From the outside, the cabins don't look any different than usual. Still, the folk of Stonebarrow and visitors to the settlement have tended to skirt one in particular when possible, leaving only Morgan and Miranda the rare visitors. Even the cheeky local kids haven't tried stealing the paper talismans from the door anymore after one swore a bog wight followed him home. It leaves the place oddly quiet but for the buzzing and croaking sounds of the surrounding marsh.
Morgan, the witch apprentice, steps out of the mists with a frown on his face. He'd been unable to attend the ritual that involved Qing, Natasha, and many others on Bravil's behalf. Struggling with the necromancer's soul exhausted him, leaving him too vulnerable to handle such a complicated ritual especially when a better choice was around. With this on his mind, he raps at Qing's cabin door. "Mage Qing? It's me, Morgan," he announces in a low voice.
"Enter," comes Qing's voice, its usual soft and sibilant quality a bit hard to make out.
The door cracks open, revealing Morgan's deep black face and long black hair. "I came to check on you, to see how you're doing, Mage Qing." He steps inside, closing the door behind him. "I was worried about you all. I'm … I'm sorry for not being of more use. I didn't expect to be that drained after our encounter in the crypt."
Inside, the cabin is dim, the windows shaded to the light-sensitive serpent's preference. He sits coiled by a writing desk, one of his many hands busily penning another line to an already long scroll. He dips his quill and waits a few moments to let the ink dry, allowing him to look up. Nearby, the late Valicross' grisly staff rests on a pair of pillows. "It was a trying experience for both of us, Nightshade. I would not expect anyone to feel in top form after it." He pauses, then instead of taking the quill back out of the inkwell, he lets it sit. Turning in his own coils, he faces Morgan more directly. "Though you exerted yourself more than I would have expected you to be capable of."
"I, well, I was worried. I suppose I'm used to looking out for people, and sometimes I forget some are more capable than I am," the Kadie replies. He begins walking towards the mage, then pauses, looking down. "You know, it was like this when the necromancer came. I was exhausted from my, uh, well, my … my Lily, and he caught me off guard. When we finally did confront him, I realized he was greater than us. Without Natasha, well … " He bites his lip, turning to regard the staff.
Qing nods matter-of-factly. "You would have been destroyed utterly, and this village laid to waste," he murmurs, pausing to blow on the scroll. Satisfied that the ink is dry, he rolls the parchment up and sets it aside, then lifts himself up, pallid loops of scaly body sliding over themselves as the neat stacks come undone. "But what of it?"
Morgan's head droops, but he rights it as he flicks his hair out of his face. After a moment of silently staring at the staff, he blurts out, "Why are they so much stronger than we are, Mage Qing? We live with the land, we live humble and dedicated lives, and that means nothing compared to them. What secrets do they know, that lets them have their power? If only I knew, I could … I could … " He reaches for the staff, leaving his fingers hovering inches from the macabre tool.
"Take it up, Nightshade," murmurs Qing, gesturing at the staff when Morgan reaches for it. "Look well. Lift the staff and listen to it. Do you hear them? Do you feel them bound to the relics?"
Morgan hesitates, then slowly reaches to pick up the staff. When he does, he suddenly freezes, tail shooting up as his fur stands on end. "I do," he breathes with an air of someone comprehending the answer to a mystery. "It's … faint, the whispers, but the object is strong … Knowing the strength of people, it isn't a wonder an object crafted from their bound potentials could feel like this."
The reptile nods slowly. "That is the reason, and it is no secret. The power of magecraft stems from the power of will. Not just the will to resist or the will to continue. Not just the will to improve. The will to shape. To control. To know. To dominate."
"I wish I knew," Morgan sighs, holding the staff straight out in his hand. "If I knew, I could unwork their horrors instead of claw blindly at powers I barely understand. Our witchcraft serves the village well it always has but it is a magic of peace and protection. We feign strength, because we must, but we … " He simply shakes his head slightly, staring in to the hollow eyes of the skull-made staff. "I wonder if these people had someone like me, like my mother … Damn him."
The Rokuga touches one end of the scroll, rolling it away to open it a few inches again, line after line of spidery script flowing down the yellowish paper. "They came from all walks of life. Some from the very town Valicross himself ministered. Vagabonds, merchants, men, women, children… " Leaving the scroll lay, Qing slithers from the desk to stand near the Kadie, looking at the staff as well. "Despite the trappings of kssh'atga that I wear, I am a man of reason. I can admit that your village's system of witchcraft has its place, has things that even a mage can learn from. It simply has no way of dealing with what Valicross represented. It has weakness, boy. But you are not weak."
"But I … I couldn't do a thing," Morgan admits. The admittance seems to take the wind out of him, for he drops the staff back on its holder and lets his face fall into his hands, shoulders slumping. Rubbing his temples, he explains, "The necromancer, Bravil, B- … other encounters. We won because we're strong together, because our enemies are often alone. But we… we scrabble at the walls of a mystery that has plagued this land for centuries. Necromancers, that unknowable shadow that haunts Sylvania. I'm tired of not knowing, but I don't know what to do. I don't want to come so close, the next time it happens perhaps, even failing. Who will it cost us, if we fail? If I fail?" He reaches forward, stroking the bone staff. "It makes me so angry."
Qing folds his arms, two pairs crossing, leaving the upper two free. "Then why not know? Did I not tell you that you are not weak?" One of the Rokuga's hands takes up an ordinary staff, a more or less plain stick of wood amongst several carved pieces in an umbrella rack seemingly set aside for the purpose. His coils carry him near the table, to where several books are stacked, and where a trunk with more books inside sits. He abruptly slaps one of the books off the table and onto the floor, where it lands with a bang. "Was that not an application of strength just now?"
Morgan turns to follow the mage's movement's, his ears and tail shooting up when the mage demonstrates a sudden use of force. "Well, um, yes?" Seemingly out of habit, he walks over to pick up the book.
Another book soon joins it, its leather cover slapping open against the floorboards near Morgan, pages fluttering. "And that." Another book flies onto the floor, landing on its spine and falling open to a page on cadaver dissection. "And that." At last, the mage shoves at the trunk with his free hand, but it doesn't move more than an inch or two. "And yet, this refuses. Is it because I lack the strength to move it? No. I have the strength." The other arm passes the stick to the first, which wedges it at a notch in the trunk. With another stack of books as a fulcrum, it takes one pull on the staff to send the trunk crashing to the floor, its contents spilling out.
"It's how you use your strength, and the tools at hand, that allows you to move it … " Morgan gathers up the other books, careful to close them and stack them on the floor with care. "The lesson is: learn to use my strength differently?" He looks up from the floor, head tilted. "But, I don't know how a necromancer does his magic, nor the world he comes from. The relics he left behind may offer clues, but … they're just clues. If necromancy was obvious, there might well be far more of the fiends."
Qing sets the staff he chose back into the umbrella can with the others. "Yes and no. I do not claim everyone has this strength. There are not more because not everyone has this. The truly feeble could not hope to move this trunk using anything in this room. You have this strength, but power misdirected is useless. They say knowledge is power, but that is not entirely true. Knowledge is the lever. The strength, the hand behind it, is something else… I would not have thought you had it, but the night we faced the shade of Valicross, when it gripped me, you threw yourself against his hold… and it moved. Not much, but it moved." All the Rokuga's arms fold now.
Morgan stands up, reaching up to run his hand through his long black hair. "I guess it did," he agrees, sounding a little surprised, despite having been there. "I just didn't want him to gain control. I though if I put myself on the line, fumbled at his artful weaves, I could … I could disrupt him. You, your skill, you could stop him. I couldn't, so I … well … um … Anyway … " He smiles sheepishly, then glances around, uncomfortable. "I've never felt quite so small, before. Here, we are looked up to, the witches are powerful. But him, he laughed at me and I knew he was right in his strength, if not his purpose." Shaking his head, Morgan asks, "Has that ever burned you? That helplessness, Mage Qing? Something all you can do is claw at, however useless?"
Qing's tongue flicks, and the pale snake's ruby eyes look away. "Of course. There is always someone stronger, some obstacle seeming insurmountable, if not through personal failing then sometimes just a given advantage through circumstance. Some things can't be done." The mage flicks his tongue again. "But that is neither here nor there. As I have said, to use this power is something you can do, something you have already demonstrated. What is to stop you from pursuing the knowledge to wield it to its greatest effect?"
"Pursuing the knowledge?" Morgan at first looks confused, tail quirking in that question-mark shape it does whenever he's interested in a mystery. Then, his ears perk and his tail straightens. "Do you mean, plumb the mysteries of necromancy?"
The Rokuga tilts his head. "You say the word with such distaste. Do you understand what it really means?"
"Necromancers are evil men and women, they twist the spirits of the land, the living, and the dead to fulfill their twisted desires. They've always been a blight on the land, and our enemies," the Kadie replies. It sounds part recital, and part personal feeling. There's anger in Morgan's words, but also a hunt of uncertainty. Giving his uncertainty a voice, Morgan adds, "That's what I was taught, and what I've seen."
That forked tongue flicks again. The reptile speaks in a whisper, but it could simply be that slight variation in his usual speaking voice. "Mm. Would it disturb you to know that I practice necromancy? That I am, by the basic definition, a necromancer?"
"YES," the Kadie replies, startled.
Qing winds his way around the table to one of the books on the floor, picking it up and dusting it off. "Then let us cure you of your ignorance, Nightshade. Necromancy is but a branch of spirit magic. The acknowledged disciplines of the sphere of spirit are necromancy and warding. The term "necromancy" is a misnomer. While the word is rooted in death, it has nothing to do with death itself, nor has it anything to do with intention or a desired way of life."
The Kadie inches away, until he bumps in to the table with the staff. Reflexively he reaches to catch it before it falls, almost jumping when he sees what he caught. "Ahh! Um, oh." He carefully cradles the staff, holding it as if it were an infant, or a priceless treasure. "Then, if that is true, why … Why are necromancers as they are? I have never met a necromancer that is, well, altruistic."
The reptile tilts his head. "How many necromancers have you met? Not counting me."
"Well, um … " The Kadie almost lifts a hand to count, but seems unwilling to leave the staff in the lurch. He turns and carefully places it back on its stand again, answering, "You met the other would Lady Natasha also be a necromancer? there was one when I was a child, the necromancer lords and king of legends, and I've heard on and off reports of them through the years. It's all very negative."
Qing nods again, coiling himself at his desk once more. "Madame Natasha specializes more in the warding side of things, but she is indeed knowledgeable and fully capable in the ways of necromancy. Counting her and Valicross, that makes two. There are many more than that in this world, Nightshade. In the golden age of the Collegia, there were dozens among the Esoterica, many more than that in the Empire. Perhaps even hundreds."
"But, why have I never heard of them? Madame Natasha, she doesn't seem to be, well … " The Kadie gestures at the staff, then at the books. "Then, you're saying, death is … a specialization? The focus of the mad?"
The Rokuga rubs his chin. "There could be several reasons. Foremost in my guess… have you ever left this village? Assuming you have, I would speculate that it is for the same reason you hear about fire mages who rain bolts of flame down on armies, or chaos mages that lay lingering curses, when there are many of the former who heat foundries and the latter who create luck charms. The Council of Caroban also dictates the ethical use of magic, and these policies are enforced. It is rogue mages that inspire dread, and yes, that fixate upon the easy path to power that abuse of spiritcraft can bring."
"The necromancer's path seemed far from easy. Gruesome, but not easy," the other man remarks. He frowns, tapping his chin. "I suppose hard work and dedication pay off, irregardless of your morality or intentions … " Morgan shakes his head even as he shakes the thought from his mind. Looking up, he says, "It makes sense to me. Several members of our village are well known, mostly for their relative infamy. A few of the otters, the Lapi, and several others all busy bodies. But there are others of their species who are not remembered, and yet, are just as special." The Kadie smiles briefly before his smile fades back in to a frown. "Then, I'll say this: perhaps I have been wrong. Maybe our opinion is soured, but what of it? Do you think I could piece together the ways of necromancy, from the man's possessions?"
"Tss." The snake pats at his mantle as if dusting off some ill memory. "One can no more learn magecraft from simple possessions than one can learn to garden by looking at a shovel. The way was pioneered at great cost and over centuries, and research is conducted now by experienced mages. To begin apprenticeship, you would go to Caroban and seek a tutor."
The Kadie breathes a sigh, shaking his head. "Then it's no use. I've never been far from the village, to be honest, and I haven't the money to pay for the trip, nor the training. And, what's infinitely worse … " he grimaces, tail shrinking upon itself, " … if my mother knew, she'd, well, she wouldn't understand what I want to accomplish."
Qing shrugs indifferently, unrolling the scroll and taking up his quill again. "The training is what you'd seek at Caroban. The money… you might as well know we paid in gold for Valicross' head. That leaves your mother, but I wouldn't know or care how you would deal with that. Now put that staff back and pick up those books. I've work to do."
The Kadie nods, walking over and picking up the books before returning them to their place. He straightens the table he bumped in to, then steps towards the door, where he pauses.
The reptile is busily writing again, quill feather fluttering over another name in a steadily lengthening list.
"Would you teach me, Mage Qing?"
The scratching of the quill stops. Red eyes look up over the tops of smoked glasses. "What did you say?"
Morgan, who had been looking steadily at the mage's back, repeats, "Would you teach me, Mage Qing? Will you teach me necromancy?"
The quill goes back into the inkwell, and the mage gives Morgan his undivided attention. "I have taught at the Collegia, but it has been years since I took on an apprentice. I understand your motivation, but you should not take this lightly, Nightshade. I will not hide the fact I am a harsh teacher, and the repercussions you mentioned from your family and village are an even greater weight than most students bear. Are you prepared to give up so much for this knowledge?"
"My mother always taught me that I might have to sacrifice to protect the village. My mother, and all the Sisters, are very harsh teachers. I won't fail them again, I can't … I can't let the village be put at risk again, even whatever tradition says! Lily, poor Lily! I could help her. Amelia needn't fight so hard. Zahnrad wouldn't have to worry if his brother would be taken in the night. Olivia Weaver needn't fear, if another necromancer stepped forth. I, I might know what to do. I could stop them, without relying on outside help. How long will Natasha remain, or yourself? What wrong with wanting to know more?" The Kadie clenches his hand, ears going back. "We could keep it a secret, you and I. Few bother you, and fewer still can follow me, if I chose to hide myself. And, there's more: I need to know the nature of the spirit. I, I have to. For me. For the village. I need to learn!" Stepping forward, the Kadie kneels beside the mage. "Please, Mage Qing, will you teach me?"
It's a few long moments that the witchdoctor sits in stony silence, simply staring at Morgan with those hard ruby eyes. Finally, Qing hisses, "See me tomorrow morning, as you normally would for your daily tasks. We will begin then… apprentice."
Morgan, who, except for a brief moment, had been frowning all night, suddenly smiles. "You won't be disappointed! I'm used to working hard, and if you're harder than my Sisters, I'll be mighty impressed," he says. Standing up, he lifts his hands and wiggles his fingers, leaning forward to give the mage a hug then pauses, thinking better of it. He giggles nervously, then, grins. "Um, sorry. Tomorrow, yes? I'll be here. Good night, Mage … No, Master Qing." And with that, the Kadie is off.