Derez reflects on necromancy, mistakes, and burning questions.
Oneshot, no warnings.
Some of ye old gods might recognize this as a much-improved rehash of an ancient calamity concept. Always with the side characters. I have, at least, not changed in that. Perhaps I might even have retained my title as Cliffhanger Queen if I had actually split up the tiny chapters into individual posts.
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
No one speaks of necromancy favorably. This is not a surprise, or at least, it shouldn’t be--death is, perhaps, humans’ greatest fear. As such, it follows that death magic is feared before it is understood, hated in everything from name to practice. It steals your soul bit by bit, ultimately reduces you to a shell of a man who is not dead, but cannot truly be called alive, and you will endure as such for eternity. It twists your senses, invites evil into your heart, and kills everything around you. The grass wilts beneath your footfalls. An unnatural chill follows you wherever you go. The only thing that waits at the end of the path is a sad and lonely existence, until someone comes along and puts you out of your misery. The tools of the trade are blood and bones and sacrifices. Necromancers are inherently evil, and no good has ever come of them.
That is, of course, all complete nonsense.
Necromancy is death magic, as I have had to explain to (many) more than one person. It has nothing to do with romance, of the dead or otherwise. “Necro-” is a prefix which denotes death, and “-mancy” is a suffix which denotes a type of magic. How so many that sing the praises of pyromancy, geomancy, aeromancy, and aquamancy fail to realize this, I remain uncertain. Is that the biggest misconception? No, not by far, but it is perhaps the most absurd. I have not once managed to explain this concept without rolling my eyes, rubbing my temples, pinching the bridge of my nose, or placing my palm on my forehead and wondering why the gods created idiots in such vast numbers.
The grass does not wilt beneath a necromancer’s footfalls, not any more than it does for anyone else. The only unnatural chill that follows us is the cold looks from the people who choose to believe the embellishments. Necromancy does not sap the soul, twist the mind, or leave you as a walking corpse.
As for necromancers being inherently evil, that is perhaps the greatest nonsense of all.
Would the wise Oracle of Aveyond have blessed Rashnu as the Druid of Darkness, if it were so? I think not. Rashnu is a brilliant necromancer--his skill with the craft has not tarnished since he began his practice of druidic magic alongside it. It is the Sun Priest who is hailed for his ability to snatch the wounded from the jaws of death, but Rashnu has pried death’s jaws open. I would know, would I not? After all, it was my throat they were closed around.
--- --- ---
My past is quite unremarkable. My father was a warlock, my mother was a witch. There was never any doubt I’d be a mage. I studied sorcery at Shadwood Academy. As I said, completely ordinary.
Back then, the Necromancers’ Guild Hall was in the Halloween Hills--south of Ghed'ahre, though it’s nothing more than an overgrown pile of rubble now--and that seemed like as good a place as any to continue my study. I certainly couldn’t afford the trip to Thias to seek out the Time Masters, penniless as I was. The elemental magic of the Annihilators wasn’t my strong suit. The spells of the Elite Mages in Sedona intrigued me, but it only took meeting one of them to put me off the idea. No spellbook in Aia is worth that kind of high-born snobbery.
The High Necromancer needed to take but one look at me to know who I was. Wyrrun’s son, he said at once, with a strangely far-away look in his eye. I did not ask how he knew--perhaps I look like my father. I wouldn’t know; he was murdered not long before I was born. Regardless, the test of my strength began at once.
It was not only necromancy that he employed against me. Earthquakes rocked the ground beneath me, fire rained from the heavens--spells I had seen attributed to the Annihilators of Veldt. It was only after I resorted to the very basics--an electric shock that could stun an opponent just long enough to get an advantage--that the onslaught stopped, and the High Necromancer laughed.
“You’ll do,” he said.
It was quite some time later that I realized the reason for the huge variety of spells. My teacher was no common, human mage--he was a demon. He’d had centuries to learn, practice, and perfect his spellwork. And beyond that, he was not just any demon, but a daeva by the name of Nanghaithya. And he was, in perhaps the most bizarre twist of fate I could have imagined, a very good friend of not only my late father, but of the Druid who lived in the shrine to the north.
(Perhaps that had something to do with the “evil” reputation, though I never found Nanghaithya to be any more “evil” than most humans I knew. Perhaps he was capable of great treachery? But not once did I see him do something needlessly cruel. Which is not something I can say about humans, on the whole.)
When I was leaving Shadwood Academy, I had wondered if I would forever be left wanting more. Guilds are extremely proprietary about their knowledge, no guild will take a member who has studied under another. It became immediately apparent that there was no need to worry--necromancy was a dense enough subject to keep me occupied for a lifetime and more. It went so far beyond what I had ever been told about it in school. Curses have countercurses, and I learned those perhaps even better. There is nothing a necromancer can do that he can’t undo.
I had been at the Guild Hall for perhaps three weeks, the first time Rashnu paid a visit. At first, I had thought he was a vampire--his skin was the color of marble and I supposed it must have been nearly as cold, and his eyes were the precise color of the ruby on his circlet. I tried not to watch him too closely while he spoke, but I dearly wished to know if he had fangs. He noticed.
(He does not have fangs. Never has, though apparently it’s a question he gets frequently.)
Every branch of magic sounds like its own language, or at least like its own dialect of the language of sorcery. Rashnu and Nanghaithya spoke the same language, which I initially found surprising. Rashnu was a Druid, and surely necromancy was not the magic used by the guardians of the Arishta Isles.
As it turns out, the Druids come from many backgrounds. And as long as they uphold their oaths, they can use any style of magic they please. Rashnu and Nanghaithya had studied together under the previous High Necromancer, and both were considered to take up that mantle. Rashnu had turned it down; he was already considering becoming a Druid, because the vampires did not have one. Or at least, hadn’t had one for several centuries--the Dark Shrine had been in Ghed’ahre’s cathedral since the days of its founder, Leyrvo Ahma, but it had been empty for as long as Rashnu had known it.
It’s much easier to learn a language, any language, when you hear it spoken than when you’re only trying to read it. Spellbooks are dense at best, incomprehensible at worst, and unfailingly filled with jargon. Every aspect of magic is filled with jargon, that’s simply the nature of the beast--but when you get into the higher levels of magic, the aspects rely so heavily on one another that it isn’t uncommon to hear things like,
“Infusing a shield spell, especially a powerful one, into a salve that needs to last is much different than cursing a powder that gets used all at once. I suppose you might be able to reverse Decompose to make it last, but then that’s one more thing to oversaturate the mixture. There’s not that much tenax in a simple salve.”
Which was among the more druidic-magic-related things I heard Rashnu say, as he perused bookshelves for answers to what Nanghaithya always referred to as his “burning question.” Rashnu offered me nearly as much instruction as Nanghaithya did, though his particular knowledge was more focused on alchemy and enchanting than on combat-oriented spellcasting. (Although, Nanghaithya had said, with a degree of admiration, The only one I’ve ever seen with a better Plague cast was Daeva Tawrich.)
--- --- ---
The journeyman trial took place one year after my apprentice initiation. It was wildly more difficult than the first trial had been, though I had a much greater breadth of options this time. Weevil was a particularly useful spell, for general purposes, but Nanghaithya was almost lazily conjuring tornados to blow the insects off course before they could become more than a passing nuisance. However, there is no natural disaster that can fend off a blight, and Blight is exactly the spell I took a chance on. I sacrificed the opportunity to escape a mudslide to keep the focus--and it did not work the same way on a human (or, rather, demon) the way it did on the weeds I’d practiced it on.
While I was thrown backwards on a slide of mud and stones and roots, Nanghaithya stood as if rooted to the spot. His skin immediately went ashen, then it began to wither. His palms cracked and raw skin shone red beneath, and he hissed when the grit from his own spellwork got into the wounds. The blight was spreading, rapidly enough that it seemed to cause him great pain to move his arms. The roots around mine were causing me similar difficulty, and they tightened each time I moved.
“That’s enough,” came Rashnu’s voice.
Rashnu had waited patiently on the sidelines for the dust to settle. He waved away the greyish tint and the cracked, peeling patches from Nanghaithya’s skin. He waved away my open wounds from the wind blades, and the bruises from the rocks, and the burns that were (unlike usual) from magic rather than fire.
“You’ll do,” Nanghaithya said, just as he had after the first trial--though somewhat more breathlessly, which I took a moment of pride in.
The training only became more intense after that. I learned not only the spells already crafted, but how to craft my own. I learned how to analyze and replicate spells used against me. I mastered not only the Necromancers’ Plague, but the Elite Mages’ Poison. I learned to imbue items with magic. I learned how to identify items others had imbued. I had a very close call with a cursed pendant, a mistake I decided immediately that I would never make again.
The final trial was a great deal simpler than the first two, or so I had thought. I demonstrated my proficiency with Death, and then with Raise. I demonstrated a spell I had copied and a spell I had crafted. I analyzed a table of items, determining which were harmless and which were dangerous.
“You’ll do,” Nanghaithya said, unsurprisingly. “Well, I suppose there’s only one thing left.”
“Two,” Rashnu corrected.
“You know, Rashnu, for someone who once turned down this job, you’re doing quite well at it.”
“I was always better at the ceremonial side of things than you.”
The first of the two things was to give me the item that served as both proof of my achievement and as a tool that I would use for the rest of my life: a Blood Orb. Orb staves are available all around the Arishta Isles, in varying degrees of quality--I had gotten my hands on quite a good one, after I left Shadwood, though I had yet to find a truly suitable orb for my style of magic.
(This is the part that starts the rumors about using bone and blood and sacrifice in necromancy. That orb is, to this day, the only blood I have ever used in magic.)
The second thing was to ask me, “Ready?” and shatter the ground I was standing on before I could ask what I should be readying for.
The good news is that I took to the Blood Orb like a fish takes to water. That was the only good news, really. I still don’t think he used every trick in his proverbial book, but he held very little back. It was clear that I was meant to hold nothing back myself--but I did. Not once did I reach for the Death spell. The risk was much too great.
I’m sure it was a spectacle to behold. Both of us were shouting incantations, then cursing in frustration in the same breath. I tumbled out of the way of what I could physically dodge, and haphazardly threw counterspells at what I couldn’t. There was only half a regard for something tangentially related to strategy--I tried everything from Plague to Soul Song, but nothing seemed to slow Nanghaithya’s casting. At some point, I lost the line between sorcery and necromancy, and called tornados from the sky in the same breath as clawing for the very mana in Nanghaithya’s blood to keep myself going just a moment longer. Even so, I was barely standing when he dropped to his knees, and held up one hand.
“Well done,” he said, and the words sounded like he’d dragged them over gravel to get them out. Rashnu pulled him to his feet, supporting him on one shoulder.
“What--was that--?” I asked, suddenly feeling as if all my joints had turned to jelly and realizing that Rashnu had held out his other arm with good reason. What a sight we must have been.
With a weary necromancer over each arm, the Druid chuckled. “You didn’t bother to ask him first, Nanghaithya?”
“He’d have refused, same as you,” he said, every breath still rattling and dark blood starting to pool at the corners of his mouth. “Would you kindly call off this plague, Derez?”
Plague? I hadn’t tried casting Plague since the very beginning of the bout, and I hadn’t thought it had taken hold. Though, now that I was closer, I could see the signs of it. Less obvious than it usually looked. His skin had taken on a faintly blue tinge, he was drenched with sweat, and the blood was beginning to drip as he wheezed. The mana burned in my veins as I drew the power for Cleanse.
“That’s enough, Derez,” Rashnu said calmly. “If you dip much further into your mana well, Nanghaithya will need to find someone else to take his place.”
“Take his place?” I repeated. “Why?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nanghaithya groaned. “You don’t live under a rock so big you haven’t noticed that the demons are being driven out. I’d rather not find myself on the wrong side of the Druid of Might.”
“She is quite passionate about her pet project,” Rashnu said, shrugging us off his shoulders and onto a cracked stone bench. “Sit still, both of you. Healing Ultima.”
The purple light soothed the burns and the bruises and stopped the blood running down my side, though it left a dull ache all over. Nanghaithya looked a shade less pale, but remained doubled over with his elbows on his knees. “There’s a way into the Demon Realm beneath Guild Hall. Once I’ve crossed that threshold, the two of you will raze it.”
“We’ll what?” I repeated, staring at the man who had instructed me daily for the past three years, but now seemed quite prepared to disappear entirely sometime in the next fortnight. “But--”
“But nothing, Derez. It used to be worth having a proper Guild Hall for. Not anymore. You’re the only student to have fully completed the training in at least ten years, probably twenty.”
“But what will happen to all the knowledge here?” I asked. “The books, and the artifacts--”
“I’ve made arrangements to keep them in Ghed’ahre,” Rashnu said. “At least, until you’ve decided if you want them somewhere else.”
Needless to say, all of this had happened rather suddenly, and I was not terribly pleased about it. Guild Hall had been my home for three years, which was well longer than I had been at Shadwood. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to teach--nor, really, any desire to--and I certainly didn’t think I was prepared to have that kind of responsibility shoved on me before I’d even gotten my heart rate back under control. Me, take over as the High Necromancer? Fresh out of training?
It happened just as ordered. The contents of Guild Hall were moved to Ghed’ahre--a task completed by Nanghaithya and Rashnu, out of an abundance of caution for the fact that I was a human. And once Nanghaithya was clear of the strangely-enchanted door, Rashnu sealed it with a complex barrier spell. We guessed it would take six casts of Mudslide to bury the building in rubble--it only took five.
Rashnu sighed nearly as heavily as I did. “Well, that’s that, I suppose,” he said. “Where are you headed from here, Derez?”
“I don’t know,” I said, turning my back to the new ruins. “Veldarah, maybe. I never could abide by the swamps in Galarah.”
“You’re ever welcome in Ghed’ahre,” Rashnu said. “Just be sure you’ve a clove of garlic with you. Most vampires won’t bother a necromancer, but there are...a few. Best you not take the chance.”
He’d given me every warning, obviously. And of course everyone knows that walking into Ghed’ahre without a clove of garlic was as good as suicide. But there’s a well-known saying about the best-laid plans, and with good reason.
--- --- ---
It didn’t happen immediately. It was a good five years that I traveled the world, meeting the other Guild Masters and putting my training to good use in the form of learning from what I saw.
It took only one trip to Sedona for me to decide that if the Elite Mage emissary I had met at Shadwood had been a stuffed-shirt, swaggering, noble brat, Guild Master Adof was decidedly worse in every way. Once he deigned to speak to me, I immediately wished I had not gone to the trouble. I’ve never had a lot of patience for people who strut about like peacocks, showing off their power. I left him seething that I had poked holes in his fragile, elitist ego, and with a harmless little hex that I haven’t bothered to see if he’s noticed or gotten rid of--the sensation of a rock in his left shoe when it rains.
Veldt has never been to my liking, but fortunately, Ilya had built her Guild Hall underground, in the vast cave system. Though I did not fail to notice exactly how many tons of rock she could call down upon my head at any moment, and I was careful to give her no reason to. She turned out to be perhaps the most helpful of the other Guild Masters, in the long term--once she found out that it had been my mentor who developed some of the spells in the version of the Annihilator’s Spellbook she taught from. She shared with me a few of her tricks for improving the elemental magic I had learned at Shadwood--with instruction like hers, I might have made a decent Annihilator after all. In return, I taught her the basics of supplementing elemental magic with dark. No necromancer has ever cast Burn quite like Ilya the Annihilator--of that, I am absolutely certain.
When I did finally make it to Thias, Feron of the Time Masters was surprisingly hospitable. He did not puff himself up like Adof, nor did he give me a trial by fire (literal or otherwise) like Ilya did before she decided she’d taken a liking to me. He promptly offered a cup of tea and gestured me to a comfortable armchair, and I had half a mind to be suspicious--but I quickly realized what was going on. Most of the conversation was superficial, any discussion of magic was restricted to the basics of sorcery. Feron had no reason to be antagonistic, but he was going to keep his secrets close. That was fine.
The Eastern Isle was the most logical place to set up my Guild Hall, and--though I quite liked the Halloween Hills--it was admittedly not an easy place to reach. Veldarah seemed to make the most sense, since it was teeming with sorcerers--though I’d surely be fighting an uphill battle with the reputation of the craft.
It turned out to be much more uphill than I had expected. When I returned to Veldarah, there was a man standing on a stairway and bellowing about the threat of vampires venturing out from the Halloween Hills, and a surprisingly large crowd had gathered to listen to him. He had them quite enthralled--enough that I wondered if he might not be working some charm magic. His solution to his contrived problem, naturally, was the eradication of the vampire race.
“What nonsense,” I said, loudly enough to make myself heard. “They’ve no desire to come to the Uplands, and besides, Druid Rashnu would stop any who thought to attack humans outside.”
“Druid!” The man spat on the ground. “Rashnu is no more a Druid than I am! He’s a necromancer, he’s one of them! Mark my words, he’ll guard them from the sun and they’ll--”
“No spell, necromancy or otherwise, would enable an invasion of the Undead in the daylight,” I said flatly. “Rashnu and the vampires are all content in the Halloween Hills, as you ought to be.”
That was, I suppose, my first mistake.
I left the area, serenaded by shouting and cursing. One man was not a threat to the entire city of Ghed’ahre, of course, but a mob...a mob was a very different story. And certainly, one man might pose a problem for a small, tumbledown shop on the south side of Veldarah. I took a circuitous route to avoid leading him to it. You’ll do, I thought fondly, looking at the building. It had been uninhabited for some time--cursed, I’d been told, though I felt no traces of magic on the building whatsoever.
That was, I suppose, my second mistake.
Sleep eluded me that night. I was up before the sun, locking up the shop and setting out toward the Wildwoods. Something about the man and the mob rubbed me decidedly the wrong way, and the sooner I warned Rashnu about it, the better. I reached the Wildwoods just as the eastern horizon was beginning to lighten. The wolves in the forest were returning to their dens for the day, and the crows that roosted on the cliffs had not yet woken.
But the boarders at the Wildwood Tavern were early risers, it seemed. Unexpected. I paused by the edge of the cleared pathway.
That was, without a doubt, my third mistake.
I recognized the man outside at once and, unfortunately, he recognized me as well. I didn’t hear what he said to group he was with, but I could make several guesses. A woman in leather armor cocked her arm back and threw something--I snapped a wind whip across it. I had expected a rock to fall to the ground somewhere in front of me, not a bulb of garlic to explode into powder. Understanding came at once.
There were more of them than I could confidently take on my own. Some were citizens of Veldarah and Galarah, armed with torches and the odd farming tool. Others were immediately identifiable as skilled--a sorcerer or two, certainly, and a trio of sword singers that I had no desire to cross. And a handful of them carried sharpened wood poles--which were no crude substitute for spears, but rather were specialized tools for killing the undead.
Was that my fourth mistake? I am less certain. I would certainly have been pursued one way or another, but I suppose it marked me immediately as one of them. Any idiot would’ve known that I could not possibly be a vampire, they’d seen me in the sun the day before. Idiots have a way of not caring for logic, though. A stabbing pain in my left arm told me that someone had landed a hit with something--an arrow, or perhaps a crossbow bolt, but I didn’t dare slow my pace to find out what.
I realized, as I approached the gate of the Halloween Hills, that I had no idea how to close it. I knew it had a gate, because the founder of Ghed’ahre was infamous for his love of mechanical things, the trickier, the better. I couldn’t cut off their entrance--my options were to force them into a bottleneck and try to pick them off a few at a time, or sprint to Ghed’ahre and warn Rashnu.
I knew the way, perhaps could have found it with my eyes closed. I could take the shortcuts through narrow clearings and forgotten paths that the mob could never traverse. But they were not as far behind as I would have liked--a fact that I was reminded of when a second something--arrow, probably--found my shoulder. Three hundred yards, as a generous estimate. I called up a mudslide, sending the stairs I’d sprinted up and indeed the entire hillside rolling toward them.
My fifth mistake ought to be quite plain, by now. I ran into Ghed’ahre with an entire arm dyed red.
Running at a dead sprint with two open wounds is, of course, not advisable in any case. But if it must be done, it should not be done over that kind of distance, nor into that kind of town. I certainly had no trouble drawing attention. The first to notice me was a vampire I knew was a merchant--he was always near the entrance to town. Very polite, usually, though he had a tendency to joke that I smelled quite tasty.
“Rashnu,” I gasped, leaning on my staff. “Rashnu--” My vision was blurry, but I thought I saw a flash of red moving toward the cathedral. “Hunters--mob--from the Wildwoods--”
“He’ll have led them right to us!” snapped a woman’s voice from somewhere beyond the dark spots that danced in front of my eyes.
“But look at him!” squeaked another. “His arm is full of stakes! Humans care more for their own then to stake them, don’t they, Roland?”
“Evidently not,” said the merchant, and I felt something shuffle around my neck. I’d have very much liked to swat it away, whatever it was, but my right arm was occupied with the staff keeping me upright, and my left arm had ceased to respond to my commands.
(I don’t know if you’ve ever had a vampire touch your neck, even with the best of intentions; but it is a deeply unnerving experience, and one which I hope to never repeat.)
“For some, no price is too great to see us slain!” came a new voice. “Their kind murdered my wife--I’ll kill him before he can have anyone else’s!”
“Selfish,” whined the first woman. “You just want the easy meal!”
“If what he says is true, then there’ll be plenty for us all!”
“There won’t be much left of this one if he keeps up like this,” observed the merchant. “The amulet I gave him just now will slow the bleeding down, but--darkness’ sake, Millie, don’t pull that arrow out--”
A flare of pain in my shoulder told me that Millie, whoever she was, had not heard the instructions in time. It beat back the dark spots for a moment, replacing them instead with a white-hot light that seared the same way as the wound itself. It was enough to take what little remained of my balance, and it must have been Roland who eased me down to my knees.
“It's not a normal arrow,” Millie said. “It has no arrowhead. They are stakes! These humans--they staked a human!”
“It matters not!” interrupted the man whose wife had been slain by vampire hunters--or at least, I think it was the same voice, the white light hadn’t subsided enough to see. He rolled me over roughly, and though that was certainly enough to start the adrenaline flowing all over again, my vision still stubbornly refused to clear and the world went into a dizzy, weightless spin. “If we leave him unattended, he’ll surely stake us all in the back. He dies!”
There was a moment of scuffle, and then there was pain. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe.
And then there was black.
--- --- ---
How long I remained in that limbo where everything was oppressively weightless and deafeningly silent, I cannot say. Eventually, my senses began to sluggishly resume their appointed tasks. The first thing I noticed was the acrid tang of something painfully medicinal. Following that, I heard voices. One I knew I should recognize, but could not place, and one that was completely unfamiliar. The world swam in and out of focus when I opened my eyes, but I could make out a dark figure nearby.
“Rashnu, look--!” the unfamiliar voice said.
The dark figure turned. Yes, it was Rashnu. Pale-skinned and ruby-eyed and decidedly fangless. If sighing with relief hadn’t been such a herculean task, I’d have done it.
“Rashnu,” I croaked, and the growl in my voice startled me. It felt like I had swallowed a landslide, my throat filled with rocks and mud.
“Be still, Derez,” he said. “You’ve had quite a day.”
“Hush,” the Druid said. “That will do. The hunters have been dealt with. As has E’ryk.”
“It is dangerous for even necromancers here, uplander,” the unfamiliar voice said. It belonged to a woman in red, presumably the same red blur I had seen sprint to the cathedral.
Words were difficult to form, never mind to string together. The best I could give was a groan of affirmation.
“Your voice will come back,” Rashnu said. “Though I’m afraid that you’ll remain quite sensitive to the light.”
“The...light?” I rasped.
“E’ryk was quite hasty,” the woman said. “If Millie and Roland hadn’t tried to shove him off, it would probably have been too late for Rashnu to give you the antidote.”
“He’d have killed you outright, left to his own devices,” Rashnu said. “It was a very close call, and I wasn’t able to completely remove the venom.”
Trying to form thoughts was like trying to sculpt water. It should have made sense. Antidote to a venom, yes, but what venom? None of the wolves in the forest had bitten me, I was sure of that---there wasn’t anything particularly venomous in the Halloween Hills...poisonous plants, but that was a different matter…
“Vampire venom,” the woman clarified. “It was past the point of Turning you. Most would have said you were lost.”
“You still have a pulse,” Rashnu said, a smile flickering across his face. “You only exhibit mild symptoms. Though it bears repeating, the sun will burn you. Not destroy, but cause you a great deal of pain. When you return to Veldarah, you will need to travel by night.”
I don’t recall what happened after that. I suppose I must have fallen asleep, or perhaps I fainted. Regardless, the world was spinning a great deal less the next time I opened my eyes, and I was able to think clearly again. Rashnu said it was the healing magic taking its toll, or perhaps the blood loss. Regardless, he re-explained the situation, and added with a grin,
“It does have some benefits. You’ll find you’ve a great deal more physical endurance than previously, and that time will trouble you even less than most who wield magic. And, of course, certain curses will slide right off of you. Soul pendants come to mind. I’d not encourage wearing an empty one, but you ought to be able to handle them safely enough.”
“But the sunlight will burn me,” I said, to be sure I was getting the pitfalls right. “And light magic? What of that?”
Rashnu shrugged. “Yes, it will sting. But so few are its practitioners that I do not expect you to have much trouble.”
“...Was it druidic magic that saved me, Rashnu?”
His smile turned to something between a challenge and a secret. “Suffice to say, I would not have handed you over to Sun Priest Ayden.”
--- --- ---
I left Ghed’ahre in a rather different condition than I had arrived in. For one thing, Roland no longer made jabs and jibes about my blood smelling tasty. Mabel turned up her nose when she saw me, and stomped off down the path in a huff. I had a satchel that I had not carried before, filled with things I had never needed.
Rashnu accompanied me to the gate of the Halloween Hills, also carrying a satchel. Dusk had fallen, and we waited for the last light to fade from the sky.
“Where are you going?” I asked, nodding to the bag over his shoulder.
“Land’s End Temple,” he said. “This...incident has made it clear that uplanders mustn’t be permitted into the Halloween Hills so freely. You, of course, remain welcome at any time, Derez--but the gate will be locked, and I will entrust the key to Vohu Manah.”
“Ah, thus the traveling rune.”
“Yes, thus the traveling rune. Roland has plenty more of them; be sure you keep a good stock.”
“I owe you my life, Rashnu. I shall see it repaid someday.”
Rashnu waved his hand dismissively. “You’ve offered to test my answer to that ‘burning question’ your mentor was always on about, what more could I ask of you? You’re an ideal first candidate.”
“If the sunblock fails, it won’t be the end of me,” I agreed. “But if it doesn’t…”
“If it doesn’t, then perhaps...perhaps someday my cousin will see the Uplands. She’s dreamed of it since she was a child. I’ve taken her up by night, but nights are far too short to sate her curiosity.”
“Did you know that the vampire hunters accused you of trying to raise a vampire army?” I asked as we stepped out of the Halloween Hills, and Rashnu began to set the gate mechanism. It was a good thing I hadn’t stopped to try it--the system was more complex than I had even imagined. A switch here, a lever there, all concealed in the arch and, surely, protected with wards that only some could touch. The gate slid closed with a soft whir and a final-sounding click.
“Oh, is that what they had in their heads?” Rashnu looked more amused than offended at the notion. “More foolish than I thought. The sooner they realize that the only time they meet a vampire will be if they set foot in Ghed’ahre, the happier everyone will be. Ah, but night has fallen, Derez, and summer nights are short. You should make haste to Veldarah. Be sure to stay out of the sun for another week--to be sure that the vampire venom has been fully absorbed, or it could react unpredictably.”
“Thank you, Rashnu. I’ll repay you,” I said firmly.
“Go, and make a good name for us,” he said, giving me a gentle shove toward the northern path.. “That is all the repayment I need.”
Under the cover of night, I returned to Veldarah. The shop was as I had left it, mostly. One of the wards had apparently been set off, judging by the abundance of door handles on the ground. They break off whenever someone tries to force them, and reappear in steadily less-inviting shapes each time. When the would-be intruder realized that the door was warded, he’d thought he was quite clever, and went for an unguarded window instead. I can only imagine his surprise when he found nothing beyond the window that led to nothing but a solid piece of walnut. The back of a very large, very full bookcase, as it were.
Or perhaps it was the fact that the window glass would have risen up from the ground and gone for his major blood vessels. The lack of bloodstains on the ground suggested that the would-be intruder was, at least, light on his feet.
I kept the shop closed and avoided the sun for the prescribed week. If years of studying the documents of mages who came before me had taught me one thing, it was to keep detailed notes--and, since I was testing something that could go so terribly wrong, I made sure that they were very detailed. Everything from how temperature didn’t seem to change drastically between night and day; how it never seemed to get stuffy, even without the crossbreeze from open windows; how it seemed that I only needed one meal in a day rather than two or three. (I did not even attempt to touch garlic until the third week, but it didn’t do me any great harm.)
As the eighth night passed, I traced the outline of my left hand onto several fresh sheets of parchment. I drew a dotted line between the ring finger and the middle finger, and marked off the end of my sleeve at the wrist. I opened the amber jar Rashnu had sent with me. The salve within was white, and it smelled strongly of honey. I suppose to someone who had not been learning firsthand about vampires’ heightened senses, it wouldn’t have been any stronger-scented than any other salve. Only a mage would be able to identify the strange weight of it--that much magic is heavy, when bound into an object that struggles to hold it.
I applied the sunblock to the larger area of my left hand, then grimaced at the light seeping through the gaps around the makeshift window covering. Of course I had to have a control, a sample of what happened without, but the notion was about as appealing as reaching into a nest of hungry vipers.
Well, nothing ventured.
The sensation was slightly more pleasant than plunging my hand into boiling water. My first thought had been to leave my hand in the sun for as long as I could bear, but that was not terribly scientific. I checked the damage after the first minute--a full minute was perhaps longer than I should have chanced, but the pain dulled significantly after the first fifteen seconds--and was surprised to see the only damage was that the skin had turned somewhat pink where I had not applied the salve, and it caused me no pain at all when I pressed on it. It didn’t even feel terribly warm to the touch, like a normal sunburn.
It took five one-minute trials before the damage started to resemble something like a sunburn, where the sunblock hadn’t been--though I suppose that it might have been less time if I hadn’t kept bringing it back inside, checking on it, and taking notes. I assure you that I did not relish the idea of intentionally causing myself a blistered sunburn, but it made a great deal more sense to test my limits now, in a controlled environment, than to wait until I had no choice.
By the twelfth trial, the untreated skin was blistered, and beginning to crack painfully. The sunblocked side, however, was unharmed. I dutifully reported these findings to Rashnu.
When a vampire dressed in red walked into my shop, some years later, I knew the work had paid off. You’ll do, I thought.
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