission of the king.
The thoughtform walked towards him, a faint smile on his face. It wasn’t him, not exactly, only a construct, but —
The thoughtform manifested a blade when he was only feet away, and swung it upward into Ibrahim’s belly. He looked at it in shock, with his eyes wide, but when the thoughtform stabbed him a second time, Ibrahim snapped from his inaction and caught it by the wrist before it could make a third cut. The cuts had gone deep, and he sealed them slowly as he held the thoughtform in place. It used its spare hand to draw another blade from the air, but Ibrahim was ready, and caught this one too. The thoughtform clenched its teeth, but it was an imagining placed in the mind of a five-year-old girl, weak enough that it was no real challenge.
“Who are you?” asked Ibrahim. The thoughtform said nothing. Ibrahim spit up blood, which wasn’t a good sign. The wound was by no means mortal — hardly any were within a mindscape — but it would take weeks of meditation to stop from feeling a pain in his gut. If the traitor had gone for his neck, it would have been even longer. “Who are you!” shouted Ibrahim. When there was again no response, Ibrahim reached out with his will and crushed the thoughtform.
Someone had been in Sofia’s mind. It was a worrisome thought. Ibrahim clutched at his stomach for a long moment. The wounds had sealed shut, and he was certain that his flesh would be unblemished, but the phantom pain was strong, and it would linger. He shook it off, straightened up, and went to go see what damage had been done.
“She had memories removed, my lord,” said Ibrahim. “It was a skilled mentalist. There are few enough of them in Donkerk, but I know of none with the capability to do this — at least, none which are not above reproach. The mentalist in question might have done more, but it’s difficult to say. Mental manipulation can be a subtle thing. I would not be able to accomplish much within a span of five days, even with unfettered access, but while I can claim to be the most proficient mentalist that I know, I cannot claim that I know all mentalists.”
“A mentalist and a dark witch,” said King Aldric with a frown. “I can only pray that these forces arranged themselves in pursuit of my gold, and not for some other, more foul purpose.”
“The princess is returned,” said the sage Langauld. “They must have thought it to their advantage to do so. Perhaps they thought that it would deter you from hunting them down.”
“Or perhaps they thought that it would ensure that any future attempts at kidnapping would be met with compliance,” said the sage Baktar. “This kidnapping will be the topic of conversation for weeks to come.”
King Aldric nodded. “We will hunt them,” he said, pushing on the power of the crown to amplify his voice and instill belief in the men around him. “In the meantime, the guard will be doubled around the children. I don’t believe for a moment that whoever has done this is done.”
Yet weeks passed with no progress in tracking down the kidnappers. Hundreds of people were brought in for questioning, and dozens were put to death for committing crimes of dark magic, but there were none who seemed likely to have actually committed the kidnapping itself.
After three months had passed, resources were slowly and quietly removed from the investigation, and the public executions slowed to a stop.
The kidnapping was never quite forgotten. It was a black mark for the king, which he suspected was by design. Sofia did not quite understand what had happened to her, but even after all the fussing over her was done, she seemed to never be too far from an armed guard, and her days of running freely through the castle were at an end. If the utility of having a dark wizard in the royal service had not been lost on the king, the same was true for his son, who kept the book of monsters in his room, where he looked at it often.
Far to the north, Adrianna would ever after walk with a slight limp, and her hearing never quite returned to what it was. She learned only later that she had killed the two oathkeepers, who had seemed so fearsome and invincible when she was fighting them. She thought of them whenever she looked at her missing finger. Hirrush and Omarr gave her more than her share of the gold, but even so, she came by their cottage less frequently, and then spent more of her time with Henry.
Omarr and Hirrush used their gold sparingly, and indulged themselves little. The small spirit that the children had summoned scurried around their feet and made a nuisance of himself.
And for his part, Henry spent the next years feeling lonesome, and thinking of the princess.