Part One: 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 Noble.
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 Noble careening downward.
The Noble 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 Noble’s expression fell further. “No, I’m...You know.” A spare. Allen kicked himself inwardly at his insensitivity. The priest was a Noble, 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 Noble child around. If they weren’t the heir, they were the spare. It was possible Lea didn’t even know their Noble 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.