“Damnit, squire, get a grip!” Kenji yelled, shaking Rodger by the shoulders. But it was no use. The young man's eyes, glowing cobalt blue with spellblight, couldn't even focus on Kenji, staring wide open at the ceiling as Rodger screamed in horrible agony.
“Do something!” Kathlyn demanded, kneeling at Rodger's other side. “Use some of that animancy you know!”
Kenji looked up angrily: “Why don't you do something? Want me go out there and kill Tamara with a rock next? Or take Atlas out with a water balloon just for the fun of it? I know parlor tricks compared to what has the boy now! The only reason I didn't kill myself just like you, is that they tried to get me in my own house…”
“Well do something! He's in agony!”
Kenji grit his teeth. He rose up and drew his estoc.
“Oh, you've got to be kidding me!”
“Shut up, Kathy.” Steeling himself, he sucked the air in sharply through his nose and stabbed Rodger in the heart. He rent it swiftly and withdrew the blade. The screaming stopped.
His eyes lingered on the lifeless form of his erstwhile squire for a while as he thought of his worried parents. Kenji would have to tell them… Then, a glint caught his eye and he could see that the mortar across the tower wall had begun to light up in an eerie yellow glow, like a net woven from light. “I might have to stab myself next…”
Kathy stood up. “Cellar or roof?” she asked in a calculating tone of voice.
“Only an idiot would flee into a cellar when fighting an earth magus.”
“So get up those stairs!”
“They are too narrow; I'll be touching the walls!”
“Alright, how about this: Tornado. You make a huge tornado around the tower, wipe out anything within one or two miles.”
Kenji shook his head. “My soul is still twisted like a corkscrew. Even with Orzelgryf, the Ur-soul of wind can barely hear my voice. And if it could… there is always a chance the glimmer would be carried along. I can't risk it!”
“What, you think being reborn now is the better option? There'll be two Keeper babies somewhere on the globe, you and me, and Sameth is already gaining the upper hand. Look at what he did in two days!”
He looked around frantically. “If you're actually here, how about you try some lightning then?” he asked angrily. He couldn't find a single way out. And what did he expect, some heavy weaponry to blast through walls? This was hardly an arsenal…
Kathy lifted her hands: “No trident, no lightning.”
Kenji had jumped over to the long shelves that bent around the curved wall of the tower, tearing books and papers out onto the floor with mad speed. This wasn't an arsenal, but it was a magus tower. Water magic was good and well for helping out the farmers of the area, but what if there was an old tree-stump they had to get free or a building that needed demolishing? Surely, old man Severlin had some spell ink mandalas stashed away to perform the odd bit of earth or fire magic. After some savage perusal, Kenji managed to retrieve a loose folder with mandala scrolls inside. They weren't titled but marked with arcane short hands. He had no clue what each individual sheet of paper would do when touched. “Shit!” he cursed. If he tried them blindly, he was as likely to blow himself up as to escape, but what options did he have.
“Not now, I'm trying to decipher something!” He stared at the symbols, likely made by Hendrick Severlin to keep track of which sheet did what, but they made no sense to him at all. With a shaking hand he pulled one of the sheets free and scrutinized the mandala. There was no point. Cursing his luck, he put the stack aside and prepared to put his hand onto the dried spell ink.
“Kenji, the light is gone!”
He turned around, the sheet falling to the floor. The tower had grown darker again and there was no glimmer across the wall. But there was a sound: A distant whine from beyond where the door had been, followed by a severe clonk. The noise repeated and something metallic pierced the stonework, leaving a hole easily ten inches wide and spreading dust.
Kathy stepped over to the wall where another heavy thrust punched a second hole through close to the first. “It's a large drill. Why would Tamara use a drill to get in?”
Kenji breathed a sigh of relief. “It's not a drill, it's a terebra.” He moved away from the shelves and to Kathy's side. “Though what a White Lancer would do all the way out here…”
Two more holes were drilled bodily into the stone wall, and the high-pitched whine of the terebra was now continuously howling past the perforated wall. Finally, a heavy kick boomed against the stonework, but it took several strikes to knock a new entrance into the wall while large amounts of dust were flung up by the shattering rock. A silhouette was contrasted against the outside light flooding in through the dancing powder. They were wearing a long cloak, wielding the terebra in their left hand and a Yamatonian curved short sword in their right. The terebra was a curious weapon wielded by the knightly order of the White Lancers of Aerialis. It was a one-handed lance with a broad, rifled head, which spun at high speeds around a heavy lead core, creating significant angular momentum: A weapon designed specifically to pierce the walls of earth mages and the steel armor of Angel Saxons. One of the products of the Great War.
When the dust settled, Kenji recognized his savior. “Arashi! How?”
The raven-haired man bowed slightly. “Even with that question on your mind, master Sokolow, it seems you have me at a significant disadvantage.” He sheathed both of his weapons carefully, casting a brief look backwards. Behind him, Tamara was lying dead on the ground. Blood had soiled the green grass around her neck and upper body. “I was chasing you up until now.”
“Chasing?” his brow creased.
Arashi nodded. “Yes, master Sokolow. I was enjoying a drink at the Footland Sparrow when a commotion drew me and my fellow patrons out to the streets. I saw a monstrosity trying to kill the Lord of Earth and you, my Lord, fleeing the scene of the crime. Rendering what aid I could in chasing away the beast, I decided that apprehending you would be in the best interest of the Middle Lands.”
Kenji's brow hardened into deeper furrows. “It must have looked… grim indeed. What are they saying around the Tower?”
“I do not know, I hastened after you, master Sokolow.”
“Well, are you going to apprehend me?”
“Seeing the Lady Tamara attack you thusly, and considering the Lord of Earth could not possibly have had the time to direct his Guardian, I must conclude that whatever harm you may have caused him, may have been wrought in self-defense.” He paused for a moment, hesitating. “I also believe I saw… something before she began her assault. A creature of sorts perhaps. I heard parts of a conversation, and I sense that dark forces may be at work behind the scenes.”
“Astute as always.” Kenji wiped some sweat from his forehead absentmindedly. “We are all under attack. An animancer has made his way into the Middle Lands. And I dare say they rival or surpass the power of Balsibart the Bard. Did you bring your horse, Arashi?”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“Good. Then get a carpet or something and pack up Tamara's body. I'll get the boy.”
Arashi glanced over Kenji's shoulder. Rodger was lying dead in a pool of his own blood. “What of the old man?”
“We'll bury him here.”
“And you intend to bury Tamara in… where are we headed?”
“Aerialis. I have need of all the resources at my disposal. And we are not going to bury her. My outcast will perform the autopsy. We need answers about the sickness.”
“Is that what it is?”
“A sickness, a curse, a spell, whatever it is, I need to know. Now let's get to it, and quick, before more people catch up to us.”
Arashi was a quiet companion, which was a reprieve, because Kathlyn was not. Kenji didn't begrudge her going on about the weather, her few more interesting encounters in Fulgrath, and tales from the past throughout the long ride eastward, because he knew she wanted to keep his mind occupied and away from dark thoughts…
Arashi on the other hand was the model silent retainer, a bit of a Yamatonian stereotype, really. Though his and Kenji's name were from the same lexicon, Arashi was a full-blooded Yamato man. His eyes were narrower and his facial features softer. Kenji had rarely thought of his own mother in a cultural way, though. To him, Yobuko Sokolow was a witch and Antonin Sokolow was a sorcerer. Nationality didn't really play into his perception of his esteemed parents. They had conspired to bring him into this world. For centuries, his father had planned and schemed to get a hold of a Keeper Soul, and with the help of an eastern animancer he had finally succeeded. Truly, it was a shame that Kenji had up and left the Old Country as soon as he could. Truly.
As they rode on east towards the Willowood, Kenji's thoughts circled around his father and what involvement he might have with the glimmer. It seemed to him like the animancer menacing the Middle Lands was an aggressor to whom the Black Czar was taking a comfortable third-party position. A cunning despot through-and-through, he was likely biding his time to strike when the Middle Lands were at their lowest. And Kenji… now that his soul was compromised, his father's court might be one of the few options he had to free himself. Or at least to exchange his shackles. He shook his head. It was out of the question. He wouldn't even put it past his father that he might have engineered the entire situation towards that end. No. Vechnaya Bramma was the last place he would turn to.
When night came over the grassy plains, the two of them pitched their tents.
“We will need spies in the tower.” Kenji was surprised to hear Arashi speak up after a whole afternoon of quietude.
Of course, Kenji had shared much of what he had witnessed and guessed with his loyal Guardian after their departure from the magus tower, but the man didn't have much to say at the time. It always seemed like he was solving the universe's most complicated questions behind the stillness of his face, like the dark eyes took in the whole world and kept it inside. He rarely shared much of his findings, if they existed at all. “Spies,” Kenji repeated blankly.
“If the Keepers are being undermined, we need to know what is going on. You may be able to remain in contact with Maya, but being a powerful magus, she might soon be targeted by Lord Gildorn. We will need low-ranking people on the inside to gather and pass on information. Clarks, maids, cooks. People who hear and see but aren't heard or seen.”
Kenji considered this. “Yes… we'll need to know what is going on,” he repeated slowly. “You have a good point. You know, there is a page I trust. I might be able to get a message to him, establish a line of communication.” Then he angrily hit the palm of his hand. “Of course, this crap had to happen on the day I monster-proof the damn Tower of Five. With the help of Kiewek I could have thrown something inconspicuous together to be my eyes over there…”
“It is best not to make deals with spirits, master. They are capricious and bring harm to those who meddle with them.”
Only in Vechnaya Bramma, monsters were real; or at least the Old Country was the only place where they came into being on their own. In the Yamato Mountain Range, however, there were spirits afoot. The spirit realm of the Yamato Valley was a purgatory akin to the Nordmen's realm of Helgard. If you went down deep enough to the root of things, souls were the common thread throughout the three places, but they each had a very distinct flavor to them. Saying they were… the same, was very far from the truth. “Few monsters of the Old Country make deals, and they meddle with humans of their own accord, Arashi; at least, when animancers don't force them to do it on their orders. If Kiewek Zowenji makes a creature to serve her, that's what it'll do and nothing else. But it doesn't matter. The Tower of Five is protected by both my and Din's soul now. An army of shades would break itself harmlessly against the stone walls today, and the spell will only become more powerful with time.”
“I am not well-versed in these kinds of magic, master,” Arashi admitted, “but I understand they tend to be far more costly than the elemental kind.”
“Risky¸ is the word I would use, Arashi. But then again, risk tends to be a relative thing, if you ask me. There is little risk to you when you use wind magic. You might blight, but only under the most extreme circumstances, and you'll likely have the choice to die instead of doing so. If that is the kind of choice that matters to you. But a regular man with no magical training, earning his wages by powering a magic engine every day… Well, often it'll be only a question of when the blight will strike, not if. Now there's a risk.” Kenji swung his mallet and pounded the last tent peg into the soft ground.
“Perhaps you are right, master. Perhaps losing a small part of your soul is only a trifle if your soul is big enough.”
As he was putting away the mallet in Clarie's saddlebags, Kenji froze for a moment. “I wouldn't go that far,” he said. After all, the merest smidgen of his soul currently imprisoned the glimmer that was trying to worm its way in. But the savage, labyrinthine twist within that smidgen radiated through his entire being still, weakening his connection to Orzelgryf, and, through it, his connection to the Ur-soul of Wind. “But there are certain sacrifices worth making,” he conceded. “Now let us rest. We need to reach Aerialis as soon as possible.”
“We could get there even sooner if we kept on riding,” Arashi noted.
“I am barely able to keep my eyes open, Arashi.” He gently stroked Clarie's nostrils. “And there are certain sacrifices that aren't worth making. Good night.”
“Good night, master.”
They stepped into their respective tents. Kenji unrolled his bedroll and wrapped himself in his winter blanket, but was still a bit chilly. Winter still held a firm grasp on the Middle Lands, but they were far enough south to be relatively safe from blizzards. The time of the Hearthersfǫr at least had passed them by, so the worst of the worst was behind the North and the Middle Lands.
Kenji stared at the black canvas above him. He could feel it coming, hovering over his chest. Just about to drop down.
“Want me to tell you a bedtime story?” Kathy asked. She was sitting next to him.
“No,” he replied. “I think, I would like for you to leave the tent, please.”
“What and wait outside in the cold?!” she protested incredulously.
“Does it make a difference to you?” He didn't look at her but kept staring up.
“Well, no, but still. It's rude! You're… being disrespectful to the dead, that's it!” she said triumphantly.
Kenji had put his arm over his face. It had fallen down onto him. The weight. It squeezed him like a tube, and he could feel the burning pressure in his eyes and around his nose. “Please.”
She got up and left wordlessly. There was no sound, and he did not see her leave, but he knew. His face felt hot and his throat was aching. It had been almost two decades since he had killed a man. A hunter had spotted him and called him out when he had just escaped the castle and fled through the woods around the northern banks of Lake Glazglubin. He had been an ordinary, harmless man of the land, but Kenji, blind with fear of the pursuers his father had surely sent after him and Maya, had lashed out, and that was that.
Now, there were two more, all at once. There had been no choice but to kill Rodger. His erstwhile squire had his soul rent by the glimmer, and minutes, perhaps seconds had separated him from turning into one of the glimmer man's puppets. But old Hendrick Severlin… He had conspired with an enemy of the Middle Lands, a vile animancer. In fact, he had captured Rodger to be sacrificed to the glimmer. But he had also been a frail old man, who may not have been beyond redemption. Kenji had not meant to kill him. The knock on the head was supposed to render him unconscious, but he had been feebler than Kenji had anticipated. The hit had been too hard. Or perhaps the old man had struck his head again in an unfortunate angle when hitting the ground. It didn't matter. And what was worse, Kenji knew in his heart of hearts that this was only the beginning. His enemies were fighting dirty, so dirty, in fact, it would be difficult to convince his allies they were real. The Long Peace had softened the entire continent and now it was time to pay the piper. Kenji swallowed his cries, but there was nothing he could do about the tears. They did not come forth to lament the two dead men alone. Most of them fell for Kathlyn and for Poppy. The whole world was emptier for having lost them. Whatever the apparition he kept seeing was, deep down it kept reminding him that he had failed to be there for Kathlyn when she had needed his help. More, the fact that a part of him was glad to see it made him feel guilty. Like he was somehow dishonoring Kathlyn's memory.
These dark thoughts circled his mind for a long time before he finally drifted into an uneasy sleep…
He could see them again: Silver walls towered high around Kenji, reaching up to a black sky from which rays of moonlight zigzagged down, bouncing off angular, metallic veins in the polished stones. The corridor around him looked like it was part of a massive machine inside which he was trapped like a mouse. This time, he turned around on the spot, expecting someone to wait behind him, but there was no one there. The corridor went on in both directions, like before, splitting off to the left and right on either end. He could hear a loud rumble in the distance.
Tentatively, he took a few steps, walking over to one end at a slow pace, his ears pricked for the direction of the rumble as well as for the voice he had heard last time. It had sounded… familiar.
When he arrived, he could see another corridor, intersecting the one he was standing in, going off in either direction, splitting into a fork at one end, and another T-section on the other, with two additional crossings between the T-section end and his current position. He was inside a maze.
This time, he refrained from touching the walls. He still recalled the frigid sting he had felt last time when it had torn the skin from his fingers, and given how flat and polished the walls were, there was no chance of him climbing on top and getting out that way.
“You gotta keep going,” said a cheerful voice beside him.
He jumped away from it in surprise, hitting the wall and yelping as it instantly sucked all the warmth out of his arm through his clothes. “Ugh,” he grunted, holding his slightly numb shoulder. “Din, what the gears are you doing here?!”
She gave him a wide grin. “Me? What the gears are you doing here?”
“I don't know! I think I'm asleep…”
“Well, there's your answer then. Now hop to it. You gotta keep going. Pick a direction and move.”
Kenji looked at her. Something was slightly off about her. She looked the same as always: Red hair tied back, dressed as though she was always ready for a cross-country jog, roughly his size. But there was a strange glint in her eye. Usually a confident girl, she was practically oozing confidence now, as though she knew exactly what to do and where to go at any moment. Her whole presence was larger than life. “Where am I going to get to?” he inquired cautiously.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Somewhere, I presume. It's got to be better than this dull old corridor. Gears, you are a slowpoke today, aren't you? Let's go… left!” She turned left and moved towards the T-section.
Kenji hurried after her. “Wait! Why are we going left?”
She tipped her nose: “We gotta go somewhere. And if we don't know which way to go, any way is better than standing still.”
“Unless we are moving away from where we want to go, smart-arse!”
“Not if we want to go somewhere. There's a somewhere everywhere. Well, not everywhere, but since there are corridors here, I assume there are either rooms or exits somewhere. We just need to keep going to get there.”
“What if we run into a dead-end?”
“Then we'll turn around and try a different way.”
“You're not Din, are you?”
She stopped. “I don't think I'm clever enough to answer that question, Kenji. But I do think it's a bit rude.” She didn't seem distraught at all, a wide grin still on her face as if nothing could upset her.
“Only,” he went on hesitantly, “there are things I would like to tell Din. I don't suppose telling you would somehow get the message through to her?”
“Ah, I don't think that is going to work,” she admitted. “I think you rather tricked me into answering your question. Now let's move on before Atlas catches up with us. He is really unhappy about here being here.”
“Here being here?”
She nodded at one of the walls. “Yeah, the whole thing. Personally, I think it's rather interesting. Lots of new places to discover. And what about that noise? Sounds like wherever here is, there is something really, really nasty somewhere around the corner. I kind of want to see it.”
Kenji slowed down. “I don't think we should seek that thing out.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You're the boss.” And she took a right turn down a crossing.
“Oh yes. I think you are. But I like to poke you sometimes. You just don't move enough, always sitting around pondering in corridors. Pathetic.” She said it so cheerfully, it almost didn't sound like an insult.
They delved deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, turning corners, moving back where they ran into dead-ends, and always there was the threatening rumble of something else making its way through the passages. That and Din's merry whistling.
“Tell me,” he finally said, “is Kathlyn here as well?”
Din stopped. Her back was turned and he could see her hand hover curiously just above one of the walls before she thought better of it and withdrew it. “Sameth asked her not to come in here. Someone needs to stay in the lake house, he says.”
“Sameth…” Kenji muttered darkly.
“Yeah, he said you were a bit unhappy with him. Anyways, when Atlas got a bit stuck in here, I came after him.”
“Didn't you say we are trying to get away from him?”
“Oh yes, he is furious with you. I'd say fix whatever this is, and then he won't have to be as mad.” She leaned over to him. “I get into trouble with him sometimes too, so I know how it is.”
“Is Atlas the one rumbling around?”
Din shook her head. “Nah. Oh, look at that! A door!”
There was a heavy oaken door in the wall with a polished brass knob. It looked venerable and imposing.
When Kenji lifted a hand to open it, there was a loud thunk from the other side. He jumped back. It came again: Thunk. A bit of wood splintered out of the heavy slab. It sounded as though someone was trying to get through it with an axe.
Thunk! Kenji snapped awake. He felt half-frozen and a shiver ran through his body. A coldsnap must have snuck up on them over night, and his blanket hadn't been thick enough. Stiffly, he prodded himself up, shedding the warm cocoon and instantly regretting it. He picked the blanket up and wrapped it around himself before stepping groggily out of the low tent. Thunk.
Arashi was up already, chopping wood and building a fire. “Master, you are awake. It seems winter is still loath to relinquish this land from its grasp.”
There was such a thing as too eloquent, Kenji thought to himself, but he suspected Arashi styled himself a poet somewhere beneath his inscrutable and prim exterior. “Yeah, I'm surprised my balls haven't broken off.” Somehow he felt like he had to restore the cosmic balance.
Arashi rummaged through his pockets and produced a small, black sphere, which he tossed towards Kenji. “This will help with the cold. They make them in Lumina Aka.”
Kenji caught the curious device and saw arcane lines and patterns light up across its smooth surface as soon as it touched the bare skin on his hands. It was a magic engine. As he held it, the sphere began to glow gently, giving off heat. It did not simply radiate warmth, however, but made him warm up from the inside as well; an impressive feat of fire magic. “Almost as good as a hipflask,” he noted approvingly. He could do with a hipflask right now, but Poppy had made him swear of the liquor. The memory had a barbed sting to it, lodging right in the cavities of his heart.
“Once the spirits are inside a man, they may make him do all sorts of things, however, and any warmth they provide is but an illusion,” Arashi replied sagely. No one had forced sobriety on him, he had decided on that taboo all on his own. Sometimes Kenji thought the man took the chivalric oath too far. Though, perhaps, it was the rest of the White Lancers that didn't take it far enough. Something to ponder.
“Well, I won't complain too loudly. I'm just glad I'm not cold anymore. Though I think I feel a headache coming on… You know, the Old Country may be bordering into the jungle, but winter used to get us any time we didn't expect it. It's that damn Iron Belt playing tricks on the climate!” He put his hand against his temple, which had to begun to throb with some pain. It seemed to originate from the area in which the shard of Brynwain's mask was lodged, causing him some worry. He carefully touched the area and realized that he had blood on his fingers. “What the… Ouch!” He dropped the magic engine, shocked when it burned his hand, leaving a small red circle. It kept glowing brightly on the ground.
Arashi dropped his axe and stood up in alarm. “What is happening?”
“The magic engine burned me!” Kenji exclaimed, pressing his hand against his throbbing eye socket. It didn't feel like the mask slither was expanding any further, but the pressure lingered.
“It is not supposed to keep going once you let go,” Arashi noted with a worried expression. The orb was glowing ever more brightly on the ground, a heat haze above it making the air shimmer. Quickly, Arashi withdrew one hand into his sleeve, made a grab for it, and flung it as far away as he could. It exploded with a resounding bang. “What in Yilik's name…”
Kenji stood up slightly shaky in his boots. He wasn't too dense to add one and one together. “Either the mask or whatever… Sameth put into my soul seems to react explosively with spell ink mandalas. I'm glad I didn't try one out back in the tower…” He had almost said ‘Poppy' there, but, while whoever had attacked him had used the body of his wife to do it, he'd be damned if he accused her in any way.
“Then, we must be careful around the city. There are magic engines everywhere. There will be trouble if any of them explode,” Arashi mused. He produced another device: a metallic rod perhaps two fingers long, and tapped it against the wood he had piled up, lighting it on fire. “I shall fry us some beans, master, then we'll make our way to Aerialis. We should be able to make it before evening if we maintain a steady pace.”
The can held Kenji's fancy more than the fire stick. Though people liked to say that the Middle Lands ran on magic engines, in his opinion, the biggest thing to come out of the inventive city of Fulgrath was aluminum. With iron and steel at a premium since ancient times, there was little the versatile metal couldn't do if treated and alloyed properly, and Aerialis imported it in mass. He observed Arashi thoughtfully as the man went about his business. With Kathlyn dead, Fulgrath would be vulnerable, and he was quite sure that entrenching himself in Aerialis was the way forward, meaning his own city would be vulnerable as well. Arda, the City of Earth, in care of Sameth Gildorn lay between Aerialis and Fulgrath, so the two were in a strong position to attack or embargo Sameth's greatest asset. But if one had to aid the other, Arda and the Tower of Five would be in the way. Then again, where there was magic, there was a way…
Arashi had been right. When the Willowood came into view, the sun was low but there were still two or three hours of daylight left. Some time after crossing the Longing Route, one of the main roads of the Middle Lands, the two riders approached the barren tree line of the venerable forest. With spring still just around the corner, the long, strand-like branches of the willows cascaded towards the grassy ground like dreadlocks, speckled here and there with early buds. When spring came, the locks would turn into deep, green waterfalls of verdant leaves, turning yellow with the coming of the bloom.
Sprawled along the western coast of Lake Ripploch, the Willowood provided a scenic view to the coastal residences on the eastern banks, around which the great city of Aerialis was built. Here, in the Willowood also stood the ostentatious, fortified manor of the Margrave. Long ago, before the Founding of the Five Cities, margraves ruled the provinces of the Middle Lands, but these days the Margrave of Aerialis was the final vestige of those times. He wasn't quite in charge either, but rather shared that responsibility with the Council of Aerialis and Kenji himself. Just like Sameth, Atlas, Kathlyn, and even Din, he had a ruling stake in his city, though each of the cities had their own approach to government. While Fulgrath, for example, was a republic, Aerialis was the capital of a collection of fiefdoms, the Eastern Fiefdoms.
Thus, the lords of these fiefdoms were in charge of the city and its surrounding lands, and made up most of the city council. The Margrave himself owned the Willowood and was in charge of the White Lancers of Aerialis, one of two irregular military forces the Eastern Fiefdoms could bring to bear in case of war.
Because the White Lancers were under the auspices of the Margrave, Arashi himself, who had ascended to the position of Guardian only retained an honorary title with the knights, since his loyalties now belonged to Kenji.
“We'll be heading to the Flügelwind Ward?” Arashi inquired as they approached the edge of the woods.
Kenji's brow furrowed as he tried to pierce the looming willows with his gaze. “No. I want to see the Margrave before we head to the manor.” He looked about to identify the nearest trail into the forest, but Arashi seemed to be more familiar with the geography of the area, purposefully turning his mare to head southward along the treeline.
If Clarie was tired from the long last leg of their journey, she didn't show it in the least, trotting onward faithfully and with a surefooted stride. Kenji felt guilty about pushing the horse so much, and vowed to himself to get her some proper treats and perhaps a nice grooming once they had arrived at the Flügelwind manor, the official Aerialis residence of the Lord of Wind.
It did not take them long to reach a small trail that lead into the forest. There was a saw mill nearby, and the path looked like it was frequented by heavy carts, likely for lumber. They steered their horses into the barren thicket and made their way towards Lake Ripploch, expecting to find a path to the Margrave's manor nearby.
The ground turned muddy here and there, and the long, hanging branches of the willows often dipped into clear pools of water that speckled the forest floor like puddles after rain. Here and there, the path forked off or met a crossing, but Arashi led them onward without hesitation, before finally turning to the left, deep inside the forest; though it was not a dense forest to begin with, nothing like the thick, coniferous woods to the north.
Kenji suspected that his Guardian knew the lay of the land so well, because of his time with the White Lancers, who had their barracks close to the Margrave's manor. This suited him just fine, because Kenji had business not only with the Margrave, but with the White Lancers as well. And he already knew they would not be happy about it at all.
“Lord Sokolow. As much as I value your presence, I cannot help but notice that you have arrived here rather… unannounced. Surely, as a Keeper you must realize how this visit must look to concerned parties.” George Isenbruck was a hard man. He had been tempered like metal by decades of service in the Aerialis regular military force. Not a magus himself, he had ascended to a high officer rank during excursions into the Saltplains to the south, the Odenwald to the north, and the Yamato Foothills to the east. His face was carved with the deep lines of old age, which made his features sharp and impressive like a tall cliff-face. His wispy hair was already gray, but cut so short it was barely noticeable, and his steely, blue eyes were so piercing, it was difficult not to look away when he chose to deploy them against you.
Kenji leaned back in his comfortable armchair. The office of the Margrave was a sight to behold: Yamato swords hung on the walls like trophies, and a large hearth was crackling with a low fire, the light of which gently danced on the heavy Arkatrashian carpet, a red monstrosity with intricate patterns and surprising depth. More noticeable, however, were the table, which was impressively large and hewn of polished acacia wood, and the leather armchair, which, with its back to the massive, oaken door, seemed to be made to make visitors comfortable and failed at that task spectacularly. This was due to the Margraves own chair, which was a rigid, wooden affair that could best be described as ‘minimalist'. The man sat there on his hard chair, wearing a bare uniform without any of his numerous medals or commendations, and, clearly, tried to drill a hole into Kenji's head with his eyes to deposit his reprieve directly, avoiding any inferior method such as yelling or hitting the table in anger.
Kenji sighed. “As a Keeper? You think cloak and dagger are beneath me then?”
“Beneath you, my Lord?” the Margrave raised a bushy, grey eyebrow. “I merely note that they are beneath your station. One should be aware of their station in life. It makes things so much… simpler, does it not?”
“I agree that one should know where they fell down before they get back on their feet. You never know what might come flying your way if you show your face without some caution.”
“Ah, and showing your face here, now, is your idea of caution, my Lord?” the Margrave inquired. His voice was inscrutable. Once, when he had led men into battle, or what passed for battle during the Great Peace, he must have had some fire and vitriol to spray about the place, but these days, he was an unnervingly calm man, the vitriol inside him aged like a fine wine. He had become a masterful politician.
<Sometimes it feels like the world makes politicians of us all,> Kenji thought to himself. Then he internally shook the thought off: <Or better yet I should get out more and meet people who aren't in charge of others…> Out loud he said: “Sometimes, caution is a luxury one can't afford, margrave. Big things are in motion.”
The Margrave's face darkened. “So, you have come for… the incident. Lord Sokolow, I appreciate your concern, but the situation is well in hand. There will be no second Ink War on our hands. I know for a fact that the Yamato People had nothing to do with the theft; this is an internal, Middlish matter, and I assure you, I will not rest until it is resolved.”
Kenji took the leather satchel he had placed next to the armchair and tossed it onto the table. There was barely anything there. Kept meticulously clean, only a stack of paper, an inkwell, and an ink pen were placed on the large, smooth surface, its barren appearance creating an imaginary gulf between the Margrave and his visitors. “Consider it resolved then.”
The Margrave's eyes narrowed. He looked at the satchel and opened it up carefully with his sinewy fingers. From within, he withdrew a stack of papers of various sizes, some folded up. He leafed through them, unfolding a larger one with intricate diagrams drawn in pencil. “By the gears…” he breathed. “You found the stolen formula?”
“Conveniently for me, it seems you suddenly find yourself with much free time at your hand,” Kenji replied, leaning closer, his face darkening.
The Margrave's attention, momentarily disrupted by the dubious gift Kenji had laid before him, snapped back to the Lord of Wind. “Free time?” he said the words as though they felt unfamiliar in his mouth. Then he looked back at the papers. “Where did you find these?”
“I took them from the corpse of Tamara of Lek.”
The Margrave shifted slightly. Somewhat keen-eyed himself, Kenji could see that he had forced himself not to rise up in surprise. The man's composure was impeccable. “And what, pray tell, caused Tamara of Lek to be found in such a state.”
“My guardian drove a terebra through her back.”
The Margrave leaned back, breathing out slowly. “I think this is where the pulling of teeth ends and I await your lengthy explanation, Lord Sokolow.”
He sighed, deflating somewhat. “What do you know about animancy?”
Admirably, the Margrave's expression barely changed at all. “Enough to know it might be time to get a drink.” He opened one of his desk drawers and produced a small, aluminum key, which he handed over to Kenji. “There is a cabinet next to the hearth. Pick a bottle and two glasses, if you will.”
Kenji noticed the man observing him closely as he rose up, key in hand. He moved over to the cabinet slowly. Kathlyn was leaning against it, her eyes transfixed on him.
“Get one glass,” she said quietly.
Kenji raised an eyebrow. Was the Margrave going to poison him or something like that?
“Don't dishonor her memory.” Kathlyn's expression was stony.
With a flash of anger, Kenji unlocked the cabinet more forcefully than necessary, quested for a bottle of vodka, but had to settle for a fristok schnapps. It was an exotic looking blue liquid. He also grabbed two crystal glasses and brought the haul back to the table. <Her memory,> he thought bitterly to himself. It would be some time before he could cast his mind back beyond his final evening with Poppy. He hadn't even been able to take anything of hers with him when he escaped. Nothing to remember her by. What still lingered of her scent was now slowly thinning back in their broken home. He placed the glasses and bottle down heavier than necessary, his hands shaking slightly.
The Margrave was still observing him. But he refrained from commenting, instead uncorking the bottle and pouring into both glasses. He lifted his: “To Aerialis.”
Kenji mirrored him. “Aerialis.” It was the first drink he had had in a long time. One of his wife's greatest achievements had been getting him to kick the habit. But here it was, greeting him like an old friend… As the burning liquid ran down his gullet, it warmed him up from the inside as though he had rekindled a long-lost flame. He stared at the glass for a moment, then put it down gingerly. “An animancer has made his move against the Keepers. Kathlyn Dulheine is dead. My wife is dead. Sameth Gildorn is possessed, and so was Tamara of Lek. Their magic is insidious; it burrows right into the soul and takes over from there. Imagine any ally could suddenly be your enemy without a thing out of place.”
The Margrave folded his hands “Funnily enough, that is what I generally assume. … Without a thing out of place you say? There is no way to know?”
“There is a yellow color that creeps into the irises of the infected, comparable to the cobalt blue glow of spellblight. But you'd have to be face to face to know. I'm sure you realize that as long as the right people are under the animancer's influence, one may never know his hand is at work at all.”
The old man had barely touched his schnapps. He took a careful sip and put the glass back down neatly. “All this sounds somewhat convenient, I must say.”
“Is there not any proof you can bring before me? Any information I can confirm?”
Kenji's eyes suddenly narrowed. What was going on? Why was his word suddenly not good enough anymore? Or had it never been good enough in the first place? “I barely escaped with my life, when the animancer used my wife to stick a key into my eye and infect me with the curse. I come before you a fugitive, not an investigator presenting his case.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” He did not specify which part. “So, you are infected as well? How can you resist the curse then, when Sameth Gildorn clearly could not?”
“I had extraordinary tools on my hand at the time,” Kenji replied, absentmindedly touching his finger to the mask sliver still covering his cursed eye. He took another gulp from his glass. “And I am not out of the woods yet. Coming here before I get to work on the curse should show you how serious the situation is.”
“Indeed. I am afraid I need more detail, however, Lord Sokolow. How did you come to blows with Tamara of Lek, for example? You said your Guardian impaled her?”
“I had been captured by Hendrick Severlin, the master of the Estfelden magus tower. He was working for the animancer and Tamara of Lek arrived to deliver the spell ink formula to him just as I was making my escape. Hadn't Arashi shown up in the nick of time, we wouldn't be speaking now. He had chased me after my flight from Vorstadtn.”
“Impressive. Why do you think your animancer might have been tinkering with spell ink?”
“I don't…” Kenji paused. “When Arashi passed me a magic engine this morning, it exploded. It may have been due to the magic I use to contain the curse, but perhaps the mandalas reacted poorly to the curse itself…”
The Margrave rose and turned his back, folding his hands behind it. “I see. Finally, the missing piece reveals itself.”