Chapter Seven: Vesper
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
As promised, Shoel wasn't long, and arrived back at the lakeshore in about the same amount of time as he'd taken to ready the horses, a satchel with clothes and a book of rare Charter marks she was currently studying bouncing over her shoulder. She was dressed fully for traveling, with tabbard, tunic, and riding boots that she'd almost forgotten she owned. The necromancer was already mounted up on the chestnut mare, who had her ears back and eyes rolled in a murderous, ready-to-bite expression. He actually had a book open across the pommel of the saddle, reading. Shoel had to hide a smile at the scene.
"There, ready," she said, and his hasty folding of the book, in addition to the anticipation of being somewhere that felt halfway clean, made her really smile.
"Took you long enough," Hemlock grunted, and pointed at the black stallion, "That one is yours. For now, anyway."
"And isn't he lovely," Shoel commented warmly, more for the horse than Hemlock, approaching and stroking the animal's nose, once she ascertained that he wasn't as inclined to bite as his companion. His ears perked at the sound of her voice and her approach. At first all she earned was a snort, but he must have decided he liked her, for the snort turned into a nuzzle to her cheek. Smiling, she scratched gently along his dark cheeks.
"He won't bite you, he's too much of a loverboy," Hemlock commented with very faint amusement. That didn't last, though, for his next words were harsh: "We should get moving, unless you want to be caught out on the road after sundown."
"Charter forbid," Shoel murmured, giving the stallion another pat before swinging lightly up into the saddle. It had been years since she'd ridden, but as she gathered up the reigns, she realized she hadn't forgotten as much as she could have. "What's his name?"
"Not everyone named their horses, you know," Hemlock grumbled, settling into a more comfortable riding position than the half-curled one he'd been in to read. "Some just call them horse or beast."
"Well, that seems unfair," Shoel commented, patting the stallion's neck. "That such a fine animal should be nameless."
"Fine animal or not, he's still just an animal," Hemlock stated, snorting at the stallion as he started his own irritable-looking mare towards the path out of the crater. The stallion himself just gave the necromancer a look that Shoel couldn't see.
Amused, she leaned over his neck as she kneed him gently into a walk to follow, whispering in his ear, "Well, I think you need a name. Maybe I'll think up one for you."
Apparently, though, that wasn't needed-- which was good, because Shoel really wasn't all that good at naming things. Her last horse she'd named Earth because he'd been dirt-brown. As they approached the passageway, though, Hemlock called back, "His name is Vesper."
"One of these days," she muttered to herself-- and the horse, if he cared-- as they passed into the shadow of the rock tunnel, "I'll learn when he's trying to annoy me and when he's being serious." The words, whether Vesper understood them or not, earned her a friendly nicker. She patted his neck, then urged him into a canter to keep up with Hemlock.
The tunnelway was long and straight, with many branching paths off of it, leading to different parts of the dragonry. It was tall, far taller than necessary for horses and riders: dragon-sized. At the opposite end were a pair of massive stone doors, far larger than anything Shoel thought she could open without magic. Luckily, they were ajar, with plenty of room for the two riders to pass through. They were riding straight for those doors, and towards the sunlight beyond.
Distracting her from the view of their momentary destination, Hemlock twisted in his saddle, bracing himself on the cantle and calling back, "If you see anything in the shadows, please try to ignore it."
Please? she thought. He's actually being polite. And, for the first time since her breakdown not even an hour ago, she had the chance to wonder why. "Why?" she asked back, "What would be there?"
"Wraiths," was all he said. She'd heard the term before, in passing, but honestly had very little idea what they were. Some kind of Dead, perhaps? She didn't bother answering, guessing that she'd find out soon enough, if they were lurking in shadows outside the Ring of Fire.
"You don't know what a wraith is, do you?" he said disdainfully, turning back around in the saddle so that he could see ahead of him, but she could catch a glimmer of light from the corner of his eye, and knew he could still see her, too. "Some necromancer you are!"
"I'm a necromancer from a very different world," she answered calmly, refusing to be offended, since that was probably his intent, "and for all you know, I know exactly what a wraith is-- I only know it by a different name. You'd never heard of a Shadow Hand before I named Skelemis one, after all, did you?"
"The basic definition of a Shadow Hand can be determined from its name, a spirit minion, probably only usually seen with another necromancer," Hemlock answered sharply. Which was, of course, not at all a full definition of a Shadow Hand; he had, after all, no idea what Skelemis was capable of, nor what he would do if free. Shoel used his lack of knowledge as a ward against his anger, a lack of knowledge she decided not to remedy. Hemlock was, after all, still an enemy. "A wraith, however," he continued, sounding superior, "could be much more dangerous if you don't know what it is capable of, or how to ward it off."
"Then, please, enlighten me; I would not wish to be unprepared," was all she said.
"I'm not sure if I want to," Hemlock snorted. "Maybe Jasien wouldn't hold me accountable if a shadow-being drained your life force. After all, I don't have any light magic to speak of."
Which, of course, was enough information for Shoel to protect herself with and know, basically, what she faced-- just in a rude manner. With mixed humor and annoyance, she twitched her fingers in the sign for a very simple Charter mark for light, flicked them at Hemlock, and a small, but bright, light suddenly appeared over his head. "I think we'll be fine," she said.
If she'd been looking to irritate him, she'd failed, for Hemlock's voice was amused, and maybe a little proud, for no reason Shoel could imagine, as he swatted gently at her light. "As if such a minor spell would hold wraiths at bay. I certainly hope you're not going to leave that there for the entire trip." In answer, she beckoned the mark back to her, and on the way the light went out. "I brought torches," Hemlock added. "They don't like fire, either. They only come out after sundown, though, so we should be all right."
"Just like the Dead I'm used to," Shoel murmured to herself, looking around. They were outside now, making their way down the mountainside. The path was narrow and lined with trees, as it wound through a forest. The air already felt a bit cleaner, and Shoel felt herself starting to relax in response. The necromancer ahead of her didn't seem immune to the effect of the scattered sunlight and birdsong, either, for both he and his mount looked more relaxed, as well.
"Why are you doing this?" Shoel asked suddenly.
"Why?" He turned to look back at her again, glaring. "That is for me to know, and you to find out if you can. If you're afraid I'm going to attempt in being your end, I am unarmed. No magical items to enchant, no armor, not even a simple poison. As for leading you to your death, anything here that would kill you, would kill me, as well. So quit worrying your pretty little head." Turning back around with what was probably a rude gesture, he added, "Though I suppose if I really wanted to I could enthrall a wraith, or even summon a skeleton of a predator to semi-life. Not that there are any in this area."
"I could probably defeat one, anyway," she said, a little sullenly. "I was just asking. I can't see why you would, even if you weren't an enemy." I've been pretty horrible to him, after all, she admitted to herself. Not that it wasn't deserved, but it still made his strange desire to help her keep her sanity that much more incomprehensible.
"You could kill me easily as I am," he snapped back. "Here your bells should work better, there's something about this universe that makes magical ability carry better. If you wanted, you could already have me at your beck and call." Shoel shuddered at the thought of having a necromancer for a bound slave.
"The only binding I would ever put on you is to walk you through the final Gate of Death," she promised hotly. "My bells are not for personal gain, or revenge, or seeking power, but to protect the living. That is my duty, not to play around with someone I don't like."
"Duty, duty, duty," Hemlock sang mockingly. "When it comes down to it, is duty truly that important? What would you rather do, grab a chance at meeting your enemy on the field of battle, or protect civilians?"
"If I were more interested in my enemy than duty," Shoel ground through her teeth, "you and every Dead thing at the Ring of Fire would be banished by now. So you should be glad I'm not like you."
"Perhaps you and I are more alike than you know, then," the necromancer said cryptically. "Not that you'd admit it-- nor would I, on a normal day."
"Alike?" Shoel just snorted, not even wanting to contemplate that. Instead, she changed the subject. "So where is it we're going, exactly?"
"Mistress of subject changes, are we?" Oddly, he sounded a little disappointed. Maybe he had been looking forward to poking at her more. "As for where we are going... simple someplace that doesn't reek of death."
"I was wondering if maybe said place had a name," Shoel drawled.
"Well, I'd imagine most provinces have a name, so I suppose it does, as well."
"Fine, then, if you're just going to be difficult!" Shoel exclaimed, rolling her eyes skyward.
"One bad turn deserves another, I suppose." And, to her complete surprise-- completely ruining her growing bad mood-- he turned in his saddle and stuck his tongue out at her. "Isn't the fact that I'm not going to try to kill you good enough?"
She just blinked at him, then, surprising herself, hid a giggle behind a hand. "I suppose so." He just glared at her and twisted back to face ahead, muttering to himself something that she couldn't hear. She let him, tired of being angry, and focused on their surroundings, the peaceful forest and her waning sense of the Dead. Let him curse her under his breath if he wanted to; she was going to relax.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.