Another cannonball bounced off the white marble wall surrounding the tower grounds.
They’re at it again, Alektos told him.
“So I hear,” Henri said. His hand rose to touch the smooth, round shoulder of the young woman in his bed. She slept on, and that alone was reason enough to smile.
And the people are giving thanks at the wall again.
He swung his legs out of the white marble-framed bed, and pulled on his coat. A glance out the window confirmed that Hanuel and Areum were out on their balcony again, overlooking the scene. Outside, in the darkness long beyond the high walls, the fires of the bandit camp lit the sky in bloody reds and blacks.
As he watched, another ball of iron sailed against the white marble walls, and lodged itself into the stone. Alektos sealed the gap within a heartbeat, and the iron ball emerged some seconds later from a gutter-tunnel at the bottom of the wall, to join a growing pile of its brethren.
“That’s fine, Alektos. They all know you’re a Spirit, not the Divine. Accept what’s freely given. They mean it for you.”
The young man smiled as he watched one of the children in the courtyard heft the iron ball in both hands, and waddled over to put it on a thin iron stand. A guardsman with a shaved head nodded approval, wound up, and punched the cannonball. With a loud PONK, it vanished back into the night, sailing over the walls to be returned to its senders.
“It’s going to be a tiresome siege. How is the bandit’s tunnel coming along?” the young man asked.
Terribly. They do not understand that I am vigilant. I have arranged its collapse four times. None were hurt.
“Splendid,” he said, as he pulled on breeches and boots. He flexed his hand, and Alektos obligingly filled it with a quarterstaff of white stone.
A few of the novices were awake, their soft voices from behind curtains and doors carrying tones of gentle worry and reassurance in turn. A few faces peeked out as he tapped his quarterstaff on the plain stone floor of the tower hall.
“Everyone, stay in your rooms. We can stop the cannonfire, but they have some snipers outside, and I’d like to keep everyone as safe as we can. Tell your clients the siege is going to last a while, until the bandits tire of their sport and realize they can’t have us. They can stay without charge, provided they don’t make a nuisance of themselves.”
A few giggles followed that, and saucy protests from a few that one client or another might be too much to handle for that long. He strode down the hallway, through the brothel floor, his white stone quarterstaff sounding out when it tapped the floor.
That cannonball landed on someone out there, reported Alektos.
“Serves them right,” replied the man. He tapped on Hanuel and Areum’s door, before letting himself in. The door had no lock, and wouldn’t have been locked even had there been one.
He joined them on the balcony, and they leaned into each side of him, sharing their warmth. Their eyes were concerned, and it pained Henri to see that expression on them.
“We’ll be okay,” he said gently. “Alektos is vigilant.”
“I’m worried for them, out there,” replied Hanuel, gesturing out into the night. “Henri, they’re desperate people, too. Doing wrong, yes, but that’s how power always starts off, organizing itself. Taking what it needs.”
“Well, they can’t have it from us,” Henri replied.
“No, they can’t, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still need it,” Hanuel said. “I can’t cheer the way they grind themselves down. I can’t cheer for their misery, or their frustration. In a few days the local lord’s army will rise and crush them, and that will be a lot of sons and daughters in the ground.”
Henri leaned his forehead against his quarterstaff, appreciating the warmth of the stone Alektos provided his weary head. Despite the conflict that Hanuel’s words stirred in him, he smiled. “I’ve been in their place before, Hanuel. We chose not to take from others. We defended. We built. We grew. They could have too.”
“They could have,” Areum interjected. “But sometimes you don’t have the luxury of waiting for a seed to bloom into fruit before you’ll starve. And these people, they’re a product of their circumstances as much as their choices.”
“This is why I chose you,” Henri said. “I’ve spent a lot of lives as a soldier. All my memories say they should be crushed, but my heart agree with you two. So, what’s our solution, then?”
“We endure,” said Areum, “and send word that any who wish to surrender and lay down arms will be given what little we can spare, to begin farming the lands again.”
“The local Lord won’t look kindly on his land being set to farm without his approval,” Henri replied.
“It costs a government much less to tax a farmer than to raise an army,” pointed out Hanuel. “With Alektos’s aid, you could plow many fields, or at least break and move the stones. Any grousing the locals might have will fade by harvest time.”
Something is happening, Alektos warned him. Danger.
Immediately Henri’s head jerked up, and he leapt off the balcony, meeting the pillar of marble rising up underneath him. “Get inside!” he shouted to Areum and Hanuel.
Get everyone inside, something bad–
As the pillar rose high in the air, it gave Henri the vantage point to spot the commotion in the fields beyond. Lit by a ring of fuschia fire, the headless body of a woman was slowly being consumed in the unnaturally colored flames.
“That’s the one that caught the cannonball?”
Yes. She is returning. A spirit has pacted with her. They are coming for us.
Henri had time to curse once, before the woman stood up. Her head still burned, but flesh made whole was lit beneath it, shining bright enough Henri could see clearly despite the distance. The fire around her face had frozen and hardened like half-molten glass, forming a helmet of ghastly fire.
A lancing beam of fire shot from her eyes, bursting through Alektos’s walls and carving downwards, like an axe. A molten gap opened in the ringed wall, and then she swept another line of fire like a scythe. The lancing fire cut horizontally, at ground-level.
It cleaved through seven people, huddled on the ground by the wall. Where the fire touched them, they burned as if they’d been soaked in pitch. They thrashed and screamed at flames that would not be doused by their screams of water, and their hasty conjurations of earth.
It cleaved too, through the pillar Henri stood on. One moment he was standing, watching the magic below. The next moment he was falling, vertigo and white marble rubble rising up to meet him.
He had time to feel his ribs and shins break, before his head struck soft, warm stone, and his consciousness retreated most of the way behind walls of nausea and pain.
Wake up, Alektos pleaded. They are coming.
“Fight them,” he slurred. “Close the gap in the walls.”
I cannot. The other spirit blocks me. I am stronger, but I would spend much to gain little.
Henri let the wave of anger wash through him, and fed it into his tissues, adrenaline and magic holding his concussion at bay, for now. “Close the gap, Alektos!”
No. The cost is too high. We will have other lives.
“If they die here today it sets us back two lifetimes.”
And it will cost me most of one that I’ve stored to fight back.
“Pay it, damn you! This is worth it!”
It is too much to ask. I would be diminished so much, so early. We have many lives yet. I am vigilant. I must be, for my power, and for you.
Anger rose up in Henri, and then he smothered it under a cool wave of colder fury. “This was your plan, too,” he said. “To work with these people, nurture them, train them. Now you’re giving it up for the sake of one lifetime’s worth of power.”
Yes. It is still my plan. We can start over, with more power.
In the distance, a roaring cheer rose up from the bandit camp. Around him, screams of horror were rising from patrons and servants as the walls failed to repair themselves.
The bandits are coming. Your pain will be over soon, and then we will start again, stronger.
Henri thought desperately. “Remember when you said we need to be many, to protect many? It works the other way too, Alektos. There’s other spirits out there. They’re noticing your power, right? That’s why this one went right for us with all it has, on a new pact. It’s desperate.”
It is weak, and I am vigilant.
“Not weak enough, or you’d make an example of it,” pointed out Henri. “And that’s your mistake. You think you’ll be getting stronger with a new re-pact, another slice of my soul. But you’ll be showing everyone you give in, as soon as something gets the better of your vigilance.”
The roaring of angry voices and pounding of boots on the earth was close, now. Through the molten, burning gap of the walls, Henri saw swords and spears gleaming in the firelight.
“Worse, you’ll show that to everyone here, anyone that survives. They’ll tell the tale of Alektos. Who gave up. Who gave in. Anybody who hears that, they’ll know how to beat you. Just push hard enough. They’ll know not to pact you. That what you take from their souls will never be worth it.”
That is not true.
“Isn’t it, Alektos? They’ll know that you’re a cheat. And you’ll starve, and diminish.”
I am none of those things! I am vigilant! I do not renew, like you do. What power I have is all that I have! If I do not have the power to push back the other spirits, they might consume your memories instead.
“If they all die, Alektos, because you failed to protect them, then I don’t think my soul would know you anymore,” Henri whispered. “You’re supposed to be vigilant. For more than just me. Not selfish. These people gave to you in thanks, and now you’ll let them fall.”
They will live again, next life.
“That is no comfort to them now, Alektos. This life matters to them. It’s the only one they know.”
His murmurs would have been indistinct to anyone alongside, and would have been insensate babble anyway. Bandits poured in through the gap in the wall. The guardsman with the shaved head punched another cannonball into their midsts, smashing two more bandits to death. He fell in turn to blades of air that were whistled through his throat by a leering, furious man.
Their guardsman numbered six, and they were very good. But the bandits numbered fifty or more, and all was lost the moment the wall was breached.
Women and men screamed as they were flung down, swords put to throats, boots to backs. One or two people struggled, or flung magic in their panic, and were cut down by spell and sword.
“Please, not my brother, he’s all I have left…” pleaded one woman. Her robe was askew, and her makeup awry with tears and the smudge left by a bandit’s rough hand as he’d hauled her away from the boy.
Henri couldn’t see the boy, from where he lay, but he recognized the girl. Jazi.
She’d been thirteen when she’d arrived at the brothel. Her brother was four years younger. They had come from a family of eight. She was nineteen now, and grown popular with the customers as the haunted look had gradually left her eyes. It was back in force, now, her pleading gaze on the teen boy under a bandit’s bootheel.
“Hey, boy, you hear that? Your sister thinks you’re all she has left,” said the bandit atop her brother.
“How about we give her a piece to keep, Salazar?” said the bandit on Jazi.
“Yeah. I don’t want some shitheel brothel boy in my camp.”
Another bandit’s sword raised and fell, and Henri watched the spurt of blood land across Jazi’s face and robe. Her brother’s arm landed in her lap a moment later.
“There, now you’ll always have a piece of him to remember him by,” spat the bandit, and he struck her with his fist. Her lip split, and she fell, eyes vacant, staring past the world around her and its infinite cruelties.
Her brother screamed, writhing on the ground as he bled to death.
“Protect Hanuel and Areum,” he whispered into the rubble.
They are safe. I have sealed the stairs and windows. But I can only act as long as you live.
“That won’t be long,” whispered Henri. “They’ll run a sword through me the instant they know who I am.”
Jazi began to scream, her hand clutching at her brother’s arm, a roiling noise that reached into Henri’s guts and pulled at him. All the bandits in ear-shot turned her way, and one snarled at another: “Shut her up!”
The bandit clapped his hand across her mouth, clamping down tight, but it didn’t mute the sound. It rose and it rose, growing louder and louder, the air reverberating with the unbroken noise of her sorrow. The noise wrenched at Henri, reached into him, gripped him in a way that no other sound ever had. Not the wail of his children, the lives he’d been a mother, nor the wail of refugees before that, nor funerals.
No feeling he’d ever had, held a candle to the raw, keening grief that wrapped around his heart.
Tears leapt to Henri’s eyes. My brother, he thought.
That is not your brother, thought Alektos in alarm. What is she doing?
“My brother! Save my brother!” Henri cried. “Alektos, save him!”
Fear crept into Alektos’s voice. He is not your brother. What is her soul doing? Her magic is stronger than me, Henri. Her soul is burning!
Her howl of sorrow rose and rose, and Henri thought for certain he would be deafened. But the howl kept rising and around her he could hear everything, the cries rising up from the bandits and survivors alike:
“Save my brother!”
Bandits dove for his side, clamping hands over spurting arteries. Pouches were opened, potions and medicines emptied, bandages flung into the growing ring of bandits. And then brothel girls and patrons all dove into the fray, clamoring frantically, tears streaming down their cheeks as they cried together: “My brother!”
The magic intensified, moment after moment. Alektos’s carefully wrought walls blew apart as brothel customers and girls and families and servants from inside the tower all ran for the scrum. Magic was flung at her dying brother in a dozen flavors, his wound staunched in a hundred ways. The bleeding staunched, skin began growing over the wound. The wound became a stump, and then began to grow.
His arm continued to fill out, regrowing under the power of her wail. More and more bandits poured in through the wall, until their entire band stood inside. There they fell prostrate on the ground or to their knees, weeping.
“My brother,” pleaded Henri. “Save him.”
He is saved, Henri. He is not your brother. Jazi, her soul burns. It diminishes! Alektos’s voice filled with revulsion, and horror. Why does she diminish her soul?
“Save him,” whispered Henri, crawling forward on broken legs. He ignored the stabbing pains as bone pushed through skin, leaving a trail of blood across broken marble stone. “I have to save him, Alektos. I have to save my brother.”
No, you don’t! He is saved! Her soul is dimming, it is burning away!
“My brother…” Henri pleaded.
His last waking memory was of bandits holding each other, sobbing, their faces masks of utter sorrow.
He fell into the darkness waiting for him, to the sound of her howl. Henri was still pleading with Alektos to save the boy, when the blood loss took him under.
Henri awoke in his bed. The pretty round-shouldered girl was gone, and his legs hurt. Sun streamed in brightly through the windows, and outside, on the windowsill, a songbird perched and preened.
“Alektos?” he murmured.
I am here.
“Are they safe?”
Everyone is safe, now. Her brother lives.
“What about the bandits?”
They won’t touch their arms again. As soon as they try, they begin to cry again. Her magic is in them, very deep.
“You said she burned her soul,” whispered Henri. “You’re sure about that?”
Yes. It is diminished. If Alektos’s voice in his mind could shudder in horror, it was now. Henri gave a pained smile.
“We learned about that in the Academy, Alektos. I did, anyway. Weren’t you paying attention?”
I do not understand anyone but you, Henri. I only understand them through you. The lessons in the Academy didn’t make sense to me. It’s all about living and dying.
“Which might as well be like asking a stone to learn to fly, with you,” said Henri, smiling to the bird at the windowsill.
Yes. It is alien to my nature.
Henri tried to roll on his side, and the shooting pains of barely-knit bones made him hiss out a startled breath. The bird at the window flew away, crying out in protest at the noise.
He laid back down, and waited for the dizziness to pass. “Sometimes, in war, people die and return. You know that. They die, they pact.”
“Well, in the army? Every big battle, you plan on it, as much as you can anyway. Army battles could see three or four pacts made. I’m told the most in a single battle was twenty.”
They return, directly into the war, or after.
“Usually after, but sometimes during. And a single spirit-walker in the middle of a battlefield, that’s a dangerous thing. This is like that, but worse. What Jazi did, we have a lot of words for it, Alektos. Burning, blazing, candling, triggering, soul-lighting, soul-firing… nobody knows what to call it when it happens. It just does.”
She hurt her own soul. She diminished it.
“She paid in it, Alektos. Some people would. When killing their own soul would hurt less than something else. Sometimes, once in a rare while, it happens. It’s ended entire battles before. Entire wars. We don’t know where all that magic comes from, inside someone.”
She diminished her own soul, Alektos repeated. And for the first time in lives, Henri heard sorrow in Alektos’s voice, amongst the horror.
“Are you crying over a spoiled meal, Alektos? You were going to let them die. Now you start to care?”
Dying doesn’t matter, it means as little as life. I cannot tell the difference, even if you say you see it so clearly. But I see souls. Hers is dimmer. It will be dimmer forever?
“No,” whispered Henri. “Not forever. Otherwise you’d have seen them before, right? Have you ever seen a dimmer soul before?”
Only the pacted. Never like this. But I am vigilant. I see much.
“And if you’ve never seen it before in all our lives together, then that means her soul will be renewed after she dies, the same as mine, right?”
I suppose, replied Alektos. An uncomfortable silence hung in his thoughts, and Henri held his silence. It had been lifetimes since he’d last felt Alektos so silent, and ponderous with his own thoughts and feelings.
Alektos didn’t speak again for four days. From the comfort of his convalescent bed, Henri spent the time meeting with bandits and accepting their surrenders. Negotiating with the local Lord for the peaceful settlement of lands went well, once promises were made for taxation.
The newly-risen spirit-walker conducted the Guiding for the fallen, comforting the dead. Hanuel and Areum led funeral services and negotiated peaceful reconciliation between the living. Not every grudge could be eased, but they tried, and the heartfelt sorrow that lingered over everyone eased the negotiations.
Jazi hid in her room, and spoke to nobody but her brother. Her brother, in the meanwhile, found himself the most popular boy in the brothel. But their regard for him came with a familial air that spoiled his best attempts to turn that popularity to his advantage. Overnight, he’d become everyone’s little brother. Everyone exclaimed over his new arm, and every bandit broke into tears anew when he showed them the faint scar-line that remained.
The spirit-walker who’d been struck dead by the cannonball paid her polite respects to Henri. Her name was Matilda, and her attendant spirit was Utu. For a short time they’d talked about the life ahead of her, and her attendant spirit. Peace would ill-suit them, but there was plenty of brush and fields in need of a thorough burning before they could be cleared and plowed, and that would suffice.
When Alektos finally spoke, four days later, it was an unusual request: Can you ask Jazi to come here, to us?
“Since when do you want to see anyone?” asked Henri.
Please. I want to see.
Henri rubbed at his face. “Areum,” he called, to the servant in his quarters. “Get Areum. Ask her to bring Jazi here.”
Alektos held his thoughtful silence until Areum appeared at the door. Jazi stood, her eyes downcast, sunken into herself. Gone was the hollow cast to her eyes, but gone too was the bolder gaze she’d so readily thrown at the brothel patrons in the last few years.
“We’re here, Henri,” said Areum. “Would you like me to stay?”
“No, thank you Areum,” said Henri. “Alektos would like to talk with Jazi, I think privately.”
Yes. Privately, please.
Areum arched her eyebrows, and then touched Jazi’s wrist with two fingers. “I will be right outside if you need me,” she said quietly, then withdrew. The doors clicked shut behind her. Jazi didn’t look up from the floor.
“Thank you for coming,” Henri said gently. “I don’t really know what to make of this. Alektos has never asked to speak to anyone before.”
Jazi’s shoulders lifted and dropped in a small shrug, and she sat on the edge of the bed, her eyes never leaving the floor. A dim melancholy hung around her, and though Henri couldn’t see her soul the way Alektos did, the difference was clear. Gone was the lively, bold girl he’d seen working the brothel.
She hadn’t died, but he could only take small comfort in that.
Please tell her I am sorry, Alektos began. As astonishing as that was to hear, more astonishing yet was the remorse in Alektos’s words.
“Since when are you sorry?”, he said to Alektos.
What Jazi heard was “Sedimentary aggregate quartz silicate?”, but everyone in the brothel had long ago grown used to him spouting gibberish.
Since she diminished herself, replied Alektos. She had to do that because I would not help her. I am sorry.
It took Henri a few moments to absorb that thought, and then he drew a deep breath, and said to Jazi: “Alektos wants to apologize, to you. He wasn’t going to save us. He was going to let us all die, to preserve his own power. Now he wants to say that he is sorry, for that.”
Jazi only shrugged again, the same tiny shrug she’d given him before, her eyes not leaving the floor.
Does she understand? asked Alektos.
“She understands. But an apology isn’t much against watching the last person she had left in life about to die.”
I don’t understand, said Alektos slowly. I do not think I can understand. But I am sorry.
“Well, you’ve made your apology through me. What else is there to say?”
I want to help her.
“How do you think you can help her?”
I will need many, to help many. Her memories will be many, and sad, and dimmed from now on. I do not know how to help her, but I could give her time, to help forget. Inside me.
“You want to pact her?”
Jazi didn’t look up as his voice raised in incredulity.
No. Not pact. After she dies. Before she goes to the Divine. She would go dimmed, like this. And I fear that if she did, the Divine would know it was because I did not help her, and I would be shamed.
I want to help her, so she is the best soul she can be, before she goes to the Divine. I want to help all of them. Anyone who is dimmed like her.
The thought gave Henri pause.
“You’re talking about something a lot more than just power and governments now, Alektos,” Henri said.
Yes. This would be more than those things.
“But it’s what we’ve been working towards, in our way, isn’t it? We make the best lives we can for them now. For everyone. You’re taking it a step further, past death.”
Yes. I would hold her inside me. I would not take from her, only accept what she would give. Until she says she is ready to go to the Divine, and renew. And we could keep more. Good people. The ones you pick. The ones they need to make the memories bright again.
“Like Hanuel and Areum.”
I think so. We need more like them. We are making more, here, slowly. We need them, too. We need many to protect many. We need many to guide many. We need many to heal many.
Henri let out a rueful laugh, made worse by the protest of injured ribs. “That’s a lot more than what we first had in mind, with a wall around a refugee camp.”
Then he turned his head towards Jazi. “Jazi,” he said softly. “Alektos has an offer for you, if you’ll hear us out…”
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