"Grand Witch Lujei!" Bartido rallied a little. His heart was still in his throat, but past the initial moment of shock, he could speak, he could act. Which was good, because he'd have to do one or the other or both in order to get out of this mess alive. Just sitting around wouldn't accomplish anything but make him a target. "I...didn't expect to see you."
"Your kind never does," Lujei said. "Smile and bow and speak golden words between kisses, only to walk away and never look back when you're done with us. Oh, I know you, Bartido Ballentyne. Your poisonous charm that turns words of love into acts of betrayal, just like my dear Mevy."
Her fingers slid along the bare white curve of the skull in an almost caressing gesture.
Bartido had only seen the ghost of Lujei Piche a couple of times at the Tower, always in a teacher's company—for which he was very thankful. Even so, she was unforgettable. He knew her story, too, of how she'd schemed to take the Philosopher's Stone for herself after the Archmage's fall, and how her apprentice and lover had murdered her to prevent that, a political assassination urged on by their kingdom's government.
"But now," she continued gaily, "the winds of chance have brought me right to you. And who am I to deny the offering of good fortune?"
"Hey, I never lied to you," Bartido protested. "I didn't say more than two words to you while you were talking to Dr. Chartreuse!"
"Mmm, you were a quiet little mousey at that." She planted the staff on the floor and whirled herself around it, almost like she was dancing. "Go on; if you're entertaining enough I might be persuaded to make things easier for you. Fun gained for fun lost, you might say."
Which neatly summarized the reason why Bartido had barely spoken to the ghost witch, despite her being intelligent, powerful, and stunningly gorgeous, three things he found extremely attractive in a woman. She was also, however, scary as all hell and quite possibly insane.
"I'm not sure that sounds like a very powerful incentive, Mistress," remarked the skull. Mevy, apparently, was the lover who'd murdered her; she'd come back as a ghost and taken her revenge—not just killing him (slowly and painfully) but trapping his soul in undeath with her besides.
"Then I'll get to have my original fun, darling, so I really can't lose at all, can I?" She smiled lazily, like a cat who'd learned how to open milk bottles.
"I didn't lie to you," Bartido repeated. "Sure, I was after the Philosopher's Stone, but it wasn't you I was trying to steal it from. I wanted it for my country, because we were afraid of what would happen if the government of your country got ahold of it. You should know better than anyone what they're like. If they'd send an assassin after you, then what would they do to Albion?"
"And what do I care about Albion? It's a boring place, with too many sheep."
"I would think you'd care about giving the people who murdered you exactly what they wanted."
"And I do. But you fail to understand the most important thing. The Philosopher's Stone belonged to me. You might have been the better choice among the thieves out to steal it, but you are still at the end of it all just another thief. When you have rats in your pantry, you don't spend your time deciding which is the cutest one; you get rid of all the pests."
She drifted closer to him as she was talking, and Bartido found himself taking another step back, until his shoulders were pressing against the wall.
He couldn't understand what she was even doing there, what twist of fate had caused the Rune to call out to her—or for her to answer. The only thing that he could even imagine was that his curiosity over the Rune's function (which was, after all, the reason he'd activated it in the first place) had been enough of a force in his mind that his brain had, however fleetingly, thought of the people he knew who might explain it. Lujei made Nathan Dundee and Opalneria Rain look like apprentices when it came to Necromancy, and unlike them she was a spirit herself and so theoretically reachable by necromantic magic.
Yeah, well, it's also a theory that I wouldn't have been stupid enough to consciously try to summon the ghost of a Grand Witch who'd as likely to want to fillet me as answer my questions!
"Mmm, does the cat have your tongue, mousey? You've been quiet for a bit now, and one of the problems of being dead is that it's so dull. Haunting the same halls for year after year... Did you know that there are four hundred and thirty-seven flagstones in the floor of the second hall above the dormitory rooms?"
But he had summoned her, not by deliberately seeking out Lujei, but by tampering with unknown magic. Magic, moreover, that had shown the ability to do something previously believed impossible and which was therefore almost guaranteed to be potentially dangerous. And he'd blundered right in, like an apprentice trying to call up a fairy and summoning a dragon he couldn't hope to control.
"If you like, I could help you make that 'cat got your tongue' idiom the truth. I do so worry about the way idioms can be confusing, don't you?" Lujei purred.
He hadn't noticed it before, because Lujei's appearance had been so shocking, but now he realized that the link was still there, the bond between master and summoned familiar. It had been present, of course, when the ghost had first manifested, but it was still there.
Which meant that he had a chance.
One chance, maybe. If it failed, he knew he wouldn't get another. The difference in power between them was too great. His only chance was surprise, and the hope that Lujei herself hadn't noticed what the link might mean.
Bartido gathered his will, steeling himself like never before. He'd brought unruly chimeras to heel in the past, a real struggle particularly when he'd first learned to create them, but this was something else entirely. He'd be pitting himself not against a raging beast, but a master magician with vastly more experience at this than he had.
In one sudden burst, he hurled everything he had, everything he was at her, the entire force of his gathered will as he cried, "Begone!"
And she vanished.
Bartido blinked, straining with every physical and magical sense that he had for any trace of her presence. He couldn't believe he'd won at first; it felt more like the handfighting trick of ducking out of the way of an opponent who was expecting a clash so that they spent their force against empty air and went stumbling or even falling, vulnerable. After a couple of minutes, though, he was forced to accept that she really wasn't there. Even the familiar bond was gone, the link to the ghost vanished along with her.
He let out a long sigh of relief, feeling his shoulders and back relax the tension he hadn't known he was putting on them. His right hand ached, and he realized that he'd been clenching it around the lantern handle the entire time—probably a good thing, as he might well have dropped it otherwise, and perhaps set the house alight. He passed it over to his left hand and shook the right one to try and get its circulation going again.
Feeling a little more like himself, Bartido dismissed the Rune as he had the Laboratory earlier. He certainly wasn't going to try any more experiments of that sort! One narrow escape was more than enough.
If I did escape.
Somewhat belatedly, he realized that even though he'd been able to return Lujei to wherever he'd summoned her from, he might still have landed himself in danger. The confrontation with the ghost witch hadn't been silent. They'd talked, for one thing, three different voices with three different tonal qualities to catch people's attention. Had Lujei raised her voice in anger as well? Had Bartido cried out in surprise at her appearance? Had his "Begone!" been an emotion-filled shout instead of a command?
The fact was, he might have already roused the household, masters and servants alike, through his carelessness.
The easy way to check would have been to call on his homunculus again and look through the house too see where people were. Unfortunately, that was impossible; his familiar had used all of its mana already and could do nothing more until it rested. If Bartido had the few minutes it would take the homunculus, he wouldn't need the power, because having the time would be proof that the Proseccos and their servants were still abed.
Bartido had no intention of waiting passively to know his fate. Cautiously, he slipped open the panels a tiny crack, and on seeing no one waiting for him in the anteroom he slipped through and closed the archway off behind him. It was a work of a moment to reset the alarm cords, but the lock was a trickier matter. He wavered for a few seconds over whether to spend the time, then decided he ought to try, since if he'd woken anyone up they'd already know that someone had been in the house, but if not he still wanted to do his best to avoid leaving traces. He still didn't hear any footsteps or shouts of alarm, saw no light from the corridor, so it seemed likely it was worth a chance.
It seemed to take even longer to work the picks in the lock this time. He didn't know whether that was because locking was a more difficult task than unlocking, or because nerves had left him clumsy in the aftermath of the encounter with Lujei. He got it done, though, and left the anteroom.
The inability to bar doors after he'd left meant that he'd have to leave the way he came. His nerves were on fire as he crept upstairs and down the hall, but nothing happened, no one jumped out to confront him, no squad of ghostly familiars faded through the walls. Instead, he was able to make his escape without incident, even down to re-latching the window with a looped piece of string, and slipped away into the night.
~X X X~
Michael Carstairs sat, shoulders hunched, on the driver's seat of the rented carriage. The river air was clammy, and he was glad of the cape he wore over his jacket. He'd thrown it on for anonymity rather than warmth, but it was doing dual purpose now.
Ordinarily, waiting alone for someone to return from business was among the most boring of jobs, but Carstairs couldn't even surrender to that. His awareness of the possible consequences kept intruding, but even worse was that fact that ultimately it all rested on someone else. If Bartido was successful, everything would be fine. If he was caught...well, Carstairs probably wouldn't be defrocked, but he could say farewell to any career aspirations. To say nothing of possible punishment under the ordinary criminal laws of Albion! He wasn't even sure what the penalty was for assisting in a burglary.
The minutes crept by, therefore, with agonizing slowness. More than once he'd checked the time just to reassure himself that it was passing at all; he did so again, slipping out his pocket-watch and opening the silver case. Forty-seven minutes since Bartido had left him waiting here. Forty-seven minutes in which anything could have happened!
Where is he? What's taking him so long?
"Here, now, what's all this?"
Carstairs nearly jumped out of his shoes, a little gasp bursting from his lips. He swung towards the direction of the thick, gruff voice and found himself looking down into Bartido's grinning face.
"I'm having some very unpriestly thoughts right now," he growled at his friend. "You nearly scared a year off my life."
"What's an expedition like this without a little excitement? Besides, it makes it even. I had quite a scare myself."
"You didn't—?" Carstairs caught himself before saying, "get caught" out loud, where an unexpected witness might hear.
Bartido opened the carriage door and tossed his haversack inside.
"No, nothing like that."
He closed the carriage door, then climbed up on the seat next to his friend so they could keep talking while underway.
"Let's get going."
Carstairs loosened the reins and urged the horses into motion. The wheels rattled over the cobblestones.
"I found out how they're doing it. You were right; it was Necromancy. I'm not really sure of the details, though." He shook his head. "It was an experience I'm not going to forget any time soon."
"You confronted them?"
"No, I didn't meet them at all. With luck, they won't even know that anyone was there. But I got a look into some of their magic."
"Oh, I see." He probably didn't, Bartido thought, but that was only to be expected.
"It solves your theological problem, at least," the magician pointed out.
"It does? I don't understand."
"The problem was what the ghosts were saying at the séance, if I remember correctly. They were giving eyewitness, or soul-witness, or whatever, testimony about what comes after death. The ghosts are summoned familiars, though. Now, a magician has more or less control over familiars based on the magician's power and skill and the familiar's nature. But the magician is still the one in control. They can compel the spirit to act, to answer—and to tell pretty lies that just happen to mesh with what the spiritualists are telling the paying customers. It's very straightforward, really."
"Then we have them!"
"If we can expose them as being magicians. Which will help in another way, too: they claim that they contact the dead through an entirely new kind of power, a special spiritual ability. Showing this ability up as orthodox Rune magic makes them liars and cheats instead of prophets."
"Of course, exposing one fake won't destroy the spiritualism movement. There'll be some people who, though accepting that the Proseccos are liars, will still believe that they were just one bad apple. That's just the way that people can be."
"That's a depressing thought."
"Still, there will be a much larger number who hear about this and will turn their backs on it. They might have been entertained, might even think the show was worth the price, like a night at the opera. But they won't be led by them into heresy, and that's the part that's really important. A person only follows another out of fear, love, duty, or respect. Exposure will strip them of that respect." He paused, then added, "Thank you, Bartido. I know that I've been a little difficult about what you did tonight, but you were right."
His friend's obvious sincerity made it hard for Bartido to say what he had to.
"Damn it, Michael, how am I supposed to give you grief when you say things like that?"
"I consider that an added benefit."
Bartido rolled his eyes.
"The problem is, we can't expose them just yet."
"There's still too many pieces left unanswered. The specifics of what they're doing, for one."
"I thought you just told me that you'd learned they were using magic."
"Well, yes, but the point is, what magic? I found the Rune that they're using, but that's not the same thing as understanding the mechanisms behind it. Or to put it another way, I figured out how they're playing the trick, but I don't yet know what the trick is. This Rune lets them do something that stumped even Master Dundee. That's not something I can just nod and walk away from."
Maybe instead of ordering Lujei to leave, I should have tried showing her the Rune. New magic might even have been entertaining enough for her to put aside whatever grudge she held towards him. And after all, that was his best guess as to how he'd wound up facing her in the first place.
"Apart from that, there's another problem," he continued. What was past was past; there was no point in dwelling on it further.
"What they're up to."
"I should have thought that was obvious."
"Money, yes. It's the mechanics of getting it out of this trust they've set up that interests me. They've already gotten an advocate involved; are there other players as well? Other mediums, maybe, using the same magical technique to convince their customers?"
"You mean, some kind of network of these people?"
"Why not? You said it yourself; spiritualism isn't just about one leader. And if the stakes are high enough, well, criminal organizations and business swindles are nothing new. I really wish I'd had a chance to search through the Proseccos' private papers. There might be incriminating correspondence or accounting records that would explain a lot of this."
"Why didn't you? You had the opportunity when you broke in."
Bartido shook his head.
"No, there's a real difference there. On the one hand, I didn't know where to start looking, especially if they get sneaky and use false bottoms in drawers, hidden compartments, and so on. That's a job for when you have time to work uninterrupted, not in a house full of sleeping people that might wake up at any minute. Plus, it'd be almost impossible to do that kind of search without leaving traces. I want the Proseccos to wake up tomorrow and go about their day without even knowing I was there."
Bartido chuckled softly at his friend.
"Really, Michael, for a fellow who was so against my doing this at all, you sound positively disappointed that I'm not committing more extensive burglaries." He clapped the priest on the shoulder. "But don't worry, I've got good news for you! This was just our first stop tonight."
"You and I have vastly different definitions of 'good news,' Bartido."