The Toll

Author’s Notes on “The Toll”

“The Toll” is a story written to cover a bit of missing background for the character Eilish Garrity between when we saw him in the novel Black Crowns and his incarnation as “Eilish the Occultist” as a playable model in WARMACHINE. Now Oblivion looms, and Eilish is about to take an even darker turn. This story features one of his first steps down an insidious path, assisted by a cameo featuring one of our setting’s first and most significant characters.

For those who aren’t as familiar with him, Eilish Garrity has had quite a few adventures prior to becoming a playable WARMACHINE model. He was a character originally invented for demos for the Iron Kingdoms Roleplaying game and later featured alongside his friends in the Black River Irregulars mercenary company for fiction in Skull Island eXpeditions as well as board games like Undercity and Widower’s Wood. They were taken up by author Richard Lee Byers for the novella “Murder in Corvis,” followed by the novels Black Dogs and Black Crowns.

Eilish has been an unlikely investigator and wizard. His formal training in forensics and investigative techniques has served him well over the years, given the odd mysteries his group finds itself caught up with. But his curiosity into the darker side of the occult has grown. Knowledge can be quite dangerous, and power is seductive. Be sure to catch up with Eilish again in WARMACHINE: Oblivion.

They had been warned the riverboat called the Gambler’s Bride was on an irregular schedule. On its route along the Dragon’s Tongue, it stopped wherever and for however long its eccentric and wealthy passengers requested. Eilish Garrity had just begun to feel concerned about whether he’d somehow missed it when they spotted the distinctive prow of the large ship making its approach. Sitting at a rustic riverside tavern in the hamlet of Briv, they had secured a table with a good view of the river. Briv had proven to be a squalid place inhabited by a few families of unfriendly fishermen and farmers, a place Eilish was eager to vacate.

“There it is,” he said. He knocked back the rest of his ale and picked up the satchel resting protectively between his feet, putting his arm between its handle straps so it could rest securely against his side. He felt nervous, jumpy, but he tried to keep that in check. He had learned over the years that faking confidence was almost as good as being confident. “We’d better stand ready at the pier, as I doubt it’ll stop otherwise. I wouldn’t, if I were the pilot.”

The Rhulic pistoleer made a groaning noise. “Ach. I just bought this one,” he said, lifting his nearly full glass with a grimace. “This is bad ale, but I hate wasting it.”

“What kind of dwarf can’t down a glass in one gulp?”

“We’re not all drunken louts,” the dwarf groused under his breath.

“Just finish it and let’s go.”

Barl straightened as if offended and slowly stood, adjusting his leather jacket and the cravat he wore bow-tied around his neck. He was a sharply dressed dwarf with neatly groomed beard and sideburns, looking more dapper and well heeled than most mercenaries. He took pride in his appearance and sometimes went to pains to avoid staining his clothes with blood or grime, though Eilish knew he could put such niceties aside in a fight.

On this particular job, Eilish had not felt inclined to tell anyone else in the Black River Irregulars—particularly Colbie—what he was doing. Barl was the only one he could trust to keep his mouth shut, which meant he had to put up with the dwarf’s idiosyncrasies.

It was a short walk to the creaky and poorly maintained pier, just in time to watch the boat arrive. The river steamer was brightly lit up along its upper decks, and even from a distance they could hear loud voices, music, and revelry. It stood as quite a contrast to the sleepy town and its sullen inhabitants. Eilish raised his hands and waved energetically. He was relieved to see the vessel begin to slow and approach the pier.

“We could have been riding that thing from Point Bourne,” Barl noted. “I wouldn’t have minded getting in a few hands of cards. Why make us travel here first?”

“The man I’m meeting is cautious. For good reason. Since no one else here is likely to get on the boat, he can identify me straight away and decide if I’m worth talking to.”

Barl snorted. “Let me get this straight. You let them dictate the time and place of the meeting, and we have no idea who they are or how many people he’s bringing?”

Eilish chuckled and said, “That’s why I brought you. If they try to murder us, shoot them. Easy enough.”

“Will do. Course, wizards are pretty fast. Seen you fire off a magic bolt before I could blink.”

“The person we’re meeting is far more powerful and skilled than I am. He could sink the entire ship with a thought.”

“Oh, that’s reassuring,” the dwarf said.

“It’ll be fine,” Eilish said with a wave of his hand, feigning a lack of concern entirely at odds with what he truly felt. “There’s no reason for anyone to get stabbed or shot or otherwise murdered. This is a public venue, and the man we’re meeting is a member of the Fraternal Order. He values his reputation. If he decides to kill us, he’ll send some henchmen to do it the old-fashioned way.”

“If he cares about his reputation, why’s he meeting you?”

Eilish sighed. “I sent him a letter to convince him he can’t afford not to talk to me. This also means he will likely be twitchy. No one likes being forced into a corner. Stay calm, even if he gets pushy.”

“I’ll restrain my impulses to leap to your defense,” Barl said with a droll smile.

“I’m less worried about your fraternal loyalty than the delight you take in shooting people.”

“Fair point. But bullets aren’t free. I’ll be happy to take your coin for doing nothing.”

“That’s the spirit. He’ll have his goons, no doubt, and you are mine. A mutual deterrent.” Eilish’s voice did not betray his doubts. Having a single bodyguard, however skilled, was inadequate. Likely he should have just come alone, but he hated having no one to talk to.

A couple of burly locals working for the pier secured ropes thrown down to them from the riverboat, and soon its ramp thudded onto the surface. They climbed up to meet a surly deckhand. No sooner had Eilish and Barl stepped onto the main deck than he gave the order to retract the ramp and shouted down to have the vessel untied.

When Eilish tried to walk past, the deckhand stood firmly in his way, his palm extended.

“This is a gambling boat, right?” Eilish said. “I didn’t think there was a passenger fee.”

“Mandatory buy-in for the tables,” the man explained with an unpleasant smile. He held up a pair of short braided cords dyed gold and black. “You’ll need one of these to sit at our tables. Ten crowns apiece.”

“What if we’re just here for drinks and a bite to eat?”

“You’ll buy the gambler’s knots anyhow, if you don’t want to get tossed. The river’s cold, so I’d not recommend a swim.” The deckhand had been joined by a pair of other crewmen, who stood with folded arms, clearly ready to intervene if bouncing was required.

“Just pay the man,” Barl grumbled.

“Fine.” Eilish dug in one of his pouches and extracted the necessary coin to buy the cords.

Once payment was made, the deckhand and his associates relaxed; their tone became more civil. The deckhand waved to indicate the rest of the ship and said, “Enjoy your stay aboard the Gambler’s Bride.”

“You’re going to keep getting gouged,” Barl noted helpfully as they made their way to the stairs leading to the deck below. “That’s how these places make their money.”

“Gambling isn’t one of my vices,” Eilish said, “and the price of this meeting could be a lot more than a few coins.”

“We should probably play a couple of hands, just to fit in,” Barl suggested with an avaricious gleam in his eye. “Plus, we bought those knots. Be a shame not to use them.”

We didn’t buy anything,” the arcanist corrected him. “And that’s not why we’re here.”

The noise increased exponentially as they descended to the second deck, where all the gambling and entertainment took place. It was filled with game tables and dozens of customers, as well as brightly attired crewmembers dealing cards, collecting dice, and otherwise managing the games. Drinks were flowing, delivered by serving staff from a pair of well-stocked bars. Rising sometimes above the general hubbub was the sound of music. Peering through the cigar-smoke haze, Eilish caught sight of what looked to be a stage where entertainers were at work at the other end of the ship. The stage was partially obscured by a sizable aquarium stocked with several dangerous-looking fish sporting sizable, jagged teeth.

The entire place was overwhelming, as Eilish tried to take in everything and everyone at once. This was just the sort of bustling place that was perfect for pickpockets, spies, and assassins. He saw among the patrons and crew a couple trollkin and gobbers as well as a few dwarves, though most everyone else was human. A quick scan didn’t reveal anyone wearing the colors of the Fraternal Order of Wizardry.

Eilish paused at the aquarium—this was as good place as any to be seen by those looking for him. He took a moment to gawk at the dragonfish. He had eaten one before and found it quite tasty. Seeing one on the plate, however, was quite different from having a living one stare back at him with its open jaws lined with razor-sharp teeth. He flinched as the nearest one rammed into the glass and snapped its jaws.

As he stepped back, a man from a nearby table rose and approached. He was a brawny dark-haired individual with thickset features—he did not look like a wizard, though it was hard to tell sometimes. Examining the man’s roughened hands, the scars along his forearm, and the way he carried himself, it was easier to categorize him as a bodyguard or mercenary.

“Master Garrity, I presume?” the man asked politely, having to raise his voice to be heard over the nearby din. At Eilish’s assent, he said, “I am Vorral. I work for the magus. If you could follow me, we have reserved a suite where conversation will be easier.”

While Eilish was glad he wouldn’t be forced to try to speak in veiled code amid a crowded gambling hall, it also occurred to him that if something went wrong, it’d be easier for their host to have them eliminated once they were inside his private suite. It was too late to worry about such things now; he had set out on this expedition knowing he would be taking risks. Barl fell in line behind him as they followed Vorral.

The general racket was muffled after they descended another flight of stairs to the next deck, one reserved for guest rooms. They walked past a number of narrower single-occupancy cabins to reach the ones for wealthier patrons. Vorral opened one and waved them inside.

The room was spacious and luxurious, notably out of place on a ship. They might have been transported to an expensive inn in Caspia. The walls were adorned with paintings, the porthole tastefully hidden away behind a sumptuous curtain, and a long plush couch, a thick oak table, and multiple comfortable-looking chairs were scattered around the chamber. It could have been the lounge or a reading room in a wealthy estate, though it was missing the requisite overburdened shelves.

Several plain-dressed men were positioned around the room’s periphery, each alert and ready in a way that suggested hired guards. But standing nearest to the entrance was an older man with thin silver hair wearing the distinct robes of the Fraternal Order of Wizardry. Around his neck was a chained bearing the symbol of that organization—a blazing eye above an opened book. The attire was impractical and looked uncomfortable but did create an impression.

“Magus Conleth Norweth?” Eilish said.

He’d ordinarily have stepped forward to clasp the man’s hand, except the magus in this case was standing very still and appeared displeased, with his own hands behind his back. He inclined his head sternly once.

Eilish was reminded of his former mentor and felt a number of conflicting emotions, including envy, disdain, indignation, and even a small touch of grief. The truth was, he hadn’t been particularly close to the man, but he had always felt as if any possibility of reaching his full potential had been snuffed out along with the magus’ life. Trying to get along by learning on his own had proven to be difficult, sometimes impossible. Eilish knew a man like Norweth were part of an elite few—those knowledgeable enough and powerful enough to impress the Fraternal Order, an organization with notoriously high standards. Standards, Eilish was pained to acknowledge, he himself would never meet.

“Ah, yes.” Eilish cleared his throat. “Allow me to introduce myself. Eilish Garrity from Corvis. This is Barl Blackheel.”

The magus said, “The name does not mean anything to me. Should it? Your letter suggested you are familiar with matters that are not widely known. I would like very much to know how you came by that knowledge. What do you hope to gain by demanding this meeting?”

“Demand? That seems less friendly than I meant it,” Eilish said.

“Given the extortion, it seems appropriate,” Norweth countered.

Eilish shook his head. “No, that’s not what I intended. I thought it important that you understand I am not ignorant of certain matters, to let us get past certain evasions. I’m not any kind of threat. I am at a severe disadvantage here, as I’m sure you understand.”

Norweth did not relent. “Everything about you is suspect, and the fact that you speak of things you should not does nothing to improve the situation. I am not sure what you expected in coming here, or who you truly serve, but you will not so easily trick me into a confession.”

“I had hoped to avoid some of this,” Eilish said. “I’m just here for information. Information I will only find by talking to a progenesist.”

The magus’ eyes flinched at that word, as though it troubled him to hear it said aloud.

Eilish continued. “I decided to be frank about my goals in the interests of saving us time. I have it on good authority that you belong to that cabal or at least that you once did. There’s no point in denying it.”

“I do deny it! You walk dangerous ground, speaking that name so flippantly.”

Eilish could feel a change in the air—a tingling in the hairs along his arms and neck and a smell like a gathering storm. It seemed to him that Norweth’s eyes became vibrant and filled with an inner fire; there was no question he had his arcane power ready at his fingertips. This might just have been bluster, but given his reaction, Eilish was forced to consider the magus might actually be willing to kill to preserve his reputation, if need be. Glancing at Barl, Eilish noted that the Rhulic pistoleer seemed calm and was not reaching for his weapon, which was probably good. On another level, however, it made Eilish wonder if the pistoleer was even paying attention.

He quickly held up a hand. “Whoa, whoa! Listen, I’m not here to make accusations. I’m counting on your help. I’m looking for information that is not easily found, and I need an expert. The entire matter will stay between us. I have several rare tomes I know you would be interested in seeing. I am looking for a mutually beneficial exchange.”

He patted the satchel he’d brought with him, considering all the while the magus and his goons might just decide to murder him and steal the books anyhow. There was a very real possibility, though he had kept some of his most valuable prizes stowed away, just in case he needed to sweeten the deal.

“This would be fascinating to me, were I involved with that extremely disreputable group,” Norweth said haughtily. Despite his words, Eilish’s offer appeared to have had an impact, as the violent tension largely dispersed.

The magnus went on. “Whatever strange rumor or lie you may have heard, I do not belong to that society. Indeed, I do not know if they even truly exist. They may have been invented by the Keepers of the Gate to expose the unwary. I have always cooperated with the Keepers. If you are in their employ, this is a fruitless mission. However, Esotero Editio Studies might be interested in the volumes you mentioned. I would reimburse you to turn them over.”

Eilish considered the man’s words, trying not to betray that he had never even heard of the other organizations. Thanks to his now deceased mentor, he knew the Fraternal Order was riddled with secretive conspiracies, more than anyone could keep track of. Whenever three wizards got together over supper, a new cabal was born.

Honestly, he didn’t know a great deal about the progenesists, only that they were scholars who collected forbidden knowledge. Because the works they collected were classified as black magic, this forced the group to operate in secrecy. Regardless of their actual goals, their actions were viewed as sinister and were also illegal. Norweth’s words and posture suggested he presumed Eilish to be working for an enforcement agent of the Fraternal Order, the so-called “Keepers of the Gate.” While this might make the man less likely to murder Eilish, it didn’t help convince him to be more forthcoming.

“Your caution is understandable. Let me just reassure you, I am not associated with or in the employ of anyone else in your order. They would never talk to me—I’m a self-taught upstart.” He did not need to feign self-loathing as he used that term. “As to how I know what I know, I was the last apprentice of Magus Gilmartin Reed. I was the one who confirmed he had been killed by Greylords.”

Norweth frowned. “Reed’s death was a significant loss. He was a man of vision. I knew nothing of an apprentice.”

The BRI lieutenant sighed and scratched behind his ear. “I wasn’t worth talking about. I’m fairly certain I was a disappointment. Too arrogant and thick-headed for my own good, as he put it.”

This admission prompted a softening in the other man’s expression, together with the seed of interest. “I tried to settle Reed’s affairs after his death, and went to collect his notes, but I never found them.”

Eilish said, “I took them. While investigating his death, I found his letters, his private archive. This is how I learned your identity. He used a cypher, of course, but I was able to break it eventually. I know you and Magus Reed were close. I have not mentioned any of this to anyone, nor would I. If it troubles you to hear me speak of the progenesists, I will not speak of it again. But the letters suggest you and my mentor shared deeply held beliefs about the unfettered acquisition of mystical knowledge. That is something I also value. My life and those of my friends may depend on it.”

Eilish reached for the satchel at his side, which immediately prompted those standing along the periphery to tense and reach for their weapons. He held up a hand to forestall them and moved slowly so they could clearly see what he was doing. He withdrew an old smudged piece of folded parchment and handed it to the magus.

He said, “One of your letters, so you can see I’m telling the truth. Reed hid them well. If I wished you harm, I could have taken this information to your headquarters in Ceryl. I certainly wouldn’t have agreed to meet you here on your terms. Alone.”

“I’m standing right here, you know,” Barl muttered, but Eilish ignored him.

“I found these letters years ago but had no use for them then. You may not have known it, but I’ve been keeping your secrets for all this time. You can trust me to be discreet.”

Norweth had been frowning in thought and said after a pause, “I will accept your assertion that you trained under Reed. Explain why you are here. What do you seek?”

Eilish took a breath, having long considered how he would approach this moment. There was a great deal he wanted to say, to ask, but he knew he must come quickly to the point. “I have reached the limits of what I can do on my own, self-taught. I have been seeking additional useful lore, trying to expand my knowledge, my mastery. It has been difficult, as you would imagine. But I have not let that deter me. I have tracked down hard to find texts and ancient learning. I have visited libraries where secrets have been stashed away. I was making the greatest progress after going to Elsinberg. There I gained access to the third volume in the Libro Aeterna Noctem.”

Norweth reacted to the name, as Eilish had hoped he would. “An exceedingly rare volume.”

“I need to read the others in that set. I think they might help me bridge the gap to a new threshold of potential. Through your correspondence, I was given to understand you are a collector of this set and may have one or more of these volumes? I would exchange the tomes I named in my letter to you for the right to access those books. I wouldn’t expect you to part with them permanently.”

“What you offer is a reasonable exchange, very much in my favor. I might ordinarily suspect something to be amiss, as you’re clearly no imbecile.”

Eilish said, “Only the lore matters to me. I have no interest in trying to collect a private library. I would have nowhere to keep such things safe, but I do have an extremely good memory. I retain what I have read.”

“A useful skill,” Norweth allowed. “Can I see what you’re offering, to verify it is genuine?”

He extended a hand expectantly.

Eilish unclasped the satchel he carried and withdrew a leather-bound tome from within, only hesitating slightly before handing it over. Its surface was stained dark, almost black, and upon its binding were inscribed several unusual runic forms in silver. Eilish said, “I have several others I know you would appreciate. I did not bring them all with me, just in case, but they would also be yours if we can come to an arrangement.”

The magus took the volume respectfully, almost reverently, and gave it a quick but expert once-over. He inspected it from all angles then carefully opened it and thumbed through several pages.

“That is the genuine article. I would like very much to add it to my collection, but there is a complication.”

Inwardly Eilish groaned. Of course there was a complication. He cleared his throat. “And that would be?”

“The sad fact of the matter is that I have very recently experienced a burglary. Fortunately, it was limited in scope. I had several older tomes being restored by a trusted expert, and they vanished in transit. As yet I have no leads. So, for the moment, I cannot satisfy your request.”

The BRI lieutenant frowned, flummoxed. He had undertaken such careful work to set this in motion, to entice this mage into a potentially compromising conversation. It had never occurred to him that Norweth might not have access to the books he sought.

“Stolen? An unfortunate coincidence that they should go missing right when I am looking for them.” He had been feeling increasingly paranoid since the misadventures they had gone through in Llael, though he understood that the world was not actually set against him. Lately it just seemed to be.

Norweth spread his hand. “Such is life as an explorer of the greater mysteries. Odd coincidences abound.”

His tone was more than a little condescending as he added, “In truth, there have been several recent thefts of significant works from private libraries in the region. I must admit, in agreeing to meet with you, the thought had crossed my mind you might be involved. It was one reason I accepted your invitation to talk.”

Eilish nodded. “An understandable suspicion. I’ve gone to great lengths to seek out such hidden lore but never to the point of raiding private libraries. I assure you, I am better at solving crimes than perpetrating them. In fact, perhaps I can help you in that regard. I studied forensics at Corvis University. If I were to get to the bottom of this matter and restore your stolen works, would you begrudge me reading them before they were returned?”

“I don’t see how I could stop you,” Norweth said, “though I would certainly appreciate the return of these books. They are priceless.”

“Do you have any information about these other recent thefts? If they are in the same area, it seems highly likely the same culprit might be involved.”

Norweth considered, frowning in thought. “I have heard nothing to suggest any commonalities. They were very different volumes in quite different collections. Giving you the specifics may put certain parties at risk, individuals who have good reason to keep their identities unknown.”

“Then, perhaps there is a common thread you have overlooked? I am trained and skilled in these matters. I can endeavor to keep the necessary secrets that way. I might not need those details to solve the matter.”

Norweth was eventually persuaded to indulge Eilish’s questions. It did not take Eilish long to determine the likelihood that all of the stolen books were ones their owners had recently acquired, with the circumstances suggesting they might be a result of the same sale—an auction of the private library of a recently deceased colleague. While the stolen tomes were unrelated to one another, they had once been part of the same collection. This suggested the thief had access to documents tracing the sale of that collection. Norweth was at first reluctant to name his other peers who had participated in the auction, those who yet to be burgled, so far as he had heard.

“If word gets out that I gave you any of this information, it would put my life at risk.” Despite his words, Norweth did not seem afraid. Eilish suspected the wizard was powerful enough to handle himself and was more concerned about his reputation than his life.

“I have my own reasons not to talk,” Eilish said. “I promise no one will know you had any part in this.”

Norweth lowered his voice. “Know that, should you break your word to me, I will bend the resources of the order to your painful destruction.”

A dire threat, indeed. Eilish sensed the wizard was obeying his sense of decorum and obligations to other members of his fraternity. Some degree of hostility was expected of someone in his position, but he was clearly hungry for the books Eilish had dangled before him.

“To be clear,” Barl said unexpectedly, addressing the magus for the first time. “I’m just a hired gun. I’m no part of anything else going on.”

“My wrath will begin and end with Eilish Garrity, so long as you do not stand in my way,” Norweth reassured the dwarf, who nodded contentedly.

“Thanks,” Eilish muttered under his breath.

“Here’s what I know,” Norweth finally said. “I have a colleague who lives in an estate in the hills beyond Carre Dova. His name is Upton Waller, and he is a collector of rare manuscripts, a man of considerable expertise in occult lore. He made a number of expensive purchases during the auction in question. I have not heard any reports of anything untoward happening to him or his abode. He’s likely next.”

“Any chance he might be the one behind these thefts?” Eilish posed the question, mulling over the possibilities of an obsessed collector denied the volumes he had most desired.

“I can’t rule out the possibility,” Norweth said with a frown, “though I deem it unlikely. Waller is an innocuous and feeble old man, and he relies heavily on the goodwill of our order. I do not think it likely he would undertake such a reckless scheme.”

“All right. I’ll check into it. Might there be a better place to reach you after? Or do I have to find this riverboat again?”

“I’ll be in Five Fingers.” Norweth went to the small desk nearby and scribbled something down on a piece of paper there. He folded it and handed it to Eilish. “Go to the Velvet Coach Tavern on Bull’s Island and give this to any bartender there.”

More covert maneuvering, Eilish thought to himself. He accepted the folded paper and stowed it away. The trip to Carre Dova would be time consuming, time he did not want to lose. He had hoped to return to Corvis before his absence was noted, but there always seemed to be complications. He was unsure how much longer he could keep the others in the dark about what he was doing. But he had come to terms with such necessities, given the turn his arcane research had taken. It was a dark and treacherous path, and it seemed too late to turn back now.

* * *

Since they needed to pass through Five Fingers, Eilish indulged Barl and let him waste money at the card tables while they made their way downriver. He had never seen the dwarf so cheerful as when he was gambling, and he turned out to be a passably good card shark. Eilish saw several opportunities to exploit the situation to win an advantage by subtly assisting the dwarf at the table, but he resisted the temptation. He decided he had better not do anything to draw the ire of the vigilant pit bosses hovering nearby. He thought it best to avoid giving them an excuse to throw him into the river. Besides, Barl was doing well enough without cheating.

It was between games while taking a break for drinks at the bar that Barl became more social. He asked Eilish, “Why are you so interested in these books? Seems like a lot of trouble.”

“It is. But it’s the only way I’ll get stronger.”

“You mean more powerful? You seem like you’re doing all right for yourself. You don’t see me hunting after ever-larger pistols. Work with what you’ve got, I say.”

Eilish gave him a sardonic smile. “I recall you used to have single-shot pistols. Spent a pretty penny on those customized double-barreled ones. You were looking for better. A way to up your game. Now you’ve got one more shot in each before reloading, letting you put off reloading a few seconds longer. That kind of edge might just save your life. Maybe already has.”

“It’s not the same,” Barl said, waving a hand dismissively.

“I think it is. You rely on your pistols for your livelihood. You got the best you could find and afford, and you maintain them and practice to keep your edge. The magic I’ve been doing most of my life, it’s mostly parlor tricks. A magus like Norweth would mop the floor with me. It’s all about how much you know. Right now, I don’t know enough.”

After considering that, Barl said, “I get your point, but my better pistols only required spending a bit of extra coin at a gunsmith. You’re trying to find a shortcut and taking extra risks. There’s a reason you didn’t want Colbie or the others to know what you were doing and why I’m here. All these guys you’re talking to are shady and want to meet in strange places. It’s pretty clear we’re looking into something that’s dangerous.”

Eilish felt a twinge as Barl’s words struck a chord. “You’re not wrong. It is a shortcut, and there is some danger. But that’s the only way it’s going to happen for me. I need to catch up. I’m not a member of an exclusive group like the Fraternal Order. I’m too old to do this the slow and safe way. That door closed the second the Greylords murdered my old teacher.

“My power has let me get by, but I can’t count on it. You weren’t with us in Llael. You didn’t see what we had to face. The Cryxians don’t mess around. If I’m to do my part to keep the others safe—Colbie, Milo, Gardek, Candice, Pog, even Gardek—I need to up my game. I can’t get by with parlor tricks. It’s a risk, but I have to take it. Dirty my hands.”

After listening to this lengthy monolog, Barl returned his earlier smile. “I can understand needing to get your hands dirty. None of my business, either way. I just wondered, since you and Colbie have always seemed tight. A good team. Surprised you’re keeping big secrets from her.”

“There are some things it’s better she doesn’t know,” Eilish said, realizing Barl wasn’t the only one he was trying to convince. He did want the power to save his friends, but that was not the entire truth. He had lost his edge, the thing he had that no one else did. After what had happened in Llael, he felt empty, like a fraud. He had touched real power briefly there. It had made him realize how small he was, how little he really knew. He never wanted to feel that again. Without an edge, he might just as well be gone and forgotten.

* * *

“Be quiet and stay down,” Eilish hissed. “Someone got here first.”

He directed Barl’s attention to one of the first-floor windows on the east side of the house, one that looked ajar. It was twilight, and the fading light was dim, but Eilish could see the window was broken, catching a few telltale glints of reflection from the ground nearby. Barl nodded, drawing one of his pistols as they crept closer. They sought to keep to the cover of the hedges lining the path and several groomed bushes along the side of the house.

They had made their way to the Waller estate near Carre Dova without incident, hiring horses from a livery stable on the outskirts of Five Fingers. They had not seen the magus or any of his goons during the rest of the trip down the river nor in the city itself, which seemed no accident. Eilish had been forced to deal with a somewhat grumpy and unhappy hired gun; Barl learned they would be spending no time in Five Fingers whatsoever, which he considered an almost criminally wasted opportunity. It was true that the town was notorious for its diverse entertainments, being a favored place for shore leaves for both the Ordic and Cygnaran Navies, as well as among countless privateers and disreputable pirates and an equal number of mercenaries. Knowing how easy it would be to get sidetracked by the city’s allure, Eilish had insisted they go from the eastern docks straight to the northern road leading to Corre Dova. He was already concerned they might get to the estate after it had been burgled.

Now it seemed his fears might be proven correct, though there were signifiers that this might be a recent development. He had seen flickering candlelight in one of the upper windows, which he originally took to be one of the house’s inhabitants. He also saw a trickle of smoke escaping from one of the chimneys, together with a number of other subtle cues suggesting the semblance of normal occupation.

The stench of something foul and putrid was the only warning he had before several undead lumbered toward him from the back of the house.

Even in the fading light, there could be no mistaking the forms, with their rotting flesh, gaping mouths, and specks of glowing malevolence in the otherwise empty sockets of their eyes. One of the skeletal figures was wielding a lengthy notched sword in both its bony hands and advancing with alacrity, conveying greater purpose and menace.

Barl immediately raised a pistol, but Eilish made a cutting motion with his hand to stop him, concerned that the explosive report would alert whatever necromancer was clearly inside. He could only presume that whomever had broken into the estate had left these creatures to prevent him from being interrupted.

Acting more on instinct than thought, Eilish gathered his inner power and mentally reached toward the thralls. Rather than calling on the runes that would unleash bolts of energy to pierce them, he remembered the sensation he had felt when forced to call on the power of the Black Ring’s crowns in Umbrey. He recalled how that energy had flowed through him, how different it had felt from wielding his own innate gifts. It had been like taking power from beyond himself, tapping into dark and cold currents waiting in the dead flesh that shivered into his own blood and bones.

Green energy flowed from him to the thralls, and he gasped as he felt that strange power again. It was like plunging his face into a cold stream, and he could feel something dark wriggling back along those flows like wriggling worms. He clamped down on this sensation with gritted teeth, and the thralls suddenly froze, held tight by his will. It was an exhilarating but terrifying sensation. He heard Barl gasp, but was so preoccupied he did not register other sounds coming from behind them, not until a harsh voice rang out.

“Necromancer!”

Eilish turned and registered several cloaked figures rapidly approaching, including the fiercely scowling face of the man who had shouted the term. He had barely taken this in when Barl knocked him to the side just as a bullet went zipping by close to his head. It shattered into a nearby tree. Barl already had his pistols out and was firing back. He moved past Eilish, keeping low and lunging for the partial shelter afforded by the corner of the house. This required him to approach the thralls, but given they were frozen, he seemed to accept the lesser threat over the active one of being shot.

The BRI lieutenant probably should have followed him but instead pressed his back against the tree and tried to collect his thoughts. Being shoved had not disrupted his hold on the magic by which he had frozen the thralls, and he had no sooner thought of the peril of the gunmen when the undead lurched into motion again, this time heading toward those firing on the arcanist’s position.

“Your unholy magics will not avail you!” the speaker snarled. Eilish glanced past the edge of his tree to see fire blossom from the man’s hands together with a ring of runes around his wrists, searing through two of the weaker thralls while the third was gunned down by the others. However, the swifter undead with the sword managed to close on one of the riflemen and chopped the blade deeply into his side. The man gave out a choking cry and toppled. This sword-thrall managed to injure another of the gunmen before fire consumed him as well.

Bullets tore through the bark of Eilish’s tree and chipped stone from the building Barl had ducked behind. The pistoleer chose his moment carefully and leaned out to take several expert shots, each of which sent a man tumbling back or falling to the ground. The last one took the fire-wielding arcanist in the shoulder, staggering him. Eilish raised his hand and pulled on his inner well to fire a glowing arcane bolt at the man, hitting near his waist—he stumbled and tripped over the edge of a low retaining wall behind him.

Eilish saw no immediate movement or returning fire, so he took the risk of rushing out from his cover, drawing his sword to close on the fallen man. He drew on his magic to ward himself from harm as he closed, knowing full well how dangerous even an injured wizard might be.

The adversary was bleeding but was pulling himself back to his feet as Eilish cracked the flat of his blade against the man’s head, sending him down again. Barl had advanced as well. He raised one of his reloaded double-barreled pistols to finish him, but Eilish got in his way. “Wait! Don’t kill him!”

“He was going to kill you. Seems only fair,” Barl grumped as though his feelings were hurt.

“Keep an eye out for any others,” Eilish said, glancing through the trees surrounding the estate. The skies were steadily darkening as the day’s last light faded. He bent down to inspect the downed wizard, frowning as he noticed the small book-and-eye symbol sewn into the cloth at his shoulders. “They were with the Fraternal Order. Urcaen take them.”

Cursing under his breath, he tore free the man’s cloak and sought to bind the bleeding wound high up on his chest. The wizard was still breathing, though it was labored. In the process, Eilish discovered the attacker was wearing a large signet ring bearing a sigil that showed a barred portcullis surrounded by a circle and a series of symbolic mystical runes.

Barl watched, frowning, and then asked, “Sent by the one we met on the boat?”

“I don’t think so. These are likely the aforementioned Keepers of the Gate.” He showed the signet ring. “Fraternal Order investigators. Their equivalent to Illuminated Ones. I really don’t want them coming after me.”

“Then we should finish this one off, don’t you think?” Barl gestured with his pistol.

“No. Killing him will just bring more. I doubt he got a good look at me, and I don’t think we were followed. They were coming here already. We’d better leave him and hope he lives. Once he’s up again, he might try to hunt us down.”

Barl lowered his pistol to point at the man’s left calf, then calmly squeezed the trigger. There was another explosive retort and the bullet sank into his leg.

“Hey!” Eilish shouted, too late. Blood began to seep through the injured wizard’s pants.

Barl looked at him calmly. “That should slow him down.”

“Thamar take you!” Eilish used his sword to cut off a strip of cloth from the cloak and set about binding the leg as well. “You know a man can die of blood loss.”

“He’ll probably live. We had better get out of here, just in case.”

Eilish cinched the bloodied cloth he was tying. “Not until we go inside and see if we can find that book. We better move fast. If there’s really a necromancer around, he’ll have heard all the shooting.”

Barl shrugged while reloading his pistol again and said, “It’s your funeral. Lead on. I’ll cover you.”

* * *

They climbed in the same broken window that presumably the first intruder had used, with Eilish in the lead and trying to be both quiet and alert. It occurred to him that the ruckus of gunfire outside might have scared off the would-be book thief and presumed necromancer, who certainly wouldn’t want added trouble. He had a moment of hopeful imagining of a startled occultist dropping all the books he’d carefully gathered while leaping out another window and fleeing into the night. That would have been ideal, though Eilish’s luck had never been that good.

As they reached the main flight of stairs leading up to the second floor, they could hear thumping and crashing sounds from upstairs. Eilish’s expert ear picked up the noises of what had to be a bookshelf being knocked over and all its volumes tumbling to a carpeted floor. It was a sound he had heard before—during one of his former master’s periodic rages. He pursed his lips and frowned, never being one to approve of the abuse of books.

At the top of the stairs, another thrall shambled at them, this one wearing the attire of a household servant. Eilish dispatched it with another burst of arcane energy, not bothering to try the trick he’d managed with the ones outside. From the reading he had done, he had a hunch it wouldn’t work with any undead that were in close proximity to their master. If he could even reliably make it work again in the first place.

Given the noise and obvious signs of disturbance, it was easy to tell where they needed to go. Just down the hall was a set of double doors that had been thrown ajar, one of the doors taken off its hinges. Eilish cautiously approached, sidling up along the wall in an effort to remain unseen. Barl followed not far behind, a pistol in each hand.

Peeking inside, Eilish saw a half-wrecked library; several bookcases were pushed over, and the floor was littered with volumes. Dominating the scene was a surprisingly young woman with black hair who had a blackened greatsword nearly as tall as she was hooked over her shoulder. In the room with her were at least three more formidable-looking thralls in patchwork armor, one with a sword, another with an axe, and a third with a halberd. The woman flipped impatiently through a book she had taken from a nearby shelf before hurling it aside with a snarl. She muttered to herself as though arguing with someone Eilish couldn’t see. He noticed another, less-impressive thrall standing not far from her, one hunched over from the burden it bore: what seemed to be a sizable haversack slung over its back filled with books and scrolls.

Eilish felt his mouth go dry as fear swept over him. He had never seen her before, but no one who had lived in Corvis for the last eight years would have failed to recognize Alexia, the wayward Morrowan prelate’s niece who had summoned an army of the dead. She had allegedly murdered every Illuminated One sent after her and had killed and reanimated countless others. She was a necromancer, it was said, but more. She was a gods-be-damned menace who was wielding an unholy artifact, a weapon alleged to particularly savor killing arcanists and stealing their souls.

“Back up,” he hissed quietly but intensely, waving for Barl to retreat.

Before the dwarf could take a step, a commanding female voice from the room said, “I know you’re there. Come in here at once!”

He hesitated and considered making a run for it, but then a large plume of burning green balefire smashed into the wall just to his left, exploding a sizable hole that continued to burn.

Barl gritted his teeth and from his posture seemed inclined to rush in, guns blazing. Eilish held out a hand to forestall him.

“Put those away,” he hissed, sheathing his own sword. His heart hammered; he had to fight the urge to panic. He tried to stay calm. “We’re not fighting our way out of this one.”

He held his hands up to show he was harmless as he stepped cautiously into the room. After a moment’s hesitation, Barl holstered his pistols and followed.

Alexia eyed him with evident curiosity, her head tilted to one side. There was something unsettling in her eyes. She said, “You’re not my hunters. Or are you? New faces.”

“No, no, we’re not them,” Eilish said. “I don’t mean you any harm whatsoever.”

“I shot several of your hunters outside,” Barl added helpfully. “I think we got most of ’em.”

Eilish found it difficult to tear his eyes from the sword hilt over her shoulder, with its grotesque gothic elements, the faces with gaping mouths disgorging what looked like thick barbed tongues serving as its quillons. The Witchfire. There was something about the blade that tickled his eyes painfully. Through his mystical senses, a palpable dark energy radiated from the artifact, seeping into everything around them. He could feel probing flickers along the flesh of his arms, his neck, and his face.

“Why are you here?” she asked almost idly while reaching out to select another book from a nearby shelf. She flipped through it, and her expression darkened as she did, clearly not liking what she found.

“For perhaps similar reasons to your own,” Eilish said. “For knowledge. There are some books I was seeking.”

“Books are often disappointing,” she said, tossing the one she had been looking at aside. Eilish got a tantalizing look at its cover, at the diagrams on its pages. He suspected he would not have found it as useless as she clearly did. His hand moved involuntarily toward it as it fell to the floor, tumbling to lie with its cover flipped over, its pages smashed. It looked to him as disturbing as a corpse lying with limbs sprawled at unnatural angles.

“Are you a wizard?” She had turned to him after scanning the nearby shelves, as if seeing him for the first time, her eyes fixed on his with disturbing intensity.

“Um, not exactly,” Eilish said.

She made a strangely elegant but unnatural motion as she shrugged and twisted, reaching back to recover the Witchfire. It was in her hands before he could blink, and then she stepped across the space between them with similar alacrity, coming up to confront him, the blackened length of the sword now resting against Eilish’s shoulder, its cold edge very near to his throat. He sucked in his breath, and his eyes widened as he felt certain he heard something whispering in his ear. Then a strange noise like a keening rang in his mind, and he gained the distinct impression that the sword was hungry. He had never been so scared in his life.

“I . . . I do know some magic,” he stammered.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Barl had stepped back and had his hands on the grips of his pistols but had not yet drawn them. He was perhaps weighing his speed against the odds of provoking Alexia to cut Eilish’s throat.

She looked away, saying, “I know we could. That would be a waste. He’s not even a good snack. Killing him would be beneath us.”

These words were said to no one he could see, and they chilled Eilish. He suspected it was his life she was discussing. Was he too poor an arcanist to be worth sacrificing? It certainly seemed that way. It was hard not to feel insulted.

Alexia asked, “Do you understand necromancy? How a soul is transferred from one place to another?”

When he shook his head, she added, “There is expertise on the matter I am lacking. No one seems to possess sufficient understanding.”

He swallowed and sought to master his tongue. “I know a few things, a little necromancy, but I am no expert. I have access to tomes that may be of use. And some of the books useless to you might be helpful to me.”

She continued to stare at him, as if only barely hearing his words. He felt scrutinized not like person but as thing. It was hard not to imagine she was figuratively flipping through his pages, as she had the last volume. Her expression suggested she was finding him similarly lacking. His soul, however, might be more useful to her, torn from his flesh to empower her magic or simply to be kept for later. That was how experienced necromancers sometimes saw people, he knew: as little messy bags of potential resources.

“I can be helpful,” Eilish added somewhat desperately. “Fast reader, excellent at finding key information.” He paused, and his mind went blank as all he could think of was that black blade. “Maybe . . . maybe I can help with what you’re looking for here.”

He gestured toward her book-thrall. “And I have my own sources as well.” He tapped the satchel at his waist for good measure.

After a moment of appraisal, she stepped back, lowering the point of her sword to pierce the carpet as she leaned on the hilt. “What do you have?”

He carefully extracted a small and slender book he had brought with him, a carefully copied journal of an early devotee of Scion Delesle. “This is a forbidden and priceless work. I have no interest in its teachings, but they might be helpful to you.”

She took it with an eyebrow raised. “Those who offer help only because they fear death are unreliable. I will accept your offer, but you should receive something in return. What did you come for?”

Eilish maintained his restraint. She was mentally unstable and unpredictable. He did not want to do anything to invoke her wrath.

“Do you mind?” He pointed toward the book-thrall.

She nodded consent and was already inspecting the journal she had been given. Eilish shared a brief look with Barl and then approached the burdened thrall. It leered mindlessly, and the sight of the rotting flesh covering its face turned his stomach as he neared. The more he saw it up close, the less he appreciated necromancy. He picked through the books in the creature’s satchel and, with trembling hands, recovered two of the missing volumes of the Libro Aeterna Noctem. He displayed them to her and she waved a hand indulgently, at which he stowed them away, his heart hammering at his luck. Now to live long enough to return them.

Alexia walked to the wizard’s desk, placing the journal down with its pages opened while scanning several others arrayed there. “Help me with this,” she commanded.

Eilish obligingly approached, swallowing nervously as he stepped past a corpse he had not noticed. It was the robed form of an elderly man, likely the owner of the estate, Upton Waller. His head was separated from his neck, and his eyes were staring up blankly at the ceiling. A large pool of blood had collected from his corpse, soaking into several of the books spilled across the floor. Trying to put that vision out of his mind, Eilish focused on the books on the desk and was soon caught up trying to think of anything he might say to maintain her interest. He tried to ignore her lethality and focus on the arcane matters in the books before them, each related to aspects of higher necromantic ritual. It was a singular collection of forbidden knowledge.

“This pattern,” Eilish stammered, “it’s recurring. I…I think I saw it in the marginalia of the journal I just handed you. Here!” He flipped through to find the page and pointed. “These glyphs appear in several works. They must be significant. This one might represent spiritual essence and its transfer.”

“Hmm,” Alexia said, bringing up the page to squint at the tiny writing alongside the symbols. “No, I am well aware of that. What? No, that’s not right. We tried that, but this could be useful. I have an idea.”

Again she seemed to be talking to someone else other than Eilish; he was certain she heard voices he could not. Something about it made him think they were not imaginary. Goose bumps rose along his arms. He hoped the voices were not advising her to turn him into a thrall.

She turned to him and said, “I might not have found that. Thank you.”

Barl was shifting from foot to foot as he mumbled, “We need to get out of here. That man outside won’t be napping forever.”

Alexia looked sharply at Eilish, and her eyes narrowed. He said haltingly, “This need not be the end of our partnership. If you give me leave to depart, I promise to seek you out again. Once I collect, uh, other volumes of interest. I have a stash of several from the Elsinberg library stowed away. I’d be glad to loan them to you. They might help.”

She raised an eyebrow, and for a moment he felt certain she would impale him where he stood. But then she spoke. “Agreed. I will hold you to this. Do not try to hide from me. I can find you.”

There was nothing but a pit of dread in his stomach, yet he nodded agreeably. “I look forward to the day.”

Even as he turned to go she said to him, “Wait. One other thing.”

Fighting off the instinct to bolt and run, he paused as she went to one of the shelves on the far side of the room. There she recovered something and returned to him. As she neared, he saw she held a human skull, one that had been ornamented and engraved with multiple distinct and ornate runes.

He gasped and whispered in awe. “The Vault of Ipsortus!”

He recognized it at once from sketches he had seen. Ipsortus had been a linguist and scholar of Calacia, and it was said that possessing his skull might bestow a number of gifts, so long as its bearer’s will was sufficiently strong. It was elsewhere described as a cursed artifact.

She tossed it to him off-handedly and he scrambled to catch it, stumbling slightly. He barely managed to avoid dropping it to shatter on the floor at the edge of the carpet where he stood. Alexia said, “I was hoping that might help me, but it’s useless. Keep it with you; I can use it to find you again.”

Eilish felt a tingling along his fingertips and through his hands, an electric jolt that ran up his arms as he held the skull. This was followed by a strange feeling all along his skin, and something like a buzzing sound either in his ears or in his mind. The skull was powerful, he sensed, and he felt an immediate resonance within it. It felt warm beneath his fingers. With growing excitement, he considered it might be just the catalyst he needed.

Alexia seemed to lose interest in him, turning back to the books spread across the desk. Eilish jerked his chin at Barl, and the two made a hasty retreat. Eilish had no room for the skull in his satchel, so he wrapped it in a tablecloth swiped from a small table nearby. Once outside, they made sure to avoid the area where they had left the wounded Keeper of the Gate and hastened to put the estate behind them.

* * *

Eilish found it impossible to relax until they reached the outskirts of Carre Dova. Night had well and truly fallen, and the town was dark and still. They had not spoken at all since leaving the house; Eilish was entirely caught up in his own thoughts.

As they searched the quiet streets for an inn, the dwarf broke the silence. “So, that was a bit of a mess. You handled it well. That was the infamous Alexia of the Longest Night, eh? As soon as I recognized her, I thought we were goners.”

“We might well have been,” Eilish said. “With that sword in her hands, she could easily have killed the both of us.”

“Wasn’t it just the sword, though, right? She’s got strong magic of her own.”

Eilish looked at the dwarf appraisingly. “She’s quite powerful. Hard to say how much of it comes from the sword. There are a lot of crazy rumors about it.”

“It might be safe to say she has taken some shortcuts? If you ask me, it didn’t look like it has done her any favors in terms of her mental stability. She seemed more than a little crazy. I have to think that’s no coincidence.”

“I get what you’re driving at,” Eilish snapped.

Barl held up a hand. “Fair enough. Just thought it was interesting, and something to consider. So, then. Did you accomplish what you wanted? Recovered the books that wizard wanted?”

Eilish looked down at the loosely spherical bundle in his hands. “Oh yes. I got far more than I could have hoped.”

He paused and then added quietly, “Though I do expect there will be a toll.”

“There often is with such things,” Barl said. “You’re a clever fellow, so I’m sure it’ll work out. I do recommend steering clear of that woman in the future, if you can. She’s dangerous.”

“I don’t think I have much choice about that. She’ll hold me to my promise.”

Barl sighed and added, “Well, all things being equal, I’d prefer you left me out of your next caper. I’ll stick to shooting normal people. You can have the rest. Your Fraternal Orders and your keepers with gates, and necromancers, and so on. That sort of thing isn’t for me.”

“Your contract isn’t complete until we reach Corvis, so you’ll have to put up with me a little longer.”

“Stupid contracts. Clients always get you with the small print, don’t they?” Barl said.

Eilish blinked at those words and found they rang in his mind, given his recent turn of thought and the occult direction he had been considering exploring. “Yes. Yes, they do. Contract negotiation can be a lost art. It’s one every mercenary should seek to master.”