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Black Gate Online Fiction: “A Phoenix in Darkness” — Part I, continued


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Chapter II: The Investigation

The next morning, Aulus and Nathan entered the serf village dressed like the local citizenry of Quian. They both wore clothing typical for the lower class of artisans and merchants who made up the bulk of the city’s residents: close-fitting trousers and long doublets in subdued colors, Aulus in a deep blue and Nathan in dull green. Neither wore a coat in the warm sunlight of late spring. They had decided that neither could pass for a serf. Aulus could barely suppress his Novar accent for anything other than the slow, sparse speech cultivated by the Domini, so Nathan had decided his friend would have to act the part of a Novar expatriate. Nathan himself, though he had grown up in Quian and had the accent to match, could not mimic the serfs’ speech no matter how hard he tried.

Nathan didn’t know about Aulus, but he had not slept well; his eyes were bleary and his head ached. Mowa’s death must have affected him more than he thought. Even though he hadn’t known the Daurentian Dominus well, he found himself missing that booming laugh already, almost as much as his patience and kindness. Mowa had shielded the younger Domini from Kulsin’s ire more than once. His death had made the world a less friendly place, even without considering Kulsin’s concerns about the public’s perception of Dominus mortality.

“So how do we find this, um, Miriam?” Nathan asked as they walked through the gate and into the village.

“We could just ask,” Aulus said. “It’s a small community: I’m sure they can point us to her.”

“If we do that, then they’ll know we were looking for her,” Nathan objected.

“If they were the Order rather than a few serfs, it might be worth worrying about. However, no one’s going to know who we really are, so what’s the harm?”

“You may be right.”

They spotted two old men loitering in front of a home in an advanced state of disrepair. One of them sat on a three legged stool whose poor construction gave it a definite cant. The other crouched on a stack of firewood, where he constantly shifted in an attempt to find a comfortable position. The two were watching the city gate for some passersby worth talking about. Apparently Nathan and Aulus didn’t qualify as the old men barely exchanged a word when they saw them. That changed once Aulus approached them.

“Excuse me, sirs,” he said in a tone that startled Nathan. Since when did Novar nobles address serfs that way? “We are looking for a woman named Miriam.”

“Are ya? She seems to be a popular lass today,” the man on the wood pile answered. He grunted as his backside found another point in the wood, shifted, then looked Aulus up and down. “I’m not sure I should be talking to no foreigner about her, though. Ya friends of the other fellow?”

“We’re… associates of his, yes,” Aulus said.

“Well, she lives out that way,” he waved his hand to the west. “She’s, what, third house past the well, Bram?”

Bram shook his head. “More like four houses past it. It’s a nicely kept place, re-thatched just last month, y’see, so ya shouldn’t be able to miss it.”

Aulus looked at Nathan, who nodded, and after thanking the two men the Domini headed in the direction indicated. “Do you know of any particular way to tell whether a house is freshly thatched?” Aulus asked.

“Not really. I grew up in town, where all the houses were shingled. How hard can it be? Why’d you, um, lie to them, anyway?”

Aulus shrugged. “It seemed the thing to do. And if this ‘other fellow’ is one of the guardsmen from yesterday, then maybe we do know him.”

Nathan just nodded at this bit of sophistry and concentrated on finding the house. As it turned out, fresh thatch wasn’t as easy to spot as Nathan expected, and although finding the well was easy, in a village filled with winding paths rather than straight roads, figuring out which direction “past” the well the old men meant proved challenging. They settled on a house northwest of it, where the thatch on the roof was more yellow than gray and, as Aulus put it, less drooping than the surrounding houses. The house had been whitewashed, something uncommon for this village, and the door looked like it actually fit its frame. The shutter on the window next to it even had all its slats in place. Nathan supposed that made this house well cared-for, despite the gouged, rotting wood.

He started to knock, but Aulus stopped him. “Maybe we should just listen for a bit,” he said softly.

“Won’t we be kind of, uh, obvious standing here?” Nathan answered just as quietly.

“Not if no one sees us.”

Aulus leaned against the wall next to the window, while Nathan took a position on the other side. He realized he could hear the faint sounds of conversation coming through the sealed shutters. When he saw what Aulus was doing, he forced himself not to start at the alarming way the light vanished from the world. At least he could forget worrying over being seen and concentrate on listening to the voices inside. He still had to slow his breathing just to be able to hear.

“When did you last talk to her?” said a man’s voice.

“Four days ago, same as everyone else,” another voice said. This time it was a woman’s, raw and emotionless. Nathan guessed it must be Miriam.

“What do you mean, ‘same as everyone else’?” the man continued.

“She’s b-b-been missing since then. Nobody’s seen her. Her family was looking everywhere.”

“Why didn’t anyone report this to the Guard?” the man asked. This time, Nathan thought he recognized the voice as that of the guardsman with whom they had spoken. What had his name been? Seth?

“We, we did, b-but ya don’t care much about us… about serfs, I mean.”

There was silence for a moment. “How did she vanish?”

“She went to get water from the well, and she didn’t come back. We found her b-bucket, but no one saw nothing.”

“Did she say anything about the Dominus? About wanting to hurt him?”

“No, no, she never said anything like that!” Miriam said, her voice breaking. “Lilah would never have hurt no one. She’d lost kids before. What did it matter if it were disease or the Domini? She sometimes said…” Now Miriam choked on her tears, sobbing, and Nathan thought he heard another voice, a man’s voice, murmur something.

“Do you know what she was going to say?” Seth asked.

A man’s throat cleared, and then Nathan heard a new voice. It was rough and low, with a serf’s manner of speaking. Miriam’s husband, perhaps. “Well, I don’t rightly know what she was going to say…” He trailed off and Nathan thought he wouldn’t answer, but then he continued, his words coming quickly, “But, well, Lilah’s boy Jonathan was sickly — he’s the one the Domini took — and no one expected him to survive long once he had to work the fields. When the Domini took him, she said, ‘Maybe there’s a chance he’ll live now. Whatever they do to the boys they take, he’s got to have a better chance than here.’ It was madness, but it made her feel better, y’see. Maybe ya should leave us alone, now, Sir Guardsman?”

“I’m almost done. Just… do you know what the Dominus was doing here?” Nathan stopped breathing altogether as he strained to hear the answer.

“No,” Miriam’s husband said.

“You must have some idea.”

“How would the likes of us know what the likes of him was up to? He came to town every day for a week. He talked to some people.”

“What people? Who did he talk to?” Seth asked.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” he said slowly and deliberately. “Nor does Miriam. I really think ya should leave now, Guardsman.”

A long moment of silence followed. “Thank you for your help,” the guardsman said. Nathan heard a chair scraping back on dirt — most of these homes had hard-packed dirt floors covered in rushes — a brief rustle of cloth, and then footsteps heading toward the door. He had a moment to wonder whether Aulus had thought to leave the door out of the illusion’s area of effect, and then it creaked open.


Seth walked out the door and into darkness. He blinked his eyes rapidly, and the world reappeared before he had time to panic. Swinging his head back and forth to try to discover what had blocked out the light, he couldn’t see anyone or anything which might be responsible. I must have imagined it. Putting aside his brief disorientation, he started on his way while trying to make this latest piece of the puzzle fit with the rest. In the end, it didn’t alter the facts, and the scenario which he had already conceived still seemed the most likely. This Lilah had been crazy, and the madness had led to this murder-suicide. It made perfect sense as long as he didn’t try to understand the mind of a mad woman. But how could she rationalize her son’s kidnapping at one time, and then seek revenge at another? Seth might have understood if she had suddenly snapped and attacked the Dominus as long-buried grief and rage broke to the surface, but that didn’t explain why she had gone missing for several days before the incident. If she really had gone missing. He would need to look for a report in the City Guard’s logbook to confirm Miriam’s story. If he didn’t find anything, he could conclude either that she was lying or that the guardsman to whom the villagers had spoken had been too lazy to report a missing serf. He’d have to take Miriam’s word seriously whether he found a record of the report or not, which meant he had to ask himself whether Lilah’s absence made sense. What would it mean if Lilah had vanished just before the murder? That suggested planning, not an impulsive act. She had certainly had the opportunity, given that the Dominus had visited the serf village every day for nearly a week. The attack itself had not looked impulsive to Seth. Lilah would have needed to go through some effort to get hold of that dagger: it had not been a common carving knife. And since when did serf goodwives know how to kill a man with such precision?

Seth sighed, looking around the village and wondering why anyone would want to visit this sorry place. He supposed these serfs were fortunate, as they were bound directly to the king, and he was a generous man. He had bequeathed timber from the King’s Forest, not more than a mile to the west, so they had homes of wood rather than just a wooden frame covered with daub. They had several common barns, so their animals did not share their homes, and a brick meeting hall. The king only required them to work his land two days a week, and they had the remaining four work days to manage the small strips parceled out to them. The mill to the north only charged a tenth of the milled grain for the work, although the miller was a free man living in the city rather than one of the villagers. If Seth were a serf, he’d rather live here than any of the keeps near Marvik, where the serfs could barely farm at a subsistence level. The Duke there was harsh, and that sort of harshness trickled down to all who lived under him. All the same, he was glad that he was a free man.

He wanted to talk to Lilah’s family, but Captain Micah had forbidden it. He’d already stretched the bounds of that order by talking to Miriam, since she had turned out to be Lilah’s cousin. In a village like this, everyone was probably related in some way. Since Seth’s interpretation of Micah’s order didn’t allow him to talk to her husband or children, he’d just have to talk to everyone else and see what he could find out. He spent the remainder of the day seeking out the rest of Lilah’s neighbors for questioning. They didn’t tell him much beyond what Miriam had said, but he kept asking questions, sometimes talking for a few minutes, and other times for over an hour. He never ran out of questions to ask, but sooner or later, each of his subjects would run out of time or patience. After he had finished with those who lived closest to her home, he began to follow the leads they had given him in hopes of more information. Still, he didn’t encounter anyone who actually wanted to talk to him until a garrulous old woman who lived near the edge of the settlement invited him into her home. The single room cottage was stuffed to overflowing with furniture: heavy chairs, a few with threadbare cushions, a bed stuffed with straw, tables of all sizes, chests for clothes, and shelves filled with pots, pans, utensils, dishes, foodstuffs, clay jars, plants, wood carvings, and things Seth couldn’t identify. All the furniture was crude, unpolished and splintery, nothing as well made as what you’d find in a merchant’s home, much less a noble’s, but there was much more of it than the sparse furnishings in her neighbors’ homes. The hearth, used for both heat and cooking, had a low blaze even on this warm Spring day, and Seth began to sweat within moments. Blooming flowers, scattered on shelves and tables, dried herbs hanging from the rafters, and the thick layer of rushes spread over the floor, filled the stale air with an overpowering sweetness. Sarah was a plump gray-haired little woman who moved as if every joint except her jaw pained her. Seth couldn’t tell how she could manage to keep her home in such comparative luxury when her eyes squinted in their effort to make him out, but her ramblings revealed that the younger villagers kept her in comfort out of respect. Sarah, in turn, gossiped about them unabashedly as she served him tea and honey-sweetened biscuits. Both smelled delicious, but the tea was weak and the biscuits stale beneath the honey. Although she was eager to talk, Seth had a hard time focusing her on the questions he wanted to ask. He found himself trying to think of a graceful way to escape the confines of the cramped home and the talkative woman therein, so he nearly missed it when she said something interesting.

“…and when the Dominus asked me wheth — ”

“The Dominus talked to you?” Seth sat up straight. Sarah was the first person to admit to talking with the Dominus. Everyone else had denied both talking to him and knowing with whom he had spoken.

“Aye. He spoke to lots of people. He wanted to know about any children who had disappeared. That’s one of the reasons I don’t think the Domini are responsible for them… well, most of them. Some he just asked about in an offhand manner, like he already knew and just wanted to know what I thought. Oh, he didn’t let on nothing, trying to be all clever and all, but I could tell which ones he was most interested in. Abitha’s boy, for example. That one he wanted to know everything about. He vanished less than a month ago, and he was years short of fourteen, so it couldn’t have been the Domini.”

“Do a lot of children disappear? I mean, besides those taken by the Domini.”

“Well, a few. Sometimes they just run away, looking for a better life somewhere else. Sometimes they get lost. We look for them, of course, and occasionally we find that this one wandered into the city or that one got lost in the Hollow Hills. But often we just don’t find them. I think Tara — ”

“Did this Dominus talk to the mothers of these children?”

“Well, he talked to some. I’m not sure about Abitha, but I know he talked to Miriam — ”

“Wait — Miriam? Lilah’s cousin?”

“Yes, Lilah’s cousin. She lost her daughter a year ago, and half — ”

“Are you sure?” Seth asked. “Do you know for certain that he talked to Miriam?”

“As certain as I can be about anything, lad! Miriam told me herself, y’see. It was just after…”

Seth supposed he wasn’t surprised that Miriam had let her husband lie for her. No one wanted to admit to any dealings with a Dominus, even if he didn’t resort to threats to ensure their silence. What surprised Seth more was that this old lady was telling him about it without the least trace of fear. It must be one of the advantages of being old and senile.

“Tell me about these missing children. Are they boys? Girls?”

“Some of both. The older ones, the ones that probably ran away, those are mostly boys. The younger ones who just got lost are both, but maybe more girls than boys.”

“What about Miriam’s daughter?”

“We all helped look for the lass. I talked to one of the guardsmen myself, but yar comrades weren’t much help. Some of us looked around in the city, and some of the men even went into the Hollow Hills, but we couldn’t find poor Abigail. I remember when she was born. It was right after my own daugh — ”

“How old was she? Abigail, I mean?”

“Oh, I guess she was three or four. We still don’t know what happened to her. Some folks say it was Novari slavers, or the Domini, but I think it was the Ishites.”

“Ishites?”

“Ya know that they have secret meetings in the Hollow Hills, don’t ya? Horrid rites where they drink blood and eat human flesh. Nasty cannibals! I’m afraid they took poor Abigail as a sacrifice.” She bowed her head in sorrow, resulting in the first silence since Seth had arrived. It didn’t last long. “Miriam won’t listen to none of us, though. She refuses to blame anyone but herself. As if she could keep an eye on that rowdy girl every moment of every…”

Seth let Sarah ramble on. It didn’t surprise him that the old woman blamed the Ishites: the heretics made popular scapegoats for anything and everything, from missing children to sick cattle. The Manuelite priesthood had been trying to stamp them out for centuries, but had never succeeded. The Ishites had to keep their heretical beliefs secret in Quian, the center of religious power in the kingdom, but in cities such as Palo they operated openly, even building their meeting halls right next to the temples. Seth had never seen any evidence of the bloody rites which the priests railed against, but the Ishites did sometimes meet in the Hollow Hills in order to hide from the City Guard.

“What did you say about the children in the Hollow Hills?”

“…and then she — eh, the Hollow Hills? Well, that’s one of the places we look when one of the little ones disappear. They shouldn’t be there, of course, but even the young ones know that some of the older kids go there sometimes to hide out.” She made a face to show her disapproval of the kids who would go to such a horrible place. “Sometimes we find them in the top parts of the mines. They’re the lucky ones whom the Ishites don’t find…”

Seth settled back in the cushioned chair the old woman had provided him, listening to her prattle with only half a mind. No, it didn’t really seem likely that the Ishites were involved with the children’s disappearances or Lilah’s absence or the murder, but still…

Seth left Sarah’s home, thankful for the newfound quiet as much as the cool, fresh air. The old gossip had given him plenty of information, but separating the wheat from the chaff, not to mention steering her in the right direction, had worn him out. The sun was now setting behind him as he headed back towards the gate, his shadow stretching before him to mingle with the others creeping up the city walls. Seth blinked when he noticed a light shadow — or was it two? — flickering beside his own. They disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and the quick glance he sent over his shoulder revealed nothing. He had had the sense that someone was following him throughout the day, but he had not done anything about it, at first figuring that some of the children, or perhaps even their parents, were curious about what he was doing in the village. However, even the youngsters didn’t have so much free time that they could have followed him for the entire day. Seth brushed his hand against the dagger he wore at his waist. He would have felt better if he had worn his sword and armor, but he was off-duty today. He was confident of his training and his ability to take on attackers, but he knew that a dagger was a poor weapon against even inferior swordsmen. The smart thing to do would be to go directly to the gatehouse and get help from the guardsmen on-duty there. Seth didn’t think of himself as very smart, but he thought himself clever, and that meant he was about to do something which his captain would think stupid.

Seth walked past the gatehouse without pausing, following the road towards the main square. He turned off just before the square, heading south down a narrow, winding street, where he came to a tavern marked by a fading sign which showed grapes and a crude, grimacing face. The tavern was called “The Sour Grapes,” and he and some of the other guardsmen frequented it. Passing the front door, he made a quick left down the alley next to it. The scents of urine, vomit, and alcohol mingled here in the packed dirt, making his eyes water. Seth glanced back, checking that the alley was empty and the street beyond clear. He pulled open the door on his left, one of the tavern’s side doors which, as expected, was unlocked, and darted inside. The storage room was unlit, although a narrow line of light escaped through the crack under a door leading to the kitchen. Clanking mugs, shouted orders, songs and curses leaked through as well, along with the scent of ale and roasting meat. He pulled the door to without closing it, left hand on the handle as he gazed through the opening into the alley. His right hand unsheathed his dagger.

The dim light made it difficult for Seth to make out anything. All the tavern’s windows and their light fell onto the front street rather than the alley, and the sun couldn’t illumine this alley without being directly overhead anyway. Now, with the sky growing darker, little of its diffuse light made it here. He slowed his breath and peered into the shadows, determined to see without being seen or heard.

He heard his pursuer before seeing him, as a shuffling step came down the alley. If his subject had attempted to move quietly, Seth would not have heard him above the noisy chatter and boisterous songs emanating from the tavern. But why wasn’t he moving quietly? Was this even the man who had been chasing him? He hastily revised his plan, reluctant to threaten what might be an innocent passerby. When a vague man-shape finally appeared in his field-of-view, he shoved the door open, jumped forward, and seized the man’s shoulder. He opened his mouth to question him, but the man turned, shrugging off the hand with ease. There was a flash of movement, and Seth stumbled backwards, certain that a knife was heading for his throat.

The alley blazed with light as if from a lightning flash that somehow did not fade as fast as it had come. Surprised more by the sudden light than the man’s movement, Seth scrambled back only to slip in the slick muck of the alley. He landed on his rear, eyes not leaving the nondescript man standing over him, looking like a worn-out farmer who for some reason held a short sword which he handled with uncanny skill. The light was as bright as sunlight, brighter than any sunlight that ever reached this narrow alley, and the stalker’s pupils contracted in the brilliant radiance. That was the only movement in his face: the eyes never strayed from Seth, the mouth never tightened in frustration, the eyebrows never drooped in anger. His face maintained a rigid complacency, like the statue of a saint, with only the eyes’ involuntary adjustment to the light indicating any life. The rest of the body moved like quicksilver, the short sword in his hand following Seth to the ground without pause. Seth managed to push it aside, pressing his left forearm against the flat of the blade, while his own dagger cut at the arm, but the stranger slid his sword-arm out of the way with startling agility. Seth tried to watch the eyes, looking for them to give away something, but he saw only impenetrable, unnerving blankness. The sword came down again, thrusting at Seth’s heart, and this time he couldn’t move quickly enough. The sword slid into his flesh, splitting skin and muscle as it rushed to the heart beneath.

The blade stopped. Sword and man stood frozen, then the sword slowly pulled back. The dead eyes gave away nothing, but Seth could see the muscles twitching with futile effort. As soon as the sword pulled free, the man twisted, or perhaps was twisted, and flew backward into the tavern’s wooden wall, which shivered with the force of the impact and produced a shuddering bang. The noise from within the tavern faltered and then resumed. The stranger was splayed as if pinned against the wall by some invisible force, his feet several inches off the ground.

Seth lifted a hand to his chest, where blood oozed from his wound. At least it wasn’t pumping out. How much farther would the sword have had to go to penetrate the heart or just to sever one of the arteries there? He turned around, looking for the source of the madness, and he saw two dark figures backlit by a brilliant glow. The light dimmed into a tiny, glowing ball floating behind the shoulder of one of them, and Seth found himself facing two men dressed as artisans, well enough to be journeymen but without the ostentatiousness of masters. The way they surveyed this insane situation, curious but unafraid, indicated that they were something else entirely.

Seth tried to stand up, but one of the men pointed at him and he froze, uncertain what to expect. The man’s companion, who was much taller and looked like a Novar, pushed aside his friend’s arm and spoke softly to him, which caused his face to tighten, but he dropped his hand and turned to speak to his associate, “He saw us without…” At the Novar’s quick gesture, he lowered his voice to continue the argument.

Seth’s calves trembled from the halfway position in which he had frozen, so he came to his feet. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I should thank you for saving my life.”

The taller man looked in his direction and gave him a smile and a raised eyebrow. “My friend here is worried that you do know who we are.”

“How could I know that? I’ve never seen you before in…” Seth now wasn’t so sure, as he thought that the voice did sound familiar. He cleared his throat to cover his pause and continued, “…in my life.”

The two looked at each other, and the shorter man shrugged. He, at least, looked like a Manuelite, and he sounded like he might hail from Quian itself when he spoke, “I think the damage is already done, and I’d rather not have to kill you. If you haven’t figured, figured it out yet, you will eventually, so I think we need an, um, oath from you that you will avoid any mention of us.”

Seth shook his head, “Are you threatening me? You saved my life, but I don’t like threats.”

“If we were threatening you, you would know,” the Manuelite said. “But we really do need that oath from you.”

“How can I give you such an oath? Since I don’t even know who you are, how can I be certain I wouldn’t be betraying other oaths?”

The Manuelite stepped forward, and the look in his eyes made it difficult for Seth to keep from stepping back. The man halted only when he was close enough to Seth that he was staring up at him. “Are you a, a religious man, Seth?”

“How’d you know my name?”

“That’s not important. Answer me.”

“I guess,” Seth said. “I go to Temple and make my offerings.”

“Good enough. We just saved your life, and I think that entitles us to a, um, a favor. We are going to ask you not to speak about us, at all, to anyone. You never saw us, never spoke with us, never heard of us. Will you do that, and swear by Eän?”

Seth gritted his teeth at the way these men demanded things of him. They were right about saving his life, however, and he had the impression that they thought his further survival was a sufferance. He still had his knife in his hand, so he could probably take out this short one, but he didn’t think he’d be fast enough to escape the other one. Besides, what they were asking wasn’t that unreasonable, was it?

“Very well, I swear by Eän that I won’t tell anyone about you two. Good enough?”

“Yes,” he said, and turned his back on Seth to approach the man pinned against the wall. The tall man did the same, and Seth felt his teeth grinding together. One moment they’re so focused on me that I feel like a mouse in a cat’s paw, and the next they forget I exist.

The two had their heads together, discussing their prisoner. This time, they didn’t keep their voices low enough.

“Yes, there’s definitely a Circuit there,” the Novar said. “It’s small, but very complex.”

The Manuelite started to nod, then stopped in mid nod and said, “This man is dead!”

“What are you talking about?”

“I knew something seemed, uh, seemed odd, but I missed it at first. Look at him closely. Watch how the Essence reacts to him.”

The Novar was silent for a moment, just staring at the prisoner. “I don’t see anything.”

“Exactly!”

The Novar turned to look at his friend, his eyes going wide. “But…” He looked back, slowly shaking his head.

“Yes, I’m wondering the same thing,” the other said. “How do you keep a body alive when the, the mind is dead like that?”

“With this.” The Novar gestured to the prisoner’s head. “He’s an automaton, driven by this Circuit. Since the body’s still alive, you can just splice it into his brain and control his body.”

“Who in the world would be able to do this? Some of the Philosophy-trained members know a lot about the body, but they couldn’t do this.”

“That’s an understatement. Even just killing the mind without killing the body is beyond us.”

“Then, uh, who?” the Manuelite asked.

“I have a… suspicion, but I don’t think I should say it here. You do realize he’s heard everything we’ve said?” The Novar gestured over his shoulder, pointing his thumb in Seth’s direction.

“Oh, damn. Now we really will have to kill him.”


Aulus grabbed Nathan’s arm and made a placating gesture to the guardsman, who still had a long dagger in his hand. “My friend is jesting. We have no intention of harming you.”

The guardsman glared at them both while Nathan tried not to glare at Aulus. Maybe he wasn’t ready to kill Seth, but he wasn’t happy that he’d been allowed to just stand there. They should have rendered him unconscious the moment they encountered the ambush, and just left him guessing at what had really happened. Aulus was being clever, and Nathan knew by now that his cleverness usually meant trouble. He bared his teeth at the guardsman. Nathan’s childhood contained some bad memories of Quian’s City Guard. “Yes, jesting… um, perhaps you should be going.”

“This man just tried to kill me,” Seth said. “I’m not going anywhere until I know why.”

Nathan’s false smile slipped from his face. “You won’t get any answers from him, I can assure you. If we release him, he’ll just try to kill you again.”

“Not if I tie him up first,” Seth said. “Um… do you have any rope?”

“No,” said Aulus, turning away from the automaton. “But you won’t need it. The man is dead.” The dead eyes looked no different, but all his struggling had ceased, the muscles going slack now that his false life had been removed. Nathan hadn’t even noticed when Aulus tore apart the Circuit which had given him life.

“You killed him? What gives you the right to — ” Seth jumped when the body toppled to the ground as Nathan released it. It fell on its side, then flopped to its belly.

“The man was dead before he tried to kill you,” Aulus said. “We just… drove out the demons inhabiting his body.”

“Do you think I’m a fool?” Seth asked.

Nathan sighed. For all Aulus’s cleverness, he didn’t have the faintest idea how religious people thought, even the half-heartedly religious like this guardsman. Belief in Eän was not the same as gullible acceptance of all manner of superstition. Nathan had grown up in Quian, and some of the most religious people he had known were also the most skeptical. Those who staked their immortal souls on their beliefs were very careful to separate doctrine from superstition and history from fables.

Nathan shook his head at Aulus, and attempted a more careful explanation. “You looked into his eyes. Were they the eyes of a living man? He was dead, and an, um, unnatural force was animating his body. Not a demon, I think, but evil.”

Seth glared at Nathan. “He seemed odd, but you’re saying that he was some sort of walking corpse. I could never convince my captain of that.”

Aulus spoke up before Nathan could, earning a sharp look. “Then don’t try. Let your captain try to figure out what killed him. He doesn’t have any serious injuries, so they can hardly blame you. Perhaps some drug could do it.”

Seth looked from one to the other. “It’d be easier if I included you two in my story.”

“Really?” Aulus asked. “Two strangers with mysterious powers who killed a man without touching him while claiming he was an animated corpse? I think it would be easier to pretend you never saw us.”

Seth muttered something unintelligible at that. “All right, I never saw you. Now leave before someone else does while I deal with this.”

Nathan and Aulus departed as Seth went looking for someone to send to the barracks and alert the captain. They stopped at the small, abandoned shop where they had stashed their robes and put them on over their clothes. Nathan had no idea how Aulus had managed to procure the clothes, or the shop, which the Novar insisted was secure. They left by a back alley which, after a few twists, emerged in Quian’s central square. Nathan was relieved to be properly attired again, and the wide berth which the populace gave to Domini, now that they could recognize them, made him smile. He had never liked being a leper in his own city, but it was nice to be able to move without being jostled, and at least now they didn’t have to fear running into Kulsin without their robes. Even wearing them, Aulus and Nathan practically sneaked into the tower in order to avoid him. Aulus had made it clear that he didn’t want to discuss the day’s events with the Head of the Tower.

“Aulus, we should tell Kulsin about the automaton,” Nathan had argued.

“No!”

“Aulus, I know you don’t like him, but he should know about this. Unless… um, do you think he’s involved?”

“Oh, I may distrust Kulsin, but I don’t think he’s disloyal. It’s just — Nathan, the man lacks imagination. Or perhaps he has too much. He believes all the old legends without ever trying to figure out what they mean. We have no idea what we’re dealing with here, and Kulsin’s liable to jump to some conclusion. For now, we’ll try to figure it out on our own, and we’ll only tell Kulsin when we have something definite.”

So they settled themselves in Aulus’s cramped bedroom for their conference. Both of them were stationed in Quian by the Order, whereas junior members they were allotted only small rooms in the tower. They had been neglecting their other duties to pursue this investigation, but Kulsin had granted them permission if not approval. While Aulus took precautions against being heard, Nathan sat down in the wooden chair, pushing it back against the table in order to make room for Aulus to take a seat upon his bed.

“All right, Aulus, why’d you let that guardsman know so much while keeping Kulsin in, uh, in the dark? You’re being clever, and I want to know why.”

“If I’m right, we might need the guardsman’s help. Nathan, who do you think has the ability to turn a person into a puppet like that?”

“I don’t know. I can’t think of anyone in the Order who, who — ”

“Exactly. In the Order. What about outside of the Order?”

Nathan looked at Aulus hard, trying to read his expression, which seemed to be a mixture of fear and excitement. “You’re not talking about a renegade Dominus, are you?”

“No, I’m not. I don’t even know of a renegade within the last few decades whom we haven’t captured. I’m talking about a different society altogether.”

“But the only other society would be the, the Necromancers! We wiped them out centuries ago!” Nathan said. Before they had consolidated into the Order of the Domini, magic-users had been a fractious lot, their societies staking out petty kingdoms and often fighting each other in bloody magical battles. The Order had introduced the philosophy that magic-users should be aloof from humanity, neither rulers of its kingdoms nor subject to them, but acting to protect the weak human nations from magical threats, creatures such as dragons and the almost mythical demons. With the secret of its Doorways, which allowed the Domini to travel across the world in an instant, the Order had had the power to enforce its philosophy when the appeal to altruism failed. Most of the other societies had eventually joined the Order, some more willingly than others, bringing their own magical learning with them. The Necromancers, who studied death in order to overcome it, had not. They had refused to accept the limits the Order wanted to impose on their research, forbidding experiments on living humans or the binding of human souls so that they persisted as wraiths rather than departing upon death. When negotiations had failed, war had erupted. It had been long, brutal, and final. The Necromancers were as dead as most of the other threats the Order had been founded to fight.

“What if the Order is wrong about their fate?” Aulus stood up and began pacing in the tiny room. Nathan did his best to keep his feet out of the way. “What if there were more of them, and better hidden, than we thought? Nathan, that man today was dead and walking. He was undead, a Soulless.”

“Uh, no he wasn’t. The body was still alive. Only the mind was dead.”

“That just makes it more sophisticated!” Aulus stopped walking and turned to face Nathan. “A renegade Dominus who practiced necromancy could probably make a dead body move around, like a puppet on strings. This was much more complex, showing a degree of knowledge about the mind and body that had to have been gained over years, maybe even generations, of study. It’s exactly the sort of thing which the Necromancers were doing when we thought we destroyed them, secrets of life and death. Who knows how far they’ve come since then?” He resumed his pacing.

“Okay, Aulus, I’ll admit that it’s consistent with what we know about the Necromancers. Do you, do you think that’s what happened to Lilah? Was she a Soulless too?”

Aulus halted in mid-step, teetering precariously on one foot as a deep frown creased his face, before he started walking again. “Maybe, maybe. If the Necromancers turned her into a Soulless and sent her to kill Mowa, that would explain a lot. Didn’t you say there was a Circuit on her?”

“I said there might have been. I don’t know for sure,” Nathan said. He really did not want to admit that the Necromancers might still be around. If they were, then the world was a lot more dangerous than he wanted to believe. “But, Aulus, how have they remained hidden all these years? If they had been recruiting young boys into their ranks, we would have noticed long before now. The Order notices when, when something, ah, happens to boys with the ability. They would have died out years ago… unless you think they’ve finally discovered the secrets of immortality.”

“Who says they haven’t?” Aulus raised a hand to stop Nathan’s protest. “No, there’s no point arguing that when there’s a more likely explanation. Yes, we would have noticed the disappearance of boys with the ability. What about girls?”

Nathan’s eyes widened. “They’re training girls?”

“Why not? The ability’s just as likely in females as males. We certainly aren’t training them, so would we even notice if a few disappeared? Remember Mowa’s note?” Aulus pulled it out of a hidden pocket. “I was right. Here: ‘Miriam, f 3’ Now, what was it the old woman told that guardsman earlier today? Miriam, that’s the mother, lost a daughter, that’s the f, who was three or four years old.”

“Well, that’s one match. What about the others? The first one was, um, different, right?”

“‘Abitha, m 11.’ Yes, that’s unusual. If I’m reading it right, Abitha lost a son who was eleven — that’s older than the others, too. They were all between 2 and 4. Hmm, didn’t the old woman say something about Abitha’s son? That was less than a month ago, if I remember correctly.”

“I don’t recall,” Nathan said. He had not listened closely to the woman’s rambling. “Look, even if all the children in the note had disappeared, they wouldn’t all have been taken by the Necromancers, would they? Sarah said some, uh, some children just ran away.”

“If that’s all Mowa was recording, the list would be longer. From the way she talked, more than five children have disappeared in the last couple of years. I wonder… Abitha’s son must have had the ability. Mowa’s list was only of those children who had magical ability, so he thought they were taken by the Necromancers.”

“I thought you said they only take girls.”

“They made an exception in this boy’s case. That’s probably what drew Mowa’s attention in the first place, especially if he had noticed the boy earlier and marked him for taking.”

“You’re reaching, Aulus. You’re moving from, um, assumption to wild guess to conclusion.”

“I think it’s a start. We now have something to look for at least. It’s much easier to hunt when you know what you’re hunting for.”

“Aulus! If there even are Necromancers, do you have any clue where to begin? Where in the world do you think they would be hiding?”

“Not the world, Nathan. They don’t have the Doorways. They have to be in Quian, or the surrounding countryside. Someplace hidden. If we’re going to search for them, we’ll need help from someone who knows this city better than even you do, someone who knows where people might hide when they don’t want attention from the authorities or the Domini. Someone, perhaps, whose job is to find those people.”

Nathan sighed. “Uh, someone named Seth, maybe?”


Continued in Chapter III


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