Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 02

He moved thru the corridor, slowly, his long robe whispering with his footsteps.  The stones under his feet, and along the walls and ceiling, seemed to absorb sound rather than reflect it.  Along the center of the ceiling were a string of small, glowing orbs, disembodied magical lights casting a soft blue light.  His shadows crossed one another as he passed beneath them.

He spoke to none of the people he passed in the hallway, but returned the short nods from those he recognized.  He wore a dark purple robe over deep scarlet clothes, the sash around his waist black.  He needed no symbol to denote his rank within the academy; those who knew him knew his level of study, and many knew the level of his ability.  Here, there was no need for fear, and very little tolerance for jealousy.  Here, it was willingness to learn and respect that was important. Willingness to learn showed in the lessons, and respect required no outward sign.

He passed through two intersections, pausing to let others pass.  As he crossed them, he passed by two of the Guardians, but they gave no sign of recognition.  They only moved in the presence of intruders, and intruders they sensed rather than saw.  A skeleton has no eyes and no need for them.  The large swords and shields they carried at an eternal, tireless state of readiness were as much for frightening effect than anything else, for no intruder had passed this way in many hundreds of years.  They were a silent reminder to everyone who passed that there was really nowhere that they were completely safe.

He stopped at a polished oak door set into a stone archway in the side of the corridor. He paused for a moment, then knocked.  He knew his master would sense his arrival; the knock was mostly for any visitor that may be with her.

“Enter, Riganzia,” her soft voice called from the other side.  He opened the door, and stepped thru into her study.  The door closed silently behind him.

The room wasn’t overly large, but certainly not cramped; it was a comfortable, circular size for a single person, or perhaps two or three, to work and study at the three round, heavy oak tables in the middle, while allowing room to peruse the thousands of books that lined the mismatched ashwood shelves ringing the entire room.  He glanced around as he always did when he entered, noticing what was different, added, moved, or missing as best he could. This was her ritual – to train his perceptions, she would make him guess at his tasks by what had changed in her study.  Today, most of her experiment tools and instruments were packed away in the cabinets beneath the tables.  No work would be done here this time.  The bookshelves were in meticulous order, and at first glance all the important books were there, including the large, black, leather-covered binders that she kept her own personal journals in.  Her three large, comfortable leather chairs in the center of the room still faced each other, and she sat in the chair that faced the door, and him.  She, too, wore scarlet clothes under her dark purple robes, and her hood was thrown back to allow her white-grey hair to spill down past her shoulders.  Her fair skin was showing age, but only slightly.  Her violet eyes watched him examine the room, a hint of amusement behind them.  Even at more than 170 years, Riganzia thought, she was a beautiful woman.  But then, even elven beauty and un-natural health would only go so far.

There was only one thing that seemed out of place; an old leather scroll-case, snow white with red endcaps, sat on the table to her right.  In a room of dark, polished wood before him, dark stone floors under his feet, and subdued and muted book-bindings staring at him from all the walls, this one brightly-colored thing almost seemed to glow.

She watched his eyes rest on the case, then return to her.  “Your next assignment, Riganzia.”  She motioned to the case, then returned her hand to her lap.

He nodded.  “Of course, Gandara.”  He moved toward the case, half understanding the basic symbolism here, but not understanding its application.  A new scroll to be copied was a sign that he’d achieved the next rank, but there were only eleven ranks, and he’d been the highest rank for more than three years now.  He opened the scroll case, and very slowly slid the parchment out.  It was very old, cracked and brittle, and he handled it with great care.  As he unrolled it and scanned the title and first few lines of text, his eyes widened.

“Gandara, forgive my lack of knowledge…” he said, slowly, as he read.  “I apologize if I was meant to know about this in advance.”

She smiled.  “Your honesty shows itself again.  So many of us try to pretend we see everything coming, and it blinds us sometimes to what is right before us.”

He turned his head to her, then returned to reading.  “It’s written in the same hand as the original scrolls.  I’ve only seen three of them, but I recognize the script.”

She nodded again.

“I’m to copy this one, as I did the others?”

“Yes.”

“Why are there eleven ranks if there is a twelfth scroll?” he asked.  “I didn’t think the academy had secrets the likes of a twelfth rank.”

“It does… and it doesn’t,” she replied, rising from her chair and moving to the table beside him.  “This one is different, although written at the same time, and reorganized at the same time as the others.  From your learning, Riganzia,” she said, switching her voice to the tone she used in classes, indicating her request for formality, “what is the reason for having eleven scrolls and eleven ranks?”

He straightened, and turned his head toward her, adopting the same tone.  “The original writings of Jarladissa were incredibly detailed, but disorganized and fragmented.  She wrote down more in her last 17 hours of life than any of our order had managed before or since, but she gave no thought to organization.  After she died, and her writings were examined, her individual spells, experiments, thoughts and teaching exercises were separated into 11 groups based on their difficulty and skill level they required.  The original writings were rejoined in these new divisions, creating the original eleven scrolls.  Each rank is named for the scroll upon which the student is studying.  The first task of every student, upon achieving their next rank, is to copy by hand the entirety of the scroll they have graduated to.”

She nodded, pleased with his answer.  “There are secrets here, Riganzia, and you have proven yourself worthy of learning a few more.  Yes, we keep secrets from the rest of this city, and certainly the rest of the world, about what it is we truly study, and why.  We keep secrets from the younger and less talented students, releasing knowledge and skill as their ability and wisdom improve.  And some secrets only a few of us hold.  What you hold in your hand is one of those secrets, perhaps the most important of them.”  Another pause.  “Scattered within her teachings and writings, Jarladissa wrote many disturbing passages, some of which were prophetic.  The first thing she wrote, even though it appeared in her journals separately, is a complete account of her attempts to raise a dragon from the dead.”

He looked up at her again, slightly bewildered.  “The legends are true?”

“Some of them.  Obviously, we can’t control every rumor, and we can’t release the truth freely, at least not yet.  The legend about her ghostly visitor in particular is documented in the journals of at least twenty of our order, though most of them only heard his voice.  The legend of the five key-locks is true; we have two of those old scrolls still in the vault.  The others, no one is sure of their whereabouts, but we are certain they exist.  There have been many copies made of all five of them, but over time the ink has faded and the scrolls have become illegible.  Many people have been able to re-create the key-locks from those two scrolls we have, at least we believe successfully.  We can’t be sure without successfully connecting all five pieces.  As you copy this text, you will learn the entire truth behind those legends, and you will understand why it is that the existence of this scroll is held secret, while the other 11 scrolls are available to all who study here.”

Riganzia looked back to the parchment in his hands.  “And the creation… the Dracolich…” he read a few more lines, and a chill went up his spine.  “She says here that the spell is merely dormant, and that at some point it will be completed.”

She nodded.  “One of the goals of the Light of Xantallis is to prevent that from happening.”  She pointed to the scroll.  “She details a number of signs that will precede the Dracolich, but gives no estimate of time.  Some of us, myself included, believe that as she was dying her perspective of time changed dramatically, and that would have rendered useless any guess she may have made anyway.”

“So this is to become my new area of study?” Riganzia said.  “Shall I focus upon this completely?”

“Yes, but not in the manner that you think.”  She took a deep breath.  “Riganzia, we are asking you to go out of the city to gather information abroad.  The artifacts and histories that we need – that you will need – are not all within these walls.  Besides, it has been a long time since you last ventured outside, has it not?”

“It’s been nearly four years,” he replied, “and I’ve learned much since then.”

“You’ll need all the knowledge and teaching we can give you.  Once you have copied this, return it to me, and then you will copy the two key-lock scrolls that we have.  You’ll need to copy these onto traveling parchment, and take them with you when you go.  I cannot stress to you how important your mission is, Riganzia, and how much honor the Light of Xantallis is bestowing upon you by choosing you for this.  We are depending upon you in a way we rarely depend on any one member.”

He looked at her askance for just a moment, then returned his attention to the parchment.  There was pride in her eyes, perhaps for the first time he had seen it, true pride in her student.  He took the silent compliment.

“I presume no one in Zhan’tiol should mark my passage?”

“Correct.  You should begin thinking about your preparations and what you’ll need.  Your supplies will be gathered for you before you go, so you will need only to pass through Zhan’tiol on your way out.  Your great skill at making yourself unseen was one of the traits that swayed the council’s decision.  You have as much time as you require to copy the scrolls.  Learn everything you can from them, but do not take too much time.  The signs may be out there, plain to anyone who knows what to look for, and we may be caught unawares.  Give me three days notice before you plan to leave, but tell no one else about any of this.  For now, go back to your own room, and study this.”

He returned the scroll to its leather case, bowed his head to her, then turned and left the room.

 *****

The writings were sometimes difficult to follow; even though they’d been re-organized, putting the thoughts and predictions together, there was still a lot that didn’t quite make sense.  He sat at his own writing desk now, in the corner of his quarters, with three glowing spheres hanging just over his head, casting light around the room.  He looked around for a moment, giving his eyes a rest.  His room was sparse; a comfortable bed in onecorner, the polished oak desk in another, the three tall bookshelves between.  His own notes and journals dominated the entirety of the first stack of shelves, and books he’d acquired while travelling filled the second.  The third was mostly books he was borrowing from others of his order, or from the monstrous library downstairs- his favorite place here.

The rumors of the library were what had drawn him here in the first place, as a young boy.  He had spent hours at a time in the library of his home city of Nomad’s Gate, thinking it’s collection of books was the most incredible thing possible.  All the history of the city, the kingdom, the continent, all gathered together and free for reading, as if presented to him personally as a birthday gift.  He could close his eyes and see the large, low-ceilinged room, with pillars evenly spaced, with tall windows around the outside circle and it’s sitting areas, the inner courtyard with the dome atop it, letting light flood in over the tables and desks scattered around the floor.

He would sometimes watch the other people he saw there, and guess at what they were looking for.  Some were the wives and daughters of wealthy merchants, looking for tales of romance and adventure.  Traveling performers would be looking for new tales to tell, new stories to sing.  Farmers would occasionally be found when a blight or crop disease spread, trying desperately to find a cure or prevention to save their harvests.  And there were a few people there like him, who merely enjoyed reading, and did so as often as they could.  These were his friends, although none were his age, and he would not dare speak of them at home.

One day, not long after his 12th birthday, he had spotted a stranger in his library.  She was older than he, but not by much.  She wore a grey cloak that was stained by travel and weather, kept her hood over her head and a road-weary backpack nearby at all times.  She had spent three days in the library, looking through books that seemed so old and worn that they would disintegrate when touched… he remembered her troubled eyes as she read the pages.  He imagined that she was looking for something that had been eluding her for far too long.

He had approached the stranger after seeing her three days in a row, her search unsuccessful.  He remembered the conversation as if it had happened the previous day.

*****

“My lady, it appears you are looking for something.  May I help you?  No one knows the library of Nomad’s Gate better than I do – not even the curators!”

She turned to look at him, and gave him the beautiful smile that only a high elf can give. Her eyes were an impossible shade of blue, and her skin so fair she seemed to glow under her hood. She spoke in barely more than a whisper, her voice clear and warm.

“Not even the curators?”

He shook his head, returning her smile.  “They come here to work, to repair books, to keep them in order.  I come here to read.”

She studied him for a long moment before speaking. “Very well, I accept,” she said with a slight nod.  “I am looking for ancient books on magical healing. I believe there is a forgotten ceremony that can restore a person to full health, even from the edge of death.”

Riganzia had answered quickly enough.  “Most of the books containing magic spells are collected near the Southern entrance, but I’m afraid I don’t understand much of it.  I wouldn’t know if the magic you’re looking for even exists.”

“Oh, it does,” she had answered, closing the book she held, and returning it to the shelf.  “I’ve seen spells work incredible healing, and there are too many tales of sorcerers who could perform the one I seek for it to be just a myth.”

He nodded his understanding – she had spent much of her time looking through books on history.  “So what you seek here is not so much the ceremony itself, but a clue as to where to find it.”

She smiled, and nodded.

“Is someone you know sick?” he asked.  “You don’t seem to be in too much hurry to find it.”

“No…” she sighed, her smile fading.  “Not that I know of, anyway.”

“Is it a task, then?  I’ve met a handful of students of magic here, sent on a quest by their academy to find some hidden magic or potion.”

She smiled again.  “Have you now?  Do you offer your help to these students, to reach their goals?”

“Sometimes.  Mostly I listen to them.”  He looked around the library.  “I ask them about the libraries in their academies. It’s hard to imagine a place with more books than this.”

“Well, then, let me tell you about the library in my home.”  She took a deep breath, and her eyes seemed to look past the bookshelves, away across the land to somewhere far away.  “Imagine eight circular chambers, fifty feet across and seven stories high, joined at the center. Each one devoted to one of the primary forms of magic…” she looked back at him.  “Do you know them?”

“Abjuration – the magic of protection,” he replied, “Alteration – the magic of changing one thing into another. Conjuration – the magic of summoning creatures and objects. Divination – the magic of gathering knowledge. Enchantment – The craft of instilling permanent magic onto an item or place. Evocation – the magic of calling forth energy. Illusion – magical trickery. And the last is…”

He hesitated to mention the eighth division of magic. It was the forbidden magic, and its practice would make you unwelcome in every magical academy Riganzia had heard of.

She nodded her head.  “Yes, Necromancy – the magic of death.” She sighed.  “And each of these spaces is filled, from one floor to the next, with shelves upon shelves of books.  There are very few forms of magic that cannot be found upon those shelves.”

Riganzia shrugged.  “If the spell you seek can’t be found there, why do you believe you’ll find a clue to it here?”

“There are two reasons I seek it here,” she had replied, turning her gaze back to the shelf, running a finger along the edges of the ancient bindings.  “First, Nomad’s Gate is one of the most commonly-traveled parts of the world. More stories are shared here, more history re-told, than anywhere else.  And second… if I can find what I seek here, or in another library, I can prove that the magic I seek doesn’t make me an evil person.”

He stayed quiet for a long moment, thinking about what she had said.  At last, he asked, “Almost all healing magic belongs to the branch of Alteration, doesn’t it?  Changing wounds or illness?  Or Evocation, to give extra energy to a body to help it heal?”

“Sometimes,” she said.  “But at the same time, the healing of a mortal wound or illness could be called Necromancy, could it not? If the magic is interfering with death, forestalling it?  How can you truly understand life without some understanding of death?”

He looked askance at her.  “It sounds to me like you have already spent some time studying dark magic.”

She laughed, quietly, for several moments before answering.  He knew that he should stop talking to her, should turn and walk away, but something in his heart told him to stay, to listen more.

“There is no dark magic, my young friend.  All magic can be used for good or evil, to help or to harm others.  It is the wizard or sorcerer that is dark or light, not the magic.”

“Even Necromancy?”

She nodded.  “Even Necromancy.  There was once a wizard who had the power to heal almost any illness, and he traveled throughout the continent using his gifts to make the crippled walk, making the deathly ill recover.  People everywhere welcomed his coming, saying his healing powers were a gift from the gods, and many sought him out.”  She took a step closer to him, and lowered her voice, as if she was telling a great secret.  “What few knew was that he would visit the prisons before performing his miracles. He would find men and women who were awaiting a death sentence, and he would ask them to give up their life energy, which he would transfer to those he healed. Every time he healed a person, someone else would die.”  She cocked her head to one side.  “Is that evil? Asking someone who is to be executed to help heal an innocent person? A sick child, an injured man who cannot work to support his family?  Even though it is death magic, does that not make good use from a death that was going to happen anyway?”

“I… I don’t know…” Riganzia paused.  “What happened to him?”

She shrugged.  “Eventually people learned what he was doing. A guard at one of the prisons saw him drawing the life out of one of the condemned.  The crowd outside bound him and set fire to him.”

“They burned him? Alive?” His jaw hung open.  “After all he’d done to help people?”

She nodded, slowly.  “Yes, and he refused to hurt them, even though it meant his own death.  They were so afraid of Necromancy, so convinced of its evil, that they forgot his good works and killed him.”

They were both quiet for a long time.  She turned her attention back to the shelves, pulling another large, leather-bound book down and opening it.

Many things became clear to Riganzia at once.  “You do study this magic, don’t you?”

She looked at him.  She did not nod, but her eyes answered affirmatively.

“And you’re looking for this ceremony out here, instead of your own library… because you want to prove that it’s not all evil.”  He looked around, making sure no one was close enough to listen.

She was smiling when he turned back to her.  “You’re very perceptive,” she said.  “My family has cast me out because of my chosen study. My hope is to find something that will change their minds.”

He lowered his head.  “I know how you feel.  My father threatens to throw me out once a month, more if he finds me here.”  He looked back up at her, and saw the curious look on her face.  “He thinks reading is a waste of time,” he continued, “when I could be hunting or taking on more farm-work, like my brother.”

She smiled again, her face seeming to add light to the air around them.  She bent to lift her backpack off the floor, opened the flap, and pulled out a small journal bound in green leather.

“Keep this, but keep it hidden,” she said.  “See how well you understand what I’ve written inside.  And if you get the chance… try your hand at the exercises.  Who knows – you may have a gift for magic.”

He took the book, looking at the plain green cover for a long moment, running his finger along the thin leather strap holding it shut.  “I’ve heard a lot of things about the Necromancers.  About how they’ve been banished from every school of magic on the continent, and chose to form their own.  I’ve heard it’s hidden somewhere in the ruins beneath the Dark Elf city of Zhan’tiol.”  He paused again.  “I’ve read many terrible things about – about them.”

“About us, you mean?” she chuckled.  “About me?  I shouldn’t frighten you, young man.”  She set her backpack down again, then pointed to one of the newer books on the shelf.  “This book has a story about us, that says we destroyed the original city of Zhan’tiol for the sole purpose of making the ruins, and hiding our academy in it.  The brave fantasy of someone who has never even been to Zhan’tiol, let alone the ruins.”  She pointed to another.  “This one has my personal favorite fiction – it says the Necromancers grew out of the order of Shadowknights. It says that those knights gifted with more magical ability than fighting skill left the order to form their own school, leaving swords behind to focus entirely on magic, and now their goal is to murder everyone over the age of 50.” She chuckled again.  “Most of these legends are fantasies are written by people who have never met one of us.  And several are written by those that drove us out of other magical academies, for fear that we would corrupt them.”

“There are rumors that you can bring back the dead- that corpses will fight for you if you’re attacked, that they rise up to defend you,” he said.  He noticed he was starting to relax again – the discomfort he had felt before was fading.

“No one can truly bring back the dead,” she answered.  “That is one of the first things I was taught when I found them.  As for the rest, well, some of our magics can animate a dead body.  They don’t stand up of their own accord.”

“You can make them rise – and fight?”

“If necessary, yes.  It’s not all that impressive,” she said, drawing near him again.  “It’s rather like playing with a marionette.  They’re not all that good at fighting, but it takes a lot of effort to put them down again – you can hit them as hard as you want.  What makes them useful is the fear they inspire.”

“I don’t know if I could bring myself to disturb the dead,” he said, his eyes falling.

“What if you’re being attacked by someone who intends to hurt you – or someone you care about?  What would you do to protect those you love?”

“If it was my family, I’d do anything,” he replied without needing to think.  He looked back down to the journal, then up at her.  “Would they accept me there? At your academy?”

“If you can prove your dedication to learning, there’s a place for you there. But don’t show anyone that book, and if you decide to go, don’t tell anyone.  There are people who would try to stop you, perhaps kill you for going.”  She picked up her backpack again, and returned the last of the books she’d been reading to the shelf.  “And if you make it to Zhan’tiol, be cautious… many of the rumors about the ruins are true.”

He nodded, then looked back at the journal  He turned it over in his hands, but there was no writing on the binding, not on either face or on the spine.  When he looked up again, the stranger had gone.

*****

A chance to leave.  That was what his mind kept repeating, over and over, as he sat on his bed and stared at the journal, lying on his pillow.  He hadn’t even opened it yet, and he had no idea what was written inside.  A chance to leave all of this behind.  No more of his school-mates teasing and bullying him because he was the smallest of his age, no more of his older brother pushing his face into the mud every time he couldn’t lift as much, couldn’t push as hard, couldn’t do as much work.  No more of his father chiding him for spending so much time in books, no more listening to him wishing for a younger son more like the older.  No more lectures on what it is that makes a man, on what a boy needs to do to grow into one.  No more being afraid that he was being followed by a pack of other kids who could each wrestle him to the ground on their own, let alone when there were 6 of them.

No more worry that becoming a farmer was the only thing he had to look forward to.  Farmer, blacksmith, soldier… they were all the same to him.  They were things he was never meant to be, and being forced into any of those lives would be a torment for him.  And now, he had a way out.  At least, a chance at one.

He loosened the thin belt of leather that held the book shut, then opened the cover and looked at the first page.  The pages were crisp, silver-white and smooth as fine silk.  The letters were thin, curly, almost lyrical, but the words that they formed were of solid things; chemicals and potions, exercises of the mind that could be started with words spoken with magical power.  He scanned through a number of the exercises, then focused on one in particular; an apparently simple spell.  He read the instructions through three times, then closed his eyes and focused his mind on the goal- a sphere of light, the size of his hand, floating in midair over his bed.  He repeated the words to himself, silently, then whispered them aloud.  When he opened his eyes, it was there, and he gasped in surprise.  He couldn’t believe it.  A soft green glow, hovering at his eye level, it’s light tinting the room, mixing with the red and orange light from the setting sun.  He silently commanded the light to turn blue, and it did- it’s hue shifting slowly to a cool, electric blue.

Loud footsteps were mounted the stairs, then crossed the hall.  He stuffed the journal under his pillow, then panicked for just a moment- he had no idea how to dispel the light!

He had no time, in any case.  The door opened, and his father’s head entered.  His rough, unshaven face looked confused for a moment, looking at the light, then returned to Riganzia.  Father opened the door fully and entered the room, arms folded across his chest, and his mother stepped in just behind him.  She wore her light green work clothes, her trousers smudged with dirt from kneeling over her plantings, her blond hair tied loosely behind her.  Her eyes reflected the light from the orb that hovered over the bed, but she was looking only at her son.  Her face parted in a smile of immense pride.

“Where did you learn to do that?” she said, moving toward him and kneeling beside the bed.

“The library,” he said, not knowing how much to say.

She turned to Father, beaming.  “If he can do even simple magic like this, at 12 years old, without any training, he’d be accepted for certain at an academy of magic!”

Father’s arms were still folded across his chest, his face still unimpressed.  “Not too bad, Riganzia.  How long did it take you to learn that?”

“Not long.  This is my first try.  It was green at first, but I can change its color.”  He looked back at the orb, willing it to turn red, and it did.  The light made his parents’ faces look sinister, so he changed the light to soft white.  It lit up the room like a dozen candles.

Father nodded.  “Well, now when you skip out on an entire afternoon’s chores, you can do them at night.  Your mother has been planting for you all afternoon, because she knew you were at the library.”  He turned to leave the room.  “When you find a spell that can lift things that you can’t, let me know- that might be more useful to the rest of us.”

As his footsteps echoed down the stairs, Mother took Riganzia’s face in her hands, looking him in the eyes.  “Don’t listen to that.  You have a gift, and if it’s not useful to him, and not useful here, you find a place that it will be.  Wherever it was you learned this, whatever book it was, you read all of it, learn all you can.  Having a wizard’s gift is greater than anything your father could achieve on a farm.”

*****

He stayed in his room all evening, under the glow of the orb he had conjured.  Not too far later in the journal, he’d found the directions to extinguish it, and practiced it over and over until he could call and banish the light whenever he wished.  Then, later again, he discovered that a mental command similar to the one that banished a light he’d conjured could be used to put out the flame of a small candle.  He lit one of the candles he had in his room, then put it out with the exercise he’d just learned.

“Not bad, Rig,” a voice said from his doorway, making him jump.  He hadn’t heard his older brother approach, but it was plain he’d been watching for a while.

“Does that book show you how to start fires, too?”

Riganzia closed the book, hastily.  “I’m not supposed to let anyone else see this.”

Ralanzar shrugged his huge shoulders.  “One more book to me.  I got better things to do.  But that candle trick is kinda neat.”  He tilted his head toward the hall.  “You’re supposed to come down for supper.  Maybe that trick will impress dad a little more than the light mom was talking about.”

Dinner was silent.  Father ate steadily, hungry from the massive amount of labor he took upon himself every day.  Ralanzar was the same way, but bigger- a head taller than Father already at 16, and nearly twice as tall as Riganzia.  Distracted by the exercises he’d been practicing, he ate quickly.  The practice had built up a bit of an appetite, but more than anything he just wanted to read more, to absorb the entire journal in one night.  Mother watched him, a knowing smile on her face.  Father glanced at him occasionally, seeing the same signs, but showing a very different attitude toward them.

Father finished his food, pushing his plate back from him and sliding his chair back.  “Riganzia, you’re not going to stay up all night blinking that light on and off, are you?  We’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.”

Riganzia finished swallowing his mouthful, then said, “I won’t stay up too late, but I believe there really might be something that could help with our work in the morning.  It might be worth some extra time reading.”

Father fixed him with a cold glare.  “Are you testing me, boy?”

“No, father, not at all.  I honestly believe I may be able to find something that could help us.”  Riganzia stood, and pushed his chair back up to the table.  “I’d like to spend some more time studying, if I may.”

Father waved him off.  “I’ll be extra hard on you if you’re up late, boy.  That’s the only warning you get.”

Riganzia nodded, then ran back upstairs.

*****

He’d found, about an hour later, what he had hoped was in the journal… a spell that would animate a dead body like a puppet.  Besides the body, it didn’t require much- he had to look back to other pages and read up on some other exercises and pieces of knowledge that made it happen before he understood it all, but soon found himself wondering how hard it would be to sneak off and find something to practice on.  Some of the writings contradicted each other- in some places, it said that animating a clean skeleton was easiest because it acted upon only bones, but elsewhere it argued that the remaining flesh on a… he shuddered.  The journal was so cold in its analysis, its descriptions; it described these things like someone would explain the workings of a catapult.

But that’s what it was, wasn’t it? He thought, silently.  Simply a different branch of knowledge, a science that the author had studied.

His parents were arguing downstairs.  Not shouting, which he had heard many other parents do, but their voices were steadily rising.  They were arguing about him.

“Look, Rhianlia, I am not going to squeeze what little extra money we have to send him off to school somewhere else.  This gift is an interesting distraction, but nothing more.”

“Nothing more?  Doesn’t the possibility of having a son who becomes a wizard excite you?  Don’t you think the ability he’d have is worth it?”

“Ralanzar wants to go to the military academy in Njannotta, too.  And our obligation to him is now; Riganzia has another few years before he can really go anywhere.”

“Ralanzar’s potential as a soldier is greater than Riganzia’s as a wizard?” she mocked him.  “Send one son off to die, when the other’s gift could be worth more than a dozen farm hands? Are you a fool?”

Riganzia heard the smack of his father’s hand, felt it as if he’d been struck himself.  He returned his attention to the journal.  Apparently, when animating a corpse or skeleton, verbal commands are all it needs- the wizard’s mind, while forming the words, would direct its intention to the animated thing wordlessly.  Thinking a command or saying it aloud were the same, at least to the thing.  A note in parenthesis mentioned that if the animation was meant to fight, it may invoke more fear for the enemy or opponent to hear the command spoken aloud… again, Riganzia felt his skin crawl.

The sound of his mother’s footsteps on the stair caught his attention.  He heard her stop outside his door, then move down the hall.

He did stay up far too late.  He found many scattered pieces of information and knowledge, many exercises that he attempted, some successfully.  It became clear to him that the journal was basically a student’s notes, and while very informative, it was written while the author followed a program of study and was only a supplement.  For him to truly grasp everything he was reading, he’d need the textbooks the author had been reading, the materials that they’d practiced with, and most importantly, the instructors.  Some stones, for example, carried natural magic energy with them, and could be used to augment a wizard’s own ability.  Quartz, for example, would help the animation of corpses, but not of a skeleton.  So many guidelines, rules, exeptions, and arguments against all three were in the journal, all contradicting earlier writings and questioning later ones.  But still, some of the points were clear to him; his orb of light was proof of that.

*****

Riganzia walked down the steps slowly, carefully, and trying his best to look more awake than he felt.  Every muscle was aching, punishing him for getting too little sleep.  He’d known it was coming, but that didn’t diminish the discomfort he felt.

His father and brother sat at the table, just getting started on a heavy breakfast of eggs and steak.  Mother stood beside the kitchen hearth, loading up a third wooden plate with a similar portion.  She smiled at him as she caught sight of him, then tilted her head.  Her expression shifted to show sympathy.

Father looked up a moment later, and met Riganzia’s eyes.  He shook his head, sighed, then returned his attention to his meal.

Mother set the plate before a third chair, and waved for Riganzia to sit and eat.  She patted his shoulder as he passed.  Riganzia didn’t feel excessively hungry, but knew he’d need his strength.

“Good morning, Father, Ralanzar,” he said, as brightly as he could manage.  “Thank you for the meal, Mother.”

Father fixed him with a hard stare.  He chewed his food, slowly, then swallowed hard.  “You learn a lot last night?”

“Yes, sir,” Riganzia answered.  “I don’t know how much use it’ll be here, but eventually-“

“You’re going to learn a lot today, too, son,” Father interrupted.  “Ralanzar, I want you plowing the west field this morning.”  His eyes remained on his younger son.

Driving the plow across the field was usually Riganzia’s task. It meant guiding the horse, and while it took effort, it was one of the easier tasks on the farm.  Having Ralanzar take that task today meant-

“You’ll be distributing feed sacks.”

Riganzia looked down at his food, and speared a slice of steak with his fork.  “Yes, sir,” he answered before putting the meat into his mouth.

Father pointed at his younger son’s plate.  “Eat heavy, then take a half hour for your food to go down.”

Riganzia swallowed his bite, nodding.  Father was being nice by giving him time for his food to go down – there had been plenty of mornings that he’d been sent directly to work after eating, and driven to throwing up from the effort.  But at the same time, the feed sacks were each almost as heavy as he was.

Ralanzar had nearly cleaned his plate by this point.  “Father, I can get started right away.”  He stood, carrying his plate and fork back into the kitchen.  He took a rag from the water bucket, wiped down his knife, then slipped it into the sheath at his belt.  He patted Riganzia on the shoulder as he went by, then disappeared through the front door.

Father took another bite of his steak, and talked while chewing.  “Anything in that book teach you how to make things float?  Think you can move those sacks around with magic?”

“I did see something like that when I flipped through it, but can’t do it.”  Riganzia slid his fork under one of the eggs.  “It’s pretty advanced.  I wouldn’t want to practice on the feed sacks, and break one open.”

Father nodded, swallowing his food and looking over at Mother.

“Father!” they all heard Ralanzar’s shout from outside.  The three of them arrived at the front door at roughly the same time, but Riganzia let his father pass first.  He jogged behind, catching up as his father stopped short of the barn’s front door.  Ralanzar stood just inside.

“Damn it all,” his father whispered, entering the stable.  The family owned two horses.  One had been ill for a month, and was getting weaker.  The other, a dark brown mare named Thornback, lay dead, with bite marks from a dog or wolf at its throat.  A lake of blood had poured from the wound, staining the dirt and straw of the barn’s floor.

The three of them stood, looking at the dead body for a long time. None of them spoke.  Finally, Father had turned to look at Ralanzar.

“We still need to get the west field tilled.  Run over to the Brondlin’s farm, ask them if we can borrow or rent a horse from them.  Jerimma is fond of your mother’s cooking, perhaps we can repay him with dinner.”

Ralanzar nodded, then turned South and jogged toward the road that led to the neighboring farm.

Riganzia took a deep breath.  “Father, it’ll take him almost an hour to get there. Maybe an hour to get a horse and return. Another half hour to get the horse ready to till.  That’s most of the morning.”  He paused, the words catching in his throat.  He looked up at his father’s face.  Father looked down at him, his face stony and impassive.  Riganzia forced the words out.

“Let me try something. If it works, we won’t have lost the morning.”

Father folded his arms.  His eyebrows rose.  He looked down at his younger son, expectantly.

Riganzia looked at Thornback’s body, then back at his father.  “I… think I’ll do better if I’m alone though. If it works, you’ll see the west field tilled.”

“If you can till the west field this morning, I’ll take back everything I’ve ever said about reading,” Father said.  “And I’ll help you with the grain sacks this afternoon.”  He turned, and headed back toward the house.  Riganzia watched him all the way through the front door.

He’d tilled the fields plenty of times before.  It wasn’t too difficult a task.  He was strong enough now to harness a horse on his own, and get the tiller fitted.  The horse did most of the work, all he had to do was point it the right direction.  Thornback had done it plenty of times, too, and she’d more or less known what to do.

Riganzia closed his eyes, picturing the words on the pages of the journal.  He’d read the commands dozens of times, memorized the author’s notes on pronunciation, had whispered silently for more than a half hour.  He’d succeeded with the magical light, and it had fed his confidence.

But was his gift strong enough for this?  The woman from the library had said animating a corpse was an early lesson at her academy, a simple exercise.  The commands for a corpse are merely a different language, the journal had said.

He took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and spoke the language of the dead aloud for the first time.

Arise.”

At first, nothing happened.  For a long moment, he feared that it hadn’t worked.  But the dead horse stirred, just slightly, just enough for Riganzia to gain the courage to call again.

Another line from the journal came to his mind, one he hadn’t expected to need. Knowing the living name may give strength to animating the corpse.

Arise, Thornback.”

The dead horse’s head rose off the ground, looking straight at him.  Slowly, deliberately, he pushed his legs underneath him, then pushed his body off the ground.

Seeing the thing stand was unnerving.  Riganzia stepped closer, unable to take his eyes off the body.  Now that it was upright, more blood came pouring out of the ragged gashes of its neck, adding to the pool in the straw on the barn floor.  But more than that, the animated body didn’t stand properly.  It also did not need to draw breath.  The eyes were still, glazed and staring blankly ahead.  Even the small twitching of the ears Riganzia had thought so endearing was gone.  Thornback had been his friend, but looking at her reanimated body, Riganzia understood what the woman had meant.  What stood before him now was a puppet, and little more.

But it is a very useful puppet, he thought to himself.  He crossed the floor to the wall, lifting the tiller harness and settling it on Thornback’s shoulders.  The puppet’s shoulders, he corrected himself. Rigging the steering ropes was easier than usual – the puppet wasn’t bothered by Riganzia’s hands, or the discomfort of the ropes.  It didn’t move unless he willed it to.

Once it was done, Riganzia looked through the barn’s front door, toward the house.  Circling the west field was a long row of tall oak trees, planted to shield the crops from the wind.  He could move through the barn’s back door, along an uneven track to a gap in the trees.  If he wasn’t spotted while he was on the track, he wouldn’t be seen by anyone unless they came onto the field with him.

Maneuvering Thornback while she’d been alive had never been as easy as it was when she was dead.  Riganzia had only to direct his thought at the puppet, and it would obey his silent commands.  The two of them moved along the track, Riganzia looking over his shoulder toward the house after every step.  Once they were between the trees, he breathed a sigh of relief and set his mind to his task.

The puppet fell into pace easily. After the first two rows, Riganzia had the feel for it, turning the dead horse and the tiller easier and following the rows better.  After an hour of work, he was more than half-way done with the field.  He was about to take a break, to let Thornback rest, but then remembered that he didn’t need to.  He thought about getting himself some water from the barn, but decided that he shouldn’t leave the puppet alone, standing out in the field.  He took a step back from it, then whispered another command aloud.

Rest.”

The puppet wasted no time.  It dropped to the ground so heavily that Riganzia feared it would break the tiller.  He smiled, pride swelling in his chest as he looked at the work he’d accomplished.  He jogged back to the barn, plucking the canteen off the wall, uncorking it and taking a long drink.

Hoofbeats approached from the house.  Riganzia looked through the barn’s front doors, and could see Ralanzar astride the grey mare he’d borrowed from their neighbors.  The older brother dismounted, looking into the barn, his expression confused.

Thornback was gone. Riganzia watched, frozen to the spot, as Ralanzar shouted into the house, then led the mare toward the barn door.  20 feet away, the mare neighed loudly, and began pulling on the reigns in Ralanzar’s hands.

Mother and Father were both out of the house a moment later, moving across the grass toward the barn.  The three stood there in the open doors, staring open-mouthed at the pool of blood where Thornback had been at daybreak.  Then they looked over at Riganzia.

No one spoke.  Riganzia tried his best to think of something to say, but nothing seemed proper.  Eventually he blurted out,

“Father… it worked.”

Father took a step toward him.  He looked down at the scarlet stain, then back at Riganzia.  “What… what worked?”

Riganzia hung the canteen on its hook, then pointed toward the back doors.  “The field is half-plowed.  I can be finished in another hour – easily before noon.”

“But… where is…” Father’s mouth still couldn’t stay closed.  The look in his eyes read confusion and amazement.  Ralanzar’s was the same.

Riganzia looked toward his mother, but instantly regretted it.  She, among all of them, had deduced what had happened.  Her expression was of horror, and she shook her head, slowly.

“No… No, not my son,” she whispered, just loud enough for him to hear.

“Mother… without a horse strong enough to plow, we won’t be able to get enough crops in the ground to feed us, let alone sell.  We can’t borrow a horse every day.”

“But to do this?!” she nearly shrieked.  “How could you?!”

It was the first time Riganzia had seen his mother this angry. Stranger still was his father, who seemed ready to stand on his side against her.

“Whatever it is you’ve done, it must have been something,” he said.  “I want to see it.”

“No,” mother said, flatly.  “Never again, Riganzia. Never.  Not while you call yourself my son.”  She looked at Father.  “This is death magic. Riganzia has dabbled in evil magic, and we need to put a stop to it.”

“You seemed to think it was a good idea last night,” Father replied.

“This isn’t what I saw last night! Disturbing the dead is dark magic!” she said, her voice rising again.

“Mother, magic is not dark or light. It is the wizard that chooses how it is used,” Riganzia said moving toward her.  “I didn’t do this to hurt anyone, I did it to plow our field.”

Ralanzar was the first to say it aloud.  “You… brought Thornback to life?”

“No,” Riganzia and Mother both said together.  They looked at each other, across the barn.  Riganzia finished the thought for them both.  “No one can truly bring back the dead.”  He looked at his brother.  “But I can make the dead body stand up, and work.  It plowed half the field in an hour.”

Mother seemed to regain her movements, and rushed across the space to embrace Riganzia.  “Who taught you this?  Who told you that this would not corrupt you?”

“A stranger at the library,” he answered.  “An elf, looking for a book on magical healing.”

“Never again, Riganzia,” she said, pleading.  “Never.  This magic will destroy you, and if the wrong ears hear of what you’ve done, even just once, they’ll come for you, and kill you.”  She squeezed his shoulders.  “Promise me!”

“Mother… you always told me to read, to learn.” He put his own hands on her arms.  “Why should this be any different?”

Her eyes became fierce again.  “Promise me – or leave my house!” she hissed.

He felt tears welling in his eyes.  “How can you understand life without understanding death? Why is it evil to try to learn about it?”  He felt his breath catch.  “How could you turn me away now, when I’ve finally found something I can learn that is useful?”

She stared at him, quietly, the look in her eyes becoming colder by the second.  “You wish to join them, don’t you?  You’ve had a taste of their magic.  You’re already being corrupted by it.”  She stood, and turned away from him, striding quickly out of the barn, and toward the house.

He watched her go, but couldn’t think of anything to say.

*****

For the rest of the morning, Mother had refused to look at him or speak to him.  She kept to the house, making a point to be out of sight whenever Riganzia went inside for a drink or a break.  Ralanzar watched, eyes wide, as the Thornback-puppet pulled the tiller around the west field.  Father hadn’t wanted to watch, but approved of the work once they were done.

Riganzia led the puppet into the barn through the back door, slowly.  The corpse had the stink of death on it when they’d found it in the morning, and animating it had made it worse.  Outside, in the open air, it had been tolerable, in the confines of the barn, it nearly choked Riganzia.  Ralanzar stood outside the door, his hand over his mouth and nose in an attempt to keep out the smell.  Getting close to the thing was torment, but Riganzia forced himself to un-harness the tiller. When he crossed the room to put it in its place, he couldn’t bring himself to get close to the puppet again.  He moved back to the door, looking up at his older brother for a long moment.

“Now what do you do?” Ralanzar asked.  He stared at the corpse as it stood, stone still.

“I tell it to rest,” Riganzia said.  He turned, facing the puppet, silently practicing the command twice before speaking it aloud.

Rest,” he said, quietly.  Again, the puppet fell, like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Its pose on the ground looked so terribly un-natural, Riganzia couldn’t think of any way a living animal could lay or fall to look the way Thornback did.  He looked back over his shoulder at Ralanzar.

His brother had stepped back, shivering despite the heat. He stared at Riganzia, eyes wider than ever.  For a long time, neither spoke.

“Mother’s right, Rig,” Ralanzar said, quietly.  “Good people aren’t meant to talk like that, and that talk isn’t meant for good people.”

“A sword itself doesn’t kill people, Ral.  It takes a person to use it.”  Riganzia waved his hand back at the dead horse.  “This is just another tool. And it works! One night of study, and it saved us a bunch of trouble, didn’t it?”  He paused for a long moment, letting his hand drop back to his side.  “This wasn’t evil.”

Ralanzar didn’t answer.  His lips pressed together, hard, as if there were words trying to come out that he was forcing to stay inside.  He turned away and circled the barn, heading toward the house.

*****

That night, Riganzia had stayed awake studying the journal long after the others were asleep.  But instead of going to sleep himself, he stuffed two sets of clothes and the journal into the small backpack he owned, then crept out of the house.  He held his breath on the path from their farmhouse to the main road, but didn’t slow his pace until he was over the first hill, and out of sight of home.  It was just over a mile to the city proper, past another two farms and a graveyard.

The city of Nomad’s Gate never truly slept. He knew he would be able to wander and loiter the area near the Asharidan gate until morning, perhaps chatting with the guards.  They wouldn’t think he was up to mischief if he didn’t look like he was avoiding them. Once the sun was up, there would be plenty of caravans heading in all directions. He could tell them he was going to the Asharidan capitol to apply for a place in their magic academy. He could work for passage easily enough.

He knew his thoughts were scattered, but he didn’t mind. As long as he wasn’t thinking about home.

The roads to the neighboring farms branched out on either side of him, and he could see the shadowy outline of the farmhouses. Their windows were all dark.  The sky had patches of clouds cloaking the moon, but there was enough of a glow to just light his path.  It was two days after a full moon, and when the clouds parted, the moon shone brightly.

On his left side was a line of tall, strong maple trees, planted to break the wind and protect the fields on the other side. On his right, the last field was giving way, and the old graveyard loomed.  It was flat except for the small hill near the center, a poorly planned maze of headstones and crypts.  The stones shimmered here and there in the moonlight.  A wrought iron fence marked the boundaries, low enough to jump over but high enough that you couldn’t miss it.  The gateless arch was 10 feet tall and just as wide, decorated with black iron roses and clematis vines.   Riganzia had wandered through it many times by day, and could most likely find his way through it at night if he dared.

And now, he wondered why he wouldn’t. What would come after him, a dead body?  Even if it did, I could call one of the others up to defend me, couldn’t I?  The thought made him smirk.  A moment later, his senses picked up something new coming from the graves. Something he couldn’t see or hear, but could feel, somehow.  He remembered one of the notes in the journal – calling a corpse to rise and obey will open your senses to the presence of the dead.  And he could certainly sense them – he could almost count them.  They seemed to announce themselves to him, whispering across the silent hall of a temple, shining a dim light to him in darkness.  He hadn’t been around any other dead since Thornback, so he hadn’t had the chance to notice.  But now, he couldn’t ignore them.

Many of the children his age would make a game of wandering the graves by night, pretending not to be scared. Riganzia had never had many friends to prove his courage to, but he’d overheard plenty of stories.  It hadn’t occurred to him that someone might be doing that very thing when he passed – until it was too late.

“Hey, Jorlian,” a voice called from the other side of the graveyard’s wrought iron fence.  “Isn’t that Rag?”

Riganzia’s heart sank. He recognized the voice immediately as one of the bullies who had pestered him for as long as he could remember.  Another voice piped up from farther away.

“Let’s have a look and see… Yes, that’s him.”  Loud footsteps crunched through scattered leaves.  “What’s he doing out here so late?”

A third voice joined them, this one a girl.  “Rag, it’s dangerous out here,” she taunted.  “You should be home in bed.”

Riganzia kept his pace, neither slowing or speeding up.  If he stopped, they’d surround him in a moment or two.  If he looked like he was trying to escape, they’d run him down.  His only chance was to act like they weren’t bothering him. They’d holler while he passed, but there was a chance they would decide to find something more fun to do.

This all happened by instinct. Then he remembered where he was, and how dramatically his life had changed in the past day.  He stopped in his tracks, turning to face them over the fence.

Nathilan Creek was there first.  He wasn’t all that much larger than Riganzia, but being bullied by his older brothers had given him a mean streak, and he enjoyed any excuse to demean someone.  He was wearing the same sort of rough work clothes Riganzia wore – his family were farmers, too.  What he lacked in intelligence he made up for in cunning.

The second to the fence was the girl, Helen. Riganzia had never known her family name.  Her father was an old soldier from the long wars who had taken up teaching his art at a warrior’s academy near the center of the sprawling city.  Her brothers had both gone on to join the Asharidan armies, and she was following their footsteps.  Her long hair shone blond in the moonlight, hanging in loose curls past her shoulders.  Her shirt had no sleeves, and she leaned on the iron fence, the muscles in her arms showing even in the shadows.  Riganzia had often wished her temperament matched her good looks, but now she looked like a wolf preparing to run down a deer.

The third was Jorlian Temper, the only son of a wealthy merchant in a city whose merchants were its lifeblood.  Jorlian had grown up spoiled, and saw nearly every other family as beneath him.  His head was shaved bald, in the tradition of the men of his family, and his pale head looked almost like another moon.

The Creek family were friends of his father’s, and Helen’s father trained many of the Temper’s armed escorts – so this trio of children were rarely separated.  Sometimes there would be others with them, but this was the core.

“So, where are you off to this late, huh?” Jorlian asked.  “Going to fetch mommy from her work above the taverns?”  The others chuckled.  Jorlian’s favorite joke was to suggest Riganzia’s mother was a whore, even if the woman hadn’t been inside a tavern in her life.

Riganzia felt the old fear of them wash over him, but he drove it back.  They don’t realize that tonight will be different, he thought.  He looked Jorlian in the eye.

“No, but when I get downtown, I’ll keep an eye out for your mom, if you like.”

Jorlian’s smile disappeared for a moment, but soon returned.  Riganzia was giving him an excuse to rough him up, and he was looking forward to it.

“But since you’re out here, I’d like you to see something,” Riganzia said.  “I’ve made a new friend.”

This was the most he had spoken to this trio of bullies, and their surprise showed.  Their smiles disappeared, replaced by curiosity.

Riganzia set down his backpack, closed his eyes for a moment, then held out his hand.  He whispered the command to call his light, and as he opened his eyes, his plan for what to say and do unfolded before him like the script for a stage play.  The glowing orb floated over his hand, pale blue, gently pushing back the shadows around him.  The eyes of all three of the others widened in amazement.

“This is my guardian spirit,” Riganzia said, proudly.  “He’s only recently found me.  Incredible, isn’t it?”  He looked over the fence at them, smiling broadly.  “Now, don’t worry, it’s not dangerous unless it thinks I’m in danger, and it’ll start to glow red if it does.”  He willed the orb to change color, and it shifted to deep scarlet.

Helen and Nathilen stepped back from the fence.  “Oh, dear,” Riganzia said, feigning concern.  “It can sense when someone nearby wants to hurt me.  Perhaps you should go.”  He willed the light to move now, to float over their heads and into the graveyard.  He sent it behind one of the headstones, then extinguished it with a silent command.

Jorlian snickered.  “I’ve seen that spell before, Rag,” he said.  “Every student of magic can do that within a week of joining an academy.”  He leaped over the fence, then looked back at his companions.  “It’s an easy trick if you have the gift.”

Helen leaped over the fence a moment later.  Nathilen hesitated.  “If he can do magic…”

“With as much time as he spends in the library, it doesn’t surprise me,” Helen said, the predatory smirk returning to her face.  “But how much will he really be able to do?”

“I really wish you’d leave me alone,” Riganzia said, seriously.  “It went in there to get something to fight with, and I don’t know what it’ll do if it comes back to see you hurting me.”

“Something to fight with?” Jorlian repeated, sarcasm dripping from his voice.  “Are you serious? Do you think we’re going to fall for that?”

Riganzia shrugged, then waved a hand back toward the gravestones.  When Jorlian turned, Riganzia whispered the now-familiar language, calling to the nearest of the dead.  “Arise.”  His whisper had been just loud enough to Jorlian to hear.

“Another little trick for us, Rag?”

Riganzia shook his head, then looked past Jorlian and into the graveyard.  One of the dead had answered his call, had started to push its way through the dirt above it.  It would take a moment to join him, and then-

Jorlian’s punch hit Riganzia just below the ribcage, knocking the wind out of him instantly.  He fell to his knees, clutching his stomach and gasping.  Helen clucked her tongue at him, disapproving of his fall.

“Come on, Rag,” she said, shaking her head.  “With as often as we hit you, you should know how to take a punch by now!”  She enjoyed talking like a combat instructor, pointing out how badly he handled their attacks.

Defend me! Riganzia thought, but a moment later he regretted it.  His command had carried an urgency borne of his pain and anger, and the corpse had responded to it.  The freshly-dug soil exploded, throwing clumps of dirt 10 feet in the air.  The corpse scrambled up out of the ground, clawing up the grass as it dragged itself free and stood up.  Its lifeless gaze leveled on the trio, the blank eyes shimmering in the moonlight.

Nathilen saw it first, and shrieked.  Instead of vaulting the fence, he moved sideways along it, heading for the arched gate ahead.  He disappeared into the shadows.

The corpse that had answered his call was a woman, perhaps 20 years old or so, and had been dead for less than a week.  Decay had set upon her in earnest, but she would still be recognizeable – dark hair, high cheeks, thin and willowy, wearing a now-tattered burial gown and missing one of her shoes.  Helen echoed Nathilen’s shriek, backing away from Riganzia and the corpse as it approached.  Jorlian seemed frozen to the spot, unable to believe what he was seeing.  The moonlight made his face seem grayish-blue.

“Leap over the fence,” Riganzia said, loudly enough for the other two to hear, even if they didn’t understand.  He was still gasping for air, but his strength was returning, boosted by the terror he saw on his tormentors’ faces.  They had no idea what he said, but the corpse immediately sprang into the air, clearing the fence easily and landing less than ten feet from them.  As it straightened up, and continued to approach, Helen screamed again.  She sprinted down the road to Nomad’s Gate, still screaming.

Jorlian didn’t seem able to move until the thing had grabbed ahold of him.  A wet stain appeared on the front of his pants, and he sank to his knees, the corpse gripping his upper arm and staring down at him.  Its mouth hung just slightly open, as if it was about to speak, but no words came.  Jorlian’s mouth was very much the same, but quivered uncontrollably.

Stop,” Riganzia said.  Then he repeated the command in his own language.  The corpse held tight to Jorlian’s arm, but turned its head to Riganzia.  The young wizard had gotten back to his feet now – Young necromancer, he thought to himself.  There is no reason to deny it now.

Hearing Riganzia command the thing to stop seemed to restore Jorlian’s voice.  “I… please… I don’t…”

“In all the years you’ve been bothering me, Jorlian, when did I once beg you to stop?” Riganzia asked, quietly.  He was enjoying this moment greatly.

Jorlian couldn’t answer.

Riganzia looked back up at the corpse.  “Fall on him, and hold him down.”

The puppet obeyed at once.  It collapsed forward as if he’d released it, but gripped the boy’s wrists tightly.  Jorlian’s thought it was going to attack him after all, and the scream that had been building in his throat finally escaped.  Riganzia turned back toward the city, adjusting his backpack and resuming his walk.  He couldn’t help smiling to himself.

The hill ahead of him was little more than a low rise in the earth, but as he crested it, he could see the open gates of the city, less than a mile ahead of him.  He’d be there in a quarter of an hour at most.  He turned to look back at the road before the graveyard, and even in the dark could see the corpse’s wedding gown, splayed out over the ground.

Rest, he silently commanded.  At that distance, he couldn’t tell if the order had been heard or obeyed, but it didn’t matter.  Nathlien and Helen would certainly have gotten the attention of the guard, and Jorlian would have help coming soon to free him.  They’d be able to pry the corpse off of him, even if it did resist.  The corpse could only be so strong.

He turned back toward the city, then froze in fear.  Indeed, a formation of soldiers was already moving through the gate toward him.  The two children might be with them, but the soldiers would certainly bring him in for questioning.  And he couldn’t guess which tale the magistrates would believe.

The elf woman’s warnings flooded his mind. He stood still on the road, unable to decide whether to return home, to continue on to the city…  The guards were growing nearer, and would be able to see him by the moonlight if he didn’t move soon.  But if he ran, they would presume he was guilty.  They were only a half-mile away now, and he could see Helen walking along beside the officer at the lead.

Which made perfect sense.  Helen knew many of the guards, having watched them practice in her father’s school.  She’d know the officers on duty, and they’d listen to her.  Naturally, she’d go to them immediately.  And whether they believed Riganzia was capable of what had happened, they’d certainly come to investigate. Especially to help Jorlian – his father would reward them for capturing his son’s attacker.

“Stand still,” a voice said.  It was too close to him to be anywhere but on the hill with him, but there was no one nearby.  Then the voice spoke again, but in words Riganzia couldn’t understand.  A soft glow appeared across the road from him, similar to his own orb of light, but radiating far more power.

His skin began to tingle.  He raised his right hand in front of him, flexing the fingers, then shaking them, but the feeling remained.

Across the road, the orb rose in the air, up to the height of an adult’s eyes.  For only a moment, it illuminated the pale, beautiful face of the elf-woman from the library.  The cheekbones were high and angular, the nose small, the lips drawn into a thin line.  The eyes were different now, and in the short time he could see them, he couldn’t grasp the emotion behind them.  He opened his mouth to speak, but the eyes narrowed, and the orb vanished.  The hilltop and the road before him were empty again.

“Do not speak,” the voice hissed.  The soldiers had reached the foot of the hill, and would reach him within three minutes.  He could hear them talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying until they came closer.  Helen was talking quickly, still terrified, and louder than the officer beside her.

“… and then this thing came out of the ground – a body!  I thought he was joking about the spirit, but it really did come after us!”

“All right, all right,” the guard captain replied.  The green and gold of his uniform was washed into gray in the darkness.  The silver of the armored shoulders glinted coldly.  His armored hands were opening and closing, the fingers flexing nervously.  His face was stony.  “Calm down, now, girl.  We’ll figure this out when we get there.”

One of the other soldiers stepped up beside the captain, keeping pace beside him.  “Sir, if what she’s describing is true…”

“Sergeant, there’s no way to know until we find the boy who did it,” the captain said, evenly.  “I know the boy’s parents, and they’re good people.  I don’t really believe they’d raise a death-wizard, whether he has the gift or not.  It takes a dark soul to do that.”

Riganzia’s blood chilled.  The soldiers had reached the top of the hill, but had made no sign that they saw him.  Neither had Helen – he’d expected her to be terrified by the sight of him, but she continued to approach, then passed by him, taking no notice.  The soldiers filed past him, their armor and weapons clinking loudly with each step, their helmets shimmering.

“But what if he did?” the sergeant asked.  “The magistrate’s rules about that sort of magic-“

“Enough, Sarge,” the captain said, quietly but forcefully.  “I don’t want to think about that just now, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions.  Chances are, these three kids just got a scare out in front of the graveyard.  We’re not going to execute a young boy on a suspicion.”

His eyes wide, Riganzia watched them march down the other side of the hill.  They were within sight of Jorlian and the corpse now.  Helen pointed, and shouted.  The soldiers broke into a run.  A moment later, he was alone again.

And then the face returned.  She stared at him, coldly, a disembodied mask floating in midair across the road.

“You see?” she asked, quietly.  “Their laws will require your death.”

Slowly, the rest of her appeared.  First, the hood covering her head, appearing slowly as if she was a mist taking solid form.  Then her shoulders and torso, and finally her wide cloak, hiding all but her tall, dark grey boots.  Her hands crossed in front of her.

“They attacked me!” Riganzia protested quietly.  “I wouold never-“

“I saw.”  She took a deep breath.  “And they had it coming.  But now, those soldiers will drag you back into the city and put you on trial.”  She waved her hand toward the graveyard.  “They’ve got almost all the proof they need, and if they find out about the horse, they’ll convict and kill you.”

“You know about Thornback?” he asked, his eyes wide.

“Of course,” she said.  “Magic makes waves, like ripples in water.  There are wizards in Nomad’s Gate who felt it, too, and they’ll know what you did, even if they didn’t know where it happened or who did it.  They’ll come to investigate.  Combine that with what these soldiers have found, and the story those three bullies will tell, and they have all the proof they need.”  She sighed.  “You’ve got a lot to learn about magic.”

“I’m only twelve!” he nearly cried.  Tears welled in his eyes.

“It won’t matter to them,” she replied, softly.  “They’ll see in you an evil that they have to snuff out before you become too powerful.”  She looked back down the road toward the graveyard.  “Or… you could come with me.”

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