As I left the building, I kept thinking that the glowing sphere that they used to give the status was something I needed to take a better look at. So instead of going home, I walked around the building, looking for alternative entrances.
It didn’t take long to find a window three floors up a sheer wall, and another low roof that looked like there might be access to the insider from on top of it. I circled the entire building four times just to make sure, trying very hard not to look obvious about my interest.
I also broke into a tailor shop and stole some badly fitting black clothing. I made sure that I picked out multiple layers and something to wrap my hands and face. One drop of blood with what I was trying to do and I would be found out. I needed to be especially careful.
One of these days I would have to look into learning some blood magic. It was close enough to life magic that I should be good at it. From what I knew of blood magic, with a drop of someone’s blood you could find them anywhere in the world. It was like primitive DNA analysis mixed with auras and magic. I felt that because there were just too many ways to track me and the older I got, the more obvious, it was that I needed ways to hide.
Then at around two in the morning, I headed back to the House of Status. I moved through the darkness of the night silently, avoiding the few crowds that were still moving through the streets. The presence of the necromancer in the city and the superstitious fear of the unknown that the night carried in humans regardless of culture kept the streets clear. In the park, there were scattered warming fire as people slept in fitful and guarded groups.
I moved through a night that was as shallow and empty as an inquisitor’s remorse. Making my way to a tree, one of the bigger ones that still hadn’t been cut down for kindling by bands of teenagers seeking to keep back the darkness, and I climbed up into its branches until I was high enough to have a clear view of the roof of House of Status.
Using the shadow knack that I still didn’t understand fully, I moved into that strange world of light and darkness. The world took on the appearance of harsh tones like a tonal drawing made by Conté crayon covered in encaustic wax. It was night and spaces of light were rare. But the shadow gradients of the darkness took on a smell, a taste all their own. Here all my scenes were attuned to the darkness. This parallel world was a synesthesiac’s paradise or nightmare.
In an instant, I had moved from the tree branch I was hanging from to the roof of the House of Status and had stepped out of the realm of darkness. There was a door a short walk away. Looking over the door carefully with my mana sight, I did not see any visible spells or alarms. This meant nothing.
I tried to push my mana scene outward to the other side of the door and somehow managed to do so. There was indeed a spell on the other side of the door, but being able to sense the spell and being able to read a spell cast on the opposite side of a wooden door enough to maybe unravel it were two entirely different things.
I had brought a piece of metal, the closest thing I could find lying around to a crowbar, that I’d found for just this purpose, but I didn’t want to use it quite yet. Instead, I did a quick survey of the entire roof. There were no windows. All my shadow knack seemed to need was a line of sight, and then I could move through the intervening space in an instant.
I went back to the door and was about to pry open the door. I was sure to set off the alarm on the other side of the door, but if I moved quickly…
Then it occurred to me, all I needed was a line of sight. Sensing the ward on the other side of the door, I still could not tell what it did, but I could tell where it was not. The rune was only on the door and slightly around it.
Putting an enormous amount of strength into my arms and hands, toughening up my hands until they were as hard as carbon steel. Increasing my speed a dozen-fold. I didn’t use up all of my overflows. I specifically kept enough to get back into the world of shadows and a little bit more. Then in one second, I began to hit a section of the rock near the door with my improvised crowbar, repeatedly like a jackhammer. In the one second that I had, I managed to dig a tiny opening into the wall. It was just a fraction of an inch in circumference. More peephole than anything else. But it was enough.
I put my eye to the hole. There was nobody in the hallway. Either the sound of my digging through the granite had set everyone on their guard, or I was safe. I was hoping for the second option, but even if the first was true, even if my loud hammering had alerted everyone in the city, I needed to take my chance.
Flashing into the shadow, I moved through the tiny hole in the wall and into the hallway. I stayed as long as I could in the shadow filling myself up to the brim with the chaotically monochrome mana here. Then I stepped back into the night of the hallway. I was inside the House of Status.
The place where I stood seemed to be used mostly for maintenance. Who knows. Maybe the Naming and Status order needed to get on their roof to retrieve this world’s equivalent of lost tennis balls and Frisbees. More than likely though, it the purpose for this door was to make fixes the roof, shovel snow, or even for the administrators to look out over the city. Maybe some Twice-Lived, living in a far away safe city was right now introducing the concept of rooftop patios and roof gardens.
I wrapped myself in my the spells of hiding that I had learned in the forest. “Don’t look at me” blasting out in every direction. Slowly I crept forward and then down the stairs.
The area that I was in was devoted to administration and offices. In one room there was a library, and I stopped long enough to browse through the books, touching nothing. There were at four spell books on blood magic. They were beyond advanced. The people who ran the House of Status specialized in blood magic since everything to do with identification, names, status screens had to do with blood and identity. There was bound to be information in these books that I could find nowhere else. So, I put the grimoires aside but did not take them with me. If I came back this way I would consider nabbing them, but right now they would only weigh me down.
About twenty minutes later of testing random doors and searching, I found the amphitheater where I had spent so much time. The mysterious orb was still there. Still crackling with energy. Still giving off a sense of power.
Slowly I made my way forward. I had passed two security guards in my searching, but cloaked in the night, bound in spells like I was, they did not see me, and I had passed them by as they listlessly passed the time. Still, even though I was almost positive I hadn’t been discovered, I wanted to draw a minimal amount of attention to me, so I moved slowly, quietly, and kept blasting out the runic spells that made me even more hidden.
On the stage, right next to the podium and giant orb that bestowed statuses, I opened myself fully to Mage Sight. The orb was encased in runes that were more complicated than any I had seen before. I began to trace them with my eyes, trying to decipher what they did. They moved in intricate patterns around the surface of the sphere. I saw all of the affinities represented.
Over the course of an hour, I did not move from where I stood. Simply gazing into the intricacy of the spellwork that was in front of me. This was beyond anything I had seen before. It was beautiful and powerful, and as my eyes followed the patterns, I became more and more convinced of one thing. It was something subtle.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand mages wouldn’t have noticed it. I wouldn’t have seen it myself except for the quirk of fate that had made me a Twice-Lived and brought with me experiences from elsewhere that let me interpret objects and behavior in ways a person with memories only from this empire might not.
The patterns of intricacy, the spell work, the brilliant use of runes, all of the power coursing around the orb. All of it was bull-shit.
I couldn’t be sure at first. Runes seemed to lead into places where the magic changed. Power seemed to flow in odd directions when it shouldn’t. There were empty places if you looked hard enough. And more importantly, there were places where, faint traces of that magic that I had only seen the barest traces of up until now, was present.
No, this orb of power was simply a glass sphere that was a shell. It was underneath that shell where the real magic lay. Already in places, I could see things that looked suspiciously like mana switches and mana circuits. They were hidden. Really well hidden. Just present enough to activate when the Woman who bestowed status’ somehow activated them. Though how that could be was beyond me. This discovery went against everything I had come to understand about magic.
It was near four thirty in the morning. I needed to get out of there. Soon this room would be filled with a rush of people demanding to have their place in the Empire revealed and their statics uncovered. In the darkness I turned and made my way out of the building, only stopping long enough to pick up the books from the library that I had left behind earlier.
On the streets, I could not make my way back to the inn. It was still too dangerous. I moved in a random direction into the city. Towards the richer part of town. Well, away from the House of Status I saw an older man heading home from somewhere late at night. Moving in the darkness close to him, I cast the very first spell I had ever learned and caused him to relax so much he fell asleep. Dragging him into an alleyway, I stole all of his clothing and changed my appearance to something completely different than Potato who I had been disguised as all night.
Then I set out in a random direction. Equally jumping through the shadow world from alley to alley, as I casually walked and tried to blend inconspicuously into my surroundings.
I did this three more times. Each time changing my clothes and my appearance. Staying out of sight as much as possible. My path took me all over the city, and I was careful to burn the clothing I left behind in various fires I either made or found along the way. In an alley near the furthest gate from my Inn, I hid the books I had stolen underneath some rubbish.
It was six in the morning by the time I made back to the inn. By the time, I harnessed my skills and my knack to travel through shadows to its fullest and made my way into my room hopefully undiscovered. I packed all of my gear just in case I still needed to leave quickly.
I didn’t sleep. I lay on my bed reading from my book of healing spells. Nervous energy coursing through me. Someone had gone to great lengths to hide the true function of that sphere. I couldn’t concentrate, but I still managed to learn a spell that was guaranteed to prevent hemorrhoids. And another that caused livestock to breed out of season.
A few hours later I hear an angry stomping up the stairs. My breath caught in my throat, and I grabbed my pack and gear and opened the tiny window, ready to shoot through the shadow world to a patch of darkness on a rooftop three building’s down.
But the stomping footsteps did not stop at my door. Instead, they pounded on a door down the hallway. Wilmette’s door.
“Wilmette we need to talk now. Alone.” Lord Er said in Cretan as he pounded again on the door.
Wilmette’s door opened, and he must have seen the anger in Lord Er’s face or sensed his tone because the next words I heard him say were, “Bitches Leave!” followed by a silent tromp of female feet going down the stairs.
Then I did something I had been avoiding doing for the entire time I had been in the city. I actively tried to listen to what was being said in his room. There was a wooden door that went between our room, and the walls though made out of wood and stone were thin. I pressed my ear up against the wooden door and listened.
Lord Er must have closed the door behind him.
“Get out of my city,” Lord Er said in a barely controlled fury.
“Me?” said Wilmette in innocence.
“Someone committed high treason last night. I can’t tell you what they did, and I don’t know who they worked for. We have images. Nothing definitive. Nothing concrete yet. We managed to trace his movements before he entered the building. We have his associates, and they are being questioned now. But as of now, the Necromancer has been captured. Reason enough to explain all my inquisitors moving around. There will be a public execution of the Necromancer later today. DO YOU HEAR ME. THERE WILL BE A PUBLIC EXECUTION OF THE NECROMANCER THIS AFTERNOON. SO GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CITY.”
By the end of his monologue, Lord Er was yelling at Wilmette.
A few minutes later. There was a much more controlled knock on my door. I hesitate but then opened it. I was at full power, and my mana was overflowing. Worst case, I could grab my stuff and be out on the streets in a seconds time.
I opened the door for Lord Er.
“Lynx Elm. I don’t know if you heard any of that. I am sorry to have to take your mentor away from you, but it is well past the time that he be back in his vagabond life. You are of course welcome to stay as long as you would like. Stop by my manor whenever you would like. I see you are reading ASA’s book on healing. Few healers delve that deep into the arts. It is more folk spells than power. If you are interested, I have a fully stocked library that you can peruse at your leisure.”
“Is there trouble in the city?” I asked.
“Nothing for you to worry about. Just between you and I, a sanctum was breached that is of such importance to the Empire that were my own children to be there unwelcome I would have to put them on to the rack. Examples must be made. The Perpetrator must be hunted down. It is the duty of an inquisitor. Sometimes it is unpleasant but always necessary. You will understand this someday as you move forward in the order.”
“I understand my Lord Er,” I said. “I think I may purchase a horse and make my way to my next duty. With my new name and Wilmette gone, there is nothing keeping me. Your kind offer to browse your library is appreciated though. And I will definitely take you up on that the next time I am in the city.”
“Your fidelity to your duty does you credit Lynx Elm. Travel fast and travel sure and may the Twice-Lived burn.” Lord Er said, and then he turned and walked away.
I waited an hour or so in my room, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. I overheard Wilmette try to argue with his lady friends about a refund since he had to leave early. He didn’t seem to make much headway.
Finally, I went out into the city dressed in my travel clothes and found a place where I could buy a horse and saddle. I argued for a while and eventually settled on a price of 73 silver pieces rather than the full gold the person who ran the livery was asking for.
On the way back I passed by the location where I had left the books on blood magic and gathered them from their hiding place, putting them in a saddlebag, after making sure that nobody was watching the alley I’d left them in.
Back at the Inn, Wilmette was almost done packing up. The prostitutes were gone. A happy memory for the big man. I grabbed my pack and tied it to the back of my horse. I was about to leave when Wilmette came up beside me.
“Good luck, Lynx Elm.” He said.
“Good luck,” I replied.
“Will walk with you out of city. Good to be on move again. Not get fat and lazy like city person. Miss forests. Lynx probably miss Gobbles.”
I simply sighed.
We made a strange procession as we walked out of the city. Myself on my horse, Wilmette massive but on foot. When we got to the city gates, guards checked every person who walked through. Nobody was allowed to wear hoods, and special care was taken to search the faces of everyone who was either young or small in stature. As I my horse walked through, and I was pulled aside by the guard to search my face, I caught a glance at an etching that the guards were looking and saw an incredibly detailed drawing of Potato standing outside the House of Status looking up at the building.
Once outside the walls, I saw that four massive stacks of wood had been erected. Each stack had a wooden beam standing tall in the center. And a hooded figure had been tied to each post surrounded by kindling piled high. I could smell the odor of the lamp oil that these poor figures had been drenched the wood from here.
There was a crowd that easily numbered over a thousand people gathered around the pyres. Nearly fifty soldiers held the massive crowd back. The soldiers were all armed and ready to fight. There was also at least two dozen archers standing back eying the crowd just in case they got rowdy. And mana streamed off at least ten people interspersed with the troops. Half of the troops wore the uniform of the Inquisitors. The other half wore the uniform of the city guards.
Lord Er stood on top a hastily built stage and began addressing the crowd. “Last night, with hard work and dedication by the Inquisitors, the Necromancer was caught.”
The crowd yelled and cheered in ecstasy. They were like Maenads driven into a sacred frenzy by their fear and hatred of the necromancer. If those four distant figures had not been tied to the wooden posts, the crowd would have torn the necromancer and his friends apart and bathed in his blood.
“Not only has the Necromancer been killing citizens of this Empire. Last night he dared to invade the House of Status. We think that his purpose was to take take the power of giving statuses away from the people. To deprive each and every one of you of your birthright.”
There was angry muttering from the crowd. Then a barrage of stones were thrown from random people at the hooded figures ready to be burnt to death, and the crowd roared as one mob and pushed forward. The only thing that kept the good citizens from rushing the stakes were the soldiers who drove them back.
“The necromancer failed, and in the necromancer’s failure, he was captured along with the traitors who were helping him.” Lord Er yelled, “Let it not be said that the inquisition does not look after the well being of the citizens of this empire.”
Lord Er walked up to the foremost hooded figure. “Behold the face of the Necromancer.” He ripped the hood off of the person tied to the wooden stake.
And I saw Potato.
Or rather, as I looked closely I saw a version of Potato that was not Potato. It was as if someone had taken a face and beat it so badly all the bones had been broken, and then a clever healer had come along and forced those broken facial features back into a clever imitation of the Potato I had been last night.
But as I looked, Lord Er was walking onward to the other hooded figures, and one by one removed their hoods. Cow, Steer, and Canary stood, tied to wooden stakes, the bruise marks from a horrible beating they had suffered marked on their body. Their eyes were listless and broken, almost dead. It didn’t even seem as if they were aware of where they were, much less that they were about to die.
Lord Er yelled “The punishment for helping a necromancer is the same for being a necromancer yourself. Fire mages, start the pyres!”
Unconsciously, I slid off my horse and was about to use my body knack or fade into the shadow to charge the stage. There were so many of people, so many soldiers, so many mages, but if I could kill the fire mages first, and if I could stay in the shadows long enough I might have a tiny fraction of a chance.
Then just before I could set hell and speed and shadow on the people in front of me, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I turned, Wilmette was looking at me with compassion. “No,” he said. “Already dead. Lynx just die for no reason. No point. Be strong. Get stronger. Maybe come back. Maybe do better. Nothing else to do now.”
I thought about it. Then I thought about it some more. Then pushing as much mana and force and strength into my arm and fist, I slammed Wilmette in the face knocking him back and leaving him in a twisted broken, but unfortunately healing mess by the river.
Then I left the city as a coward.