For the preface, click here.
One evening in the month of Tengas, by the Ealthen Calendar, when the nights remain hot even under the moons, I found myself on the road from my home in Ilessa to the castle-town of Vaina at the southwestern end of the Nysas Hills. Some acquaintances I’d made in the Old City had asked me to visit their brother Aryden, lord of their house, at their familial holding. Brother and sister—after several glasses of wine—whispered to me that their home had become haunted, that their brother’s wife in particular suffered greatly at the hands of some undiscovered spirit.
Knowing my profession—if it can truly be called that—they’d asked if I might see what I could do to remedy the situation. I proved reluctant until they assured me that my efforts would be well rewarded; I had heard that the amn Vaina family enjoys great wealth. Were it not for my habit, I could live simply and not hurdle headlong into the sort of otherworldly dangers to which my erstwhile friends had directed me. What habit is that, you ask? Books, of course. Even those from the printers are expensive enough, but the ones that hold the greatest interest for me cannot be found in print; they must be discovered and transcribed by hand.
And so, I held a minor incantation alive in my mind, softly illuminating the well-trod dirt path with preternatural light, nudging my borrowed horse along carefully, lest an injurious misstep cost me more than the value of the job before I’d even arrived. Windborne, my mount had been named. Once, perhaps, she had been fast enough to earn such a name. Now, though, only her ambling gait recommended her to me.
In the nearing distance, the firelights of the small castle-town of Vaina shone like a beacon, the fortress itself glowing on the hill above the nighttime fires of the town below. Food, though now only as hot as the air around me, waited for me there, and wine for the frustrations of the road.On these things I thought as Windborne plodded along only slightly faster than I could’ve walked, and I returned my eyes to the ground to watch her hooves.
In my reverie I’d not noticed the two men stepping onto the path before me until one of them cleared his throat, startling Windborne ever so slightly, I imagined that, dulled with age as her senses were, there was little she perceived clearly enough to find truly terrifying.
Men who greet a traveler in such a way have only one thing in mind, and I should’ve known to pay better attention on the road.
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to travel the road alone?” asked the first man?
“Especially at night,” the second added.
Desperation marked every aspect of the mens’ appearance, from the travel-stained and road-worn clothes to the small patches of rust marring their drawn steel, poorly-crafted falchions better suited to chopping wood. But I’d seen men killed by far less, and the two carried themselves with confidence enough that I believe that they’d put their blades to nefarious use before.
A scraggly beard partially covered the pock-marked face of the first man, middle-aged and possessed of the sort of sinewy muscles that speak to service as a soldier or farmer, hard work with meager returns. Hard living had likewise ruddied the flower of the youth of the first man’s teenaged companion; dark circles around the boy’s eyes and cracks at the corner of his mouth told the all-too-common-tale of hornroot use.
“Highway robbery’s a pretty dangerous pursuit as well, I hear,” I told them, casually, hoping nonchalance covered over the disquiet in my mind. “You never know who you’re going to chance across. A wandering knight of legend, some noble’s assassin, bounty hunters, a thaumaturge.”
With the last words, recognition dawned upon the faces of the two bandits as they realized that they could not identify a natural source of the light that currently illuminated us. “Fucking witch,” the first one said.
“I think they call the menfolk ‘warlocks,’” the younger man corrected, earning a sidelong glance from his elder.
“Not in the Sisters,” I said.
“We ain’t in the Sisters, is we? We’re in the heartlands here, where the true and honest folk live. Those who fear the One as they should. Those who wouldn’t dream of doing the Evil One’s bidding with sorceries and mutterings and the like.” This from the older fellow.
“Two birds, one stone, innit?” The companion added. “Do a service for the One by killing us a warlock, and I bet he’s got some good shit to sell, too. And a horse.”
“Two birds with one stone? A trivial matter. Perhaps you’d like to see how two stones are killed with one bird?”
Almost simultaneously, they cocked their heads at me, like puppies trying to sort out something new. Given that precious-short pause, I split my mind between the effort of maintaining the thaumaturgic ball of light and weighing my options. With a quick sorcery, I could turn the illumination into a brief flare, blinding, or at least distracting, the men and galloping past them in their confusion. But the ensuing dark would leave me barreling blindly into the darkness at as least as much risk as standing still. I could draw the sword that hung languidly at my side: a thin, quick blade in the Altaenin style equally suited to cut and thrust, equally at home in the duel or on the battlefield. I have some skill in its use, to be sure, but two against one are never fair odds regardless of skill. Even if I managed to fell one of them quickly, his friend would likely injure me as I did so. Once cut, I’d have little chance of straight-on success with the survivor. I needed something better than violence.
So I released the incantation of light, letting its structure fall to nothingness in my mind, the ghostly illumination returning to darkness as I did. For a brief moment, we squinted at each other, waiting for our eyes to adjust; clouds had obscured the moons above and little light reached the darkened Avar through them. In that time, the darkness proved a friend.
I squeezed my legs delicately to urge Windborne to step slowly backward, creating some distance against my would-be robbers in case my ruse failed. And then I began to chant loudly, my voice booming with feigned wrath as I shaped nonsense words bereft of the Power or any chance to effect change in the world outside of me. It was an idle threat, to be sure, but with the fatigue of the road upon me, not to mention my inability to see the foes in front of me, I dared not call upon some working lest it fail miserably and make a difficult situation worse. Even if successful, my inability to control the Flux bleeding off of the working might accomplish something I hadn’t imagined—and wouldn’t welcome.
I settled on the blind bluff, chanting louder and quickening my rhythm, allowing my own nervousness to interject a reckless passion into the manufactured syllables. A lack of confidence in my trick drove my hand to the hilt of the blade; useless as it might actually have been, it at least provided a false sense of comfort. When my eyes had finally adjusted to the dark of the night, I could not make out the robbers on the road. The movement of two dark shapes, pushing through the tall grass on the left side of the road, caught my attention. Smiling to myself, I ceased my babbling, remaining still to listen as the men’s grunts and their rustling in the underbrush faded into imperception.
Thinking it best not to reignite my thaumaturgic lamp, I dismounted, leading Windborne the rest of the way by her bridle, testing each step along the way with my own feet, adjusting for the rises and falls of the trail, circumnavigating the rocks embedded in the path. This made for slow going, but Windborne didn’t seem to mind. I could feel the pulses of air from her nostrils on my hand, beating out our marching time like some invisible drum. The sensation might have annoyed me under other circumstances, but the draining of adrenaline from me left me giddy, the night smelling sweeter than before and my feet feeling light along the path. Midnight must have come and gone by the time I reached the outermost buildings of Vaina, the limits of the newer portion of the town that had sprung up on the wrong side of the fortress’s wall. Judging by the age of some of the buildings, this “newer” part of the town might itself be several centuries old.