"Mama!"

The soft blue light bathed the dark room in its radiance.

"Sara? Is that you, Sara?"

"Mama! Ma..."

The light flickered and faded, dying out.

"Sara! Sara! No, my darling, don't go! Sara! Bring her back! Please, by all that's holy, bring her back!"

~X X X~

It was good to be home, Bartido Ballentyne decided. The misty highlands and heather-strewn meadows of Albion were where he'd grown up, and despite the way the months he'd spent abroad had seeped into his soul, it felt good to be back again.

His superiors, the men who'd sent him as a spy to the Silver Star Tower, weren't happy with his failure, of course. Bartido had infiltrated the Magic Academy and became Dr. Chartreuse Grande's apprentice to recover the lost Philosopher's Stone. Possessing it had made the Archmage Calvaros nearly capable of usurping control of his nation by magical force alone; it would have made Albion forever secure from attack or allowed it to build an empire to rival the long-since-fallen Imperium.

He hadn't been able to obtain the Stone, but he had been able to confirm its destruction, so he could at least reassure his employers that no one else would be able to use it against Albion. That was something. And honestly, he preferred it that way. The Philosopher's Stome was too much power, more than anyone could be expected to bear. Human nature was what it was, and Bartido suspected there were more Calvaroses and Lujei Piches than there were Gammel Dores in the world.

That business was finished, though, and he was back home. He didn't mind the experience; while he hadn't accomplished his goal he had for the first time in his life gotten to test himself against a real-world situation, not an academic one, gotten a chance to see how he handled himself in a crisis, and had the opportunity to study alchemy under Dr. Chartreuse, one of the geniuses in the field.

The truth is, he said to himself as he strolled along the arching stone bridge that crossed the Avalon River, I miss it. Not the place itself, but the work—the idea that each day he was doing something significant and real, whether it was performing experiments that stretched the boundaries of alchemical knowledge or scheming to preserve his cover while hunting for a state secret. Somewhere he'd crossed the line from boy to man, and the everyday life of an Albionese gentleman seemed like a retreat from that.

Huh. I'm getting so serious-sounding that I might as well be Hiram. His best friend at the Tower had been a good guy, smart and dedicated and honest, but frivolity and humor weren't really part of his makeup. He wondered how Hiram was doing, whether his budding romance with necromancy professor Opalneria Rain was working out. They'd probably do well together; she was damn hot, but a woman that intense and driven was so not Bartido's type. He preferred someone more fun-loving, with a sense of humor, but doubted Hiram would find Ms. Opalneria's lack in that area to be a flaw.

He wished he could write and find out, but somehow he figured that correspondence between an Albionese spy and the third prince of the kingdom—and hadn't that been a shock?—wouldn't be viewed too kindly. Probably by people on either side.

Thinking of Hiram and romance made him think of Lillet Blan, another apprentice from the Tower. He'd had quite a crush on the pretty blonde witch, who was not only cute but quick-witted and witty, exactly the kind of girl he went for. He'd thought she felt something of the same attraction, but events had started moving fast before he could do more than flirt a little. And then he'd been sent home and she'd graduated—after she'd taken up with Dr. Chartreuse's pet project, the homunculus Amoretta Virgine. Though "taken up with" could have a lot of meanings, since after all "love" had a myriad of them and it was love in any form that Amoretta needed.

Bartido wondered if he'd ever see the doctor, or Hiram, or Lillet, or any of the others from the Tower again. It all seemed so far away now, but he had a feeling that someday he would. The bonds he'd formed and the events they'd shared were the kind, he thought, that made a permanent connection between people, the kind that drew them back together over time.

He strolled on across the bridge, not really sure where he was bound, his path leading him towards a coffeehouse on the far side with the curious name of the Red Badger. He paused when he saw the sign, wondering just how the place had earned the appellation, when he heard a voice call out to him.

"Bartido!"

Bartido turned his head to see who'd called, and saw that the cry had come from a couple of tables away from where he stood.

"It is! Bartido Ballentyne, as I live and breathe."

Bartido broke into a grin as the sandy-haired young man his own age got to his feet.

"Michael! What's it been, three years now?" he exclaimed as he clasped his friend's hand in a firm grip. "I see there's been some changes," he added, plucking at the collar of Michael Carstairs's black cassock. "You stuck with the seminary, then? I was half-convinced you were going to quit and tell your father what he could do with himself."

"Well, that's what I thought at first, but after a couple of months something strange happened. The more I studied, the more I trained, the more I knew that this was the right place for me to be. I guess you could say that I felt the call."

Bartido and Carstairs had known each other since childhood. Their families' estates had run alongside, and they were both in similar situations, the younger sons of landed gentry, caught by the expectations of their class: "one for the land, one for the army, and one for the Church," as the saying went. Bartido had played off his magic studies to avoid having to choose between a lieutenant's commission on land and a midshipman's berth at sea, while Carstairs had been intending to leave the seminary for a life on the stage once he'd saved up a little money.

Funny how that worked out. Bartido had ended up serving his country anyway, and Carstairs had ended up ordained. But then, there was a difference between a couple of fifteen-year-olds chafing at expectations and eighteen-year-olds who'd figured out at least some of what they wanted out of life rather than only knowing what others wanted of them.

"That took some guts," Bartido decided.

"Eh?"

"To go ahead and do what your father expected of you. That had to take some courage to face up to that idea."

"That would have just been my pride talking—which it took me quite a while to admit, I'll add."

"But it gives you an example from life when you're delivering a sermon on the topic," Bartido countered, making his friend grin.

"There is that consolation. But please, join me for a coffee and we can catch up on the past few years. Unless you have pressing business elsewhere?"

Bartido shook his head.

"No, nothing at all. In fact, that was part of what I've been bemoaning lately, having entirely too much free time on my hands since I've gotten back in the city."

He let his friend lead him back to the table, and a moment later a buxom waitress approached, her dark skirt, frothy scoop-necked blouse, and cross-laced corset looking much like a barmaid's, only considerably cleaner. Bartido ordered an iced cinnamon roll with his coffee.

"So then," he said once the woman had retreated to the kitchen, "if it's the cassock for you, what brings you to the city?"

"I'm a curate at St. Helena's, just three blocks from here upriver. They're not fool enough to set pups my age loose alone on an unsuspecting parish."

"Or an unsuspecting parish loose on you," Bartido joked. "So you're serving your apprenticeship here in a neighborhood full of wealthy artisans and traders, then? That must be an easy billet."

"Maybe not so much as you think. You see, the well-to-do tend to be educated. Literate folk read scripture, not just have it preached to them, and sometimes they take it out of historical and spiritual context when they do. There's quite a few who have some interesting notions about what they read. It's nice to see people who think for themselves—in fact, it's vital, since if you're just obeying by rote, how can you say that you really understand the choice you're making between good and evil?—but too often I see people parsing Holy Writ like it was a literature study and ignoring the message entirely."

Bartido nodded.

"I guess I see what you mean."

The waitress returned with his coffee and cinnamon roll.

"Here you go, sir. One coffee and one sweet roll. Let me know if there's anything else you'd like." She flashed him a flirtatious grin and he smiled right back.

"I think I see something else sweet I'd like right now."

"Aw, get off with you," she said, blushing faintly.

"Well, I wasn't moving that fast, but if you insist..."

She laughed, her blush growing, and spun back towards the kitchen.

"I gather by that exchange that you still have yet to fall in love?" Carstairs said dryly. Bartido grinned shamelessly at him.

"Nope. I thought that I was close to it, a couple of times, but no, not as yet."

"Just remember that lust is a deadly sin for a reason. It leads you into making foolish and shortsighted decisions as well as devaluing its object."

"You sound just like Hiram. Tell me, Michael, why is it that all my close friends end up being such sticks-in-the-mud?"

"To balance you out, of course. Moderation in all things, Bartido." Both of them laughed at that. "So who's this Hiram?"

Bartido sipped his coffee.

"A friend of mine from the Magic Academy. Good fellow, even though I don't think he'd recognize a joke if it bit him on the leg. Though I don't think the lady he fell in capital-L Love with would either, so they're pretty well suited."

"The Magic Academy," Carstairs mused. "So you kept up with your studies in that area?"

"Uh-huh." He paused as a thought hit him. "You're not going to start in on that, are you? A few words about my eye for the ladies is par for the course, but if phrases like 'witch-burning' start getting tossed around—"

"Nothing of the sort!" the priest interrupted, holding up his hands. "Blast it, Bartido, I found a vocation for the priesthood, not to be the village idiot!"

"Damn, I'm sorry." Bartido rubbed the back of his neck, feeling a little sheepish. "The priests back where I've been studying aren't so generous as the Church hereabouts."

The religious response to magic was by no means a settled matter, particularly as it started to come out into the open as a respectable and scholarly craft. Arch-conservatives considered magic to be the Devil's work, an absolute evil which had to be purged from the world, preferably by fire. More moderate clergy saw magic as being dubious, playing with forces perilous to a person's soul. The most liberal on the point saw magic as merely another expression of God's creation, which could be used for good or evil depending on the intent and actions of the magician. The Church in Albion tended towards the last attitude, though by no means had that always been the case.

"Apology accepted," Carstairs said, but his expression did not lighten. If anything, it became more serious; he drummed his fingers on the table pensively.

"I really am sorry, Michael," Bartido repeated, afraid that he'd wounded his friend more deeply than he'd first believed, but apparently that wasn't the case.

"What? Oh, no, that's not it. In truth, I was trying to think of how to ask you for a favor."

"What's so hard about that? The one thing I've got far too much of right now is time on my hands and nothing to fill it. What's that line, 'idle hands are the Devil's playground' or something like that? You should consider it your duty to give me something productive to do. Not to mention an act of friendship."

He took a gulp of coffee. He'd missed that taste while at the Tower, where tea was the standard hot beverage.

"You may not think that way once you've heard it," the priest warned.

Bartido shrugged.

"Maybe, maybe not. I'll worry about that once I have heard it. Go on and tell me." He took a bite of his cinnamon roll.

"What do you know about raising the dead?"

Bartido tried not to choke on the roll, managing to swallow at the last minute.

"Can't be done," he forced out between crumbs.

"What?" Carstairs seemed genuinely shocked.

Bartido gulped coffee to clear his airway.

"It can't be done," he repeated. "Dead is dead. The natural order of life and all that. You want to start breaking the laws of nature, you need a miracle, not a magician." His gaze narrowed. "Michael, you ought to know that."

"But I thought magicians summoned ghosts and spirits all the time?"

Bartido blinked.

"Ghosts? Oh, is that what you meant? I'm sorry; you said 'raising the dead' and I thought you meant bodily resurrection. No, ghosts of various types are the basic work of necromancy, one of the four arts of magic."

"Why is that any different?" Carstairs asked curiously, momentarily distracted by the point.

Bartido chuckled.

"You're asking me? I'm a lousy necromancer. Alchemy's my best field. The simple answer, which is all I know, is that when a necromancer summons a dead soul, it's still dead. It comes from Purgatory into our world, but it's just moving around, not changing." He wondered if it would be possible to create an Amoretta-like homunculus with a deceased person's spirit as the core, to effectively restore a dead person to life, but even if so it would be granting someone a new life, not resurrecting them into the old one. "When a dead soul inhabits or possesses a corpse magically, it doesn't make it alive, just the corporeal undead like a zombie or vampire."

"I see." Carstairs finished off his own coffee. "Well, in this case it is the spirits of the dead that we have to deal with."

Bartido nodded.

"A haunting?"

Carstairs shook his head.

"No, a spiritualist."

"I don't think that I know the word."

"That's not surprising. I think that they made it up. 'Spiritualism' is a kind of practice—I suppose you might call it a cult, in its way—that teaches that people can contact and communicate with the spirits of the dead. They say that death merely represents the ascension of the soul to a higher 'plane of existence,' whatever that means."

"Sounds like Heaven," Bartido commented offhandedly, hazarding another bite of his roll. The remark made his friend scowl.

"To the layman, perhaps, which is part of the problem. These spiritualists preach that on the Other Side, the burdens and cares, the human concerns of this world are shed. It's a rejection of the nature of sin, of free will, of the existence of objective definitions of good and evil. Much of the guidance is the same, but the underlying theology is completely at odds with Church teachings."

Now Bartido frowned. He wasn't the most religious person, but as someone who'd come face-to-face with devils, he'd be the last person to deny the existence of objective evil, evil that a person could choose to embrace or reject. A sorcerer who lost sight of what devils were soon found himself lost, seduced into darkness.

"As proof of their claims that they understand the metaphysics of life and death," Carstairs continued, "they say that they can put people in direct contact with the spirits of the deceased, to allow people to talk with their loved ones who have passed on. They hold 'seances' at which a 'medium'—their word for it—brings forth the deceased to manifest before them. You can imagine the effect this has on people who are grieving, lonely, desperate for solace that there truly is an afterlife."

"Proof as opposed to faith," Bartido noted.

"Exactly. So how do they do it? Is it a scam, a confidence trick based on the same principles as a sleight-of-hand performer uses? Or is it magic, necromancy? Whether their ultimate aim is a heretical cult, or to bilk innocent people out of their money, they need to be exposed as frauds."

"And you'd like me to do that?"

"Yes. You're a magician, after all. If this is nothing but a confidence trick, then with luck they can be exposed for it. If they are using necromancy to summon the actual spirits of the dead, then with a magician's knowledge you can show how it was done."

"I kind of hope it is necromancy, in that case," Bartido said. "That's something that can be easily proven. If it's a different kind of trick, then I'd have to figure out their apparatus, which could get difficult. Still, hey, it's something to test my wits on." He grinned confidently at his friend. "I'm glad I ran into you. Until today I've done so little real living since I got home that it feels like you need necromancy to talk to me!"