The Inner City spread out around Rima in neatly ordered sections, just like the garden below them. She had always found the Inner City confusing, but from up here in the palace tower it was less like a maze and more like a patterned mosaic bordered by the old wall. Beyond the wall she could see a few rooftops and chimneys, but for the most part the bulk of the city was out of view.
“At least they did not go with straight lines,” Aytaq noted, scowling down at the garden below them. “But if they had to do something… structured, I do wish they had refrained from turning the palace roof into a summoning circle.”
“Is it dangerous?” Rima squinted at him, the bright sunlight reflecting off the lake’s calm waters beyond.
“That depends on who is using it,” Aytaq shrugged. “And the cost of their magic.”
“Magic has a price?” Rima looked down at the lush garden below, tracing the paths with her gaze.
“Everything does,” Aytaq paused, hoisting up his hourglass onto the railing. “To make a chain you must not only master the skill of metalwork and acquire the tools, but must for each one you craft purchase material for the links. Magic is the same – each spell cast has a price.”
“An invoker pays through fealty to-” He stopped, looked at her furrowed brow, then started over. “Magic such as mine or that of ‘priests’ requires the goodwill of a Power – the Reapers, or a ‘deity’ – while arcanists like Lord Sethian or Lady Katrina pay with their minds the way hard labor takes a toll on the body. There is a reason why old wizards in stories are usually mad or… eccentric.”
“Is that what happened to Lord Shylith?”
“From what I have read in the Vizier’s library, he strikes me as a summoner. Same principles as my own magic, but rather than being a servant to something greater he sought to be the master. Powerful beings require high wages – just like skilled labor.”
“What about the Church of Light? They have no god to serve, right?”
“They are invokers like myself and the clergy of other faiths. Their ‘Power’ is the community of faithful – this is why Aemunites can hide in their ranks. As long as the faithful believe them to be kindred believers, they may draw on the Church’s font of magic rather than burden a weak pretender.”
“Of course, there are some magics where another may pay the price. Blood magic being the most widely known, but Lord Sethian would know far more than me on that topic.”
“But what’s a pretender?”
“A theological construct endeavouring to categorize entities which are neither transcendently divine nor entirely mortal,” Aytaq held up his chain and gazed at its links.
Aytaq whispered to himself as he gestured around the chain, then touched the end against Rima’s forehead. Rima opened her mouth to protest, but stopped as the world blurred. It was as though a thick mist rolled in around them, enveloping the city and cloaking it in its cloudy embrace until only half the Inner City remained visible.
And its streets were filled with dancing tufts of fog.
“Look up,” Aytaq motioned at the now-hidden sky. There, just below the gray cloud wall, a swarm of wispy shapes twirled and writhed as they moved in a great arc from the thick bank toward the lake. Their forms were shifting, yet the longer she gazed at them the more distinct they seemed to become.
All manner of creatures; cows, pigs, people, even what looked like horses with great antlers.
“A herdsman bringing their herd to the Black Gate,” Aytaq motioned at the ruined castle.
Rima followed the throng with her eyes until she found herself looking upon the ruins of Raven’s Nest where the line of spirits effortlessly slid into the ground. A lone figure wreathed in dark mist stood motionless above them.
Silently and slowly the figure turned toward her and despite the distance she felt it lock her gaze with its own. Details emerged in the shadows of its form. The outline of a skull. Hollow eyes mere finger-widths from her face. Endlessly deep sockets swallowing her like the dark waters of the lake that night.
Aytaq’s shoulder as he leaned forward.
“Do not fear,” he attempted a comforting smile. It felt cold and unnatural. “There is no harm for you there, no malice. They collect the souls of the dead and usher them along the path to the Black Gates, they do not kill the living. They are guides and companions on a lonely road all who live must walk.”
Rima realized she was breathing heavily, heart thumping in her chest. They stood there in silence for a few moments, Aytaq taking care to stand between her and the dark figure.
“Why was it staring at me like that?”
“Curiosity, I should imagine. Wondering why you could see what you saw. It is a sight few living ever see.”
Rima nodded slowly and turned back to look at the city. The spirits moving about the streets were strangely fascinating. Mingling with the living, yet completely disconnected from each other.
“What’s that?” She pointed at a silver-blue ribbon snaking its way through the city and into the mists beyond her sight, a glowing line fading away only as it disappeared behind the hills surrounding the valley.
“I… do not know.” Aytaq tilted his head and stared at it, the emotionless smile still on his face. “It is reminiscent of… let us call it a soul tether. A bond which ties a spirit to the living world, such as between Her Majesty the Queen and this land. Except I have never seen anything like this one. It is too vibrant to belong to one who is dead; but too thin to be someone living – a necromancer projecting his soul, say.”
He turned back with a shrug. “I shall look into it when I return to the monastery. For now, let us return to our plot to take over the kingdom.”