It was night - a dark hour for dark business, as the Black Magician had said. Actually it wasn't dreadfully late, only a little after sunset, so that the trees of the forest that surrounded this village could still be seen clearly against the deep blue evening sky. The first few timid stars hung shivering above the world, ducking in and out of sight behind the thin clouds. The moon was huge and round that night, casting pale rainbows around itself as the hazy clouds passed over it. It was a perfect night for magic, and the inhabitants of the little village had gathered to see some.
They had congregated at the very edge of town, just at the side of the road where hunters and woodcutters used to access the forest. It was there that the shadows were darkest, and there that the Black Magician and his apprentice had set up their stage. It was a simple affair that folded out of the side of their caravan wagon, but they'd made it bright with silver gauze ribbons and strings of glass beads. They sparkled brightly under the moonlight, shimmering with every breath of air. It made a fine show, without any magic at all. The nice thing about being able to show people magic - not just a few small wood-witch charms, but real, strong, flashy magic - was that people assumed that everything else you did must be magic. These people had come to see magic, and they were going to get their money's worth if they had to imagine it up themselves.
But they didn't have to imagine it tonight. Standing on the stage was the Black Magician's apprentice, who was putting on a show. The Magician himself stood a little away from the crowd, hidden half by the shadows and half by a small don't-see-me charm. He had to admit that he enjoyed watching her work. The show was never the same twice. Even as new at magic as she was, she seemed to have an innate knack for improvisation, and she never ran out of ideas. He watched her now as she went through her latest series of tricks.
As the audience watched, rapt, she invited those close to the stage to give her a bit of string or yarn. Someone offered one up, and she invited those on the front row to examine it to ensure that it was a truly ordinary bit of string, slightly frayed and a bit grubby, probably used recently to wrap a parcel or tie up a bundle of vegetables. Then she folded the string into a manageable length and began rolling it between her palms. As she did, it became thicker and thicker until it had clearly become the wick of a fat white candle. She set the candle on a little table, stepped a few paces away, and blew it a kiss. The candle visibly blushed pink, then burst into flame. Quickly she scooped the flame up into her hands, holding it gently in her cupped palms. Carefully she pulled it into two flames, then two more, until she had eight of them drifting around like a handful of fireflies. She tossed them into the air one by one, and they became eight golden balls, which she juggled for a few seconds before catching them all in one hand, where they melted together like beads of mercury and became a single ball. She tossed it onto the candle, where it caught and became a flame again. She blew the candle out, and then wound the smoke around her fingers, trailing it in the air. The smoke became a glowing rainbow, which turned into a flurry of multicolored butterflies that sailed off into the night. The audience didn't applaud. They were too amazed to remember their manners, and only sighed and gasped in amazement.
The Black Magician watched her with a mixture of pride and faint misgiving. The pride was easy enough to explain. Who wouldn't be proud of such a pupil? She was a fast learner with a natural gift, and a compelling stage presence to boot. She was eager and obedient, and stayed optimistic even when her studies were not going smoothly. No, he couldn't complain too much about her.
Except... well, he was supposed to be teaching her not just any sort of magic, but the black magics, the deep secrets. What she was doing was all well and good, but it wasn't, well... the fact of the matter was that he hadn't been training her just to turn her into a stage magician. The stage magic was a cover, and something to do to pick up a few spare coins. It gave them an excuse to go from town to town, to nose around and talk to people. Their real work was the great magic, and so far, all he'd gotten out of her were rainbows and butterflies and trifles.
Did I misjudge her, I wonder? he thought, as he watched her turning scraps of paper into tiny dragons that flew spirals around her. No, that wasn't possible. She had the potential. No one who wasn't suited for the great work could approach magic with such ease, as if it were as natural as breathing. All the same, when he had been an apprentice, he had been making forests walk down into the sea and plucking stars down from the sky like apples. His apprentice, however, seemed to be content to play at stage tricks rather than try to change the universe. Which he supposed was not an inherently bad thing - after all, changing the universe could have unforseen consequences - but if only she'd show a little more ambition...
Then again, perhaps that was his failing. She had been so innocent when she'd come into his care, and he hadn't been able to push her as hard as his own tutor had pushed him. Maybe he should start encouraging her to move out of her comfort zone a little.
The show ended, and there was a small pause as the audience recovered their breath. Then they burst into applause. The Black Magician Girl curtseyed prettily, and the audience responded with even louder applause, cheers, and whistles. That was the Black Magician's cue to slip out of his hiding place and pass the hat around. By the time it came back to him, it was nearly full to the brim with bronze, copper, even silver and gold coins. He smiled a little. Well, it looked like they weren't going to have any trouble paying for supplies any time soon.
Eventually the crowd dispersed, and the two magicians began packing up their props and folding away the stage.
"That was fun!" said the Black Magician Girl. "I think I'm really getting the hang of this."
"It was a beautiful performance," said the Black Magician softly, as he finished bundling up the banners.
She looked at him, her expression suddenly anxious. "Did I do something wrong, Master Onyx? I didn't think I made any mistakes, but..."
"No, no, Estelle," he said. "You made no mistakes. I was only thinking of something else."
"Is it something I can help with?" she asked eagerly.
He mustered up a smile for her. "Perhaps. I haven't decided what I am going to do yet. When I have decided, I will let you know what you can do for me."
She nodded, all smiled again, and went back to tidying up. She seemed so happy, he thought. He was not sure that teaching her to master the deepest secrets of the universe was going to make her any happier - probably the opposite. Could he do that to her? Was it right? Was it necessary?
He truly wasn't sure yet. Perhaps, he thought wryly, there were some secrets of the universe even he didn't know.
The world of monsters was a strange and often unpredictable place. It had been built on a foundation of the dreams and wishes of the humans to which they were so intimately connected that they had once shared each other's souls. Even now that the two worlds were divided, they continued to reflect each other. As a human might dream anything, so their world also might contain anything. It meant that a few miles outside a perfect fairy-tale village populated by winged sprites and wizened sages, you could suddenly wander into a metallic landscape full of robots and computer sentries - and then again, you might meet the robots in the psuedo-medieval village and the fairies in the technological wonderland.
The other aspect of this was that humans tended to share dreams, to pass them on and incorporate them into the foundations of their world. These were archetypes that became parts of every story they told each other. The monster world reflected this by sometimes creating more than one "copy" of the same person. You could run into, say, an Amazoness Blowpiper in one little jungle village, and a three week journey away, there would be another just like her, in appearance if not in name or personality. There had once been only one Black Magician, and one Black Magician Girl, but they had left such a powerful impact in the minds of their world that others began following in their footsteps, and the magic of the world had conspired to cause these others to take on the same form and much of the same power. If they worked hard enough and made enough of a name for themselves, they could even break out of the mold again, spawning new archetypes, so that a Black Magician could transform into a Dark Sage or Magician of Black Chaos. Onyx himself had begun his life only as another boy with a knack for small cantrips when another Black Magician had seen his potential and apprenticed him. By the same token, Onyx had seen a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with a sweet nature and a gift for magic, and had begun training her to fit the mold. The fact that she had grown into it almost overnight had made him sure he'd made the right decision. Now he was wondering if she would have ended up as something else if he'd left her alone. The Magician's Valkyria, perhaps? There was no way to know.
He was thinking these thoughts as he sat in a small wayside inn, sipping a drink and watching Estelle, who had never been able to stay out of the spotlight, putting on a small performance for the men sitting around the fireplace. She wasn't even collecting coins this time, though by now he thought she could have easily gotten any one of them to pay for her meal and another besides. She was just doing tricks for the fun of it, turning ale into wine and back again, making the flames in the fireplace come out and dance on the hearth, or turn themselves into tiny salamanders that ran up the chimney.
She really is too good for just stage tricks, he thought. To let her go on doing this for the rest of her life would be a waste of potential.
"Sir?" said a deferential voice at his elbow.
Onyx turned to see an elderly bearded man looking at him in a worried, hopeful manner. Onyx let his face relax into an encouraging smile. He knew that look. It was the expression of someone who had need of a miracle, or at least something moderately wonderful, and was hoping the Black Magician was the one who could supply it for him.
"May I help you?" Onyx asked.
"Well, ah... you're a magician, aren't you?" the old man asked hesitantly.
"I have some skill in that regard," said Onyx smoothly. A certain amount of pussyfooting around, he'd learned, was expected in these cases. If you didn't act haughty and aloof, if you let on that you were only too pleased to help, they assumed you couldn't possibly be good or honest, and they clammed up.
"Well, ah," said the man again. "You see, there's this old house. It had a fire some time back, and the family what owned it doesn't want it no more, so they put it up for sale. I bought it - paid almost more than I could afford for it, for it was a truly fine house. I'd meant to repair the damage done by the fire, and then move my own family into it and rent out our little house to earn the money back. Only..."
"Yes?" Onyx prompted gently.
"Only I can't seem to get it repaired. Tried hiring some men from the village first, and they all quit after three days. Claimed that strange things would happen. They'd try to cut through a burnt beam that was naught more than charcoal and it would turn so hard their saws would blunt on it. They'd try to hammer a nail and it'd bend away like they'd been hammered into a stone. They said their tools would vanish and turn up in a heap somewhere else. They said it was an uncanny place and they would have no more to do with it, and they up and left. After the tales they told, I couldn't get anyone else in the town to work on that house, not for love or money, so I fetched my tools and some lumber and went to work on it myself. But it was like... well, I'd mend something and have it looking good as new, and I'd turn my back on it for a few seconds, and I'd look again and everything would be back the way it was, with all the new boards I'd hammered and sawn sitting in a stack untouched. And sometimes I'd hear voices, a woman's voice."
"Did she speak to you?" Onyx asked. "Whispering, moaning, weeping?"
"She sang, sir. Nonsense songs, like children's songs," the man said. "And then I started seeing shadows where no shadows should be, and faces peering through the windows when I knew for a fact no one was there. I won't go into that place again, sir. If it were possible, I'd never set foot inside that house again, but I near beggared myself buying it and I can't afford to give up on it. Do you think you could...?"
"Laying ghosts isn't my specialty," said Onyx, "but I'll do what I can."
"Thank you, sir!" said the man, almost tearfully grateful. "I don't know how I can repay you, but..."
"Payment is not necessary," said Onyx with a wave of his hand. "I am a magician, after all."
"Oh, of course, sir," said the man, head bobbing agreeably.
It was nonsense, of course. Magicians needed money like anyone else did. Magically created food tasted wonderful, but it wouldn't nourish a person the way real food would, and magical clothing had a way of simply vanishing or turning into something else at unexpected moments. It was far better to pay for real things with real money. That was what those nightly performances were for: to make enough coin that Onyx could do the things that he really needed to do without worrying about demanding money from people who were probably in enough trouble as it was.
"Just let me collect my apprentice," he said, "and then you can show us where this house is."
"Of course, sir. I'll just be waiting by the door."
Estelle was sorry to be pulled away from her audience, but delighted by the prospect of a real job. There were days when Onyx didn't even want her to watch what he was doing, much less participate. This time, though, he had promised that he would let her help. After all, he thought, she was more than powerful enough to cope with one restless spirit. It would be good practice for her, to dip her toes into some of the darker aspects of magic and learn how to deal with them. It would make her more ready for when he asked her to try something more truly dangerous.
The house itself was a grand old place, or had been once upon a time. Onyx could see that it hadn't been kept up in a while - probably, he guessed, longer than the house had been in the man's possession. He could see the damaged corner of the house where the fire must have been, with black streaks running up its sides where the fire and smoke had licked it, and holes in the roof that were now collapsing inwards in sooty clusters of shingles and roof beams. The rest of the house looked nearly as unwelcoming. It had probably been painted white once, with enough shutters, gables, gingerbread trim, balconies, and towers to make it look like some sort of wedding cake. He guessed that the trim had been blue once, but time and weather had turned it gray, and the white paint was grimy and moldy, peeling away in long strips or bulging up in scabrous blisters. In some places the paint had sloughed off entirely, showing the rotting boards beneath. Many of the windows were cracked or broken. Well, of course. Once an unfriendly ghost settled into a place, it was going to start looking like a haunted house no matter how hard someone tried to make matters otherwise.
"Here are the keys, sir," said the man, offering Onyx a rather battered keyring. "I hope you won't mind if I..."
"Go on home," said Onyx gently. It may take a few days before we can convince this ghost that it's time to move on. We'll let you know when we have anything to report."
The man nodded, clearly glad not to have to stay another moment longer, and turned and began loping swiftly back up the road. Onyx noted the direction he'd gone so that he could find him again later before turning his attention back to the task at hand.
"Well, apprentice," he said, handing Estelle the ring of keys. "I think I will let you do the honors."
She frowned a little, looking uncertain, but she also plainly did not want to disappoint her master. She carefully picked her way up the sagging steps and navigated her way across the porch, where green puddles had formed on the warped boards. She tried a few keys until one of them turned, although reluctantly, in the lock, and the door swung open with the obligatory creeeeeeeeeeeeak. Onyx had been expecting it. Estelle had not, and she jumped. The rotting floorboards also gave a creak, and wobbled, forcing her to grab her master's elbow to keep from losing her balance.
"It's all right," he assured her. "There is nothing in here that can harm you, and I'm here with you."
She nodded and looked apologetic. "It's creepy."
"We're going to fix that," he promised. "Let's go inside. Light your wand."
Estelle raised her staff, and Onyx followed suit. Both of them now had pale white lights burning at the tips, just bright enough to see by. The house appeared to have been abandoned with all of its furnishings still inside, but they were beginning to fall apart just as the house was. Cobwebs hung heavily on everything, and water stains crept down the walls and puddled on the ceilings. A scent of decay hung thickly over everything. Though the night had been mild, the air inside the house was chilly.
"What are we looking for?" asked Estelle uneasily.
Onyx considered for a moment. He could just work the spell that would force any stray spirits that might be lurking there to depart, but that wasn't the only purpose to this trip. He was here to give Estelle some experience, and that meant she needed to do some of the work.
"For tonight," he said, "let us begin by determining whether or not there truly is a spirit residing here. You remember how I showed you to do that, don't you?"
Estelle nodded, looking pale but determined. "I can do it."
"Well, then, let me see you."
Slowly, Estelle stepped into the center of the room they were standing in - a parlor of some sort, with a moldering carpet and dust-covered chairs. When she came to the center of the room, she traced her wand in a circle around her, leaving a trail of soft white light. Then she settled herself in the center of it with her wand resting over her knees. She closed her eyes and began taking deep, slow breaths. For a long while, nothing happened.
Come on, my girl. You can do it, thoght Onyx, but he said nothing aloud. He didn't dare break her concentration at this crucial moment.
"I see," she said softly. "I see... a family. A large family - children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. A happy family."
"Go on," Onyx encouraged.
"There's a baby... a new baby, a little girl. Her mother is so happy."
"Good. Keep going."
"It's winter. There's a fever going through the village. A lot of people are sick. A few people have died. The mother is worried. Her baby is sick. She's frantic. They've called the physician, but he's been so busy, he can't look after everyone all the time. The baby is getting worse and worse. She's..." Estelle choked. Tears were slipping from behind her closed eyes. "The baby is dead."
Onyx remembered the man saying that he'd heard a voice singing children's songs. He nodded slowly.
"What became of the mother?" he asked softly.
"She can't stand it. It was her first child, and she can't stand losing her. She cries all the time. And then... something changes. Her... her mind is different. She knows her baby is dead but she thinks she's not. She's walking around the house holding a doll and singing do it. Sometimes she walks from room to room and tells people she's trying to find her baby, that her baby was in there just a moment ago. Her family is afraid for her. They think she's lost her mind, so they try to shut her in her room. But she's clever. She manages to steal a key. She gets out of her room and lights a lamp so she can search for her baby while everyone is sleeping. She dropped the lamp. The house caught fire. Her family smelled the smoke, and they tried to pull her out of the house, but she ran back inside because her baby was in there - she had to find her baby..."
Estelle trailed off and opened her eyes.
"That's all," she said. "She went into the house, and she burned and died."
Onyx scuffed the lines of her protective circle so he could step in and help her stand. She put her arms around him and buried her tear-streaked face in his robes.
"It's so sad," she said, voice wavering. "She only missed her baby, and now she can't leave because she can't find her."
"I know, I know," he said gently. "But we're going to help her, so don't be sad. Now, are you tired?"
"Not much," she said. She sniffled and pulled back. "A little."
"Then let's go back and get some rest," said Onyx, "and we can plan a strategy tomorrow as to how to deal with this situation."
"All right," she said.
Onyx guided Estelle back out of the house. Despite her brave words, she was stumbling and staggering like one asleep on her feet as he led her back down the steps.
"You did very well tonight," he told her.
She raised her blue eyes to meet his. "You think so?"
"Absolutely," he said. "You are finally moving on to the work of a real magician, and I am very proud of you."
Estelle glowed with the praise. "Thank you, master!"
As they returned to their wagon to bed down for the night, Onyx felt as though some knot inside him was finally starting to loosen. These next few days, though, would be crucial. If Estelle could do this - if she was up to the task and everything that went with it - then she might finally be ready for the truly great works, and that was something he was looking forward to.
Estelle lay on her cot and stared up at the ceiling. The inside of their wagon was a surprisingly comfortable place to sleep - Onyx had done something to it to make it bigger on the inside than on the outside, so that there was room enough for both of them to live, if not extravagantly, than at least comfortably. Estelle had her own little room with a window where she could sit and watch the countryside go by while they were traveling, and fall asleep with the moon shining on her when they stopped. Bunches of dried flowers and herbs hung from her ceiling, letting their scents drift down over her. Her bed was small but marvelously soft, and usually all it took to fall asleep was for her to lie down on it.
She couldn't sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, the scenes she'd witnessed in her trance flashed behind her eyes. That poor woman... she'd been so happy when her daughter had been born, and for those few seconds, Estelle had been happy with her. She'd seen the child's first smile, heard her first word, watched her take her toddling steps held up by her mother's hands. And then it had all come crashing down, and Estelle had felt the agony of losing such a beloved child. Never in her life had she ever felt such agony, but she knew it now through the memories of the dead woman, a woman who had been unable to stand that feeling and convinced herself that her baby must still be alive inside that house somewhere, and even now continued to search for her.
She needs help, Estelle thought, staring mournfully out her window. It was unbearable to think of that woman so close by and all alone while Estelle was safe and snug in her room with the comforting presence of her master close at hand. He'd said they would start settling the spirit tomorrow, but why wait? Why couldn't they do it now and get it over with? It didn't seem fair to make the woman wait when they could help her now.
Estelle pushed off her blanket and sat up. Why shouldn't she go now? It couldn't be that hard. She'd never encountered a spell that she couldn't master almost instantly. Onyx had made it clear that he expected her to be able to do this, so why not? He would be proud of her to see how well she had exceeded his expectations.
Excited now, she pulled on her clothes and hat, snatched up her wand and a bag containing a few basic magical implements - candles, crystals, herbs, a bit of salt, and the like - and slipped out the door, moving quietly to avoid waking her master. The night air was fresh and cool, smelling strongly of pine needles. The earth had not yet fully lost the warmth it had collected during the day, and now it still faintly released its ichorous scent. She felt like the night was welcoming her, and her feet barely made a sound as she traipsed over the soft grass towards the old house.
As Estelle ascended the steps, it seemed to her that the house had become more welcoming than the last time she'd been there. How could that be? Last time, she'd had her master with her to protect her. Now she was alone, and yet she felt... safe, as though this place was not the haunted site of a tragedy but simply an abandoned building, perhaps the kind where local children would make their secret hideouts and play their games. Perhaps she was more used to it now, she thought. Perhaps whatever was in there knew she was a friend, she thought hopefully, and it was glad to have her there. As she stepped through the front door, she thought she caught the scents of baking bread and potpourri beneath the stench of mildew. She smiled a little.
"It's all right," she said. "I'm here now."
There had been strangers in the house. She did not like strangers. They confused her. She had wanted them to go away. As long as there were no people nearby, her thoughts were very simple: her baby was in the house somewhere, perhaps just in the next room. All she had to do was to keep looking and she would find her. Someday she would find her and everything would be all right again.
Strangers upset her plans. They made her think strange thoughts that didn't fit in the world as she understood it. When strangers appeared, she made them go away. She could do that. This house fit her like her blood and bones. She could change it to suit her whim, and when she put her mind to it, she could force out anything that came into her domain. She had dim memories that there had been other people there recently, trying to move things around and disrupting the state of order that she held her world in, but they were a hazy memory now. They hardly mattered, and they'd been so easy to get rid of.
But these people... they were different. She could feel an aura of strength about them that she didn't understand and didn't like. They did not seem to be going away. They were doing things to her rooms, and she hovered about them, trying to make sense of them. The word "magician" fluttered through her mind and faded away again.
Then something pulled at her, hard enough to make her remember what pain was like, and with that pull, the world suddenly snapped into focus again, and she could remember. Images hurtled through her mind, and she felt herself constricting from the airy nothing she had been to something that was almost real. She wailed in soundless agony and fled into the shadows, cowering there until she felt whatever had struck her start to fade.
After some time, she emerged from her hiding place, trying to sift through what had happened to her. She felt a bit more steady now, her mind clearer and more focused than she could remember it being in a long time. It was as if her mind were an old abandoned house, and someone had come into it to sweep up all the cobwebs, put a fresh coat of polish and paint on everything, and made it inhabitable again.
She found herself wondering how it was that this had happened. She prodded her new memories, trying to sort them out. There had been a man, yes, but he had done nothing but stand and speak a few words here and there. The one doing everything had been a girl, a beautiful young girl, with a sweet innocent face. The thought gave her pause. She had a vague sense, somewhere in the back of her mind, that a lot of time had passed since she had begun the neverending search for her child. Was it possible that this girl could be her own child, all grown up and returning to her at last? The thought filled her with longing. If that were true, how could she have let the girl go away again? Why hadn't they recognized each other? She whirled around the house in a blind panic, cursing herself for not paying more attention.
Then she felt someone approaching, and she halted her wild gyrations to attend to it. Yes, someone had set foot on the edge of her boundaries. She coalesced by the window so she could peer through it. The girl was back now, hurrying eagerly over the ground. Of course, of course. She had to come back, had to come back and see her again, and this time, there would be a proper welcome.
Estelle had the feeling that someone was watching her. Well, of course someone was watching her - she had intended for someone to be watching her. The fact that she felt as though someone was watching her should have been a good sign, right? But there was something wrong about the way this presence watched her - not with malevolence, but with a profound sense of mindless need, unhealthy and insatiable. It gave her a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. She told herself to ignore it. It had to be all in her head, a result of being alone in a house she knew for a fact was haunted.
"Hello?" she said into the silence. "Can you hear me? Come on out. I want to help you..."
For a moment, there was no response. Then she felt something in the air shiver, and something like warm smoke coalesced before her, forming itself into a... a what? A woman? It was approximately the right shape, anyway: a humanoid figure wearing some sort of metal corset and tall boots made of something that might have been black leather. It had bluish skin, and though its features were feminine it had no hair at all. It cradled the battered form of a doll... well, most of a doll... in its arms. It was looking at Estelle in a way that made her take an involuntary step backwards.
"No," said the woman, and Estelle halted in her tracks.
"I'm sorry?" she said uncertainly.
The woman looked at her, scrutinizing. "Who are you? Do I know you?"
Estelle shook her head. "My name is Estelle. I'm a magician - the Black Magician Girl. Master Onyx is my teacher."
"Those names mean nothing to me." The woman shook her head, as if troubled by gnats. "You were inside my mind. You took my memories."
"I'm sorry," said Estelle again. "I didn't mean to upset you. I only wanted to know who you were, why you were here. I wanted to help you."
"Help me?" the woman repeated. An eager light came into her eyes. "You can find my child for me?"
"Sort of." Estelle felt herself to be on shaky ground. She took a deep breath and shifted her grip on her staff. "Do you understand what has happened to you?"
The woman shook her head. "Nothing has happened to me."
"You know that's not true," said Estelle gently. "You ran into the house during a fire. Do you remember that?"
"I had to find my baby," said the woman flatly.
"But the house was burning," said Estelle. "You ran into the fire, and you died." She searched the woman's face for some sign of a reaction. "I'm sorry, but it's true."
"I am not dead," said the woman. "I'm still here."
"You're a ghost," said Estelle gently. "You're still here because you're still trying to find your child. You've been looking for her for a very long time."
"How long?" asked the woman sharply.
"I'm not sure," Estelle admitted, flustered. "A... very long time, I think. Years."
"Years," the ghost woman repeated. "Then... my little girl is no longer here?"
Estelle really did not like the keen look the ghost was giving her. She wished she had never started this conversation. She wished she had Onyx with her.
"Yes," she said.
The woman gave a horrible wail, one that went on and on. Estelle clapped her hands over her ears, but it did no good. The sound filled her world, and it went on without need for breath or rest until she thought she would go on hearing it forever. She found herself on her knees without remembering falling, and she curled into a ball and rolled on the floor in agony, screaming to try to drown out the sound.
The silence that fell was so complete that she wondered if she had gone deaf, or if something inside her mind had snapped. She took a deep breath and was relieved that she could still hear it rasping in her throat. She pulled herself back into a kneeling position. Her knees felt bruised from her collapse.
"Are you still there?" she asked.
There was no answer. Estelle sat up, looking around cautiously. There was no more sense that she was being watched. The sweet scents she had noticed beneath the decay were gone. She was, she thought, alone in the house.
"I guess she really left," she said aloud.
She was half-hoping to hear a response. That had seemed... almost too easy. She hadn't even done any magic. But there was no sign of the ghost anymore, and no one responded to her repeated shouts. At last, she stood up, feeling shaky, and began walking around the house, searching every area she could reach. Nowhere did she see or feel any sign of a ghostly presence. After a while, she began to relax. Clearly now that the spirit knew her child wasn't here, she had no reason to stay, and she'd passed on. Estelle was feeling quite cheerful Onyx was going to be proud of her. She left the front door swinging open behind her as she bounded across the grass towards the wagon.
The moon was bright that evening, and on the smooth turf, her shadow stood out clearly. There was something odd about it. It was still a woman's shadow, still wearing tall boots, still carrying something in its arms, but where Estelle was wearing a tall hat over her long hair, her shadow's head seemed to be completely bare.
It had been a long time since she'd been into a new place. For more years than she could recall, her house had been her world, and her only mission had been to search for her child. Now she no longer had that task, and without that, what was her purpose in existing? She ought to hate this girl for telling her the harsh truth. She could hate her. She would, when she had the leisure for it. For now, though, she had been denied the one thing in the world that mattered to her, and in exchange, Fate had given her this beautiful girl, who had shown her compassion, who said she wanted to help. That made the girl hers, the only person in the world who cared about her. That made her the thing that mattered now.
The man had called her Estelle. She did not like the man, the one Estelle called Onyx. Hating Onyx would be much easier, and more profitable. Estelle liked him too much - worshiped him, practically. That was all wrong. Estelle should only pay attention to her. She ignored Estelle as she prattled on about what happened in the house, instead focusing her attention on Onyx. He was entirely too clever, that one, and had too many guards and wards about his person for her to get very close to him. Hiding herself within Estelle's shadow had been a clever move. He could not see her there, not unless she did something to draw attention to herself, and she was not foolish enough to do that. No, when she took him down, it would be with something subtle, something he couldn't trace back to her, and at any rate, wouldn't see coming until it was too late. Killing a magician would be tricky, but she had no doubt that she could do it. Once he was gone, Estelle would be hers alone, hers forever, to love and protect and cherish and hate until the end of time. They could take this wagon and travel together, all over the world. She had never been far beyond the nearest village before, but she hadn't been attached to another being before. Now she could go anywhere she wanted by guiding her vessel. Or they could just go back to the house where everything was safe and familiar, and stay there forever and ever...
At last, he appeared to have heard all he wanted to hear, and he told Estelle to go back to sleep, and they went to their rooms and doused the lights. That was better. Now that the man was gone and the lights were out, she could stretch herself a little. She watched with possessive eyes as Estelle tucked herself into her cot. For long moments, the two of them remained still and silent. Only after she was certain Estelle was asleep did she allow herself to drift closer to her, to take her into an embrace. The girl did not open her eyes as she nestled into her shadow's arms, nor did she stir as the first notes of a lullaby drifted through the darkness.
For some days, they traveled without incident, as the little wagon rolled its way over the foothills and forests and finally up the path into the mountains. Sometimes Onyx gave Estelle lessons while they rode, but much of the time she simply studied or practiced by herself in the wagon while he sat in front and drove. He wondered about that, actually. Usually Estelle was sitting next to him, commenting on the scenery and pestering him with questions about where they were going and what it would be like when they got there, or, very occasionally, pestering him with questions about magic. She'd been quieter since her encounter with the ghost. It was enough to make him wonder if he should be worried about her. She didn't seem to be harmed or jinxed in any way, and he thought he was good at noticing that sort of thing. She simply seemed thoughtful and subdued. If he asked her if she was all right, she would invariably smile at him and tell him she was fine, just thinking about something. What was she thinking about? Nothing important, she said. She seemed happy enough, simply absorbed in her studies, and her magic training was coming along in leaps and bounds. Still, it bothered him that she wasn't talking to him.
Well, this is what you wanted, isn't it? he scolded himself. You were hoping that taking her to that house and letting her have a taste of what real magic is like would settle her down and make her grow up a little. It was the first time she'd ever had to touch the darker side of magic. Are you surprised that it's shaken her? The fact that all it's done to her is motivate her to study harder should impress you. It shows what a strong young woman she really is. That alone should prove she is suitable for this work. Why are you worrying?
The answer, of course, was obvious: he was worrying because it had become second nature to him to worry about Estelle. His wandering life had not left him much time for family. Estelle was like a daughter to him, and no father liked seeing his child grow up and lose her innocence, no matter how necessary that might be. Even now, he continued wondering if he had made the wrong choice. Perhaps he should have found her something a little gentler...
He continued to worry about it all the way up the mountain trail, until at last they came to a village. It was a surprisingly fine village, for something built in the middle of nowhere. This was a logging town, one that gathered its wood on the slopes of the mountain and sent them sailing down to be milled via man-made sluices cut into the slopes. All the houses were made of sturdy logs and covered with wooden shingles. The people there were, for the most part, happy and prosperous, but Onyx knew enough about the business of cutting trees that he was certain there would be lingering tragedies here - ghosts of those who had died during their labors, or ghosts of those who had lost their loved ones to accident or illness and who still waited for them to come home...
But if there are any of those here, I will deal with them myself this time.
Still, the town looked prosperous, and he expected that they would pay well to be entertained by a few sparkly magic tricks. He was very nearly in a good mood as he helped Estelle set up the stage for the night's performance. She was going about her tasks with a pensive expression that made him realize this would be the first show she'd done since they'd left the haunted house behind them.
"Are you feeling up to this?" he asked. "If you want, I can do the show tonight."
She gave him a smile, but it wasn't her usual sunny, unrestrained smile.
"I'm all right," she said. "It's just... hard to see the point, isn't it? Of these shows, I mean. I know we're supposed to do them so people aren't afraid of us, but... it seems like we could be doing so much more if we didn't have to do this too."
He forced himself to smile back. "Maybe they don't need a point. Even magicians have to relax and have fun once in a while."
"I guess," she said. She shoved a torch into its holder a little more firmly than she needed to. "It just seems... I don't know, like a waste."
"But you enjoy it, don't you?" Onyx persisted.
"I guess," she said again.
Onyx felt a stirring of genuine unease in the pit of his stomach. It had been one thing when Estelle had simply been pensive, but here she was practically telling him that she was only doing this out of a sense of obligation, when performing had once been one of her great joys in life. Had she really changed so much in such a short span of time? Perhaps she had been trying to spare his feelings these past few days, and her experience with the ghost had given her a distaste for magic. But that didn't seem right - she had been studying and practicing harder than ever. So perhaps the opposite case was true: handling strong magic had given her a taste for it, and now the small things seemed unfulfilling. If that was the case, he could sympathize. He felt the same way, at times. And yet...
As the sun sank lower, Onyx felt more and more intensely that something somewhere was wrong. It was all he could do to stop himself from pacing as he watched the crowds gather around the stage. What he wanted to do was to tell them all that there had been an accident and that there would be no show tonight, but the old adage held: the show must go on. Instead, he said his usual introductory spiel and conjured the flash of light and smoke that Estelle would step into, seeming to appear out of nowhere. It was a simple trick, but one that always delighted the crowds, and he felt better for doing something so routine.
Estelle made her entrance, seeming as always to materialize out of the smoke itself. Tonight, though, her expression was solemn, and the smoke did not dissipate, but instead twined around her, forming vague shapes and taking on subtle variations in hue. As if in a trance, Estelle raised her wand, calling lights to the tip of it. Little glints and sparks floated down from the sky, as though her staff was a magnet that could pull down the stars. The lights clustered briefly, then fanned out to embed themselves in the curls of smoke. The smoke took on more definitive colors and shapes, acquiring faint green or black or gold casts, until they appeared to be a knot of translucent serpents, their eyes glowing dimly through the haze. They circled her for a moment in a slowly revolving cyclone of coils and scales, and then fanned out to sail over the crowd. The people pulled away with gasps of fear as the smoky serpents writhed overhead.
Estelle called them back with a gesture. The smoke gathered behind her, coalescing into an amorphous cloud, through which the pale lights continued to dance. Then, with another gesture, she made it separate again, into a row of cloudy shapes with glowing eyes. She began humming softly, something that sounded like a lullaby, and the shapes began to take on recognizable forms. They were men and women, fairies and elves, ogres and beast-men and other things more difficult to categorize. They all looked pale and haggard. Many had obvious injuries or showed signs of disease. Slowly, they began lurching across the stage, their arms outstretched. Someone in the audience screamed.
"No!" Onyx shouted.
His voice was lost amid the shrieks of the crowd. Most of the people were trying to run away from the spectral forms, but a few were trying to rush towards them, calling out names as tears ran down their faces. Their friends and families clutched at them, trying to pull them away. In the midst of all this chaos, Estelle remained still and impassive, regarding her creations as though they were of no more importance to her than the trees or the rocks. Onyx waded through the hysterical crowd until he could get close enough to the stage to have a clear shot at it. Then he raised his staff above his head and shouted a word that cut through the clamor and drowned out even the screams of the crowd.
Light suffused the clearing - brilliant, eye-searing white light, brighter than the sun. Everyone stopped running to shield their eyes, or stumbled blindly and fell. Estelle gave a little shriek of surprise and dropped her wand to hide her face with her hands. As soon as she let go of it, the smoky figures dissipated like frost before a flame.
All but one. In that brief flash, Onyx had seen a single dark shape lurking behind Estelle, standing in her shadow. It had the shape of a woman, or something that was almost a woman, and it cradled a broken doll in her arms.
The Dark Necrofear. Suddenly it all made sense. It was those damned archetypes again, wreaking havoc. The grieving mother who cradled a broken doll in place of her lost child had become the perfect vessel to become one of the soul-stealers, creatures who could attach themselves to another living being and control them...
Onyx vaulted onto the stage. The light had been and gone in a flash, and now the glade was lit only by moonlight and by the torches he and Estelle had hung. Her shadow lay still on the stage floor, looking like a shadow always did, but Onyx was not fooled.
"I know you're there," he said. "Show yourself, or I'll have to use force."
Estelle blinked at him. "Master, what...?"
"Shh, it's all right," he said. "This isn't your fault."
"But what's happening?" she protested.
"Something is trying to take control of you," said Onyx. "Isn't that right, Necrofear?"
"You can't have her," a voice hissed in the shadows. "She's mine. She came for me. I have nothing else. She is my solace, my comfort. You wouldn't take that from me, would you?"
"You're doing a good job of destroying her yourself, fiend," Onyx replied. "You would have clung to her so hard that you would have strangled the life out of her. She would have become nothing more than a pretty doll, not much better than the one you've been carrying."
"That doesn't matter," said the Dark Necrofear. "She's mine now, to do what I like."
"She isn't yours," said Onyx, "and she isn't mine either. This mess started with me trying to decide how to run her life, and now it's time for me to make it right."
He raised his wand, making the tip glow once more, but the Necrofear was ready for him. He had just enough time to perceive a flash of movement, and then his world went dark.
Estelle felt as though she were waking up from a dream. She had a vague sense of something unpleasant happening to her. She was still trying to figure out what it was when she heard a scream, and she looked up to see Master Onyx struggling with a... what? A dark shape, humanoid and feminine, hazy but growing progressively more solid. Onyx was holding his own so far, but other shapes seemed to be gathering around the dark figure, ghostly forms that reached out to him with desiccated hands. So far none of them had managed to do more than graze him, but there were more arriving every second, and even his powers weren't unlimited. His expression was one of grim determination. Estelle had a sudden intuition that he was just now realizing that this might not be a fight he could win, but he was refusing to back down. He was protecting her.
Something surged up inside her, anger and fear and guilt and above all, a powerful sense that she could not let this happen to her beloved master, the man who had been teacher, friend, and second father to her. This was her mistake. She had made it with the best of intentions, but it had been a mistake, and now it was time to fix it. She knew she could do it. To protect Master Onyx, she could turn the world end over end.
"Hey!" she shouted. "Leave him alone! It's me you want!"
"You cannot get away from me," said a voice that was both inside and outside her head. "We are bound to each other now. I will stay with you forever. I will make you forget everyone else, and then you will love me..."
"If you want me, then follow me!" she shouted, and she ducked into the wagon.
The outside of the wagon was a modest thing, so plan and run-down that even highwaymen and bandits thought twice about bothering it. The inside, though was as big as a proper house, with bedrooms and a kitchen and a workroom, not to mention storage for all their things. Estelle ran to the center of it, into Onyx's library.
"I really hope you can fix this, Master," she murmured. Then she called her power to herself, and sent it back out again as flames. The fire brushed against the shelves and the books... and died away. She frowned. Of course - Onyx had fireproofed the entire wagon, a necessity when one had an apprentice whose magic occasionally flared out further than she intended it too. They were strong spells, the best he could manage, and his best was very good indeed. Now they had to come down. She shouldn't have been able to budge them - tearing them down should have been like digging through a stone wall with her fingernails - but she was still riding the crest of anger and desperation, and the spells came apart under the lash of her fury like so much tissue paper. Once the spells were in tatters, she gathered them up and fed them into her fire spell, and flames roared from the tip of her wand to fill the air. They caught the old wood and devoured the dry paper, and the room blazed around her. She stood in the center of it, feeling not even warm, as sparks and soot wafted up around her.
Come on, she thought. You know you have to do it. You have to come in and save me.
Even as she thought it, she saw a dark figure appear within the brightness of the flames. There was nothing shadowy or insubstantial about the Dark Necrofear now. She appeared to be as real and as solid as Estelle herself - a pointy-eared, blue-skinned demon of a woman, still clutching the battered and broken remains of a doll. Estelle smiled sweetly at her.
"Come on," she said. "You know what you have to do."
"You won't get away like this," said the Dark Necrofear. "I'll follow you wherever you go."
"I'm not going anywhere," said Estelle. "I know what you are. You're a ghost, and you have to keep doing what you were doing when you died, just like any other ghost. That's your true nature. You have to try to save me. Now, come on."
She held out her hand, and the Dark Necrofear took three steps forward and placed her hand in Estelle's. It was cold, despite the heat. Estelle offered her a small smile.
"Sorry," she said, and she pulled the demon into her arms and drew the fires around them both..
In an instant, the Dark Necrofear was engulfed in flames. She screamed, a high-pitched, grating keen that went on and on. The fire burned an eerie green-blue, and beneath it, her skin blackened and fell away, and the doll melted and warped. Estelle shut her eyes and gritted her teeth, forcing herself to hold on until the sound finally, blessedly died away. Then she let her grip on the flames slip away, and she collapsed into the ashes.
When she came to herself a few minutes later, she was lying on the grass. The air smelled of smoke, and for a few seconds, she could not remember why. Then memory came to her in a rush, and she sat up, gasping.
"It's all right," said Onyx's voice. He was kneeling next to her, one of his hands holding hers."You're safe. It's over now."
"What happened?" she said. It wasn't what she wanted to say. She knew what happened. What she really wanted to know was if Onyx was all right, and what had happened to the Dark Necrofear. Some of that must have showed in her voice, because Onyx smiled at her.
"You burned our wagon up," he said. "I am impressed. It took a lot of power to get through all the fireproofing charms I laid on that thing."
"I'm sorry about your books," said Estelle. "And our... and our everything."
He gave her a reassuring smile. "It's all right. We can put them back together again. It will be good practice for you."
"Oh," said Estelle. She felt a little better. "But what about...?"
"Gone," he said. "You may rest assured that I've checked very thoroughly this time. She hid from me once, when I didn't know what I was looking for, but she won't slip past me again. You're safe." His expression turned serious. "Estelle, I'm sorry."
"No, I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't have gone out without you. I just thought you'd be so impressed if I could banish that ghost by myself."
"I'm sure you could have, if she had been a normal ghost," he said. "If I'd had any idea there could have been a Dark Necrofear in that building, I wouldn't have let you go near it... or at least, I would have prepared you better. I'm sorry, Estelle. This is the result of my meddling. I was trying to turn you into something you didn't want to be - into what I thought you should be. From now on, if you are happy doing stage magic, that's fine by me."
She gave him a small smile. "Actually... I think I had better start learning. Just so nothing like this can happen again. When that thing came at you, I suddenly realized how much I wanted to be able to protect you... I think that's where I found the strength to call those flames."
Onyx looked pleased. "Well, then, student, I think we've both learned something today. And I think now we should go find someplace to hole up for the night. Tomorrow, we can come back here to clean up this mess."
"To the village?" asked Estelle uncertainly.
Onyx looked at the trampled ground where the crowd had run away from the specters.
"No," he said. "I think we had better try conjuring up some tents tonight, don't you? Something tells me those villagers aren't eager to see us again."
"I think you're right," she said, a bit sheepishly.
Together, the two of them hiked into the woods, well out of sight of any villagers who might dare to come looking for them, and conjured two handkerchiefs into reasonably comfortable tents. They would be good enough for the night. Tomorrow they could star working on fixing their wagon. There were a lot of things, Estelle thought, that might need fixing, but they would get them sorted out somehow.
Meanwhile, the old wagon continued to smoulder. A wind whipped past it, stirring up the coals, and a spark flared up and began drifting. It landed on a bit of dry grass near the edge of town, and sometime in the night, the small flames touched the side of a wooden house and caused a conflagration. The family rushed out of the house in a panic, and it was only after she'd left the house that a young mother realized her baby was still inside...