The silver walls towered up into the black sky, moonlight trickling down in metallic reflections. In the distance, Kenji could hear the roaring of something large and heavy crashing through the circuitous pathways of the labyrinth. He touched one of the walls and withdrew his hand with a wince. It had been so cold that bits of his skin had ripped off. He looked back and forth along the corridor, which forked off at either end. A voice right behind his ear addressed him sternly: “This place is supposed to be empty. What did you put in here?”
Kenji bolted upright. A rough blanket fell off his chest and onto his lap. He looked about, trying to make the best of his impeded vision. Wooden walls. He was inside a cabin.
“Milord, be careful!” said the surprised voice of a man, “do not strain yourself so!”
His blurry vision focused somewhat and he saw a plainly garbed, middle-aged man rise from a nearby dining table. A woman that might have been his wife or sister looked up from her work at the stove. Kenji tried to fix his gaze on the man, his head pounding. “Where… am I?”
“A few miles out from Estfelden, milord. Your horse carried you over here, you were asleep in the saddle, almost fell off.” The man seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Forgive me, but we couldn't take the mask off, nor the sword. You must have lain quite uncomfortably…”
Kenji pulled the blanket back and stood up shakily. “I need to move on…” he muttered. Estfelden? Had he heard that right? He'd been a fool to go cross-country instead of taking the Estroad down north. Or perhaps it was better to take the road less traveled right now.
“You should rest some more, milord! You look a bit wobbly; I think you might have a fever.”
From the stove, the woman added: “Stay for something to eat at least, Lord Kenji! It'll do you a world of good.”
“You know who I am?”
The woman chuckled. “We're still in the Footlands, your Windishness.”
“Ah, don't pay her no mind,” the man said apologetically. Clearly fearing a reprieve.
Blinking, Kenji replied: “Who are you people?”
“Name's Holger, that's my wife Rahna.” He pulled out a chair for Kenji to sit at.
“Wife? Ask them why they have two beds in here.”
Kenji spun around.
From behind him, Holger said: “Is something the matter, milord?”
Kenji was quite sure he had just heard a strangely familiar voice. But clearly, Holger had not… “I… Do you have a hammer lying around here?”
“A hammer? There's one in the barn, hanging by the door,” Holger replied nonplussed.
Kenji heaved a sigh of relief. “I have need of it… and a bit of privacy. Would you mind if I borrowed your barn for a moment?”
The man nodded hesitantly. “I suppose.” Then, he added: “Will you be joining us for lunch then?”
“I think I will… Thank you, Holger.” Kenji shambled to the door and let himself out. Outside he could see large, baren fields and felt the cold of winter grasp for him with hungry fingers. There was a large barn with a trough at the side, where Clarie was tied to a post, standing around tranquilly. He walked over to her and stroked her soft nostrils. Then, he made his way into the barn, looking for Holger's hammer. It was a small thing, probably duralumin with a lead core. They produced the lot over in Fulgrath in mass. He weighed it carefully in his hand, then sat down on a nearby stool, watching the straw that lay strewn across the dirt floor. Carefully, he placed his free hand on the surface of the mask and begun muttering an incantation. Calling himself an animancer would have been a gross exaggeration, but, tapping into the Labyrinthine Mask's power, he was able to tell a new story. Stories were a core component of animancy: They changed the state of souls and thus could change the shape of magic, if used right. All he did, was change the story of the mask, if by just a smidgen…
When he was done, he brought up the hammer and shattered it.
The white slivers of ivory and silver wires fell to the ground, all save for one large piece, which remained lodged over his left eye, where it shifted uncomfortably, its edges becoming smoother as it braced itself against the rim of his eye-socket. With the fragment in place and the spell spoken, the strange animancy that had invaded his soul and however much it had managed to taint were now locked inside his left eyeball, a tiny, mystic puzzle box made from living flesh. Though if it would hold up forever or be breached by the magic of the key at some point, he could not say for sure. Whatever Poppy had injected into him was old and powerful, older and more powerful than anything he had ever seen. And he had seen his father up close.
He diligently picked up the broken pieces of ivory and silver wire and carried them outside where he stowed them in one of Clarie's saddlebags. It wouldn't do to let them fall into the wrong hands, even in this state. Who knew how the animancy had tainted the shards, and what would happen if the farmers accidentally picked them up?
After enjoying a few deep breaths of the sweet, cold air, now that his face was unencumbered again, he made his way back into the cabin where three plates had been set on the table. He guiltily took a seat. “I should not impose on you like this. And at this time of the year… I have brought some provisions with me, perhaps you would allow me to share them with you?”
“But you are our guest!” Rahna protested. “What would the world come to if we took food away from you, no, no, I won't have it.”
“Well, perhaps as a visitor's present? It is very common over in Aerialis and Yamato… shit, I don't even know if what I have with me is any good…”
She shook her head disapprovingly, “now, now, milord, there is no need to cuss under this roof.”
“You need not worry about our… uh… situation, that's it, our larder is well-stocked.”
Holger agreed: “Yeah, ain't no wars hear in the heartland, so things are going mighty well, and who do we have to thank for that, right? So, you don't worry about a thing, milord. Unless you don't like steamed potatoes with garlic-and-fristok yogurt sauce.”
“Fristok?” Kenji said nonplussed, “you eat sweets for lunch?”
Rahna laughed, “oh no, I scoop the sweet pulp out for making jam. If you take only the hard flesh, it just tastes like… cucumber I suppose.”
He could smell the potatoes and spotted the wooden bowl in which she had been mixing up the sauce. “Sounds delicious. I could really use some good food right now. My bones feel hollow, if you know what I mean.”
Holger nodded sagely. “It must have been quite the ride for you to fall asleep on your horse like that. You could have fallen and broken your neck, milord. Best to take care of yourself and not overdo things.”
“Sometimes we have to do more than we can handle. It's just the way of the world.”
“Ah,” said Holger, “that is when friends and family, or your community should pick up the slack. We are stronger together I always say.”
Kenji flinched. Not because of what Holger had said. Oh, it certainly stung, because right now he felt as alone as he had felt as a boy at his father's court so many years ago; but he had flinched because once again, he heard the voice of a third person in the room, just behind him:
“She turned away when he said that. I wonder what that's about,” said the voice. It was dreadfully familiar.
Slowly, Kenji turned his head around.
Holger interjected from the side: “What is it, milord, did you hear something outside? There's a fox that comes by here sometimes, I've tried to get rid of it, because of the chicken coop, you see, but it keeps outsmarting my traps. I should get some magic engine for that from Fulgrath, but who has the time to make the trip.”
He barely registered what the man was saying. He could swear he had seen a strand of purple hair in the corner of his eye just then. But it was gone already. When he turned back, he almost fell off his chair, hitting his knee painfully against the corner of the table.
“Milord!” Holger yelped. “What is the matter?”
“Uh… I… uh… am still fatigued… forgive me…” His eyes were transfixed on the kitchen area. Next to Rahna, without either of the pair noticing in the slightest, someone was leaning against the counter. Someone, who looked exactly like Kathlyn Dulheine.
There was a ghost hanging over the dinner table. Well, actually, she was slowly walking circles around it, clearly annoyed at the fact she couldn't participate. The atmosphere was thick with a laden silence that was only intensified by the sounds of cutlery scraping and mouths smacking uneasily. Kenji tried to look away from the absurd apparition of Kathy, who was all to eager to draw in his attention.
“Alright, I thought she might use it for potato skins or something, but look: Completely untouched, just sitting there!”
Kenji's gaze jerked up involuntarily and he saw Kathy point at a fourth plate. It was the same kind as the three set for him, Holger, and Rahna, but it just sat next to the stove. There even was a fork neatly placed below the tapered rim.
She gave him an evil grin. “Now ask the question, or I'll embarrass you some more!” It did not escape Kenji's notice that she was making some rather vulgar motions with her fingers, clearly up to no good. Then again, what could she possibly do, not being real and all… “Oh, I bet you thought ‘what could she possibly do, not being real and all', didn't you?!” she exclaimed indignantly, “how dare you mock your senior Keeper like that!”
Kenji cleared his throat. “I sense…” he hesitated but then pressed on, “I sense that someone is missing from this table.”
Kathy clapped. “Well, what do you know, the man does have two braincells to rub together! Honestly, I am going to tear up here…” she mockingly looked away, covering her eyes with her arm in an utterly overstated manner.
It was all Kenji could do to keep his calm, because his statement had also elicited a reaction from the couple. Holger had dropped his fork into his yogurt and was now putting a hand gently on Rahna's shoulder, following a sudden sob from his wife. She was clutching her mouth with both hands and looking away.
Holger did not look at Kenji when he said: “Truly, you are a fearsome master of magic, Lord Kenji, to sense such a thing so easily…”
“I don't know about that,” Kenji replied lamely. But he rallied quickly. “Has someone who lives here gone missing?”
Now, Rahna was crying, still smothering her sobs with her hands.
He pushed one of his potatoes around his plate with his fork, his eyes transfixed embarrassedly on the task. Kenji wasn't sure he had the capacity to deal with other people's grief just now, especially since his own was being thrown for a loop at the moment. That, and he dealt poorly with people showing vulnerability. This sort of thing wasn't done back in the Old Country, at least not in the court where he grew up. Either you were strong, or you were dead; if you were lucky.
Holger gently stroked his wife's back. “It's our son Rodger, milord. He was to bring some sacks of produce over to the magus tower on the eastern border three days ago, and he has still not returned to us.”
Kenji scratched his chin thoughtfully. “That's a couple of miles from here, right? Does old Hendrick Severlin still take care of the place?”
“Yes, milord, he and his apprentice.”
“It's still very cold, perhaps they caught the edge of a snow storm and your son is snowed in?”
Holger fidgeted with his fork. “Yes, milord, it could be…”
“But you don't think so…” Kenji mused. “How old is your son?”
“Thirty-and-seven years, milord.”
Young, but already well-old enough to stand on his own two feet. Even if he was poised to take over the farm after his parents, there was likely more than enough time to spend a few years in the city making money. There was always more money in the city. “And he has lived here all this time?”
“No… he, went to work in Fulgrath for a couple of years.”
Kathy pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger, shutting her eyes. “I don't like where this is going…”
Kenji continued to ignore her. “And he is back to visit?”
The sobbing from Rahna intensified.
Kenji sighed. “I am guessing he, uh… brought the snow with him then?”
Holger's head sunk down to his chest. “You are kind to say it like that, milord…” Then he looked up again, this time turning directly to face Kenji. “But he's a good, honest lad! He knows, he'll always have a place here, he wouldn't just up and leave like that!”
“So, you think, someone may have wanted to harm him?”
“You know how it is, milord, it's not like with them Yamato Folk over here, but people do hate the blighted…”
“Oh, I think,” Kenji replied darkly, “that people rather like the blighted. Always good to see someone below you in the dirt, I'd wager. Has there been a mob then? I'd hate to hear there was a mob right under my nose and I didn't hear anything about it.”
Spellblight was a death mark in the Old Country. If your hair turned white and your eyes cobalt blue, people knew it was only a matter of time before the Curse of Manastranza got to you. Here in the Middle Lands, people didn't turn into monsters. They turned into beggars if they were lucky, or dog food if they were not. And nowhere in the world were there more blighters than in the Middle Lands. It was the price of progress, as they said.
Holger shook his head. “No, milord, them's decent folk that live here in the Footlands, for the most part at least. But there is always someone out for blood, I think. It's an affliction of the young, you see.”
Kenji stood up. “I must go to Aerialis, and quickly too. But I will stop by Old Severlin's magus tower and see what I can find out. It is the least I can do to repay your kindness.”
Rahna looked up through her teary eyes, “Oh, milord! Thank you! Thank you so much!”
“I don't have the words,” Holger added. “Please, must you go right away? Surely you are still weakened from before, can you not rest a bit longer and regain your strength? I would not see you head out into the cold like this, milord!”
Kenji shook his head. “I have lingered too long already. I fear, it will be a long time before I can rest easy again.” He looked up to Kathy and blinked. “A long time…”
Clarie was unperturbed. As the landscape slowly slipped past them, she carried Kenji eastward swiftly despite their cross-country route. The winds of the Footlands blew past his ears, ruffling his wild hair as the sun progressed steadily across the sky. He could still sense the breezes, the gusts, the playful squalls, and he could feel the wind everywhere around him brushing across the landscape. But the sense had grown dull, as though touching something with a hand very nearly asleep. It was not his affliction that caused this weakening of his link, but the fragment of Brynwain's mask and his own, ironclad will. The Ur-soul of wind always sought out his own, and as such it was drawn towards Orzelgryf, the focal point where two souls were bound together by a third. But using his Keeper magic now was dangerous. The ivory seal over his eye was twisting part of his soul into a puzzle knot, sending the animantic energy round and round, keeping it contained, but it was a stop-gap measure. Furthermore, using his Keeper magic would mean adding additional openings to his soul, openings that led into the wind. If he spread the sickness into the Ur-soul of wind, even dying and being reincarnated would no longer be a way out for him. The infected Ur-soul would be drawn to his again and again, forming a cycle of taint. If he was going to use magic, it would have to be the regular kind. He would need powerful totems if he desired to tame the wind the old-fashioned way…
And then, there was the other thing. He was quite alone in the saddle. No one was leaning against his back and there was no tell-tale sound of breath close to his ear. Yet. Yet, Kathy was there, right behind him. He did not know how he knew, but he knew. “What the fuck are you doing here, Kathy…” he muttered, blinking away a tear.
“Hitching a ride on a horse.” He could practically hear her grin.
“I should think so. Heh. I just wanted to say: ‘never stabbed someone in the heart and saw them get back up', then I remembered that that's not true.”
There weren't the words to describe how happy and how despaired Kenji felt with every word she spoke. If he had acquired even a single grain of actual wisdom from his time in the Old Country, it was that, whatever this was, was not going to end well. “You're not haunting me, are you? It's my mind that's going. I knew the mask would come with consequences but this…” He put a hand gently on Clarie's warm neck, stroking it a bit, just for reassurance. The ground had become muddy and they were trotting much slower now.
“Well, I did say I would, right?” she teased him. “But then again, I wasn't killed by a hair demon. Let's say I am… reverse haunting you; lending a ghostly hand so-to-speak.”
Kenji did not believe the ghost talk for a moment. What a convenient idea. “Leave me be. Go and get yourself reincarnated like you are supposed to or whatever. Since you're passing on, tell the Great Clockwork to do something about this whole mess while you're at it. Can't hurt to ask.”
It was quiet for several heartbeats after that. But she wasn't gone. “Nah. Pass. You need the company more than the world needs a new Keeper of Lightning.”
Kenji laughed bitterly. “You really think so?”
“What? You think it'll be all that nice and smooth then? I get reincarnated as some lil' baby, blow the place I come into the world up with some huge thunderstorm and then what? Sameth and Atlas will be right there to scoop me up. I'll be a right easy target for the old Lord of Earth then. Pass. Besides, I told you I wanted some more adventure. You'll have to adventure very hard indeed if you want to claw yourself out of this pit of crap. Sounds like a win-win to me.”
“You've always made your own win-win situations,” he noted quietly.
“What are we going to do now?”
“See the magus and find out what happened to the boy.”
“Very noble, very noble. But I meant after that.”
“After that we'll do some hair magic of our own.”
It had been just over seventeen centuries since the Great War had ended and the Age of Gears and Elements begun. It was during the beginning of this great age that the Five Capitals of the Middle Lands were erected, each around places where magic had become most sophisticated and the learned and/or spiritual gathered. But even before the Five Capitals, there were the magus towers.
Forming a very gently inclined basin, the relatively flat, grassy Middle Lands were a fertile patchwork of nations, then ruled by illustrious margraves and lords. It had also always been prone to flooding, especially towards the central area that now was the Footlands, and the sparsity of mountains north to south invited storm winds that could bring great devastation. Thus, after magic had begun to spread across the Middle Lands, venerable mages erected towers near settlements from where to aid the local populace. They protected folks from floods, fires, and storms, helped prepare and irrigate the fields, and they took in young apprentices to pass on the craft.
In the west, Altonarian technocrats used mighty mechanical engines to till their fields and bring in the harvest. Here, only the farming regions around Fulgrath employed magic engines that could do similar work. Elsewhere in the Middle Lands, there still stood the magus towers, and they still made the land safe and fertile with their magic.
When the three of them arrived at the magus tower of Hendrick Severlin, the skies had closed up above them, turning darker and darker shades of gray with their approach. Kenji dismounted and gave Clarie a gentle pat. He had been given some extra feed by Holger and Rahna, but since the pasture around the tower was lush and green, despite the cold, so he decided to let her graze. There was no stabling to use anyway. “Don't stray too far, my dear,” he said softly, resting his head against her shoulder for a moment.
“Much more of a friend than my old Lockjaw, I suppose. She is a pretty girl,” Kathy said next to him.
Kenji looked up. There she stood, as solid as a rock. Her mischievous eyes like amethysts had a tinge of weariness to them, but they did not belie the smirk on her face. “I can't remember the last time you busted out the old rock…”
She gave him a wink and retrieved the tiny, crystal effigy of a panther from the pockets of her beige leather jacket. “Want me to ride alongside when we move on?”
“No. Come on.” He nodded over to the tower. “And don't try anything funny.”
“Oh, good idea!”
Kenji had made a terrible mistake. He knew the moment the words had passed his lips, but it was too late. This was not going to be enjoyable.
He strode over to the heavy, oaken door of the craggy, two-story stone tower and gave it a quick rap. He had to knock three more times before someone answered. An old man with a singed white beard and wiry grey hair opened up.
The magus looked at Kenji through tinted spectacles, absent-mindedly beating some dust from his aquamarine robes – his element was likely water. “Oh dear. Has anyone ever told you, you're the spitting image of the Keeper of Wind, young man?”
“The Lady of Lightning once told me something along those lines,” Kenji admitted with a raised brow.
Kathlyn snorted with laughter next to him.
The old man scratched his head. “Did she, now? Quite a privilege to meet her in person, I'm sure. How can I help you, young man?”
“I am just passing through. I wanted to inquire about a friend who came here a couple of days ago.”
“Ah yes…” The magus looked as though an idea had just struck him from the depths of the ether. “But it is freezing! Why don't you come inside and I shall make us some tea? My name is Hendrick Severlin. And who are you, young man?” He made way for Kenji to enter.
“Kenji Sokolow.” He stepped into the tower. It was stuffy and the smell of chemicals was in the air. Tall shelves took up most of the walls, except for a broad work desk and a stair well leading to the top floor. A square table in the center of the room was cluttered with papers, books, inkpots, dirty dishes, and, mysteriously, a single yellow sock.
“Remarkable, you even have the same name!” Mr. Severlin replied enthusiastically, closing the door behind them. Then, it finally sunk in. “My word, Lord Sokolow! Here in my tower! Please, sit! I must get the good tea right away.”
“No need to make allowances on my account,” Kenji tried to assuage. He took a seat at the cluttered table and followed the magus with his eyes.
Bustling from shelf to shelf, opening drawers in cupboards, and touching a fire plate to charge it with magic, and placed a percolator on it, which he filled by moving water out of a large clay jug with the utterance of a few words of power. As a water magus, there was no way he could perform fire magic: A soul could not attune itself to more than one elemental Ur-soul. Switching attunements was impossible for most mages, and even then, most needed months, if not years to accomplish the task. But with a simple magic engine, like the fire plate, a narrow application of fire magic became possible for anyone with a soul. “A nice, blended Yamatonian Green, I think. I get it from Aerialis, you see. Oh, but look at the state of that table!” he exclaimed in sudden embarrassment. He bustled over, almost tripping over his robe on the way. He clumsily stacked some of the books and pushed papers to the side, nearly toppling an open inkwell. Then he stacked three plates with unidentifiable leftovers haphazardly and carried them off.
“Please, there is no need to stand on ceremony,” Kenji assured him.
A long, purple braid flashed across his vision as Kathy, her back turned to him, rested her behind against the other side of the table. “I bet he'd be less clumsy without the tinted glasses.”
Kenji looked up. Mr. Severlin's back was turned to him as he carefully observed the percolator, stopping only to stuff an aluminum tea egg with the contents of a labeled little sack. “Is it not a bit dark for those glasses?”
There was a chuckle from the old man. “It'll be much darker soon. I am experimenting with the photography of magic, though ‘phôs' isn't quite the right etymology here, I suppose. Magic can have visible effects, of course, but it is the invisible I am interested in, you see. Ah. What was the question again?”
“Right, my old eyes adjust so slowly, I try to keep them in the dark as much as possible.” He retrieved the tea egg from the percolator and smiled. “If one is looking for the light, the darkness is a solid place to start, eh?” Finally, he joined Kenji at the table, handing him a cup and saucer.
Kenji took a sip. “Soothing, but a bit bitter for my taste.”
“Ah, forgive my clumsiness, with the spectacles I must have misjudged how strong the tea has become. Now I feel quite silly.” The old man blew on his steaming cup and sipped carefully from it. “I am surprised you would travel so far out in the country, rather than use one of the main roads. Where are you headed, my Keeper?”
“Aerialis. I have to make haste and this is certainly the… most direct route.”
“But surely not the fastest?”
“I have my reasons for coming this way. As it happens, one of them is the friend I spoke of earlier. A young man with white hair, he would have come by here with some produce a couple of days back.”
Mr. Severlin scratched his head. “Ah yes, bright lad. The Estfelden folk take good care of me, I must say.”
“Was there anything odd about his arrival or departure?”
“Departure?” The old man took off his glasses and wiped them on his sleeve.
Kenji took the opportunity to observe his eyes closely. They were light brown and had no hint of yellow in them. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Or at least he wanted to. His breath felt a bit heavy. “Is he still here?”
“Something is wrong, Ken,” Kathy warned him. “Get out of the tower!”
He stood up from his chair abruptly. Too abruptly as he saw stars and swayed slightly.
The magus lifted a hand. “Careful, my Keeper, don't get up too quickly. Yes, the young man you speak of is down in the basement. I'll arrange a meeting, of course.”
The walls suddenly tilted sideways and before he knew it, Kenji was lying on the ground. “What…” Everything became black.
Kenji groaned. His vision was blurry and his wrists hurt.
“Damnit, Ken! How does Mr. Paranoia get himself drugged by some old fart way out nowhere?” Kathy was really tearing into him, but he could barely keep up.
A voice beside him caught his attention. It wasn't the wizened rasp of the old man, but a young, confident one. “Finally awake, Keeper? How about you blow us out of here or something?”
Kenji lifted his head slowly. Whatever old Severlin had slipped into his tea was still hammering against the inside of his skull. He was inside a sparsely lit, long cellar room, facing an iron door with a viewing slit. Rusty duralumin chains held up the heavy manacles that bound him. The voice beside him had come from a young, white-haired man. It wasn't the hereditary, silvery white of Kenji's untamed mane, but the paper-white of the blighted. Rodger. Had to be. “Your parents are looking for you, boy.” He said, trying to hoist himself upright.
“Gears, and they sent the Keeper of Wind to find me? They didn't sell the farm, did they?”
Kenji grunted. “No, they were just lucky. The Great Clockwork must want you alive or me dead.” He tried to fix his gaze at the door.
The boy's chains clattered. “Well, surely you can spring us, right? Down in Fulgrath they say nothing beats Keeper magic.”
Kathy peered through the door slit. “Wouldn't it be nice if that were true, eh Kenji?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
Rodger beamed. “I knew it!”
“Nothing is happening,” he noted.
The voice of Hendrick Severlin echoed into the cellar: “Oh, I don't think the Lord of Wind is going to magick his way out of here any time soon.”
“What in Vinclav's rotten name is your game, old man?” Kenji spat.
“Oh, I think you know of my master, Keeper Sokolow. There is a piece of his magic in your eye.”
“Didn't see any of it in yours, though…” his face had become a stony mask.
“I asked for it, you know…” said old Severlin wistfully. “When he showed me that awesome power, I asked to be a part of it… But, not yet, he said. He thinks my research might be of some use. You, however, Keeper Sokolow, how can you resist it still? Now there is a thing truly worth my full attention. I tried to pry that piece of ivory from your eye socket, but magic holds it shut. It is an old thing with strange powers. Tell me about it.”
Kenji fixed the door with his most piercing stare. “What is your master's name?”
“Bugger if I know.”
“And you just kidnap folks for some guy you don't know?”
“I need to observe the process. And if only I could take a picture of it… Who knows what I might learn about the human soul…?” There was a twang of utter avarice in his rasp, not for coin but for grains of forbidden lore.
Rodger rattled his chains again. “The man's a maniac, Keeper, can't you shoot the door into his face or something? I don't want nothing to do with no processes.”
Kathy gasped. “I think he just used so many negatives that the sentence comes out the right side up.”
Kenji ignored her. “I can't do Keeper magic right now. An animancer cursed me.”
“Is that what the old man wants to do to us?” the boy inquired in alarm.
“Not he, but whatever he is working for. I suppose we got until it arrives.”
There was a rap against the door. “Oh yes, soon,” the old man confirmed. “I'll get you some soup, make sure you are back to strength for the process.”
They heard steps moving away from the door.
After a moment, Kenji said. “Does he bring the soup in here?”
“He magicks it in through the slit. Look up.”
Kenji looked up. There was a funnel above him. “You're kidding.”
“He's a cautious bastard,” Rodger agreed.
Kathy stepped closer to the boy, giving him a close inspection. “Ask him how he blighted.”
Kenji rolled his eyes. Obviously, the boy had run out of luck with the magic engines. How else did a farm boy from the Footlands contract spellblight in Fulgrath?
“Don't roll your eyes at me, Kiddo. Now ask the question.”
“Where did you get the blight, boy?” Kenji asked quietly.
There was a moment's hesitation in his reply. “The Molotov towers, sir.”
Now that was a surprise. “You… went to the Academy?”
Rodger shrugged. “I worked the magic engines in Silkstreet for a while, but just enough to pay for tuition. Mages get more milage out of them and are rare to blight, so I figured it'd be the proper way to make some money. But the internship with Fulgrath Electric did me in. There's some evil folks working for that company, sir…”
“So, you can do lightning magic… Don't have the nullsickness yet, do you?”
“No, I can still do magic. But it's no good with the door in the way. If the old man actually came in, things would be different…”
Kenji looked down to the ground, then back up. “How do you relieve yourself?”
“No luck there, Keeper, when I can't hold it no more, I… uh… let it out so-to-speak. One of the soups or water after will put me right to sleep and he'll clean it up. No chink there, I fear.”
“Gears, he's just gonna let us piss ourselves?”
“I'm not into that,” Kathy added flatly.
“Can you grab my sword with your feet?” Kenji inquired.
“Alright, I'm back in,” she said with a grin.
Kenji's eyebrow twitched angrily.
Rodger tried to pull himself up on the chains. “Maybe, if you stick out your hip a bit.”
Kenji obliged, trying to bring Orzelgryf's handle closer to the boy.
“Wait,” he said, suddenly cautious, “won't I die if I touch that?”
“It's a bit more complicated than that,” Kenji replied, shaking his hips a bit to move the estoc into a better position.
“Well, if it's all the same, I'd rather not be complicated any further…”
“All the same?!” Kenji exclaimed incredulously. “Some animancer is going to do animancy to you and that's the option you choose? Look, boy, the sword is alive, right? It has a soul of its own. It doesn't take kindly to being stolen, but you're not stealing it, you're just handing it to me, got it?” He thought for or a moment. “You're out of a job, right? You want to be a squire, boy?”
“Carrying your sword and stabling your horse and whatnot?”
“Maybe a bit more whatnot than you may think, but basically.”
“You're cursed, right? Are you going on an adventure to free yourself from that?”
“I'd call it more of a perilous errand, sure to be followed by very aggressive politics.”
“Count me in, Keeper! My mum'll be over the moon if she hears I'm a Keeper's squire.”
“Yes, very good, I name you, Rodger, my squire. Now hand me my sword, squire. No sword could complain about being handed over to its master by his squire, right? No worries.”
“Right you are, master!”
With thirty-seven years on his back, he looked neither younger nor older than Kenji. It came with the gifts of the Great Clockwork. Kenji was, in fact, a couple of years younger than him, but his years had a lot of heft to them. In the Old Country, the years tended to weigh on someone like lead bars. Calling things “adventures” was for people who had young hearts. Like Rodger. Or Kathy.
The boy's back muscles bulged as he housed his legs up, trying to pry Orzelgryf free with his worn boots. Hooking them below the handle and tugging a couple of times did the trick, and the estoc was liberated. “Hugh, I can't lift it up to my hands, master. I'll lower it and try to toss it up to your hands.”
“Don't drop it…”
Rodger bit his lips as he pulled his knees up, the estoc still nestled between his feet, then he swung himself back and forth on the chain like a pendulum. On the backswing away from Kenji, he lowered his legs again slightly, and then brought them up sharply coming back, flicking the sword up towards Kenji's hands.
Light as it was, it actually went slightly to high, but Kenji was able to grasp the blade. It didn't have an edge. Or at least most of it did not. The point and the blade just below it were edged, honed to such fine, eternal sharpness, it could easily pierce even the thickest armor. It was a sword older than the world. He maneuvered it carefully to get a hold of the handle, and aimed a careful jab at Rodger's chain. It snapped. After he had landed on his feet, he held his hands up, but Kenji shook his head. “I can't get the manacles while I'm still hanging. Look, I'll hand you the sword, and you break my chain. Then, you'll break my manacles, and I'll break yours.”
“Oh, but master, then I'd be actually wielding the sword! It'll kill me for sure.”
Kenji strained himself not to groan. “I'm literally handing you the sword. Now do as you're told, squire!” He clumsily angled Orzelgryf towards Rodger.
Reluctantly, he grabbed the blade and maneuvered it, like Kenji, to get a hold of the handle, careful not to drop it. For a moment, he stood stock still, clearly expecting the wind to smack him dead against the wall. When that did not happen, he jabbed at the chain once or twice until Kenji dropped to his feet as well. With a few more cumbersome maneuvers and another change of hands, both manacles lay on the floor.
“Now what, master?” Rodger inquired.
“I don't suppose you could slip upstairs and scout the situation?” he asked Kathy mockingly.
“I… no, I don't think so, master,” Rodger replied crestfallen.
Kathy gave Kenji an evil little grin. “Why, do you need me to?”
Kenji sighed. “I'm not talking to you, Rodger. There's… like an evil spirit following me, alright? Just pretend I'm talking to myself from time to time. It'll certainly look the part.”
“An evil spirit!?” Kathy thundered in mock affront.
“Here is what we'll do,” Kenji said. “The old man is bound to come back with soup soon, right? I'll break the lock and open the door. There'll be a corridor or a stairwell behind it, I assume. We just wait for him to come down, his arms around the kettle or whatever, and as soon as he shows himself, you toss a lightning bolt his way.”
“It's a bit more difficult than that,” said Kathy indignantly.
“It's a bit more difficult than that, master,” Rodger apologized.
Kenji rubbed his temple. “Can you zap the old man? He doesn't look like he's a highly trained combat magus. He'll be too slow to react.”
Rodger scratched his broad nose thoughtfully. “I'm not a trained combat magus either, master. Didn't really plan on making a living that way back in the Academy. Then again, if I think of him as one of the clouds above the Molotov towers, I can probably give him a right good blow. Only… I think it'll kill him, master.”
Once again, Kenji sighed. He had angled himself a good lad right there. Wonderful. What he wouldn't give for a cold-blooded assassin right about now. “And we can't have that, can we?” said Kenji. “After all, he's the nice old man that washed off the poop after he put you to sleep.”
“I know I'm being silly, master, only… I've never killed a man. I'm not sure I could put it off my mind, you see, and if I can't put it off my mind, I might not be able to conjure the magic. It's a corundum.”
“Conundrum,” said Kenji and Kathy at the same time. Of course, the lad could only hear one of them. “Right,” Kenji said. He jabbed the estoc into the metal of the door by the wall several times near the lock, trying to cut the locking pin. It took a couple of tries, but he managed to break the lock and pull the door open. There was a corridor leading to a set of stairs behind it. “Alright, stick close to me. If I can't get to the old man, you circle around him, got it?”
Rodger nodded tensely.
When they had climbed the stairs as quietly as possible, they reached a door, likely leading back into the main hall of the magus tower. Kenji pressed his ear against it. He could still pick up vibrations in the air, but everything was muffled due to the mask shard twisting his soul and his own efforts to suppress his Keeper magic for the time being. The old man was talking to someone. A cold, strangely distorted voice that made Kenji shiver. Timing was not on his side, it seemed. These days he couldn't help but think the Great Clockwork itself had decided it was his time to “come hither”. He lifted a finger to his lips and very carefully pushed the door open. It creaked, even at an inch an hour. But what was he supposed to do? Perhaps the speakers were loud enough and far enough away not to notice.
When the door had been cracked open far enough to peer into the main hall, Kenji could just make out the back of old Hendrick Severlin, who stood in front of the closed front door of the tower. Before him, obscured by him, there was something unsettling in the air. It looked unnaturally dark but had a shimmering, yellow outline. Kenji swallowed. Finally, taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open as gently as possible and snuck towards the old man, sticking low to the floor, Orzelgryf in hand. Whatever was standing opposite Hendrick Severlin, Kenji used the old man for cover to stay out of its line of sight as he crept closer.
“A shame, Mr. Severlin, it truly is.” Said the distorted voice. It had the high pitch of an older man and the iron cold of a tyrant.
“M-master, what do you mean? Surely, the boy and… and the Keeper even, they must be to your liking, yes? And I have been making great progress with the powdered ardenstone you have provided! If only I could get a hold of some cobalt water, or perhaps even finished spell ink. I put in a requisition both with the tower and Aerialis, but the substance is highly regulated.” The old man had taken a step back, revealing some more of his counterpart.
There was… something akin to a hole in the air that sucked all the light in. Roughly shaped like a person, shimmering yellow outlines separated the world from an unnatural hole devoid of any light at all. “You have done interesting work indeed, Mr. Severlin, but it seems saving you would put me at a slight disadvantage. I am sure you understand.”
Silvery metal flashed and an unpleasant, quiet thunk filled the air as Kenji brought the pommel of his estoc up sharply against the back of the old man's head. Hendrick Severlin collapsed, unconscious.
“You did not stab him. I appreciate that, Lord Sokolow.”
Kenji stared at the figure before him. It looked utterly unreal and sent shivers down his spines. Something like this was not meant to exist outside of nightmares. “What the fuck are you!”
“Oh? Part of me is already inside that eye of yours. I thought you might recognize me.”
Kenji grit his teeth. “No. But tell you what, I'll take a look inside you and see what I can find out!” He brought Orzelgryf forth in a swift jab, stabbing at the thing's head. There was no resistance, and when he pulled the sword back, a viscous, yellow light was clinging to the tip like ichor. Suddenly there was a storm wind inside the tower as a high-pitched scream seemed to issue from the blade itself. Books flew of shelves, glass instruments exploded, tables and chars flipped and tumbled dangerously about, everything loose turning into deadly projectiles. Kenji desperately swung the estoc outward as if to fling blood off the blade. Surprisingly, it worked, and the glimmer landed on the floor, crawling back into the hole that was Hendrick Severlin's master. The sudden storm died down.
“Apparently one cannot stab a hole into a hole.” The cold voice mused with some glee. “You should be careful where you point an exposed soul, it'll go right bad if you are unlucky. Now, I think it'll be best to do a bit of gate keeping here. Then, I'll see if I can't get past that oddity you grafted onto your soul, Lord Sokolow. I have need of your soul.”
As the monstrosity said this, Kenji felt a strange tingle. Something was happening to his hair, and he saw a small spark play around Orzelgryf's blade.
“I think we got some backup, Ken,” said a voice beside him.
His head snapped back as he yelled: “No, don't!”
But it was too late. A bolt of lightning arced around the room towards the abomination and went right through it, striking the wall behind with a high-pitched buzz and a booming crackle. Just before it vanished, Kenji could see yellow light spread back through the lightning flash, striking back at Rodger, who was knocked off his feet.
The person-shaped hole floated backwards through the front door, snickering as it vanished. “Stay here for a bit, will you?”
Kenji jumped after it, tearing open the front door. On the cold grass before it, the hole dissipated and revealed a familiar figure: In front of the tower stood the oldest of the ten Guardians. Tamara of Lek, arch magus of earth and left hand to Sameth Gildorn himself. Her eyes were shining with the yellow glimmer, and her mouth opened as she spoke words of power: “Terra, terra, terra! Kluft zu Platte, Grotte zu Wall!”
The walls rumbled as the door frame closed swiftly like a living mouth. Kenji barely managed to jump back inside before the tower shut itself like a mica bell, dust and rock shavings showering down from all sides. Frantically, he looked around for a way out until his eyes fell on Rodger, who started writhing as a piercing scream burst forth from his lungs.