“He’s not a Complex Weaver…” The young woman’s voice broke off as her words encountered silence.
Such a name should never have been heard; not even by an errant spirit like me. But the Lord’s Keeper strode in at that moment and conversation faltered, then failed completely. A few patrons eyed the Keeper and with good reason. He was a striking man. Taller and more solidly built than any of those present, he wore a full length riding coat, pulled in at the waist but unbuttoned, revealing a silk waistcoat. But most of the men in the tavern craned to see the woman, hoping to catch a glimpse of the one who had dared say that name.
No one, apart from myself, had noticed the slender woman take a seat in an alcove close to the door at the back. It said something for her skill that she passed unnoticed in a crowded tavern despite her bright red hair and her finely chiselled features. Even when the patrons awoke to her being there, no one could make out whom she was talking to. Even I, shroud in my natural invisibility and gifted with the ability to flow where I liked, could not get a close look at the illusive form that addressed her in hushed tones from the shadows of the recess.
Sergio, the taverner, a stout fellow with an almost perpetual smile, frowned, no doubt sensing that an ugly situation was only a few words away. He called out “Last orders, gentlemen, please.” Only to add more quietly, no doubt for fear of offending, “And lady.”
Timidly at first, then with more gusto, conversations rekindled till the room was loud with their interrogations, each individual glad to sink back into noisy anonymity.
The Lord’s Keeper hastily snatched the broad cap from his head and, being careful not to look at the shadowy form squatted opposite her, bowed to the young lady. “Milady Aurelia,” he said quietly. “Might I accompany you back to your mansion?”
All knew the Keeper had no authority over her. Lady Aurelia was the Lord’s daughter, after all. But his words were more than a polite request. They were a warning. There was danger and both of them knew it.
Pulling the hood of her cape over her head, such that it concealed her face and most of her long red curls, Lady Aurelia nodded to the shifting shadows swirling across from her, rose and took the arm the Keeper offered her.
I searched to make sure the shadowy force hadn’t shifted to some dark corner ready to prey on an unsuspecting patron. Then I followed Lady Aurelia out.
No one ever pays attention to errant spirits such as me, except perhaps the likes of her. Sure enough, when we were out of earshot of the tavern, Lady Aurelia turned to greet me, much to the Keeper’s surprise. As most men in town, he was blind to spirits.
“Jonathan,” she said. I loved the way she spoke my name, her voice like a caress. Had I been a cat, I would have purred. “What brings you here?”
“The same thing as you, my Lady.”
“Make yourself visible to the Keeper. The poor man must be alarmed watching me talk to empty air. He’ll be telling Father I’ve gone mad.”
The Keeper shook his head, no doubt used to witnessing inexplicable phenomena in the lady’s presence.
“Keeper,” I said, shifting to look like a travel-worn peddler unburdened by his wares.
He bowed stiffly but remained silent, showing no surprise at my sudden appearance.
Lady Aurelia laughed, tossing back her head so that her hood fell away revealing her pale face and causing her curls to tumble over her shoulders. “Don’t be fooled by Jonathan’s appearance,” she said, drawing the Keeper closer as if they were conspiring. “He’s far more than he seems.”
I held back, allowing them to walk ahead and as I did I let my human form drift away till nothing of it remained. Some people might think errant spirits crave the body they don’t have, but truthfully, I feel more comfortable and safer being invisible, especially at such dangerous times.
Had I been human I might have been jealous, watching her walk arm in arm with the Keeper. He was a handsome man, a good ten inches taller than her, impressive with his sword attached to his belt. But instead, I savoured the way her presence danced with my spirit, making me feel light and joyous. I didn’t need to hold her arm to be linked to her. It was part of my nature. All Weavers did that to me, but Lady Aurelia more than any other.
Weavers! Few of those meddling human magicians merited the name. Thank heavens the powers of mere magicians were limited. The world would be an ugly place if those self-centred, petty-minded magicians were to wield the power of a weaver. As a weaver, Lady Aurelia was one of the best. She could weave the fabric of the world, shaping places and people alike. But she did so sparingly, concentrating her efforts on healing.
When we reached the mansion, bestowed on her by her father, she invited the Keeper in. I needed no invitation.
The building was eerily quiet. No one greeted us in the entrance hall, no fire burnt bright in the fireplace, and no one waited on us in the reception room. She must have sent the servants away. A wise precaution.
Settled in a padded chair, the Keeper spoke up. “I heard you mention…” He balked at pronouncing the words.
“The complex weaver,” she said, causing him to glance nervously at the many bookshelves, as if one might jump out from between the books.
“I always thought it was a legend,” he said, turning back to her.
“I wish it were.”
“A misheard ancient name…” she paused, “or maybe a way of not evoking the unnameable…”
The Keeper looked perplexed.
“Pronouncing such a name is akin to summoning the being you name.” Her lips curved in a twisted smile that verged on a grimace. “And I can assure you, you really don’t want that.”
It was then I felt a distant shuddering deep in the fabric of the world, as if existence itself were quaking. She felt it to. I could see it in her eyes and feel it in the dulling of her spirit. Complex weavers draw their power from the magic of the world, and other weavers in particular. Even the Keeper seemed to sense something was amiss. He drew his sword and stood.
“Sheath your sword, ” she said, slumping back into her chair. “Someone might get hurt.”
He did as ordered, asking, “Is there nothing we can do?”
She shook her head, getting paler by the minute. It wasn’t that she was afraid. Of that I was sure. Rather that life was slowly draining from her. I could feel it, just as I could feel my own light dimming.
The trembling drew rapidly closer and stronger, until the closed door started to ripple as if it were water. Becoming more and more agitated, it finally burst into thousands of droplets that fell to the floor with a splash, revealing a second form that flowed into the room through the hole. Rapidly taking shape, a little girl no more than eight years old ventured an unsteady step towards them. Raw power raged from her like an army of wild hands clawing at everything within reach. It took all my effort not to be torn apart.
Alarmed, the Keeper looked to Lady Aurelia for an explanation, but she sagged in her seat, her eyes clenched shut, both hands gripping her head.
If Lady Aurelia’s earlier words had been like caresses, the girl’s “Help!” was like the desperate screech of a caged bird.
“Keep away from her,” the Keeper growled, his fist on the hilt of his sword.
Lady Aurelia held up a trembling hand to halt him.
His bravery would do no good, the girl could dispatch him without a thought, but at least he did something. All I could do was hover in a corner, desperately trying to hold myself together as the girl’s presence tore at my being.
The girl ignored the Keeper and knelt at the lady’s side. Taking up the lady’s limp hand, she said, “It’s got to stop.”
“I can’t help,” her voice a hoarse whisper, “you’re killing me.”
“Tell me how to stop.”
A long silence followed, broken only by Lady Aurelia’s ragged breathing.
“Stop sucking the sap from me,” Lady Aurelia finally replied, struggling over each word.
“Your skin,” was all she could say.
“Use your skin to curb the flow,” I said, my voice sounding frail and distant, the effort of talking exhausting me.
At the sound of my voice, the girl spun to face me, piercing me with a look of distain. My every instinct screamed, “Run!”
Many of the lesser spirits that normally congregated around a weaver had already fled. Magical artefacts that once lay proud on the shelves had crumbled to dust and Lady Aurelia’s impressive collection of magical treatises began to smoulder.
“Skin?” the girl asked.
“Use it to foil the flow of life’s force,” I said, wishing I had a physical object to hide behind as her force continued to batter me.
“But I will die if I don’t get my fill,” she said and sprang to her feet causing the few remaining books to burst into flame. Lady Aurelia screamed.
“No you won’t,” I managed to say. “Some may die.” I glanced at Lady Aurelia who lay sprawled in her armchair. “But not you.”
The girl groaned and sank to the floor, her fingers ranging over her skin in a desperate search for an answer. Then her back arched upwards as if she were having a fit and, as abruptly as it had begun, the forces that wracked the room collapsed back on her like a giant breath being sucked in. The backlash flung the Keeper across the room and blasted Lady Aurelia from her chair. As for me, an inhuman wail tore from me as I gave up the struggle and was ripped asunder.
When I finally flickered back into existence, faint and weak, I was scattered in many tiny clouds, making it hard to know who or what or where I was. I painstakingly drew the fragments together and managed to recall whom I was, then I looked around.
The room was in ruin. Lady Aurelia lay slumped by a broken armchair, seemingly lifeless. The Keeper was crumbled on the floor in a puddle of blood, his own sword stuck in his side. As for the girl, she was unrecognizable; a charred mass that bubbled here and there, letting off a foul smelling gas.
Moving closer, I felt short bursts of magical energy break from the sinister heap and spurt playfully about the room. Dare I use it? What if it were tainted? To my relief, I found the energy to be good and sucked in as much as I could. I had never held so much before. It had my whole being trembling with power; the feeling was so alarming I promptly stopped.
Turning to Lady Aurelia, who lay unmoving, I could just make out a faint light glowing in her midst. She was still alive, but barely. I was no healer, but if I could just feed her some energy, she might survive. Errant spirits take energy; they don’t give it. I had no idea what to do. I tried pushing energy into her body. It didn’t work. Neither did anything else I tried. In desperation, I curled around her, cradling her like only an errant spirit can, and let my thoughts drift.
Memories of past encounters with Aurelia laced with delicious scents and sweet sounds floated to the surface, sparking a yearning that tore at the depths of my being. I lingered over words long forgotten and, one last time, I savoured an intricate magical procedure I’d seen her perform. Maybe it was the moment to let her go. My spirit drifted through her hair like a sigh, causing her curls to stir and I glided over her cheek; the closest I could come to a caress.
“Jonathan,” a delicious voice said, “that tickles.”