The castle finally got a spirit when Sofia was fifteen years old.
She had imagined the spirit for a long time. Most of the books said that every place and every thing had a spirit, from the cobbler’s shop to the temple gardens, and from the forests to the trees. The spirits themselves stayed in the spiritual realm most of the time, doing whatever it was that spirits did there, but every so often they took a form in the physical realm. That meant that the castle had a spirit. So far as Sofia had been concerned, it was only a matter of time before it gave itself a physical form.
Her father had barred her from visiting any of the known spirits in the capital, not even the nice and friendly ones, or any of the rash of new ones that had begun appearing in recent years. This was patently unfair, in Sofia’s opinion. And of course she wasn’t allowed to leave the city. The solution, she was sure, was simply to wait on the castle’s spirit to take a form. Her father could lock her up, but the castle spirit would be bound to her location, so there was nothing that he could do to stop her from talking to it. The only problem was that the castle had gone eight hundred years without having its spirit take physical form. Sofia spoke to the not-yet-corporeal spirit anyhow, bidding it to come into the physical realm to visit her.
When there were no foreign dignitaries or visiting nobles, dinner was held in the Blue Room, named for the wavy trim that ran along the edge where the wall met the ceiling. There was usually a blue centerpiece (flowers of some kind when they were available, or stalks of shaped blue glass when they weren’t) and the dinnerware was white porcelain with swirling blue around the edges. The decor of the room had been chosen by Sofia’s mother, and her father often mentioned that the dinnerware had been a wedding gift from Sofia’s maternal grandfather.
The family had been eating in silence after her father and Rowan had concluded one of their more subdued fights. There had been a loud crashing sound from the next room over, then screaming that the door did little to muffle. The guards moved to protect Sofia and Rowan with their swords drawn as quick as lightning. It wasn’t long before Sofia was rushed off to some other part of the castle, away from the “unpleasantness”. She was able to piece together what had happened from the hints and clues that people gave her afterward, as well as conversations she pretended not to overhear; the blue dinnerware had been stored in a large upright cabinet, and when one of the serving girls had gone to reach for it, something within the cabinet had broken off. The entire quantity of plates, bowls, and cups had come crashing down on her. She suffered severe lacerations and died some hours later from the loss of blood.
It was the next day when the spirit came trotting down the hallway towards Sofia.
The spirit was shaped like a hound, with shards of porcelain in place of fur. It moved with a fluid grace as it stepped towards her. The jagged pieces of plate that made its ears perked up slightly. It was a creature of blue and white, the pieces of it moving enough that it was hard to see any one part of the patterns that marked it clearly without taking in the whole mosaic. For just a moment, Sofia felt a connection to it, along with a sense peace. When her guards stepped forward, the peace was shattered.
Walrus picked her up with an arm around the waist and carried her away. The wind whipped through Sofia’s hair, and she could see the porcelain hound looking after her, in the gap between the two oathkeepers who had stayed behind. Then they were around the corner, out of sight of the spirit. Walrus didn’t stop until they’d put half a castle’s worth of distance behind them. He came to a stop in a large open courtyard, where the peach blossoms were thick on the ground.
“Unhand me!” cried Sofia. She beat against the back of his breastplate, which was quite ineffectual. “I am the princess of Donkerk and you shall unhand me at once!”
Walrus set her down carefully, after checking twice to see that she was unharmed. “I am bound by my oath to keep you from coming to harm, my lady,” he said carefully.
“It’s the spirit of the castle,” said Sofia. “He came to me!” She sat down in the grass and balled her hands into fists. “We have to go back. I need to talk to him.”
“No,” said Walrus. “I’m sorry my lady, but not until we have word that it’s safe. Perhaps not even then. I’ll need to consult with your father.”
“The spirit is a faithful hound,” said Sofia. She felt like crying. “Are they going to hurt him?”
“He seemed more like a wolf to me, my lady,” said Walrus. “Did you see the brown on him?”
Sofia shook her head. All she had seen was a sleek form of blue and white.
“It was dried blood, my lady,” said Walrus with a soft voice. He was a large man, but gentle for all that. Sofia knew that he’d taken some strict oaths, and must have been powerful because of them, but she had never quite been able to shake the impression of him as slow, not even after he’d run at a dead sprint in full plate with her on his shoulder. He wasn’t the least bit out of breath. “You weren’t there when that girl was bleeding out. I was. A broken plate, snapped cleanly? It’s like a razor. There was talk about how it happened, how it seemed unnatural, and now … it’s not out of the question that the spirit was the one who killed her. Spirits are of the darkness. Coming into the physical realm by taking a life isn’t out of the realm of possibility, if the sages speak true.”
“He wouldn’t,” said Sofia, though she wasn’t sure why she believed that. She’d spent nearly her whole life within the walls of the castle, and perhaps just couldn’t handle the thought that the castle’s spirit was a bad one. Somehow that would have reflected poorly on her and her family.
The sages convened, and eventually told the king that there was nothing for it but to keep the porcelain wolf. A spirit’s physical form could be destroyed with a sufficiently tenacious approach, but more often than not they came back from the spirit realm a second time, and then a third, getting angrier and more powerful with each incarnation. There were two abandoned castles in Donkerk that had been beset by malevolent spirits, each the subject of many tales. A hundred acres of the Darrund Wood had been marked off as impassable thanks to a particularly foul spirit that had manifested itself there. The cost of abandoning the jewel of the capital would have been immense, and the black mark on the king’s record equally large. There was much discussion among the sages about when such action would need to be taken, and some credit given to the myth that a spirit could only die seven times, but in the end, their solution was simply for people to be careful around the jagged creature. The servants, guards, and royal children were told to keep their distance from the spirit, and to avoid doing anything that seemed to agitate it.
Two weeks later, Sofia found it curled up with her. She had only vague recollections of it crawling into her bed at night, but in the morning the spirit was resting on her leg, with its spines turned inward at the point of contact so that only the rims of what once had been plates and bowls were touching her.
“Hi there,” she said softly. She reached out a tentative hand to touch it. As she did, she watched as the shards moved around to present blunt edges to her. Sofia spent some time stroking the spirit, running her finger down its back and watching as it moved itself so as not to hurt her. All the edges she could see were razor sharp, save for the places where it made contact with her.
“We’re going to need to get you out of here,” said Sofia.
One of her handmaidens usually woke her up and helped her to get dressed for the day. By the amount of light coming through her window, she was sure that she didn’t have long. The spirit hound cast a glance in Sofia’s direction, then laid back down on the bed. It would have almost been comical if not for the fact that she was going to be in an enormous amount of trouble, never mind that she didn’t ask the spirit to come to her (or at least, not out loud).
The door opened, and in the time between when Sofia turned to look at it and then back towards the spirit, it had vanished.
“What should we call the spirit?” Sofia asked Rowan at breakfast. Their father was away, hunting deer with one of his dukes. The king’s two children had both declined to come with. Rowan was eighteen, and had grown into his slender build. He wasn’t imposing, but he was faintly handsome, and perhaps would become more so in another five years time. Their father was a stout king, but Rowan would be a bookish one, and perhaps that would come across as wisdom. He was also perpetually unhappy.
“The castle spirit?” Rowan asked. He had taken to bringing books to the table when their father wasn’t around, which made him a poor conversational partner. “Ulf. It’s the old word for wolf.”
“But it’s not a wolf,” said Sofia. “It’s a hound.”
“A hound is only a tame wolf,” said Rowan with a beleaguered sigh. “And that spirit is far from tame. Besides, I’ve watched it from a distance on a few occasions now, and it seems much more wolf-like than hound-like.”
As the days passed, Ulf — a name which stuck — made a number of appearances near Sofia. He entered the study while she was taking lessons, scaring her history teacher half to death and setting her guards on edge. He trotted after her when she used the castle’s hallways. On one occasion, she was singing in the courtyard. Ulf sat down a safe distance away, creeping ever closer like the clinking of his shard wasn’t going to give him away, until eventually her guards had pulled her back into the castle. On more than a few nights she woke to the clatter of his porcelain paws as he crossed the floor and curled up on the foot of her bed.
It took a long time for the people who lived and worked in the castle to get used to Ulf. He cut more than a few of them, though never badly, and Sofia suspected that he was only trying to send a message of some sort, though she was at a loss to what that message would be. Eventually he became part of the tapestry of life in the castle.
Sofia dreamed of being a true friend to Ulf, and having him follow behind her as she walked across the courtyard lawn with bare feet. She dreamed it in the same way that she dreamed of being free of her entourage, able to slip out into the city without drawing stares. She promised herself that some day she would find a way.
“Why do you like her better?” asked Rowan. He had his feet up on a small stool by the fireplace, and leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed.
“You know that’s not true,” said his father’s voice.
Rowan opened one eye. His mindscape was a castle, larger by far than the castle he called home, but with nearly every room empty. The one they sat in had furniture that he’d made with his own will, but as soon as he left it would dissipate to nothing, and the fire would put itself out. The creature that shared this mental room looked and sounded like Rowan’s father, but was only another construct of Rowan’s will. He had recently learned how to create thoughtforms from Ibrahim; the first thing that he’d done was to make a version of his father. It was only how he imagined his father to be, but Ibrahim had said that the technique could be illuminating all the same, if you knew your subject well enough to model them. Hidden truths could sometimes be extracted from your own perceptions of another person.
“You’re lying to spare my feelings, as you often do,” said Rowan. “It’s strange that my feelings only seem to matter to you when you’re being direct, given that you are so casually cruel to me in other ways.”
“I am not cruel to you,” his father replied with a stern voice.
“Yet you don’t want me to be king,” said Rowan. He could feel the temperature drop as his anger grew. That was an easy enough thing to change from within a mindscape, but Rowan wallowed in it. His brain was playing both parts of the conversation; the extra effort that came with lightening his mood wasn’t welcome. Besides that, this wasn’t really his father. Venting his anger here was without any real cost. There was no reason to force himself not to be angry. “At every turn you deny me even the smallest scrap of power. I tried to work with the oathkeepers in apprehending dark witches. You turned me away. I spent hours revising our contract with the Kingdom of Lerringer. You tossed it aside with barely a second glance, claiming that I had too close a relation with them. Every suggestion I give, you brush away. Every time I’ve spoken of a transition of power, you have changed the subject. Why?”
“I am only forty,” said his father. The thorned crown sat firmly on his head. Though his dark beard had streaks of gray in it, he looked every bit as powerful as Rowan remembered him looking when he had been a child. Perhaps that was because he was a projection of Rowan’s imagination — he made a note to check on the king’s physical appearance in the real world when he had stopped his meditations. “I have a long reign ahead of me. By the time you take the crown, you will have children of your own, and perhaps by then you’ll know why I’m reticent to have you walk the path of rule.”
“Tell me why!” shouted Rowan. He would never dare to speak to his father like that outside of his mindscape.
“Dead dogs,” said his father. “Down in the kennels. We put a man to death for that crime, but I know that it was you.”
Rowan flushed, despite himself.
He had started going down to visit the hound master when he was fifteen years old. The castle was home to a large number of dogs, from the tall hunting dogs that his father took with on trips to the small rat catchers. Rowan’s father had encouraged his interest in the dogs, the first time that he’d shown any real approval of his son’s activities. King Aldric was not a man of books or learning, despite the fact that he had pushed hard for the education of his children. Rowan had felt almost embarrassed for his ulterior motives.
Animals died more often than humans. They could make a fuss if they were hurt, but couldn’t bear witness. The higher animals — dogs, cats, pigs, horses — had rudimentary mindscapes which were easy to manipulate, and that was a further incentive. He started small, taking blood from the dogs with cuts in hidden places that the hound master wouldn’t notice, or would mistake for an accident. After he had permission to sleep with the dogs, he could do this in his room. Unlike Sofia, who was the focus of the dark prophecy, he didn’t have guards standing in the room with him while he slept, only outside the door. Rowan would make the cut and collect the blood, and if the dog yelped, he would shush it in a comforting voice, as though it was just being a nuisance.
Dark magic had three primary components. The first was sacrifice, which could be something as simple as a lock of hair. The second was the ritual itself, though some bits of dark magic were simple enough that they needed none. And the third, and most difficult so far as Rowan was concerned, was intent. The very first spell he’d cast — a simple ward for sensing — had taken blood as the sacrifice, smeared on the fingertip for the ritual, but would have accomplished nothing if not for Rowan’s inkling of what it would do.
The books never described all three parts of a ritual. Instead, there would be passages like “There exists a ritual which requires the removal of a toe; it will appear as a smooth nub with no scarring to speak of.” Or “By means of dark magic, a dark wizard may project a field around himself which presents a barrier to physical intrusion.” The information had been deliberately segregated so that valuable information about dark magic could be compiled and maintained without any actual risk of someone practicing dark magic using that information. Knowing one or even two parts of a ritual provided little headway. All the same, even without a proper book on dark magic, Rowan suspected that he could create a ritual of his own. There were patterns, if you looked closely enough.
The number of variables were immense, and the breadth of rituals were wide. Even among those examples he could find which called for dog’s blood, some specified that it needed to be from a newborn dog, or the second of its litter, or one born under a full moon. No doubt that the books were leaving out steps, and of course none of them said what effect the spells were hoping to accomplish. Every night he thought it was safe enough, he would bleed one of the dogs and try the various combinations. His first success came from using dog’s blood to trace a circle on the floor while thinking of wards. It made a small and painfully weak ward as large as the circle, which offered only slight resistance to the prodding of his finger before popping. Still, it was something, and Rowan repeated the exercise from time to time, changing little things here and there to see whether the dark ritual would still work. He would use more blood or less, trace a larger circle or a smaller one, vary the thickness of the line, or make subtle changes to his intent. He kept the notes locked away in a chest deep within his mind. The hardest part of dark magic was trying not to get caught, but though there were a few close calls with the hound master finding the cuts or his guards inquiring about the sounds, Rowan was careful, and made sure that the evidence was never enough to damn him.
The first dog he killed was an old one. He’d climbed out of his window and used the sensing ward to avoid the guards, and to make sure that the hound master wasn’t anywhere near the kennels. The dogs all knew him, and didn’t stir at his arrival. The dog’s name was Clark, and it was the work of only a few seconds to slit his throat when everything had been set up. Clark had lived a long life, and moved slowly, and with pain. It was a mercy, in a way, though Rowan wasn’t so delusional as to believe that was why he’d done it. Though he’d made every effort to maximize the chances that it would work, the ritual was stillborn. Rowan held his matted fur tightly and cursed, then cleaned everything up and went back to bed.
He was on his way to kill the sixth one when the sensing ward revealed a guard to him. He’d retreated as quickly and quietly as possible, and the next day learned from the hound master that the oathkeepers had taken up the matter of investigation into the matter of a brazen dark wizard who was killing the castle’s dogs. Rowan had stopped visiting the hound master after that, and his nocturnal activities came to a halt. He went so far as to seal his window shut so that there could be no question of his escape. Two weeks later, he had heard that they’d captured a man and put him to death for the crime. The news came as a mixture of relief and guilt.
Rowan had to remind himself that it wasn’t his father that was accusing him, only his imagining of his father. It was a projection of his worst fears, not a reflection of what his father actually knew. He let out a long breath.
“So what?” he asked. “Neth was built on dark magic. They persisted for hundreds of years. You can’t even protect your own children.”
His father’s face twisted into a scowl, and Rowan smiled. It was good to end on a high note, and so he dismissed the thoughtform of his father, which popped like a bubble. Rowan plucked the crown from the air, and placed it on his own head. It was a stupid, childish fantasy to wear the crown like this within the confines of his own mind, but it felt good all the same, and so Rowan did his best to simply revel in being stupid and childish. He snuffed the fire out with a thought, and walked down the corridors of his mindscape, whistling a happy tune.
“Who were my real parents?” asked Henry as they milked the goats.
“Ah,” said Omarr. His hair was graying, but his beard was still a solid black. He’d lost weight as he’d aged, but not enough that he couldn’t be a strong, imposing figure when he needed to be. “That is a question.”
“I mean, you and dad are my parents, obviously, and I’m grateful for everything that you’ve done in raising me, but I was reading through Ancestral Aegis and started thinking that if I ever wanted to get the maximum value from those rituals, I would need the bones of my grandfather, or even my father,” said Henry. “And I don’t think that you or dad would count for the purposes of a ritual.”
“Ah,” said Omarr with a sigh of relief. He let the plink plink sound of goat’s milk hitting their buckets fill the air. “So this is just about dark magic?” He looked up to see Henry’s expression, which was difficult to read for once. It wasn’t that Henry was bad at deception, he just didn’t take to it well. More often than not he had the bluntness of his fathers.
“I guess so,” said Henry. He focused on the goat’s teats. “Mostly, anyway. I mean, I know I was an orphan, and I think it was better that I was raised here, but I wonder, you know? About how my life could have been different?”
“Ah,” said Omarr for the third time. “I was an orphan too. Did you know that?”
Henry sighed. “Yes dad.”
“But I never really wondered,” continued Omarr. “They didn’t want me, and I never saw any reason to want them. I had a much harder life than you’ve had, and they were the ones who consigned me to it. If anything, I wanted revenge. I was quite angry when I was younger, if you can believe that.”
Henry kept milking in silence, and eventually Omarr dropped his eyes and focused on the work. Just when he’d thought that the conversation was well and truly over, Henry spoke up. “But if I wanted to know who my parents were, all I would have to do is go to the orphanage in Leshampur and look through their files?”
Omarr stopped and sat back on the small milking stool. “Henry, you know that your father and I didn’t exactly get you through legitimate means.”
“I know,” said Henry. “But dad said that they spent some time looking for me after you took me, and I thought that maybe that would mean that they would have some information on who my parents were?”
“You won’t be able to just walk in there,” said Omarr. He looked out the barn door towards the house, wishing that Hirrush was there with them, but he’d gone into town to get cheesecloth for later in the process. “If a sixteen years old boy asks about a boy that was taken sixteen years ago, it’s going to raise eyebrows.”
“Dad, I know,” said Henry. “I was thinking that I could have some kind of story.”
“Like you’re your own lost twin?” asked Omarr with a laugh.
“I’m not a little kid anymore,” said Henry with a childish pout. “No, I was thinking that I could go to work at the orphanage, and dig into their ledgers when no one was watching.”
“The orphanages are run by the Foresworn Sisters,” said Omarr. “I haven’t been back there, but when we took you there were four sisters. We’re talking about women with keen hearing and nothing better to do with their lives than snoop around. I don’t think they’d let you do their work for them, and I don’t think that you’d be able to peep in the ledgers without them knowing about it.”
“But you grabbed a baby out of the orphanage without them knowing,” said Henry. “And I know for a fact that they sometimes have craftsmen there to fix things that they don’t know anything about. They take care of a lot of their own upkeep, but some of it they’re just not any good at, and with taking care of all the children as well I think they’d welcome my help.”
Omarr rubbed at his face without thinking, and got a strong whiff of goat. “You seem awfully well-researched,” said Omarr. “This isn’t just idle speculation?”
“Nathan’s been going to Leshampur to find an apprenticeship,” said Henry. “So I asked him to look in on the orphanage for me.”
“Henry,” said Omarr with a gentle voice. “We can’t let on to Nathan where you really came from. Bad enough that he knows we’re dark wizards.”
“He doesn’t know,” said Henry. “I told him that I was curious about the oathkeepers.”
“Alright,” said Omarr with a wave of his hand. “That’s unimportant. You have a plan, now let’s stop beating around the bush. Out with it.”
“Well,” said Henry slowly. “I’m not a craftsman, and I’m too young to pretend to be a craftsman, but I was thinking that they probably wouldn’t turn down free help from me. But it would probably be suspicious for me to volunteer there for no reason at all, or just because I was kind, so I was thinking that maybe it could be a punishment.”
“A punishment?” asked Omarr.
“That part needs a little help from you,” said Henry. “I’d need you to come with me and tell the Sisters that I had done something bad, and needed to work off my spiritual debt in a pious way.”
Omarr sighed. “I’ll have to ask your father,” he said. That was always a good way of stalling for time. “You know that the Foresworn Sisters aren’t anything to be trifled with? They may not have the same prestige as the men of the High Rectory, but they can be just as dangerous. Maybe even more so, if only for how often they’re underestimated.”
“I’ll be super careful,” said Henry. “When dad gets back I’ll ask him right away.”
“Henry … just remember that we’re still your parents, no matter what those ledgers show. And you’ll have to lie to keep our secrets safe.” Omarr looked down at his left hand, where he was missing two fingers. It didn’t definitively mark him as a dark wizard, but it came close. Most likely it would have to be Hirrush who took the boy to the orphanage, if they agreed to let him go.
Unfortunately, their son was growing up.
When Ventor lost the trail, he decided to climb a tree.
It would have been impossible for a normal man in a normal set of full plate, but Ventor was an oathkeeper wearing the Strangheid. It was awkward to grip at the tree, but the armor accommodated him, and his enormous strength made up for the difficulty. It took only a few minutes to get high enough up that the branches couldn’t support him. The Strangheid felt light, but he knew that was only the power of his oaths. Still, he was high enough to scan the horizon, and past the expanse of leaves, as he expected, was a thin trail of smoke.
He dropped forty feet to the ground and relished the strain on his legs. There was very little that caused him to feel real exertion these days, which meant that there was little to take his mind off the agony of the thirst and hunger.
Ventor picked up his sword and threw his pack over his shoulder. The sword was a piece of magic that had been gifted to him by the king after a particularly harrowing trip into the Scour to save a collective of scholars there. The blade was perfectly mirrored and blood-warm to the touch even in the dead of winter. One of its two truly useful magics was that it never dulled — when the king had given it to Ventor, he had said that they were a good match for one another. Unlike the Strangheid, which belonged to the Rectory, the sword was truly Ventor’s, the only item he could claim to have ownership over. He had named it Ravener, and never let it leave his side for long.
He stopped when he could see the plume of smoke between the trees, and drew the sword. He held it out in front of him, in a stance more suitable to wielding a rapier, and advanced slowly. It didn’t take long before Ravener’s second truly useful magics made itself known. The tip of it gave off a faint glow, and Ventor stopped his advance. The glow marked the edge of a ward made by dark magics, which appeared as a band on the blade. The sages had thought that it was likely a reflection of the spiritual energies at the boundary of a ward, but given the prohibitions against dark magic enforced by the king, Ventor had taken that with a grain of salt. The important thing was that Ravener could define the edge of a ward, and noticeably disrupt it. Some wards would collapse and alert their owner when breached. Others would react with some deadly effect. There were only a handful of wards that could kill, and those that did used methods that were far from consistent. The difference between going into a witch’s domain with an early warning of where the wards were and going without was like night and day.
Ventor watched the plume of smoke carefully. It was a cooking fire, he was fairly sure. He might have been imagining the scent of roasting meat suffusing the air, but it was difficult to tell. He had been suffering from phantom smells since the second week of wearing the Strangheid, among other effects. He had, for a time, been less effective than before he’d put on the armor. Now though, six years later, he finally had some measure of power from the new oaths he’d taken. That power would only grow as time passed, even as the clawing hunger in his stomach and burning thirst in his throat remained as only bad as they’d been after the first month.
Ventor stroked his mustache and looked at the empty air where the ward stood. It was dangerous to enter a witch’s domain, but it was also dangerous to stand outside it. Ventor was fairly confident that he wouldn’t be beaten if she were given time to prepare a better defense, but he didn’t want to take too many chances. He had a choice between waiting until she left her domain, or moving in quickly. He stared at the rising smoke and felt a twinge of doubt that he would be able to find the place again once the fire was put out. He moved forward.
The first ward felt like a shot of ice to the veins when he passed through it, but that was no true threat, only a kind of magic used to keep out wolves and bears, and to serve as a warning for anyone who might stumble onto the land without knowing where they were. The second ward hit him like a bolt of lightning, and his muscles tensed up as it passed through him. A farmer would have been put flat on his back for an hour or more, but Ventor was an oathkeeper, and not so easily stopped. He was moving again within a few seconds. The third and fourth wards passed quickly by, noted only by the glowing of Ravener, but seemed to have no effect. A witch’s domain was often layered like an onion, with wards wrapped within wards as a means of defense. The fifth ward was a physical one, stopping Ventor briefly, but there was no physical ward that could hold him long, and Ventor resorted to the time-honored tradition of using his immense oathkeeper’s might to beat a physical ward into submission. No doubt the ward was as strong as the witch could make it, but it still fell to half a minute of being pummeled with Ventor’s fists. That was when the dogs attacked.
Each was the size of a full-grown buck, and for all Ventor knew, they had never been dogs in the first place. Dogs were what they looked like though, and they bounded towards him on long legs with their tongues hanging half out of their mouths. There were three in total, and if their immense size weren’t enough of a clue, Ventor could see a grotesque musculature beneath their fur, with bits of bone peeking out on their flanks.
Ventor stabbed the first dog to reach him, which gave the other two an opportunity to flank him. There was no real danger, not with full plate, and certainly not when that full plate was the Strangheid, but Ventor fought cautiously all the same. It was always possible that this witch knew something that the others had not, and that these creations had some manner of poison that would drop him dead the instant their fangs punctured his skin. He tried to carefully watch both of them, but the creatures had some level of intelligence, and positioned themselves so that only one was in his view at a time.
As Ventor swiveled his head, the one he didn’t have his eye on lunged at him. He whipped around and got his vambrace in the thing’s mouth, pushing backwards hard so that it was gagging on his forearm and unable to bring down the full force of its bite. The other attacked from behind, and Ventor struck out blindly with Ravener. He felt the weight of contact, and the sound of a whimper. The one with its mouth open pulled backward, and Ventor brought his sword around to stab it in the belly, where it skittered off a bony plate there. A second strike slipped between bones and struck into its flesh, which left the creature limping and letting out ragged breaths, its thoughts of biting him forgotten. Venter spun around and dealt the last of them a killing blow, then finished off the limping one.
“Those took me a year to make each,” called a croaky voice from the house.
Ventor turned to see an old woman with bushy gray hair standing in a small doorway. His first instinct was to sprint towards her and run her through with his sword, but he held back. His early years of fighting had been marked by a certain impulsiveness, but he was past forty now, and took a more strategic approach. If the witch had made herself known to him, there had to be a reason for it. Either she was stalling for time or baiting him into a trap. Ventor knew better than to hope that she had simply accepted her fate. Moving in for the kill needed to be a considered choice though, one that weighed what he knew of her on a personal level.
“Do you know what crime brought me to your attention?” asked the witch. “It’s not common for us to know that the end is coming, but in my case it was clear as day. I helped a man and his wife get with child. Nine months later she died in childbirth. He blamed me, and no doubt went mewling to the crown. I offered my condolences to him after his wife died, and he spat at me. He said that the mistake they made in meddling with dark magic had damned him, his wife, and their unborn child.” She pointed a crooked finger towards Ventor. “You know dark magic doesn’t work like that. It’s not about costs that only make themselves apparent later. That’s what oathkeeping is for.”
The air smelled of blood, but on top of that was whatever the witch was cooking. It was pork, Ventor was fairly sure, and his mouth was flooded with saliva. He edged closer, with Ravener guiding the way, and stopped when it once again began to glow. The wards this close to the house were no doubt the most severe, no longer made to warn or subdue, but simply to kill anyone who the witch hadn’t cleared, if that were at all possible.
“I could have run,” said the witch. “But I’m old, and the thought of spending my last years on the lam, being chased down by the likes of you — well, it made me tired just thinking about it.”
“You tried to kill me,” said Ventor. Ravener was stuck halfway through the ward, and the witch was displaying a steely confidence that Ventor didn’t like one bit. She was clearly goading him into attacking, but he didn’t yet know why; the nature of the ward that Ravener had revealed was a mystery.
“I had to at least try,” the witch replied with a smile that was missing too many teeth. She rolled up her sleeves. “I’ve never been one to lay her neck down and wait for the sword to fall.” She pulled a dagger from her clothing and pressed it against the inside of her wrist, watching Ventor the whole while.
In his younger years, Ventor would have dashed forward and suffered the consequences, if only to stop her from working her dark magics. Now though, he was more hesitant. It could well be another level to the trap. Ravener still showed the boundary of the inner ward. It wasn’t until the witch began to cut her own hand off that the balance of probabilities flipped and Ventor was forced to move.
He was hit with a blast of cold as he crossed the boundary, like the one that he’d run through at the outskirts of her domain, but this one stayed with him. Frost appeared on his mustache almost instantly, and it took a force of will not to shirk back from the suddenly freezing temperature. He rushed forward anyway, closing the distance to the witch. Her gray hair was tinged with frost. Any trace of a smile had been wiped from her face. Her hand was hanging halfway off, connected by only a flap of skin, and something was growing from her wrist. Ventor swung his sword at her neck as hard as he could. Ravener glowed brightly as it passed through half a dozen wards, but those were no more substantial than air to his weapon, and his ludicrous strength allowed him to decapitate her cleanly.
The cold failed to abate, and Ventor moved quickly, taking only a moment to ensure that the witch was well and truly dead. It had grown colder even in the short period of time that it had taken him to kill her, a cold deeper than any winter’s night Ventor had experienced. When he looked around, he could clearly see the ward’s edge by where the grass and leaves weren’t frosted over, and he ran towards the warmth, only to find himself stopped right at the edge. What he’d thought was one ward seemed to be two, one to void the area of heat and one to prevent him from leaving. It had been a trap after all, but he’d misunderstood the witch. She had no will to survive. For her own reasons, she had only wanted to take him out with her.
Ventor pounded hard at the ward as the cold clutched at him. The Strangheid kept him warmer than he would have been, but it did nothing for his face and hands. His knuckles split as he hammered at the ward with all his might. A physical ward of this size couldn’t stand up for long, not against someone as strong as he was, but as he kept attacking the barrier, he felt panic creep into his mind. He couldn’t stop from shimmering, and his face was so numb he couldn’t feel it. The cold gripped at him and stung his eyes, slowing his movements. The ward was a strong one. He had begun to slow down when it collapse, and he tumbled forward onto the ground and out of the cold. His lungs strained when he breathed, and he still couldn’t feel his face, but he was alive, and for the moment, the danger seemed to have passed.
After a few minutes, he stood up and surveyed the damage. Three dead creatures that might be mistaken for dogs, and a witch short a head and a hand. The ward of cold hadn’t extended far past the area outside the front door of the house, which must have been why she lured him there. With a ward that strong, it wouldn’t last long.
Ventor shook his head. What he saw before him represented an enormity of sacrifice given to the dark spirits — blood, flesh, bone, and life. All of it had been destroyed in the space of half an hour. He would spend the next hour dowsing out the wards and burning whatever books and bodies he came across, but in the back of his mind, he wondered whether there was anything he could do to make these witches turn from their dark ways. So much, destroyed so quickly, and yet it seemed to do nothing to deter them.
“And they bought it?” asked Nathan. He was taller than Henry by a few inches. While he still had the long scar on the side of his head, he had nothing of the same dullness that he’d had when he’d been brought to the cottage six years ago. If you didn’t know it, you’d say that he was just an ordinary farm boy. He wasn’t exceptional in many ways, though he was a steadfast friend to Henry. Henry often wondered whether his father was responsible for that. The mental work had been called reconstruction, but there was a fair amount of guesswork involved, and some of Nathan’s personality and memory had been created from whole cloth when there was nothing left to salvage. Henry had watched much of it, but he still didn’t understand all the theoretical groundwork, let alone have the ability to repeat it.
“There wasn’t anything for them to buy,” said Henry. “I was honest.”
“So you told them that you wanted to track down your parents?” Nathan asked.
“I told them that I was curious, which is true,” said Henry.
“True, but not the whole truth,” said Nathan with a smirk. “Because you’re laying the groundwork for going after her.”
Henry felt his cheeks grow warm as he blushed. There were days that he wished he’d never said anything about Sofia to Nathan, but whenever he tried to imagine it, he didn’t see how they could be friends without Nathan knowing. He didn’t know the full truth, since Henry had a healthy respect for his fathers’ paranoia about the oathkeepers. So far as Nathan knew, the girl was the daughter of a minor noble that he’d met years back. Nathan had pressed, but Henry had never given the name, because he didn’t want to have to keep the lie and the truth next to each other in his head. He had told Nathan the truth, but not the full truth, and that was the only way that he could have someone other than his fathers to talk to about this.
“Nobles are more snotty than you think,” said Nathan.
“How would you know?” asked Henry.
“Well I’ve been to Leshampur plenty of times, haven’t I?” asked Nathan. He said the name ‘Leshampur’ like it wasn’t just an hour’s walk to get there, as though it were Marurbo itself. “I’ve seen the duke’s daughter getting carried around on one of those hand carting things that people carry.”
“A litter,” supplied Henry.
“Like with puppies?” asked Nathan.
“Spelled the same,” said Henry. “The fancy name is a palanquin.”
“Well,” continued Nathan, “I saw the duke’s daughter getting carried around on a palanquin, and at every stop she made she’d get out with this fancy dress and these dainty feet. The men carrying her had to get her right up to the door of wherever she wanted to go, like she couldn’t be bothered to step on the same streets as the rest of us.” He paused. “She’s not the girl you’re after, is she?”
“No,” said Henry. “She lives further away.”
“Curious, that,” said Nathan. “And you’re still not wanting to share more about how it was that the two of you met?”
“No,” said Henry. “Once I find out who my parents are, and when I know where I come from, I’ll track her down and see whether there’s even a little bit of a chance that she’d be interested in getting to know me again. If things go well, I’ll bring her back here to meet you, okay? But not until then.”
“So I’m never going to meet her is what you’re saying,” said Nathan with a smile. He must have caught a look on Henry’s face. “Oh come on, I’m not saying it’s completely hopeless, but you have to understand that there are a lot of suitors out there for noble girls, boys and men looking to trade up.”
Henry said nothing at that. The more he looked at it, the more it seemed like talking to Sofia again would require a series of unlikely events. His secret hope, one he could recognize as irrational, was that he would find out that one or the other of his parents was a noble. In stories, orphans were heir to the throne all the time. The world didn’t work like stories did, but it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to think that perhaps he had some sort of noble blood. He conservatively put the odds at one in fifty.
Either way, once he knew the truth of his parentage, or knew that he would never know, Henry was headed south to the capital. He spent too much time thinking about Sofia to do otherwise. He had a better recollection of his childhood memories than most, but his image of Sofia had grown larger than those memories could contain. He had to see her, if only just once, before he could get on with his life. There were a half dozen dreams about what might happen when he met her, but he could recognize that none of them were the likely outcome, even if he were the son of a noble.
Rowan was studying the inner workings of a firearm when there was a knock on his door. As a general rule, he kept it open when he wasn’t sleeping, in the hopes that it would show he had nothing to hide. The hallway outside his room wasn’t well-traveled, and an open door allowed his guards to stand outside with their backs to him. Despite his arguments, he still hadn’t gotten his father to budge on removing them entirely. The knock was entirely perfunctory — Ventor stood in the doorway in his light brown armor, with a book held in one hand.
“My one-time bodyguard,” said Rowan with a smile. He set the pistol down, being careful not to damage it. It was a masterwork that he doubted he would ever fire, with a long barrel that would make it somewhat unsuitable to being used with one hand. The Halfway Sage had likened it to a hand-and-a-half sword that could switch between functions, but Rowan had his doubts. Either way, it was a thing of beauty, with elaborate patterns in the inlaid silver. “What do you have for me there?”
“I’ve been witch hunting on your father’s orders,” said Ventor. The man seemed to have little sentimentality for three year’s he’d spent as Rowan’s guard. He hefted the book, which was covered in black leather and had a thick spine. “She had thirty-two books in her collection, almost all about dark magic, or known to me as reference material. This one is about mentalism.”
Rowan raised an eyebrow. “And why are you bringing this to me?”
“I checked with the librarian to see whether we had a copy of it, and she informed me that we did not,” said Ventor. He looked down at the book. “Psychic Superiority. It’s free of wards, and I’ve looked it over enough to see that it contains nothing of the dark arts. When Ibrahim returns, he’ll no doubt want to have a look at it, but failing that, I was wondering whether you might have any insights.”
Rowan waved towards the stacks of books on his desk. He went to the library less frequently these days, preferring to keep a small collection of books close at hand in his chambers. “Put it there and I can take a look at it later. I find it doubtful that some witch living in the middle of nowhere would have a book on mentalism that’s not known to the royal library. More likely it’s a reproduction under a different name — that used to be common to avoid royal taxes.”
Ventor set the book on the pile with the others, and after meaningless conversation that Ventor wasn’t good at and Rowan wasn’t interested in, Ventor left the room. Rowan managed to wait until the oathkeeper’s steps were no longer audible down the corridor before snatching the book up off the pile and opening it up, the firearm he’d been working on forgotten.
On first flipping through the pages, it was clear that the book was an original. The writing was done in a neat, workmanlike style with a uniformity of letters that suggested a long career of putting words to paper. Interspersed with the words were drawings, which came every handful of pages, and sometimes splashed across a two page spread. There were diagrams, but also sketches of what the author purported to be interesting mindscapes found in his travels. It wasn’t immediately clear who the audience of the book was for, but it seemed to be something between a diary and an instruction book. Rowan was mildly disappointed at that — he had suspected that Ventor had missed something, and that it had some connection to the dark arts, but he was growing more convinced by the page that it was simply the ramblings of a halfway skilled mentalist.
He almost missed the first ritual. The section began with the rather familiar mentalist concept of giving an explicit form to a particular idea, though the author seemed to insist on using his own, invented terminology for the act. There followed a series of instructions that seemed to make little sense, and at the end, the claim that it would erase the idea from the mentalists’ mind forever and grant a boon to mental acuity. Rowan had to read it three times before he realized that it was suggesting a dark ritual performed from within the mind. If he’d been in his mindscape, he had little doubt that he would have been able to watch the mood of the place change wildly, from doubt to belief, and from excitement to fear and guilt at being found out. If the ritual were a true one, he would have to test it, and he would have to keep the book a secret from Ibrahim, but it was perhaps the most exciting thing that Rowan had seen in a handful of years.
He flipped through the next few dozen pages, and saw twenty more rituals. A slow smile crept onto his face.
Sofia was waiting with Ulf by her side when the sage came into the room. He started at the sight of the hound, but said nothing about it, and only bowed to her before taking the chair across from her. Lammarck was a pudgy man with a neck that was too long for his round face, and he was balding as well, but his unfortunate looks had done nothing to keep him from being one of the foremost sages on the subject of spirits. He cleared his throat noisily.
“My lady, it was my understanding that your father forbid you from consorting with that spirit,” said Lammarck.
“He did,” said Sofia with a nod. “Only he didn’t tell Ulf that, so the spirit has been following me around for the past few days, wholly ignorant of the royal decree.” She tilted her head to the side. “And you can drop the formalism, I only want to ask some questions.”
“Very well, my lady,” said Lammarck. He nodded to the spirit. “Questions about that one?”
“Yes,” replied Sofia. “Sort of. I want to know about spirits in general.”
Lammarck coughed politely into his hand. “What about them? It’s a vast subject.”
“Well,” said Sofia slowly. “In Riccard’s Spirits of the Kamnian Wilds, he says quite firmly that magical objects are a sort of final form of the spirits. In the same way that people are born, grow up, grow old, and die, the spirits venture from the spiritual realm into the physical realm, roam about for some length of time, and then in some way acquire a less ambulatory form. Do I have that right?” Of course, Riccard hadn’t said it like that, because he was incredibly long-winded and liked to digress into vaguely related topics whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Lammarck nodded. “Yes, I think so.”
“But in Tantus’s Spiritual Awakenings, he says that magic items are left behind by the spirits when they depart from the physical realm back to the spiritual. And in Landon’s Segregation of Spiritual Entities he proposes that it’s a mistake to call all these different things spirits at all, and that the spiritual realm might as well be a fiction for how much we can make useful statements about it. Landon proposes three different classifications, which each have classifications below that. And Herror Ganda doesn’t seem to believe in spirits at all, which I’m not sure that I really understand.”
Lammarck’s eyes were wide. “You’ve done quite a bit of reading,” he said. “Almost enough to rival your brother. Women scholars are rare. I have to say I’m impressed.”
“The Foresworn Sisters have lots of scholars,” said Sofia with a frown.
Lammarck waved his hand. “Yes, but I meant outside the Citadel. Real women.” Sofia clenched her teeth at that. “Anyway, I don’t understand what the question is.”
“Who’s right?” asked Sofia.
“Ah,” said Lammarck. He shrugged. “Take your pick. I do believe that there’s an objective truth, but I don’t believe that we’re close to knowing it.”
“But why?” asked Sofia. “Why haven’t we found out what’s true and what’s false?”
“The spirits are elusive,” said Lammarck. “And truth is perhaps more elusive than the spirits, as a general rule.”
The rest of the meeting was unproductive. Lammarck knew more than her, but seemed uninterested in getting to the heart of the matter. He had read all of the books she had, plus many more, and had interacted with a large number of spirits, but he simply seemed to have no spark of curiosity to him. So far as she could tell, Lammarck enjoyed absorbing new information, but had no compulsion to synthesize it into anything new, nor to learn anything from the actual world. It was enough for Lammarck to simply know the positions held by major thinkers past and present.
After some quiet reflection, Sofia decided that it was time to do some truth-seeking of her own. Luckily, she had ready access to a spirit. She patted Ulf on his head, barely even noticing the way his sharp edges moved away from her hand.
“It’s time for you and I to do some experiments,” said Sofia.
Miriam had taken her oaths late, at the age of eighteen. It was traditional for the first oaths to be taken at ten years old, following at least a year of study. The Sisterhood was technically open to women of any age, and they had welcomed Miriam with open arms, but she had always felt like something of an outcast before being placed in the orphanage in Leshampur. There were only three other Sisters at the orphanage though, and Miriam spent a large amount of her time with the children, or talking with prospective parents, or people that wanted to give up their children, or with the various tradesmen that supplied the orphanage with the materials that it needed to function.
“And look at this fine crop of strapping young men!” cried Rector Henrich. There were three in total; Julian, Patrick, and Liam. The boys were ten years old, and Miriam had known them for nearly half their lives. Julian had talked at length about becoming an oathkeeper, and when Miriam watched him play with the other children, he almost always pretended at having powers. Patrick seemed more reticent, though that was probably because his mother still lived in Leshampur. For the past year he’d wanted nothing more than to have her come back to the orphanage and pick him up, but though he’d written her more than one letter, and even sneaked out one night to knock on her door, she wanted nothing to do with him. Liam seemed ambivalent towards leaving, but he was ambivalent towards most things, and had a disaffected demeanor far beyond his years.
“A fine crop indeed,” repeated Henrich. He moved to Miriam. “Anything that I should know about these young men?”
A perverse part of her wanted to give him some reason not to take them, so that they could stay in her care forever, but she knew that was a flight of fancy, and she couldn’t think of any reason that the High Rectory would refuse them in any case. She merely shook her head. She hugged each of the three boys goodbye, and kissed Patrick on the top of his head, because it seemed like he needed it. And with that, they simply walked away, likely out of her life forever.
“Sometimes they come back,” said Sister Loris when Miriam returned to the small office that held two desks for paperwork. She was already noting in the ledger that the three boys had been taken by the Rectory. The orphanage was an old one, and there were stacks of old ledgers that lined the office walls, each of which recorded the major events in the lives of the children that passed through it. Miriam found it heartbreaking to think about the small and large tragedies that were written in those books. During her first year at the orphanage, a baby girl had died of a creeping sickness. The name had been added to those ledgers. In part, Miriam cried because she could imagine how many similar stories future centuries would tell, and how many other orphanages the kingdom held.
“There’s a boy at the door,” said Sister Loris. She was in her forties, and she had developed a very slight ability to see into the future. The usual powers that oathkeeping gave were strength, speed, and an increased constitution, but every once in a while there was someone like Loris that got a bit of something extra. She downplayed it, but Miriam knew that the Citadel’s interest had been piqued. Just half a second after Loris had said it, there was a knock on the front door. Miriam adjusted her wimple, smoothed her dress, and went to answer.
There was indeed a boy at the door. He was young, though Miriam was bad at guessing ages for children older than ten. He had curly blond hair and a slightly crooked nose, and he was doing his best to look chastised even though he clearly wasn’t feeling it. Children were terrible liars, in Miriam’s experience. The man just behind him was tall and thick, a butcher or blacksmith. He seemed like the sort of man who worked with his hands all day, or like someone who was born with a particular build that would inevitably lead them into the kind of job that involved putting as much power behind a tool as possible. Two missing fingers attested to that. He had a thick black beard, and hair that flowed down to his shoulders in tight curls.
“Can I help you?” asked Miriam.
“Tell her,” said the man in a gruff voice. One of his large hands rested firmly on the boy’s shoulder.
“I got in a fight,” said the boy. “So dad wants me to work for you, just for a bit.”
“For as long as it takes,” said the man.
“We don’t have much work that needs doing, I’m afraid,” said Miriam. “And we can’t pay.”
“No payment needed,” said the man. “Consider it a charitable contribution to the cause. I’ve always believed in a man paying off his sins with hard work, and I see no reason that shouldn’t extend to boys as well.”
“Well,” said Miriam, looking between the two of them. “Three of the older boys just left today, so I suppose we might be able to use some assistance for a week or two.”
“That should be all the time it takes for the boy to make up for his particular sins,” said the man.
“We won’t be looking after him,” said Miriam. “If he’s slack in his assigned duties, we’ll tell you if you ask, but we will not take him as our charge.”
“I trust him,” said the gruff man. “He takes lessons well.”
“But not lessons about how to treat other children?” asked Miriam. It came out more prickly than she’d intended.
“It would seem not,” the man replied. “We live an hour’s walk from here. So as not to waste the journey, I’d prefer he starts today.”
“Very well,” said Miriam. To her surprise, the man left without saying another word to her, nor to his son. The boy watched his father go for a bit, frowning at his back. The slight had hurt him. The punishment certainly seemed a bit extreme for what the crime had supposedly been, but she had the sense that there was something lying under the surface. The father and son didn’t look much alike; that was often cause for friction, in Miriam’s experience.
“I’m Henry,” said the boy, once he realized that his father had left them in an awkward situation. He held out his hand. “I’m not really so bad.”
“Miriam,” replied Miriam as she shook his hand. “You’re not going to run off the first chance you get?”
“My parents have always liked that I take punishments seriously,” said Henry. “I’m not petulant.”
“Tell me about the boy you fought,” said Miriam.
Henry shifted around. They were still standing at the entrance to the orphanage. Miriam would have invited him in, but there was something strange about him that she wanted to get out of the way first.
“I’d rather not say,” said Henry. He watched her face. “He’s … his name is Nathan. We were friends, but he made fun of me for … well, it’s complicated.” He wrinkled his nose. “Talking it out wasn’t part of the deal.”
“Very well then,” said Miriam. “Though you haven’t heard the last from me on that matter. Your father might be right that hard work is good for the soul, but in my experience hard work alone isn’t enough to hack at the roots of bad behavior.” She looked Henry up and down. There was something that he wasn’t telling her, but that could wait. “Now come along, the gutters haven’t been cleaned since last spring. I’ll show you where the ladder is.”