The winds were restless. Sweeping over the lush meadows and fields around the great, black tower, it made the grass and wheat sway in wide waves, as though the dark, stony walls were rising out of a green and golden ocean towards a sky heavy and overcast with rain-swollen clouds.
In the lamp-lit room, styled in blue drapes and paintings of snow-covered mountains, one man was standing before the tallest window, looking over the lands below, while another stood further behind, insisting upon him.
While Kenji did not have the view in front of him, he felt the landscape with the brushing of the winds as though he was running his fingers through the meadows himself. His eyes, however, were transfixed on Atlas's back: a tall, wiry frame, filling an indigo robe, and hair as golden as the sun falling down his shoulders, ending between his shoulder blades. “I get it, he is your best friend, but you're short-sighted if you think he is above reproach.”
“He's not just my friend but also my mentor,” Atlas replied, leaning heavily on his hands, grasping the sill. “The man knows magic in ways you and I will not likely know for decades to come, if ever. He already taught at Gladering when my predecessor was quelling the Sapphire Rebellion. And it is hardly his character you are putting into question… or is it, Ken?”
“You know I respect the man, but unlike you I don't think he's some sort of untouchable arch-magus. I thought him lying there squirming and screaming on his bed for days would have sobered you to that fact, but you just act as though nothing has happened.”
“Something has happened. Now it is over. It is as simple as that,” Atlas replied coolly.
“Oh, and what was that? Have you ever asked Sameth how he came by this unusual sickness? Asked him, if it has changed him more than physically perhaps?” Kenji had stepped closer.
“He would have told me…” Atlas replied quietly. “He would have told me if it was of any consequence.” He still didn't turn around to face Kenji.
“Well, I asked him.” He was now just behind Atlas so he could speak very softly. “Just a tussle with an Animancer. That is all I got out of him, despite my insistence. Oh, he's as eloquent as ever, just as clever too, but no matter the question, he just danced around it. He is hiding something big, Atlas, and you need to wake up and pay real close attention before you regret it. I've already talked to Kathy, and she agrees that something has been going on with him.”
“Conspiring with the rest of the Keepers against one then?” Atlas inquired angrily. “I hope you haven't dragged Din into this yet. And you'd best think twice before filling her head with paranoia. The girl has quite enough on her plate.”
Kenji put his hand on Atlas's shoulder. “We need to find a gate expert. The sooner the better. If you won't help or can't think of one, I'll seek one out on my own. We need to find out what has happened to Sameth and what it means; need to know if he is a danger to anyone, including himself.”
“A gate expert?”
“You've seen the man. His eyes have turned yellow like sulfur. It's gate damage of some sort. Something is going wrong with his magic, but it's not anything I've ever seen before. Not the cobalt blue of blighters and not… What did you call the green eyes of Balsibart?”
“Spielman's blight,” Atlas replied quietly. “Some animancers have been connected to it… Especially Balsibart and Absethoshekla. Still, this is Sam we are talking about. He may be all kind smiles and sage advice around here, but believe me: no one in the world would want to cross him. He could pulverize cities in the blink of an eye, if he so pleased. Yet, he seems to act quite normal to me, and he has assured me that his eyes are at most a scar from his encounter, one that might even fade in time.”
The man was resolute. Resolutely pig-headed when it came to Sameth Gildorn. Sod ‘quite normal'. Ever since the sickness, Sameth had given Kenji the creeps whenever they talked, and his dreams were haunted by yellow eyes. Yellow like the Vinclav.
“Pulverize cities indeed…” Kenji said, still just behind Atlas. And then he continued: “Since you know him so well, admire him so much, tell me this: What sage advice do you think he would give you if he was here right now?”
“Why don't we get him here so he can tell us himself!” Atlas suggested irritably.
“No!” Kenji exclaimed loudly, his eyes wide. “Just…” his voice was pressed now, “just pretend he was here and impartial to the situation. What would he say, Atlas?”
Atlas was quiet for a moment; then he raised one hand to his eyes, whether to rub them or for other purposes, Kenji could not say, though his reply sounded a bit hoarse. “I grow tired of this discussion, Kenji.”
Kenji opened his mouth to reply, but Atlas had not finished:
“However, you too are my friend, and I do not wish to make you feel like your confidence is wasted on me. Do you have a specific person in mind when you say ‘gate expert'?”
Kenji stepped away a bit, breathing easier. “Not yet, but I can send Arashi or Maya to Aerialis, have them inquire at the Magistorium.”
Atlas's head inclined slightly in a thoughtful nod. “I'll send word to Magnus. He knows all mages of note in Aquaris; taught more than half of them I'd wager. The water mages are big on gate lore anyways, I'm sure he'll know someone.”
“Thank you…” Kenji gave Atlas's arm a brotherly squeeze. “You don't know how much this means to me… What of Sameth? When the expert arrives–”
“He will let him take a good long look, because he is a sensible and reasonable man, who will be understanding of our worries.” And the way Atlas said this made it all too clear that, in his mind, he was stating a fact that tolerated no further deliberation.
Behind them, the door opened, and Kenji froze. Was it him? He dared not turn around…
A woman's mischievous voice rang over: “Alright, Atlas, when you're done seducing my man, how about you release him and yourself to dinner? Everyone's waiting for you two.”
Kenji relaxed and turned around. “Very funny, Poppy,” he replied drily. “Come, Atlas, before the girls drive the old man up the walls.” He stepped towards the chestnut-haired woman and put an arm around her noticeably broad shoulder. “Look at you,” he grinned, “making ‘your man' dinner, eh?”
“You know well enough that they'd toss me right out on my ass if I stepped into the Tower's kitchen.” She jabbed him in the side playfully, her light brown eyes beaming with a sly smile.
“I'd love to see them try.”
“Go on ahead,” Atlas interjected from the window. “I'll be right with you.”
The Tower of Five had two dining halls: a large, festive one on the fifth floor with a breathtaking view of the surrounding meadows, farms, and villages, and a smaller one on the first floor.
Seeing how the former involved a lot of stair climbing and was generally more of a formal place, utilized for banquettes and hosting high-tier guests from the Five Cities and beyond, the Keepers and Guardians – plus the odd relative or close friend – generally dined in the latter.
With five Keepers, one per element, and ten Guardians, two per Keeper, the table was still impressively long, though it was rarely full. Seeing how the Guardians were often entrusted to represent their Keeper in matters of state, many were regularly off visiting the Five Cities and sometimes even places beyond the Middle Lands. As a matter of fact, the Guardians of Fire only rarely dined in these halls in recent years, seeing how Din, the Keeper of Fire, was still rather young at eighteen and often entrusted matters of state to them. This meant Işkar Zâhir and Mella of Byrenholm, her Left and Right Guardians, were in Lumina Aka for long stretches of time, dealing with the Duchy of Tarkaal and Byren, where the capital city lay.
Today, only six were seated at the table. Sameth Gildorn, Lord of Earth, was situated at the head of the table, Din and Kathy on the left, and Poppy and Kenji were about to sit down on the opposite side. The sixth person was a surly looking Skôt with long, black hair, hard, grey eyes, and many lines adding character to his angular face: Emerich Gram Vul Dun was one of Kathy's Guardians; a master magus of the lightning element.
As Kenji and Poppy took their places, Sameth gave them a curtly nod and raised his goblet: “Glad you could join us.” He was the oldest of the Five Keepers. With twelve decades on his back, gray streaks highlighted his dark, umber hair, which fell down his shoulders slightly wiry, looking a bit unkempt, even though his full beard, also streaked with gray, was neatly trimmed and looked well-groomed. His once dark eyes now shone with a sickly yellow, which looked as though someone had injected yellow ink into his irises where it had spread in an uneven, cloudy fashion. His plate was curiously empty.
“Not hungry, Master Sameth?” Kenji inquired with a raised brow as he reached for a slice of bread and proceeded to annex some butter and ham for his own purposes.
He smiled. “I am still trying to work up an appetite. It has been a rough recovery for me.”
“Well, you look much better already,” Poppy encouraged him, radiant as ever.
“You are too kind.”
“He's probably just dieting,” Din suggested with a grin, “dropping any extra weight so he'll be quicker on his feet when he goes back for that animancer.”
Kathy nudged her in the side. “Don't give Sam ideas. The man is just skin and bones if you ask me. He could stand to put on a couple of pounds. Maybe then he won't be knocked off his feet so easily next time.”
Sameth chuckled. “Whichever course is the best, it seems clear that my eating habits are the sole reason I was bested. Perhaps I should take one of the cooks with me next time for support.”
“Or perhaps more than that,” Kenji suggested casually. “So, do tell us: Who was he? Or she? The animancer that defeated the oldest Keeper of the Five. It's a tale I'd love to hear in its entirety.”
Sameth observed the Lord of Wind thoughtfully for a moment, the keen wit gleaming in his altered eyes. “Yes, it is a longer one I dare say. Too long, and unpleasant in parts I would think, to be told over dinner. But when the council convenes tomorrow, I think I shall shed some light on the matter. In truth, however, there will be no need to mount a large expedition to the Corsic Ocean. Cursing me was the final act of the creature I faced. It lies far below the briny depths now.”
“Ooh!” exclaimed Din in awe. “Did it have a body made entirely of tentacles contorted into a human form and the face of a beautiful lady?”
“No it… what?” replied Sameth taken aback.
Kathy shot Kenji a look that showed something between amusement and reproach: “What kind of stories have you been telling her this time?”
“Ah, well…” he replied guiltily, scratching the back of his head.
Poppy shook hers with an expression quite like Kathy's. “Oh Kenji, you and your silly monster fables. You do know Din's been seen prowling the lakeside woods for fiendish creatures?”
“Seen by whom?!” Din interjected aghast.
“Aunty Poppy has her sources,” she replied with narrowed eyes. “Listen, darling. Monsters aren't real. You'd spend your time better looking for birds or deer, at least then you'd have a chance of finding what you are looking for.”
Kenji snorted to the ‘monsters aren't real' statement. Sometimes he forgot how innocent the Middlish people were. Out loud, however, he said: “Poppy is right, you aren't going to find mucklings and drowned ladies in Middlish ponds.” A statement he flavored with a small wink, to which Kathy just shook her head smiling.
Poppy, luckily, could not see it from her vantage point.
A voice came from behind them: “Perhaps it is time for Din to learn what magic is and what it is not.” Atlas had arrived. He sat down next to Kenji. “Excuse my tardiness.”
“You're going to teach me real magic?!” Din exclaimed excitedly.
“You should consider attending one of the magus academies,” Kenji suggested. “I've actually had a word with your teachers recently, and they assure me you are far ahead of academics in your age range. Any of the five schools of the Middle Lands would probably gladly take you in.”
She furled her brow. “But then I'd leave here, wouldn't I?”
“For a while,” Kenji admitted.
Atlas fanned the steam above a nearby soup pot towards himself to sniff it and decided it was good, helping himself to a bowl. “I don't think it's a bad idea. You'd have a chance of experiencing city life for a bit and make some friends around your age.”
“You guys are my friends!” Din protested.
“No one suggested we cut ties forever. You can always make more friends,” Kenji smirked. To his mind, this was a brilliant idea. Having Din out of the picture while he, Atlas, and probably Kathy sorted out whatever had happened with Sameth would definitely make him feel much easier about the whole affair.
“The question would be which one of course,” Atlas added. “You likely won't have much need for learning elemental magic, even though that is what they mostly teach. But theory of magic, its fundamentals; this sort of knowledge could benefit you greatly in the future.”
“Well,” Kenji added, noticing Din's displeasure at the prospect of a purely theoretical study of magic, “there is a lot more to the subject than all that. You could pursue more esoteric studies at the Bonfire Shrine – get in tune with your soul. Or you could go to the Rickard Leeuw Magistorium. I know a couple of magisters there personally, and they actually study certain applications of clockwork magic and magic engines. They try to stay cutting edge.”
“In Aquaris you could learn more about soul theory. The high technocrats may think they are the forerunners in clockwork theology, but the masters at the Spire of Rahn have the benefit of a much more magically inclined perspective on the matter,” Atlas suggested, clearly pleased with Kenji's enthusiasm for the topic.
“Of course,” Sameth added, “Master Austin has noted that Din has been having difficulty with her magic studies here. Perhaps some more intensive tutoring on the fundamentals would be in order before registering her for a term at one of the academies.”
Was this just an innocent, tempered opinion of the seasoned Keeper, or did he have ulterior motives? Did Sameth desire to keep Din nearby for some nefarious purpose? Or was Kenji too high-strung, reading the worst into every word the man uttered? His gut said that this was a play…
“Might I suggest,” the Lord of Earth continued, “Atlas give you some private lessons on magic? You two have a good rapport, I am sure he could get through to you better than Master Austin; not that I am doubting the man's abilities in any way.”
Atlas inclined his head left, then right, as if he was trying to make the idea tumble around in his noggin a bit. “Oh, I don't know. I've never been a great magus, to be honest. I rely greatly on Aalandra and the power it grants me. However…” he turned his gaze to his side, looking at Kenji. “Why don't you teach her a thing or two, Kenji? You've always been far more versed on the various kinds of magic. Didn't Magister Kracht even ask you to teach a course or two in the past?”
“I vaguely recall turning the old man down on something…” Kenji replied evasively, considering the idea. The fact that Atlas had not suggested Sameth over him certainly helped ease his apprehension a little. It meant his fears really hadn't fallen on deaf ears. He also did not want to give Sameth an opportunity to jump in and take the spot after all, so he straightened up and looked Din in the eye: “Alright, how about it? You want me to teach you a thing or two about magic? Prep you for a stab at academia?”
She nodded, her eyes gleaming. “Yes! When can we start?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Let's say tomorrow after lunch. I still have a couple of things to attend to here, so I'll probably stay at the Tower until the day after tomorrow. Maybe you can come over and stay with me and Poppy in the village for a couple of days after that and we'll take some proper time for studying.”
Din kept nodding, her enthusiasm almost radiating from her like heat. Then again, seeing how she was the Keeper of Fire, it actually might have been; but unlike Kathy, Kenji wasn't sitting next to her, so he couldn't tell.
“Well,” Poppy added with a slap on Kenji's back, “better than filling her head with fairy tales about gross monsters.”
Sameth let out a dignified chortle: “Agreed.”
“Kathy, hold up!” Kenji hastened after the swaying drape of purple hair, moving through the corridor.
She turned her head and waited for him to catch up before walking on with him by her side. “Got something on your mind, Ken?” As always, her voice was pleasantly melodic yet rife with a volatile energy. Those who knew her well, knew she could have a fiery temperament.
Kenji looked back over his shoulder. “Heading for your study?”
“Just for a moment, I want to pick up something to read before heading to bed.”
It was clear she wasn't in the mood for a lengthy chat. No matter. “Then we can speak there for a moment?”
She sighed. “Is this about that secret little project of Atlas and yours?”
Kenji looked at her nonplussed. “What?”
“You two have been having some intense chats the way I hear it. Sameth is worried you have some sort of issue you don't want to come forward with, but I'm guessing you are just up to some mischief. Planning a party for someone perhaps?”
“I…” Kenji stuttered in surprise. <Damn it!> he thought to himself bitterly. <Damned old fox smells the smoke before I've even laid the fire!> This meant his window of opportunity was even smaller than he had feared.
Kathy stopped, looking at him with some worry. Apparently the anguish he had felt had shown on his face. “Not a party then…” she said slowly, her brow furled. “Alright, let's head to my study.”
They moved on along smooth stone corridors lit by gently glowing magus lamps, the odd window letting in faint starlight. After a while, they arrived at a massive wooden door, which Kathy opened and then locked once they were inside. “So, what's got you all in a twister?”
“Really?” he asked with a groan. The woman was in her eighties and more of a child than he had ever been.
“Well, you sure look like you could use a bit of a giggle,” she replied with a shrug. “I mean you can be a bit clamped up at times, but lately you look like you are determined to crush walnuts between your butt cheeks. You barely eat when Poppy isn't around, and I have the oddest impression that you are trying to avoid Sameth for some reason.”
“Of course I am avoiding him!” And the exclamation escaped him in an anguished whimper, as though a ball of misery that had been festering inside his chest had moved up his throat. Kathy too had been more observant than he had expected. It seemed that he was underestimating everyone today, which didn't exactly help his crumbling sense of safety. Now his eyes were wide and his breathing shallow.
“Oh boy,” she replied bemusedly. “I think Atlas would have been a better person to turn to for a breakdown. The man has a tea-cabinet. Here, let me try something.” She stepped closer and hugged him.
Kenji let it happen, and he felt a suspicious burning sensation in his eyes as his finger twitched but remained at his sides, his arms dangling limply as he felt the warmth of her embrace. His breathing relaxed a little. “It's alright now,” he said in a subdued tone.
Kathy gave him another brief squeeze; then let go. “There, see? Just had to conduct some energy.”
“Don't think I didn't hear that play on words!” he replied warningly. “I'm in no… listen, let us just be serious for a moment, please.”
She sighed. “You're a real spoilsport, you know that? Let me act the part while I still look like a young woman. Every day I dread waking up and finding a gray hair on my head.”
“Oh please, you have a decade or two at least before you need to worry about that nonsense,” he waved her off, irritated.
She unconsciously brushed her hair behind her ear, and as she gently touched the magus lamp on her desk to recharge it and let more light into the room, her dark eyes gleamed with its reflection for a moment. “I'm not sure how much of your city you are letting run itself, but as far as I am concerned, I have a pretty high-stress job, Ken. Fulgrath has become so prosperous that the Magistrate has grown paranoid over the years. Every year the Mercartors and the senate are pushing for new and more advanced fortifications and weapons to be installed around the city perimeter. And those hypocrites from the Academy Board are protesting while the Grand Academy does the arms research for the whole affair. Gears know I want to punch them all in the mouth to shut up the yapping… Do you know what I wanted to be when I grow up?”
“A Ferry?” Kenji suggested, knowing many of the stories of Kathy's wild childhood rather well.
She didn't even let him finish the word, cutting in with: “A Ferry! All I wanted was to guide ships across the Corsic Ocean, tame storms, and sucker punch pirates, just like my uncle. You know what I am now? A politician.” She spat the word out. “I got a magic sword with enough power to liquefy the entire Middle Lands at my hip, and I get to use it as a prop while I sit in boring, boring, boring, council meetings.”
“Uh… Kathy…” Kenji said uncomfortably.
“What?!” she replied her temper on the rise. Then her face fell. “Oh, right, this was about you, wasn't it? Sorry. Guess I have some pent-up troubles of my own.” She looked genuinely remorseful.
Kenji sighed. “Look, you can tell me all about it later, promise. Now listen. I know this may sound strange, but I've been having nightmares lately.”
“The silly kind?” she asked with a raised brow.
“No, the prophetic kind!” he replied frustratedly.
“Are those a thing?” she mused, her eyes going out of focus for a moment as she tried to recall something. “Oh yeah, an old friend of mine had those. We thought she was reliving a painful part of her past in her dreams, but she was actually seeing the future. She had hair like you. Maybe that's where the prophecy juice is at.”
Kenji stared at her, his mouth agape.
“Sorry. Again. Tell me what you've been dreaming about.”
“Ohh!” she said excitedly, “just like Beth's stories!”
“Who in Helgard is Beth?! What stories?!”
“Just a member of the Tower staff. She likes to write stories about us. Says we're inspiring.”
Kenji closed his eyes. His breath was trembling as he tried to slowly calm it down. “I have been seeing Sameth in my dreams, destroying the Tower of Five and splitting the earth beneath it all the way to the horizon. Again and again. There is a bent and shabby person lying beside his feet, tied to his ankle with iron chains, and when he turns to look at me, his face is mad with laughter, his eyes glowing in that accursed yellow, and the glimmer within spreads through the cracks in the ground, enveloping the Middle Lands. I awaken every time I see that face, the fear of the Vinclav still in me.”
“Vinclav, eh?” she mused.
He had only said it as an expression, but he was all too eager to press the point now that she had latched onto it. “Y-yes, exactly! Don't you think it is strange how his eyes have changed? No ordinary sickness would do such a thing.”
“Well, Sameth never claimed it was an ordinary sickness. He said it was an animantic curse brought upon him as he defeated the animancer he had been tracking down south.”
“I know a thing or two about curses! Unlike here, they are quite common back in the Old Country. Either you break them or lift them, or you don't. If they leave marks behind, that is because the curse bearer is holding on to a part of the curse. But Sameth won't speak about it! He changed the subject every time I as little as grazed it, and do you know anything about that animancer he supposedly defeated? Because I certainly don't.”
She considered him for a moment. “So, this is what you have been arguing with Atlas over?”
“And the man's a loyalist! Sameth is his best friend, and I am pretty sure he doesn't believe a word I am saying. At least he has agreed to help me find a gate expert to take a proper look at Sameth and find out what his affliction has been all about… But I think he is only trying to mollify me.” There was real frustration in his voice.
“I think you underestimate him.”
“That does seem to be the theme today,” Kenji replied bitterly. “So, what do you think?”
She was quiet for a while. Then she said: “Did you know I fought the dread animancer Vordestra when I was a little girl?”
He furled his brows. “You never mentioned his name before. Isn't he…”
“One of the big names in the Corsic Ocean? Yes. This was before the other Keepers managed to get a hold of me. I was just a little girl without a magic trident back then. During that time I learned how terrible animancy can be. I had to face monsters of the depths, dead people returned to a mockery of life, and magic that attacked not the body but the soul.”
Kenji didn't reply but observed her carefully. There was no goofiness anymore, no weak joke in the works, nor was there the flashing and short-lived anger that sometimes gripped her. She appeared unusually cool and composed now.
“I've never been to Vechnaya Bramma, but I have heard stories of your homeland, Kenji. Some from you. I think you understand when I say that the magic of the Middle Lands is rather… clean. Sophisticated beyond anything anywhere else in the world, but made from polished building blocks of a rather simplistic nature. Water, fire, lightning, earth, wind; elemental magic is the kind that is taught easiest, and the kind most suited for innovation and industry.”
“So you know what I fear!” he exclaimed.
“I would say,” she replied carefully, “that I have my own ideas about the situation, and that some align with yours.”
“That's unusually… convoluted for you.”
“Don't call me simple, Kenji, or you will regret it,” she replied in a calm, threatening tone.
“Perish the thought…”
She strode back and forth in thought. “When you begin training Din, teach her about this. Make her understand animancy. She'll need to be ready; better sooner than later. I will make the arrangements and pack my things tomorrow.”
“Pack your things?”
“If Sameth does not wish to tell us about the animancer he fought, I will have to conduct my own investigation. Makani will represent me here, and Emerich will tend to my responsibilities in Fulgrath during my absence.” She nodded to herself as though saying it out lout constituted going through a checklist.
Kenji swallowed. “And you want me to stay here quietly and teach the girl about animancy?”
Kathy turned around, irritation flashing across her face. “Oh don't be a baby, Ken! Keeping an eye on Din and Sameth is hardly sitting on the sidelines. I grew up on the Corsic Ocean, of course I am going to head there.”
He lifted his hands in a defensive gesture. “Of course,” he agreed. He didn't even know why he had protested in the first place. It had been somewhat of a reflex. “I'll have to oversee our efforts with the gate expert… anyways…” His speech slowed down as his eyes narrowed: A miniscule motion had disturbed the air in the room briefly. A miniscule motion he couldn't account for. Whereas none but the most sensitive bird might have noticed the shift, the wind had no secrets before him, thanks to his absolute dominion over it.
Each of the Five Keeper Weapons conferred control over one of the elements to its Keeper, and as such, Kenji controlled the winds of Aqualon with his estoc Orzelgryf. The winds whispered to him, and they whispered to him that they were not alone.
His eyes darted from one corner to the next, scanning the room warily.
“What is it?” Kathy asked, equally wary.
“We are not alone,” he hissed. He turned towards the general direction he suspected their eavesdroppers to be and shouted: “Show yourselves or force me to damage Lady Kathlyn's study!” Then he added much more coolly: “Do not make me damage Lady Kathlyn's study. She'll hit me, and then I'll be in a really foul mood.”
“Ok, first of all,” Kathly said, “that is a really weird threat. Secondly, I will absolutely hit you if you damage my study.”
Kenji sighed. “Well, now I doubt they'll come out. So I guess force it is…”
But something did come out.
“Kenji,” Kathy said slowly. “What the fuck is that?”
A long shadow cast by the light of the magus lamp as it hit one of Kathy's shelves began to fray unnaturally, as if a million daddy-long-legs spiders were crawling around the shelf, growing bigger and bigger. The shelf, however, continued to look rather ordinary and spider-free.
Meanwhile, the shadow began to bulge, and a long, waist high creature began to emerge from it, barely distinguishable from the dark strip in its pitch-black form. Long, thin tendrils, thin like black hairs, were wriggling and swaying all about the creature, as if it had living fur; a million threatening appendages like the tendrils of a jellyfish. Only its vaguely wolf-like shape and eye-like red glowing orbs made it even look like a creature rather than a thing.
“Fucking gears, there are more!” she exclaimed and lifted her hand as two more emerged from different shadows in the room. Bright arcs crackled across the room, and her silver trident Ankerias, which had rested against her desk had transported itself into her grasp, briefly taking the form of a lightning bolt.
“Wait, Kathy!” Kenji warned. “Don't attack them yet!”
“They are chernowilki. Animantic creatures made from human hair and shadows,” he explained.
“Hu… did you say human hair?!” she replied, appalled.
“Yes. They can meld into the night and infiltrate the skin of their prey with their long hairs, tearing chunks of flesh out. They only eat the scalp and hair though.”
“Ok, wow, you are making a piss-poor case for not attacking them, because I want to light this room up like a Yamato firework right now.”
“My point is,” he continued calmly, “why haven't they attacked us while we were talking? Why are they even here, or more precisely, who sent them here and why? They are animantic creatures, which means someone made them, and someone likely controls them. There are wild chernowilki in the Brammenwoods, but they only become wild after their maker dies or releases them, and there is no way a couple of them would just randomly find their way into this room.”
“Alright…” she replied warily, not lowering her trident an inch.
Kenji turned to the chernowilki. “What is your purpose here?”
The one that had emerged second slightly shifted and then opened its black jaws wide. A voice echoed through the room, though it did not seem to emanate from the creature or anywhere in particular: “Antonin Sokolow lent these creatures to us so that we may seek you out even within the confines of this tower. Seek you out in secret.”
Kenji groaned. He should have known. “And who was dumb enough to strike a bargain with the Black Czar?”
“The Shadow Society.”
“Figures,” he said coolly.
Kathy stepped forward. “Why spy on us first?”
“A good question!” he affirmed.
The voice replied: “We observed the Keepers to discern who could be trusted and who could not. We have come to deliver a message; intelligence we desire to share.”
Neither Kathy nor Kenji replied, both now transfixed on the chernowilk that still had his maw wide open and pointed at them.
It continued: “There is a key. A golden key. When Lord Sameth Gildorn went to the island of Cromwell some time ago, he met a strange man there. They spoke; they traveled together, first to Graanshoof and then to Guantil-Kerr. When they parted, the man gave a golden Key to the Lord of Earth.”
Kenji did not like what he was hearing. “So what, he paid him for a guided tour or something? Did Sameth register as a SILF and collect his earnings?”
“It was not that kind of golden key, but rather a very peculiar, unique creation. It would have looked out of place on any money chain,” the voice replied, not playing into Kenji's feeble attempt at a joke.
Kathy wasn't so easily rattled. “Why are you telling us this? What is your agenda?”
“Our agenda is our own. We wished to share this, and so we have. You owe us no payment for this information, and you may choose to believe it or not.”
The chernowilki stepped back slowly, sinking into the shadows as though they were quicksand.
“If I see you sneaking around here again, I am going to feed you lightning. No talk, just burnt hair,” Kathy said lividly. “How dare you force yourself into the Tower of Five!”
“We came because we had to,” the voice replied, now much softer. “Do not judge us too harshly. Our intentions are far nobler than our magic.” Then, they were gone.
The room went eerily quiet, and for a while neither of them spoke, both digesting what had happened.
Finally, Kathy spoke, and her voice was livid: “Why the fuck is your father sending fucking hair demons into our tower?!”
“They're not hair demons, they'r-“
She interrupted him in a mocking imitation of his own voice: “'Animantic creatures made from shadows and human hair' – that's a hair demon, you twit!”
Kenji sighed. “It's a power play. If those chernowilki had been sent to kill one of us… with the element of surprise they may have succeeded. Plus, he is showing us he knows there is discord among the Keepers.”
“Wow, what a ray of sunshine! Any other weird-ass monsters he keeps in his cupboard I should be aware of?!”
“Literally thousands…” Kenji replied tiredly. “Though the man himself is the most dangerous one of them all. Never mind that now… What about that key story?”
“Well, you'll have to find that key, obviously. At least I know which islands to go to first now… This will save me some time.”
“So you believe the Shadow Society?”
“I believe they didn't tell us everything they know. And what they did tell us… Well, they helped me in the past, so I am inclined to at least investigate it. But Antonin Sokolow… That is a whole other story. One you are better equipped to deal with, which means our plan of action remains mostly the same.”
She wasn't wrong, but for Kenji the entire situation, as problematic as it had already been, had just gotten even more complicated. His father involving himself meant that the threats were no longer just within, but without as well. “First thing I'll do is ramp up the protection of the tower. I should have proofed it against monsters from the Old Country long ago… I think I got blinded by all the Middlish ostentation…”
“Well, you should have. Now, if you'll excuse me, I still haven't picked out my reading, and now I got to add enough for a long trip on top of it.”
Kenji nodded. “I should go to sleep as well…”
“Sleep? After that unasked-for bestiary recital you pushed on me? Don't make me laugh. And if I get ripped apart by one of those beasties, I will opt to haunt you, let my reincarnation be damned. Now mush!”
“Hugh!” Kenji yelped as his upper body rose like a spring from his sweat-soaked mattress. A soft clanking had woken him. Poppy? No… She had gone to their cot down in the village for the night. He looked about, holding his throbbing head, his vision still slightly blurred from waking up. A figure was crouched down on the floor of his chamber, causing the clanking sound he was hearing.
“Good morning, my Lord,” said a dignified voice. The man rose to bow slightly. He had short, red hair and a well-trimmed beard and wore the subdued garb of a page. A little broom and dustpan in his hands bore evidence of shattered effects he had been scooping up from the stone floor of Kenji's chambers.
“C… Colchester, was it?”
“Indeed, sir.” The man went back about his business.
Kenji got up furtively and cast his gaze about the room. It was somewhat in shambles: Chairs knocked over, papers from his desk strewn all about, ink spilled, pots smashed, and unsettling scratches marked the walls here and there. He sighed. “Again?”
“Sir, if I may be so bold; my cousin is an assistant to Jeremiah Strauss, master of the Vanderfelden magus tower. He tells me the master collects all sorts of rare herbal teas from Yamato, Lake Glazglubin, Ravensburg, and all over the Great Land, really – I hear he has brews that could calm a storm if it took a moment to drink up.”
Kenji looked at the page then burst out laughing. “Calm a storm? Ha, that would do the trick!” He rubbed his eyes but then shook his head. “I thank you, but it won't do, Colchester. The dreams I have are wicked, because I do not face the wickedness when I am awake…” He looked around. “I assume the whole tower knows by now…”
“Well, sir, they murmur that a spirit must haunt you, a creature, perhaps, that you brought here from your homeland long ago. There are all sorts of fantastic tales, really.”
“Nonsense of course…” Kenji muttered, putting on his grey tunic.
“I may have discretely lent some credence to the rumors here and there, sir, forgive me.”
He looked up. “What?”
“It seemed best to me to keep up the image of my Lord battling a foreign spirit rather than his own demons. Keeps up morale around the Tower, you see,” the page explained in a most apologetic tone.
“Hmm. You may have a point. Now let me help you clean up the mess I made…”
“Perish the thought, sir! Besides, I was informed earlier that the Guardians of Wind are returning to the tower. It would likely behoove you if you meet them directly rather than have them visit upon you here.”
Almost as if summoned, the door burst open and in stepped a young woman, long, silver hair flowing behind her and eyes as grey as stormy clouds flashing first at the page and then at Kenji. “Good grief, this place looks like you've been riding this man around like a horsey all night. If you have something to confess I'd rather you keep it to yourself, brother.”
Abrasive as always.
Kenji straightened up. “You could just knock next time. And don't mind the room…” He glanced over her shoulder. “Where is Arashi?”
“Still in Stadtn. He'll get here by dinner – or at least that's what he said. Remember the old Ink Wars?”
“I wasn't born yet 80 years ago.”
“Well, lucky you, because it looks like that whole crap is about to go down again,” she said cheerily. It was a hollow sort of cheeriness that could only be derived from sharing bad news you had already digested yourself with someone who had to deal with them now.
“Nonono, I don't have time for this crap!” he protested. “What did they take?!”
“Well, an alchemist's shop was burgled, and they think that a spell ink formula was stolen.”
He punched a nearby drawer, seeing Colchester busily continuing to sweep in the corner of his eyes. “Alright, fuck it. I was going to leave for Aerialis soon anyways. You, Colchester!”
“When you are done here, would you please arrange for provisions for a trip to Aerialis for two…” he paused briefly; then corrected himself: “Three. Prepare two horses and my own, and send all of it to the Vorstadtn stables; Jürgen's place.”
“Until when would you like to see it done, sir?”
“By noon the day after tomorrow, I'd say. I am not sure I can leave right away, so make sure Jürgen is ready to hold the horses and provisions for a couple of days if need be.”
The page bowed slightly. “I will make the arrangements.”
“Maybe I should pack you too…” Kenji mused. Then he shook his head. “I have my people on site. Plus, the others are going to need a competent page. Now, Maya,” he turned to his sister; or step-sister to be precise. Their father had adopted her many years ago. Ironically, he had also brought them together – united against him… “If they went as far as to steal an actual formula, why in blazes are you and Arashi even here?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “The bigwigs over in Aerialis apparently feel that no messenger below our station was suited to fetch you. Can't say I give two shits about what they're scheming, but Arashi reckons they are gambling that they can resolve the situation before you arrive and then politely turn you away. They like being left alone.”
Kenji groaned. “You do act on my behalf when I send you to oversee the estate, right? Properly, right? If you give the Van Haag-Tairas an inch, they are going to drain us dry and hollow us out like strzygi.”
“Because they have two names?”
“No, because they are bloodthirsty shits!” He turned to Colchester. “Don't, for the love of all the gears in the Great Clockwork, tell a soul I said that.”
“Perish the thought, sir. I'll be taking my leave now. I'll send a mason to uh… discretely take a look at the wall damage. Then I will make the arrangements for your trip.” The page bowed and moved out of the room.
“Thanks, Colchester!” Kenji called after him. Then he sat down on the side of his bed and buried his face in his hands, already tired again.
“So, nice of you to organize horses for Arashi and me, but we already –”
Kenji interrupted her: “They aren't for the two of you. You are well capable of organizing your trip yourselves, though it won't be right now. I need you here in the tower while I am gone. Both of you.”
By the sound of it, she walked back and forth for a moment. “Look, I might be making light of the situation, that's just who I am, but let's be real for a moment: If we do not get that formula back, the Van Haag-Tairas will be the least of our problems. The other four cities are going to come after Aerialis at that point. Those Ink Wars didn't happen long enough ago for them not to really grab us by the balls on this one.
And the Families of the Eastern Fiefdoms? They are already flipping out over this. I wasn't kidding about what I said: They are afraid you are going to turn autocrat over this and hammer down sanctions on them until they're pulp.”
Kenji nodded as she spoke. “You're not as dumb as you sound,” he noted.
“I do that to avoid having to do politics. It's why I became a knight in the first place. And guess what I get to do instead of guarding you these days…” She sighed and plunged herself on one of the chairs Colchester had righted earlier.
Now Kenji stood up and started pacing. “These are difficult times.”
“Are you kidding me? These are easy times. Why do you think I don't get to do any actual knight work and only court bullshit? The Middle Lands stand rock solid right between Yamato, the Axis of Steel, Arkatrash, and the North. No one gets through here without our say-so, and we are prospering on peace.”
“Well, I think you might be in for a rude awakening pretty soon…” he mumbled.
“Oh boy, are we going on an expansion war or something?”
“Think more internal,” he said. “But not right away. I'll have to think about how to best position you and Arashi. Let's say for now that I want both of you to keep an eye on Atlas and Kathlyn – and when I say ‘keep an eye', I mean ‘protect', not the other thing,” he added.
“You know, we're technically supposed to protect you. Both of them have their own set of Guardians,” she noted drily.
“You are technically supposed to do whatever the fuck I tell you, Maya! And speaking of things to tell you to do: Do you have any Sand of the Lake?” he had stopped pacing and observed her closely now.
“I uh…” her hand had suddenly moved up to her chest, and her face contorted into a frown when his own expression turned triumphant. “Only what I brought with me when we came here all those years ago…”
“Well, I have need of it,” he said coolly and held out his hand.
“Just a moment! You can't just take it from me!” she protested vehemently.
“I'm not just taking it from you. I am telling you to give it to me.” He hesitated for a moment; then he added: “Also, I am going to need some of your blood.”
Now she rose from the chair, knocking it over. Her already pale face had turned ashen and her gray eyes were wide with fear: “My blood?! You want my blood?! Have you gone insane? W-what is this?”
His white brows had moved closer together and his eyes, much like hers, though perhaps a shade lighter, were as cold as lumps of ice. “What was all that about being a knight earlier? Your Lord of Wind requires something of you, Maya Sokolow.”
“Woah-woah-woah, slow down, brother!”
“I did not ask you as a brother.”
“But you clearly want to… to do…” her voice suddenly turned into a feverish whisper, “animancy!”
“What of it?”
“What… Well, for one it's rather fucking frowned upon around here! And for another thing, I suddenly feel really inquisitive about what mutilated your room! I've got to… got to…” she was struggling for the words, “I've got to know you are not going to act against your own interests for whatever reason, protect you from yourself, you know?”
He walked calmly over to his desk and opened a drawer. It released an acrid smell, so he closed it again quickly. The night terrors had rumbled the desk and smashed some of its contents. Two drawers later he struck gold and retrieved an intact, corked vial, which he presented to Maya. “Put the blood in here, please.”
Then he sat back down on the bed. “The room is a mess because I have night terrors. They rouse the winds around me, smashing everything up.”
“What kind of night terrors?”
“The kind that is likely to become reality at some point. And on top of that, the Black Czar has reared his ugly nose, sticking it where he shouldn't have. Now I need to take measures to keep him the fuck out of here. So how about you give me my sand and my vial of blood, and maybe we can sleep tonight without worrying about an actual strzyga flying in through the window?”
She took a deep breath. “If… you do anything weird with my blood, you can look for a new Guardian. And for your sake, I hope it is going to be a damn good one.” Then she unsheathed her curved shortsword and made a careful incision in the flesh of her arm, holding the vial to the wound.
Kenji produced a handkerchief from his nightstand and handed it to her when she was done, receiving the vial in return.
She also reached underneath her white tunic, producing a small leather bag tied to a string, which she tossed at him. “Maybe you won't be using all of it?” she added hopefully.
“I definitely will.”
Her shoulders slumped down in defeat.
Kenji stood up and put a hand on her shoulder. “Come. I haven't eaten yet. Join me for breakfast. With a full stomach, the day will look much more survivable, trust me. And if not, a visitor recently dropped off a bottle of the good stuff with me.”
She sighed and allowed him to guide her out of the room. “You haven't been drinking again, right?” she asked, a twang of worry in her voice.
“Well, I think I'll tell you about that later as well,” he replied drily.
They went for breakfast in the kitchens, opting for a continued one-on-one chat. While Maya told Kenji about the current state of the Aerialian families and his estate, he in turn told her about Sameth's return from the Corsic Ocean and the sudden and severe illness that had rendered him bedridden and screaming for a time, marking him with strangely yellow eyes.
When they were done, they went their separate ways. Kenji headed to the Tower's alchemist, Theria Vendeclem, ‘robbing her blind' as she put it. As requests for ingredients and concoctions went, she didn't usually have a lot on her plate, mostly dealing with headaches and upset stomachs. In fact, in addition to professionally educated in alchemy, she was also a trained physician, so she served as the Tower's doctor as well, though there was rarely anything serious to patch up.
She had treated Sameth when he had fallen ill, though what had befallen him had baffled her back then. Now, she was glaring and complaining as Kenji robbed her cupboards of arsenic, formaldehyde, and denatured alcohol, of hemlock and fool's parsley, of copper shavings, silver salve, and…
“What?!” the elderly woman protested aghast. Her brown hair was strewn with many gray locks, and her face, still boasting many youthful features, appeared strangely disproportionate on account of thick, brass-rimmed glasses that magnified her intelligent, green eyes. “Arsenic and hemlock! Now there's questions to be asked already, but cobalt water and silverlight? Those are spell ink ingredients, more controlled than weaponized magic engines! And… and… what are you going to do with blood plasma?! Is there a severely wounded person nearby I should be aware of? If so, let me help for gears' sake!”
Kenji waved her off. “I'll sign you a receipt for the cobalt water and silverlight. Feel free to tell the treasurer to reimburse you and send the bill to my estate. And as for the blood plasma… It'll work better than blood for my purposes – ether of blood and whatnot, it's a powerful magical lubricant.”
“Magic?” she replied, her eyes turned to slits. “Only animancy uses blood as far as I am aware. And animancy is illegal.”
“Some animancy is illegal,” he corrected her coolly. “All of it, perhaps, in the Duchy of Tarkaal and Byren and the Republic of Fulgrath, but certainly not here in the Footlands. And besides, I'm the bloody Lord of Wind!”
“So you do plan on performing animancy!” she exclaimed triumphantly.
“No, I wanted to make myself some formaldehyde and hemlock tea you damned crone!”
Her face turned scarlet and her cheeks puffed up in anger as she prepared to fling some vitriol his way.
“Alright,” he said, his hands raised in a placatory gesture, “I shouldn't have said that, and I am sorry.”
She continued to stare him down as if she was searching for the right spot to kick but remained silent, apparently giving him the opportunity to speak.
“Look,” he sighed. “Keep it to yourself, please, but I have to perform some warding magic because, well, because we need some warding against certain things right now. I realize I am asking a lot, but feel free to overcharge me for it and get a bigger stock out of it later. For now, it is imperative that I have all the ingredients I need.”
Her left eyebrow twitched and she stepped to a black box, opening a door on its front to retrieve a clear package, filled with a yellow substance. “It won't be good for long now that it isn't being cooled anymore. I'll be expecting you to donate some blood next week.”
Knowing the dangerous power of blood, this was not a prospect he was looking forward to. On the other hand, it seemed a fair proposal, and he doubted the alchemist would use his blood for anything but transfusions. “Fine…” he agreed begrudgingly. He wasn't likely to be around for that anyway.
“I assume you'll be looking for fresh sage, maybe fennel and dillweed? If you go to the lake and head along the bank northward, you'll likely find sage and dillweed somewhere around there. Fennel will be growing by the wayside.”
This time he was surprised, observing her more closely as she opened a safe to retrieve the spell ink ingredients. “But you mislead me… You know more about animancy than someone who has just read about it in passing.”
She grunted as she gave the safe lock a turn. “I did some of my alchemy training under Seven-Breezes Vinnigtal.”
Understanding flashed across Kenji's face. “An outcast?”
“That what they call Druith defectors down in Vechnaya Bramma?”
“Ravensburg. That's where I met him. He had a very unusual approach to alchemy. Well, unusual by Middlish standards I suppose. And he had a way of knowing his ingredients that went far beyond the academic. Learned a great deal from the old coot.” She put all the little bottles and boxes of ingredients he had demanded into a larger, wooden box, stuffing cloth between the precious bits of cargo to prevent breakage. “There you go.”
Kenji took the box and nodded. “I may have to come back to hear more about this outcast teacher of yours another day…”
“We'll talk when I drain the blood you owe me.”
Back in his chambers, he sat down by his desk and carefully composed letters for Arashi and Maya; some instructions and warnings for them to heed when he left for Aerialis. He would be leaving them in a quite precarious situation… But what choice did he have?
Not feeling like having company right that moment, he rang for a servant to bring him lunch from the kitchen. After some baked Middle-Lake trout filled with herbs and onions as well as some potatoes with a side of boiled peas and carrots, he felt much more at ease, the shakiness of the morning finally leaving his bones. With a box full of what he considered solid protection in the making, a belly full of good food, and a savage nightmare now many hours behind him, he finally felt like himself again. All that was left was to go and collect –
And then a knock rapped the door.
“Come in,” he said, turning to face his guest.
It was Din.
~Spit Vinclav's name,~ he thought. There she was.
“You didn't come down for lunch!” she accused him, irritated.
“Yeah, well I said after lunch, not during,” he noted with a smirk.
“Oh, so you weren't blowing me off?” she said, her demeanor instantly becoming more cheerful.
“Blow you off? Oh no, we have much too much to do.” He rose from his chair. “Your first task will be to carry this box.” He lifted the box from his desk and handed it over to her. “Drop it and we are done. This is a very valuable box.”
Din took it and looked at its plain, wooden exterior with a mixture of curiosity and reverence. “Are those like… magic ingredients?”
“That's exactly right,” he replied with a smirk. “Well, at least some of them are. Here's your first lesson: Magic is rarely in things, rather it is almost always in people. But some things can make it come out more readily.”
“And what do we do with the box?”
“Nothing right now. It will come into play later. For now, we are going on a stroll to the lake.”
They soon left the great, black tower, cast from a monolithic, black stone with rich veins of white quartz in its walls. The whole building had been wrought by the magic of the long-dead Lord of Earth Ludwig Ors. Strewn around it were a number of small cottages, many with pens and vegetable patches. These housed the people that worked in the Tower for the most part, though the ones closer to the Middle Lake sometimes belonged to wealthy merchants from all over the land – little holiday houses for them and their families to visit.
The tower was surrounded by meadows and golden fields of spring wheat, planted in winter to be harvested towards the end of spring, which was now fast approaching. Small orchards dotted the land surrounding the Tower, and they provided both shade and lent themselves to the idyllic scenery.
Din and Kenji followed a smaller trail around the Tower, which led them westward towards the Lake. “Keep an eye out for fennel, will you?” Kenji said cheerfully, breathing in the rich air of the central Footlands. Because the Middle Lands sloped down towards their center, forming a shallow, natural basin, the winds from all five corners of the land regularly swept through here, carrying the air of the other five nations with them.
“Fennel? Who's that?” Din asked nonplussed.
Kenji chortled and recited a verse in reply:
The yellow flower towers
High above the rest.
With feathery leaves as though to fly
To the heavens' golden nest.
“So…” she replied, her brow furrowed. “It's a flower? A tall flower?”
“Yes. We are going to need some of that.”
“Now that you say it… I've heard about it before! It's used in cooking, isn't it?” she mused; then she added wearily: “This is not going to end in some weird character building lesson where I cook an omelet and you explain to me how cooking is better than magic, and then you eat the omelet and I don't even get to try some myself, is it?”
“Well, firstly,” Kenji replied, “just wow, that story had a surprising amount of detail, as if that exact thing has happened to you before.”
“Uh, no, but a couple of my teachers have thought it was important to show me how ‘wise' they are in the past…” she muttered.
“Alright. Secondly, cooking is better than magic. Obviously. I had no idea you needed to be taught something that basic.”
“What? It's cooking! Are you sure you are not confusing it with technocracy or something?”
“Technology, technocracy is a form of government,” he corrected her. As their conversation progressed, so did their trek along the trail, which was sometimes framed by gentle hills and tall grass, and sometimes by low meadows and the odd plum tree. “I am sure you have had food before. In fact, I recall seeing you stuff yourself with impressive zeal on some occasions,” Kenji continued with a gentle smirk. “See, food can make people feel happy and safe, even loved, depending on who has prepared it. I have never seen magic make people feel any of those.”
“You've had a rough time with magic then,” Din suggested, which made Kenji's head turn towards her in surprise. “The first time Atlas made the water dance for me, I was filled with wonder… And remember that time we flooded the Tower basement? You, Atlas, and me? I think that made me feel all of those things…”
Kenji remained silent for a while, his gaze wandering about the roadside. He stopped to rip a plant with white flowers out of the ground; roots and all. “Ah… mugwort. I was going to ask you to keep an eye out for this one as well, but this will do nicely.” He took a whiff of the intense and unmistakable smell of the plant and nodded with a satisfied look on his face. “I suppose I have had predominantly different encounters with magic in the past,” he then mused. “Still,” a sly grin crossed his face, “I'll stand by my advertisement of good food, I think.”
Din laughed brightly. “Far be it from me to deny its many merits! Unless we are talking beets, because then I've got three words for you: No thank you.” – She nodded towards a spot ahead: “Is that tall bush there fennel? Next to that elderberry shrub?”
Kenji's eyes followed her direction and he spotted it right away. “Aha! Yeah, that's it.” He took a couple of long strides over and tried to tear some fennel out by the roots, since he would need fennel bulb for his concoction, but the plant was rather resistant. He pulled Orzelgryf from its sheath and used it to cut the bulb out of the ground. Then, he cut off the stem, separating a small segment as well as some flower heads to take with him along with the bulb. Lastly, he wiped the estoc clean on his tunic and pushed it back into its sheath.
Din had caught up with him. “Should you really be using that as a trowel?” she asked skeptically.
“The edge was honed by a smith from a long dead world and has stayed sharp so far. A bit of digging in the soft ground is not going to dull it.” He sat down by the roadside and gestured her to sit beside him.
She heeded his invitation and cast her gaze on an apple orchard on the opposite side of the road. “I mean, because it seems disrespectful to the ancestral blade,” she clarified.
Kenji glanced at the beautifully worked hilt; then also looked up at the orchard. “If things have a will, Din, I would think that tools would want to be used. And what a great life they would have: Always knowing your purpose without a doubt in your mind. Much better than our murky existence, don't you think?
If I was Orzelgryf, I would want to be drawn and used. And if you ask me, digging up fennel sounds like more fun than stabbing the lifeblood out of some poor sod.”
She didn't reply.
“So, you were expecting me to pull some clever trick on you for today's lesson? Well, I doubt this is going to be what you might think it will be. But how about I tell you about one of my childhood encounters with magic? I'll even make it a story with a moral so you can feel stupid after when you guess it wrong. How about it?”
Din had to stifle a giggle. “Gears, that does sound exactly like what I was expecting. Well, don't let me stop you; I am a great enthusiast for parody.”
Kenji leaned back until his head touched the soft grass and peered up at the blue sky, flecked with large but harmless clouds. “It went something like this…”
Many years ago, in the lands of Vechnaya Bramma, by the banks of the great Lake Glazglubin, I was a boy in the city of Bratisgrad. I didn't live in one of the many houses along the lakeside, nor in the residences towards the small forest on the east side. Neither was my home among the huts of the craftsmen beyond the western and southern walls, or even among the farmhouses around the city.
My home was far above the city proper, albeit considered part of it all the same, for I lived in Okun Voronov, the ‘Perch of the Ravens'. This was a tall, black castle, hewn into the side of the Skala, which is the name of the tallest mountain between Lake Glazglubin and the Brammenwoods. It rises up on the south side of Bratisgrad.
In that horrid rock, I lived for many years, raised mostly by servants and teachers, so pretty much the same deal you've got now. But from time to time, my father would pull me into his world; and believe me, that is not a world a boy should see.
The Black Czar, as he is called by many, has ruled over Vechnaya Bramma for nearly two millennia, taking the throne for himself during the Great War.
I am sure you may ask yourself: how can he have lived this long? And, of course, the answer to this is… animancy.
I guess you have heard people talk about the art many times. Perhaps they have said that it is a vile practice that uses the blood of humans and animals to bend and twist magic out of shape and do heinous things to either. That animancers have strived to bring the dead back to life with little regard for the sanctity of their souls, and that they impose their will on both creatures and people.
These are not lies, unless you were to call them lies of omission. You see, animancy was probably one of the earliest forms of magic. People who had deepened their understanding of their own souls found that the world around them had a breath of its own, and they found energies much like souls in the animals and plants around them. With their newfound powers, they sought to commune with that world and in some cases seek to make it thrive, in some cases to subjugate it.
Animancers became able to make plants grow and wither, to call animals to their aid or even enslave them for their purposes. In time, they realized that they could exert their influences on their own souls and those of others.
Some animancers sought to empower themselves and their kinsmen, while others sought power over others. There were those who sought life eternal, and those who sought the power over life and death.
It was often easy to tell who was good and who was evil among them, and those who violated the soul were often cast out from their communities. They became outcasts.
The most powerful animancers resided in the Glade of Druith, a land of magic where people make offerings cut from their souls to bring the soil to life. Among them, sometimes animancers with dark purpose grow to power and are ultimately shunned and exiled by their fellow men, and all of them come to the Brammenwoods, the most magical forest next to the Glade.
But this is where Vechnaya Bramma is, and where my father rules with an iron fist. Long ago he made a law that said that all outcasts that cross the border become citizens, but also that all of them belong to him. He used both force and promises of lands and riches to subjugate them, and he put them to work. He made them stretch his life unnaturally, and though no one knows how, I can tell you that there is little chance his stolen years were not extracted from the slit throats of others… He also forced them to teach their art to others, apprentices of his choosing, to make the magic of Vechnaya Bramma powerful. There are seals etched into the bricks of Bratisgrad and Sestramorsk so old and powerful, I doubt I could muster a storm strong enough to blow a single shingle of their roofs.
And lastly, he made them make monsters. From bits of souls, from blood and bones, from living men, women, and children, from gentle creatures, and from predators of the Brammenwoods. All the resources at his disposal he laid by their feet to twist into terrible hammers with which to torment the people and secure his borders.
“So monsters are real!” Din exclaimed excitedly.
Kenji tipped his nose with his finger while looking up to her youthful face, framed in supple, fire-red hair. “Keep it to yourself, will you? These Middlish men have been lulled by progress and peace so much; they think monsters are merely stories from bygone ages. Of course, there is some wisdom in that as well. All those monsters were made by people. In the end, they are our creation, tools made for a purpose in some cases, results of our own hubris, or fears in others. It is far too easy to become transfixed on the shifting shapes of dark phantasms and lose sight of the root of evil; us. Now let me finish my story.”
Terrible hammers! Yes. From time to time, he would take me with him when he went to see his outcasts, or when they were brought before him. Each and every one of them was powerful and dangerous in their own right, and yet, they all seemed to submit to father's authority.
One day, he took me to see the most powerful one of them all, a witch named Kiewek Zowenji of Kolsk, who lived in the Brammenwoods near that very village. The folk of Kolsk would bring her offerings every Erdtag, comprised of grain, fruits, fish or meat, honey, milk, and sometimes… less savory things.
You see, among the villagers, she was called a corpse eater… But also a protector, for predators never bothered the flocks and herds of Kolsk, and no wild animals ever dared to trample or eat their crops. The weather was always quite suitable to the needs of the village, and they knew neither droughts nor floods; unless they offended Kiewek Zowenji of Kolsk, for then, the land itself would rise up, it seemed, to demand retribution…
So, there we were: My father and his first knight, his court outcast, the crone Babazielony, three servants, and I. At midday we arrived in Kolsk, where a feast had been prepared for my father's arrival. He attended at the place of honor – though not the faintest spark of enjoyment ever crossed his face – and while people danced and made merry around him, he endured the festivities with the patience of a disgruntled diplomat, and though I admit to having some fun with the local children, I could see that every other person in his entourage was mirroring his cool demeanor.
But I was a boy, and I did not care to do as they did, for fun like this was what I had often longed for during cold and lonesome nights in the castle.
When the sun hung low, the feast came to an end, and not accepting any invitation, my father ignored the villagers' warnings, leaving the houses behind, his procession continuing into the woods.
We followed narrow trails under the flickering light of lit torches, and after a long trek that seemed to last forever, we reached a small straw-roofed hut with a light gleaming in its window.
My little feet were tired from prancing around during the day, and hiking after the grownups in the night, but that small, unremarkable hut put the fear of Vinclav in me. I did not understand why, but to me, all the things I could not see: the strangely sweet yet sickening smell that faintly lingered in the air, the absolute silence around this small patch of the woods, the ineffable aura of the hut; it all shook me to my core.
But there was nowhere to go but after my father and his men.
Father knocked three times on her door, and after what seemed like an eternity to me, there was an unpleasant shuffling sound coming from within, slowly approaching the door.
It opened up and light streamed onto the forest floor. My father spoke a few words, and a raspy, chilling voice replied. Then, he moved into the hut, and his entourage followed him.
Hesitantly, I stepped closer as well, hastening as the door began to close. And that is when I beheld her: Kiewek Zowenji of Kolsk. To call her a woman might have been a questionable choice then. Even the word ‘human' felt like a rather bold description for what stood before me.
Clad in ancient rags, crusty with the dried blood of the ages, a sagging, wrinkled face covered in many folds and crow's feet, pustules, bulging moles with hairs sticking out of them, stared at me with empty eye-sockets, out of one of which a tiny snake peered, fluttering its tongue.
Her nose was enormous and hooked, her ears large and torn, and her hair was long and thick but not her own, for human hair of many colors had been braided into it. Her gaping mouth only had few teeth left in it; five, now that I think about it… And her hands were bony, covered in liver spots, and ended in long, sharp nails like claws. Her face looked hollow, but her belly was swollen and haphazardly tied ropes made folds of fat bulge out the patched rag that covered them.
But more than her terrifying appearance, something in her demeanor, her general presence struck me as deeply unsettling; as though her very existence was an affront to a higher power I did not understand at the time…
She only noticed me as I hastened to step inside, perhaps because the grownups had stood in front of me; and this surprised her. As she stared at me, her black-lipped mouth split into a much too wide grin, chapped skin cracking at the motion. Then, she lifted her free hand slowly and passed it over her hollow eye sockets. The snake retreated back into the dark, and with the blink of an eye, a very different looking creature stood before me: Now she looked like a woman. And an exceptionally beautiful one at that. Her black lips were now full and no longer looked unpleasant but inviting. Her skin was smooth and white as milk, and her long hair, woven with many additional strands was almost breath-taking, while where before she had been clad in blood-encrusted rags she now stood quite naked before me, almost like a person trying to show they had nothing to hide. Her finger went to her lips and she gently blew past it: “Shhhh.”
And though her abysmal grin had turned into a wry smile, I stood there, quite aware of the silent threat that had been heaped onto me. If I were to speak up… I dared not to even think of it for fear she could read my heart.
She stepped back inside and I followed, feeling unable to do anything else but give in to the net within which I had been caught.
“I won't be long,” my father said then, his voice as cold and commanding as ever. “I have only this task for you, and to make sure you do not dawdle in this, I have come to present it in person, together with my offering.”
We had not brought anything of the sorts with us, and I began edging back towards the door right away when he spoke those words, for I now feared he might leave me with the witch.
She smiled wildly, and her now keen eyes flitted over the people present as she licked her lips. “Then make your case, my liege.” Far from the raspy sound I had expected, her voice sounded quite lovely and bright. And I knew it was part of the illusion.
It was then that I realized that father probably did not know her true form and only coincidence had allowed me to glimpse it. And with the realization, my fear grew stronger.
Father did not take notice of it. He never had been a keen observer when it came to me. And all for the better in the end, or I may not have been able to escape his grasp. “One of your kind has crossed the border into my land, but they have eluded me thus far and failed to pay homage to me. Find them. Find them and impress onto them the importance of heeding the law of this land.”
Now the witch grinned, and in her wicked grin, an iota of her vileness shone through the beautiful facade. “As you wish, my liege.”
He nodded stiffly. Then turned to the three servants. “You three will stay with her and see that she gives her full devotion to the task at hand.”
The three were young men, and they seemed altogether enthusiastic about the proposal. No doubt did she seem alluring to them, and her bare form perhaps filled them with hopes best left unspoken here. But I immediately knew what was happening, yet fear had glued my mouth shut, and to my shame I remember clearly thinking: ‘thank the gears, he did not pick me!' over and over again…
We left the hut and made our way back towards Kolsk. But we had not moved far away before terrifying screams emerged from behind us, screams so piercing and horrorstruck, you'd be hard-pressed to hear the likes of them even within the walls of a torture chamber.
My father spoke no word then, nor did his outcast or his first knight. They went on as though nothing was happening, and I followed them.
We arrived back in the castle a couple of days later, and as time went by, my dreams grew darker and darker each night, and each night, the witch haunted me. Strange as it may sound, she presented herself to me in her glamered form each time, yet I could not look at her without envisioning her true form and recoil…
As she kept visiting me, I became unable to eat and slept less and less. In the end, one of the servants informed my father and he questioned me. Desperate, I told him what I had seen and what was now haunting me. After that, he called for Babazielony to inspect me.
The crone put many ointments on me and spoke old words of power, reciting chants of Druith and shaking sticks with grains in them to mimic the rain. In the end, she told my father I had been cursed.
He wasted no more words on me, and to Babazielony he said: “My retainer has betrayed me. You will gather every last chernowilk under your command and send them to kill her. If you feel this is not enough, take whatever force you deem necessary. I want her torn limb from limb. Give her hair to the wilki, leave her meat for the creatures of the forest.” Then he left, and so did the crone.
My dark dreams lasted three more nights; then, on the last night, I saw the witch scream and melt away as she was tormenting me, and she never bothered me again.
“And there you go,” Kenji said, sitting up again. “So, tell me, what's the moral?”
“Don't let you tell me stories when it's dark?”
He laughed, giving her his brightest grin.
She thought on the subject for a moment; then said: “Magic can be used towards terrible ends?”
“No!” he exclaimed, still smiling. “See, you can't claim I don't deliver. Now let me tell you the real moral of the story.” Suddenly, all mirth had left his expression and he stared her dead in the eye: “The moral is this: Don't fuck with animancers. And don't, ever, fuck with my father.”
She swallowed and then drily spoke: “Doesn't seem like much of a lesson on magic, if you ask me.”
“Well, it does provide context for what we are going to do today. Now let's get back to it, we still have some herbs to collect: Sage and dillweed.”
It didn't take the two of them too long to find what they were looking for, and within the hour they were already on their way back.
“So,” said Din. They were just stepping into the late afternoon shadow cast by the eastern side of the Tower. “If I understand you right, I could just draw a really bad picture of a horsey and if I believed hard enough that I could do magic with it, I could?”
Kenji rolled his eyes. “Well, obviously you wouldn't be able to actually do that. The totemic principle is about what magic theorists and clockwork theologists call ‘desire'. Of course, that is a bit of an inaccurate choice of words… Other terms often used are ‘faith' and ‘purpose', but the real thing is a bit of an amalgam, if you ask me. Let me give you an example from my personal life: When I was still living under the roof of my father, I did not have Orzelgryf, because the Keepers withheld the blade from me. Or to be more precise from him…” He paused for a moment as his thoughts wandered back to those final days he had spent under the thumb of Antonin Sokolow. “So, there I was, the mighty soul of a Keeper, a deep connection to the winds of the world, but no catalyst. Without Orzelgryf I was unable to control even the tiniest breeze. But I needed power to escape my father.”
“What did you do?” Din shifted her hands, her arms apparently stiff from carrying the box all this time.
“I thought to myself: Middlish mages make the winds do what they want all the time, and none of them have that fabled blade. So I decided that if I couldn't do Keeper magic, I would just do regular old elemental magic. But how to do it? I had learned some rudimentary animancy, though much of what I did know consisted of lore; little actual magic. I could perform a ritual or two, understood the significance of certain substances and acts, and how they could interact with magic and with souls, but conjuring a gale? Nothing like that…”
“Well, then why not just use animancy? You could have maybe stolen some secrets from that outcast in your father's court,” she suggested.
“Oh, he holds a terrible sway over all outcasts in Vechnaya Bramma…But here is what I did: You see, on the highest tower of Okun Voronov there was a very old banner. It had been hoisted up there some three hundred years ago by my great-aunt Svetlaya.”
“And it was a magic banner!” she said excitedly.
They had walked around to the main entrance and Kenji waved at the guard who returned his greeting with a friendly nod. “No, it was a regular old banner. She put it up there on a dare. You see, the castle is high up and the mountain is very windy most of the time. It was the most dangerous tower to climb; one powerful gale up there might push a person right over the battlements, even if they braced themselves with all their might. Some even say father built the castle up there to sequester power away from the never ending stormwinds…”
“Wow, I mean, you must have been pretty stupid to go up there for a regular old banner.”
“Stupid like a fox,” he replied, tipping his nose. “I thought to myself: If father can sequester power away from the storm, why shouldn't I be able to do it? I'm the Keeper of Wind after all. I went up there and got the banner. And because I knew that certain acts and circumstances are entwined with magic, I knew that the banner, battered and beaten by the stormwinds of over three hundred years, was the ultimate catalyst for wind magic. It knew all the winds of Vechnaya Bramma by heart. Every fiber of it had tasted them during any and all of their moods. So I took it and draped it over my shoulders, and then I flew away!”
Din gasped. “You're shitting me!”
“Watch your mouth, what if Poppy happens to hear you?” he replied, irritated. “Well, I say ‘fly', but I suppose I mean I jumped down the side of the mountain in great leaps. The point is, I didn't break my legs doing it. I had gained some control over the wind.” He hesitated for a moment. “Well, to be precise, I had learned to manipulate some of it. Control is only for Keeper magic.”
“So just like that, wearing a regular old banner enabled you to do wind magic?” she said in disbelief.
“It did, because enough people believe that magic works that way. Magic is something like a natural law but not. It is rooted in existence, the force that governs the Great Clockwork and the human soul,” he explained patiently. “Humans, who are endowed with such powerful souls, have a certain degree of influence on the shape of magic. That influence presents itself in a number of ways, but among all of them one stands out significantly: Tradition. Our forefathers began to explore their soulscapes and found gates to the Great Clockwork within, gates that allowed them to bring magic into the world. With every new generation, new beliefs, new sigils, magic words, rituals, and hidden signs were created and passed on, and to them, the secrets of magic were ascribed. Magic is entwined with culture, because our cultural identity has a great influence on how magic works for us. That is why magic is so progressive here in the Middle Lands and so dark and mired in animancy in the old country.”
“Alright,” Din said as her brows had crinkled slightly, showing that the gears were turning in her head, churning an idea. “So, tradition is magic… None of these herbs are actually magical, they just sort of make magical things happen because people culturally ascribe magic to them?”
Kenji stopped for a moment, prompting Din to do the same. “What, you already had this whole lesson? Why make me repeat it?”
Her expression was utterly nonplussed.
With a sigh he started moving again. “Never mind, clever girl. Now, if you really want to spook me, how about you tell me what we are about to do with these.” He knocked at a door, and when no reply came from within, he entered.
It was one of the laboratories of the upper east side of the tower. Several of these were strewn about the place, but when the MLMRC didn't convene, they mostly just languished in perpetual vacancy.
Din followed him in and looked around the room: Several triangular tables had comfortable recliners in front of them to one side of the room, while the other side was equipped with tables made from polished brick, with sinks, glass-walled outlets, and even a chalk board for writing. “I thought you wanted to show me how to make some sort of magic tincture or something.”
Kenji gestured for her to put down the box, which he opened, rummaging through its contents. He pulled out a small flask with a blue glowing liquid. “You know, the Middle Lands Magic Research Consortium invented spell ink here. In this very room I think… This is one of its ingredients. Highly regulated stuff.”
She leaned in closer to get a good look.
“You are half-right, of course. We are going to do some decocting and concocting, and when we are done, we are going to have some pretty gross-looking stuff on our hands.”
Din hesitated. “We're not going to drink it, right?”
“I wouldn't recommend it. But we are going to smear it on a couple of places. With the two of us doing the smearing, it'll only take half the amount of time,” he said brightly.
“Ok, but why though.”
“When we get to the simmering, I'll draw up some diagrams for the top floor. And while we move up there, we'll smear the stuff on the doors and walls,” he continued.
“Yes, alright. But why though?”
He patted her shoulder with a bright grin on his face. “To keep out monsters of course!”
Din's eyebrows furled. “And why do we need to keep monsters out all of a sudden?”
“Well, do you remember what you learned in lesson one?”
“Don't…fuck with animancers?”
“Don't ever fuck with your father…”
“Well, he's fucked with me yesterday, so we have a little problem, you understand?”
“Uh…” she stepped back a little. “I suddenly feel underqualified…”
“Tush! It'll be simple and routine, and you get to learn something about fighting animancy. It's a win-win,” he replied, still brightly.
“And you think I will be fighting animancy in the near future?” she said slowly.
His smile waned somewhat. “Perhaps… Either way, knowing won't hurt you. Besides, you are pretty much the only Keeper I can come to with this aside from Kathy.”
“I can't tell you that yet. Let's just say, Atlas and Sameth have their own problems right now. No need to put monsters on their minds. Besides, they don't really believe in those anyways.”
“Alright,” she muttered warily, “but why not ask one of your Guardians? Maya and Arashi just got back here, surely, they could help you out. Maya is from your home country too, right? She ought to believe in monsters for sure.”
“And she'd probably do fine, but there are two reasons I prefer you for this task,” Kenji replied, lifting one finger: “One, you actually need to learn about this stuff. For one thing to get you acquainted with unusual kinds of magic, and for another because you may have to use it in the future.” He put up a second finger. “And two: Making this magic work is going to take a smidge of soul power. That's not really a problem for you or me, because our souls are like… uh… well, think of the ocean.”
“I've never seen the ocean,” she said blankly.
“The sky then. They are like the sky. Regular people's souls, even the ones of Guardians are usually more like clouds. Sure, your average guy next door will be a bit of a little fluffy one, and Maya, for example, more of a gargantuan thunder storm, but they're still not even close to the sky.”
“Ok, I guess. That uh, soul power doesn't go away permanently though, right? Am I going to blight from this?”
“Of course not – on both accounts. You make soul power perpetually; people use it all the time to perform magic. Here is the thing though: When the seals are up, they aren't going to do anything until an actual monster shows up. Then they are going to repel the monster violently, using a little bit of our soul power. If, and I am not going to say that this is going to happen, but if my father were to send something really, really huge or just plain powerful, those sigils may burn a regular old soul out somewhat, trying to keep that out. You and me though; not a problem, I promise. He could throw a swarm of dragons at the tower and we'd probably be fine.”
“Dragons are real?!” she exclaimed excitedly.
“Ah. No, I don't think they are actually. I just said that to make a point…” He gave her an apologetic look.
Din was in deep thought for a moment, scanning the various herbs and vials on the stone table. Then she looked up to Kenji, “Alright, sounds good to me.” She smiled.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “Good! Then first, we got to decoct the herbs into sludge! Let me check the cupboards for some appropriate flasks and a heating plate… They should also have some acrylic primer somewhere around here, we'll need that for the final step…”
“So what was it?”
“Was what?” he asked absently as he rifled through an assortment of differently shaped glass flasks. Perhaps a copper decocter was a smarter choice... Metal was always good when it came to messing with animancy…
“The monster you saw. What kind of monster was it?”
He paused his search for a moment. “Do you recall the chernowilki my father had the crone send to kill Kiewek Zowenji of Kolsk?”
“I didn't remember they were called that to be honest…”
“Well, that's what I saw. A chernowilk looks a bit like a wolf made from fraying shadows:
Wolsy, wolsy, hair of man!
Eat the shadow from the wall!
Wilki, wilki, of the land,
Meet your brother, black and tall!
That is how the final verse of the chernowilk ritual goes. Shadows are infused with souls by an animancer and stitched together into the shape of ravenous wolves using human hair. They are very nasty creatures.”
“And you killed them?”
“Let's say they went away. Devilishly tricky to kill, chernowilki… But our seals will keep them out.”
Din clattered with something behind him, and when he looked back, he saw that she had retrieved an Arkatrashian kanaka made from copper and a heating plate.
The kanaka was a small pot with a long handle, used to brew coffee along the Giranja but also in certain applications of Middlish alchemy. The plate was a special magic engine with several spell ink mandalas worked into it. Depending on which one was touched, it could transfer varying amounts of heat into a vessel placed on top of it.
“How did you find those so quickly?” Kenji exclaimed in surprise.
She shrugged her shoulders. “All the labs are built in a similar way, and we use both of these during my alchemy lessons.”
Kenji grabbed a couple of flasks and moved over to the table where Din had placed the implements. “Well, alright! Let's get started.”
The brewing process was arduous and took them the better part of an hour. Kenji and Din first chopped up the herbs as finely as they could; then turned them into paste using mortar and pestle. Once they had their pastes, they would decoct them using the kanaka, collecting the dark, oily liquids into various flasks. Over each of them, Kenji spoke a different nursery rhyme, sometimes having Din do one herself. Lastly, he took out two large buckets from under the table and placed them next to each other, filling them up with acrylic primer from a large, metal container.
“Good… good… Now, we will divide the cobalt water and silverlight between the buckets.” He carefully tipped the bottle containing the glowing, blue liquid, pouring half into each bucket. “It's not technically part of the formula, but as a powerful magic catalyst, it will help the concoction bind with the primer and in turn help the magic seep into the material we apply it to. It's sort of a double insurance.”
“And you can only get it in Aquaris?”
Kenji nodded. “Spell ink has five components, each of which is produced in one of the Five Cities. Cobalt water is made in Aquaris, silverlight in Aerialis. Keeping each city from producing spell ink independently is one of the ways this country stays unified. These days we are rather dependent on magic engines.” A small, wooden box contained the silverlight: glittering shavings of brass, imbued with secret wind magic. He let the flakes drift down into the buckets; then had Din stir one while he stirred the other. The contents were now faintly glowing. Next, he reached for the decoctions, one by one, and tipped them into the buckets.
“Is that it?” Din asked, once he had finished stirring.
He nodded, wiping some sweat from his brow. “Yes, we have it. Now I need paper and something to write, maybe a ruler too…”
Din retrieved paper, ruler, and pencil from a drawer and handed them over.
“Excellent! Now look,” he drew a circle and divided it into sections using the ruler. “This is the layout of the tower. It's mostly round, but the top is a pentagon, which is useful for us. Five and three are powerful numbers. We'll go up floor by floor, marking five and three rooms in an alternating pattern; then, we'll put the main seals on the roof, have them work their magic down from the top.”
“And that will work?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Probably.”
“I'm not an academic like Sameth, just a novice that has picked up the odd thing from some really shady folk. But from experience I have no reason to believe it wouldn't work just fine.”
“Mhm…” she replied skeptically.
Kenji cleared his throat. “So, I'll take the odd floors, you'll take the even ones. Pick three rooms that form as symmetrical a triangle as you can. I'll do the five-room roster. When we are at the top, we'll draw up the sigils.”
“What are we doing in the rooms?”
“We just need to put a dot above the door of each. You don't even need to go in. Just make sure the dot is nice and round. Spin the brush around its axis a little, that should do the trick.”
Din scratched her head. “What if I get stopped by someone?”
“Tell them you're doing Keeper business.”
“What if they want to know what kind of Keeper business?”
“Tell them you're doing secret Keeper business.”
“What if they don't believe me and start patronizing me?”
“I'd say kick their ass but…” he took a fresh sheet of paper and scribbled something on it hastily. “Here, just show them this.”
She took the sheet and let her eyes wander across the lettering: “Yes, Din is really doing secret Keeper business, get out of her gears-damned hair. Signed, Kenji Sokolow, Lord of Wind. And then there's today's date. Charming,” she noted and pocketed the writ of passage. Fine, I'm ready.”
Getting from the bottom of the tower to the top, even just quickly dotting some of the door frames on each level, took several hours. It was a rather tall tower. Once they met on the flat, pentagonal roof, the sun was long gone, and a million stars shone brightly overhead, a waning gibbous palely illuminating the black stone, making the veins of quartz within glitter.
“Fucking bucket!” Din cursed and put it down vehemently. “I think my arm is going to fall off…”
“Yeah, well…” Kenji said, not all too cheery himself, “I'll let the curse slide this time. Fucking bucket…”
They both dropped to the floor and let the cool stone soothe their backs and arms while looking up at the brilliant night sky.
“So, now we just have to draw the sigils?” Din asked.
“In a minute,” Kenji replied. “Let's just enjoy the view for a bit.”
“Somehow the night sky always makes me think of home,” she mused.
“No, High Saxia.”
“You were just a baby when they brought you here, Din.”
“Yeah, I know it sounds weird. But when I look up there, it feels like there is someone there I should know.”
Kenji squinted upwards. “Well, shit, maybe. I heard the Old Gods live on that green speck on the moon.” He pointed upwards.
“I thought they lived on the North Pole.”
“That'd be a pretty shitty place to live, don't you think? I heard there is actually just a magic bridge there that leads up to the moon.”
“So, in their night sky they see Aqualon?”
“I wonder what it looks like from there.”
“Well, I mean you've seen maps of the world.”
“That hardly compares,” she replied, turning to him with furled brow. “I think I want to see it someday.”
Kenji rose up. “You won't hear any objections from me. We could do with some better relations with the Angel Saxons and their gods. They've been so secluded since the Great War, we have no idea what they're doing these days. It's enough to make one itchy.” He picked up his bucket and walked to one of the five corners.
Din rose to follow him and looked over his shoulders as he dopped a long paint brush into the bucket and violently flicked some of the strange liquid onto the corner.
With as regal a voice as he could conjure, he spoke to the heavens: “I do not cry out in ancient tongues!” and he shambled over to the next corner, flicking more onto the black stone. “No rituals of brittle old lands!” In the third corner, he augmented his dubious artwork with a fat glob of spit. It was the corner facing west towards Lake Glazglubin. “We are masters of souls and magic here! No hoarders of secrets and weavers of lies!” In the fourth corner, he put his hands to his mouth and made a funnel: “We fear no gods of yore!” And in the final corner, he doused the stone with an extra helping of the shimmering ooze. “We are masters of the elements and unravellers of secrets!” He turned and paced to the center of the flat pentagon where he emptied the bucket and tossed it casually aside. He drew Orzelgryf and dipped the tip into the puddle, skillfully drawing the sigils he had thought up in thin lines, making them emerge from the shimmering pool as though they were part of an abstract painting. Then he lifted the estoc high up, pointing it at the sky. There was rumbling above and the clouds began to move in eerie circles. He waved Din over with his free hand: “Come, hold my hand Din!”
Hesitantly, she stepped a bit closer. She had followed him around so far and now seemed a bit intimidated by the situation. Still, she took heart and reached out, taking his hand in hers. “What do I do?”
“Speak after me!” He had to raise his voice more and more over the awesome noise of the swelling winds. The clouds had begun to dip and were closing in on the tip of the tower.
She squeezed his hand to signal her readiness.
“Hear us, gears beyond the world!”
“Hear us, gears beyond the world!”
“The elements have claimed this land!”
“The elements have claimed this land!”
“By the ur-soul of wind, I do so attest!”
Din hesitated for a moment, then added: “By the ur-soul of fire, I do so attest!”
“There are no monsters in the Middle Lands!”
“There are no monsters in the Middle Lands!”
The clouds struck down and washed over the tower, dousing it in wet, dark fog. For a moment, the awesome noise washed out all other perception, and all they could see through the thick haze was the faint glowing of their sigils. Then, the clouds dispersed, leaving behind only a thin mist. Just barely at the edge of their visibility, they could make out the crenellation of the tower top.
Kenji breathed out a sigh of relief and slowly lowered his arm, gently letting go of Din's hand.
“Did it work?” she asked hesitantly?
Before Kenji could answer, there was a series of distorted howls, sending a shiver down their spines.
Din hastened to the edge of the tower, looking down intently. “There are shadows in the mist!” she exclaimed.
“Are they running away?”
“Yes, looks like they are heading west!”
“Then it worked.” He scanned the roof and went for the dropped bucket, collecting it and the brush and stacking them into the second, empty bucket with which they had marked most of the doors within the tower. “Come, let's get back down before we catch a cold. I think I might actually sleep a bit easier tonight for a change…”
Din caught up with him as he reached the stairwell. “You can't sleep well? I thought you looked so tired because you kept staying up late…” she said guiltily.
“No need to concern you with my sleep, Din. But thank you. I'm just glad we are a smidge safer now. I should have done this years ago…”
“Sameth is going to scold you for using animancy, you know… I bet Atlas won't be too happy either.” Thinking about this, she added: “I'm not in trouble, am I?”
He waved her off. “No, Kathy knows what is going on, and they can hardly blame you for helping me out when I asked. Thank you for that, by the way.”
She gave him a wide smile. “So, about those magic lessons…”
“This was the lesson. What, you want to learn more after all that bucket lugging?”
“It… can't all be buckets, right?” she ventured.
“I suppose I could show you a couple of totems I picked up during my travels… Why don't you come along to the village and we'll see if Poppy won't whip us up some late-night grub?”
Din beamed at him.
Kenji and Din were joking on their way back down the tower for about two stories before he stopped in his track. Something wasn't right.
“Did we forget something up on the roof?” Din inquired, clearly dreading the prospect.
But it wasn't that. It was the tower. The black spire was holding its breath. Kenji's eyes darted around as though he could notice whatever was out of place by catching it off guard. The faint winds within the building, stirred by people walking, the opening of doors, the cracking of windows, they urged him, tried to catch his attention. The air was trembling. He lifted his hand slowly. “Get behind me, Din.”
Immediately alert, she darted behind his back, turning hers to his. “What's the matter?” the worry in her voice had turned genuine. “Did the magic fail? Are the monsters back in force?”
Kenji was surprised that she had taken a tactical position rather than just sheltering behind him. She really was quite grown-up for her young age. When he answered, his voice was tense. “I don't know. I doubt that is the case, our ritual was flawless. Something is wrong in here, there might be a different kind of intruder…” Suddenly, fear weighed down on his shoulders, almost making him slump over: What if he had been too slow to act? What if Sameth had made his move?
Heavy steps suddenly clapped against the stone stairs below, echoing upwards. Steps Kenji recognized all-too-well. He had a way with sound: Being the Lord of Wind, he understood aerial vibrations like no other. If he wanted, he could create any sound, even mimic the voices of others. In fact, if he so desired, he could turn the entire tower into a pressure cannon, expelling everything and everyone inside. Of course, Sameth, who was coming closer and closer, being the Lord of Earth, could easily collapse the tower and everyone in it into a tiny lump of coal so dense it would fall through the ground and all the way down to the planet's core… If they clashed in a closed place like this, there would likely be no survivor.
When the dark-brown robe came into the glow of the pale green magus lamps that lined the stairwell, it looked nearly black, and Sameth Gildorn's eyes, sunken in as though sleepless for many nights, stared up at Kenji and Din, giving him the appearance of a dread animancer out for their souls.
Kenji's hand had connected with Din's waist as she turned around to see who was coming up the stairs, and he held on to it. Whether to reassure her or himself, he could not say.
“Oh, it's you Sameth,” Din sighed in relief. She tried to step past Kenji and he could notice the mild surprise in her eyes when he held her back gently but firmly.
Sameth was holding a portable magus lamp himself. His mouth was a thin line and his voice somber when he replied: “Yes. You'd both best come along.” Something was decidedly wrong with his tone of voice. It seemed strangely defeated.
“Why? Where?” Kenji inquired sharply.
The old man let out a deep, soundless sigh. “Perhaps just you, Kenji… There has been an incident. Din, would you mind going to your room? It is late anyhow.”
She did not move. “What incident? What is going on, Sameth?”
His mouth opened and closed again. Then he turned around. “Kathlyn Dulheine… is dead.”