A thin stream of light lit the space under the door, but the room was dark save for the tiny points of dim light in Allen’s eyes.
“Was...was that the wind?” Allen asked slowly. He couldn’t see Lea at all in the darkness, but he heard their feet shuffling on the ground.
“I don’t think so,” they said.
What else could it have been? Allen lit his aura around his hands, casting the room in an eerie blue glow.
The bottle he had been considering exploded in a mess of fizz and glass.
Allen yelped and jumped away.
Lea made a small gasping noise and yelled, “Allen, upstairs! Now!”
Obligation or not, Allen would have obeyed without a second thought. He grabbed Lea’s hand and pulled the priest toward the stairs. Thanking the saints for the slight breeze coming from under the door, he blasted the door open with magic and hauled Lea into the house’s backroom where they skidded to a stop in the dusty light.
“What was that?!” Allen hissed.
“There’s another,” Lea breathed, wide-eyed. They patted themself down anxiously. “The flame! The bell!” They had the bag of bone fragments firmly in their grasp, but the cup of wax and bell had been left behind.
“We’ll get it later, we need to calm down and make a plan. There’s another?”
“Yes. There must be.”
“Then we just gotta find the body and exorcise it. Same as the last one.”
Lea nodded hesitantly. “I-I didn’t see any other bodies in the cellar,” they said, their voice shaking. “We should stay together this time.”
“Are you alright?” Allen asked.
The Nobleman sucked in a breath and straightened up, their nervousness called out. “Yes. It just—startled me. That’s all. Let’s take Emilia outside first. It won’t help if she returns to this place.”
Together they walked back to the entrance, Lea in front, Allen in back and constantly glancing around. The entire house felt cooler now. They passed by the dining room, the kitchen, the sitting room. Superficially all the same but it felt…
It was like when Allen returned home, over a year ago, to find it empty. Wondering where everyone had gone.
Walking one by one through empty rooms. Calling names.
His search getting more frantic.
His voice getting louder and more hoarse as he called out the only name that mattered—
Allen snapped out of his thoughts, hearing his own name spoken aloud.
“What?” he asked.
Lea looked over their shoulder. “Hmm?”
“Did you—” Allen stopped talking. He knew better. He put a hand on Lea’s shoulder, mostly for his own assurance. “Keep...moving...” he whispered. “But quiet.”
The house creaked as they walked. In any other situation, Allen would blame the Gale’s winds or old wood under their weight, but in his third mission with Lea he was starting to know what to expect. The wood groaned and something—a flash of blue—caught his eye again.
A voice, not unlike the fire daemon’s, whispered in his mind. His name sounded strange, distant.
Lea tensed under his hand. “That’s not—” they muttered.
“Shh.” Allen almost wanted Lea to command him to be quiet; he struggled to stifle his own breathing and heartbeat as the voice grew louder—closer. He strained to hear it again, to identify it.
It was a young girl’s voice.
Allen gasped and released Lea’s shoulder. His palms were soaked in sweat.
“Allen…” Lea said warningly. “Allen, listen. ”
The command set in, but the Magician shook it off. “I am listening. You hear it, too. It knows my name.” The words came quickly, in a panic. How did she know his name? He strained to hear it closer. It couldn’t be—
“ Listen,” Lea hissed. “ Actually listen. It’s not—”
The Obligation battled against his conception. He was hearing what he wanted—no, dreaded —to hear.
But it wasn’t right. He wasn’t hearing it correctly.
Don’t leave me alone.
“Take Grandma outside,” he said, even-toned.
“What are—” Lea held the bag of bones tight against their chest.
“I’m going to start looking,” Allen said.
Lea’s face scrunched up in concern. “That’s—are you sure?”
Allen stepped back and made an attempt at a smile. “Yeah,” he said half-confidently. “I can handle this. Go ahead.”
Their face still set in worry, the Nobleman stepped outside, leaving Allen to collect himself in the sitting room. He braced himself against the back of a thick-cushioned chair to let his shaking legs stabilize before he started the search.
“I won’t leave you alone,” he said aloud. “I promise. But I need to find you first.”
The house was silent, as if unsure how to react. He took that as a good sign.
Allen started looking, starting with the upstairs once again. He returned to the master bedroom, checking the corners of the room he hadn’t been able to check before, stepping carefully over the fallen bookshelf. The house remained quiet, but he constantly felt the presence watching him. Occasionally he thought he saw her out of the corner of his eye, but it was just his mind pretending to see what he felt was there.
As he looked, he idly spoke to the house, asking questions of its daemon. He didn’t expect to get an answer, but it helped soothe his own nerves. What’s your name? My name’s Allen. I’m from Duskbridge. The Shrine of Saint Aeryn hired me to help this priest—their name is Lea and they’re a little spooky but they’re good people. Have you ever met a priest before?
Allen wondered how old the daemon was when she died. The voice sounded young. Maybe she was Emilia’s granddaughter. Allen wanted to avoid asking about that; the daemon didn’t seem to like Emilia leaving the house, so bringing her up seemed a bad idea.
Don’t leave me alone, the ghost had said. The Magician placed a hand on his chest, above his heart. Those words hurt. They called to mind painful things Allen had to set aside for now, until this job was complete.
“Say,” he said, “do you wanna hear a story?”
The heavy presence lifted for a moment. Curious.
“I used to read this story to a little girl, maybe about your age. I don’t have the book with me, but I think I’ve got it memorized well enough.” He was certain he did. He must have read the story a hundred times. When the daemon didn’t seem to object, he started. “A long time ago, there was a soldier and his wife, and they wanted to have a child. But the soldier had to leave to fight for their king.
“When the soldier came home, he passed through a flower field and he heard a cry. He knelt down and found a little girl among the flowers. There wasn’t anyone around, so the soldier took her home and he and his wife raised the little flower girl as their daughter.”
Allen recited the story as he walked through the rest of the rooms, peeking his head into closets and armoires. The story went that the girl grew into a beautiful woman, and people from all over the country sought her hand in marriage. She sent all her suitors on an impossible trial to prove their worth. Eventually, one man, sent to complete the task by the prince, succeeded by asking the greater daemons for assistance. The story didn’t specify, but Allen knew the man had to be a Magician—maybe the first Magician, considering how the story ended. But to anyone else—assuming the reader didn’t know about Magicians—the story would be about piety and devotion to nature.
“The woman smiled and said, ‘I will not marry the prince if he did not get the glass himself, but I would like to be your friend.’”
But why— The voice cut off and receded.
Allen’s face lit up in a broad grin. He knew it. If the ghost was young, he knew he could expect an interjection at this point, and his heart skipped a beat hearing the voice’s interruption.
“Well, the servant didn’t want to marry her, even though he got the glass. Maybe she didn’t want to marry anyone at all and just wanted a friend.”
The house seemed to accept that by returning to a peaceful silence, listening.
By this time, Allen had checked every room on the second floor, including the mildewy bedroom under the collapsed ceiling. He looked under every bed, inside closets and drawers and cupboards, even behind the moth-eaten curtains.
In a strange, twisted sort of way, it was almost...fun. It was hide-and-seek, only he was looking for a dead body.
His shoulders fell, remembering.
“Allen?” Lea’s voice came from downstairs.
The temperature in the house dropped again.
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Allen said, holding his hands out, palms down. “They’re my friend, the priest I was telling you about.”
The house stayed cool as Allen jogged down the stairs. Lea was waiting at the landing, the now-empty bag tied and slung over their shoulder. “Did you find her?” they asked.
Allen shook his head. “Not yet. I don’t think she’s keen on being found, either.”
“We can’t leave her here,” Lea said. “If you have already searched upstairs, we can split this floor.”
A small ceramic figurine resting on the fireplace mantle crashed to the brick floor below. The Magician stared at the shards on the ground and said, “I think...I should take this one. Can you wait here?”
Lea raised an eyebrow, and shrugged. “If you’re sure.” They took a seat on a sitting room chair and watched worriedly as Allen disappeared into the kitchen to continue the search.
While he constantly felt the daemon’s presence upstairs, listening to his story, now the daemon was withdrawn, quiet. It wasn’t because the daemon’s real body was farther away—Allen hoped and assumed—but the girl’s spirit suddenly felt more...timid. Unsure.
The ground floor of the house was a series of rooms circling the center hallway, a kitchen and larder, a dining room, a sunroom on the east side facing the gardens, a small office, and then the sitting room. Allen repeated his search methods from the upstairs, looking into every hiding spot he could find, but ultimately found nothing but more dust and spiderwebs.
“I wish you would tell me where you are,” Allen whispered, running his fingertips along the walls as he walked back to the sitting room. He came back around to Lea picking up the pieces of the shattered figurine in front of the fireplace.
The daemon—the girl’s spirit—was everywhere in this house. She haunted it, running through its wood, pushing her will into the physical world from within to make herself known. Her presence flowed from a single point, her final resting place, and if they could just find it they could pull her out. But they were stuck looking for her from the mortal world, above the daemon plane, where she seemed to have hidden her body well.
What were you hiding from?
“Did you have any luck?” Lea asked.
“No,” Allen replied. “I think she was intentionally hiding. And she’s not saying much. It’d help if she would tell us where she is.”
“She can’t tell us,” the priest said. “This was a passive enchantment, made without intent and spread too thin. We’re fortunate we can hear even her strongest feelings and only because we’re Obligated.”
Allen stared at his hands. An idea—a dangerous idea—was forming in his head.
"What if—what if she could tell us?” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” Lea asked, tilting their head.
“It’s an enchantment. I can enchant things, too. I mean, not—” For once Allen wished he had paid attention to his old mentors trying to teach him magical theory so he could explain his idea better. “I think I can talk to her if I just go where she is. But I’m going to need to enchant more than your command allows.”
The priest frowned. “I think I understand what you mean. I’ve heard of other Magicians working with the Shrine enchanting themselves into structures, but...it is dangerous.”
Allen shrugged. “At this point, it’s either that or we go back to my original idea of burning the whole place down, I think.”
“Don’t,” Lea said briskly, but their eyes were amused. “Ah, one moment.” They stood and hurried down the hall back to the cellar. The walls groaned as they moved, as if the daemon was shifting to follow, but nothing shattered or broke along their route; she seemed more curious now than defensive.
Lea returned shortly with the bowl of wax and the bell. “Have you ever done anything like this?” they asked.
“Nope,” Allen said. “No one ever had a reason to command it of me before, and I wasn’t going to suggest a stupid idea like this. Until, well, now.”
“It’s not a stupid idea,” Lea chided. They pushed a smaller chair and the central table back, creating a large space in the center of the sitting room. Allen watched, bemused, as the priest gathered their tools and set them on the ground before taking a seat on the floor. Lea made a motion with his head, bidding Allen to sit on the ground across from them.
“You seem like you’ve done this before,” Allen said as he took his seat.
Lea shook their head. “I knew it may become necessary someday. To be honest, I’m grateful you volunteered the idea first.”
“Mmm.” Allen pursed his lips. He was getting more convinced this was a bad idea.
The priest lit their candle again and set it between themself and Allen. “This will be your compass. I will keep this candle lit until you return. And this…” They set the bell next to the bowl. “You should be able to hear this if, for any reason, I need you to return immediately.” They lit a stick of incense from the candle and set it in a jar by their side.
“I like the smell.” At Allen’s expression they said, “it may help you relax, too.”
Allen determined relaxing was going to be impossible now. His sensibilities were screaming. Despite that, he flexed his hands to keep himself from balling them into fists and rolled his shoulders. “Well, I’m ready,” he lied.
Lea bowed their head solemnly. “Allen, enchant yourself into this house to allow its daemon to guide you to her true body.”
The Magician already knew how to accomplish the task given to him. He felt the Obligation set in his mind, and following the command became the only course of action he could fathom doing.
He breathed out. Although he was certain he couldn’t relax before, now the Obligation forced him to. Strength left his body. He felt himself slump in place. His vision shifted into a blue fog as his eyes closed and his mind fell away, somewhere else.
If the small enchantment he did on the bookshelf was sticking his head underwater, this was a full body plunge. He felt himself—his aura—spread into the floor around him, and the furniture, and the walls. A tiny piece of him stayed behind in his body, a tether to reality, while his consciousness slipped into this space inside and beside the physical world. Taking control of and becoming the house itself.
Magicians called it enchantment, but the layman’s term captured the feel of it better.
The candle flickered as a brilliant orange-white light in the void. On opposite sides of the candle, a faint grey wisp—Lea—and two small blue lights—the bell and the remainder of Allen’s aura, left within his body. The rest of him was here .
I’m here, Allen said into the void. I came for you.
The walls of the house surrounded him, not as solid walls, but mere hints of the structure. They brightened briefly as the ghost within them drew closer and coalesced in front of him as a periwinkle mist.
You didn’t finish the story , she said accusingly.
You’re a— Allen stopped himself. The difference between Lea’s presence in this world and the girl’s was unmistakable. The girl—this phantom—was a Magician. This was her aura, light purple. What is your name? he asked.
The fog twisted, deciding. Alisha , she said.
Alisha. Can you show me where you’re hiding?
No. I’m hiding, she insisted.
What are you hiding from?
The ghost faded for a moment. From bad people.
Far away, Allen’s breath caught in his lungs. Is this...Is this your house? Is this where you lived?
No. I ran away.
Focus, Allen. Needless panic was settling in his heart. We’re here to help you. I’m a Magician, like you.
You’re with one of the bad people. That bad person took Grandma away.
Allen looked back toward Lea’s faint figure, sitting peacefully. Grandma? What do you—was Emilia your grandma?
No. Alisha’s voice grew frustrated. I found this house and hid but I fell asleep. I was lonely. But Grandma was here and she didn’t leave me alone.
Grandma Emilia’s right outside, Allen said. We can take you to her, if you want. He hoped that would be okay—they hadn’t exactly asked Emilia if this child could join her and her spouse in the gardens yet.
The ghost was quiet.
Or...we could take you back to your real home? Where are you from?
Oh, Allen croaked. Even though he came from far to the south, he knew enough of the region to know the little girl’s home was probably long gone. Could she have fled here from the battles more than ten years ago?
Are you happy here, with Grandma? he asked. If you want to go back to Roucy we can figure something out, or…
I want to be with Grandma. She’s nice, Alisha said.
Okay, kiddo. But I need to know where your hiding spot is.
For the love of— Allen rolled his metaphysical eyes. If I tell you the rest of the story, can you show me your best hiding place?
Alisha considered that for a moment. Okay. But only you.
Deal. Do you remember where we left off?
The Magician and the flower girl became friends.
Right. Allen settled in place. His connection to his body still held, but he felt it could be dangerous to stay like this for long. It took constant concentration to not let himself slip away.
The story continued that the prince, the Magician, and the woman became friends and lived together in the castle. A storm daemon came, but the Magician couldn’t make it leave. The woman revealed herself to be a daemon, too—a flower daemon. She explained that the storm would only leave if she went with it. She blessed the prince and the servant with the ability to command daemons together, before returning to the flowers from whence she came.
Eventually the prince and servant would pass on as well, and they rejoined their old friend as pyreflowers.
Allen had told this story hundreds of times before, after his grandparents and parents joined their pyreflowers, and before he joined the business of helping others do the same. It was familiar, telling the story to a young girl, and painful.
He wished he was back home, reading it to his own daughter. Not to Alisha.
With the story told, Alisha’s ghost rose and drifted away to wait at the foot of the stairs for Allen. He followed, glancing back at the bright candle flame behind. His compass in this world.
Alisha led him up the stairs, into the bedroom with the sunken roof.
She ran from war and found this abandoned, haunted house. Allen could only imagine how scared she must have been, alone in a house with nothing but a daemon and a skeleton in the basement.
Was his daughter alone like this?
The ghost moved closer to the ceiling. Up here, she whispered.
You’re up—you’re above the ceiling?
Mmhmm. I climbed up.
Allen willed himself to follow her, through the ceiling and into the crawlspace between the second story and the roof. He tried to remember what he saw in the bedroom in the physical world—was there some way into the attic he overlooked?
Alisha’s aura was stronger up here. The light purple was almost overwhelming.
Light purple. Not light blue. He remembered the relief he felt at the confirmation that the ghost here wasn’t his daughter. But she was someone else’s.
Where was his daughter?
Telling that story was a mistake. It created a crack in the dam he built over the last year, ever since he returned to an empty home. Holding back the fears and worries and terror over his missing daughter. Now the dam was breaking, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her again.
Focus, he told himself. Hold back the thoughts.
Why was it so much harder now?
He had no clue where to begin searching in that terrible first week. The most likely explanation was that another Nobleman invaded his home court, killed Lord Lorence, and took every Magician left in the court—including his daughter. But he had no idea who or where. As much as he was tempted, it would have been stupid to go south, to Vespas or Cymaria or Evenheim, to sniff around the Noble houses there for her. He would probably get captured and made a Court Magician again with no chance of ever looking for his daughter.
So he joined the Shrine of Saint Aeryn. He could retain his autonomy—to an extent—while he saved up to hired someone else, someone Exempt from the Obligation, to find her.
To find Alma.
Allen? Alisha’s voice was concerned.
He felt the muscles in his neck and shoulders fall out of his control, far away from his mind. Like a rope slipping in his grasp. He clawed after that connection binding him to his body.
What if Alma had been captured by one of those Noblemen to the south? Would they look for her father, for another Magician to add to their court?
His heart hurt too much. He couldn’t.
What if his daughter was like Alisha? Trapped? Alone?
The sound of a bell cut through his panicked thoughts. Against his will, he felt himself dragged back through the ceiling, away from Alisha.
Allen let it take him back, toward the bright light of the fire daemon downstairs. Still he felt himself slipping away, while simultaneously his mind returned to the sitting room below.
Just hold on, he told himself. He needed only the slightest control of his body to disenchant himself out of the house.
The bell continued ringing, faster. Closer.
His hands were cold, but he could feel them. He made a subtle motion, and his lungs seized as he gasped for air.
He was back.
Allen groaned and braced himself on the ground. Nothing made him feel older than being forcefully reintroduced to his body. His back was stiff and his knees felt like they were out of their sockets.
“Give—m-minute,” Allen choked out. His head spun, sending his stomach through backflips of nausea. “S-she’s—” He pointed upwards, weakly.
Allen felt a hand on his shoulder. “We can wait. Are you okay?”
Do I look okay? Allen opened his eyes to Lea’s worried expression, and then he realized Lea wasn’t just worried about his physical state. There was moisture collecting under his eyes. He rubbed at them and stilled himself with a deep breath. “I-I’m fine. There’s a crawlspace above the second floor. I think she got in through the broken ceiling.”
The Magician and priest gathered their tools—the bag, candle, and bell—and moved back upstairs, retracing Allen’s journey with Alisha. The bedroom ceiling did have a hole large enough for a person, and the armoire was positioned perfectly to allow a very small person access to the hole.
“Clever girl,” Allen said. “I don’t think we’re gonna get up there without breaking something though.”
“Mr. Blair will understand if we had to cause some damage to extract the body,” said Lea. “ Some damage.”
Still no burning the house down.
As the embers on Alisha’s pyre died down, Allen played with his aura, running it up and down the fingers on his right hand.
“We can plant her with Emilia,” Lea said quietly.
Lea nodded. Their solemn face seemed more lively in the blue firelight. “Emilia said it would be okay.”
“I’m glad,” Allen said. “Alisha would like that.”
“Mm.” Lea’s eyebrows knitted together. “She was a Magician?”
“Oh. Uh. Yeah.” Even after knowing Lea for cycles, they were still a Nobleman. Allen instinctively wanted to conceal other Magicians from them. But Lea’s voice couldn’t reach Alisha now; she was safe from “bad people” forever. Allen bit his lips at the thought.
“Al. It’s a common start to Magician names, isn’t it?” Lea said. “Allen. Alain. Alisha.”
Allen scrunched his nose, wondering where Lea was going with this. “That’s only three names.”
Lea shrugged. “Alma.”
Allen blanched. His heart fell into his stomach.
“Where did you…?”
Lea looked away uneasily. “You muttered it when you were out. I don’t know who that is.”
It was okay though, right? Lea wasn’t like Lord Lorence, or like the bad people Alisha ran from. They were a Nobleman, but that was only one part of their identity. For Lea, it was the part of their identity that brought them pain—a spare, without home or family.
Sort of like me, Allen thought. A Magician without a home. But he had a family, somewhere.
“Alma is...my daughter,” Allen said. Moisture gathered in his eyes again. “I’ve been trying to find her for the past year. That’s how I met you, and the Shrine.
“We used to live in Duskbridge, where I was a Court Magician to Lord Lorence Mercier. He sent me to Orden to deliver a summons, but when I came back...”
Lea listened to Allen’s story as the last of the flames died down. They listened quietly, letting Allen talk uninterrupted.
For their growing friendship, it was a necessity.