The Chancellor

Shadows paced over the shelves of the study, dim candlelight playing off the titles of long forgotten tomes and half considered histories. The scratching of quill against parchment drifted through the otherwise silent study, a hacking cough or mumbled phrase the only interruption against the steady 'scritch scritch scritch.'

Lovis set the feathered quill down upon the open pages of the tome, tugging at the wisps of hair that grew from his chin. Frowning, he plucked one of them and held it up before the flickering candle. As grey as the others, what few of them remained. Snorting, he tossed it aside. There was no small measure of truth in the statement that those who ran the Institute paid for the privilege in ways no others possibly could. His father had warned him of the price, and for as long as he could recall, Lovis had felt no price could not be paid to sit within the study of the Institute's Chancellory.

"Perhaps, this one time, I was wrong..."

Snapping his fingers, the candle burst into a brilliant flame that illuminated the entire room, sending the shadows scurrying for shelter that was not there. Slowly, his hands gripping the edge of the great oak desk for support, Lovis rose to his feet. As ever, doubts were swept away.

The lore of ages lay bare, open before him as it was before no other. Never before had such knowledge been gathered in one locale, or been available to a single man or woman. And here it was, for the taking. It was beyond anything those outside the walls of the Institute could comprehend, for it lay outside the bounds of their understanding, and all of it for such a small price.

Indeed, it had been worth it.

And now, an upstart threatened it all. It wasn't that he understood what was contained within the walls of the Institute. There were many who could lay claim to such a thing. It was that he understood the implications of that knowledge. He understood how it could be used, how it could be manipulated. That was something that simply could not be allowed to spread. Lovis tugged once again at the wispy hairs upon his chin, repeating the words as if they were a prayer.

"For such things, a single life is small indeed."

* * *

"Up you go lad..."

Lovis groaned as he helped his son into the carriage, Dragan's tired weight more than his bones could easily handle. The boy clasped the sides of the carriage door with weary indulgence.

"Da..."

"Hush boy, this will take not long at all..."

The boy pulled himself into the carriage and huddled into a corner, too tired to argue. Lovis pulled himself inside, seating himself beside his son. The young boy paid little attention to the cushioned seats and well appointed interior. He curled against the cushioned carriage door and did what he could to fall asleep. Lovis paid him no attention, pulling his coat tight against the chill.

This meeting had best prove worth the effort.

The coachman looked back into the carriage, face obscured behind the scarf he wore against the bitter winds that were so common upon the moors. Lovis nodded, and the coachman raised his whip.

"Soon, my son, soon..."

The crack of the coachman's whip signaled the horses. The frame shuddered, the wheels clattered against the cobbles and the entire carriage lurched forward. The Institute was isolated, far from the streets and spires of Blacksand, and it was not very long before the carriage was scrambling to find its footing in the rough dirt tracks beyond the wrought iron gates.

Fields of heather and gorse danced hypnotically, flayed by the winds into a frenzy that Lovis found strangely soothing. He watched as the fields slowly gave way to the brambles, bushes and sickly trees that marked the boundaries of the Mourning Lands. It was not long before the bare dirt track was buried beneath a layer of rotting dead leaves, damp spray of earth and loam rising in the wake of the carriages passage. The trees grew larger, more forbidding, their dead branches reaching for the carriage, an unearthly clatter rising in volume as the branches flailed against each other.

"How utterly predictable."

Lovis snorted. Canticle never seemed to outgrow his childish love of the theatrical. That he would ask to meet the Chancellor in such a place seemed a typical gesture.

The carriage slowed as it reached a fork in the road and the coachman brought the team of horses to a full stop. Whispered words to the beasts did little to calm their nerves and the coachman jumped down from his perch to place a gloved hand on their backs, doing what he could to assure them that all would be well.

Lovis looked over to Dragan, now fast asleep, and contemplated bringing the boy with him. Certainly, he was of an age where he would need to learn of the power that he was destined to wield. Watching Canticle writhe on the floor of a barren forest, spilling out his life into the earth, coughing up the last of his life, surely such a sight would harden the youth as little else could.

There would be time for such displays later. The Necromancer was an obstacle and little more, not worth a display. Such ostentatious shows of power had proven the downfall of more than one practitioner of the arts, and Lovis had no intention of joining their ranks. This meeting was to serve a singular purpose, and that was to insure that Canticle would never again walk the halls of the Institute. Whether he agreed to do so willingly, or whether his charred corpse would serve the same purpose, it mattered little so long as the desired result was achieved.

Lovis stepped out of the carriage, holding on to the door as he struggled to find his footing in the spongy earth. He looked into the skeletal woods, and then looked over at the coachman.

"Not more than two hours. If I have not returned at that time, return to the Institute with Dragan, and secure my things."

The coachman nodded, lifting the brim of his hat slightly in agreement with the instructions.

Lovis smirked and turned to make his way into the woods. He could only hope the simpleton would be able to carry out the instructions properly. He was good with horses, truly, but that was the extent of his ability. Sentences of any length seemed to trouble the coachman greatly, and while he was a reliable servant, he was, in the end, just a servant.

After ten minutes of crashing through the brambles and undergrowth the ground began a gentle climb, the barren corpses of oak and willow giving way to younger trees, the birch seeming to still carry with them some semblance of life. Lovis struggled to the top of the rise, cursing with his every step the life of the Necromancer. With his authority, the Chancellor could have asked that this meeting be conducted somewhere more comfortable, preferably with a roaring fire and a bearskin rug to soak up any resulting blood. Such a meeting would surely put Canticle on his guard and a far better thing it was to meet at the Necromancer's request, and where he desired, to provide him with that small sense of security.

It was all about control.

The rise looked out over an overgrown clearing on one side, and Lovis half expected to find some ridiculously overdone altar complete with ox skulls dangling from poles. He snorted at his own little joke, somewhat disappointed that in the end, it was just a clearing. Perhaps Canticle felt that these woods were enough of a backdrop.

"So glad you could make it Chancellor, I was half expecting you would find something more engaging to do with your evening."

Lovis turned. Canticle stood beside him, the trace of a smile on his lips. A minor piece of magic, that which allowed a man to move silently, but it served its purpose well. The Chancellor took a step back, frowning.

The Chancellor

"You forget your manners, youngling. And not for the first time."

Canticle shrugged, his eyes focused on the clearing.

"Save your words and your intentions. I shall not be returning to the Institute, and I am certain that provides you with no small sense of relief."

"I crave pardon, but."

"You have all the skills at artifice that you have in social graces, Chancellor. I have known of your decision for some time."

Lovis' eyes narrowed as he regarded the Necromancer. He had spoken to no one of his decision, and as far as he knew, the arts of probing the mind were not within Canticle's arsenal.

"You seem very certain of things."

Canticle raised a hand, and gestured at the clearing.

"Observation, and nothing more. What do you see?"

Lovis smirked, thinking that this would be yet another one of the Necromancer's dramatic little games. It would turn to bite him soon enough.

"A clearing, woods, and a self indulgent fop. Nothing more."

Canticle did smile at this point and for a brief moment, if only a moment, Lovis was certain that he had overlooked some small, critically important detail.

"It is history made manifest, Chancellor. You see a clearing; I see the last stand of the King Anthius. You do remember King Anthius?"

Lovis shrugged, "The last of his line, the final king before the lands fell into chaos, the Institute was founded in the anarchy which emerged from his passing. The story is well known to all."

"Is it I wonder? You see a forest; I see where the last of his Sacred Legion fell protecting him to the last. To think they came so very close to saving his life. Your father was of the Sacred Legion, was he not?"

"If you have something to say, corpse dancer, say it now."

Canticle shrugged.

"You know well enough what I have to say. King Anthius, thinking he was safe at last. And your father knowing then that the Institute would never come to be if Anthius lived. I expect the decision was hardly a difficult one for him in the least, the speed with which he butchered the king was rather astounding. And what witnesses, other than the trees? The remainder of the Legion, dead and scattered, the men of Barze concerned more with looting than with hunting down panicked, beaten men. A singular opportunity, really."

"You seem well versed on something you know nothing about."

Canticle gestured once again to the clearing.

"It's just a clearing, Lovis."

He turned to face the Chancellor and smiled. The Necromancer began to walk down the rise back towards the carriage. Lovis turned to follow, but found his feet mired in the earth, wrapped tightly within ancient roots and damp earth.

"I think Anthius wishes to have a talk with you, Chancellor."

* * *

Dragan woke with a start, the carriage jostling and tossing. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, mouth wide open in a yawn. He looked out the window and saw not the fields of heather and gorse, or even the sickly trees of the Mourning Lands boundary. The carriage seemed to be rolling deeper into the marsh itself, brine and mud adhering to the carriage as brackish water sloshed through the open window.

"Coachman!"

The carriage slowed, and after what seemed a dreadfully long time, came to a stop. The coachman approached the door, his boots sucking at the muddy earth with every step.

"Coachman. My father, the Chancellor?"

Canticle pulled the scarf down to his neck, raising the brim of the coachman's hat. He smiled weakly and brought a gloved hand under the boys chin.

"Sins of the father, good Dragan. Sins of the father."

Moments later, the carriage continued its journey into the depths of the Marsh. In the distance, the screams of the Chancellor died on the wind.