The Void and the Flame

Rashmi wiped the summer sweat from her brow, and frowned at the writing on the pages in front of her. The sun in the plaza glinted down through her helmet of molten glass. Darker, please, she thought to her spirit, and Utu obliged.

Reading had been a challenging skill to learn, back when she’d been nothing more than a Lord’s maid. Now, what her teacher Jiraat had handed her seemed impossible to understand. The marks in the book he’d given her looked like some of them could be letters, but others were just simple squiggles, and yet other marks could have been pictures.

And this is all supposed to mean something? How am I supposed to learn anything if I can’t even read a single sentence? Rashmi thought, and let loose a loud sigh.

Jiraat looked up from his tea, and frowned at her. The way he frowned always tensed his neck, just enough to make the long pink scar that ran across his throat tug and stretch in a way that always repelled her. “Are you bored of our lessons already, child?”

“No!”, Rashmi hurried to answer. “No Teacher Jiraat, I’m not bored. I just— this is writing, yes? It doesn’t make any sense!”

“Of course it doesn’t make sense,” Jiraat snapped, scowling. “It’s the writing of a Spirit-Walker, and if you intend to read it, you have to read like one.”

Rashmi simply stared in incomprehension for a few moments, words dying on her tongue. “What?” she managed, finally.

Setting his tea down with a sharp thunk, Jiraat pushed the cup aside, and then leaned across the café table. He stabbed at the writing with a finger. “It’s not meant to be read with your eyes, child. Think.

Leaning back and away from her teacher’s hook-nosed scowl, Rashmi tried to make sense of her teacher’s words. Shaking her head, she turned her focus to the helmet that enclosed her head. “I— Utu?” she said quietly. “Can you read this?”

Before Utu could reply, Rashmi saw Jiraat’s eyes narrow, and immediately knew it was the wrong question.

The molten glass of her helmet bubbled into eyes, lit from within by a glimmering, orange glow. The hot glow formed spots like pupils, staring down from atop her head at the book in Rashmi’s hand.

Utu answered, in sounds of hissing and crackling fire that drew alarmed glances from the diners nearby. Rashmi, however, heard the spirit’s words as clearly as she did human speech. It’s paper. Paper burns. What’s on it burns too. What’s special about it?

Jiraat picked up his tea, directing a withering look to Rashmi and Utu. “So, child. Why was that a foolish question to ask?”

“Because spirits don’t understand things the way mortals do,” Rashmi mumbled, ducking her head. “And Utu is a fire spirit, so he may know what reading is, but paper is paper.”

“That is part of it, yes,” Jiraat said over the rim of his cup. “But what, child, did I ask you to do?”

“To… To read like a Spirit-Walker? But how— ah.” Rashmi felt her cheeks flush. “I cannot read it with mortal eyes, and Utu cannot understand it with a spirit’s mind?”

In reply, Jiraat merely raised an eyebrow, and sipped his tea. Still, he didn’t hit her with his stick, or scowl at her, so Rashmi continued.

“We are to read together, Teacher Jiraat? With my eyes, his mind?”

“No,” Jiraat answered, his scowl returning. “No, you foolish girl. Read together. Have you never even tried to share what you see and hear?” His eyes turned to the helmet she wore, jagged and spiky and dully glowing like melted glass frozen in place. “You’re older than the both of us, spirit. You know how to do this. Now you have a reason to show her.” He sat back in his chair, waving a hand in a gesture of dismissal. “Go, visit the markets. We’ll return to your lessons once you’re capable enough to understand them.”

Stung by his words, Rashmi obediently slid out of her chair, bobbing her head. “Yes, Teacher Jiraat,” she said, and scurried out of the inn.

* * * * *

The man calling himself Daniel DuCroix set his fork down, reaching for the cold tea that sat at his elbow. I even have to eat slower at this distance from my body, he thought, forcing himself to sip the tea carefully. Frustration tinged his features as his eyes carefully followed the motions of his hand. The delay in the body responding was subtle, but it was enough to make almost everything difficult. He’d learned to move with an exaggerated, leisurely grace, or feign drunkenness.

But I need to know if Victor’s reports about the spirit-walkers are true. That surgeon spirit-walker’s pacted spirit was still manifest after his death! And wiped out most of my army in Frostmoor within minutes. With that much raw power to call on, it would open so many new possibilities.

His mind raced in excitement at the thought, as it had for weeks. What else could I learn with even one Spirit-Walker joining the cause? Could I pact a spirit of my own? I suppose I’m already half-dead. I wonder if that would make pacting one easier?

The idea was exciting, to be sure, but first he had to find a spirit-walker to test his theories on. He scanned the plaza, looking for the first sign of a manifest spirit, or a spirit-walker’s particular magics.

Every traveler and merchant caravan I spoke to said that Tul Aman would be where to find one, he thought, picking at his spiced meat and rice. All my spies say there’s at least eight in this town on any given week. Half the major trade roads in the Kingdoms go through here sooner or later, and Spirit-Walkers here almost never sit still when they can travel. So why haven’t I found one, when there should be half a dozen wandering around?

* * * * *

“Show me what you see, Utu,” Rashmi said, as she picked her way up to a rise overlooking the plaza square.

As you wish, Utu said, and obligingly appeared around her head. Molten glass erupted from her scalp, and flowed down over her head and jaw. A moment later, molten glass fell across her eyes, bubbled out under its own heat, and then cooled into pale yellow lenses. To anyone else, the heat would have been stifling. But coming from Utu it was a rather pleasant feeling, like a friend’s hands cupping around her face.

Through the lenses Utu offered, the world around her was unrecognizable. An alien landscape of fire and whorling vortexes raged around her in the vague shape of the town. The horizon curved the wrong way, and people moving below her seemed to twist into and out of existence, or slide around in time, often flickering into and out of position.

Fire roiled over and through the marketplace in countless streams and colors, twisting around and over and through a handful of dozen objects everywhere Rashmi’s eyes fell. Flames shaped themselves into homunculus, humanoid figures burning like falling stars. Their bodies were led and were followed by trailing streamers of flame that originated from within a bright, hot core inside each of their bodies, too bright to stare directly at. Every time she tried, the shape inside was something new, rotating and vanishing in and out of her sight in a way that hinted at majestic complexity that her eyes would never find the shape of.

Ordinarily, Rashmi perceived flows of magic as the dancing glitter of light on wind-tossed sand, and she had always found it beautiful. But through this shared perspective, fire painted the world anew with every heartbeat, and she found herself gaping in wonder as fire raced over every surface. Flame unbroken spread from horizon to horizon, every structure and person within it an unquenchable flame, part of a whole, but forever distinct, yet never wholly recognizable until she focused on it.

“Oh, Utu,” she breathed, leaning against the wall of a jeweler’s shop. “Why did you never tell me of this?”

You never asked, Utu said, as distracted as she by what she was feeling. Also you weren’t interesting enough to share secrets with, until—

“Careful,” Rashmi snapped, forcing caution around the hurt that Utu’s insult raised. She dropped her eyes to the paving stones. “Remember when you promised you’d stop trying to make me angry at you? Would you like to be made to try to boil the ocean again?”

There was a pause, and the helmet’s glow dimmed. I’ll be good, Utu said. But now you know.

“I do,” Rashmi agreed, turning her eyes back to the marketplace, and allowing the smile to come back to her lips. “And I thank you for showing me, Utu. I couldn’t have imagined anything this beautiful before.” Stepping away from the wall, she walked toward the plaza, trying to look at everything all at once and heedless of the curious stares and indulgent smiles the market crowds turned on the novice spirit-walker.

This is what beauty feels like to you? Utu asked, as she stepped aside to let a worker pushing a handcart pass by.

The question gave Rashmi pause. “Have none of your other Pacted cared about pretty things, Utu?” she asked.

I come to those who die with vengeance in their heart, Utu replied. They didn’t often dwell on beauty.

As they emerged into the dusty plaza, Rashmi thought about Utu’s answer, knowing he would feel the sadness it awoke within her.

You died with vengeance in your heart too, he said, as their eyes roamed the passing crowds. Why does that make you sad?

“It wasn’t a good way to die, Utu,” she said softly.

What is a good way to die, Rashmi?

“Well, I–” She faltered for words, uncertain of how to answer.

As she thought it over, she felt a tug of Utu around her head. Then her vision veered, as Utu twisted her uncomfortably. She found herself staring towards a café veranda.

“Ow! What are you doing, Utu?!” she said.

That man has two souls.

“What?” she asked, disoriented, as all thoughts of Utu’s prior question fled her mind. “Wait, what did you say?”

To the left of where you’re looking. More. There, the– Utu paused, and there was a strange sort of shuffling feeling in Rashmi’s mind, as Utu searched for the memory that would give him the words he needed. –restaurant? Yes. At the restaurant. Just behind the wall, there, by the palm tree.

With Utu’s guidance, Rashmi stared, trying to make out individual people through the haze of flame. The lenses around her eyes thinned, allowing in more of the mortal world, and she found herself peering at the back of a blonde man toying with his lunch.

With their shared sight, she could pick out two separate sources of the fire within the man. Each point writhed and shifted, twisting and spinning in and out of reality within his body. One seemed stretched somehow, at times seeming to twist at an odd angle far, far down into the earth. The other soul in the man warped and twisted normally, but never left the boundary of the man’s body.

“How can someone have two souls?” she asked. “Utu, is that— is the second soul in his neck?

—Yes, Utu answered, equally puzzled. How does he have a soul in his neck? Can souls do that?

“I don’t know,” Rashmi said, turning back to the market. “But Teacher Jiraat may.”

She stared at the man’s back for a few moments longer, but he seemed harmless, if a bit drunk for the hour of the morning.

“Well, he doesn’t seem to be doing anything,” Rashmi concluded, hiking her book-bag. “Come on, let’s go read?”

If we must, Utu groused, and evaporated from around her head. Despite the absence of the helmet around her head, she could feel him watching the crowd through her eyes, though with little interest.

“It all looks as abstract to you as your sight does to me, doesn’t it?” she asked.

Yes, Utu said. It’s not very exciting. Interesting, but not exciting.

Rashmi paused by a fruit vendor’s stall, and dug into her pockets for the few copper coins she had left, and bought two ripe plums. She threaded her way through the streets, seeking a quiet refuge from the dust and noise of the markets to eat. Every second bite, she offered the memory of the juice bursting across her tongue, up to Utu. Plucking the memory from her mind stung, just slightly, like plucking out a hair. She felt a tiny, ineffable sense of a loss of self that she would never have back. Utu greedily devoured the sensations and memories.

You like plums, Utu said, as she finished spreading her cloak under a papaya tree. Why don’t you eat them all the time?

Rashmi laughed. “Same reason I don’t eat cake all the time, Utu. I’d get bored of it, and that’s a terrible thing to be bored of, isn’t it?”

Utu manifested a little flame atop her right knuckle, just to shudder theatrically. You could never get bored of cake!

“Yes, I could. Special things should stay special, or the memories won’t be as vivid,” she said pointedly.

Utu mulled on that, and then leapt back up to her head as she opened the book Jiraat had given her. Rashmi frowned once more, staring at the odd pages. Letters in nonsensical order, the words often written at odd angles that often overlapped with other text and illustrations. The scribbles and doodles and strange, angular glyphs painted the pages, some in shapes that made her head hurt when she tried to hold the shapes in her mind.

I don’t like reading, Utu declared. It’s boring.

Rashmi quirked her lips in a smile. “You like stories. Reading is how we learn stories.”

Are there stories in THIS book?

“Well, help me look. Like we did in the market? Maybe it will make sense then.”

Grudgingly, the little flame coursed up her braid like a firework fuse, Utu made manifest as her glass helmet, molten glass bursting out of thin air to run down her head.

Words began to shift, and then move on the page, forming in her mind like the story books she’d read as children. The glyphs and doodles, scribbles made wild, began to make sense, filtered through Utu’s mind. The pages weren’t linear, though she couldn’t explain in words how she knew, simply that the book did not merely jump back and forth in time, but braided itself through timeless twistings that fell in and out of reality.

It’s like looking at souls, she thought.

Utu, despite his sulking, aligned his eyes and mind with hers. Caught up in her interest, they began to read, Rashmi’s voice forming the words and sounds only a spirit-walker would understand…

“– through the portal of time lies a veil between, through which souls may pass. The curtain is the gauze between the razor named literal, and the cloud named metaphor. Both exist in a void, each made manifest by the other –“

***

Supper was turnips and goat, boiled over their campfire on the edge of the town. Jiraat sat with his back to the fire, his stick laid up along his shoulder. After the first bite of the concoction in her bowl, Rashmi hastily reached up to her forehead and plucked the memory of it from her mind. The memory, invisible to the mortal eye, sat in her fingers as an ugly, turnip-yellow gem.

Utu manifested himself around her head, the spirit’s eyes glimmering to life within the semi-molten glass. He looked at the memory dubiously. That doesn’t look like a cake memory, he groused.

Rashmi snorted. “If I have to eat it…” She glanced up warily at her teacher’s stick, and lowered her voice to a whisper. “… if I have to eat it, you do too.”

Utu took the proffered memory into his burning maw, and then crackled in disappointment. But you don’t like turnip, Utu whispered back.

Jiraat clearing his throat made Rashmi slink down, and Utu vanish. Jiraat turned his head towards them, his one cataract-milky eye catching the firelight, lending it a sickly purple sheen. Twisting his head that way made the scar across his throat pucker and gape.

“A spirit must know the balance of it’s pactee’s life,” he said to them both. “Better the memory of food than the memories of starvation.”

“Yes, teacher Jiraat,” Rashmi said, and eyed the bowl in front of her.

If you eat it as fast as you can, and it’s very disgusting, you can then give all the memory to me and forgot you ever ate it! Utu volunteered.

Jiraat snorted. “And it would be good for a spirit-walker not to give every memory of the foul to her spirit, either,” he said, glaring at Rashmi. “Lest she be unprepared to remember her own perseverance.”

Rashmi sat up arrow-straight, and nodded. “Yes teacher.”

It nearly made her gag twice, as the sickly sweetness of turnip and the greasy bits of goat slid down her throat. But Utu was more than happy to take the memories she immediately passed him.

While she ate, Jiraat stared into the night, his milky eye casting a deep purple glow that only Utu’s eyes could see. Something moved in the night in front of Jiraat, his spirit made manifest as he communed with it. Try as she might, though, she had never been able to make out the shape of his spirit, not even through Utu’s eyes. It hung in the air, an amorphous blob of the night sky’s darkness. It was all too easy to mistake for a cloud passing in front of starlight, against the backdrop of the night sky.

Utu whined for a while about the lack of dessert for her to pass him memories of, and she flicked the memory of a pebble at him, which bounced off of his glass and fell into his mouth. “I only have so many memories of cake, Utu. I’ve other joys you can taste, you know.”

But it was chocolate cake, Utu whined. Please?

Rashmi groaned, and pushed Utu off of her head. The glass helmet tumbled and flashed into a little ball of flame. Utu came to rest in her hand, where he sat, warming her skin like a cat.

“Funny, how you only find your manners when you’re asking for my favorite memories, hm?” Rashmi said.

That makes them my favorite memories too, Utu pointed out.

Rashmi smiled. “Keep helping me with the reading, then, and I’m sure we’ll find new memories to make. Oh!” she exclaimed, and looked up at Jiraat. “Teacher Jiraat? We saw something strange today, Utu and I, while we were reading.”

Jiraat turned his attention from his spirit, and cocked his head. “Yes, child?”

“There was a man with two souls, in the plaza. He had a regular soul, and then he had an extra soul in his neck, and it looked stretched out. Really stretched out.”

Jiraat’s look sharpened, and he pivoted on his seat to face her directly, both eyes locked on her and Utu. “Say that again, child.”

His command carried an electric crackle, reverberating in his mouth. His voice echoed in a way that wasn’t natural, and compelled her full attention. Even Utu’s flame went straight and still in her hand.

“He… Utu saw it too, teacher. The man had a second soul. In his neck. And it was all stretched out. And a regular soul too.”

“Sometimes a soul’s twistings through our space can make it appear in many places at once, child. You’re certain?”

Rashmi swallowed, and hesitated, but Utu spoke up in a flickering crackle. I saw it. Two souls, in one body. One soul stretches very far. The other twists… slow. Not right.

Jiraat leapt to his feet, startling Rashmi. He strode off into the hot summer night.

Utu flickered an inquisitive sound down at Rashmi, and she shrugged back.

“Well?” barked Jiraat. “Move, child!”

Rashmi scrambled to her feet.

***

The night plaza was loud and busy, with the smell of wine and mead hanging in the air, musicians playing in front of the cafes for tips. Jiraat strode through the crowd, his fierce glare atop his hawkish hooked nose parting crowds around them. Rashmi, as ever, marvelled at the unseen presence of her teacher’s spirit. Though she’d never heard it speak to her or Utu, it moved around Jiraat in a cloud seen by absence, instead of presence.

People in the crowd recoiled as it swirled around his staff, and then circled overhead in the air. Spirit-walkers were no strangers to the town’s crowd, but nobody was going to accost a spirit-walker moving with purpose.

Jiraat pointed along the line of inns that encircled half of the plaza. “Do you see him there?”

Utu obligingly formed around Rashmi’s head, molten glass falling over her eyes, painting the world in its amber hues of fire and flame. The light of pulsing souls shone through the flaming wooden walls of the inns, and after some staring, she shook her head. “I don’t see him.”

I do, Utu said. But he has only one soul now. Look!

Rashmi felt the tug of the spirit, and moved her head obligingly, speaking up to be heard over the night’s crowd. Utu’s vision melded with her own, silhouettes of flame bodies glimpsed through flame walls, until it centered on a reclining man. “I see him, Teacher Jiraat. He’s in that Inn, there. He isn’t moving. Probably sleeping?”

She’d expected the sting of her teacher’s stick across her brow for wasting his time, but Jiraat only passed her his stick. “Point where.”

She sighted down the stick, to the distant, bright light wreathed in flame. “There, Teacher.”

He looked down the stick, and then snatched it from her hand and cut a path through the crowd once again, Rashmi and Utu following in his wake. The inn was one of the better ones, emblazoned with a clay hive and paintings of honey dripping into mead mugs.

Instead of heading in, Jiraat circled around the building and made his way into a quiet, shadowed lane. “Here, child,” he hissed and beckoned her in close. His hand flashed silver, he drew a small line across his fingertip with his short dagger, nicking it.

“Teacher Jiraat?” Rashmi asked, in mild alarm.

“Not every spirit comes so readily,” Jiraat said. “This one and I have history, and he won’t answer my call for free.”

As she watched, blood pooled atop his fingertip, and then began to writhe unnaturally down into his hand.

Utu tilted forward atop Rashmi’s head. Hello, he said.

The small, writhing line of blood formed into a ball, and whispered back. Leave me alone!

“Come now,” Jiraat said. “Utu here isn’t here to punish you. I need a memory, Vital. Two for one.”

The bit of blood in Jiraat’s hand quivered, and hissed back, What could I possibly have left to give, after what your goons did to me?! I’m barely more than a mote anymore!

Jiraat made an aggrieved noise, and plucked a memory from his forehead, the dark, blood-red gem glinting in the night. Rashmi glimpsed the memory of blood, spilling through Jiraat’s fingers, and gasped.

Was that his blood? Or someone else’s? she wondered.

But he stuffed it into the tiny blob of blood in his hand, and it immediately grew to the size of a marble. There was a pregnant pause, and then, a little more contrite, and a little louder, the blood-spirit in his hand spoke again. Alright. But I want that second one before I answer any questions.

“No,” Jiraat said flatly. “I need a memory about souls, in necks. Extra souls. Do you have anything left like that?”

What an odd question, Vital whispered.

We saw a man with two souls today, Utu volunteered. He had a very stretchy, extra soul in his neck.

The blob of blood in Jiraat’s hand bounced once, with a wet ‘plip!’. Yes, I have some memories like that. Just a few.

Jiraat drew out a long breath. “Keep it, I just need to know, this was in Frostmoor fortress? The stone place above the mine you made such mischief in.”

Vital shuddered, and pooled down between Jiraat’s fingers, clinging to the underside of his hand. I said I was sorry!

“And you hardly meant it,” Jiraat snapped. “Was it there or wasn’t it?”

It was! bubbled Vital, creeping back up around Jiraat’s hand cautiously. It was there. Only a few times.

“Good enough for me,” Jiraat muttered. He fished out another memory-gem from his head, broke it in half, and replaced one of the halves back in his own mind. The next blood-red opal glinted with the memory of blood, pooling beneath Jiraat, some time long ago.

Vital swallowed it, and grew again, though only a little. That was weak, groused the blood-spirit.

“You can take it up with my spirit,” Jiraat offered.

Vital made a rude sound, and vanished.

Rashmi looked between Jiraat’s empty hand, and her teacher. “You have a pact with more spirits, teacher Jiraat?”

Her teacher nodded. “Some. Nothing like our first pacts. Just exchange, of memory for service, or memory for memory. Remember this, child. You can trade memories with other spirits, if Utu will allow it. You can certainly trade your own memories. Sometimes, the little loss of self means a greater gain.”

He lifted his hand, and patted her shoulder. “You did well, both of you, bringing this to me.”

Rashmi contained her surprise. Praise from Jiraat was rare. “Ah, thank you, Teacher. What now?”

“Now, child, you go back to your tent, and sleep. I have word to spread with the spirits and their walkers, tonight.”

***

Rashmi woke to the sound of a low, droning buzzing. Stirring in the darkness of her tent, she raised her head toward the flap, digging the sleep out of the corner of one eye.

“Utu,” she murmured, “What is that noise?”

That is the spirit Hive. Jiraat has called other spirits and their walkers, Utu said, flickering into being as a puff of fire no bigger than a candle. Vital has begun telling them his story. They are growing very angry.

“As angry as the spirits were at you, that time you tried to cheat your pacts?” Rashmi said, throwing her blanket off and snatching her traveling robe and belt off of their peg.

Much more, Utu grumbled, moving to rest atop the end of her clothes-peg and dance in place, causing the wood to blacken. You said you forgave me for that, as long as I never did it again.

“But I’ve never seen spirits so furious as I had then,” Rashmi answered, hastily gathering her hair into her lap to brush and braid it, to make herself presentable. “Now I know I’m going to see even angrier spirits.”

Yes, you are, Utu replied, slithering down her arm and up her cheek, resolving into the molten-glass helmet that bore his cackling face. But they’re not mad at us.

That thought was scant comfort as she stepped out of her tent. Jiraat sat at the firepit with three unfamiliar spirit-walkers, their heads bowed and hands clasped together. Each was attended by three spirits she’d never seen or heard of before.

A square-jawed man with ruddy skin and kind gray eyes looked on gravely. A shimmering orange and black honeybee the size of a cat danced along his back and shoulders, producing the buzzing sound that had woken her. The man wore a headdress fashioned of dozens of enormous beeswings, each as long as Rashmi’s forearm.

Next to him sat an old woman, her desert-wizened body engulfed in furs and laden pouches, leaning forward on a staff from which swung a withered, shrunken head made of cracked mud. The head wept water constantly from the dusty pits of its eyes, in a steady, slow drip.

Between her and Jiraat, a portly man not much older than Rashmi sat cross-legged. A pale-gray cat with six legs lay curled in its lap. The cat bore a grin that was distended and stretched until it split its face from its mouth nearly to the tips of its ears.

Resting in a bowl, Vital sat, a ball of blood no larger than a children’s marble, his surface rippling and undulating as he told his story to the gathered spirit-walkers. They were so intent on the story that only the square-jawed man looked up long enough to nod Rashmi’s way, and make room for her in the circle.

Rashmi sat down in silence, and couldn’t help but smile when the large bee crawled onto her back to touch antennae to her helmet, the wing-buzzing reminding her of a purring cat. It was a sound meant to soothe, and Rashmi very lightly lifted her fingers to brush the spirit in gratitude. Mouth-parts rasped amicably against her fingertips in turn, the spirit buzzing a brief, polite greeting.

My pacted’s soul was still there, Vital was saying to those assembled, and his body would move around sometimes, but his blood wasn’t moving.

“He was dead?” asked the old woman. She shifted in place, and a sloshing noise was heard from the weeping head.

That’s what you call what happens when a mortal’s blood stops, right? Then yes. But he would walk around, still.

But you say his soul was still in his body? The catlike spirit asked. Those leave when mortals stop inside.

They’re supposed to, I think! Vital bubbled his assent from the bowl, a gesture that deepened all the frowns around the circle.

“So somehow, his soul was kept from returning to the Divine, and his memories safe from the hungry void?” the square-jawed man mused. “How is that possible?”

“Necromancy,” Jiraat replied. “That much was confirmed at the time, though nobody I have spoken to has ever heard of necromancy that bound the soul. Only the bones and flesh.”

“More to the point,” the portly man interjected. “This second soul you spoke of, Vital. You said it was in his neck, do you remember where exactly?”

Vital was silent for a moment, rippling as he thought it over. No, he said, finally. And it hadn’t given anything to me, so I couldn’t speak to it. Sometimes it would make him do magic, though.

At this, Rashmi frowned, recalling her threat to Utu. She started to open her mouth and hesitated, but Jiraat’s good eye was already sharpening.

“Apprentice,” he drawled, leaning on his stick. “You have an insight to share?”

The sudden regard of four spirit-walkers and three spirits made Rashmi cringe. The question required an answer, however. Clearing her throat, Rashmi spoke up. “The soul was in the neck, sir. Um…” she reached back under her braid, and counted down the bones along the back of her neck. “The second or third bone, I think. It was only there. Nowhere else in the body.”

Rashmi turned her attention Vital’s way. “Vital, you said the bodies with two souls would make magic?”

Yes, Vital said. My pact partner made some magic, when he had two souls inside.

“And when the bodies with two souls made magic, was it always just one soul? Your pact’s soul? Or the other soul in the neck? Or maybe both of them?”

I don’t remember, Vital said.

“I do,” Jiraat said. “One moment.”

He cupped a hand over his cataract-milked eye, and when he removed it, a small ruby, no bigger than a pebble, fell from his fingers and into the bowl. Vital slithered over it, and absorbed it, his tiny body growing just a bit as Rashmi watched.

There was a second of pregnant silence as Vital digested the memory, then gave an indignant burble. This is my memory!

“Yes, one well beaten out of you for what you did to the mortals of that mine, Vital. I have a few of them. That one seemed puzzling enough to keep for myself. Are you going to complain? Shall I take it back again?”

Jiraat loomed in over the little criminal, and Vital shied away in the bowl, sulking.

“Answer her question,” Jiraat snapped.

Vital gathered what dignity he could, the ball of blood shaping itself into an oblate sphere, before bubbling out a reply. Sometimes one soul did the magic. Sometimes the other soul. Never both at the same time. The soul in the neck could make the other soul do magic for it, stealing it!

Rashmi made a sigh of relief. “If the second soul made the first work magic, Teacher Jiraat, then it is almost certainly someone else’s soul, and not some hidden twin. But that second soul doesn’t belong to another spirit-walker.”

The old woman and her gourd both nodded, but Jiraat’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a confident  statement, apprentice. Do you have a reason to think so?”

“If it did, the soul would have been able to hear Vital, and speak with him.”

The six-legged cat stretched in her spirit-walker’s lap, and spoke. Just so. But now he’s come hunting for us and our kind, asking questions about spirit-walkers, and where to find them.

“I believe he seeks to enslave the spirits, as he enslaved the bodies of men,” Jiraat said. “It’s likely he didn’t realize this was a possibility before, or he would have tried back in Frostmoor fortress. But now he knows, and he’s come for us. This is unacceptable. What crimes mortals commit amongst themselves are despicable enough, but it is our place in this world to speak for the spirits.” Jiraat turned his good eye from spirit to spirit, and their accompanying spirit-walkers. “Our first responsibility is to send word, far and wide, to every spirit and walker we can find warning them of this new necromancy and its goals.”

The enormous bumblebee on Rashmi’s shoulder spoke up, the buzzing of wings manifesting as words and concepts to the spirit-walkers gathered around Vital. I am already sending word, Hive said. All of me now knows, and we will spread the word and dance across the Thousand Kingdoms and beyond. Others already join in the message.

Jiraat bowed low in gratitude. The old woman lifted her staff, and the clay head hanging from it spoke for her, in a pitter-patter of weeping water. We will carry word, but first we would strike against this slaver, this thief of sacred pact and power.

“Well said,” the portly man said, as he rose to his feet. “Wrong has been done unto a spirit before us. While Vital’s crimes were due punishment, before his crimes came those of this miscreant necromancer’s. I’d say a little revenge is due.” He turned his head towards Rashmi and Utu, and smiled sharply. “And it is our good fortune that we count a spirit of revenge and fire in our motley circle, hm?”

Rashmi closed her eyes, and shared her thoughts with Utu. A man who enslaves the dead, and seeks to do the same to us, is due some vengeance. Mortal or spirit, I’m with Jiraat. Let’s help.

Utu perked up atop Rashmi’s head. We’ll help, Utu told the group. Tell us what we need to do.

***

The blonde man spooned eggs into his mouth with exaggerated care, pausing between each bite to look around the Plaza. Frustration lightly creased the young man’s brow, and he’d forgotten to lift the hood of his crimson cloak over his head in the morning sun. Already, the tips of his ears were beginning to redden beneath the sun’s rays.

Mid-way through his meal, a severe-looking man with a sharply hooked nose and an old walking stick sat down in the chair opposite him, and stared intently at the blond man’s face.

Daniel put a throb of irritation through the rune under his skin, and set down his spoon. Beneath the table, against his hip, he drew a slim, obsidian dagger half-way from the sheath. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“No, you cannot help me,” the man said, his ruined, milky eye narrowing as he stared directly at the rune. After a moment, he touched fingers to his forehead, as if plucking an invisible grape, and lifted his fingers up and over his head before opening them.

Daniel’s heart sank, as recognition of the gesture dawned. “You’re a spirit-walker.” 

“Daniel DuCroix, I have just passed the memory of your visage to my spirit, who has already passed it on to another. So that nasty little rune you have hiding in your skin to make the eyes of mortals forget your face, is already defeated.”

“All you’ve done is ensure I dispose of this body a little sooner,” Daniel snarled back.

No, Mister DuCroix, I’ve ensured you understand that we are about to have a discussion.”

Daniel drew the blade the rest of the way out of the sheath. “Seems I’ve been having a lot of those, lately.”

Jiraat’s good eye might as well have been carved of mahogany, for all the softness it offered as he leaned forward in turn. “If your soul tries to flee from that body before I give you leave, six spirits wait in the void between here and wherever your true self lies. You might evade them all, of course. Or you might find yourself ripped of every memory, every shred of self you treasure. When your soul travels outside a body, you are vulnerable. Are we understood?”

Daniel fingered the obsidian dagger in his hand, and pressed it flat against his thigh, the only outward sign of his fear. When the Merchant’s Guild had come for ‘discussion’, it had been with business in mind. He stared at the stern, hawk-nosed man across the table from him.

This is a much less predictable animal than the Merchant’s Guild, he thought. I can’t be sure he’s bluffing. If he spotted me without giving himself away before, he might have others. Give me one chance, spirit-walker, and we’ll see what I can’t take from you for threatening me. His hand tightened around the leather of his dagger’s handle.

“What are your terms?” he asked, feigning boredom, as if haggling for his soul was little more than daily market chatter.

Jiraat did not rise to the bait. “Return your knife to your sheath, and place both hands atop the table, palms down. Be silent unless asked a direct question. There are no terms here, there are only orders.”

“No,” snapped Daniel. “We are negotiating. My armies are thousands, spread across all the land. And I can pass memories too, and have. Already my hordes know your face, and they will seek you, they will find you, and they will destroy you, spirit-walker. You might have the power of your spirit, but I have the power of so many whole souls. Not half-cripples, like you.”

Despite his bravado, Daniel held his breath. If I’ve misjudged this moment, if I’ve provoked him too far and this spirit-walker isn’t lying about spirits rending my soul apart when I travel, then I go to a fate worse than death. Now let’s see if we’re negotiating, or not.

“Your mistake,” Jiraat said, as he crooked a finger to the café waiter, and accepted a cup of tea. The boy beat a hasty retreat, and only when he was gone did Jiraat finish his sentence. “Is believing I fear death, in my service to the spirits.”

Your mistake,” Daniel shot back, “Is thinking I’ll stop with just you. Even if you killed me now, tore my soul into ribbons,” he sneered. “The order is given, until I rescind it. Every spirit-walker, everywhere, I will take, I will kill, and I will keep. And I will wring the power out of every last one of their spirits, if I so choose. And if my soul is gone then they will be bound forever in mindless thrall.”

“Then an army of spirits and walkers will rise to oppose you, and shatter your army. And on one more front you will face terrible war, Daniel DuCroix.”

Daniel settled back in his chair, and slid the dagger back into its sheath. Now we’re negotiating, the blonde man thought with a smile. “Only until I take some of yours for my own. The only reason I don’t have that loathsome blood-spirit right now, is that I didn’t know what was possible. Now I do.”

“It will be a grim war, fought to our very last,” growled Jiraat. “And I doubt very much your army will take many of ours before it was won.”

Daniel simply smiled. “But you’d rather not find out, would you? The thought of even a single one of your precious spirits, enslaved to my will, is unbearable for you, isn’t it? And there would be. Always the unwary, always the vulnerable. I would show them tyranny the likes of which you walkers never dreamed. They’re your partners. They’ll be my tools.”

Jiraat’s scowl deepened. “And every day you march a thousand more tools into the ocean. But they’re already dead. Some of those corpses I took the Guiding on myself. I know you don’t have their souls, DuCroix. I wonder how many souls you can actually count amongst your army.”

“And you’ll never know until it’s too late,” replied Daniel with a serene smile. “And information like that carries a heavy price. Two spirits.”

Jiraat swept the teacup from the table as he stood, outraged, and then struck the man across his head with his stick.

Daniel didn’t flinch, and had stopped bothering to allow pain to filter in from puppet bodies some years ago. His smile remained unbroken, as blood began to trickle down his right temple. “No deal? Tsk. You’re not much fun, spirit-walker. How about we spare you any more outbursts like that, and you can tell me your terms, like the good little errand-boy you are for your spirits.”

As he spoke, three people converged towards the table, drawn in by Jiraat’s outburst and attack. Daniel turned his head slowly from face to face, arching eyebrows at each one, willing the body’s eyes to focus long enough to get a clear image. Concussion on this one. Well, it’s no good to me anymore, anyway. They’ve got the face, and I’ve got theirs. But they can’t change theirs so easily, he thought with satisfaction.

Daniel swept his eyes across the assembled spirits as they manifested. Hive, I’ve already heard of you. You’re as famous as Alektos is, at least through the Thousand Kingdoms. The spirit of many, instead of one. That ugly cat and uglier gourd, though, I’ve never heard of. I’ll have to see if there’s anything in the libraries at Teferi’s College about those two.

Jiraat swung his stick down onto the table, and curled his lip. “The terms, you horror, are simple: Touch not the spirits. Your mortal quarrels are for mortals. Bind a spirit without a fair and honorable pact, and we will descend on you, all of us, until nothing is left. We will unmake your very bones, and then our spirits will strip your soul clean.”

“And what of the ones who pact after my armies have slain them?” Daniel countered. “I think I should be in the right to recruit them, at least. Certainly every other army does, when they’ve the good fortune to have a soldier return pacted.”

“Not a one. We do not trust any pact by any in your service. The body you wear now is alive, but holds two souls. So we can trust nothing, not any spirit-walker, living or dead, in your service. And none will come to service willingly. Word spreads,” Jiraat snarled. “And it will fly faster to ears than even your soul may fly.”

Well, it was worth the shot, Daniel thought. “Very well. If the newly pacted should die and rise again in pact, they may depart in peace from the battlefield. But in turn, every spirit pacted to a spirit-walker shall not oppose me. While their mortal partners might be bound to military service by oath, their partnered spirits are not. And if a spirit strikes one of mine down, even the least homely old skeleton, then this little truce of ours is annulled. I will start my harvest. Spread that word, errand-boy.”

Jiraat’s lip curled up until teeth showed underneath, but he stiffly inclined his head. “We accept the bargain. Now begone.

At his word, Rashmi thrust the searing spear of molten glass Utu had conjured, from where she had crept up behind the man, as they’d earlier agreed. The hot molten glass erupted from the front of Daniel’s throat, sending a spray of blood-steam bursting from his lips and nose, splitting vertebrae along the way. Daniel choked on the word of the spell he’d intended to speak, fingers convulsing once, then going still, as the body’s spinal cord cooked at the end of that spear.

Jiraat stood as screaming of onlookers rose from the café and plaza around them, and leaned in close to Daniel. The violet glow of his ruined, milky eye chased Daniel as he gathered his soul, and leapt.

In the darkness between one body and the next, something brushed against Daniel. It felt like a trailing, icy finger, sliding down his spine and then into his soul. The memory of his mother’s neck, flopping in the noose as they’d lowered her down from the Church gibbet, came unbidden.

The next body Daniel had prepared lurched up from its bed, and fell to its knees, where he began to retch and vomit.

They can take me, anytime, Daniel thought, shuddering in fury and horror. Any time I leap from body to body. They could trap me.

Damn them.

***

Jiraat and the other spirit-walkers rose from the table in the plaza, their upheld hands and attendant spirits manifesting around them all. Daniel’s limp body hung from the end of Rashmi’s spear, her sure grip on the haft keeping the body, and its split neck, from falling to the dirt.

Frightened eyes grew calm as Jiraat spoke. “Summon the guard, this man sought to do crime against the spirits that guard the Thousand Kingdoms. We are the Walkers of this place, today. We do the justice of the spirits, and the will of man. This man is dead for his crimes, five spirit-walkers say so!”

Rashmi sent a thought up to Utu as tears began to well in her eyes. Cover my face, please, Utu?

The molten glass of her helmet flowed over her face, hiding her tears from the crowd. She held her helmeted head high, letting Utu blaze around her face, fire crackling around her head as the spear he’d conjured for her dissolved.

Gently, she caught the body of the man Daniel Ducroix had bound, murdered, and brought to life again, and laid him on the ground. Next she drew a shroud from her pack, to cover his face respectfully.

The plaza guards ran up, but the two men with short swords and shields took one long look at five stern-faced spirit-walkers, and wisely chose to believe justice had been done.

“I guide this soul to his just return to the Divine,” Jiraat spoke, for the crowd’s sake. None but the five assembled could know that the anger in his voice was for the soul that had fled.

As Jiraat began to dance, Rashmi sobbed in silence, in her mask. Show me through your eyes, Utu. Let me see it, please, she pleaded.

Like a man paddling at the surface of piranha-infested waters, Jiraat’s dance began to splash the sea of fire that she saw through Utu’s eyes. Each motion sent a sparking, flying trail of energy twisting off into the space behind space, into the backwards veil beyond her world.

Instantly, dark little motes responded, voracious and insatiable, following the trails left by his movements back to the corpse, and the lone soul still within. The soul, too, drifted up from the body, eager to follow the path Jiraat’s angular, swinging limbs laid out.

Rashmi had, as a child, often fed the day’s old bread-rolls to minnows and pond fish. This was like that, now; a feeding frenzy in miniature, reality and the spirit realm roiling as the tiny, black shapes of proto-spirits, too starved to yet have formed a pact, descended on unguarded memories.

To the eyes of the mortals around them, the little mote of the man’s soul came to rest atop Jiraat’s fingertips. What they could not see was how the roiling, teeming mass flocked and swirled around them, biting and tearing at the memories of the man’s life. The five spirits in attendance partook, as well; each reaching in through long, barbed filaments of themselves, ripping away chunks of his life, scavenging the memories of an innocent man.

When the soul had been stripped down and freed of the weight of its very last memory, it flew from Jiraat’s fingers, and twisted, leaving the mortal realm behind. As it went, for just a moment, Rashmi glimpsed a wonderful, perfect light in the hole it slipped through.

There lies the Divine, Utu said in reverence. The soul returns to the source, to be born anew.

Rashmi knelt over the dead man’s body, and touched her forehead once there. Then she straightened, and walked off. The memory of the man’s last breath shivering through the haft of her spear made her shudder.

She found a quiet alleyway to crouch in the dirt, and strip Utu off of her head. There, in the privacy bricks and dirt offered her, she could begin to cry in earnest.

Utu dissolved into flame, and laid himself comfortingly across her spine. Your face is making water, like you do when you are sad. Are you sad, Rashmi? Why? We made good vengeance.

Rashmi’s sob hitched into a brief, humourless laugh, and then fell back once more into crying.

“I’m not sad, Utu. Not really. That man’s soul was trapped in his own body. He would have been a puppet for every second his body still breathed. And you helped me set him free of that. Thank you.”

You’re welcome, Utu crackled back, puzzled. But if you’re not sad, why are you crying?

“Utu, do you remember when you asked what a good way to die was?”

Yes, Utu said, sliding up her back, to nestle warm against her cheek.

She scrubbed at her eyes with her arm, the morning sun sparkling off tears and skin, and then leaned her cheek in against his gentle warmth.

“I think that was it.”


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