The ship carved its way west and north through the steadily chilling sea. Whitecaps blasted ahead of the ship, the product of the Windcaller’s magic as he redirected high-altitude winds down into the sails.
Aside from the Windcaller, there was not a lot of call for magic aboard a vessel on the ocean. Almost all of the work was accomplished by brawn and skill. Jerome was pleasant enough company, but he, like his wife, was often preoccupied by necessary tasks aboard the ship. While the cook would occasionally accept Heather’s help in the galley, it was clear it wasn’t really needed.
Heather watched through a porthole as the shores of the Montaigne Empire slipped by. Coastal towns grew more and more sparse by each passing day. Calls in port were infrequent, with days between each stop. Heather kept up friendly discussion with the crew, and when asked, led the sailors in prayer to their assorted patron Saints.
Now and then one of the red-cloaked men would come on deck for some air. They remained politely distant, and all of their conversations were civil enough, but not particularly interesting. Heather wasn’t eager for their company either; the red cloaks they wore made her stomach flop about in her gut every time she spied them.
They put in to port in the town of Landsdowne on the solstice. After too many small coastal villages, it was a pleasant surprise to see a proper city. It was a warm summer day, and after four days without a port of call, even Heather didn’t want to be in her cabin any longer. She climbed up on deck, squinting in the sunlight, and waved to the Captain and Jerome on her way by.
“Ship departs tomorrow evening, with the tide,” called the Captain cheerfully. “Enjoy your solstice.”
“I’ll try,” said Heather.
The sailors looked ready to enjoy it. The entire ship practically emptied of souls, all headed towards the sound of the festival. Heather split from the knot of boisterous sailors all bound for the dockside bars.
The center of activity was the local mage college. The summer solstice was the traditional day of Thaumatic testing, when young children who were eager to learn schooled magic could have their talents measured and displayed. Uninterested in sitting in a dockside bar, Heather let her feet carry her towards the noise and activity.
The younger children of the city, human, elven, dwarven, and others, were gathered before the gates of the college in long, boisterous lines. Heather paused on a street corner, and leaned against the wall of a shop. She let the wash of acid-sharp emotions roll through her at the sight of so many happy families.
Parents smiled tolerantly as children ran amok around them, screaming and giggling. The air was thick with little motes of magic, wild and willed. Little sparks of fire blossomed in the air, as the excitement of children set off a dozen little magical catastrophes a minute. Each bit of magical mischief was quickly snuffed by protective runes and attentive parents.
A little boy ran by Heather. His tousled black hair looked almost identical to the way her son’s had been cut, before his death. Heather was forced to take a big gulp of grief and with a gesture, threw it high into the air. Her spell exploded in a burst of light and hundreds of little blue droplets before vanishing. Throwing the emotion away felt good, and for once nobody around her would begrudge her letting out a little grief through her magic. What was one more harmless outburst among so many?
The children were all eager to touch the testing runes, to show off what they had learned in playgrounds and schoolyards. They milled around their parents and the mage college’s practitioners, and were taken one by one to the college’s flat stone courtyard.
Each testing was simple: conjure the biggest spell they could, throwing all their excitement and eagerness into it. The rune foci at each station served to shape the spell for them, both for ease of testing and consistency. Most children chose to conjure fireballs, cheekily eager to play with an element that was normally forbidden to them. Great gouts of light and heat would erupt above the testing circle, as each child took their turn.
Still others preferred to conjure different elements. A great laugh was had by all when one smiling girl, not a day older than five, danced on the spot, and sang at the top of her lungs, “Rain rain, come and play, wash all of my chores away!”
A great ball of water, easily nine meters wide, appeared around her. It promptly sloshed down, soundly dousing her and the mage college attendant, before it flooded outwards and dissipated at the edge of the testing circle. A great cloud of motes rose around the circle as children burst into laughter, and there was sincere applause around the ring.
That was a big conjuration, thought Heather, joining in the applause. She might have just earned herself a scholarship.
The doused attendant took it all in good humour. The day was hot, and a moment’s relief from the heat wasn’t unwelcome for anyone. The water vanished as the girl released her hold on the spell.
Heather wasn’t sure she wanted to stay and watch, but a fierce ache in her heart compelled her. Anthony might have been testing, this year. Next year, for sure. I should be one of those mothers, applauding her child, watching him make mischief and play with the rest of the kids. Watch him test his flows. See if he took to the Light and Fire like me and Dad did. Or if he was going to take more to Water and Earth like Stephen.
She took her mace off of her hip, and held it in her hands, pouring her feelings into the silvered steel. Little flickers of fire and light began to play from point to point on the mace, as she fed her emotions into the display. Just like Dad used to do, when he didn’t want to talk about his day. Let it out just a little spark at a time. But Dad hardly ever had bad days. Or if he did, he kept them well away from us.
Let go of a pebble, but keep carrying a mountain. That’s what this feels like. It’s crushing me. I want my husband here. I want him there on the Longeau to wrap his cloak around me and bicker with me about catching a cold. I want my boy here. I want to watch his first testing, and fuss over him on the ship to wear his coat and keeping away from the sides, and see his excitement at sailing. I want to feel all of that and not feel how close the cold ocean always is and how easy it would be to just fall, just fall and sink and find them there, waiting for me, between this life and the next.
She stayed to watch a few more children. None were especially notable, just happy children given a chance to cast grand magic. Until a red-headed boy who was carrying an over-large key made of lapis lazuli walked into the runed circle.
The attendant bowed respectfully, and left the circle. He then raised his hands for the audience’s attention, and called out, “A spirit walks with us today. Your respectful silence, please.”
Heather studied the boy for the cause of his first death, and found none. Oh. No scars on him. Probably an umbilical cord wrap at birth, she thought. The crowd’s merriment turned to silent unease, as the protective runes around the circle all flared to life. Never know what these kids will do when they summon their partners. If it was known to be dangerous, though, I suppose the parents would have forewarned the college, and not put him up for public testing.
The boy lifted the key up, and solemnly pushed it forward in the air. At some undefinable point, the edge of it simply ceased to exist, as if sliding it into an invisible lock. He turned and released the key, leaving the handle simply hanging in the air.
“Two brooks joining… Cobalt, come out!” said the boy, cajoling.
The summoning began with a blue pillow dropping out of thin air, as if conjured. Then a second, a third, then a dozen, all bouncing and tumbling off of each other. Water spilled out of the same point in the air, touched the ground, and began to spread. The water seemed to be only a trickle from where it originated in the the air, but where it touched ground it expanded. Hundreds more pillows continued to spill out, bouncing in improbable ways to heap themselves on opposing sides of the circle. They mounded up by about a meter, leaving a channel for the water to run through, forming a creek.
I’ve seldom seen a spirit at work before, thought Heather. And never manifesting an environment like this. I’ve read about it, but seeing it for myself, that’s quite something.
Over the boy, a deep shadow fell, a patch of sky directly over his head transforming into a beautiful, starry night. Constellations glittered within, more vibrant than any natural night sky.
With a broad smile, the boy fell backwards. As he fell the pillows raining down around him bounced uncannily, each and every one of them landing beneath him before his little body could hit the ground. Only when the creek ran the diameter of the circle, vanishing at the edges, did the summoning conclude.
Out of the air popped something more blue than blue; a blue that made eyes vibrate, fixate, and stare. It was a blue more intense than sapphires, a blue that dulled every colour around it in comparison. Heather couldn’t feel a bit of the magic through the hard barrier of the warded circle, but she joined the crowd in the soft, praising “Ooooh!” that rose around the boy.
The spirit was shaped like a dog, if a dog could be a seal and a dragon and a dog all at once. It stood on four legs, its furred wings tucked in tight, serpentine tail wagging, holding the lapis lazuli key in its mouth. Starlight played off of every surface of the spirit as it bounded over to the boy, and placed the key gently back into his hand.
Shyly, the boy sat up, and rested his hand on the spirit’s shoulder. “Um. This is Cobalt,” he said, voice subdued at all the attention. “He’s my friend.”
Heather let out a breath, and then joined the chorus from around the ring: “Hi! Hello Cobalt! Welcome!”
Never hurts to give a spirit a good impression of people, she thought.
The boy translated their cries of greetings: “Cracked mud beneath the clouds.”
Cobalt made a splashing noise in return, and the boy called to the attendant: “Cobalt says hello, too.” There was an awkward sweetness in the boy’s voice. His posture alongside the spirit was fond and protective.
Good relationship between the boy and the spirit, if he calls it his friend, Heather thought.
My boy never came back with a friend, some bitter part of Heather’s heart whispered. My beautiful boy and my sweet husband never came back. His mother got her boy back.
Rebellious, conciliatory thoughts tried to surface, tried to remind her that such returns from death were never without high cost, and left a person subject as much to the agenda of a powerful manifestation of magic as the spirit was to the person. They were all partnerships; but not all were happy partnerships, nor fair ones.
The boy’s mother made a little ushering motion to her son. Blushing faintly, the boy ducked his head to whisper into Cobalt’s ear. The spirit answered with a noise like sluice gates shutting.
“He says he can’t, in the circle, mama,” said the boy.
“It’s okay, Jeremy. Just tell them then.”
The boy turned to face the assembled crowd. “We make streams. Papa says the farmers would like to have riggig- irrag–” he stumbled over the difficult word. “– eerie-gayshon ditches, and we could make those really good.”
Heather’s eyebrows raised. Lucky boy. As lucky as you can get for losing half your soul to a spirit, anyway. That’s a useful talent to bring. Ditches don’t dig themselves, and there’s always a need for irrigation for a farmer.
Still. That’s only half the job. He’ll find himself tasked to Guide the dead, eventually. There’s no escaping that duty, when you walk the border between the living and the dead.
The crowd around them applauded in support, and Jeremy beamed and stroked Cobalt’s neck. The spirit wagged its tail, and nosed insistently at the key in Jeremy’s hand, before evaporating into a long stream of water. Pillows and spirit and creek alike all disappeared, sucked back up into the key in a heartbeat. Jeremy pressed the key to his chest, where it vanished. The runes at the edge of the circle went dark, and the inscrutable hardness in the air dispersed to Heather’s senses.
Jeremy stepped out of the ring, and went to his mother’s side. Her proud fussing over him made Heather’s heart ache, and she looked away just in time to keep her composure.
For the next hour, children kept coming and going into the ring. Simple, modest spells were demonstrated, magic danced or sung, spoken or thought, or simply felt into existence by the younger children. As the hot summer sun baked tempers and patience, it fell to every adult at the festival to quell the occasional tantrum. At one point, a fiery whirlwind leapt from the mouth of a screaming toddler who’d been denied a sweet, and seven adults within range stepped in to quell the wild magic.
Heather took her leave of the circle, and waded through the busy streets, her skin alive with a thousand different spells around her. It felt pleasant, like using a hundred combs at once all over her skin.
This used to be my favorite festival, she thought. She wasn’t sure she had a favorite anything, anymore. It hurt to remember how Anthony would get so excited, leaping about, motes sparking off of him and eager to weave his spells with the rest of the children at play.
Performers of a dozen stripes worked their way around and through the crowd, but few of their performances could hold her interest. Overhead, men and women juggled spells back and forth while flying in acrobatic loops on great conjurations of Air. Two men in thick leather suits made lightning fly from iron rods, the crackling percussion beating out a rhythm for children to dance to. In one quieter corner of the street, an old man sat on a stool, conjuring detailed illusions out of smoke from a brazier, illustrating a story for the children at his feet.
But to Heather’s judgement, the most impressive performer was an old woman working a vending stall. She was exchanging money with buyers as seven different pairs of crochet hooks, and their attendant balls of yarn, all hovered around her.
Look at her. She never misses a stitch, even while she haggles over the shawls and hats she’s already finished. Each flow of Air she’s using is so thin and weak, it’s barely enough to hold everything up. But controlling all of that at once? Wow. Heather shook her head in amazement.
It was spectacle enough to draw Heather over. She selected a pair of warm-looking blue and white mittens. Might as well, for the winter ahead, she told herself.
“How much for these?”
The old woman smiled politely. “Two peaks, please,”
Heather pulled out two thick silver coins, each stamped with the mountain range the Emperor’s family took their name from. “Very impressive,” said Heather. “How long did it take you to learn to do all of that at once?”
The old lady smiled politely and inclined her head. “Oh, I’ve been doing it all my life. I can’t afford to do any less. Roof over my head, and all that.”
“Is seven your limit, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh no, Knight. I can manage eight in the peace of my home. Nine on a good day. Any more than that and I start dropping stitches, I’m afraid.”
“Well, it’s very impressive. Most would struggle with just two.”
The old woman patted Heather’s hand, and handed her back her purchased mittens. “Thank you very kindly. Saints smile on you.”
“And you too,” Heather replied, moving aside to make room for the next customer.
Heather scanned the horizon for the nearest steeple she could find, and headed for it. She tried to hold onto a smile as she dodged a crowd of older children showing off what they’d learned in their lessons.
Most who enrolled would never graduate. The cost of higher arcane learning was high, and a farmer’s sons and daughters seldom had real need for high magic. A little hedge-magic would make their lives easier, but the world still needed muscle to pull plows, and dig ditches (barring a pacted spirit, anyway).
Only a few would have the funding and the dedication to become wizards, sorcerers, and enchanters. But most students would take a year or two of schooling and then move on to their trades and livelihoods.
And some, she couldn’t help but muse darkly, will nurture the corruption to become necromancers.
She crossed the street, and walked to the chapel. The grounds were green and well tended, and the cemetery behind the chapel was free of weeds and litter. Pretty church they keep here. Nice gardens. Must be good tithes to be had in a port city like this.
Two knights stood at honor guard at the doors, tabards bleached white and dusted with quartz to sparkle. Heather gave them a warm nod and was given one in return, and the door opened easily to her hand. Even the doorknob is freshly polished copper. Nice touch, Heather thought.
It couldn’t hold a candle to the grand Cathedral back home, of course, but it was nice nevertheless. The wards around the building were a kindly caress of warmth and pressure along her scalp. Just walking through the warded doors left her feeling a little lighter, a little sweeter inside after the bitterness of watching so many happy children and whole families.
A priest and priestess seated near the pews rose when she entered, and met her with welcoming smiles.
“Detective Heather Blackthorne,” Heather said, offering her hand. She shook gently with with the priest and priestess, both of them vital-looking humans with short curly black hair and brown skin.
“I’m Mother Rowan Hamza,” said the priestess, with a kind smile. “My husband, Murad. What brings you to our chapel, Detective?”
“Just passing through, Mother, on a transfer order. I’m in town until my ship leaves tomorrow evening. I haven’t had a pew to pray in, in a while, and I thought I’d pay a visit. I also haven’t heard a news crier in weeks.”
Murad frowned thoughtfully. “Mm. The latest news from the war in the west is steady victories, but there’s a widow on every street who’ll tell you otherwise. And there’s a Prince from Hanshu taking his summer holiday in the Empire this year!”
Heather smiled tolerantly. “Anything new and exciting, for the local knights?”
“No, just the usual. A busy spring for the hunters and the elves of the wood. Most of the trouble was with monsters in the deep forests, coming out to raid farms or roads. But I haven’t heard much complaint about it. The local knights did see a ghoul and a few skeletons around spring time, but they routed them out without incident. Probably either old, wild undead, or else the work of a necromancer who found the local attention too swift and thorough for their liking.”
Heather frowned. Anywhere with enough population would inevitably find itself with a necromancer eventually, it seemed. “Did the knights check the runes on the bones after the dead were laid to rest?” she inquired.
“Oh yes, of course,” said Rowan. “Destroyed them all. They usually crush all the bones and have them burned, then buried, after.”
Heather grimaced and ran her gauntlet through her hair. “Good to know you’ve got good detectives on the job here. I trust the local cemetery has been reconsecrated?”
“Yes, we do it every three months, Detective. You’re welcome to refresh the wards if you would like.”
“The runes around the fences could use some charge too, by now,” said Murad.
Heather perked up. She was technically between posts and, for that matter, not even technically on duty. But it would itch at her to leave it undone. I won’t let any corpse-raising bastard get so much as a fingernail. Besides, any scutwork that’s good work isn’t scutwork.
The thought of her husband and son’s graves, and their closed caskets without their bones, would itch and burn at her if she didn’t. I owe them that much.
“I’ll get right on that,” Heather said, sincerely.
Rowan broke into a wider smile. “Eager to have something to do after the boat, Detective?”
“Desperately,” admitted Heather.
“Then I’ll get the yew and the salt,” said Murad.
Heather stepped out the back door with a polite bow of her head, and said a quick prayer:
Saint Azinok, restful make the dead. Allow no grave defiled, no shell unblessed. Make my hand yours, and my heart, and my will, that the dead may rest, until born anew.
Father Murad emerged from the back door, murmuring the same prayer, as he handed the bowl of ash and salt to Heather, and a small box of silvered matches. Heather could work the spell without the implements, as they were nothing more than a way to focus her mind to the task. But it was a comfort, a routine so basic and so essential to her duties, that she took them gladly.
A fierce blend of grief and satisfaction welled inside her, as she stepped out into the cemetery rows. She used her fingers to spread the salt and yew ash along the line of each grave, her prayers quiet, and fervent. There was foot traffic enough on the road by the cemetery that a few curious townsfolk stopped to look on.
Heather cleared her mind, and thought of her family, and their graves. I won’t let the bastards have these bodies. I won’t let them take them like they did my boys!
Her tears ran down her cheeks and dropped into the bowl. Heather stirred them in as she walked, step after step, grave after grave, spreading her grief and determination over each one. Magic curled around her and took root in her wake. Complex, strong weaves of magic she associated with Light and Purity, though these were just names for deeper feelings made real. They mattered to her heart, and that was all that counted.
She worked in reverent silence, and mercifully, the small crowd that gathered to look on asked no questions. Most had seen it before, of course. Every funeral in every village would have similar rites performed. Nobody slept well, imagining the possibility of their dead families rising from their graves.
Each grave became Anthony’s. Each grave became Stephen’s. She wept as she spread the ash and salt. Be pure. Stay pure. Be free. Rest here, and wait for me. Saints will it so, put me in my husband’s arms again my next life. Let me hold my son in my arms again. Let me die and lay myself down beside them and let them be there to greet me. Please, if the world has any mercy, please be so.
Heather struck the match, the silvered tip flaring white and bright as bits of metal caught and sparked. She set the match down gently on the trail of ash and salt she had laid across the graveyard, and it lit and burned like magnesium, a flash of white light racing across each grave in the cemetery, and then in a wide spiral around the grounds.
It was a powerful warding. Polite applause and a few sounds of approval filtered through the fence, calling their appreciation for the passion she’d poured into her work.
A flash of red in the crowd brought her eyes up. It was the youngest of the traders from aboard the Longeau, Daniel DuCroix. He was nodding his head in admiration, and joining in the polite applause of those around him. Heather’s heart went icy, and she turned her face away before he could see her scowl.
The runes on the fence posts were next, and they were a simpler affair. Heather walked the perimeter of the grounds, touching each rune in passing, pouring her grief and determination into each one. Most, she noted, were already competently charged. A few had been discharged, likely to keep litter and debris from fouling the grounds. Heather threw her feelings into them until they sparked, full once more.
When the work was done, she picked a grave, out of the line of sight of the road and Daniel DuCroix. There, she fell to her knees, laid her head down atop her hands with her nose in the summer grass, and wept. Father Murad had the mercy not to trouble her; his quiet footsteps as he passed by were interrupted only long enough for him to pick up the bowl, leaving her to her private grief. Around her, motes gathered like morning dew on the grave marker, little bits of wild magic flitting from her as she eased another pebble off the mountain in her heart.
When she had not another tear she could summon, Heather rose, and wiped her eyes. She made her way towards the chapel kitchen, and the smell of bread dough proofing.
That night, she cooked with a chapel friar; forgetting her pain for a time with the sizzle of meat, the steaming of soup, and the baking of bread. The friar was a kindly old man, with large arms from years of `kneading dough. He turned out loaves by the dozen for the town, the few pennies a loaf adding to the tithes keeping the chapel afloat.
The dining room was full of excited children, mostly church novices and their friends. Heather could feel the tiny tugs of magic through the walls, as they flitted lights about, and conjured little toys, proud of the powers their faith and confidence provided. The children were just as happy to show off in front of the ore ship’s sailors Heather had sent invites to for the meal, although by the time the sailors arrived, a few of them were halfway to drunk.
But the tables were cheerful, and the food was good, and the haze of hard work and cooking were a balm after days at sea. Her face was in danger of approaching an honest smile by the end of the supper.
Heather rose and made her way to the kitchens, and tapped a Novice at the sink on the shoulder. The girl turned, red ringlets spilling across her eyes.
“Ah, yes, Knight?”
Heather jerked a thumb out towards the kitchen door. “Festival going on outside there. Wouldn’t want you to miss the fireworks. Go on. I’ll take the dishes.”
The girl almost dropped the plate she was holding. She hastily slipped it back into the water, and sank into a deep curtsey. “Yes! Yes Knight, thank you! Saints be with you!” she said fervently. Heather watched as the girl scurried out the door fast enough to ensure there wouldn’t be time for any second thoughts on the part of her savior.
Heather spent the next hour scrubbing pots and plates. She finished her night with a cup of tea, and nodded her head amicably when Mother Rowan stepped in to the kitchen, fixing Heather with a concerned smile.
“Detective, has anyone found you a bunk for the night?”
Heather shook her head. “I’ve a hammock on board the ship, Mother. Thank you for your concern, though.”
“Well, Knight Blackthorne, if you change your mind, you’re welcome to stay here at the chapel. Thank you for your help today. I don’t suppose we’ll see you on your return?”
“Afraid not, Mother,” said Heather, ducking her head politely. “They’re casting me north, as far as the world goes.”
The Priestess’s mouth tightened. “Whatever for, dear child?”
For failing in my diligence. For failing my family. For spending a year moping about it, weeping over it. For making a wreck of my father’s name, and my own. For missing one.
Heather forced her hands to unclench from the tea cup, hoping her white knuckles had gone unseen.
“For a change of attitude, Mother,” she said softly.