Daniel DuCroix bobbed out to sea in the shadow of Fort Ouestin. This close to his own grave, the pitching and rolling of the small fishing ship moving beneath him was easy to endure. A distant figure on another fishing ship cast him a friendly wave, which Daniel returned.
The local fishermen didn’t pay him much mind on their daily jaunts. He occasionally came in and sold his catch to fishmongers for cheap enough to be a good bargain, but not cheap enough to arouse suspicions.
Those who even bothered to notice his comings and goings took him for a merchant’s son, either making his first cavalier essay into commerce, or indulging in a romantic notion of living the life of a fisherman. Being so forgettable in appearance didn’t hurt, and if anyone noticed the magic on the back of his neck, they presumed it to be an ordinary sailor’s tattoo. Something enchanted to be useful, like an Air weaving to keep one afloat.
Being forgettable helped, too. Imperial reinforcements arrived by countless barges to bivouac down in the fortress, and with them came scrutiny. As word of undead streaming into the sea had spread, reports from spies carried news of both the Thousand Kingdoms and Hanshu navies setting sail. The Empire hadn’t hesitated in filling the fortress to the brim with soldiers. All the eyes of the Empire not occupied by conquest in the Thousand Kingdoms were turning their eyes to Ouestin.
Thousands more soldiers in this fortress. Thousands more who’ll be mine, when all this is done, Daniel reflected in satisfaction.
As the tide took him further out to sea, he set the sail to tack lazily back and forth across the harbor. Face upturned to the warmth of the sun, he spilled his net out into the water. He didn’t actually care about bringing back fish, of course, but keeping up appearances was essential. A flotilla of Imperial Navy ships had begun to amass over the last few days, just a kilometer out to sea from the cliff face guarding the fortress.
The towering adamant walls of Fort Ouestin didn’t offer him much to look at, aside from the great blackened crater and the Ripple from wars past. The Ever-Smoking Crater, centuries old, was in fine form today. Some unfortunate seabird had chosen an unwise spot to roost in the crater’s hollows, and had left behind some feathers in its haste to depart the heat. Those feathers were now smoldering, a thin line of sooty smoke painting an inky line across the walls.
Daniel shivered at the display of raw power the crater stood testament to. I know what caused that, he thought. Thirty lifetimes of magic, at least, channeled through one shared, summoned Spirit. All spent in one enormous blow. Fire magic powerful enough to heat adamant for centuries. That’s a power I’ll have to have, one day. The nations of this world won’t respect anything less, not in the long term. Only then will I live again.
His body still lived, if one could call it that, within his grave in the fortress. He’d had the perverse pleasure of overseeing his own burial, four years ago. On the same day I met Heather Blackthorne again, he thought. How fitting.
But now the spirit-walkers have me by the throat. Their spirits could seize my soul when I jump from body to body. They’ve made that abundantly clear, just as I’ve made clear my retribution if they did. We’d go down together. My soul for every last one of their kin my soldiers can hunt down and sunder.
Fine. One problem at a time. First, my fortress, and my body back with it. Then a fine barony off in Hanshu. Then, I’ll figure out what I’m going to do about those spirit-walkers and their damnable truce.
It had been a hard-won truce, between himself and a council of Spirit Walkers in the Thousand Kingdoms. Mutually assured destruction had been the order of the day. They had promised to shred his soul if he so much as touched one of their number. He in turn had promised revenge from beyond death, his dying order safeguarded, programmed into all his undead: Kill and enslave every Walker they found, and spend the magic of their pacted Spirits like water. They would tell none his secrets, and he would leave their spirits and kin alone.
They’d killed him at the meeting, of course, but by then they’d known it was only a minor inconvenience. Word had spread among their kind instantly. Around the world, Spirits and Spirit-Walkers alike had declared their intent to stand down in the conflict.
His eyes traced over the fortress walls, and the shape of the gathering fleet on the water. At least I won’t have to worry about facing the Imperial forces spirit-walkers, in what’s to come.
Daniel turned the boat back across the harbor again, and then slipped into the hold of the ship. Crate after crate of wax-sealed boxes lined the hold, protected against the sea’s moisture and the stink of fish.
Each crate held ten thousand sheets of paper, stamped identically. He’d made sure the harbormaster and the customs officers had become his property, long before he’d dared dock the ship in the harbor. And now he kept a healthy distance from any navy ships. The stored magic in the paper glowed with power every time Daniel closed his eyes.
He laid down, and did just that, casting his mind through the connections magic had wrought between himself and his undead. The usual clamors for his attentions awaited through his network, and he delegated his orders where he could. Fifty miles away, refugee ships disgorged their cargo into the sea, dead bodies swimming down deep, towards the fortress.
Daniel leapt from his current body, into one of his automatons beneath the waves. The tunnel was complete, the automaton’s eyes showing him the chamber they’d hollowed out under the bowels of the fortress. It was nearly full to the brim with more identical crates of rune-stamped paper. Daniel watched through its eyes as it slotted a crate in up near the roof.
Over a thousand crates. Ten thousand explosive papers inside each one. Ten million identical stamps, laid in place by automatons that would endlessly scream if he allowed them a voice.
The automaton followed its instructions, and descended back down the staircase and into the waiting ocean. Thousands of dead waited beneath the water in orderly rows, their numbers lining the walls of the tunnel and snaking far, far out to sea.
Daniel returned his soul to the body in the fishing ship, and smiled.
Not much to worry about at all, soon.
Heather Blackthorne visited her husband and son’s grave twice more, and planted sunflower seeds behind the stones. In the days between, she often sat in with Roland and Neela, just talking. They seemed to have nothing but time for her, giving her the benefit of all of their attention when she made herself available, and leaving her be when she needed time alone.
They were sparkling conversationalists, letting her breathe and laugh when the mood arose, or talk about the horrors she’d endured when their memories came unbidden to her. They listened well, and when they spoke, it was ask gentle questions whose answers always served to lead her gently back to joy.
Every night, she slept better than she had in years. Some nights by herself, some nights in Roland’s arms, but each night she slept well. As if to make up for four years of one monotonous nightmare, her dreams ran wild and riotous in color and emotion. Occasionally, nightmares visited her, memories and dreams carved into her psyche; but these too were different, wild, more bizarre than frightening.
Being inactive bothered Heather, though. She found herself going on daily runs through the streets close to the Cathedral, her booted feet beating on cobblestones as she sweated under the heat and appalling humidity of Bastia’s spring skies, dodging foot traffic and the occasional carriage. On the fourth day without a nightmare, she took her shield and mace down to the practice yard, and beat on targets and squires until her shoulders ached in all the right ways.
On the seventh day without a nightmare, she found herself restless at supper. Neela paused in her telling of a funny, gentle story of a baker and his cat, and settled her hand on Heather’s fidgeting hands.
“Every time you do that, it’s something unsaid,” Roland said, his hand joining Neela’s atop her hands.
Heather hesitated, started once to speak, and paused. Then she tried again, and said the words that were bothering her: “I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I really don’t. But I woke up this morning and I just thought, every day that you two are here with me, is a day you’re not helping someone else.”
Neela and Roland shared a look, and Neela’s hand gave Heather’s a reassuring squeeze. “You’re worth this,” she said. “You’re worth our time, and you’re worth every heartbeat and breath we share with you. Are you afraid you’re not?”
Heather shook her head, and found herself smiling. “No, it’s not that. I guess I just realize how much I needed you both. And now I’m realizing that you two probably have a long line of folks that need you even more.”
Roland and Neela beamed back at her.
“You come first,” Roland said firmly. “We’re here for you as long as you need, now, and in the future.”
Neela gave her hand another squeeze. “The fact that you’re feeling this way means you can afford to spare a thought for someone else’s pains, again. That’s good. That means you’re past the critical part.”
Tears gathered on Neela’s eyelashes, and a crack in her poise appeared as she broke into a tremulous, helpless smile. “We’ve been so worried for you, Heather.”
Motes gathered around them all, unspent emotion drawing power, seeping out of the stones and wood and air around them. The gathering magic cast the supper table in a sea of gentle light. It was the first time Heather could recall a single mote escaping either one of them, and suddenly the air around them was a constellation of unspent magic.
Their motes met with Heather’s, and brief, kind echoes of their hearts resonated, tiny bits of emotion mixing around them.
They love me, Heather realized, not for the first time. But realizing it, and feeling it through the touch of shared magic, were very different things.
Without realizing she was doing it, her motes mingled and curled around theirs, suddenly greedy to feel that power and purity of their hearts against her own.
When that boy said they loved, it’s what they do… he meant it literally. They love.
And I don’t love them back.
Guilt panged through her, blue motes of ice briefly flickering into the air around them like snow. With their magic mixing and touching this way, there was no way they could miss that lack of sympatico echo. Fondness? Yes. Friendship? Absolutely. Attraction? Certainly.
But not love.
Shame began to creep into Heather’s eyes, but was stopped by Roland leaning in. He read her distress, and brushed a kiss against her cheek.
“Loving is our job,” he said. “And you don’t owe anyone but yourself your love. You can’t owe love.”
Neela’s voice joined his, gentle and kind: “You can only give it, as a gift. And it is our gift to give you.”
“Thank you,” Heather whispered, and she clenched her eyes shut to hold in the tears, and the roar of magic that wanted to spill from her in all directions.
It felt strange to hold in such a big feeling, that rush of joy and relief and gratitude that shook tears from her eyes.
It feels right, she thought.
I think I want to hold onto this, for once.
On the ninth day without a nightmare, Heather Blackthorne put on her tabard, kissed Roland and Neela goodbye, and went for breakfast.
Greyson was easy to find in the mess hall. The old man sat among the officer’s tables, eating plain oatmeal and a single slice of cheese.
He doesn’t vary his diet, Heather noted as she approached.
Greyson looked up from his meal, and gave her a polite, welcoming nod. As Heather sat down, the privacy runes on the table lit up, muffling out the noise of the mess hall around them.
“You’re looking well, Blackthorne,” Greyson said.
“I’m feeling well,” Heather replied.
And it isn’t just the enchantments in here, she thought. Before, it always felt like my mind was floating on a wild sea. Now I’m calm inside. Just floating, still. Still sad. Still mourning. But I don’t need to be here anymore.
“How close to one-hundred percent are you, Blackthorne?” the old man asked, arching his eyebrows.
Heather hesitated, then replied honestly: “Call it eighty. Ninety on a good day. Today’s a pretty good day.”
Greyson smiled in a way that suggested he envied her. “If you’d said one hundred, I’d have marched you right back to Roland and Heather.”
Heather smiled back. “And you’d be right to, sir. But now, every day I sit here, I’m thinking about the other people they can be helping. And the people that I should be helping. If it helps my case, I’ll probably visit them both when they can spare me time, later. But other people need them more, now.”
Greyson took his time studying her eyes, and took another spoonful of his oatmeal, saying nothing.
“I think I’m as ready as a widow can be, sir,” Heather added into the silence between them. “It’s personal, and it can’t not be personal. But I think I can let that help me now, instead of holding me back.”
The old man set his spoon down, and let his hands on the edge of the table. “In truth, Blackthorne, the reason we’re recruiting you for this is because we suspect it’s personal for them, too. They’ve gone out of their way to target you before, and we think they’ll try again.”
“I’m perfectly fine being bait, sir. I’ve got a strong hook.”
Greyson snorted, but a small smile showed at the corners of his mouth. He reached into a pocket, and passed her a small slip of paper across the table. “Good. Our courier will fill you in on the details at your briefing. Now get up, Sergeant. You’re overdue for your jacket fitting.”
“Ah, yes sir. I haven’t had my breakfast, though.”
“Believe me, Blackthorne, it’s better on an empty stomach. Read that note, memorize it, and destroy it.”
He rose and left, leaving the rest of his breakfast behind.
Heather tapped another rune on the table, the bubble-ward of Light and Air becoming an opaque, blurry film around her, and then opened the paper.
Second basement of the inner ring, on the western corridor. Access password this morning is ‘Basalt’. Two meters after the third door, on your right, will be a brick at knee-height with a large scuff on it. Flow-key is fire-right, air-down, air-counterclockwise, earth-right. Enter the flowkey, then turn around and open the second beige door. Failure to follow this procedure will sound alarms and trigger countermeasures.
Heather’s skin prickled as she stared at the paper. That’s a lot to memorize, she thought. I’m not sure if I’m being tested or this is just something I have to get used to.
She re-read the note five times, closed her eyes, recited it mentally, and checked again. Alright, I’ve got this, Heather thought.
Only then did she fold the note in her hand, and will a rush of her exasperation into a little flicker of flame. The note flashed away to ash, which she deposited politely on what remained of Greyson’s breakfast. Then Heather rose, and walked out of the ward and back to the pleasant noise of the mess hall.
Finding the corridor was difficult; the doors that accessed it were all unmarked, and uninteresting, service doors for servants and guardsman, not intended for the casual clergy or visitor. Most were warded with common flow-keys, issued to knights and servants, attached to minor alarm wards intended only to keep the honest out.
The second basement, however, became very serious, very quickly.
It started with a trio of dwarven guards, in heavily warded armor and shield. They stood abreast, relaxed but alert, the magic worked into their defenses powerful enough that even from twenty feet away, she felt them like a physical pressure on her shoulders and arms.
“Name?” barked the lead guardsman, his thumb hovering over the largest rune on his hammer.
“Heather Blackthorne, Sergeant. I’m a Detective,” Heather replied uneasily. These are some serious boys, she thought.
The guardsman nodded. “Unauthorized entry past this point will probably land you in the hospital, Detective. If you have been authorized, you are not to disclose who authorized you. Do you understand?”
“Detective Blackthorne, are you certain you are authorized entry past this point?”
Heather drew a breath, eyebrows climbing. “Yes. My authorizing agent didn’t seem the pranking kind.”
Not even a twitch of a lip from these three, Heather thought. Yep. I’m in some serious cloak and dagger shit now.
The lead guardsman ran his fingers through his beard. A small itch of magic betrayed itself to Heather’s senses, coming from a complex knot woven deep inside the man’s beard.
“Detective, step forward two steps, arms out at your sides. Make so sudden movements. We’re going to search you, now. Are you carrying any concealed weapons?”
“No, just my mace.”
“Very good. You can take that inside with you.”
Heather held still as a flurry of magic from runes concealed in the walls raked over her from head to toe, the magical intrusion feeling to her as though she was being rolled around in a rough carpet that someone had thoughtfully poured tacks into.
“You’re clear. Step forward.” The lead guardsman reached into his pocket, and produced a small chunk of quartz, about the size of a chicken egg. “You know what this is?”
Heather frowned. Why would he even ask something so basic, she thought. Unless it wouldn’t make much sense to have a pass phrase and not use it.
She put on her best sarcastic tone. “Basalt with delusions of grandeur?”
The dwarf still didn’t so much as crack a smile, but he did key open the door and stepped aside to let her through. “On your way then. Mind your entry instructions.”
Heather stepped through the door, and it shut fast behind her, magic protections reactivating. The hallway she found herself in was aggressively ordinary, with every brick bare and plain to the eye, but concealing a plethora of nasty runes.
I haven’t felt so many defensive runes in one place since the fortress at Frostmoor, she thought. This is almost as bad as the Merchant’s Guild.
Magic hooked and tugged at her, a thousand sensations of impending doom if she so much as looked too long at any one of the plain, ordinary, boring doors that lined the hallway, five to a side.
There was no decoration here, no marks, no attempt at all for this passage to be anything but plain bricks, beige-painted doors on the right, brown doors on the left, with simple glow-runed lights illuminating the hallway. That, and manifold doom built into the walls for anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there.
Two meters after the third door on the right, Heather repeated to herself. Brick with a scuff on it, knee-height.
She found it easily, the large scuff looking as if someone’s armored knee had scraped carelessly against the brick. Heather unslung her mace, and touched it to the brick. Her apprehension was fuel enough for the flow-key of magic she sent through her father’s mace.
Fire-right, air-down, air-counterclockwise, earth-right, she repeated. She stepped back from the brick as she completed the flow key. The only response from the runes around her was a small ‘click’ from the second beige door.
Heather strode towards it, and opened the door.
On the other side stood Greyson, flanked by two very large men. All three were wearing the same black and white jackets she’d seen on Captain Ramdas. In the center of the room, an iron pillar rose to support a steel gurney, with ominously stout and runed leather straps. The dampening runes upon the gurney reminded Heather uncomfortably of a maternity ward; only there were twice as many runes as seemed necessary for anyone.
Okay, Heather thought, Greyson, obvious goons, a really unnerving rack… How much do I trust this man, really?
“Close the door, Knight,” Greyson said. The goons flanking him remained silent and utterly still.
Heather’s eyes swept over them, and she suppressed a shudder. Their eyes haven’t moved since I stepped in. It’s like they’re not even in there. They could be flesh golems for all I know.
What have I gotten myself into?
“Close the door, Knight,” Greyson repeated, his voice hard.
Heather started, then firmly shut the door behind herself. The lock clicked shut as softly as a prayer.
“Sorry about that, Sir,” she said, nodding toward the gurney. “Why the straps? I volunteered.”
“We’ve lost candidates at this stage, before,” Greyson said, glancing to the gurney. “To seizures.”
“Why? Because of the runes in the jackets?”
“Because they lied to me,” Greyson replied, pulling out a nondescript box from under the gurney. “Here’s your jacket. Put it on.”
Heather opened the box. The jacket within was heavy, made of thick, durable leather and would hang to her knees. It had been reinforced with a broad strip of chainmail that had been affixed directly to the leather, from armpit to knees. Stiffened leather plates were sewn in protect her hips and kidneys. An elbow-length leather mantle hung from the jacket’s shoulders, and smelled of fresh weatherproofing oils. The wide double-breasted lapels drew her eye. Ten brass buttons, she thought, running her thumb over one. Wonder if that means anything, how many there are?
She shrugged the jacket on, and smiled a little. This is a well made jacket, though. It’s cut for long rides on horseback, and it’ll keep the rain and sun out. Feels like the sort of jacket you’d keep for life-
Greyson nodded, and the two burly men moved with surprising speed. Brutish hands closed around her upper arms, and dragged her onto the gurney.
“Hey! That’s not necess-” Heather’s protests were cut off by a leather-wrapped stick pushed into her mouth by Greyson.
“It’s entirely necessary. Bite down,” Greyson snapped.
The goons strapped her arms down onto the gurney, and then her legs. Dampening runes came to life, and Heather poured her irritation and anxiety into them, soaking up her nervous energy.
Greyson buttoned up her jacket, muttering under his breath as his fingers wove elaborate key-flows over each button. His magic moved with the speed and precision she hadn’t seen since Consul Sienna’s work, flowing through elaborate knots and whorls that lit up runes embedded deep in each button.
Heather swallowed, and then bit down around the gag as she felt the magic spread through the jacket, a crawling, flowing feeling as if cool liquid metal was being poured over her body, but spreading from her back up towards her chest and face.
Greyson flicked the corner collar of the jacket with his finger. “Initiate.”
Nerves began to tingle and twitch, fingertips and legs spasming slightly, her stomach giving a slow heave.
Oh saints, what have I gotten myself into?
A little stirring of air brushed along the left side of her throat, someone’s exhalation.
A monotone voice, devoid of inflection or intonation, whispered into her left ear.
Heather made an involuntary noise of alarm, and jerked against the restraints, trying to turn her head to the left. But nobody was at her left; both of Greyson’s goons had returned to their spots guarding the door. Greyson stood to her right, his fingers still weaving flows of magic into the buttons of the coat, and the tooled leather runes hidden underneath the lining.
Fear climbed her spine, and quickly, Heather gathered her focus, visualizing her mind as a perfect ball, floating on the ocean of her emotions below. Only now, alongside her mind, floated something else.
Hello? She thought back. Who the heck is that?
The voice whispered softly in her ear: “Communication protocols successful. Monitoring routines engaging. Defensive runes engaging. Please be advised, consenting to this bonding is irrevocable and permanent. Do you consent to this bonding?”
What am I consenting to, exactly? Heather thought, to the other in her mind.
The response came again in her left ear: “Primary function parameters is the preservation of informational security of classified and sensitive information. Secondary function parameters is the protection and safeguarding of host-bonded individual. Tertiary function parameters include the support of lawfully ordered missions and duties in service to the faithful.”
So my safety is secondary to the safety of what I know, Heather thought to herself.
But the voice in her ear responded all the same: “Yes. Primary function is preservation of inf-“
I get it, Heather thought, rankled by the lack of privacy. She drew a deep breath, and glanced at Greyson.
He’d finished weaving magic, and now stood at the side of the gurney, arms folded. His expression said get on with it, Blackthorne.
She thought about the jacket Ramdas had worn, ‘inherited’ when Major Weathers had died in the field. The defensive runes had been horribly potent, and Heather suspected the jacket she now wore bore more than a few of their own nasty surprises.
Heather exhaled. I said I was in this for life, she thought. Alright. I consent.
The other sphere she visualized in her mind wrapped around her, a prickling, then foggy sensation of something sliding between her mind and the world, engulfing her, surrounding her.
The little whisper in her ear said: “Bond successful. Binding successful.”
Then Heather’s mouth opened without her volition, and spat out the gag.
Her heart leapt in shock as her jaw began moving on its own. Her voice emerged unbidden, as inflectionless and emotionless as the voice that had whispered in her ear:
“Assuming physical control.”
If you’d like to spread the word about From Winter’s Ashes, vote for us on TopWebFiction.com, or better yet, write a review at WebFictionGuide.com, Goodreads, or Amazon. Or visit our Facebook page and share it with your friends!