Chapter 1: Emilia
They had better get paid well.
Allen scratched his back against the tree he leaned against, waiting.
He always felt antsy before a job. Rightfully so, he supposed. All of his previous jobs were dangerous, but this one paid well at least—far better than anything else he had done before. If he were in a more bitter mood he might think he was lucky to be getting paid at all.
At least he wasn’t a Court Magician anymore.
Possible death by angry ghost was probably better. At least it paid.
Allen Lakeman waited across the street from a decrepit building. Part of the roof had fallen in some number of years ago. The windows were boarded up, the planks blackened from years of rot, rainfall and snowmelt, and dark ivy vines threatened to pull the siding from the walls. A thin, brackish mist clung to the ground in this remote part of the city. Thankfully remote. The light blue rings around Allen’s dark eyes stood out too much in the Shadowland mist. If an Exempt caught him in the dark they might think he was a spectral daemon himself—a feature he had admittedly used to his advantage before, but he was too agitated now to want the trouble.
Where were they? How long were they intending to keep him waiting?
His answer, mercifully, came with a parting of the mist. Allen’s partner appeared a short ways down the road, their eyes locked on the house. They walked quietly and smoothly, the light wind catching their robes, almost seeming to float.
Now there’s a ghost, Allen thought. “Oi,” he said aloud with a short nod.
“You were already here,” Allen’s partner said, without turning their head to face him. “Did you learn anything about the building?”
“Yeah, it’s a pile of junk.”
Lea turned. Not glaring at Allen’s quip, just impassively staring. As they always did.
“Our client is renovating it,” they said. “It won’t be ‘junk’ forever. It was someone’s home once, and can be again.”
“Renovating, huh? So I guess that means…”
“No fire,” said Lea. “Not this time.”
Allen grunted. It would’ve been the easiest way to deal with this. Burn the building down and let the land’s new owner build something new. Something without a daemon.
“What did you find out?” Lea asked.
The Magician pointed to the sunken spot on the roof. “Roof collapsed. The house has been abandoned for Saints know how long. We’ll need to be careful to avoid bringing the whole building down on us.” His finger moved to a cellar door on the right side of the building. “Looks like it’s got a basement as well. Did the client turn over any floorplans?”
Lea shook their head. “No. This house isn’t on any Fihrsian records.”
Lea moved toward the house, and Allen followed.
“I scoped out the back while I was waiting,” Allen said conversationally. “All the doors—back and front—are locked, but the boards on the windows look weak in spots. I think I could knock ‘em open. Or, if you wanna try the second story balcony, those’re never locked.”
“I didn’t realize you had experience breaking and entering,” Lea commented.
Allen rubbed his nose. “A bit. We didn’t have to enter the last one, and the one before that wasn’t locked. If not floorplans, what were you getting from the new owner?”
Lea shrugged. “Information. I hoped to learn something of the previous owner, but Mr. Blair wasn’t able to find anything.”
“I see.” Allen stepped onto the porch and tapped on the front window’s boards. The wood was spongy. “The neighbors know we’re doin’ this, right? I’d rather not have the city watch coming down on us.”
The nearest neighbors’ house was a full kilometer away, down a winding, tree-lined road—far out of eyesight and earshot. Lea only stared, and Allen rolled his eyes. “Just tryin’ to lighten the mood. You’ll wanna get off the porch. Give me a command, and I’ll punch open this window.”
Instead of a command, Allen heard a click.
Lea opened the door with one hand, a small brass key in the other.
“Where did you—?”
Lea smiled faintly. “Mr. Blair had a key.” They entered the building, leaving Allen on the porch to massage his temples.
Saint Aeryn help me , he thought. He wondered if that was the trick to Saint Aeryn’s followers; they practiced patience, and forced everyone around them to practice it as well.
At least the Shrine of Saint Aeryn paid well.
Allen followed his partner into the house and regretted not taking a deep breath outside first. The deep smell of must and mold assailed his nose and his eyes itched at the dust. Particles swirled in the dark air, caught in the dim light filtering through the door and window cracks.
It must have been a nice home, once. It was two stories tall, with an attic and basement, and a porch and balcony ringing a circular tower. Its gardens, once well-kept, were overgrown now and teeming with life. Life moved on and thrived outside; inside, it just...stopped.
The room to the right of the entrance was a kitchen. A teapot sat on the stove with a spiderweb draped over the handle and spout. Unidentifiable lumps that may have been edible once rested on the shelves. Allen expected a rotting smell, but the kitchen had been left alone so long it was past the stage of rotten decay and waited in a sort of dusty stasis.
To the left was a sitting room, filled—appropriately—with chairs and lounges. Crocheted shawls covered every chair. Shelves filled with books and small knick-knacks framed an ashy fireplace. A couple books rested on the table with a half-burned candle and a crochet hook.
If not for the dust, it looked like the previous occupant could walk into the room at any moment to resume their life. But whoever the previous occupant was, they were long gone now. Allen and Lea were the first to disturb the home in years.
Lea ran their eyes along the ground, and Allen recognized that searching look. “Please tell me you’re not considering taking your shoes off,” he said.
“No,” Lea replied. “I don’t think the owner minded shoes. There’s no place to put them.”
“You’re going to step on a nail one of these days.”
“I’m not sure if shoes would help in that scenario.” Lea brushed their fingers on a bureau, leaving a trail in the dust. “Do you think it would help to clean?”
“It’d help my allergies,” Allen grumbled. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”
Lea nodded and moved into the sitting room. They patted one of the chairs, sending up a cloud that sent them into a coughing fit. Still coughing, they sat down, pulled a roll of cloth from within their cloak and unrolled it on the table. The largest item wrapped in the cloth was a small ceramic bowl. Lea turned it right side up in the center of the cloth and reached for the scissors also contained within the roll.
“I thought you said no fire,” Allen said.
Lea held out the scissors. “Only a little. We need our friend informed.”
The Magician shuffled over and took the scissors. He handed them back a moment later with a short tuft of dark brown hair. Lea set the hair in the bowl and snipped off a short lock of their own. Lea’s black hair went into the bowl with Allen’s along with a wick and a ball of spermaceti wax. Lea pressed and rolled the contents together until it formed an ugly little candle.
“If we keep doing these, I’m going to run out of hair,” Allen complained. His hair was already short, and a greying spot next to his left temple shorter than the rest. Lea’s was shoulder-length, but shaggy and uneven from several cuttings taken over the years.
“You could grow your hair out.” Lea suggested, flint and steel in hand. They chipped sparks onto the candle and sheltered the tiny, new flame until it caught on to the wick and hairs. “Hello, friend. Do you know us?”
Lea Meyers. Allen Lakeman. The flame’s small voice crackled in their minds. The fire daemon consumed their hair, and it would take memories from what it burned. As long as there was hair to eat, the fire would know them and their mission.
Lea smiled. “Good.” They stood and inspected the rest of the room. “We should begin searching. Would you like to split up?”
“If it gets us out of here sooner,” Allen said. He wasn’t looking forward to going through this old house alone, but he could appreciate efficiency. “I’ll take the upstairs?”
“Yes. I’ll find the basement, and then we can split this floor.”
“Be careful down there. There could be rats. Don’t let them bite you.”
“I know. They won’t bite me.”
“Yell if you find anything?”
Lea gave Allen a look, and Allen shied away. He knew he could be overbearing, but Lea was so small and young. Worry came instinctually to Allen, even if he knew Lea was just as capable as he was.
Well, in ways. Lea couldn’t use magic—not like Allen could—but they had their talents.
The Magician moved to the stairs and climbed to the second floor, cringing at each creaky step. The second floor was in a similar state to the first—dusty and musty. Little more than a narrow hallway branching off into several bedrooms. Allen peeked into each room, deciding which he wanted to turn over first.
They were looking for a body. One would think such a thing would be easy to find. He expected to find it waiting for them in one of the beds. If not that, then perhaps a sign of some struggle hinting to the location of the corpse.
He caught himself wondering how his life got to this point, for him to be exploring abandoned houses for abandoned bodies with a Nobleman.
At least it paid. That was his mantra.
Allen stepped into the bedroom farthest from the stairs. It looked to be the master bedroom. The large bed still stood in the center against the wall. It was neatly made, the corners of its thick quilts tucked under the wool mattress. Allen ran his hand over the blanket and pulled back in disgust. He hated that filmy texture of old fabric.
He rubbed his hands on his pants, grimacing, and looked around the rest of the room. It was just the bed, a small dressing room, a dresser, and more bookshelves. Whoever lived here must’ve loved reading. He stuck his head into the dressing room, and startled himself. There was a copper mirror at the far end, and the glint of blue light from his eyes looked strange against the dark reflection. Almost purple.
“Spooky fuckin’ house,” he growled. He almost hear Lea chastising him for that. The Noble would urge—but not command—him to be more polite. But Lea was in the basement, and Allen was alone up here.
Giving up, Allen moved toward the room entrance.
Some movement caught his eye.
In pure street-honed instinct, he jumped to the right onto the bed.
The bookshelf nearest Allen fell to the ground where he had been standing.
Allen stared, wide-eyed, as the dust in the room settled once more. The heavy bookshelf now laid face-down, flat against the floor. If he hadn’t been so quick to dodge—well, he didn’t think it would have killed him, but it would have hurt.
He cursed under his breath. He had warned Lea about the poor structural integrity of the building, and here he was bringing it down around himself.
Except...this room wasn’t under the collapsed part of the roof. The floor didn’t look to be uneven. He eased himself off the bed and put some weight on the floorboards. Sturdy. He doubted his weight on the floor was enough to shift something as heavy as the bookshelf.
He had a hunch. And he didn’t like it.
The Magician knelt by the bookshelf and rested a hand on its wood. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, focused.
If you find it necessary, use magic to investigate the nature of the enchantments you encounter at the buildings we are sent to investigate . It was a restrictive command, given at the start of his partnership with Lea, but it was enough.
Allen’s blue aura spread from his fingertips into the wood.
“Knock, knock,” he muttered. His mind probed the space within. It was like sticking his head into a hole on a frozen lake and looking under the ice sheet, except underwater was somewhere…else. Someplace where space didn’t work right. He couldn’t wrap his head around it, and apparently no one else could, either. Something something daemon plane magic something-or-other. His eyes glazed over anytime his old mentor talked about it.
Whatever this space was, it was empty.
He pulled his aura back. There were traces in there as if it had been enchanted recently. He had expected that. And he didn’t like it.
He heard a scream.
Allen vaulted over the bookshelf and bolted out the door. He dove down the stairs and grabbed the banister at the bottom to spin himself toward the back of the house and kept running. Halfway down the hall it occurred to him that he didn’t know where the basement was, but luckily he found the open door in the back room. It opened like a maw into darkness. He grabbed the rails to run down—
He gasped as the Obligation grabbed and held him back at the top of the stairs. “Lea?!” he yelled into the dark.
“I-I’m fine! I fell.” There was a rustling noise in the basement. “The stairs are...ow...uneven.”
Allen released his breath and sunk to the ground. After his own run-in with the bookshelf, he had expected the worst. “You weren’t pushed or anything, were you?”
“No.” Lea’s voice was disembodied in the abyss at the bottom of the stairs. “Can you bring the flame? It’s dark.”
The bonds of Obligation holding Allen at the top of the stairs faded, but Lea’s request came with the implication of a command, just enough for Allen to feel it pulling him back to the sitting room. “Lea, I can literally glow,” he said, lighting his hands with his aura. “Let me come down there.”
Lea was quiet for longer than Allen was comfortable with, and then their level voice returned with a full command: “Bring the fire, Allen. And the bag and bell. I think I found her.”
The Magician swallowed. “Okay, hold on.” He stood and left for the sitting room to retrieve their things and returned a moment later. Gingerly, he started down the stairs. Sure enough, one of the steps was a little taller than the rest, just enough to send an unsuspecting Nobleman careening downward.
The Nobleman sat at the bottom, their knees tucked under their chin. The side of their cloak was scuffed, but they seemed fine on the surface. Allen wondered how bruised they would be under that thick cloak after falling so far. He handed the tiny candle and bag to them, and relit his hands with his own faint light.
The basement was a simple root cellar with walls of mud and brick. One wall was lined with shelves of boxes, bottles of wine, and glass jars of unidentifiable contents. Several other boxes and barrels littered the floor. Allen’s blue light reflected off a rat’s beady eyes before it scurried back into its hiding place.
On the ground, in front of Lea, was a pile of bones draped in thin, decayed rags. Allen moved closer. The rags were probably clothes once, disintegrated with the body’s decay. Upon closer inspection, the bones were arranged as a complete skeleton—a person, laid out on the floor face down, in front of the stairs. He carefully lifted some of the cloth to see it better and sucked his teeth when he saw the fracture near the top of the skeleton’s left thigh bone. There would be no hope of climbing the stairs alone with that sort of injury.
“You said you found ‘her’,” he said.
“Mmhmm.” Lea set the candle on the ground and untied the bag into a large flat cloth. “If you wait a moment, you can feel her presence. It’s strongest down here.”
Allen really didn’t want to. He shuffled uncomfortably and took a seat on the bottom step while Lea worked. The priest quietly stacked bones on the cloth.
“It must have been so sad,” Lea said. “Being alone in her last moments.”
The house was large enough for a full family. Allen wondered if this really was the only body here, but it must be. He could hear Lea’s scream from the second floor. If anyone else was here when this person fell, they would have surely heard her and come to help. His mind drifted back to the sitting room, and he realized the woman may have been quite old at the time of her death. The shawls and crochet needles reminded him of his own grandmother. Perhaps the rest of her family had already moved on—or had been planted in the gardens outside.
“Do you think we should plant her pyreflower in the garden?” Allen asked.
Lea looked up at him with a confounded stare. “Of course. I would have thought that was obvious.”
Allen rolled his eyes. “I’m new to this.”
“Not so new,” Lea replied, returning to their work. “I think the ivy is her spouse’s pyreflower. You saw the way it pried at the house.”
“It was trying to get in,” Allen muttered.
Lea nodded. “Well, that is where we come in. Are you ready?”
“We’re doing this here?”
“We shouldn’t remove the body if we can help it,” Lea said. “I think you can manage.”
Allen thought Lea was putting an awful lot of trust in his abilities. Fire was never his forte, but it was the best way to destroy a body. It was not destroying everything around the body—including himself—that was the difficult part.
Growing up in Duskbridge, Allen hadn’t put much thought into pyreflowers. He knew of plant daemons, and he’d spent time in a communal pyregarden listening to their voices. They seemed so far removed from humans. Daemons didn’t have the same compulsions and needs as people. As long as the plants had good soil, water, and sunlight they were content, and they seemed almost agitated by the company of humans—or maybe just his company. They spoke in alien, whispering voices in his head, passive-aggressively asking why he was bothering them or asking him to join them eternally as a flower instead of a living human.
And yet, deep down, there was something human there, mingled in the mess of consciousness that comprised a daemon. At the core of his grandparents’ quiet pyreflowers there was some familiar warmth. It reminded him of comfortable days waiting in their kitchen for snacks, or playing with toys on their floor.
He thought he understood the need for pyreflowers then, for the living memorials to the deceased. Then he met Lea.
Then he learned what happens to a dead body, left alone to rot.
Lea moved deeper into the root cellar and knelt on the ground as far away as they could from the pile of bones and unfurled bag. They left the candle near the bones, but took the bell which they gently set on the ground in front of them. Allen carefully sidled around and took a seat on a box behind the priest.
Whoever this woman was, she died alone. Her body was left in this cellar, and the decaying process started as soon as her breathing stopped.
Had she been found sooner, or if she had died in the care of relatives, she would have been given a funeral pyre just like her spouse who had gone before. The remaining ashes from the pyre would be mixed with her chosen seeds to be planted in the garden. A new pyreflower would grow in that place, and from her ashes and seeds would come new life— her life, anew. Reborn.
The soul didn’t die with the body. Ideally it would transfer into something new and live again.
But sometimes that didn’t happen.
Sometimes the soul couldn’t escape the body. Not entirely.
Sometimes it stayed, while the body withered, and decayed, and rotted, and liquified. Dust and fluids settled into the ground below, and spread.
Sometimes the body did let the soul go eventually, but then the soul found a new body. The next closest container it could find. A body made of wood and bricks and stone and tile and cloth.
Lea bowed their head briefly, then took the bell. They rang it once, and the bell took on a faint blue glow. Allen shuddered as Lea rang the bell twice more. The bell was enchanted—roughly, but it got the job done. It had the purpose of drawing wrought daemons toward its sound.
After a moment, the air in the cellar cooled. The floorboards above them groaned and creaked as some energy shifted within them, coming closer.
Lea closed their eyes and bowed their head again, deeper, concentrating. The Magician shifted nervously on the box. He had seen this once before, the first time he had accompanied Lea on one of these missions. In a fit of curiosity, he joined Lea in meditation that first time, and he didn’t want to do it again.
This was Lea’s domain. Making sure the spirit was present in its entirety. Communing with it. According to the priest, almost all of them came easily, ready to move to their next life. Allen imagined this one would be no different. He wouldn’t want to spend eternity in this house, either.
“Allen,” Lea said. Their voice was flat and distant. Lost in communion with the house’s daemon.
“Yes?” Allen was suddenly alert. Lea hadn’t spoken last time. Was something wrong?
“Did you insult her house while you were upstairs?”
Allen coughed. “I—uh—sorry.”
Lea looked over their shoulder at the Magician, their grey eyes tired. “Please, Allen, you know to be respectful. We’re guests, ” they said crisply. “It’s your turn.”
The Magician stood and took his place closer to the pile of bones. He shivered at the colder air surrounding them and braced himself, eyes locked on the tiny candle flame, his hands raised.
Lea gave the command. “By fire, release this soul from its binding, so it may join the cycle anew.”
With a deep breath, Allen’s hands lit a bold blue. The candle flame flickered into the same blue and erupted into a coil of azure heat. Allen took a half-step back and made a sweeping motion with his arms. The fire followed his motion and plunged into the skeletal remains. With another motion, he focused the fire around the bones, leaving the cloth beneath and the wood framing the cellar untouched—he hoped.
Still holding his glowing hands toward the white-blue flame, he backed up behind Lea and sat down again. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the last organic vestiges to turn to ash in the intense heat.
Firelight flickered on Lea’s face, revealing a melancholy Allen wasn’t accustomed to seeing.
After a moment, Lea spoke. “Allen, do you have a family?”
Allen blinked rapidly in surprise at the sudden question, and he stumbled over half answers. Yes. No. Well. “What about you?” he stammered, trying to turn the question around.
The Nobleman’s expression fell further. “No, I’m...You know.” A spare. Allen kicked himself inwardly at his insensitivity. The priest was a Nobleman, but that didn’t mean they were someone’s heir. All it meant was they could command Magicians, like Allen, and that ability made it risky to keep more than one Nobleman child around. If they weren’t the heir, they were the spare. It was possible Lea didn’t even know their Nobleman parent, considering they had joined the Shrine of Saint Aeryn at such a young age.
“Sorry,” Allen said.
Lea shrugged, and their countenance returned to normal. “I just...wondered what it must have been like to have grandparents. She seemed nice.”
“D’you think she had kids? Grandkids?”
Lea make a small noise of confirmation.
“Not very nice of them to leave their grandma like this.”
After some time, the fire died down. The bones had combusted down to ashes and small shards of calcium. With a flourish, Allen directed the last of the flame back into the candle and dropped the glow from his hands.
With nothing but candlelight and daylight filtering down from the first floor to light the cellar, the priest moved over to the pile and started tying up the bag with the remains folded within. Allen eyed the bottles on the shelves. With the daemon exorcised, the new owner would come to claim the house and all of its contents within a few days. Mr. Blair probably wouldn’t notice if a bottle of cellar wine went missing.
As Allen twisted a bottle to view its label, the candle went out.
Allen pulled away from the bottle. “Wasn’t me. Probably a bad wick.” He stood and stepped toward Lea.
The cellar door slammed shut.
Chapter 2: Alisha
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.