She crossed into the Guild Headquarters building; the throng of guards, courtiers and noblemen were replaced by white robed figures—the majority male and elderly. They all knew her, and some smiled—nodding approvingly at her new and prestigious appointment, while others avoided eye contact, signaling disapproval for such status bestowed on someone so young, combined with a fear of her immense magical power.
The young woman ascended a wide staircase, bypassing the first floor where the guild school classes were conducted, and where she had spent the majority of her life. She stepped onto the second floor, which contained the chambers of the senior astrologers of the Guild.
Wandering past her recently acquired, diminutive room, she knocked at the next door along the corridor.
“Is that you, Myleana?” came the voice of Grisbier. He was the most senior member of the Guild at the Headquarters, and had a strong and resonant voice for a man of ninety-six years of age. He also had the most agile mind in the Kingdom of Evyntyde.
“Yes, Master. I came as soon as you summoned me.”
The door opened, revealing the aged astrologer. His frail body was slightly stooped over, and while he had no hair on the top of his head, his wispy locks touched his shoulders. His eyes were a light blue—Myleana had never met anyone who had such a penetrating, all-knowing gaze.
“Good, good.” Grisbier indicated for her to enter his spacious and eclectically furnished room.
She sat before his desk while the old man eased himself in the chair that he used as King’s Astrologer for fifty-five years. “I assume you have guessed I am about to give you your first assignment as my assistant.”
Myleana’s face turned red. She always hated it when she blushed as she had fair skin and blood would flow to her cheeks at a moment’s notice, and often for no good reason. “Yes, Master, I did.”
Grisbier read her like a book. He smiled—and it was generous. “I can see you are excited. Good—you are talented and have the prerequisite skills and drive to be my successor. You are also very young to be a senior astrologer. Make sure you keep your wits about you. I do not assign trivial tasks to those who work directly to me.”
She blushed again. “Thank you for your advice.”
The old man chuckled. “I have every confidence in you.” He took out of his desk drawer a small coffer made from rare gar-wood and placed it between him and his young assistant. “Perhaps we can get to your task. As you know, our Order is primarily concerned with matters of the Crown, or where significant magic is employed against the interest of our society. The former is the case today.”
Grisbier opened his chest and produced a small bronze bust of Helwyer, god of the afterlife. It was a plain piece except for a large ruby attached to the bust’s forehead. “My dear, you would not have seen this before; nay, even have knowledge of it. It is an eminently valuable asset of the King’s Astrologer’s Office.”
Myleana picked up the statuette and closed her eyes, muttering an invocation in the ancient Kulric tongue. She blinked and exclaimed with excitement, “This is an item infused with spirit-based magic—and powerful. Since it is a depiction of Helwyer, it is concerned with the transition of the soul into the spirit form.”
“Good, good,” Grisbier acknowledged. “This artifact is over two thousand years old, and has been in the possession of our Order for nearly six hundred and fifty years. Its powers are highly specialized and as you correctly surmised, not aligned with the disciplines we are best known for, nor which we commonly deploy. This object allows one skilled in spirit-magic to employ significantly enhanced spells associated with Helwyer’s domain.”
Myleana could not contain her delight. “By Sylaena’s sacred light! What power for those who wield it!”
“Ah,” Grisbier said. “Yes, it is indeed powerful, and has helped me on many occasions, yet it has a single, but telling, limitation. When it is used, it is depleted, and can only restore its reservoir of power at the completion of the spirit-moon Asanar’s eight sequential nights’ appearance in the heavens each month. As we are sworn to protect the King’s interests, it would not do well to use the figurine’s powers lightly.”
Myleana rolled the ancient artifact carefully in her hands, entranced by its age, craftsmanship, and ubiquitous power. “Master, I can only assume that you have revealed this object to me now because I have the necessary skills and I may have the need to use it.”
“Oh yes, definitely so. This morning a minor nobleman from County Sholl, Mons Dorwyntel, was passing through Lakemere’s merchant quarter, when he was set upon by several men and bludgeoned to death. Passers-by tried to help him but he quickly died from the horrid attack.”
Myleana leaned forward. “This is not a case of misuse of malevolent magic. Why has the Crown an interest in Dorwyntel?”
“Dorwyntel’s family are distant kin to the House of the Duke of Evynland, who have, as you know, a treasonous disposition. While it would not be unusual for someone of his rank to visit Lakemere for any number of reasons, some of our spies noted that he entered the city quietly this morning, and in disguise. They followed him but he deliberately took a meandering route through the busiest avenues of the city, and he successfully—although unwittingly—lost his tail. Since he died, we have no other recourse but to converse with his spirit to determine what his business was in Lakemere.”
Myleana blinked in short pause. Oh, Sylaena! Why must my first task involve the deceased? “How long has he been…dead, Master?”
“A pertinent question. About ten hours. By the time you get to his body, it will be twelve.”
“I see why the statuette is needed,” Myleana observed, mustering all her willpower to erase the mental picture of a dead, disfigured nobleman. “His spirit would have already journeyed far. Is there anything else that I should know before I go?”
“No, my dear. This young nobleman died with a secret, and it would benefit the King if we find out what it is. The body is currently interred in the Passing Guild building on Granary Lane.”
She curtsied and set forth for her first important assignment as Grisbier’s assistant.
Myleana walked the narrow streets of the Merchant’s Quarter of Lakemere with a burly palace guard at her side. She didn’t need a bodyguard as her priestess-equivalent status in Evyntyde society made her unapproachable, and she was powerfully adept in offensive magic, which would get her out of almost any kind of trouble. Her training and natural confidence gave her an air of indestructibility, and people gave her a wide berth as she approached Granary Lane.
In truth, Myleana was not feeling particularly self-confident at all. From the moment Grisbier mentioned the ‘Passing Guild building’, one of many scattered throughout Lakemere charged with preparing bodies for their internment or burial, her anxiety grew from the low ebb that was generated when finding out she had to interrogate a dead man. The very thought of being close to corpses always caused her to break out in a cold, clammy sweat. She didn’t understand why, as her training in the Guild was far from just an academic exercise: she learned how to take care of herself physically, as well as with her prodigious mind-control powers. Her role as astrologer in the King’s service had given her occasion to witness horrific injuries, and death, but she was always able to avoid them quickly by walking away. Now she had to face death squarely in the face, and conjure magic that bridged into the laneways that led to the Spirit Realm.
She entered the three-story, stone-carved Passing Guild building, leaving the guard outside to wait. A tall, lean man strode out of a back office and bowed deeply before Myleana, in deference to her religious caste.
“Your Holiness, I presume you are here because of the deceased nobleman who was unjustly killed earlier today.”
“Mons Dorwyntel. Yes.”
“My name is Segmund. I am the master of this establishment. Please follow me,” he said, bowing again. The pasty-faced member of the Passing Guild opened a door at the end of the building’s entrance hallway, and descended a narrow stone staircase, leading well below Lakemere’s street level.
Segmund stopped and smiled in sympathy at Myleana. “Your Holiness, forgive me for noticing your shaking hands. Those who are interred here are but husks of what was humanity. Shells. I apologize for stating what you already know, but when someone dies, there is a short transition when the soul transform into a spirit, and then it departs. But even then the spirit has a journey to take…I suppose, Your Holiness, I am trying to say that there is nothing fearful or horrid about the cadavers. Am I speaking out of turn?”
No, but it doesn’t help me. “You are kind. Your point is valid. This is something I am simply unused to.”
“Ah, I now understand, Your Holiness. I suspect you are also concerned with the state of the cor…of the departed. This, unfortunately, is only something that time, and exposure, can ease. I am afraid that we do not have one of our best specimens to view.”
This didn’t help Myleana at all. Life in Evyntyde and the cosmopolitan city of Lakemere, as well as her journeys overseas, exposed her to the cruelties of humanity, and the horrors of disfigurement and mutilation—again something where the eyes could look away with the benefit of privilege. While she was extensively trained in spirit-based magic in the Astrologers’ Guild, it was exceedingly difficult to have practical training with corpses, especially without the enhancement properties of the Statuette of Helwyer. She had thankfully never worked with a corpse in her professional life. Now I know why Grisbier wanted me to handle this task.
Myleana heard running water ahead. They entered a huge vaulted chamber with stone benches, a number of which contained shrouded bodies. Crisscrossing the floor were narrow channels with water running along them, designed to reduce the scent of death. Unfortunately for the astrologer, it was not altogether masked.
Segmund indicated for Myleana to follow him to a lonely bench at a far corner of the chamber, containing a covered body. She tried to swallow but her throat was too dry. Her hands were drenched with perspiration.
The Passing Guild member pulled back the shroud, revealing a young man, beaten to a state where no family member would be able to recognize him. Myleana tried to swallow again.
“Your Holiness, what do you need me to do to help?”
She stood transfixed, staring at the horrifying human remains.
“Uh? S…sorry. I was thinking. Do you have a magical circle here?”
Segmund smiled, revealing immaculate, white teeth. “Of course, Your Holiness. Certain preparations require some ceremony, and the magic circle is integral to our rituals. Look.” He pointed toward an open portion of the large chamber.
There was a faint set of ridges in the stone floor, hardly noticeable due to years of wear and tear. “I need you to move the body to the center of the circle. I have some chalk and I will mark some additional symbols on its perimeter.”
Segmund bowed and moved a wooden table into the circle, followed by Dorwyntel’s body. The astrologer expertly chalked arcane sigils around the potent symbol, associated with Sylaena, goddess of the stars, and other marks representing the twenty-four houses of the heavens. She was glad to carry out the work as it distracted her from her discomfort.
Myleana shakily placed the statuette of Helwyer next to Dorwyntel’s battered head, and lit a beeswax candle. She ceremonially dripped wax around the corpse, and, flinching a great deal, placed three drops on the shattered forehead. The candlelight symbolized the spirit of the deceased, while the wax represented a symbolic fixing of the spirit to the physical body. She shut her eyes and raised her hands until they were outstretched high above her head, and her brow glistened with erupting perspiration. She spoke in a tongue that few in the kingdom would have knowledge of, and her voice grew hoarse with the effort and intensity of the incantation. She opened her eyes and violently clapped her hands, creating an unnaturally loud cracking sound.
In an instant, superimposed over the broken body, was a faint glowing form of an uninjured man.
Myleana heard Segmund’s sudden intake of ethereal breath.
“Who calls me? I was happy, journeying, I think.” It was gruesome to see a faint, whole face speak, and yet through its translucence was a broken, bloody visage.
“My name is Myleana, Dorwyntel,” she replied. “I am an astrologer and I have summoned you back from your journey of passing.”
“I am dead then. I thought as much. How long has it been?”
“Only half a day. I apologize for interfering in your personal journey. I need to ask you a few questions, and perhaps I can bring justice for your murder.”
“Murder? Wait, I think I remember now. Some thugs…they rushed me…took me by surprise…and hit me with clubs! Gods! I remember the pain! Oh, why, why did you allow me to remember this?” Dorwyntel’s shade wailed, which sent shivers down Myleana’s spine, but she was prepared for his reaction—if the astrologer wanted the spirit to remember anything of value, the unfortunate side effect was that they also had to recall the circumstances of their death.
“Dorwyntel, please try to set that memory to the side. Do you know who these men were?”
“No, I cannot put it to the side, but I will answer your questions—if I can help with revenge for their cowardly attack! No, I never saw them before, and it was so very quick.”
While trying to avoid seeing the ruined face lying on the table, Myleana focused her gaze on the shade’s shadowy orbs. “Now, Dorwyntel, this is the most important question. What were you doing in Lakemere? What was your business?”
The ghost wailed again. “I remember. Oh, what misery! I was going to fetch my love—sweet Felicya—and marry her in my home county.” He wept uncontrollably.
The astrologer felt an uncomfortable combination of terror and pity for Dorwyntel, and half wished she hadn’t cast her magic. Nevertheless, she needed more information to continue her investigation and the thought of failing Grisbier on her first mission was beyond terrifying. “If you were going to meet her, why did you sneak into Lakemere, and why take a roundabout route—it was as if you didn’t want to be seen.”
The ghost nodded. “Felicya is the only child of a powerful merchant who rules his household with an iron fist. When she talked to her father about our intentions, he was furious and ordered her never to see me again. I managed to get a message to her that I was going to come and fetch her—elope, and I was on my way when…it happened. She would have been waiting for me! She would have thought that I abandoned her!” He cried again, tearless but full of despondency.
“So you snuck in to avoid the possibility of her father, or his men, seeing you.”
Myleana was fast sensing that the use of Helwyer’s Idol was a wasted effort. “My last question, Dorwyntel, and you can then continue your journey. Your family is a known ally with the Duke of Evynland. Have you taken part in any activities that were treasonous?”
The ghost shook his head. “No, no. Some of the older members of my family have views that…show some contempt for the Royal Family, but I have had no cause to join them. At fireside drinks I would nod and provide sympathy, but I never did more than that, and only to pay respect to my elders.”
Myleana heard nearly enough. “I am so sorry to have called you back. I will cease my spell in a moment, but before you go, can you tell me the name of Felicya’s father, and where he lives. I believe that I can find justice for you.”
Dorwyntel looked longingly toward her. “Please, please help! And can you tell Felicya the truth? That I truly love her?”
“Of course. Again, I am so sorry to disturb you.” The spirit provided the information she sought, and Myleana ceased her spell. She found a chair to sit in, as she was exhausted from the effort, and drained from the emotional charge of being so close to a corpse.
Myleana assisted Segmund tidying up the chamber, and with relief, left the building. It was dark when she stepped into the lane; she ordered her guard to return to the palace. She needed a few seconds to catch her breath and quell her hectic heart rate.
I have to help Dorwyntel.
Myleana wandered into a particularly well-to-do part of the residential sector of the Merchant’s Quarter. The streets were lit with oil lamps and mercenary guards patrolled to remove any unwanted ‘rabble’. They gave her a wide berth. She turned off Fortharbrae Avenue into North Seas Street, and saw a large mansion surrounded by high stone walls. This was where Felicya lived. There was a side gate with a sentry diligently posted in the compound.
She whispered an invocation to Sylaena and used the skills of many years of training to draw herself into a semi-trance. Mentally pouncing like a cat on a mouse, she enveloped the guard’s mind with her own in a powerful onslaught. It was easy, too easy. The guard had an untrained, weak defense and Myleana slid into his consciousness and took complete control of his mind. He would not even know it had happened.
Viewing the world through his eyes, Myleana found the key to the gate and unlocked it. She wandered to a nearby tree, sat comfortably behind it, out of any observers’ sight, and ceased her spell—but not before forcing the guard to fall into a very deep sleep. The worst that will happen to you, poor fellow, is losing your job. I am so sorry, but I need to find Felicya.
The side gate was a hundred yards from the main courtyard of the mansion—which was an astonishing amount of grounds property for the congested city of Lakemere. She steered clear of the many footpaths in order to reduce the chance of being seen, especially since she wore white robes. She dodged flowerbeds, squeezed past manicured bushes, and froze on occasion to make sure she wasn’t heard, when several guards patrolled nearby.
She was fifty yards from the mansion when, inexplicably, she walked through an unusually cold spot. She trusted her intuition—she considered the area worthy of investigation. She cast elementary magic that allowed her to sensitize to spirits that may be found in a place or object. Instantly, the dimly lit darkness of night turned a dark gray, and a bright female form—translucent—materialized before Myleana.
The hazy, white form observed Myleana closely. “You can see me! Praise be to Holmwyn, you can actually see me!”
Myleana’s eyes grew accustomed to the contrast of the brightness of the spirit and the dark world around it. It was a young girl dressed in nightclothes. The ghost appeared distressed, confused. “Yes, spirit, I can see you, as well as hear.” The astrologer’s heart was starting to beat hard and fast again, for she had a sinking feeling she knew who the ghost was.
“Can you help me? I am lost. I have suffered so terribly—no one should endure as much as I—and now I am doomed forever!”
Myleana’s eyes moistened. “Spirit, are you Felicya?”
“Yes, how do you know? I do not think I know you.”
The astrologer sighed. This is going to be difficult. “Felicya, you are dead—you know this, and for whatever reason, you have chosen to only partially transition to the Spirit Realm. You are a wandering spirit, a ghost. You have a choice to either remain a phantom or complete your journey.”
Felicya silently paced before Myleana. “I do not know why I am still here, but I am so terribly unhappy…could this be the reason?”
“Most likely. What is it that disturbs you so?”
The ghost, at first, was reluctant to talk but she grew angry, her eyes turning into burning embers of coal. “I do not know how long ago—perhaps only a short while—I was waiting for my love to rescue me from my cruel father. Papa wants me to stay with him forever, to serve him like a house-serf, and to…He was never an affectionate man but when my mother died…”
“You poor child! I can hardly believe what I am hearing! How long had this gone on?”
The ghost cried again. “Too long, kind stranger, far too long.”
“And what happened when you arranged for Dorwyntel to rescue you?”
“He was going to meet me in the morning. As long as no mistakes were made, I would be able to pass the gates and quickly leave Lakemere with my love. It was difficult to sleep the previous night—I was excited, nervous, and so much more! I was going to leave my tormentor and join my rescuer! A man who knew all my shameful secrets and yet still loved me! I eventually fell asleep and—” She paused, her face contorting to a wretched grimace. “I awoke with my father’s hand over my mouth, and I saw a glint of steel reflecting the light of the moons Asanar and Ganare passing through my window, and he…I faded quickly away, and the last thing that I saw was the mad look in my father’s eyes.”
Myleana fell to her knees, sobbing at the ghost’s story. It took her some time to recover, barely able to sustain her spirit magic. “Felicya, so tragic a girl, what happened next for you?”
“Darkness, astrologer. Darkness. And then I found myself here—perhaps not that long ago. I knew I was dead, and I remember what my father did to me. I was--am, angry. My poor Dorwyntel must have come and I was not there to greet him! He probably thinks I have changed my mind.”
Myleana sobbed. “Felicya, your suffering has not ended. I am so sorry, but Dorwyntel fell to assailants this morning—the same morning when he was going to meet you. He was beaten to death by ruffians, but my suspicion is that your father had found out about your tryst and completed his evil plan, which started with your murder.”
“Noooo!” Felicya cried, causing goose bumps to erupt on Myleana’s flesh. “Everything is lost, all that I love. Is there no justice in this world? And if there is, what does it matter now!”
Myleana composed herself. “Oh, justice will most certainly be meted on your father, Felicya. I am not just an astrologer, I work for the Crown and I have the means to extract the truth.”
“But what about me? Am I to wander the gardens of my despicable father’s home forever?”
Myleana shrugged her shoulders. “I cannot be sure, but know that your loved one is already journeying to the Spirit Realm and he asked me to tell you that he loves you. Know that your father will pay for his heinous crime—you must realize now you have no need to wander this gray world.”
Felicya cried again but this time with a sense of relief. Myleana’s words had the desired effect. The spirit already began to fade. The astrologer saw Felicya smile and her ethereal body slowly dissolve into a freshly tended garden bed.
The ghost had the time to speak a few final words, “Thank you…Dorwyntel, I am coming.”
Felicya was gone.
Myleana ceased her spell. She knelt before the spot in the garden bed where the ghost departed. Hands shaking in revulsion, she slowly scooped the loose earth away and fitfully dug until she uncovered Felicya’s pale hand, and then her face—her visage was peaceful but her neck had a wide, jagged cut.
Pity enveloped her being, but it could not wash away her terror. She had sudden memory flashes from her early childhood—a period just before she was whisked from her family by the Astrologers’ Guild. The images were faint, monochromatic, and yet the play of events were crystal clear: playing in the back gardens…hiding from her brother…stumbling over an object…a leg, bloated and black…a ruined, maggot-infested face with a jagged cut through its neck…she screamed and screamed and screamed…
The air was knocked out of her lungs when she was grabbed by a strong arm from behind, pinning her left arm to her breast. A white-knuckled hand held a cold, sharp dagger to her neck.
“Don’t bother weeping,” came a barely restrained, angry voice, only inches from her ear. “She was faithless and deserved her end.”
Myleana could barely breath; she was terrified with the image of her own body laying still in the loose earth, her lifeblood oozing from her freshly cut neck.
She was pushed violently to the ground, only inches from Felicya’s expressionless face. Her mind was still addled, her reactions slow. The brute rested his knee on her chest and repositioned his blade to her neck.
He was a disheveled man dressed in nightclothes, with an insane gleam in his eyes.
“I was thinking about calling my guards, but I may lose their allegiance when they see who you are. Instead, my unfaithful daughter will share her grave with you.” He twisted her head to face Felicya’s marble-white features, obscenely exhibiting his handiwork.
For the first time since five-year-old Myleana stumbled over her father’s body, a corpse did not instill distress in her; now only profound pity and tenderness for Felicya…and unbounded fury for the man who used and slew her. Felicya’s father had made a mistake retracting his dagger a half-inch.
She didn’t think; she reacted by her regained instinct—her intensive training transformed into an intuitive act of vengeance. She cried out loud, “Andemur Sylaena, cäpalar!” A complex spell unfurled easily, quickly, and she overwhelmed the merchant’s mental defenses, controlling his muscles.
The merchant’s dagger froze in his hand, only having shifted half an inch, just lightly scraping Myleana’s skin.
She caused his neck to contract, violently—he dropped his weapon, stumbled backwards in the dirt, and clutched at his throat, choking.
She jumped to her feet, shouting again, “Cäpalar!” and heard the popping sounds of his ruined esophagus.
He moaned, rolling violently in the garden bed, and finally collapsed directly over his daughter’s makeshift grave. Faint gurgling was followed by silence. Death.
Myleana stood in shock before the two bodies, realizing she had executed a man. There was a welling of guilt from within, but she fought it back, knowing there wasn’t a man in the Kingdom who deserved this end more.
She turned her back on the dead. It matters not, for after all, they are now but husks of what once was humanity. It was comforting that Felicya was in a better place. A much better place.
She exited the grounds and headed off to find Grisbier and tell him the complete story. Her mission was not a failure. The statuette of Helwyer may not have uncovered a conspiracy, but it was not wasted—justice was dispensed and she had conquered her greatest fear.
© February, 2014 Gerry Huntman
Gerry Huntman lives in in Australia and regularly publishes speculative fiction, the most recent stories appearing in Aurealis Magazine, Stupefying Stories, Lovecraft eZine, BLEED charity anthology, and Night Terrors III pro anthology (Blood Bound Books).