“Uncle Shadir? Sir, what’s he doing here?” Cerlissa looked at her tutor, confusion written plainly on her face.
“Cerlissa, Shadir was Lost yesterday afternoon, and he is your charge until he Fades.”
There was silence in the room as Cerlissa took this in. Shadir was the closest thing that she ever had to a father since she’d arrived in New Turath, and she’d looked up to him as a hero. Invincible. He was Thorian’s father and the Head of House, the man that had motioned to have her adopted, and this was so sudden. She knew that you could Lose your way quickly, but in one afternoon? It must have been a horrendous amount of power. How was Thorian taking it?
“No…” Her face contorted, but she managed not to break down in front of her tutor. Shadir stood where he was left, staring into the distance as if he were deep in thought. “Sir, please, this is…”
“Cerlissa, you’re the only apprentice in the family. It is your duty to care for him.”
“…How? What happened? How could he… How could Shadir Grav be Lost so quickly?”
“There were Goliaths. I had to save my men and stop them from taking the Wall.” Shadir’s baritone voice filled the room and Cerlissa’s head snapped around, her eyes wide and glistening.
“Shadir?” Cerlissa asked quietly. When he didn’t respond she asked again, “Shadir Grav?”
“I am Shadir Grav.”
She couldn’t take it. Her face crumpled and she crossed the room at a run and hugged her uncle around the middle, crying into his armor like she was ten years old again. After several minutes of this she began to calm down and quieted, but didn’t let him go.
“What do I do? How do I care for him?”
“He can still function, but you must instruct him to do so.” Her tutor, who had stayed silent while he waited for her to calm herself, found his voice to be thicker than expected and tried to clear his throat, but made no attempt to hide the tears that glassed his eyes and ran down his face. Mourning the Lost was both appropriate and expected. “So long as you speak his name and command him, he will obey. Cerlissa?”
“Yes?” Her voice came out muffled by Shadir’s armor, her face still buried.
“You’re expected to wear your best armor whenever you’re in public with him. Is it ready to wear?”
The tutor took a breath and continued, “Because of his standing in the council, he won’t be performing the usual labors of the Lost. You’ll be taking him to the council meetings and and every formal meal. His presence continues to be an honor, and he will be in high demand. I have his schedule here.”
“I understand. Where should he sleep?”
“You are his Lead, so he will be with you all hours of the day and night. The room adjacent to yours is being prepared now.”
Cerlissa said nothing, but let go of her uncle and wiped her face.
“You need to change now. Do you have any more questions?”
“Our lessons are postponed until he disappears?”
“Yes. His funeral is in two hours in the garden court. Go get ready.”
Cerlissa took a deep breath and sighed, rubbing her eyes again. “Shadir Grav, follow me.”
Shadir stood motionless until Cerlissa left the room. He moved proudly and with purpose, but something was missing. Something about him was obviously different. He was empty.
They walked together slowly through the gardens and halls of the manor. Cerlissa walked tall, tears plain on her face, and everyone they encountered made way for them. Cerlissa didn’t have to explain anything because no one knew yet. The Head of House Grav was walking through the gardens of his home with his adopted niece, and everything was normal. They would find out after the funeral. After his family had the chance to say their goodbyes.
His room was plain and small, which was not altogether different from the room he shared with his wife. There was a bed and a wardrobe, as was usual. The room still looked unfinished, and it took her a moment before realizing that there was no desk. Of course there was no desk, what would he need a desk for? Cerlissa crossed the room, took his formal clothes from the wardrobe and laid them out on the simple bedding. She never realized that his formal wear was still armor. There were shaped metal plates beneath the layers of soft red and white dyed leather, with the symbol of house Grav recessed into the chest piece. The outcome was magnificent and imposing. Cerlissa instructed her uncle to change and left the room to do the same.
Her own armor was more obvious. It was made of light plate mail, with many of the moving metal pieces ending in raised points meant to look like spines and ridges. The enamel was smooth and flawless in yellow and white, with the Turathi symbol for House Grav on her left shoulder and the symbol of the Spine on her right, both in blazing scarlet. Shadir had it fitted for her the year before when he took her to Ibygya as part of his private guard. He had been invited to attend some kind of party and had failed to wriggle out of it. Thorian had been so jealous.
Cerlissa was just finishing rebraiding her hair when she heard the door to Shadir’s room open. Alarmed, she jumped up and opened her door, looking down the hallway. She thought that she saw someone in plain armor turn the corner, but suddenly decided that it wasn’t important and turned away. After a moment, she realized that she’d been zoning out and shook herself before walking into Shadir’s open doorway.
Open doorway? She’d shut the door on her way out…
“Uncle Shadir?” His red and white armor was still laid out on the bed where she’d left it, but there was no one else in the room.
She assumed that he must have Faded already and returned to her room, sitting at her desk and staring at the wall.
Minutes passed before she realized what had happened, and she came to her senses with a start. Heart suddenly racing, she ran down the hallway in the direction she’d seen Shadir walking away. She knew that he, and whoever had taken him, had several minutes on her, but she assumed that they would be leaving the grounds and heading out of New Turath altogether. It would be difficult to hide a Lost Shadir Grav anywhere within the city without anyone recognizing him.
Cerlissa stopped and looked around, seeing nothing strange. Now that she was paying attention, she didn’t think that anyone could use magic nearby again without her noticing, and everyone seemed to be milling about normally. After a little nervous hand flapping, she decided to run to the stables and get her horse. If they were already on the road, she’d need Tauntaun in order to catch up with them. It may add some time, but she decided that it was worth it.
Tauntaun was in her stall with her new foal. The little guy hadn’t even been named yet, and Cerlissa was sure that taking Tauntaun away from him was a terrible idea, since he was still nursing, but she didn’t have time to request another horse, and she knew Tauntaun could run like the wind, even in her current state. Cerlissa put the reins and saddle on quickly and apologized to the snow white foal, who would likely panic shortly after they left. She just had to be sure to be far enough away that Tauntaun didn’t hear it.
A mile or so South of New Turath, Cerlissa slowed Tauntaun to a trot. She had no way of knowing if they were still on the road, or even if they’d truly left New Turath. Down the road a bit there was a group of four human travellers moving North, though they seemed to be moving very slowly. Once they drew closer, it became clear that they weren’t moving at all; just standing in the road and staring into the woods.
“Excuse me?” Cerlissa called, “Have you seen… Hello?”
No response. The four of them just stood there. Dazed. Staring into the hills.
It was the same magic that had allowed them to take Shadir from Cerlissa. Without a second’s more hesitation, she led Tauntaun in the direction that the men were staring. Magic isn’t subtle, and whoever had Shadir should have known that he would be leaving a trail by trying to make people forget. The travellers would snap out of it eventually and be on their way. It was late in the day but New Turath was within sight. If nothing else their horses would get impatient and continue on of their own accord.
Cerlissa lay low over Tauntaun as she searched for clues of passage. The trail was easy enough to follow and the horse made much easier passage through the snow drifts and chest-high brush than Cerlissa would in her armor. Time was not on her side, and twilight was falling. The trail would be easy enough to follow now, but in the dark every brush looks the same and she hadn’t thought to borrow one of the hunting dogs.
Luckily for her, whoever took Shadir was apparently not expecting anyone to be following, and lit a torch bright as a willow-wisp in the distance, where the underbrush subsided under the thick cover of gnarled, northern trees.
“Got you, you son of a bitch.” Cerlissa mumbled into Tauntaun’s white mane, turning her toward the light. It wouldn’t take long to catch up to them with nothing but tree trunks and cold dirt between them. Once she had gotten within her workable range of attack, she sat up straight and shouted, “In the name of House Grav, you will halt!”
Shadir stopped and turned toward her, torch in hand.
He was alone.
“Wh—” Cerlissa stuttered and she fought to move her horse into a better position.
“I’m sorry, Charbaby.” Shadir’s face was grieved, but it was alive. Alert.
“I want you to know, this is for the safety of our family. For New Turath.” Shadir began to approach Tauntaun slowly, and the white horse’s nose reached out to touch his hand.
“You’re not Lost?”
“No. I had to fake it.”
Shadir took a deep breath and held it, then let it out slowly and moved the torch away from his face, effectively hiding his features. “Char… you should have stayed in your room. I did it for you, too.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t, and I’m so sorry.” Shadir took out a long, pointed blade from his belt. Cerlissa couldn’t see it from her saddle while he stood in front of Tauntaun, and Tauntaun was never worried about seeing weapons in Shadir’s hands. Shadir always had weapons. Shadir was very good at killing things.
Tauntaun never felt herself die, and Cerlissa came crashing to the earth as her horse collapsed silently beneath her. She managed to get her legs clear of the stirrups, but didn’t manage to land gracefully. The bones in her lower leg cracked audibly and Cerlissa shouted in surprise and pain.
From where she landed, she only looked up at Shadir with excruciating confusion dominating her features. Shadir looked into her eyes, or seemed to. It was suddenly a lot darker now and Cerlissa couldn’t quite make out his features from the deep shadows that covered them. The torch lay forgotten on the ground nearby.
Suddenly, he turned and walked some distance away and stopped. He reached around a tree branch and produced a large bag. From the bag he mechanically fished out what looked like travelling gear; a sleeping pallet, a cloak, what looked like a bundle of socks, and a bow. He stood up and kept his eyes trained on his hands while he bent the bow with his knee and strung it.
As he reached for an arrow, Cerlissa moved to her knees and spoke, “Daddy?”
A noise bubbled out of Shadir that Cerlissa had never heard before. It was a most tragic, hurtful sob that immediately brought tears to her eyes, though she didn’t understand why.
His voice was gravelled and soft, but in the silence of the Spine he was plainly heard. “I love you, Charbaby. Cerlissa. I love you, but I love New Turath more.” and without any more hesitation or ceremony, Shadir loosed an arrow straight to Cerlissa’s heart. At this range it easily pierced her armor and sunk into her chest. She fell immediately and stared at Shadir as he packed his bag.
He picked up and left without looking at her, and he never realized that she wasn’t dead. She should have been, and she knew it, but her heart remained beating despite the fact that it certainly felt as though the point of the arrow was scraping at her lung behind it.
The arrow certainly was not her worst hurt that night.
She didn’t feel it at the time, but she was lucky that her horse was large. She spent the night pierced and cold and broken, but laying up against the fleeting warmth of her dead horse cut the chill enough that she wasn’t dead by morning. Once dawn broke and it was light enough to find her way, Cerlissa started to crawl home.
She didn’t get far. The arrow’s shaft was too long and dragged when she tried to put both hands on the ground, and her leg was broken when she fell from Tauntaun. She didn’t have the strength to break the arrow, so that left her trying to drag herself back to the road using one hand and one leg.
“Are you kidding me right now?” A voice spoke from the air, somehow both feminine and masculine and thoroughly irritated. “All you had to do was bear my fire and not die alone in the Spine. That was the deal. Now look at you! How hard is it to NOT do something?”
Cerlissa was too busy frantically looking around the woods for the source of the voice to reply. She was only a few feet from where she started.
“I give you the easiest Contract I’ve ever even heard of and here you are! Alone and dying. Right here. And you’ve barely even started to be useful.” Baphomet stepped from what looked like a streak of poisonous green fire, horned and hooved and somehow terrifyingly beautiful in a very strange and unintelligible way. She walked up to Cerlissa and pointed at her. “For this, you are going to hurt.”
Then the world fell away, and they went nowhere at all. The woods and the dirt and the cold morning air made way for polished bricks and intricately carved chairs in a large room. Each of the chairs were filled with Cambion, who all sat silent and openmouthed at the sudden appearance of an angry demon in their midst.
“YOU. ARE AN IDIOT.” Baphomet turned from Cerlissa, who continued to stare in silent terror at the demon, and faced the finely dressed council, “QUIT STARING AND FETCH THE SURGEON! ARE YOU ALL SO STUPID!”
With one final glare, Baphomet vanished into the same sliver of poisonous flame as before.
Once the demon was gone, the room erupted into activity. Someone rushed toward Cerlissa and helped her lay flat on her back, which seemed a lot more painful now that she wasn’t in the bitter cold of the Spine. She looked down at herself for the first time in the full light of the torches and it was brutal. The arrow in her chest only punctuated the dark blood smeared across her white and yellow armor. The armor plate covering her right leg was crumpled and and her right arm was badly dented. As she stared at the various dents and scrapes she didn’t quite remember receiving, she noticed a large white mound not far away.
Suddenly the blood made more sense. It was Tauntaun’s. And for some reason Baphomet decided to deliver the dead horse to the council meeting.
“Cerlissa. Look at me.”
“What?” Her attention snapped back to the present and found her favorite brother-cousin kneeling near her head. He must have been the one to turn her over.
“What happened?” Someone shouted over the commotion, and Thorian looked at her expectantly.
Cerlissa hesitated and looked around at the faces staring back at her. They were all Gravs and Marian, Thorian’s mother, stood behind him with streaks of dried salt on her cheeks.
“Someone… uh…” She decided to go with what she had originally assumed, and spun the story for them while she was still conscious. “Someone tried to steal him. Probably for his magic. They used magic to confuse me… so I’d forget, but it didn’t work. I didn’t have time to… I’m sorry.”
“What does that mean? Where’s my dad?”
“He’s… He’s Lost, Thorian. He’s gone. Disappeared right after…”
“That’s one of Shadir’s arrows! Who shot you with Shadir’s arrow?” The same loud voice asked. She couldn’t figure out who it was, but it didn’t matter. Everyone looked at her for the answer.
“Shadir. He told Shadir to kill me and he shot me.” Cerlissa was finally forming her thoughts well enough to tell them something believable.
“This horse stinks.”
“Make way! Medic! Make way!” The crowd parted and a dark woman hauled a bag over and thumped it down next to Thorian. When he didn’t get out of the way she moved to the other side of her and started barking orders at him, “Get into that bag and find the shears. Now cut the arrow about a hands width away.”
The arrow was very well crafted and Thorian had to shift his position and get a better grip. He heaved and the arrow finally snapped, sending a shock down through the arrow head. Cerlissa’s back arched in response, which only made everything worse. There were hands on her, but all she could feel was pain and pressure. It sounded like the surgeon was yelling at Thorian through the buzzing, ripping sound in her head.
“Okay. Okay, shh. Stop moving, Cerlissa. Stop.” She wasn’t sure who was talking but now that she could hear again she knew she needed to listen. Her chest was still heaving as the front of her armor was lifted off of her and the fabric padding underneath was cut open. Thorian produced a vial of red liquid from the surgeon’s bag and handed it over. Looking over, Cerlissa saw the surgeon carefully open the vial and insert a glass dropper, then her face came very close to the wound as she moved to apply it. “This will numb the area so that I can take the arrow out.”
Cerlissa watched the liquid fall from the dropper and, with a falling feeling in her gut, burn up and disappear just before it reached her skin. Then there was bleating laughter and the surgeon’s eyes grew wide.
“Oh… She said it would hurt.” Cerlissa mumbled and laid her head back.
“What just happened!?” Thorian looked at the surgeon for answers, but she just stared back at him.
“I…” The surgeon stumbled over her words, “I have more, hold on.”
Cerlissa grabbed the surgeon’s arm as she reached for the vial. “Don’t. It’s a waste. Just do it.”
“It’s part of the contract! Just do it!”
She hesitated, but the surgeon said “Okay.” and asked Thorian for her knife, then told him to run and get the strongest alcohol in the house. He turned and sent one of the children to get the alcohol and dared the surgeon to say anything.
“Cerlissa, what happened?” Thorian didn’t seem sympathetic enough to let her rest, so Cerlissa decided just to spin her story then and there.
“Someone took Uncle Shadir from his room and tried to twist magic to confuse me into thinking he’d simply Faded, but it didn’t work. I saw him. He had a lead on me so I took Tauntaun from… Tauntaun’s foal! Someone check on the foal!”
“Focus! What happened!” Thorian’s voice sounded angry, but he turned and waved at someone nearby, who obviously didn’t want to leave but did it anyway. Then the girl came back with a bottle and a small cup. She stopped near Thorian and poured it, handing it to him, who all but stuffed it down Cerlissa’s throat. “Now, what happened!”
Coughing, she continued, “I followed them into the forest South of the ciiaaahh!” The surgeon had started cutting open the wound and it left her breathless.
“In the woods! I caught up and he told Uncle Shadir to kill me and Tauntaun!” she had to stop for a moment and take another shot of the alcohol. “I panicked and lit him up and he’s a pile of ash out in the woods! Uncle Shadir… Shadir killed Tauntaun and broke my leg and…” She cried out again, but continued, “Shot me and then he disappeared! I don’t know where he is but the bastard that took him is dead!”
The surgeon looked up at Marian, who still stood silently behind Thorian, “I can’t remove it. It’s too close to her heart.”
“What do you mean you can’t get it out! I can see it right there!” Marian was nearly sobbing, but right then she was more frightening than Cerlissa had ever seen her. Even the surgeon looked away.
“If I take it out, she’ll die! I need something to take the shaft and bindings off the head and clean it up as best as possible. Do you have any acid?”
“Who the hell keeps acid!? Move!” Marian took the surgeon’s place at Cerlissa’s side and pushed her hair back from her face. “Charbaby, this is going to hurt.” Marian put her hand on the arrow shaft and the surgeon motioned to stop her, but Marian put her hand up and two men stepped up to hold the surgeon away.
There was a sudden breeze in the room, and Marian didn’t seem to be doing anything, but then there was smoke coming from beneath her hand, which still grasped the stub of the arrow in Cerlissa’s chest. The smoke continued getting thicker and the breeze seemed to concentrate on her, lifting away the ashes that began to flake off.
“You’re a Pact Mage?” Marian’s brother spoke up from nearby.
Marian didn’t respond, but the smoke grew and made way for licks of fire and soon the shaft was gone. Marian certainly wasn’t finished, however, and whatever she was doing began to hurt. Cerlissa bucked and screamed but Marian kept her hands over the wound and Thorian did his best to hold her down.
Then the surgeon was stitching her up and Thorian was across the room, talking to the man that he’d sent out to the stable.
“There was another mare with a foal, the critter’s fine now.” Cerlissa overheard him, but couldn’t hear anything else. She looked around for Marian but decided to close her eyes instead. It was bright.
“I’ll name him Tauntaun.” Cerlissa said, and the surgeon jumped. Thorian looked back at her when she spoke, and she tried to open her eyes but it was just too hard.
Thankfully, demons can’t keep someone from blacking out.