I watched as Sarah read through the letter, gripping it as if she were holding on for dear life. Her face went from serious, to confused, finally settling on seething rage within the span of a minute. I had to use a quick Force spell to immobilize her hands before she ripped the letter to shreds.
“I understand how you must feel, but it’s evidence against the man. Destroying it would be foolish,” I said as I plucked the letter from her hands, releasing the spell.
“That prick! He completely—Argh!” Sarah devolved into angry mumbling as she took her rage out on the nearest wall.
Once she calmed down, I explained my theory about the Duke only being a pawn in a bigger game. Giving her something concrete to focus on seemed to help with her mood, and she was more than happy to join me for a brainstorming session.
“As much as I would love to flay the fucker’s skin from his bones, he’s probably worth more to us alive than dead.”
“I’m glad you think so. I agree, but I would have killed him if you wished.”
Sarah blinked. “Really? That would have been shooting yourself in the foot.”
I shrugged. “So is alienating your friends.”
“Oh, right! Speaking of enemies, remember Lord Every, the old Baron guy’s son? He’s been sending thugs to harass people in Ravenrock. Might be related to the conspiracy, might not.”
It was my turn to be surprised. “How ever did you find that out?”
Sarah’s face spread into a grin. “Well, I got ambushed by one of his gangs, and let’s just say it didn’t end well for them. I scared them so good I got them to work for me as a living police force.“
“Well, that’s an impressive achievement,” I congratulated her with a smile. “I’m curious, though, how are you paying these employees of yours?”
“Err, well technically, you are, boss,” she scratched the back of her head in fake embarrassment, “it’s your town after all.”
“I guess it is,” I sighed. I couldn’t complain about increased safety for the citizenry, could I? “In any case, the messenger who brought the letter is still in the tower. I have eyes watching her constantly, but do be careful that she doesn’t see your face. She’s likely one of the Duke’s inner circle.”
“Aye-aye, cap’n. I need to get used to the armor anyway, so it works for me. What’s the plan, anyway?”
“We’ll be paying the good Duke a visit and see if we can learn anything. It’ll be in a few days, so make sure your affairs are in order.”
Sarah gave me a nod and turned to leave, likely off to train some more. The girl could be single-minded about it, sometimes. Meanwhile, I focused my mind and began writing a mental list. After a moment’s hesitation, I also sent an order to all but a handful of my wights to muster at the tower. I had preparations to make if our trip was to go smoothly.
Three days later, I was seated in a black carriage with tinted windows, drawn by a pair of skeletal horses. It was important to sell the whole Evil Villain act. Sarah sat opposite of me, staring silently out the window.
I had sent Vinara ahead to inform the Duke of our visit two days ago. The taciturn woman was more than happy to leave my company, although I knew her involvement was far from over.
The atmosphere inside the carriage was… awkward. There were things I wanted to say to Sarah, but every time I tried, the words just remained stuck in my throat. I was getting ready for another attempt to speak when Sarah’s voice jostled me from my thoughts.
“You know, Boss, if you have something to say, just say it. No need to look like a constipated chicken.” She was sporting her usual smile.
“Fine, then,” I huffed. I did not look like a constipated chicken. “I have seen inside your soul, Sarah. You are hurting, and hiding your hurt behind the veneer of good cheer is only letting the wound fester.”
The smile disappeared as her face went blank. “And what would you know about that?” she murmured. “First you were a mage, now you’re a therapist?”
“You’re deflecting,” I stated, simply.
“So what? I don’t see how you have any right to pry into my feelings.” The mask of indifference gave way to anger.
“I don’t, but at the same time, you need to untangle that knot of feelings or you’ll just hurt yourself worse. I can be a friendly ear, or a… shoulder to cry on, should you wish to.”
“I don’t see how you can help,” she mumbled. “But, you know what, fine. Maybe it’s the soul thing making me do it, but if you really want to listen, I’ll tell you.” She took in a deep breath. “You don’t understand what it’s like for everyone around you to use you.” Her voice cracked, but she continued. “That’s how I got here, you know. My best friend… ex-best friend set me up — he was friends with my crush and said she liked me back. He got me to go for a public confession, but they arranged it together to humiliate me.”
“It was… so bad,” Sarah spoke softly, as if afraid the words would hurt her. I moved to sit next to her and placed my hand on her back, hoping to soothe her.
“I’d been bullied before, cause I was always different, one way or another, but this one was the worst, by far. It hurt like nothing before, so I climbed on top of the school building and jumped. Next I knew I was here.”
I sucked in a breath and squeezed her shoulder. She leaned into me, and I hoped she found some comfort in it.
Her voice cracked even more, some of the sorrow replaced with anger. “And I thought, hey, I could have a new start here. Be the strong knight in shining armor, saving people and whatever. And the first thing that happens is I get betrayed. Again.”
“It’s not fair,” she whispered.
“It’s not,” I agreed. I had nothing but platitudes to offer her, so I stood silent as she sobbed tearlessly in my chest.”
Our talk had cleared the air some, and although I knew you couldn’t heal deep-seated trauma like that with just one breakdown, I hoped it would lead her to a healthier approach to dealing with her feelings.
As we travelled towards Ardenburg, I took the time to tutor my minion on basic etiquette and common knowledge that any inhabitant was expected to know. She would play up the “silent brooding Death Knight” guise, which would hopefully keep her status as a Hero concealed, but there were still many things she would be expected to know.
Aside from that, I spent my time playing around with Dimension magic. I quickly found that casting Haste on one horse but not the other was a recipe for an upturned carriage, which should have been obvious, in hindsight. More amusingly, I found that Hasting both horses made them look incredibly silly from an outside perspective.
I soon reached a plateau in using the two spells, which wasn’t surprising given the simplified spell structure. Instead of copying a more advanced structure from a manual, however, I opted to try to make my own. It would be an interesting exercise until we reached the capital.
Simplifying a spell is much easier than taking a simple spell and extrapolating it. I wasn’t even sure using the simplified spell as a base would be of any use, so instead I pondered on the nature of time and how it interacts with the world, and began creating a spell form from scratch.
About a day and many sheets of discarded schematics later, I had my own variant of Haste, even if slightly weaker than the apprentice version I had practiced. The advantage, though, was that this one I understood inherently, and I already had a few ideas forming on how to improve it. It was, in all, a productive start.
By the time we made it to the gates of Ardenburg, I had developed a second spell form, this time for Slow. I ended up using it on Sarah who was bored out of her wits and wanted nothing more but to end the trip faster.
There was a large queue leading to Ardenburg, but no one made any motion to stop us as we made our way past it and up to the gate. I supposed the skeletal horses were an effective deterrent.
We were finally halted by a young, bare-faced guard right in front of the gate. He couldn’t see inside the carriage, although we had no problem seeing him. There was no driver, so he reluctantly addressed the carriage itself.
“Uh, w-we have been informed of your ar-arrival so if you would kindly follow m-me, I will escort you to the Duke’s residence.”
In lieu of an acknowledgement, I used magic to wiggle the horses’ reins, and the young man hesitantly climbed on top of the coach and began guiding the carriage into the city. I felt a bit bad for making him nervous, since he was just doing his job, but appearances mattered and, at the same time, I did not want the general population to know it was me at the gate, at least for now. Of course, many would guess given the ostentatious display with the carriage, but they wouldn’t know for sure, whereas if I had disembarked to approach our guide, I would have given myself away immediately.
The carriage trudged along the wide boulevards of Ardenburg, and I was surprised to see the stark difference compared to Ravenrock. While my little town had something of a homely feeling, Ardenburg gave off a much more impersonal big city atmosphere. Not surprising, given its population of a hundred thousand souls, which put it somewhere among the ten biggest cities on the continent.
While in Ravenrock everyone seemed to know everyone else, in Ardenburg people rarely seemed to spare a glance to other passers-by. I even spotted a few beggars sitting around the street corners, ready to bolt if a guardsman approached them.
Eventually, the carriage stopped at the entrance of a large courtyard, and I heard our guide speaking in hushed tones with someone at the guard post. The gate opened with a squeak, and so we entered the front courtyard of the Duke’s palatial residence.
The yard consisted of veritable mazes of hedges and flowers, and I wondered just how much gold the man had to spend for the grounds’ upkeep. I had heard something about some fierce taxes in the Duchy of Canneria, so I suspected a good deal of them went to support his lavish lifestyle.
I already hated the man, and this did not endear him to me at all.
The carriage came to a stop in front of the residence’s grand entrance, and through the window I spied a contingent of people awaiting us — to my surprise, Vinara was among them. I smiled inwardly — if she was well positioned at court, this would be helpful to my plans.
As I made sure my cloak was all proper, Sarah donned her helmet, and soon we descended into the wolves’ den.