Elruin took some time to think about the offer, but in the end that was a secondary concern. "Apologize for hurting Cali."
The inky black spirit drifted in place for a moment. "First, I'd like to go on record as saying I did nothing to hurt her, save what was necessary to get her away from the people trying to kill her."
"Which you used to trap her with a compulsion spell that hurt her."
"She had a choice," he countered. "I didn't think an introduction was all that much to ask for saving her life, and ensuring she couldn't turn around and have me destroyed afterwards. And don't say 'gratitude', your species doesn't know the concept, not when it comes to abominations like us. Or did you forget Mister Clackybones?"
Elruin's argument hit a wall, just like that. Even Cali had insisted on destroying her beloved horsey, after it had helped save her life. "No, I would never..."
She couldn't imagine it would be much different for this ghost, who was so much stronger and smarter than any undead she'd met before. How much knowledge would be lost with him if he was killed a second time?
"Ell? What is he saying?" Cali asked. She remained sitting, but without the truth spell going out of its way to force her to act, she was recovering rather than getting worse. Still needed days, perhaps weeks, of rest to come back from her injuries.
It was then that Elruin realized the ghost wasn't speaking the same language as them. It was the same language of the dead that she'd heard before, but from a fluent speaker. "He's not going to apologize." Elruin wasn't about to explain the reason behind that refusal, nor why she stopped arguing for it.
"Can't say I'm surprised," she said. "You're planning to accept its help, aren't you?"
"I haven't decided." Elruin hesitated, but decided Cali deserved better. "If I do, I'm sorry. I know you don't like them."
"That's one way to put it." Cali struggled, forced herself into a standing position by leaning against one of the many trees. "The abominations are hate and cruelty given tangible form. They cannot be saved, they know nothing of love, kindness, or mercy. If you would grant succor, end the twisted corruption which denies them peace at the end of life's trials."
"Which holy text did you pull that one out of, Sis?" Scratch spoke so Calenda could understand.
"It's in the Books of the Great Cycle," Calenda answered. "Book Five, to be precise. Are you going to tell me it's wrong, now? Because if you are, I'd like to hear you swear on it. The point is, you can't be trusted."
This brought up a number of good points to Elruin. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"You can't." Scratch showed no sign of shame, apology, or even defiance. It was a statement, nothing more or less than that. "Everything your big sister quoted is true, to my knowledge. I cheated nature itself, told both life and death to go shove their heads up their own asses and asphyxiate. What you can trust is my self-interest. I've defied death for centuries thanks to necromancers like you, and I intend to do so until I see no reason to continue. Chances are you'll be long gone by then."
"This has something to do with the song you want her to sing?" Cali asked.
"Resonance. You have a way to, umm, hide yourself." Elruin didn't know if there was a word to describe the concept she was putting together. "You're planning to synchronize with me, then use the fact that I'm alive to trick death into thinking you're still alive?"
"You have learned something in that school," Scratch said. "I was expecting to spend an hour explaining this to you."
"I have a friend who talks lots about how to play with resonance." Elruin was certain Lemia would love talking to Scratch, if not for the 'undead abomination' concerns. "We've done a lot of experimenting. Will there be any side effects? Will it harm me or give you some sort of power over me, in any way?"
Scratch drifted up to about Cali's height. "The effects of synchronizing will be weaker, since it's artificial, so don't expect much of the usual benefits." He spoke the language of the dead, denying her information that might lead to guessing more of his nature and weaknesses. "In theory, synchronizing with the undead makes it impossible to use creation magic, but since I only know how to synchronize with necromancers, it's never been a concern."
Elruin no expert on synchronization, artificial or otherwise. Such a magic sounded fascinating, and difficult, so she wasn't surprised it was limited in scope. In the end, it just made magic easier with one another, and harder to hurt each other. What effect synchronizing with the undead might have on casting life magic, she could only guess at, but since she couldn't use life magic, it was irrelevant.
"One final condition." Cali would have to live with never getting that apology from Scratch. "You swear never to hurt my friends and allies."
"I can't make that agreement." No hesitation in his answer, but he spoke so Cali could understand. "My priorities are my wellbeing, then yours. If one of your friends jeopardizes either of us, I will do everything in my power to end the threat. I can promise to do my best to do no more harm than necessary, then you can decide if we should do worse." For his next sentences, he switched back to their secret tongue. "You should be more careful when giving absolute orders with forces that have no ability to consider nuance. Like your dollies, for example. Someone might get hurt."
It was true, people had died over her lack of foresight. "Acceptable. No more harm than necessary to stop them from hurting us. Talk to them first, if possible. They're not friends if they want to hurt me."
"You have your deal for as long as I am in your service, I make no promises for after the contract's inevitable conclusion. Is that everything? I'd like to hear your song before you die of old age."
So Elruin sang. First, she sang to herself, drawing her power out and blanketing the area, then she sang Cali's essence to protect from the necromantic energy of her power, or more to keep the energy from going near her in the first place. She sang around the horses, tied to trees, so that they didn't struggle overmuch when they stepped to the next stage. She sang to the slow taint of undeath seeping through the captive prisoner, to prevent him from dying before he was interrogated.
Then, with the stage set, she sang to Scratch. The spirit was by far the densest, most complex ball of necromantic force she had ever witnessed. In terms of raw power, he wasn't much stronger than she was, weaker than Cali by a notable amount, but he was by far the strongest undead she had witnessed.
Then he sang back, twisting her notes into his own. She adapted, adopted, and changed the notes again. The interplay took some time, as they first established, then negotiated, the nature of their shared song. Unlike Mister Clackybones, who had no choice but to allow her access to the totality of his being, Scratch was aware of his nature, and yielded but a small portion of himself in the song.
He sang of the last month, of watching the risks Calenda took in the wilderness to protect the empire she swore herself to. He sang of the merciless violence of those on both sides of the conflict. He sang of gore, and glory, and it was as if Elruin was there watching as it happened.
She sang back, of the farm she'd been born on, and the first of the dead who protected her. She sang of her cousins' farm, and the babies she helped save from the bad men. She sang of Mister Clackybones, which she was forced to destroy for Cali's sake.
The spell Scratch showed her was complicated, but it wasn't complex. Each part had a clean, understandable function. Elruin was convinced that any Revealed mage could follow the general process and get similar results, by sharing their feelings through their magic. Perhaps it didn't require magic at all, an emotional conversation might suffice, were it meaningful enough. Magic did accelerate the process, however.
In the end, they sang together to the energy they released, and called it back to themselves. In minutes, there was no trace left of their magic that Elruin could detect. This trick, too, seemed like something Elruin could do herself, though it was far more difficult than the synchronizing magic.
"Ell? Are you okay?" Cali remained against the tree, but reached out to her.
"Yeah, I'm not hurt." She reached up, touched her cheek, to realize she'd been crying. "It's an emotional spell." What caught her off guard was that Cali was so concerned for her, despite the damage the young woman was in, herself.
"Felt like it," Cali said. "Reminded me of the first time I saw ballet after having my Revelation."
"I've never seen a ballet before. Maybe we can go after you get better?"
"Okay, enough feelings!" Scratch cut in. "You ladies can do that on the other side of the wall where I won't be going. How about we see what this reject of life feels? Get nice and deep in his psyche, learn all his darkest secrets." He climbed into the man tied to the tree, by sliding into his mouth feet first. He didn't have to do it that way, but he liked the visuals.
"When I was a kid, I loved eating my own boogers." Scratch now had the man's voice. "I never stopped."
"Ugh," Cali muttered. "He's right, though. We're racing a clock, let's get what we can out of the dead man."
For the next half hour, Calenda interviewed the mind-enslaved victim, while Elruin had little to do but watch him run down the list of secrets great and small without sign of hesitation or fear while the taint spread from point to point through his body. His extremities died first, then it infected his blood which spread the sickness to his heart, lungs and brain. Soon, every time he breathed, a wisp of taint escaped his mouth.
Elruin began the process of cleansing as they went, to extend the victim's life and prevent the poison from reaching Cali. Now that she was watching taint in action, she could understand why it was so feared. If left unchecked, it was a threat to all life in the world. Calenda was right about how dangerous it was, but Elruin knew it could be controlled. Scratch controlled it, as could she if given time to learn.
Her ability to cleanse taint did nothing but slow the man's death, however, and soon the mouth stopped moving. Scratch climbed back out through the drooling orifice. "Hope that's enough, 'cause he ain't up for talkin'."
"Better than I've gotten from anyone else," Cali admitted. She grunted as she forced herself to stand again. "In part because torture and Truthsaying can do only so much, and in part because this guy was close to Lord Claron, so he's witnessed information few people possess. Going to be interesting, explaining how I got all this info, or survived an assault by Claron, of all people."
"Is he strong?" Elruin read a little bit about the half-sibling to Lady Juna and Lord Garit, but his personal power wasn't mentioned, just his political position. Still, she kept humming her notes, to the dead man and the taint left behind. Cali couldn't use her magic, Scratch didn't care, and she was going to get a new dolly that nobody would know to take away from her.
"One of the top ten in the empire," Calenda said. "Maybe the top five, hard to say at that level. Luck and surprise are the only reasons I'm here right now."
"Don't matter how strong you are, anyone can die if caught off guard." Free of a body, Scratch took to the air again. "And he'll be soft for a while. Dying takes a lot out of you, coming back is worse. If we assume it was Claron in the first place."
"True, could have been another powerful fire mage, and some more illusions." Cali lumbered over to one of the horses. "Do you know for certain it was him?"
"Don't think there were any illusions," Scratch said. "But that's not my expertise. Get me in sight of the real one, and I'll be able to tell you for certain."
"Good, I can use that. Ugh." She began the slow, painful process of climbing onto the saddle despite her injuries. "I'll emphasize that I can't trust what I saw. Any part may have been illusion magic, and I was unconscious for half the fight. All I know to be fact is my team was murdered, there was at least one illusionist, someone who appeared to be Lord Claron was there, and something spared my life. Perhaps it was all a setup to make Claron look guilty of treason?"
"I'd say I wasn't involved, but you wouldn't believe me."
"No, I believe you, you're too untrustworthy to be a spy." Cali gasped for breath now that she was on her mount. "And I believe it was him. But no investigator, including myself, would trust my testimony under these circumstances." She began to guide her horse toward the gates, leading the three others and the bodies they carried along.
"Will Lord Claron get away, then?" Elruin gathered her treasures in order to follow behind. Soon, her new dolly would move, freed from its bonds and obedient to Scratch until she could come visit them again. Scratch would take good care of the dolly, and keep it out of trouble.
"Either Claron's guilty, or someone's trying to smear his name, either way it's information that will be taken straight to the queen." Calenda stopped talking for some time, in order to catch her breath. They were almost to the gates before she could breathe again. "She'll have him interviewed. He's taken into custody, or proven innocent, by the end of the day."
The gate opened before the pair made it to the alcove, and several guards rushed out. "Scout Calenda? What happened?"
"Long story. Alert the generals, all of them." Calenda lay forward on her horse, closing her eyes. "Ell? The seamstress southeast of the park has something for you to pick up."
Elruin was lost in the flurry of soldiers, healers, and others taking care of the situation. The bodies and horses were taken somewhere, though Elruin would have to wait to learn from Cali where, but nobody thought to confiscate her new magical robe. With promises that Cali would be taken care of, and that there was nothing she could do to help for now, she began the long walk back to the College.
She did take the time to stop by the seamstress' store that Cali mentioned. It was nothing special, a business being run in someone's home. Elruin tapped on the door, as was custom.
A young boy, younger than Elruin, opened the door. He put his head down, then turned around and yelled. "Grandmother, you have a customer."
"Come in!" A woman's voice shouted from inside.
The boy stepped aside, careful not to look directly at Elruin's face. It wasn't a necessary social custom, so Elruin assumed he was shy.
The woman Elruin assumed was owner of the shop sat in the living area, near a collection of fabrics and torn clothes. She was perhaps the oldest woman Elruin had ever seen, with deep wrinkles and hair that bordered on white, with enough gray to show this wasn't the hair color she was born with. "My, that is quite the garment. I'm afraid I don't work with magic clothes, nor bloodstains."
"No, sorry ma'am," Elruin now took the submissive posture. "I'm Elruin. Lady Calenda sent me to pick something up."
"Ah, Priestess Calenda did make a special request, and mentioned you." The woman remained sitting, but the little boy ran into a side room. "I was expecting her to pick it up herself."
"She's indisposed." Elruin wasn't sure how much she should tell this woman or anyone else about the events of the day. "Her chores are demanding." Nobody could call that statement a lie, though it told nothing of value.
"I suppose they are, if she sent you to get your own gift."
The boy came back, carrying a large stuffed animal in the shape of a horse. He set it on its feet, where it collapsed.
Elruin picked the soft, pliable stuffed animal up. "It's perfect!" She hugged the stuffed toy, then began to cry all over again. "I'm going to call you Mister Squishybones!"