Chapter 1 – The Distraught Damsel
The act of dusting shelves can be incredibly boring. There are so many knick-knacks, tools, decorative little objects, books with their rather inconvenient tendency to gather dust, and tight corners, one might think that cleaning is a task set to never end at all. And the bones, oh the bones… Skulls, knuckle joints, crow’s feet with their leathery skin still intact, and rabbit’s feet, all sitting there and gathering dirt like the ancient ruins in the swamps up north.
I like cleaning, for I am a clean person by nature and nurture. I may even like it too much, taking into account how I break out in cold shivers at the sight of a crumpled carpet and spend hours in front of my mirror each day. My mother was always keen to teach me all the necessary skills to be a proper kept man, something she dreamt of for my future. She was a madam, was my mother, as in ‘leading lady of my father’s brothel’, but she made sure to give me another, better future. Her methods may have been crude, as it was frowned upon to discipline your child with a cane once you reached a certain social status, but my family was exempt from the normal rules. No matter how rich, a whoremonger was still a whoremonger, and a madam was still a madam. Which makes me the literal son of a whore. Welcome!
I did not become a kept man like my mother wanted me to. My heart belongs to Hermetics, magic if you will, and it broke my mother’s heart, and our family bonds. I left Guldenach with nothing but the clothes on my back, an old leafbladed dagger on my belt and what little dowry my friends smuggled into my pockets the day I was kicked out. It didn’t worry me too much, to be honest. I had already planned my travel to Lionsrock, paid all the fares and written all my acceptance letters, but I still left with a heavy heart. You can’t choose family, but they sure can choose to stop loving you.
Dusting may be boring, but dusting your own shelves in your own shop that you built with your own two hands and paid for with your own blood sure as hell is a nice feeling. ‘Malarkey and Magic’ is everything I worked for. It’s also everything that I have, and it comes with a debt that sometimes wakes me screaming in the middle of the night. For a while, I thought about adding a slogan, but “magical solutions for magical problems” sounded too much like a drag and may attract the church, which in turn may or may not scare off the poor sods who actually need my help.
Given, I don’t have a lot of customers yet. That thing at the Academy made its way into the local gazette, ruining my name and costing me both my teaching position and my good reputation, but at least the articles— yes, we are talking more than one— never doubted my abilities as a mage. Still, people don’t trust those who dabble in fondling the undead, so my being outed as the head necromancer made a dent in my social standing. If only they knew what else hides in the shadows of this city, right?
I use my mornings to clean, since all good people are working at that time of day and won’t bother coming to me. My middays are usually reserved for some light cooking and hygiene, and on afternoons I dabble in alchemy for the local healer. Poppycock, if you ask me, but people seem to like my flasks well enough. If there ever is a customer, they usually come at night, just after dark, when nobody pays much attention to anything.
So you see, I have every reason to twitch and squeak at the sound of my door chime going off in broad daylight, with me balancing precariously on the edge of a bench, fighting the good fight against a brand new spiderweb in one of the upper corners. As the door swings closed, I grab hold of the shelf in front of me, find my balance and carefully look over my shoulder at my guest, who fidgets close to her point of entry, ready to flee at the first sign of trouble.
She is a petite thing, not a girl but not old either, pretty with her prim blond hairweave and her proper woolen dress. Her face shows that mixture of resolve, veteran calm and superstitious nerves that tells me how much it cost her to come here, and her clear gray, watchful eyes follow me closely on my way down to the ground. My hands unthinkingly go to work on my vest, smoothing over crinkles and tugging back lapels as I step forward and offer her a charming smile.
“Welcome, my lady. How can I be of service?” I ask, putting my mother’s voice training to good use as not to frighten her away. I dearly need more income, and she looks well-off enough.
She doesn’t answer right away, taking in my clean little shop with a sweeping glance and hopefully noticing the lack of dust and spiderwebs. “The gazettes don’t do you justice, master Caetano,” she finally offers as her eyes find their way back to my face. She returns my smile in kind and offers me a hand in greeting as she adds, “Marie Philippa Strastenberg. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, albeit due to rather unfortunate circumstances.”
As I stare at her extended hand with all the dread my mother’s educational lessons impeded on me, she waits a little, then lowers her hand with wrinkled eyebrows. I usually am better than this, quicker than my opponents, ready to sweepingly bow at the first sign of a greeting just to set the tone of the exchange, but my mind still lingers at the remains of the spiderweb behind me and can’t be bothered with navigating social pitfalls. I hastily try to salvage the situation with a broader smile and a quick lie.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, but my hands are dirty right now,” no, they aren’t, “but it’s a pleasure to have you. I’m Orestes, the shopkeep. Would you like to sit and tell me the reason for your visit?”
She thinks about that as her eyes drift over to my work desk and the cushioned chairs on both sides, then nods once. Her demeanor still looks nervous to me, but I can’t quite figure out her thoughts yet, much less what she may or may not think of me.
I surpass her on our way to the sitting arrangement, pull out her chair, and carefully shove it beneath her dress-clad behind as she lowers herself. A socialite then, one who knows her manners and expects men to act accordingly. Her artful hairdo is held together by wooden pins, though, so she can’t be that rich. I traverse the table and sink onto my own chair, rearranging my usual paper stacks until there is nothing between her and me, and she does her own rearranging as one of the top papers slides out of place.
“Now, Miss Strastenberg, tell me. What does a city clerk need from a magic practicioner?” I ask, proud I figured her out just in time. There is nothing more impressive than a mage who knows things he isn’t supposed to know. Impression pays my debt.
Her smile is genuine and a little rogueish. “I was told you were a quick thinker, I’m happy the rumors are true at least in this detail. I am wondering, though, why a man of your caliber would stoop to run a shop like this and in this district. Are times this hard?”
I bristle at her careless critique, but hiding such feelings has become my second nature, long before I ever moved out of my parents’ house. A calculated tilt of the head, a quick, flat smile, a shrug, all those studied moves shroud the sting her words caused. I am not hurt, I am not hurt, my head chants as my mouth runs off.
“I find the old district charming, and I really don’t need much more space than this. Magic can be a small thing in the right hands,” I explain, leaning back. “It also doesn’t hurt that the church clerics don’t have to pass by my sign every day, it keeps them from thinking about me too often.”
“Are you in trouble with the church?” Her eyes try to pierce my mind— and slide off my mental armor.
“Not right now,” I reply and give her calm eyes. Not yet, at least.
Marie watches my face for a few heartbeats, then decides to end the verbal stand-off and leans forward with a sigh. “I need your help, master Caetano, with a rather… unusual problem. A magical problem, I think.”
“My favorite kind of problems,” I quip lightly to hide my excitement. One more potion to make some old geezer’s cock rise to the occasion might be enough of a reason to hang myself.
She hesitates, then turns away her eyes.
“One of the farmers down in Southvale came to me last week, shivering with fear. We were expecting to receive his tithe as is custom this time of the year, but instead he told me a rather unbelievable story about how he wouldn’t be able to spare any of his crops or animals, for fear of starving in the winter. Of course I asked him what had happened, the city can’t go long without the tithes from the local farms. Adding to that, this man has never once been late in all of his years as a citizen, not even in the harshest of years, so I was inclined to listen.”
She pauses, presses her lips together in an attempt to keep her calm, then continues in a quicker, more singsongy pace. “He told me that a wolf has been killing his lifestock. Not any wolf, though, a ghost wolf. And it didn’t kill Shem’s sheep and cows, it scared them to death, dropped them dead where they stood. I was in quite a mood to drive him out of my chamber with a broom, I tell you!” She huffs through the indignity of her own memories as her cheeks redden in confusion. Then her eyes finally find back to mine and she leans back, calmer now.
“Shem doesn’t have a reason to make up things like this. He is a Mithras fearing, conservative, simple man with a wife and grandchildren who has worked hard from the day he was born. He could have given any reason for his lost tithe, but he told me this blatant nonsense and stuck to it with all of his old heart. Which means that he is either crazy and should be retired, or that there actually is something out in the woods able to kill farm animals where they stand. So here I am. I need you to find out if something vicious is out there, and to kill it if Shem told the truth. And if not, I need you to tell me so I can do my dark deed and ruin an old man’s life.”
Well… Not a cock potion. Seems like I’m getting what I asked for. I mull it over for a while and can’t find anything wrong with the offer. That’s never a good sign, but what am I to do? I really need the income, after all.
“One week should be enough time to do a careful inspection,” I utter, frowning at the mental list of items I’d have to bring with me for such a job. “It will cost you fifteen shillings if I find nothing, ten shillings if I find something, and five more shillings if I am to extract whatever might lurk out there. I would provide proof in such a case, naturally, proof you could have verified with the Academy if you want.”
And I’ll get to keep everything valuable, too, but I won’t tell her that. Magical items aren’t a topic for mannered discourse.
Marie’s face tightens around her smile. “I won’t need proof, master Caetano. I will be accompanying you. Just to ensure that I am not putting a man’s life on the line for nothing.”
My charming mask almost slips off my face. “Wonderful,” I breathe through my teeth. Simply wonderful.
Chapter 2 – Southvale in Spring
After a night spent fretting over my luggage, I am ready for travel. I almost feel invigorated when I step into the crisp, scent-laden spring morning, weighed down only by my knapsack and the ever nagging knowledge that I won’t be able to do my usual upkeep for almost a week. I’ve always been a light packer, just like most of the Hermetics— mages like me— I know. We have magic, so there is no need for much more than clothing and articles of hygiene, maybe a light snack pack to tide us over the walk, and a good, feathered bed at the end of the day. Still, I’m cautious to a fault when it comes to my personal wellbeing. My knife- the one I inherited from my grandmother, more of an antique than a weapon- is tucked into my belt just out of sight. One never knows what capricious roadsmen one might stumble upon.
Marie is already at the Liongate, the main city entrance, smiling and looking primly fierce in her thicker woolen skirt and flat leather boots. A small crossbow hangs from a sling of her own knapsack, nothing too martial, but dangerous enough to scare off wannabe-road robbers. If I were any other man than myself, I would be tempted to forget about my plans and instead try my charms on her, simply because her beauty matches this day so perfectly. Luckily, I am who I am.
“Ready?” I ask her and try to make my smile lighthearted.
She nods and turns towards the cobblestoned path leading away from civilization. Oh what dreads await in the wilderness!
“You are quite punctual, I appreciate that,” she comments as I try to keep up with her pace, jogging where she simply lengthens her stride. I’m still a Silendrian at heart and very much alike our most beloved pets. Just like our royal line of gig horses, I trot when things speed up beyond a leisurely tempo. And just like them, I’m easily spooked and high-tempered and will probably drop dead from fright one day.
Luckily, Marie doesn’t seem disturbed by my antics and we make good time, passing the cemetery and the tournament rinks, off towards the fortified bridge separating my beloved city from the untamed wilderness of the Ackrewood Forest. Bah, nature! Or rather a distant cousin of nature, with most of the fertile land being farmed or used for wood harvesting and the main roads cobblestoned almost all the way into the forest, but still, manure everywhere. And the chickens… I wrinkle my nose at the indignity of it all, but wisely keep my mouth shut as we march through the sunny landscape.
It doesn’t take long for the surroundings to change. We pass the second, smaller gatebridge leading over one last artificial river, and suddenly the world gets a little shadier. Trees, most of them being oaks, rise towards the sky on both sides of the cobblestoned trade road, birdsong and buzzing insects incant their daily choral, and oxcarts clatter past us as we march deeper into the countryside and away from everything familiar.
I miss the city already, although the Acrewood Forest probably is the cleanest, tidiest forest in all of Amhran. That alone should make it a perfect place for me to be stuck in, but no amount of firewood looters, wood cutters and grazing goat herds will ever make the outdoors a valid substitute for a scrubbed, dusted, polished little townhouse. People are passing, some walking their stinking hordes of cloven-hoofed menaces towards the city market, some ambling along towards the unknown like we do. They look dishearteningly non-threatening and very unlike I imagined robbers and I start to feel silly for worrying so much. The nerves only come back an hour later when Marie, who by this point is quite a ways down the road from me, turns off the trade road and onto a dirt path, right past a lurking beast of a man standing beneath a dying apple tree, all but hidden in its shadow. I can’t make out much about him, except for his size both in height and width of shoulder, and the way he is casually leaning against the trunk of the tree, watching the passers-by and probably marking up targets to rob later on. A confused, oval sun spot dances across his bulging, crossed arms, adding to his camouflage.
I slow down to a crawl, grasping the strap of my knapsack tighter as a kind of dread crawls up my back. I do not want to pass him as close as Marie, and although I have no idea where this fear is coming from, I’m inclined to listen to it. Mithras alone knows how that frail little lady could bear to simply prance through his line of sight and not have a care in the world about it. Has she even seen him?
Marie’s impatient call finally manages to rip me out of my flustered staring and I realize I’ve been standing there like a lost lamb. She’s halfway up the path and waving at me, but I still take a last look at the stranger beneath the tree, only to find him walking away from me with sunlight glistening on his broad shoulders and unruly, long hair. My cheek twitches with the need to take a brush to the chaos on his head, but instead I turn and hustle up the path to catch up to my city clerk. It’s not just the fluttering in my stomach at the sight of that thug that makes me nervous, I’m also still convinced that he is on route to get his thug friends together and come after us.
I am greeted by Marie’s quirked eyebrow and a questioning half-smile, which I answer with a shrug. “Vagrant,” I explain apologetically and pick up the pace to keep her from asking questions. The dirt path snakes through an increasing number of fruit trees and finally leads through a wooden archway and onto a clearing dominated by what I assume to be a rather impressive- if slightly dilapidated- farmhouse. An old man is crouching near a plow in front of what I assume is the barn door, and a younger lady stands in the doorway to the main entrance, staring at us with that alienated bumpkin expression I have come to know as typical for farmers.
I trot closer to Marie, mumbling, “you know, if you tell them what I am, they might just set me on fire.” Of course, the same fate might just catch up to me one day if I keep working this close to the Mithras temple and its inhabitants, but farmers are notoriously quick at wielding pitchforks and torches when it comes to what they assume to be witches. Unfortunately for me, all magic is a form of witchcraft from their view.
Her answering giggle does nothing to calm me down. “Oh don’t worry, right now they are more afraid of their ghost than of you. Just be respectful and sensible with what you tell them and all will be fine. You’ll see.“