The Generosity of Spirits
by Luke Thomas
No thought of caution entered Eiko’s mind as he sprinted into the circle, despite all the warnings he’d heard about breaching. He drew the invoker his uncle had carved for him.
Breaching the perimeter was nothing like he’d expected. Luther had explained that different circles felt different in different moon phases, but this was not anything Eiko could have guessed at. It wasn’t like a pocket of wind or new air, or a radiant heat or chill. It was thick. But even as he pressed into the outermost stratum, the burning lessened. Otto’s spirit hesitated, its manifestation jarred by Eiko’s interference.
Moving inward was like burrowing into a formless ooze. It was unlike a real swamp or lake, he couldn’t travel more easily by changing his motion or gait. He was burdened all over by the heavy drag of no substance he could see.
He clutched his satchel as he waded toward Otto and, behind him, the altar.
Otto was ensnared by his efforts. He adjusted his stance with tremendous exertion, his eyes locked on Eiko. The burning flared up again. It ceased on one side as Eiko shouldered into Otto, moving slowly under the weight of the aether suffusing the air. Hitting Otto was like hitting a bronze statue. He was nearly frozen in his communion with the spirit.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Eik, I have to. For my family. I swore by blood I’d—”
“You You damned fool!” Eiko snarled, kicking hard at the back of Otto’s knee. Pain surged down his leg, from his groin, but Otto’s knee buckled. The burning let up, as did the thickness of the air for a moment.
Eiko dashed to the altar as the aether around him recongealed. He had no idea what would happen if he summoned the freia now, with Otto’s spirit still in the circle. But he didn’t care. Eiko Villon would not be gelded. He’d not be and, when he came through this, he’d find Alphonse de Montserrat and make him pay for swearing his son to this perverse task.
At the altar, all noise died. The flow of time somehow seemed to die along with it. It wasn’t too late. Couldn’t be. Not too late for him, Nina, or for Otto alongside them; it could all still be saved no matter what blood promise Alphonse had forced on his son. The freia would still come, would bow to Eiko’s plan, would feed.
Above the altar the thick, difficult space became actually impassable. He probed with his hands and felt the contours of an invisible knot of solid aether. In the dense, slow air he remembered a lesson his father’s physician had given him as a child, opening the stomach of a dead lamb to show him the tumor that had killed it. The tumor: a white bulb with fat appendages leaching into the animal’s belly. On the invisible mass before him he could feel similar tendrils, stalks of dense presence spreading into the night sky and the earth.
He held out the invocation his uncle had made for him. A rod of bone, cut to form from an elk’s thigh, inscribed with icons that summarized House Villon’s rise to prominence.
If Otto’s spirit was still behind him, its attack had ceased. Or the job was done, cauterized. But he could not think of that. Here at the altar he could do nothing but focus on the invocation. He prepared to call the freia.
He called history into his mind. Envisioned his forebears fighting their way up the Kemen Delta, annexing known sites of heavy aether until they subdued the whole of the Lower Arms. Not so distinct from the story of any noble house, just perpetrated at a different time. Run up against different geographies.
Certainly, his forebears parlayed their influence in a signature way. That preternatural ferocity in the Villon rank and file. A dispersed use of aethereal power that none of the traditions then occupying the Lower Arms could defend against. But in the end, House Villon’s history was the same as any other noble family’s: a cabal of men invented a novel way to kill.
Eiko placed the invoker on the altar in a hollow he could feel just beneath the knot of aether. He unsheathed his rapier a few inches and opened his ring finger on the naked blade. He squeezed a ducat-sized circle of blood onto the altar. The blood fell sluggishly through the dense air and settled into a standing globule.
“I come bearing tribute for a freia of the air, and no one else.”
The blood bait vanished. Not so much as a stain was left on the marble. A distant and tremendous sigh called his gaze skyward. The moon appeared to have turned bruise purple. The sound of exhalation increased as its source plummeted toward him.
When the freia touched down in the circle, the force of its arrival blew him off his feet. His head landed hard on the dirt. Brown spots bloomed in his vision, but he forced himself back up.
Otto had fallen to his knees, not five meters away, his back to Eiko.
He was aware of a muffled commotion from outside the circle. Duncan was screaming for his comrades to stop this.
He gathered himself. More than his balance, he gathered his voice.
The freia straddled the altar. It manifested in a human-like form, with very little apparent effort. Its shape was of a giant armored figure, its substance a warped combination of purpled moonlight and the dense aether within the standing stones.
It was difficult for Eiko to keep his eye on any fixed point within the outline that should have described the spirit’s face. As he tried, he realized that the freia was laughing quietly to itself.
He knew of no course but to treat this manifestation as if it were any low mundie. Eiko raised himself up. “Heed me, you contemptible sylph! Stop your cheap laughter and heed me.”
Otto, either exhausted or still half-paralyzed, craned his neck toward him, but Eiko couldn’t see his face. He couldn’t bother with that now, had to focus on commanding the freia.
“I’ve brought you a token of events that will shake the land.” He tried to gauge the thing’s interest in him, whether it was dipping at all into his past. It only watched him, pointedly thinking its own thoughts. Somehow it didn’t seem to notice the other young man in the circle. “Would you know what I’ve brought you?”
The freia cocked its head but remained silent. Eiko stood tall and met the surface where its eyes would be, were it the man it dressed up as. He had to remember that though this was no mewling beggar like lesser genuses, it was still a spirit and therefore obsessed with the affairs of men. He represented events it craved to hear of, to feast on.
More than a minute passed before it spoke. “Go on, ye little thing.”
Eiko glared just as his father might when dictating terms of surrender to an enemy envoy. “Adopt whatever posture you like, spirit, but you know my house. You watch House Villon out of whatever hollows in the air you hide in when man has no use for you.
“You also watch House Montserrat. And thus you will recognize that — who shares this circle with me — as Otto de Montserrat, heir to the Upper Arms.” He pointed in Otto’s direction, but didn’t take his eyes off the spirit. His confidence was growing. He could pull this off, could convince the thing that Otto, as a vital part of his original plan, was supposed to be in here with him.
The freia said nothing but its form became all the more solid, giving the lie to its indifferent posture. It was inserting itself fully into the circle, curious.
Eiko saw Otto as if through a pane of frosted glass, on all fours. Puking? Hauling himself up?
“Spirit, I know you understand that Otto de Montserrat is my blood enemy.”
“Yesss...” The freia’s voice lapsed from its manful tone to something more aethereal. Something starved. “You know of the wars fought over Lake Quatre Bras and the island at its center. The wars that are all just one long war.”
“Mmm,” the spirit agreed.
“The token I offer you is of the final maneuver, being made even now, that will bring that long war to a close.”
The freia stepped down from the altar. “Enough. P-mmmn-present it.”
Eiko did. He went to Otto, placed a hand on his shoulder. He showed him the kerchief, with its Montserrat crest. “It’s Nina’s,” he said, softly. “We are brothers now, Otto.”
Otto’s face was as numb as it would be if he was pathetically drunk. Eiko couldn’t tell if he perceived the kerchief, but he brought it now to the freia, who gave a gratified moan.
“This is the favor of the Lady Nina de Montserrat, also Viscountess Nina Villon. My wife. We were married in secret. In secret we made plans, with my father’s aid, to unite our houses under a new, shared banner. We will close the book on these bloody decades. And on this night, with you bearing witness, spirit, I’m asking Lord Otto to join us. If he takes his due place at the head of his house we can, together, raise prosperity out of the ashes of endless war.
“What do you say, Otto? My closest friend. Now my brother.” He turned, palms before him, as Otto stood.
“Eik...” Otto muttered. Something was smudged on his face. Only when he took a laborious step closer did Eiko see it was blood. Beads of blood, dripping down his face like sweat.
Eiko fell still, as if he had just set his foot down inches from a viper.
“Eiko, I had to,” Otto slurred. “My father, he said he’d disinherit me... unless. He said it wasn’t against cadre because it wasn’t killing you. I...” He drew his rapier.
Behind them the freia took note. It crooned in ecstasy, savoring Otto’s turmoil.
But it was all so idiotic. The crudeness of the command the Duke de Montserrat had given — to geld him! — was outdone only by the crude way he’d sworn Otto to carry it out. How could Otto not understand that the Archduke would cast Alphonse out of the confederacy for this? It broke the Oath of Cadre in all but the most specious sense.
“Otto!” Eiko bellowed. “It doesn’t matter what your father does. It all has to stop. We have to stop it. Think about what I’m offering your people! Think of Nina. We’re more than cadre. I’m already your brother, Otto. Don’t you understand?”
At last, Otto did hear him. He hesitated. His sword arm slackened. Something, vaguely red and winged, rose from him like smoke. The blood covering his face became transparent. Normal sweat.
The red shape bolted behind Eiko, slamming into the freia. The freia grasped the crude spirit Otto had summoned and slammed it onto the altar. There came a sound like a battering ram. The red thing disappeared, but the altar had broken in half under it.
Everything was still.
Could they die? Eiko had time to wonder. Could they kill each other?
The freia, bent toward the altar, appeared to be laughing silently. Eiko felt a new disturbance in the aether, the reverberation of a deep motion from beyond where the invisible stuff met reality in the stone circle.
Strange noises came from the freia while it shuddered. “Oh, it’s, unh, ah!” The spirit’s babble leapt in an instant from pleasure to pain. Eiko saw no obvious cause, but he became aware of a smell like burning cedar. It built until, in the sky, the moon went out. Darkness claimed the clearing.
“Eik,” Otto whispered. “Do you feel that? Something else coming in.”
“Spirit!” Eiko called, “Show yourself!”
A wild purple light sprang up as he saw the freia one last time, burning. A dark, inchoate mass had seized it from behind. Gouts of purple flame erupted wherever the blackness touched the writhing sylph. It squealed as it burned. What manner of entity was back there, obscured by the flames?
“Eik,” Otto said. “Get out of the circle. Your breach let that thing in. Maybe if—”
An unknowable voice sounded from the dark thing. It spoke Otto’s name. Otto went, in an instant, from speaking desperately to Eiko to staring silently through him. “Blood sworn is blood owed,” spoke the voice.
“I won’t do it.” Otto replied, before gasping as if he’d been punched in the gut. Eiko went to him, pulled him upright.
The look on Otto’s face was not inscrutable. It was a look Eiko knew well. He’d first seen it on the faces of his father’s scouts when they took him on his first raid. The distance of duty. Cold readiness to murder.
“Otto, fight it,” Eiko pleaded, but his comrade was past hearing. Otto drew his machete backhand, a quick draw to cut at close quarters. Eiko tried to throw himself backward but the air around the altar, now overloaded with aether, permitted no movement. He was pinned.
* * *
What then occurred was so outside of time that Eiko’s memory would never properly make sense of it. There came a great pause, brief to Eiko’s perceptions but epochal in the way it changed everything thereafter.
Otto’s rising blade slowed to the point of stillness. Eiko heard a woman’s voice. “Your fault, Eiko Villon. You reached too far, too soon, and found me. Your father doesn’t know of me, your greatest grandfather doesn’t know of me.”
Eiko later recalled the voice telling him other things, but he could never remember the substance of any of them. He recalled only what the spirit left him with, and the offering it compelled him to provide.
“Sorry, Eiko Villon, but admit it: you wondered what happens when the offering becomes the request. Peace for peace; war for war. The victory becomes the reward, just as the trauma becomes the aftermath. Firefight becomes firebomb becomes firestorm... but I’m getting ahead of you. It all leads to me, anyway. And here you are already.
“But your end is not here. Not bleeding on a broken altar. Nor will you live out your days impotently protesting against the conquests that your new, unified family will covet. You have much to do before your end can come.
“Go now. You need to get started, and I need a morsel of experience to bring home with me. I hunger, just like the little ones. Not for peace, though, not yet. ”
There was his arm, which must have moved of its own accord even before the gap in time. He’d been able to draw and strike on reflex since he was a boy. Almost separate from himself, Eiko’s machete arced up toward Otto, stuck helpless in time and aether, and chopped into his windpipe.
With the murder it wanted accomplished, all of the unknown spirit’s intrusion into time and space evaporated. The air around Eiko seemed to exhale. The relief of aethereal oppression and the resumption of normal, worldly weight combined into a kind of sloughing shock.
Eiko spun to the side, catching Otto’s blade across his shoulder even as he felt the spray of the lifeblood of the man who would have been his kin.
Otto collapsed. His opened throat spurted with less and less force. Eiko knelt, cradling his head, but their eyes exchanged nothing. Otto died.
The moon shone normal again. Eiko breathed. The cavern of his chest was full of something... large. He had become, in a way he couldn’t then understand, more than whole. His offering had been accepted, as Duncan’s had been, and he’d been changed, but it was neither the offering he intended nor the change he’d sought.
Not knowing what new power was in him, nor having any idea of the nature of the world spirit that put it there, Eiko gave a last glance at a speechless Duncan and left. He took Nina’s kerchief, numbly careful to put it in his satchel without touching it to her brother’s blood. He left the glade the way Reis had gone.
Copyright © 2014 by Luke Thomas