Author's note: Writing is my passion, and if I don't pursue it, my life won't mean much. At 85,336 words and... Show full author's note »
PrologueNight was now old. The moon was a sliver of light at its zenith, ready to make its descent. The stars surrounding the gleaming crescent were bright, though unusually dull for a winter night. A cold breeze flew in from the heavens, but the old man didn’t mind. His friendship with the chill had grown with night after night and year after year spent in the study.
And after decades spent calculating, hypothesizing, pondering, and practicing, he still had much to learn. He had yet to fully master even the basics—make it understandable for those without the level of skill and gift of time that he had.
Mapping it all out—setting the art to paper for the sake of education, so a prosperity might be formed—was difficult. Finding promising pupils who could look at the books of scrawling instruction and intricate drawings and make any sense out of them was much more so. He had only found a few, over all the long, long years, and their hope was dwindling as the amount of his wrinkles increased, his hair whitened, and his teachings became more nonsense than lesson.
There was Kiernan, a friend who had shown traces of the skill. He had come first, bringing knowledge of what students thirsted for. He knew how to caress and direct learning to a steady blossoming. Without his contribution, the books might still be a collection of scribbles of gibberish and his lessons little more than a crazy man’s prattle. After him came Osred, an older cousin with hardly a lick of skill, but a strange understanding of the art itself, and of the old man’s wishes.
Mondragon arrived next. He was a strapping man with the face of a child and the gold of a king. They had no need of a written pedigree; the man reeked of wealth and royalty.
He understood well enough, and the funds helped immeasurably, but his youth and confidence was an insult to the pride of the veterans. They were only just learning to tolerate him, and solely for the sake of their even younger charge: their first real apprentice.
Sophia had come to the castle not two years earlier, a bright-eyed orphan from the city. She wasn’t quite sure of her surname, so they had taken to calling her Arvalis when one was needed. She was very young indeed, not quite at the turn of adulthood, and yet she was drawn toward the books like bees to a bouquet. Perhaps it was the innocence of her youth or some chance inheritance of skill, but the girl had such a way with the spirits, and thus the art came to her with ease. Even her elders envied the way she could play with them, entice the secrets of the world from their grasp as if they were strips of gossip from the mouth of a friend.
Her understanding of the texts was spectacular for one so young. She traced the drawings lovingly and drank in the words like they were sweet nectar. She stroked the leather spines and spoke of the art with an excited, dulcet passion.
She called it magic.
Considering the elements of both sorcery and magus, she wasn’t far from the truth. Like magic, the art dealt with power above the mundane, but it was far from the mystical whimsy of fairytales. Still, no one had the heart to correct her.
Sophia Arvalis had breathed life into the tall, stone walls of Castle Rourke, in more ways than one. Many spirits had come since her arrival. Some only wandered the vacant halls and rooms, or took a short tour through the grounds before moving on.
Others were not so peaceful.
The old man finally let the quill rest in its ink well and stood from the desk with a tired sigh. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped, but no one could say it wasn’t a job well done. He was prepared to retreat to his room, lavishing the thought of the warm blankets and the gentle lull of sleep, when the candlelight flickered dangerously. All flames but one were bested by the sudden draft. The room was hurled into sudden darkness.
The man plucked the candle in its wax-covered holder up from the desk, cupping a protective hand around the light. It might have been a harmless gust of wind and nothing more, but the chill that ran its finger up his spine told him otherwise.
“Who goes there?” he called, filling the dark room with the thrum of his deep voice. There was no answer. Even the distant nocturnal animals ceased their call to save themselves from being mistaken for the culprit. The man squinted at the dark corners, wondering what hid there. He let out a harrumph of warning before taking his leave, letting the rest of the lightless atmosphere take the room. His trip down the stairs was uncomfortably quiet. The candle flame was hushed as well, its timidity hardly illuminating the steep, winding staircase.
When he reached the ground floor, his hand gripped the archway. He searched the hall for signs of life, but the only movement came from the wall sconces that shed a dancing light on the walls. Another draft came suddenly, lifting his cloak back and vanquishing his candle. He turned and looked down the final level of stairs. It was a long descent, unlit and foreboding. Not taking his eyes off the gloomy entryway, the old man retreated to a sconce to light his candle. He went around every bend expecting his stalker to be there, and with every turn, he was gladly disappointed.
At last he reached the very bottom of the castle: a long, dimly lit corridor, marked with the occasional immobile door or open room.
He called out again. “Is anyone there?”
Still no answer. Many of the sconces were unlit, leaving the hall in peculiar lighting. Halfway down the passage, a low light undulated from an open doorway. It wasn’t the flickering of candlelight, but the lonesome, steady pulse of spirits.
Relieved, the old man smiled. The late nights were beginning to get to him, herding the irrational fears of youth into his mind. He was ready to turn around and head back toward his chamber, when the breeze returned. Each flame was doused, one by one, until his candle was the only light in the corridor. Even the radiance he’d thought had been a confused spirit had disappeared.
Then there were whispers.
He thrust his candle at the dark, daring the blackness to make a move. The voices stayed back in the cover of the shadows, judging him sotto voce for lack of courage. The man glared before turning on his heels and taking a large bound for the stairs.
He dropped the candle before his foot reached its destination. He frowned, reaching down slowly to find the beacon before whatever was whispering found him.
His fingers touched soft grass. It was damp from the morning’s dew and long from generous rain. The old man sighed. They did this sometimes.
“All right, what is it that you’re wanting?” he called, straightening his back. Despite himself, he clapped his hand over his mouth. The voice that had escaped his mouth was that of a much younger man. When he stood, his back did not ache, nor did he feel the weariness of a long night’s studying.
“How old you have grown,” said a voice, cruelly familiar. He heard this voice in his nightmares, heard it joke and plead, laugh and scream.
“Brother?” he called. He searched the darkness, no longer blinded by the gloom. His sight came rushing back and he opened his eyes to a scene from his oldest memories.
It was his childhood home, complete with the tree on the hill and the smoke rising from the chimney. He could see him now, a clean, dully glowing figure. “You’re still so young. How can this be…” He trailed off, cherishing every detail of the man before he tore his gaze away. “No, this is wrong. You must leave. I’m sorry, but it isn’t right for you to be here, brother.”
“Where do I belong, then?” the figure asked. Its face contorted so suddenly it was like a slap. The spirit scowled at him, full of hate and anger. The scene disappeared to show the dark passage once more, lit only by the growing fury of the spirit. “In your hell, is that it? Do I belong with the rest of your demons, brother?”
The old man gritted his teeth. He hated this part, and the familiar face only made it worse. He didn’t need much light for this; he dropped to his knees and pulled a chalk fragment from his sleeve. The symbols flowed from his hand like water from a fall, memorized through pure repetition. The muscles of his hand knew what to do, and he let them take over as his mind became more and more clouded with the rage of the beast screaming before him.
Finally, it was finished. He couldn’t see the script, but he knew by heart every curve and line of the drawing. The old man clapped his hands down on the ground next to it, feeling the warmth spread from the ground to his fingers, up his arms, and to his shoulders.
A sharp, freezing shock sliced through him, stopping the power in its tracks. He looked up, quivering.
What might have once been his friend and kin held his gaze fiercely, staring farther and farther into him.
“Not that easily, brother,” the voice said, creeping into his veins. “You belong with me.”
Sophia Arvalis came twirling down the stairs once the sun had risen on the fields of the island. She danced over the steps and spun, once, twice, again…
She stopped in a moment, and upon seeing the body, screamed.