“Saeka and the Wraith I”

23:24 Mon 22 Nov 2010. Updated: 23:47 22 Jul 2014
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Yikoon did not announce his presence, and his skill was sufficient to evade the wards set by the Temple Elders. He hid himself in disused spaces, and waited patiently before moving from one to another. For weeks he used his sorceries to blunt his hunger, and watched. Dedication to his goal kept him silent, observant, and still. Finally he had knowledge and confidence enough, and he made his way into the compound of the Temple’s child sorcerers.

The children were all far from home, sent to the Temple out of fear, or hope, or desperation, or good will. All had significant talent for sorcery, and hoped to learn to surpass their limits. They were taught equally, and most accepted this, accepted that the Art was all. This group of them ranged in age from five to fifteen and were considered to be a reliable, respectful, and obedient cohort.

With one significant exception: the ungovernable, unruly, vexatious, and irreverent Saeka.

Saeka the ungovernable, who sent illusory copies of herself to disciplinary meetings and fooled even the Elders.

Saeka the unruly, who mocked the teachers if they did not meet her expectations—or if she thought it would be amusing to her classmates.

Saeka the vexatious, who tormented the wardens with insects if they tried to corral her and afflicted the matrons with noisome odors if they stopped her from stealing cakes.

Saeka the irreverent, who declared that the Art was a wonderful toy, not a dread force to be contained.

Saeka, who lived her philosophy by playing with, and in, the Art.

The wraith, observing from corners and shadows, nooks and alcoves, did not take much note of Saeka. To his ancient eyes she was another human fledgling, lively and laughing and carefree. His focus was on children very different, the quiet and withdrawn, less noticed by their peers and teachers. He looked for the shy and isolated ones, trying to discern which of them were only shy in public and which were truly uncommunicative by nature. The Temple was not his first foray into the observation of children, as he had practiced in a variety of human communities, and soon identified a handful of candidates.

Pacuro, one of a handful of survivors from a world that no longer existed. He was surly and withdrawn, with a simmering anger that kept the other children away from him.

Makna, who came to the Temple after slavers killed her clan out of spite. She wasn’t an angry one, merely fragile, every smile too brief. Somehow everything she did ended in tears or tragedy, and many of the other children shunned her because they considered her unlucky.

Varis, a girl who spoke to no-one but watched everyone. She gave little away, but the wraith could see that her anger was simply hidden deep, and that she plotted torment and death for all.

Kharvath, exiled prince of a desert realm that forbids sorcery, who after two years at the Temple was still sulking.

Hickory, one of the older children, a wispy girl from peasant stock whose family apparently treated her as a minor deity. She smiled and was pleasant enough but almost never spoke, remaining aloof from the other students.

Yikoon watched them reject advances, close off from teachers, scorn others. He waited for his moment.

Saeka was out wandering at night again. The child sorcerers had a loosely-enforced bedtime but a strictly-enforced curfew, and while quite a few of them were awake, only Saeka was absent.

She liked the Temple in the darkness and quiet. Some of the central areas were magically lit, shining white and bright. Saeka often sat just outside the lit areas looking in. Partly to avoid the various guardians who would try to send her to bed, but mostly because she found it beautiful.

Another of her favorite spots was the library. She preferred it at night because no-one would try to shoo her away from the more interesting books.

These were many. Saeka did not at that time know how unique a library it was, or that few could rival it for either esoterica or exhaustiveness. She did not then realize the wards she evaded were for more than keeping curious child-sorcerers out, that they were aimed at adult acquisitive mages. She did realize that some of the wards were to keep things from escaping the library, but blithely ignored what this suggested. She, even at that age, had passionate lines of interest in sorcerous research that she would pursue relentlessly, and anything other than full run of the library would obstruct her.

She also liked to browse, however, when she wasn’t obsessively searching. She, like all of the child-sorcerers, was fascinated by the bestiaries. Unlike the others, she also read the bestiaries forbidden to children, and so learned the habits and weaknesses of even the strangest beings. She didn’t suffer nightmares, for she was able to control her dreams, and even in them had tremendous confidence and will.

On this particular night, she stayed up very late reading in the library, indulging a new interest in alchemy.

She needed less sleep than the other children, although she would occasionally nap in class.

Saeka had driven more than one teacher to resign, and many to threaten it. The same applied to the house wardens, although more frequently they simply didn’t know she was transgressing. This was the case as she went back to her room not long before dawn: the warden didn’t know that she’d left, and no-one knew that she had essentially spent the night in the library.

Not her roommate, happily asleep in her bunk, not the house warden, fitfully dozing downstairs, and not Yikoon, who had watched them all so closely.

Saeka was making her silent way to her room when something stopped her. She wasn’t sure what it was, but always paid attention to warning feelings. It happened again, from the room she was passing. Pacuro’s room—no-one wanted to share with him because he was too angry and unpredictable. The sound of a foot brushing the floor, but no light came from under the door. Was he sleepwalking? Was he out at forbidden times too?

As she paused outside his door, she saw a brief flare of grey light under it. She couldn’t hear any chanting, not even a whisper. Now she was intensely curious. She cast a spell she’d perfected herself for opening doors, which achieved silence both by muffling sound and by performing the necessary movements extremely slowly. It took about a minute to open the door a sliver. Once to that point, Saeka pushed the door the rest of the way with her hand.

She saw Pacuro standing in the middle of the room, facing his bed. His mouth and eyes were open, and a grey luminescent mist was slowly emerging from them. Pacuro was unnaturally still, and the grey light made him look even more like stone. Saeka couldn’t hear him breathing, but he didn’t look as if he were asphyxiating.

The mist continued to emerge as Saeka wracked her mind for what spell Pacuro might have cast to create such an effect. The first few she thought of required Pacuro to be actively breathing the substance out, and didn’t involve the eyes.

The mist was beginning to coalesce into a shape.

It was tall, more than six feet, and came to resemble the outline of a man. It retained its translucence even as it thickened. The mist stopped flowing from Pacuro into it, and suddenly it had eyes. Bright eyes like slashes of red flame.

Saeka cocked her head. She gazed at it for a few moments more, and then said, “I know what you are. You’re a wraith!”

Yikoon, unsure of how this girl had appeared just as he was engaged in uncoiling himself from his hiding place inside Pacuro, prepared to pounce on her as soon as she turned and fled.

Saeka didn’t move, simply continued staring at the wraith. She asked, “What do you want?”

Yikoon was perplexed. People generally fled from wraiths, their terror overpowering. Was this girl a simpleton? Would he be able to reach her before she screamed, bringing attention from the entire Temple? Perhaps the safest course would be to humor her until he could get closer. Conversation was unfamiliar to him, but he managed to say, “He is helping me with something.”

Pacuro was still standing there, now somewhat slack in posture and expression, his eyes dull and unseeing.

“What help could a young boy offer a wraith? Why is it that you haven’t consumed his life force?”

She was no simpleton, then. Yikoon halted his almost imperceptible forward drift, less sure now that he should risk having her raise the alarm.

He hesitated, unsure of what his course of action should be. Saeka looked at Pacuro, trying to gauge his condition, watching the wraith from the corner of her eye. She looked back at it and said, “Do you need children to sate your hunger?”

For the first time, the wraith looked directly at her, and Saeka, even Saeka, had to take a step back from the intensity of that stare. She resented the weakness, and also expected it to attack her once she had shown it, but it made no move. Did it know her? Was it afraid? It didn’t seem afraid.

Ah. It wasn’t afraid of her, but it didn’t want her to alert others. Other students would wake, the warden would call for help, the various Temple guardians would descend. It would have to flee or be destroyed. But it might kill Pacuro first, especially before fleeing. Too much about it could be learned from him. Saeka would have to rescue Pacuro before raising the alarm.

That didn’t seem too difficult. She had read about wraiths, and knew that they were vulnerable to certain forms of magical assault. A simple application of force should push it aside.

A quick whisper gave her what she wanted, and she created a barrier between her and Pacuro and the wraith. Then she pushed the barrier at the wraith and stepped forward.

She pushed, but it didn’t move the wraith, who seemed unaffected. Confused, she pushed harder, but the wraith made a gesture and the wall was gone. Now the creature moved toward her. She moved away, alarmed. The wraith gestured again and this time Saeka was hit by some magical force, impact knocking her onto her back. She knew that she couldn’t let it touch her, and as it came forward she ignited a block of fire between them. It ignored the flame and reached its arm out and down for her.

Just before it could touch her, however, it reared back in pain and apparent shock.

Yikoon flailed his right arm, feeling pain he hadn’t felt for hundreds of years. What had that girl done to the flame? He was powerfully warded against fire. But this, whatever it was, truly burned. He retreated from it.

Saeka watched him, relieved. She didn’t know why he had tried to reach through the fire. She stood up, wondering whether or not she should make another attempt to grab Pacuro.

She took a step forward, then sensed a change in the room. The sound of her step was off. The wraith had cast a silencing spell to prevent her from alerting others.

What she had read of wraiths in the bestiaries had not suggested that they had sorcerous abilities. They were supposed to be in thrall to their appetites and over-reliant on their formidable inherent powers. She moved the flames to between her and the wraith, but knew that she should not rely on the fire for too long.

Yikoon prepared to extinguish the fiery wall, now thinking that he would have to eliminate this girl and gamble on avoiding detection once her absence was noted.

As Saeka reached Pacuro, the fire dwindled. Starting at the edges, it grew smaller and smaller. She let it diminish, but kept the core of it alive. It was only about the size of a coin, but it made the wraith pause. As he did, Saeka levitated Pacuro up and out the door. The wraith didn’t stop her, but she felt the area of muffled sound expand. The wraith moved towards her again, and she pulled the chunk of fire behind her, even though it would likely be useless against a prepared opponent. Instead, she tried to use the levitation on the wraith.

Nothing. Not even a pause. She scurried backwards, then split into six Saekas, each one moving in a different direction. The wraith ignored all of them except for the original, which it threw a fireball at. Saeka had no difficulty emerging from that unharmed, but now she was in a corner of the room with the wraith closing fast. She rose into the air with a flight spell, but a gesture from the wraith sent her slamming back to the floor. She was starting to become slightly worried. She put her pride aside and carried out another plan, and then tried summoning a piece of ethereal sludge to slow the wraith.

Yikoon saw the brown murk in front of him and decided to just plow through it, but whatever it was, it slowed him down no matter how insubstantial he tried to become. Impatient and ever more concerned about others noticing this battle, he took the time to dispel it, and then to dispel the energy netting the girl tried after that. Her next attempt was a fearsome blast of light energy that would have left no piece of him remaining if he hadn’t had a powerful talisman against it. He still felt it despite the talisman, and he wondered at who this girl could be.

A moment later, she made a renewed effort, and the last of her assault shattered the talisman and staggered him. Yikoon had taken the talisman from a priest-king of Saldoar, whose predecessor had forged it to resist a fearsome light weapon wielded by his most implacable foe—and it had worked. It had resisted the blast of a dread engine, but this stripling had overcome it. For a moment Yikoon thought she would fire another, and he was briefly stricken with paralysis, seeing true death before him for the first time in countless years.

But she seemed exhausted after that effort, and was backed deep into the corner. Yikoon strode forward, preparing to feed on her essence through his touch, the old appetites threatening to take over, to usurp his control. He kept them at bay with his will, forced himself to move steadily, to remain aware.

Saeka watched the wraith approach. She was surprised both by what she had been able to throw at it and what it had been able to resist. She had one gambit left, but wasn’t sure it would work. She was preparing to use it when the wraith happened to glance out the window and finally see what was out there.

Yikoon halted as he saw the spectacle outside. Giant brightly-colored symbols hung above the square, pointing at the room he was in. He could see that lights in many of the other buildings had come on, and had no doubt that the Temple guardians would be arriving almost immediately. He suspected that the display made noise, too, that couldn’t be heard in the room due to his own silencing spell. He looked at the girl, still huddled in the corner, and decided not to kill her in the time before aid arrived. He turned and left the room.

A moment after the wraith departed, a man appeared. Dressed all in white, he was a Temple Guardian. Around him was a protective field of energy. He looked around the room and saw first Pacuro, then Saeka in the corner. As he approached her, two more white-clad men appeared. “Are you hurt, Saeka?” She shook her head. She realized that she had been quite frightened, and now mustered all she could to control her feelings. She said, “There’s a wraith here. It did something to Pacuro. We fought, and it left just before you arrived.” One of the two more recent arrivals said, “We will track it. Tell the others, and see what can be done for the boy.”

They left, and the remaining guardian went over to Pacuro. He could not elicit a response from the boy. Saeka said, “It wasn’t a normal wraith. It didn’t steal Pacuro’s life energy the usual way, it did something else. When I came in, it was leaving his body, as if it had been hiding inside him.” The guardian didn’t ask how Saeka knew the habits of wraiths. When more guardians arrived, he told them that it was a wraith and that two guardians were in pursuit. Saeka said, “Not just a wraith. A wraith-mage, cunning and powerful.”

Yikoon felt the barrier around the Temple, and knew that he could not simply skip to another world. What had been an important experiment for him was now a matter of survival, for the Temple Guardians would surely destroy him if they could. He knew the hiding places, but didn’t think that he could elude their searches. He had to try something else.

He had drifted to the roof of the children’s building, and while he tried to think of a way out, he spotted a cat. Well, a cat wasn’t that much of a leap from a human child, was it? He stilled the cat with a spell and then commenced placing himself inside it. By the time the Temple Guardians made it to the roof, there was no sign of the wraith. Or the cat.

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