Heather curled up around her father’s mace that night, feeding her excitement into one of the spikes of the mace. The solitary white flame lit the pages, as she read.
Like Persephone said, Heather thought, as she jumped back and forth within the prayer-book. Saint Aysha wrote in the margins alongside the prayers she chose that day.
Page 4, Estimated date, July 5th, 453. I've never been so tired. The hospice was overrun last night. I don't even want to remember what it felt like. Doctor Belin won't talk to me, won't even look at me. I'm not sure what's worse, being wrong, or being too late to be right. It's burning in my lungs again. Every few days I clean it out. But someone's always coughing. Divinity in light, and flesh in shadow, it is the right of a soul to linger to life, but not death. Saints wait to greet us, and Saints wait to guide us, but first is our duty to the Divine to preserve life, not bring death. I bow my head to Saints and Light, I bow my head to life may Death take me when it is due, and may I preserve for myself and others that which is due. I will proclaim the Divinity of Life. I will guard the light in my breast I will guard the fire of my sister’s faith I will guard the earth of my brothers bones and the water of my mother’s womb and the blood of my father’s heart and the joys and sorrows of my fellows. To all that is divine I would give life, from all that is life I would receive the divine. May the Saints guide me. Page 208, Estimated date July 17th, 453 Doctor Belin died last night. We pushed his body out the bell tower. He bit three. Coughed on me. Cleaned it out. It stinks, every time. Like ashes and cabbage gone just a bit moldy. It's getting to the point you can just smell who's sick and who isn't. Three times, I wrote up my findings and observations. Three times. Now everyone who ignored it is dead. If you find this, it's the stink of it. Once you smell it, it gets inside you. You can clean it out. But there's so much here. Every time it gets in, it stinks. This isn't just a plague. 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. Restful make the dead. Restful make the dead. Saints and Divine, restful make the dead. *** Page 106, Estimated date July 19th, 453 Rain again. Water from the gutters. Some were too thirsty to wait for it to boil first. That's how the cholera will get in, or the dysentery. Paul found a summer-spoiled pigeon egg under a rafter. Sophie and Marcus fought him for it. They ended up smearing it on their faces in their haste to eat it. It stunk up the attic, worse than the dead below. We're out of food. But we've got water enough for a few more days. I barely sleep. I clean out the stink in one person and find it in two more. Recurring cycles of infection. No immunity. It's not a plague. IT IS NOT A PLAGUE. Saints guide my healing heart, faith and piety lay fever to rest. Compassion for a pox, and make of your love an anti-plague that it may find and make strong all the hearts of the faithful. To Saints and Divine, I ask, guide my hand. *** Page 19, Estimated date July 22nd, 453 Marceline is due. The baby is coming. Into this filthy, wretched attic. The dead still shuffle below. The stink is everywhere. I can't clean it. I can't. I clean it and it goes and it comes back and it comes back and I can't stop it I don't know how to stop it all Saints please help me please don't let my niece be born not in this stinking box we're all waiting to die Divine guide this life anew faithful and pure, aglow in joy ready the runes for the infant’s first squall, for mother’s first tear for the powers of joy arisen in our hearts Divine, guide this life anew from bosom of the Saints and back again its path lit forever by the light of our joy Divine, guide this life anew. We welcome you with love. *** Nicole was born. She smelled of ashes and cabbage.
Heather’s hand shook as she brushed her fingertips along the torn page. You tore this out in rage and grief, she thought, tears welling up in her eyes. The worst moment of your life was minutes away. Maybe you tore it the instant you hear your niece’s first, doomed cough. Maybe it was just too much to take, locked in a stinking attic.
Heather’s eyes wandered around the cave. Trapped and starving. I can relate. But you didn’t give up either, Jordina Aysha. You just fought it and fought it. You never gave up. But you had family to fight for.
She flipped to the inside of the back cover. I learned about your miracle in my teens, Jordina. But not like this. Not the misery you fought through to make things right.
They said I should write down what I remember. I don’t, not much. I was so, so scared, and so sad, and when Nicole started to gag and cough I couldn’t
The line cut off, centuries-old water stains smeared across the paper and leather. Heather’s finger traced along the smeared line.
Nicole is fine now. Everyone is. Maurice says I held Nicole close and I said something and then all this magic came. It came and it came and it was so big I don’t know how I could stop it even if I wanted to. Maurice said it was like arms of Light that wanted to wipe the world clean. He said it smelled like daisies and sunlight. I just wanted Nicole to be okay. I wanted everyone to be okay. I don’t know what I feel now. Numb. Relief, I think. Nicole is okay. That’s what matters.
Heather swallowed, and then quickly wrapped a hand around her father’s mace. Silver went instantly orange-hot, and Heather carefully set it against the stone of the cave, pouring the heat of her own sympathetic grief into the stone. Her careful hands re-wrapped the prayerbook in cloth.
Ramdas watched her from the far end of the cave, his eyes reflecting back the orange light of her mace. His cheeks had gone gaunt and hollow. She’d caught him wiggling a tooth gone loose the prior day. Nobody would admit it, but they could all feel it in their gums and teeth. Scurvy, Heather thought. In this day and age. What I wouldn’t give for some potatoes right now.
Thoughts of food made her wince, and her head pound. She poured all she could muster into the stone of the cave, bringing some fractional relief to the deep chill of the stone.
“That’s nice, Caballero. Thank you.”
“Your knees bothering you again, Lieutenant?”
“Si. My kind were not intended to be so immobile. And not in this terrible cold.”
Heather nodded. The air outside was crisp and clear. The sun had stopped rising, and the air was so pristine in the cold that staring at the stars too long would leave pin-pricks in her vision. And the cold?
She’d spat, the other day, just to see if what she’d heard was true. The clack of her frozen spit hitting the stones had been unkind confirmation.
“Doing my best to keep the cave livable, sir,” she said. She held up the book, and then her mace.
“It’s appreciated, Blackthorne.” Ramdas groaned as he rose shakily to his feet. His knees were inflamed, as were his hocks.
Heather frowned. If a horse at mom’s ranch had legs looking so bad, he’d be looked after every day. Damn it.
“Tell me about the book, Caballero,” said Ramdas. “I’m curious. It is the relic of your patron saint, si?”
Heather nodded slowly. “Yeah, Lieutenant. Jordina Aysha held this once. Wrote in it. Saved a lot of people. Lost a lot more.”
“Does it help you, in some way, to hold it?”
Heather drew a shaky breath, and nodded. “Someone real went through something terrible. Worse than what we’re going through, I think.”
“Oh?” Ramdas said. “And what do you draw from that, Caballero?”
“Strength. That she never quit. She did her job right to the last, even when she felt helpless and powerless. I’m not helpless or powerless, Lieutenant, so I’ve got no excuse to give up and give in when she didn’t. So I won’t, either. That’s how it makes me feel. Like I can wrap all of my heart around her story and push through this.”
“You are certainly pushing more magic through your mace, tonight,” he said.
Heather offered up a pained smile. “Well, it gives me big feelings. Better focus. Having it in my hand reminds me, and brings it all out. Rationally, I know there’s nothing it does that I can’t do already. But I feel stronger, and more strongly, with it in my hand. So the magic follows.”
“Do you feel closer to your patron saint, then?”
“Definitely, sir. She’s Jordina to me, now. Not just Saint Aysha. She’s a woman who was scared for her family, loved her niece, prayed for better things for the people she loved. Her tears are on these pages. And, I think being closer to her makes me respect her more. She had it worse than I did. And she did better. So I’m going to do better, too.”
Ramdas nodded approval, and made his way over to the entrance of the cave. He ducked outside, a hiss of indrawn breath following. “Saints, it’s so cold. It stings the eyes.”
Heather tucked Saint Aysha’s book back carefully into her coat, and then followed Ramdas outside. The northern lights were dim that night, playing a greenish, sickly glow over the northern sky. Heather turned her hood on her coat up, and frowned at Ramdas. “If it’s so cold, why come out here, Lieutenant?”
Ramdas’ eyes wandered up in the sky towards the moon, and for a time he didn’t answer. Long draughts of steam rose from his lips and nose with every breath, two sets of lungs drawing deep, slow breaths.
“I wanted to see the moon, Caballero. It’s my anniversary today. I know my wife is looking to the moon too. Praying for me. I can feel it, in my heart. I should be beside her, playing for her, so she has music for her moonlight.”
His voice was earnest, and Heather let her eyes fall to the snow, as though to leave more moonlight for him.
“We’re going to get you back to her, sir.”
“Non,” the centaur said. He turned his eyes away from the moon, and met Heather’s. “There won’t be enough food. And I eat too much. Twice as much as the rest of you combined. It’s too much.”
“You need your strength if we’re going to fight,” Heather said, forcing the words between her teeth. “We need your strength, Lieutenant.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “We need your mind more, Blackthorne. Heather. This isn’t about orders any more, or duty. This is about what must be pared for the greatest good. I cannot travel far in this,” he gestured to the snowy, rock-covered terrain, and then down to his legs. “Or like this.”
“Then if it isn’t about orders or duty anymore, Pramath, then all the more reason. Shut up. We promised you we’d get you home. Not just me. Persephone, Helga, too. You’ll eat your fair share and we’ll all starve together. Don’t think for a second we’ll let your temper stop us. I’ll pry your jaw open with my mace so Helga can force-feed you, if we have to. We will, sir.”
Ramdas stared at her. “I believe you,” he finally said.
“Damn right. You’re the only thread Persephone’s got left, do you understand that? You’re the only hope that there’s a life left for her and Helga that isn’t running for the rest of their lives as fugitives and deserters. Before you it was the Major. But now that’s hanging on you.”
“And what of you, Blackthorne? What are you hanging on me?”
Heather clamped her jaw shut, and pulled her arms around her chest in a gesture that wasn’t entirely warding off the cold.
“Keeping you alive keeps me alive, sir,” she said. “Fighting back. Fighting. If I stop, if I slow down, I’ll just exist until I die. I’m out here miserable with hunger and cold and I spend every waking moment thinking up ways to fight back. And all this? It still feels better than coming home every night to an empty house. I spent every day terrified of going into my own room, Ramdas, because that was where my family was butchered. Nothing here is worse than that feeling. Nothing else brings me closer to feeling like I still have a reason to live, okay?”
She turned, and stared him in the eyes. “So right now, I’m hanging that off of you. A reason to live. To fight back intelligently, like I mean to win this one. So you can see your wife again.”
Heather bit her lip as her father’s mace lit up a dull orange, pouring her heart into the silvered mace her father had once swung. “So you can have a family. So you can have what I was robbed of, Ramdas. And so if these bastards in the fortress are kin to the ones who took my husband and son, then you’re going to help me get some measure of revenge. Maybe even justice. But I’ll settle for what I can get.”
Ramdas didn’t flinch from her words, and his response rocked Heather back on her heels. “I’m hanging all of their lives and hopes on you, Heather. Everyone in town. In this cave. All on your mind. I don’t have the knowledge, skills, or mind to do anything about that fortress, or the undead within. You do. But I’m not supposed to burden you with that thought. That’s not what a good leader does. He’s supposed to bear the weight so the people who can make that difference can do so. But you already know their lives are on you. You’ve known from the moment this began.”
“Yeah,” Heather whispered. And I’ve avoided thinking about it, because I’ve got enough grief and guilt on my plate.
The centaur pointed in the direction of the fortress. “We have to stop what they’re doing. Anything less means that more people die. Maybe not us, maybe not now, but somewhere, down the line, if they succeed, more good people die. And I wish you had the good grace, Heather, to let a man do his duty, and starve so that your mind is fuelled enough to make that difference. You can’t plan without food in your gut. Nobody can. The hunger dulls us all, but if we dull you, everyone dies.”
Heather looked away. “It’s not right.”
“It is right. It isn’t fair, Heather. But it’s right. So if you mean to make good on your promise, eat the food, let me starve for the sake of it, and use this team. And if you really mean to keep your promise to me,” he added, his tone challenging. “Then think of what to do fast. So you can one day meet my wife as my wife, and not my widow.”
Heather flinched at that, and then leaned over and punched him in the fore-shoulder. “You’re a bastard, Ramdas, you know that?”
“They teach you that when you become an officer,” he retorted, giving her shoulder a backhanded whack in return.
Heather barked an involuntary laugh, and then turned to stare at the far distant fortress. Anger and fondness warred in her. At some point in the conversation, she realized, Ramdas had stopped being her commanding officer, and became her friend.
“Okay,” she said, staring at the plumes rising from the adamant smelter. “Okay. Let’s get some food. Which you will eat. Then we’re going hunting.”
Ooluk was a cheerful mess. Bruising ran up the entirety of his left side, from where the plaster cast ended around his upper hip, up to the side of his head. Everywhere on him seemed to be stained in purple and greenish-brown. He lay helplessly on the furs at the back of the cave, happily chattering on with Heather while she set about heating the tea and food.
Helga and Persephone worked together to clean up the rubble left by his sloppy entry. Injured and forced to lay on his back as he was, the usual smooth, careful motion of stone around the elf had suffered, and the hole he’d broken through at the side of the cave had been uncharacteristically rough. But he’d come bearing food, some of it from the Houses and Guild’s own larder. The majority of the supplies and new furs, however, had come from donations made by Ooluk’s people. The bounty made certain neither Persephone nor Helga looked the least bit put out about having to pick gravel out of their bedding.
Ramdas, of course, ate. With an appetite to suit his size, made ravenous by their starvation, he wasn’t waiting for food to be heated. I’ve never seen a man shovel food into himself so furiously, but still trying to use table manners, Heather thought with a smile.
“… then you put the fat and the liver in,” Ooluk was saying. “With the berries and tea.”
“I’m not sure I can handle tea in my stew just yet, Ooluk,” Heather said.
“You need it, Knight Heather. We all do. Or you’ll get sick.”
Heather gave the pot a stir, and poured a little more of her good feelings into the iron of the pot, keeping the heat steady. “Sick how?”
“Bleeding gums, loose teeth, sore legs and elbows, and you heal slower. It’s bad to have.”
So that’s how they keep scurvy at bay, Heather realized.
“I’ll have tea in my stew then, dearie,” Helga said immediately.
“Si,” Ramdas echoed.
“Tea for me, too,” Persephone said.
Heather gently nudged Ooluk’s shoulder. “Now see what you’ve done?”
He smiled in her direction and tapped the new, clean wraps over the scarred pits of his eyes. “No, I don’t.”
Heather laughed, and dutifully added the tea to the pot. “How’re the powers that be policing the town in our absence?”
Ooluk lifted his nose to smell the aroma rising from the cookpot, and nodded approval at the aroma. His smile fell as he replied: “Badly. A man was knifed yesterday. Two pots of whale, for his life. The guards said they couldn’t prove anything, but by sunset the man who stabbed him was dead too. Revenge, I think, or just precaution in case he tried again.”
The knights looked around uncomfortably. “This is becoming a regular thing?” Heather asked.
“Yes. We’ve had two murders in total already. Families are hungry, and desperate, and they fight. Some people are hoarding. People are starting to get sick, too, with worry and fear. Every day when the gates of the fortress open, people wonder if the truce will hold.”
“It won’t,” Heather said. “The bastards will get greedy, or they’ll just let the town starve and take what they want when they’re too sick and hungry to fight back. Think about it. They’ve got rations in that fortress enough to feed the town for a decade. Skeletons don’t need to eat. They could have brought food. Used it to convince us all to sit tight, enjoy the meals, and let them be on their way. But they didn’t. They showed us a fist instead of an open hand.”
“They will strike,” Ramdas said in agreement, between voracious bites of food. “More bodies means more workers for their toil. But not soon. Starvation serves their ends.”
Heather gave the pot a firm stir, and laid her father’s mace under the iron. She poured her anger into the silver until the heat set the stew-tea to a slow simmer. “We’re not going to let them starve, Ooluk, to be easy pickings. We’re going to force their hand. Everyone here. Do you still want to fight for us? You’ve already been hurt helping us, and put your life at risk.”
Ooluk touched his hand to his plaster cast. “Of course I will fight alongside you. Heather, to my people, and to me, I died when I first walked the snows to come to Frostmoor. My heart still beats, and my lungs draw air, but nobody of my tribe would call me alive, any more. In a way, I am little different from the bones that stalk the snows to them. But I am on the side of the living. Ten thousand of my lives are worth one child, Knight Heather. I will fight until I cannot. Then I will fight until I truly do die.”
Heather shared a glance with Ramdas. “It’s not too late to call yourself a squire for the church, you know.”
At that, Ooluk laughed. “No, thank you, Knight Heather. It is enough to be your ally and friend. If I live, I have duties enough to attend.”
“Had to ask,” Heather said with a smile. She gave the pot a final stir, and ladled out steaming bowls for everyone. Tea and stew still didn’t agree with her palate, but after four days without eating, it was heaven enough in a bowl.
They didn’t speak again, not one of them, until they’d emptied the pot and could all rest, replete, looking up into the dim light of the cave.
“So what’s your plan?” Ooluk asked.
Ambrose frowned at his abacus, and the fingers of his right hand flew over the beads again. His left hand double-checked the formula spread across his work table. His muttering had grown increasingly louder over the last few minutes, and Lunette had had her fill of his grousing.
“So did you miscount a bead, or forget to carry the one?” she asked, looking up from her candle.
“Neither,” Ambrose said, with certainty. “I’ve run the calculations five times. Everything should be working. But I’ve lost half my array overnight. I can still see the fortress, but the indices of refraction are all wrong. Luminous intensity is-“
Lunette blew out an annoyed breath, which took the flame and the first inch off of the top of the candle, neatly cut by her annoyance. “I don’t care, Ambrose. Can you see or can’t you?”
“I can,” said Ambrose. “But I can’t choose where I’m looking, anymore. Someone’s playing with my array, and it’s not me.”
“So dismiss it,” Lunette said. “Deny it to our enemies.”
“I’m not sure it is our enemies,” he replied, rising from his desk. He walked to the door of the manor, and began strapping on his coat.
“You’re not going outside in that cold, are you?” Lunette said. She was already rising smoothly to her feet, and reaching for her own coat, and strapped her swords and shield overtop.
“I am. I have to see what’s going on. Whatever this is, it isn’t meant to be subtle. But it isn’t disrupting my work either. All the lenses and mirrors are still up there, where they should be. If it was our enemies, they’d know I could just dismiss and reform the array. So this is something else.”
The cold burned everywhere it touched their skin. The night sky was painfully clear. Now and then, as he watched, a tiny green glint sparkled across the night. Ambrose conjured three more lenses, and arrayed them in front of his face. “What do you make of this, Lunette?”
Her eyes weren’t as sharp as his, and he had to add another lens before she saw what he did. Shimmering, thin glints of green periodically appearing in the sky, vanishing a moment later.
“I don’t know,” Lunette said, frowning. “It looks like when the light catches a spider’s thread just so. Is it magic?”
“It must be, but I’m not seeing any flows when I close my eyes,” Ambrose said. “If it were magic, I should see the flows.”
“Does this have to do with your mirrors and lenses up there, then?”
“Yes. They’re following the surveillance paths I’ve laid out. But they come and go so fast.”
“They mostly run north-south,” she pointed out. “That elf took a load of food out to the church knights today. Think this is their doing?”
Ambrose frowned. “Let’s hope so. Let me check.”
He flicked his abacus to reset it, and lashed flows of Air from each bead to the lenses and reflectors hanging in the sky high above. Adjusting the torque of a mirror was met almost immediately with a foreign tug. The mirror reset, and the bead on his abacus slid back of it’s own accord with a clack.
With an annoyed grunt, Ambrose torqued the mirror back again, and aligned his view to refocus.
“What are you doing now?” Lunette muttered.
“Showing them my face. Let’s see if they respond.”
A moment later, Heather and Ramdas’s face appeared in the lens in front of him, staring right at him. A silent pantomine followed, Heather pointing to her eyes, then to Ramdas’s drawn sword.
Watch, she mouthed, tapping her eyes.
Flows flew across the sky, rearranging and splitting the view. Ambrose, dizzied, watched his abacus click and clack to the tune of another’s magic.
“She’s taken control,” Ambrose said.
The view in front of him split, showing two views at once: In the top half, Ambrose could see Ramdas pouring a great deal of magic into his rapier, pointing the tip at a lens in front of him. In the lower half, there walked a lone skeleton, trudging atop a ridge. Its head swept methodically back and forth, searching in the dark.
A dazzling green flash erupted from the centaur’s rapier-tip. In the same instant, a pencil-thin hole burst through the skeleton’s skull. Bone flashed green, and then evaporated, and the headless thing fell still into the snow. The green flash had been bright enough to light up the northwestern horizon, but only for an instant. Had Ambrose not seen it happen in the lens, would have dismissed it as a trick of his eyes.
“How are they doing that?” said Lunette, leaning in with widening eyes.
“Light,” said Ambrose, mouth working on the cold air. “Just… light.”
“No fire, no earth, no other flows? How is that possible?”
“I don’t know, but she’d better live long enough to teach me that trick. There’s no magic to counter, once it’s fired. No easy way to trace it back to them, the way they’re doing that. It’s a look-to-kill weapon. Everything you want in a sniping team.”
Heather gave him a questioning thumbs-up through the lens. Ambrose returned it, enthusiastically.
“I’ve got it,” Ooluk said, his ear pressed tight to the stone of the cave. “Can you feel it?”
Helga frowned, her fingers intertwined with the boy’s, fingertips pressed to the earth. Deep in the stone, she held her flows still, allowing Ooluk to channel and guide. “Aye, dearie. Oh, ye can feel where the stone isn’t, too? We should check those for hibernating animals, later.”
“Later,” agreed Ooluk. “But here, right now. Bones on stone make noise. A sharp tickle on the fingers. You put your magic through your hammer. Now all the earth is your hammer. Reach through it.”
“Easier said than done, lad!” said Helga. “My hammer’s scarce as long as I am. We’re talking kilometers, here.”
“So you’re smashing ants crawling on your hammer,” Heather called.
“Aye, with the head of a pin!” groused Helga.
Persephone wove her fingers through Helga’s hair. “Sssh. You can do it, love. You don’t have to move a mountain. Just a little rock.”
Ooluk gave Helga’s hand a gentle squeeze. “There? You feel it, there? That tickle-tap? That’s a skeleton.”
“And all I have to do is hit its foot?”
“Yes. Not hard. Break a bone, or just send it tripping and sprawling. The wind’s taken most of the snow off that ridgeline. If it falls, there’s plenty of jagged rocks to crack itself apart on.” The elf smiled. “If I did it, they would feel it a mile away. But Gaiman magic isn’t sneaky.”
“Don’t think anyone’s ever called me swinging my hammer ‘sneaky’ before!” said Helga.
“Ready?” Ooluk asked.
“Aye. Just remember to pull your ear off the stone when I swing, lad. I wouldnae want your ears set to ringing.”
“You don’t have to swing hard. Like you’re cracking a nut, not a skull.”
“Fast-moving nut, that is,” Helga muttered, leaning into the rock and spreading the fingers of her free hand. As she listened, she carefully raised the heavy adamant head of her hammer, halting a few inches off the ground. Her breath slowed, the runes of her hammer beginning to glow as she wove small flows of Earth into the rock beneath her.
“There,” she said, relaxing her grip and letting the hammer fall to earth. Far away, guided by Ooluk’s magic, she could feel the rock tripping up the skeleton in mid-stride. The skeleton lurched forward as the rock caught the bony foot on the ground. Its foot slipped back and away, and the skeleton bounced once at the edge of the ridge before hurtling into empty air, shattering on the jagged rock far below.
“Good, Knight Helga,” Ooluk said, his voice satisfied. “That was very well done.”
Helga sat back, tucking Persephone’s arms around her. “Never thought something so small could be so effective,” she chuckled. “Though I’d think a dwarf should know better.”
“You’re sure you kept the flows deep, Ooluk?” Heather asked. “It’s no good if they can tell right away that it’s magic.”
“Very deep, Knight Heather. And very small energy. Let the earth do the work. The rock underfoot moved no more than two thumbs.”
“Good. We keep going with that, every chance we get. Let the necromancer bastards think their ilk are getting clumsy in the cold and ice,” Heather said. “It won’t fool them forever, but any chance we get to whittle down their number, we’ll take.”
Persephone gathered her anxiety about her, and stepped out into the arctic night. It wasn’t hard to rouse her feelings. Just thinking back to the sound of the Abbot’s scourge tearing across her back, and then hearing Helga’s cry, that was always enough.
Her feelings burst from her and enveloped her, and she let the trembling come. The negotiations of her geases and runes warred in the back of her mind, as she closed her eyes. Waiting for clarity, for the will of the Divine to manifest itself. Her lips moved, a mantra she’d spoken since she was a slip of a girl, wondering when the abbot would find cause to take offense with her next.
“I am the keeper of stories, I am the keeper of the mysteries made truth by faith. I will bear the sacred heart as a herald of the saints. I will make of my heart the fruit of faith, and bear the trials of the saints as my seeds. I will sow my faith in gentle hearts, and protect the stories against doubt and blasphemy. I am the keeper of stories, I am the keeper of the mysteries made truth by faith…”
She hardly felt the chill. Her magic wrapped around her, stilling the air. A few snowflakes slowed around her as she strode out into the dark, arctic night, replaying Heather’s instructions in her memory.
Three kilometers south. The second ridge. Ice them all on your return, smooth ice with snow atop. Lay the foundation for avalanches. A buried skeleton might as well be a dead skeleton, for all the harm it can do.
Persephone glanced overhead. Somewhere above, unseen, she knew that Helga was nervously watching her over Heather’s shoulder. The complex array of lenses and reflectors was well past Persephone’s understanding, and so she kept her mind on the task.
Three kilometers south, the second ridge…
Snow crunched underfoot, the chill of the night bleeding through the boots she’d had to borrow from Helga. They were ill-fitting, but kept her feet from the icy, rocky ground underfoot.
Heather’s instructions ran in the back of her mind: Go low, go slow, but keep your ward up. If it is watching by heat-vision, it shouldn’t be able to see you. But it might still be able to feel your magic. Conjure a spear, keep it close, but try not to use any other magic if you don’t have to.
If you can get within twenty meters of it, and it still hasn’t seen you, then back off. If it sees you, kill it before it can kill you. Lay down ice on the ridge of the slopes, and snow overtop. Use the snow around you, pack it down. With any luck, we can make the ridges unsafe for those bones anymore. Then they’re easier prey for Ooluk and Helga.
Wind threw itself against Persephone’s ward, but little of it could breeze through the thick, cold bubble that surrounded her. Snow flew around her, in sharp, tiny glints, and it was treacherous walking along the slope.
If you’re spotted and can’t kill it, just get to safety. Rap your spear on the earth three times, hard. Ooluk will pull you free.
Geases screamed their protests as she walked. You have stories untold. You have a relic around your neck. You should not be doing this.
But nobody else could. If Blackthorne is right, I’m invisible to their skeletons, the ones hunting us. Nobody else can. Nobody else is. And if we don’t fight back, we’re all dead anyway, and the stories will be lost, she thought back. Her runes burned disagreement into her hands, but she ignored the stinging pain. Too bad. This is how it has to be. No better options. You want to save the stories? You help me survive this.
Her runes had no response to that, but they throbbed and burned her palms all the same, just on principle.
The second ridge was easier going. With the fierce wind mostly unable to reach her through her ward, the bubble of air she walked through stayed temperate enough for comfort. Her target, a skeleton perched atop the rock ridge like a gargoyle, was clearly visible by silhouette. Its head turned left and right, steady and slow as a metronome, scanning endlessly.
Persephone took to the ridgetop, and felt ice run up her spine. I’m out here all alone. I’ve never faced these things alone. I don’t want to die again. Not ever, please, not ever.
I hope you’re right about this, Blackthorne.
The moon was waxing quarter, and it lent little light to the stone and snow. The skeleton had little snowdrifts that had piled up along inside its pelvis and ribcage. Tendons squeaked in the cold as the neck turned slowly, scanning left, then right. Otherwise, it was still.
Persephone let out a slow, nervous breath, and fed her fear to her ward. She’d always been anxious, always afraid, long before Helga had come into her life. Long after, too. But her fear could be her fuel. It could protect her, and her stories and treasures.
Wind whipped around her, stealing her whispers from the hearing of the bony sentinel. “I am the keeper of stories-“
“- I am the keeper of the mysteries made truth by faith.”
“I will bear the sacred heart as a herald of the saints. I will make of my heart the fruit of faith, and bear the trials of the saints as my seeds.”
Twenty five meters.
Her voice dropped to the softest whisper she dared: “I will sow my faith in gentle hearts, and protect the stories-”
The skeleton paused, and then rose to its feet. Persephone’s hand gripped the spear tightly, and she held her breath, readying to throw.
We’re wrong she was wrong they’ve seen me I’m going to die and my stories with me and a relic will be lost and-
The skeleton’s bony sockets swept past her, and turned away to face the west. It sunk back down into its crouch, and its head resumed the slow, rhythmic scan.
Not daring to breathe, Persephone took three shaking steps forward.
The skeleton’s head turned slowly, and the pits of its empty skull slid right by her, without stopping.
Persephone slowly backed away, and let out a long breath, not daring to pull her eyes from the bones until she had put thirty more meters between herself and it. Then she turned and ran, fear at her back and heels.
I am the keeper of stories, I am the keeper of the mysteries made truth by faith…
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