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
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
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.
"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
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,
"You forget your manners, youngling. And not for the first
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
"A clearing, woods, and a self indulgent fop. Nothing
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
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
"If you have something to say, corpse dancer, say it
"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
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,
* * *
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.
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