Although the Duke’s letter had cleared up some of the mysteries that were plaguing me, it created many more questions than it had answered.
For starters, I now knew, at the very least, that it wasn’t incompetence that made him send Sarah to her death, as distasteful as his reasoning was. Were I a bit more morally deficient, I might even have appreciated his gesture. As it was, it was taking me a good deal of self-control not to set out to his castle and wring his neck.
But there were so many things mentioned in the letter that left me completely puzzled. Why did he think I was bent on world domination, and where did he get the idea that I was looking for allies?
Where had he learned about Heroes being summoned multiple at a time, and why did he think it was common knowledge? I was not even certain his claim was true — while I was no expert on Hero lore, I had not heard of such a thing.
And the one I almost missed among the other bombshells, and the one that vexed me the most: where did this prophetic dream of his really come from?
I was no master in the Aspect of Fate, but I was well versed in all matters arcane — and a so-called “natural ability” in an Aspect, no matter which, would never by itself generate such an intense phenomenon. A “natural ability” merely allowed the user to manipulate a minute amount of free mana — they lacked an open Gate and a conduit, so what they could weave was very limited. Someone with a natural ability in Force would be able to light kindling on fire or levitate a couple of pens, but no more.
I had never met someone with a Fate ability, but by simple deduction I knew he should not have been able to do anything more than a couple seconds’ worth of precognition.
All these cemented my conviction that there were bigger players in this game, pulling the strings. Were there factions among the gods who disagreed with the Hero and Villain dichotomy? Was it only an elaborate set up by someone trying to bait me into a trap? Or was the whole thing just a diversion, trying to get me to keep my attention off something else?
I felt helpless before all these unknowns, a crushing weight ready to overwhelm me. There were clearly other parties involved in the game, and I had not the vaguest idea who I was dealing with. Were they gods? Were they something else entirely? Still, it did not seem like I had the luxury to abstain from playing — that decision had been made for me when I was named Dark Lord.
It seemed my only recourse at the moment was to approach Duke Illvere, despite the mystery surrounding him having the smell of a trap. Sniffing out whoever was pulling his strings was the number one priority, and for that I had to prepare.
Little had changed in Ravenrock since my last visit, several days ago though people did seem a bit more animated. The Harvest festival was approaching in a couple of weeks, and I supposed the population was getting in the holiday spirit.
My first stop was to pick up Sarah’s armor from Master Kallo. He’d given word through a wight that he was done with it, and I was excited to see what he and Sarah had come up with.
The set of plate left me gob smacked. I knew Sarah to be a cheery, happy-go-lucky kind of girl, so I expected she’d go for a knight-in-shining-armor sort of look, but this set was anything but. It was all black, with sharp angles and bloody red decorations — and it had spikes! Of all things!
Kallo smirked at my reaction, relishing in my surprise. “Didn’t expect that, did ya? I’ll be honest, the lass surprised me too when she told me what she wanted, but it did turn out nicely in the end, didn’t it? She said she wanted to play up the whole “evil Death Knight” shtick.”
“Turned out nicely” was too humble, in my opinion. The thing was a masterpiece. I made sure to leave a handsome tip as a wight collected the armor. Now, to collect its recipient.
“Jules!” Leon greeted me with a grin as he lifted his old bones from the compound’s porch.
“Leon,” I responded warmly. After all the adventures we’d been through together, the man was like a brother to me. “How’s the training been going?”
He gave me an incredulous look. “That girl is insane. I don’t know where you found her, but her fortitude is something else.” We walked through the hallways of the compound, heading towards the inner courtyard. “At first I wanted to see how long she’d be able to keep fighting — I knew dumb undead are able to just keep going, but I figured since she’s intelligent she should have the mental same limits as a human.” He looked at me and I nodded in confirmation. “So after I was completely spent, I had my disciples to sub in, and then I had that minion of yours fight her through the night—” My eyebrows shot up at that. “—and then she kept going. For three. Fucking. Days.” He paused after each word, for emphasis.
“Like, seriously, if only she had a bit more confidence in herself, she’d be a fucking menace. A rough jade, that one, but nothing some polish won’t fix.”
“I hadn’t realized she was that outstanding. I knew she was somewhat special, but this goes beyond my expectations.” I hadn’t mentioned the Hero aspect to Leon. Although I trusted him, I didn’t trust somebody else not to fish around through his mind.
“And that’s not all, either. She would have kept going, but I stopped her in the evening of the third day and gave her some time off. And when she returned in the morning, she was brimming with resolve and somehow also physically stronger and faster.” Leon gave me a warning look. “I get you have your secrets,” he spoke in a quiet voice, “but you should be careful with that girl.”
I could only grimace in embarrassment at that. “I know,” I replied just as softly. “There are some special circumstances surrounding her, but she herself is not a threat.” I did not deserve such a good friend.
We walked in silence towards the heart of the compound, finally arriving at the courtyard at its centre. The courtyard was divided into four quadrants, each covered in soft sand, which served as sparring arenas or training grounds for Leon’s disciples.
In the quadrant farthest from us, Sarah was fighting three of the junior disciples at once. While she held a blunted wooden long sword, the disciples were fighting with live weapons. A good way both to make her take their blows seriously, and to get the kids used to fighting without pulling their punches.
She noted my arrival as Leon and I approached, calling a halt to the exercise. She faced me with a serious expression, none of her usual cheer present.
“Boss. We need to talk.”
Leon had excused himself, giving me and Sarah enough privacy to talk about her worries. She raised some interesting issues — she complained of going through uncharacteristic bouts of rage, when normally her emotions were significantly more subdued. She also asked if I had done something to make her more loyal, which put me in a bit of a bind. While I hadn’t done it deliberately, the process of raising her from the dead did have a side effect of leaving the subject with a more… favorable impression of the caster.
“I will be honest with you,” I began, as delicately as I could, “while I would never intentionally do anything to control your mind or soul, when I brought you back, your soul spent a significant amount of time suffused in my mana.” I paused, trying to find a way to simplify the phenomenon into something she could understand. Sarah waited, the severity of her expression giving way to some pensiveness. “That mana tends to linger for a while, maybe a couple of months, and may make you trust me more, or have a more favorable impression of me. It should go away after a while, though.”
She mulled over the information, occasionally flapping her hands as she digested my confession.
“Okay, I believe you. Or the mana thing is making me believe you. Whatever.”
“That easily? I was expecting you to curse me or punch me in the face.”
“I can still do that if you want to,” her face broke into a grin as she raised her arms into a boxing stance. “I mean, you still saved my life. That’s worth something. Anyway, is the rage thing related?”
“Ah, I did recently read something that might explain this. I was meaning to bring it up, actually.”
I gestured at a nearby bench, inviting her to sit. I took my place next to her and began to explain.
“You see, you are at this age when your body starts to go through some very big changes — this can come with imbalances in your body that lead to mood swings like you described—”
“I know about puberty!” Sarah yelled, all red in the face. I hadn’t realised she could still blush. “Jesus, what have you been reading? I’m sixteen! Girls go through puberty at, like, twelve!” She covered her face and mumbled through her fingers. “God, I can’t believe you tried to have the talk with me.”
I was at a loss. “It was Mother Sulli’s Guide on Raising Teenagers. I thought it was quite comprehensive.” I replied, miffed.
“You bought a parenting book for me? Aww, that’s almost sweet.” Her face was a smile again, but compared to her earlier ones, it felt more… genuine. “But yeah, it’s not puberty. Unless undead go through a second puberty, I guess, but that doesn’t make all that much sense.”
“No, they shouldn’t. There’s another possible explanation, but... “ I hesitated, not wanting to ruin our little family-like moment. “...I would need to look at your soul again to confirm.”
“Okay, go ahead.” I started. “What? I trust you. After this, you’re either the world’s best manipulator or the worst, and you’re already good at too many things,” she said with a laugh.
Without further ado, I activated Soul Vision and dove into her soul.
I had missed it on my previous searches, but now that I knew to look for it, I found it fairly easily. A small glob of foreign soul — mine — floated around the structures of her soul. I decided it would be unwise to do anything to it without consulting with Sarah first, so I removed myself from the soul space.
“It’s soulbleed,” I declared with no preamble. “A little bit of my soul that attached itself to yours during the surgery. Like the mana, your soul should eat it after some time, but you’ll share some of my instincts while it’s there. I could also try to remove it, but that route poses its own risks.”
“Huh. What instincts are we talking about?”
“Well, you said you felt angry, and I have a notoriously short temper so it should be along that line.”
“And it’ll go away on its own?”
“Then I’d rather not go through more soul fuckery if that’s okay by you.” Sarah stretched her back and tilted her head at me. “You’re the one who came here, did you want to talk about something?”
“I do, but that should wait until we return to the tower. It’s not secure enough here.”
“Training time over, then?” she asked, face hopeful.
“For now. Oh, and there was something else.” I sent a command to the wight that accompanied me to approach. She laid down the box she was carrying before Sarah’s feet.
“Open it.” I coaxed Sarah. She knelt next to the box and removed the lid. “The armor! Already?” She removed each piece from the box, reverently, inspecting them as she went. “Dang, I wasn’t expecting that guy to be so speedy.”
“Boss, is it okay if I stay here for the evening? You can’t just drop this on me and expect me not to take it for a spin,” she declared with a grin.
“Fair enough. Meet me at the tower when you’re done here. There’s something you need to see.”