“Aren’t you an invoker?” Lor had taken to avoiding her, preferring the company of the giantkin or even just walking on her own.
“Well, yes.” Marnius peered sideways at her.
“Then can’t you just… invoke one of the saints? Call upon the Light to imbue you with their power?” She raised her fists and flexed her arms. “By the Brilliance of Dawn, grant me the Strength of Giants! … or something?”
Marnius chuckled. “If only. But alas, it does not quite work that way. The Saints are paragons of excellence. They are beacons to guide and inspire us. Not fonts of power to carry our burdens for us. Only the Deceivers grant such power to their followers, that they may achieve through blind obedience what we of the Light do through faith and fortitude.”
“By taking on another’s burden, you grow and so lessen the weight of your own.” Lor’s entire demeanor shifted. Stern face, straight back, and a tone of voice not unlike Jae-lagh when scolding the young. The ‘old mentor’ role clashed with her youthful features.
“Ours is a faith of community, one where we draw upon each other for strength and hope,” the large man nodded. “But in giving aid to those who struggle, you must take care lest your strength replace their own. The core tenet of the faith is the struggle for Excellence, and to cheapen the struggle of another is to stunt their growth. It is the sacred duty of all faithful to aid others in their Pursuit by lending their strength to those whose burdens exceed their-”
Their voices drifted away.
Imaerla offered a whisper of thanks to the shifting wind and looked around her. The landscape had grown markedly less hilly the further they had traveled from the Wood, but it was the lack of trees that she felt the most.
As a child traveling with Jae-lagh they had always camped in wooded areas. Here, in this land of grazing animals and controlled fields, there was no room for such things. Wide open terrain with nary a tree in sight.
There was nowhere to hide from a chasing predator; no shelter should the overcast sky open with rain or thunder; no place of quiet solitude to commune with the land. She felt vulnerable. She envied Ethnila. With her cloak wrapped tight and hat pulled down above the eyes, the strange woman had created her own little world from which she peered out at theirs.
“Are you not warm?”
Ethnila looked up at her then shrugged.
“Your cloak is thick and the weather is yet warm.”
“Magic casts a chill wind of late.”
Their journey continued in silence, broken only by the plodding of Sun’s large feet and the occasional snippet of discussion drifting back from the pair in front. In the distance the sky peeked through a hole in the clouds, yet around them the damp air was thick with the smell of wet earth.
“Too cold for snow.” Ethnila looked up at the sky, her stride slowing. Imaerla sensed it as well. Faint, like distant chimes carried by the wind. An echo of magic.
“Marnius!” The mage hunter called out even as she veered off the road. The hulking scholar turned, followed her heading with his gaze, then the warm smile melted into a worried frown.
The sooty walls contrasted starkly with the pale of frost-ridden grass, crunching beneath their feet. The stone hut had partially collapsed when the timbers burned away, yet much of the walls and some of the roof yet remained perilously standing.
“The fire we saw the other night…?”
“Has to be.”
“Could we have-“
“Who would do such a thing?” Lor was staring at a window where a half-burnt log stood leaned against the frame, evidently to block escape.
“Heretics,” came Ethnila’s matter-of-fact reply.
As they rounded it they saw them. A dozen statues carved in clear ice, their features perfectly cut down to the seams of their clothes. Some wore expressions of fear, others of anger. All were armed with what Imaerla recognized as farmers’ tools, held ready toward what had been the door.
“How do we turn them back?” Lor gingerly touched the closest sculpture, tracing the man’s cheek with her fingertips.
The response came in the sound of ice shattering as Marnius’ heavy weapon smashed into first one then another.
“There is nothing left to save.” Imaerla rubbed her hand to chase away the cold left behind by the statue’s icy skin. “But why…” She could not find the words and gestured instead at both cottage and figures.
“Aemunites.” Ethnila planted a boot against one of them and with a grunt toppled it onto the frozen ground.
“Short version,” Lor must have caught the look on Imaerla’s face. “Aemune is, or was, a saint – a powerful member of the clergy… ‘druids’ of the Church of Light. Some people now proclaim him god of the sun and pray for his guidance. They hate magic and-”
“Hypocrites,” Marnius sneered at the shattered statue at his feet as he straightened his back. “They claim theirs is ‘gifted by the Sunflame’, but the only magic offered by the False Beacon comes from its adherents in the first place.”
“Shorter version,” Ethnila cut in. “Zealots of the Sun Wisp seek to cleanse magic-users by burning them alive. Didn’t work out too well for this lot.”
“Anyone powerful enough to unleash magic like this,” Imaerla looked up at the sky. “It has been days, and the air is still too cold for clouds.”
Lor and Ethnila picked their way past the debris to peer through the remnants of the doorway, then disappeared inside.
Imaerla slowly followed.
Ethnila was crouching next to the pale body of a young woman, poking at it with a metal rod seemingly salvaged from the nearby fireplace. “Dead.”
“Yet she survived the fire,” Imaerla noted. “She must have been desperate and called upon winter spirits beyond her.”
“Mages always bring trouble.”
Uncomfortable under the woman’s glare, Imaerla stepped into the next room where she found Lor examining the contents of a workbench. Mortar and pestle, bottles and jars cracked from the heat, charred books, and all of it covered in soot.
“What a cute amulet,” Lor held up a thin metal chain from which dangled an animal shape of bark. Beneath the fire damage it was painted in rich hues and adorned with dried flower petals, while in its eye was set a polished stone. “I wonder how it survived…”
“It is home to a spirit,” Imaerla carefully lifted it into the light to inspect it. “Items such as these are used to draw forth and house spirits, or sometimes to trap them. I know not what manner of creature this is meant to resemble, but it should represent qualities in the spirit sought. Either way, it would be best to leave it with its creator.”
“No good comes of leaving magic items lying around.” Ethnila’s gloved hand snatched the chain and threw the amulet to the stone floor. She stomped it hard, grinding the heel of her boot against it to make sure it had been thoroughly crushed before joining Marnius outside.
“I’m sorry, little spirit,” Lor looked at the greyish smudge where wood had mixed with soot. “I hope you can find a new home soon.”
Small feelers emerged from the smudge before it leapt on top of Lor’s boot.
“I think it likes you,” Imaerla smiled down at Lor. “It is not a simple spirit, to take physical form like this… It is closer kin to spirits such as Taral’s little friend…” She fell silent, her mind drifting again to the kin she had left behind…
“I’m sure they’re doing okay.” Lor offered a sympathetic smile.
Imaerla nodded quietly. With Jae-lagh gone, she was not so sure.