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Mages are - I hope you'll pardon the pun - a crafty lot. We have to be. Folk with no Ability but with plenty of influence and pride of position try to retain Mages - often for their own personal amusements and typically the contracts they offer are loaded with hidden provisions that leave an accepting Mage more beggared than the poor sot was when he signed. I say "he" because female Mages rarely accept an exclusive contract. Something about being totally beholden to a man rankles most of the lady Mages I know - as it definitely does me. I've spent too much time responsible only to myself to be eager to tie myself to the whims of another.

Then, too, Adepts are eager to use another's knowledge to their own advancement. Once in my travels I had cause to summon a fiend into my service. Upon learning of this rather free-wheeling lust for knowledge, the beast cackled in its odd way and said there were such in its world and they were called "hackers." The word defied my spells to translate it, but reminded me of a man who lays ax to wood that his home may be warm in the winter. Perhaps it is an allusion in the fiend-tongue, those who seek knowledge and pierce mystery to obtain it are like one with an ax who seeks out the tree that he may take it and change it to heat for his family. But back to my story or I'll bore you to tears.

As Mages study the Arts of the Adepts, they are expected to travel. The avowed intent of this is so that they may learn the place of Magick in the world, that they may more fully understand the nature of the things they would command, and that their own personal magicks may more firmly settle into their auras. On my less charitable days, I figure it is because the Master Mages just get tired of seeing the same faces over and over. See, there it is - students "use another's knowledge to their own advancement". I know I certainly tired of their faces during the times I returned to The Tower - always wanting something for nothing. An equitable trading I could accept, but so many thought that you should teach them all you knew just because they had the ability to use it.

Common folk - ah, now there's another matter. Folk what work hard understand the value of your labor, be it magickal or mundane. Many a Mage tired of the company of his - or her, mind - peers and took to travelling or maybe found a small settlement that could support him just as his skills could support the community. It seems to me that men are drawn to conflict and women to nesting - thus most male Mages take employ in the service of a local lordling while we lady Mages take on a whole community. Granted, this isn't a hard and fast rule, but it serves as a handy generalization.

So when Old Malek caught my ear and told me there was this village in need of a Mage, I had fewer qualms than if he'd said "Lord So-and-so has posted a hefty contract for a Mage." Seemed the village had been without a Mage the best part of a year already and Old Malek had no idea what had happened to her. I wasn't overly troubled, for unexplained things frequently happen to Mages. Occupational hazard, you know. I hadn't been at The Tower long and already I was eager to move on again, so I got vague directions to the place - Tillek, it was - and a letter of introduction from Old Malek. Gathering up my possessions, I set out astride Thump. He's not too bright as far as ponies go, so sometimes I have to thump him to get his attention, hence his name.

I told myself I was putting The Tower behind me to put new horizions ahead of me. Had I been interested in telling myself the truth, I was running from ghosts. A particular ghost, actually, but only in my head. Rince had been dead nearly a year, but after so many years of sharing parts of our lives, so many things were "haunted" by my memories of him. But this was not a day when I wanted to be honest with myself.

Rince came to me on the road by way of an oblique reference. I wonder if I'll find my end on this road the way Rince did. The thought shook me, because I'd managed to ride two days without a painful thought, enjoying the countryside. Now, as if I had picked the scab from a wound, the memories poured out like blood. We were of an age, so our trainings at The Tower had often found us together. Ours was no instant infatuation, but rather had been built solidly over time on the bricks of friendship, respect, and finally mutual trust. From time to time we shared a bed, but when our relationship had reached that point, our trainings had diverged to the point we might go months without seeing each other. Only with each other did we find that easy companionship as though any time apart had been the mere passing of a night. We complemented each other, man and woman, Mage and Mage, but we had never spoken of more than that. Mages are too fickle - some may say "selfish" and be just as accurate - to tie themselves to another person. Usually.

Before he left on his last roaming, Rince has been all aboil with a new project that had taken set in his head. He refused to speak of it with me, saying only that it was something of deep importance to few save himself. I can admit to myself - and did so on the way to Tillek - that I had become tied to Rince. His refusal to involve me stung deeply. I was too sharp with him, even though he promised to share everything with me when he came back.

I wish I had seen him off that final morning, that I had wished him well. Perhaps it would have made a difference. Perhaps I wouldn't be where I am now.

When a half-dead thimblewing lay sprawled on my workbench, I knew Rince was gone. The creature, only a bit longer than my palm, had a necklace clutched in its four clawed feet. I recognized it immediately - the silken cord, the metal dragon's paw, the crystal globe gripped in its talons. I knew it, because I had bought it for Rince perhaps two years before. He never took it off. Ever.

Suddenly, without Rince, The Tower was too small for me. Everything about it reminded me of him, from the musty libraries to the garden of duella-flowers, blooming in a perpetual enchanted spring.

I ran.

Finally, I was running to Tillek, hoping to find my place there where no memories of Rince would rip my heart open all over again. I'd known no love since the thimblewing brought me the necklace, now worn around my own neck. The loneliness became simply a part of life, to be remarked upon no more than blinking.

So I was, running and lonely and tired of the burden I carried in my heart when I found myself staring down from a small ridgeline into the cluster of huts that should be Tillek. Croplands spread away into the distance on the far side of the village. A tiny part of my brain catalogued the geographical features of the ancient floodplain that lay at the foot of the escarpment whereupon I stood. By rights, this should be fertile land, producing crops aplenty at harvest time, now maybe a month away. The crops, though, did not look too promising. The village itself looked to be only about half there - nearly as many ruins as whole huts. An almost visible pall hung over the village and lands.

I dismounted and slipped my boots off to stand barefooted in the middle of the dusty track. Odd behavior? Not for a Mage. We can often gain valuable insights through physical contact with the object of our attentions. In this case, I was hoping for some inkling into the pall and look of hopelessness Tillek possessed. Staff in one hand and Thump's reins in the other, I continued on into the village and located the inn where, according to the notice Old Malek had, I should ask for a man named Kirt.

Turned out Kirt ran the inn and was also the village's headman. He was cleaning the floor of the taproom when I walked in and announced I was looking to apply for the Mage's position. His eyes narrowed and he looked me over throughly before speaking. I wasn't sure if he was put off by the new Mage-woman walking into town barefooted, speaking her mind bluntly, or being dressed in a sailor's knee- breeches and sleeveless vest. Either which didn't matter, he nodded and gestured to a table for me to sit while he went to the taps for drinks.

"I'm Kirt and yer ahead of me on that score, miss."

"Iandra," I offered. "Apprenticed to Master Falkirk and later mentored by Master Brahme and Master Rabin." I offered him my letter of introduction and sipped at the glass he had set before me, pleased to note it had no alcohol in it, just a sweet fruit juice that washed the travel-dust from my throat. "I presume you are in need of a village Mage for crop blessings, healings, and so forth?"

Kirt looked down into his glass and squirmed a little in his chair. The first alarm bell rang in the deep recesses of my mind. "Well, aye, that we are. Been without for best of a year since Pesha ... died."

Interesting tidbit - "Pesha" is a word that translates as "traveller" in the tongue of the Khirtuni, a language no longer spoken, unless you count scholarly researchers digging out ruined cities and tombs. I dared not think long on that, for Rince had been fascinated by the Khirtuni, which is how I was familiar with the word. Alarm bell number two went off when Kirt hesitated to use the word "died."

"What exactly happened to Pesha?"

News travels fast in a small village, particularly when it concerns a stranger showing up. The answer to my question came not from Kirt but from a newcomer to the taproom. "No idee, lass." I turned to the speaker, a matronly woman thin enough to look as if she were on the verge of hunger pains - although that was likely my fanciful imagination. She was old, moving slowly on a walking stick and very deliberate in her actions as only the well-aged are. "There warn't a mark on the body, just a stone dead corpse. And it's been well over a year, Kirt. Right near a year and a half."

Kirt frowned at the interruption - or maybe at the correction, or even just at the memory of being without the use of a Mage for so long, I wasn't sure which. "Praps so. Iandra, this is me mum, Corialle."

"Auntie," she said immediately.

"Pardon?"

"Just call me 'Auntie,' dear. They all do, what ain't descended from me to use 'Mum' or 'Nanny.' Them whats younger than me, anyhow."

"That's most," Kirt mumbled behind his hand.

"Well, odd deaths are one hazard of Mage-craft, to be sure." I didn't want some family spat interfering with my getting details on the job, so I shoved the drift of the conversation back to Pesha. At least now I understood the poor state of the crops. If Pesha had been dead over a year, she wouldn't have been able to lead the Lammas festival. Grant you, holy men will say the festival is a thanksgiving to the gods for the harvest. A moment, if you will - Mages, being tinkerers of nature and unwilling to leave anything alone, have made it more than that. We can redirect the ... lifeforce, if you will, of the villagers back into the land to encourage and enhance the natural order of things. Unfortunately, when the hearts of the people are sickened, the land bears witness much as a fever does for infection. As you may guess, it can easily become a rapid spiral of decay - a bad year leaves the people stressed and the land reflects this with another poor year and despair sets in and the land slides farther into the morass. Mages have to work to keep that from happening - rather a cosmic duty, since we set things up to run that way, we have to work to keep them running. The other choice is to trust to the whims of the gods. If that were a viable option, I doubt the old system would have ever been developed. On with the story, I know. "I suppose a discussion of terms is in order, then."

Kirt nodded, looking relieved to have the conversation turn from magickal matters about which he knew little to more practical and understandable business matters. "Well, we can offer you Pesha's house and library right off. Most of our folk don' have much in the way of coin, so yer pay would be service for service. I can get some of the folk to kit you out for what you need right off after you've looked the place over. We've been so long without a Mage, most would give out of sheer relief."

There went another alarm bell. I was getting the feeling there was more going on than I was being told. "So what sort of services are you looking for in return?"

Kirt shrugged and looked at his fingers as he named things off. "Well, healing right off, of course. Crop spells, too, since we're a farming village. Finding charms, warding charms, love bits, luck pieces, and things like that. Oh, and mendings and sharpenings. Leean the smith said he'd not think you as edging him out if you were to have such a talent."

He'd already set two more alarms ringing in my head. If he kept this up, this job would give the bells of Norian Cathedral a run for their money. "Warding charms against what? And I'd like you to look me in the eye with your answer."

Kirt looked at me, blushing. "Oh, against snake-bite, goose-pecks, getting cut. Things like that."

"Is that all?"

He blinked and looked down at the table without making a direct reply.

"Out with it, headman."

"Well, some of the younger ones have asked for, well... Not everyone wants babies."

I threw my head back and laughed. Still, looking at him, the alarms never went silent. By this time, we'd attracted quite the little crowd inside the inn and I knew I wasn't going to get anything more out of him just then.

Kirt had left the inn to one of his assistants, relation unknown as yet, to escort me to Pesha's place. Several children romped along - not exactly with us, but in the same general direction we were going. Propriety was upheld, I thought wryly.

The Mageweyr was nothing like I had expected. From a distance, it seemed to be a round thatched-roof hut. As with anything about Mages, appearances were deceiving. At the door, I could tell the wall was actually solid rock with no seam I could see. It was as if someone had blown a child's bubble out of rock rather than soapwater. The thatched look of the roof I discovered was due to the growth of a yellowish moss. Frezillia Ducatha, part of my brain noted. Excellent for a fever-reducer and commonly referred to as "fever-moss" because of it.

Kirt would have gone straight inside, but I toured the outside first. Granted, most warding and protective magicks died when the caster did, but only most. I took my time examining everything, for missing something could be fatal. Satisfied we wouldn't fry the instant I stepped inside, I began taking inventory of the place in the physical realm. Fences needed mending, there was the need for firewood, who had what kinds of animals I could barter for, that sort of thing. I wasn't looking for much starting out. We moved inside and I marvelled at the house all over again. Outside was the height of summer when work in the afternoon was called off to avoid death, but inside - oh, inside was another story entirely. I shivered in the cool air - it was as if I were standing in the bowels of the earth. The furnishings were a bit on the shabby side, to be expected in a house empty more than a year, but that was of little import to me.

The house was set maybe five paces across and divided into rooms by walls made of the same stuff as the outer shell. From the inside, I could see the center area of the dome was actually clear, letting the light stream in. Since the dividing walls didn't reach all the way to the top, I suspected the other rooms would be well-lit, also. I turned in place, drinking it all in. It seemed as if I caught movement from the corner of my eye - a tapestry straightening here, a rug smoothing out there, and a dust-eddy twisting its way along the base of a wall. The house seemed to be straightening itself up, like it was trying to favorably impress me.

"Pesha's library will be yours, of course. Through here, if you care to look."

I did, of course. The easiest way to tempt a Mage is with a book - the subject rarely matters, we are voracious readers. I was impressed with the bookcase before ever reading any titles. At a quick estimate, there were a couple hundred books arrayed, begging to be perused. I made them a silent promise and turned away, lest their magicks ensnare me before I even moved in. I looked around again, smiling and nodding.

"I do believe it will do."

On some level, it seemed someone released a breath they had been holding. Was it me or Kirt?

Or maybe the house?

"Now tell me something. That library in there could have been sold at The Tower and made enough money to carry this village through several rough years. Why didn't you do that?"

Kirt was looking around the house like he was looking for a ghost. "We thought the new Mage might need them," he replied.

"Indeed. Need them for what? Just about everything you named off before we came out here are things most any Mage can handle without cracking a book. Why would I need a library that would fetch such a price?"

As I talked a blush had crept up Kirt's face from his neck as he realized what he'd said. I was between him and the door. We weren't going anywhere until I got answers that satisfied me.

Good thing I didn't say "an answer I liked" - because there was nothing about his answer to like.

In fact, when he finished, my bowels threatened to let go. Messily.

He heaved a sigh, looked at his feet, and stubbed his toe around on the floor like a kid caught doing something naughty. "We ... have a problem here. Mebbe thirty years ago, we started having ... things harass the village. They drifted in on the mists - Mum says only on the dark of the moon - and visit havoc hereabouts. Crops wither, livestock go off their routines or disappear, fires in homes, even had some folk go missing, early on. Old Marga was with us then and finally found a way to hold them off. I dunno any bout what they were or what she did, but it worked. Then she died and we was without again. Twern't long afore the things came back. Then Pesha came our way and we was alright, mostly. I don't think he had Old Marga's touch nor power."

Oops. There went that cathedral in my head. Pesha wasn't a "she," but rather a "he." Did it make a difference? Maybe - I had at least violated one of the cardinal rules in dealing with Mages - never take anything for granted.

"Old Marga, now, she was older'n me mum. She just seemed to know what needed doing and how to go about it. Pesha was - well, not to be speaking ill, but he had too much learnin and not enuf knowin, if ye understand me. He'd about your age, I guess, and hadn't lived here all his life."

I nodded absently as Kirt babbled. So Old Marga - now there was a minor Tower mystery solved - had kept these things - Darklings, I'd bet - away from the village while she was living and Pesha had tried to. Interesting. Most protective magicks die with the caster, as I've noted before, and what I knew of protections from the Darklings included no exceptions. And if they only came during the dark of the moon, I had about a week before they came tearing through the village. As I saw it right then, I had two clear choices - I could either spend that time digging madly through the journals of my predecessors to see how they dealt with the incursions or I could work frantically at fielding my own protections and refine them based on first-hand observation and later careful research. The initial assay was grim, to be sure - no clue what my predecessors had done to restrain them and the hint that a Mage of my approximate equal ranking had not had the outstanding success rate the villagers were used to - a beautiful recipie, if one's tastes run to catastrophies.

"So d'ye think yer still interested? Pesha'd said knowing about them dark things would've turned his tail right off."

I looked around slowly and the house seemed to nod - almost a begging. I winked into thin air before I looked at Kirk solemnly and nodded. "Yes. Yes, I believe I am."

It didn't take long for the villagers to start lining up for the new Mage's attentions. They'd had better than a year to store up the little requests - a charm against warts, charms to keep from getting with child, charms to get with child, talismans to attract love, and curatives for all manner of illnesses. When I wasn't aiding a villager, I was making amulets of warding against everything I could think of. I decided on the 'witch-bottle' design and wanted to make one for each household in the village. Ideally, that would turn the village into a series of small fortresses. I gave one to each visitor with specific instructions on its placement in the house and left a good many more with Kirt at the inn for those who had yet to darken my door.

Finally, the dark of the moon came. I knew there were scoffers in the village who likely had not taken a witch-bottle for their homes. I prayed fervently that Maleth, the Great Protector, would shelter them despite their lack of faith in me. I wished, not for the first time in the past week, that Rince was with me in more than just my dreams. Surely between the two of us we could have put together a better plan than the one I'd used.

Rather than dwell on ghosts of the heart, I headed for the bookshelf. With the threat of the nebulous "mist riders," I'd not allowed myself the luxury of so much as looking at the precious volumes. Now I took the time to give it my attention. No Mage's library is identical to another's, so I was not surprised to see titles I'd only heard of, which was exciting in itself. What surprised me the most, however, was finding a number of titles dealing exclusively with Khirtuni subjects. That made my heart ache all over again and it was as if I were looking at Rince's shelves while he was out of the room. Since the shelves they were on looked to be new workmanship, I suspected they'd belonged to this mysterious Pesha rather than to Old Marga.

I spent time looking through the titles, looking for one with no title. Mages typically keep journals of their researches, handy spells, travel notes, and other scraps of insight that might someday be useful. With two dead Mages preceding me as occupants, there should be journals of some type.

I finally gave up, being sure to mark the shelf where I left off my search, and stepped outside to watch the sun set and perhaps catch a glimpse of the night's opponents. The Tower taught Darklings to be summoned creatures rather than natural beings, created out of the very fibers of the Magickal Flux itself. As such, the weapon to use against them isn't anything physical. A tightly-bound Darkling may be used to accomplish tasks and many legends abound as to the prowess of Khirtuni sorcerers in doing so. I've never seen where the inherent dangers and risks are outweighed by the benefits. Rince, though, had thought otherwise.

They moved through the trees, flowing like a heavy, boiling cloud. Individuals were almost impossible to distinguish, their half-defined forms melding together into a single mass, darker than the shadows around them. I could only wonder at what had spawned them, and wished I had listened to Rince that I might now know my enemy.

They tested my protections. They could almost taste me, but my "fences" made sure the "almost" remained. It made them mad, of course. Being hungry and having a tasty morsel dangled just out of your reach would tend to be infuriating. So it was that when they reached the village, they were more than prepared to deal out havoc. Finding chunks of the village off-limits due again to my protections made things worse.

I watched them, learning how they moved and interacted with the physical world. I made plans for a village-wide protective casting based on how they were and were not affected by my cobbled-together bottles. It was a good night. Unless, that is, you were one of the few caught unprotected or who owned livestock, buildings, or fields which the Darklings tore into. It happened - folks who didn't avail themselves of my efforts were hit hard. Mostly, though, the village survived. And I learned the measure of my enemy.

In my exhausted slumber, I dreamed of Rince. The intimicies we shared were quite vivid, enough to make me blush when I thought about them after waking. The next few days were hectic, trying to repair the damage done to the village as well as set up housekeeping of my own - all this in addition to the normal daily life of a village Mage.

I gradually began to feel a presence in the house, following me about as I tended the chores and sitting close when I was in one place, reading or Crafting something. I would sometimes catch a glimpse of movement, as if someone had just stepped away. I kept finding little things done for me - no dust gathered, nor did cobwebs; freshly-washed dishes dried faster than they should have; messes I left at night would be tidied by morning.

And I continued to dream of Rince.

We shared intimacies. We continued conversations interrupted by his leaving and ... and his death. Once he offered an idea on limiting the Darkling incursion that was so insightful, I immediately wrote it down upon awakening. By the end of the week, I wasn't sure if the thoughts were the extrapolations of my subconsciousness - as I originally thought - or were the words of Rince.

It should be easy to tell the difference, you would think. Everyone has their own way of organizing words to frame ideas - a certain cadence to the grammatical structure, favored word groupings, preferred metaphors, and the like. But now, I couldn't tell. It was as if someone else had shared my brain and part of the words were mine, part were Rince's, and part yet something else.

What made me wonder so strongly about whose words they were, you ask?

I had risen just as the summer sun lit the morning sky, as was my habit. Fumbling about my room, I slowly came awake as I made ready for the day. When I went to the kitchen, I was surprised to discover the table already laid out for my breakfast. Lying across my plate was a single flower, a duella-blossom. I sat down and stared at it. Many times over the past two weeks, villagers come by and brought me small things - flowers and herbs were the favorite, them being in plentiful supply unlike most things. I had gotten accustomed to opening my door in the mornings and finding woven-reed baskets of such leavings. The flowers made delightful arrangements around the house and the herbs were always in need for healings and other charms. But as yet, no one had ever set foot inside the house. No, make that my house. Now, someone had done so - a surprise in itself. Yet, there was more to consider.

The duella was freshly cut. Its stem still weeped, in fact.

The duella is a spring flower.

It was almost Lammas - the high point of summer.

There was no way for the duella to be on my plate if it had been left by a villager. Rince had loved to sit in the Tower garden among the duellas.

Rince.

I spent the day in pursuit of my craft, but it was as if I had been separated into a pair of beings - one purely physical, going about my tasks while the other was purely of the mind, pondering and examining the strange goings-on that had filled my house.

I couldn't believe it was Rince. He was dead. His familiar had brought me that proof and then died itself of loneliness. Yet I could not turn away from the hope that Rince was still close. The thoughtful companion who wasn't quite there as I worked could be him. That spirit which made my work just a little less burdensome acted from love.

What if it really were Rince?

I came back to the house, a basket of herbs I'd gathered on my arm and my bag of potions and spell- tools riding on my hip. I knew that somewhere in the little hut, mine now after two other Mages had called it home, I would find the journals that had belonged to the previous occupants. Mentally, I searched the house as I treated the gathered plants by rote, separating them into bundles for hanging and drying. I couldn't think of any place in the house I hadn't already explored. I doubted they would be outside - too far from the library and exposed to the elements, natural and baser.

While fixing supper, I had to dig into the back of a shelf in the kitchen larder. Reaching blindly, I managed to locate a jagged splinter. I stood there cursing my luck, sucking at the splinter, and trying to clean up the mess. It wasn't until I began drawing the splinter out that a stray question drifted through my brain.

How did I get a splinter from the back wall of the larder?

The larder grew out of one of the stone walls of the hut, formed from the same material. There was no need for a wood backing to it. If it were there, there must be a purpose for it. Supper was forgotten as I emptied the shelf's contents onto the table, counter tops, and floor. I dared not hope, but worked ever faster.

There. A little carving left just the hint of a handle. I pulled gently and the wood backing came away whole in my hand, like a panel. I looked it over carefully, trying to find the rough place where I had gotten the splinter. It was smooth, worked to a professional finish and then sealed. I could find no place where I would have gotten a splinter.

In the space revealed were several books. Gently, I drew them out and set them atop crockery. A quick look inside one revealed a dainty, embellished script that I took to be Old Marga's. Without a doubt, I would have quite a bit of reading ahead of me.

Replacing the contents of the larder, I searched the remaining shelves, finding more books hidden in the same clever fashion. Some were in the same script as the first, but there were others. I suspected "Pesha" had moved some of the more precious books from the library shelves and stored them here, as some had titles and authors imprinted on them. Then, I found two that had to be Pesha's own journals. The writing was a more blocky style and I suspected they had been written by an animated quill. Rince had shown me that trick once, sending me a note written in that fashion in order to surprise me with a birthday party. The writing looked the same, no matter who used the spell.

I gathered my newest treasure trove together, admiring the appearance of the journals when my stomach reminded me it was time to eat.

The journals made fascinating reading. Pesha's second journal was essentially an index to the older journals. I hesitated to give it much credence, since I doubted the man and I would share similar values as to what was important. Still, there were some entries listed for Darklings, so I made my way through the old script, studying my enemy.

I read long into the night.

I dreamed Rince was walking with me. We were in the Tower and moonlight combined with torchlight to make dappled pools iof shadow and light that played over us, never revealing us fully, but showing me a glimpse of shoulder here or a flash of cheek there.

"I can come back, you know."

"What?" His words came to me as if from a great distance, distorted by time and space.

"There is a spell that will let me come back. You could cast it and we could be together." He reached out and ran his fingers along my jaw.

"How can you come back from the dead?"

"I'm not really dead. I was...not careful when dealing with the Darklings. They managed to sunder soul and body, but death has not yet come. You can bring me back. Together, we would fare much better against their efforts. Otherwise, I fear you'll share my fate."

Something in his words and touch chilled me and my dream-world began to recede, pulling me away from Rince.

...bring me back...

I awoke, sweating, to a flash of lightning and clap of thunder. They didn't belong together, but occured almost simultaneously. I looked out the window and could see the storm brewing not too far off in the distance. The sun was making a valiant effort to conquer the last remnants of the night, but the storm would wash away all progress. It would be a good day to stay home and consider the journals.

I picked up the top journal, intending to continue my reading of the night before. Curling up in my bed, I searched for the ribbon I had used to mark my place. I found it, but the page it now marked was different from the night before. Here before me lay a spell I had seen before and had used once. It would banish a spirit that had been torn from its physical shell and left to drift, sending it on to the peace of death. Freedom, I thought I heard whispered from close-by.

Idly, as if stirred by an errant breeze, the page turned. Old Marga had copied the spell twice, I thought. But no - there was a minor difference at the end. This version of the spell would reunite spirit and body to live again. The remembered dream-touch of fingers along my jaw made my blood race. Here, now, in my hands did I hold the future of this spirit that I had waked.

I studied the two inscriptions and Old Marga's notes alongside them. Both had to be cast on Lammas Night, only two days away. The risks were no greater for one than for the other. I sat, numb with shock, wondering what I should do.

Rince had told me in the dream I could bring him back. But was it really Rince? I never saw him fully in the dream. I replayed the dream and picked it apart, criticizing what I felt sure was the spirit that stirred here. Did Rince hold himself quite like that? Had his voice really sounded that rough? Was it really the man I had loved now speaking to me?

I closed the book and stood, watching the rain course out of the sky. I was no god to decide the life and death of a man. Dealing with spirits was a notoriously dangerous business, as well. You couldn't be sure exactly what you were dealing with. Horror stories abounded in the Tower of Mages who had thought to summon the spirit of a loved one, only to have been fooled into releasing something else entirely.

What could possibly tie him here? Why did he want so badly to stay instead of embracing the freedom of death? A tangled collage of my more intimate dreams poured through my head, Rince and I together as lovers...

What should I do?

Lammas Night. The past two days had plagued the area with intermittant storms. Even now the waning moon slid in and out of the cloud-cover like some cheap Tovarian veil-dancer enticing the clientele. The winds were tossing the trees around as well, lending an atmosphere of impending catastrophe to my yard. My own cloak tangled around my feet as if to trip me.

Carefully, I made my way across the yard to the spot I had picked for this. I set my bundles down and began the exacting process of casting my protective and summoning circles. Finally, with the moon lost overhead behind a cloud, I began the ritual. The winds rose steadily the further I read, until they were almost shreiking through the trees. Gradually a form took shape, seeming to almost solidify out of the shadows around me. I strained to see, hoping for a glimpse of his face, but to no avail.

Caught in a trap with only two exits which may both lead to disaster, we may overcompensate for our lack of control through brashness or recklessness. I know I certainly did at that point. Before me stood the spirit that had slumbered in the house until I arrived. Was it Rince? I had to know.

"Who are you, spirit?"

"You know me," he replied.

The voice was so close to the one that echoed through my memories and dreams. His hands reached out toward me.

"Call me to you that we can be together."

"Tell me your name first." I was shouting against the wind, straining to hear his replies.

"I can't. Call me across to you and you will know me completely. Give me the body you keep in your dreams. Let me walk with you."

Walk with me, yes, and other things things as well. My body ached to be held in Rince's arms again. Still, though, the cautions against blithely calling up spirits held on.

"What happened to you to leave you like this?"

The figure dropped his arms. "I wasn't careful. I had found something in a Khirtuni journal that I thought would let me control the Darklings. Not just divert them, but to actually control them."

"It didn't work. You ended up making things worse."

"I know, but I'm also pretty sure I know what went wrong. If we teamed up against them, we could pull it off."

It wouldn't work, at least not in a village setting. They fed off the darker emotions and grew. A Mage capable of controlling such a creature may not feel a deep-rooted shudder of fear when he looks into a shadow that has glowing eyes and fangs or seventeen arms or any other monstrosity that the Darkling may adapt itself to, but a commoner will be terrified. The terror makes the Darkling a little stronger and requires the Mage to exert himself a little more to control it. In time, the Mage will lose and the Darkling will break free to sow its havoc. I told the spirit as much.

"But it doesn't have to be like that. Bring me to you and we can work together and combine our strengths. You haven't seen the books I've read. It can be done again just like the Mages once did it." He lifted his hands to me again, begging. "We can make them serve the village command their loyalties and we will be together!"

It was all I could do to stay on my feet against the wind. A white-hot lump burned in my stomach as I listened to the speech. He knew my weaknesses as if they had been written out. I wanted Rince back to hold me and take care of me and help me.

"You aren't Rince! I don't know who you are or were, but Rince would never endanger innocent people like you are talking about. He understood nurturing and helping. You obviously don't."

"But it would help! We could make the Darklings undo the damage they've done -"

"Why? Just so they'd be able to tear things up again when they got too strong for you to hold back? You aren't Rince. Begone!"

"No, please...I love you..."

I uttered the final syllable of the spell and the spirit faded, pleading the whole way. My body finally gave up and collapsed. I lay sprawled on the ground crying as the storm finally broke and the heavens cried with me.

==end==