It was almost here, beckoning at the windows, more than a mere eclipse or shadows stealing light. Dace’s cellmate said some folk had a natural affinity for the Alnight. They could know the exact moment the sun was weakest, when the dark was most potent and Vagabond souls were not hampered by ethereal boundaries. Dace liked the dark. All sorts of things grew in the dark — mildew, the cold, loneliness, phantoms. Plans. And hatred too.
She had to move quick. After chasing the bothersome puppetmaster away, she had draped an old tunic over the doorknob and drawn the curtains. A more careful and self-preserving practitioner would not even attempt this in their own abode, but Dace did not expect to get away with this. She only needed to get through the Alnight uninterrupted.
On the north and south walls of the room, she drew enticement glyphs. On the east and west, restraining glyphs. With one hand on the hip, she re-examined her arrangement, which included:
A) Equipment for an Attending, consisting of a large, waist-height candle that would illuminate five times brighter in order to draw a soul this far and this long gone; and several lengths of thick red rope, which were knotted around the limbs of
B) Ermane’s headless corpse, redressed in a linen shift and laid out within a circle of containment.
C) The marionette’s head, strings trailing like detached arteries.
D) One large jar of formaldehyde, like the ones used to hold her rat-doll soul transplantation experiments, but containing a tongue hacked off its anatomical moorings and threaded with a fishing hook and line.
All was good. Dace tackled the tongue first, working it into the marionette’s mouth, pulling the line down through the throat. A puppet could not Speak without a tongue, and Dace had traded her own for a mechanised voicebox fashioned out of oratowood. Something precious, blood of your own blood.
Next she used a wide-eyed whalebone needle to sew the strings of the head onto the corpse’s neck, making it somewhat whole once more. A soul could not be Tethered to an Incomplete vessel. She shook the Ermane-doll a few times to ensure the head would not come off. It was unsteady but secure.
Dace stared at the thing she had put together; it was a wonder she could still feel something, anything. That long-ago Alnight seemed a hallucination, dulled and stolen by years of imprisonment. Sometimes though, in that vague drift through the dreamworld, Dace recalled the distinct reek of the interrogation room and Ermane’s last countenance before they were separated. Sometimes Dace would remember how she’d walk into a room craving oatmeal cookies and Ermane would just say: ‘None left, ate’em all this afternoon.’
Dace slapped herself — stop it, weakling — and kept moving. She took up the lengths of rope that were tied around the corpse’s limbs and lashed each end to a permanent fixture in the room, save the left ankle. That rope she strapped around the lighted candle.
She yanked Ferlis’s gold amulet off the chain around her neck, holding it gingerly as if the faith could drip from it. Words no longer worked for her, she had discovered. It was not enough to say them; one had to believe in them to Speak, and she had relinquished the luxury of belief somewhere between exile and Ermane’s betrayal. But she had discovered too that the Danar’s Heart of a goodhand more than sufficed. Ferlis, ever observant, had not even noticed his amulet was missing or, when it returned, that it was a perfect replica.
So now Dace waited, not knowing if she would succeed. She had not practiced for a decade, yet as soon as she set hand to red string, she knew which natural laws she could bend. She had put the question to Ferlis once: where does the soul of an Incomplete go? And her next private question: how do I bring her back?
And so she waited, feeling the temperature plummet and the hum of invisible borders as the darkness burgeoned. She sensed the Alnight’s approach the way animals sensed rain and fear, and at the zenith of its power, she pressed Danar’s Heart against the marionette’s forehead.
The red ropes roused sluggishly (come to me, sister), the Ermane-doll jolted once in a silent hiccup (get up now), and again, more convincingly.
“Breathe,” Dace commanded aloud.
Its chest and limbs began to vibrate, gaining momentum and ferocity until Dace was forced to release Danar’s Heart. The doll’s torso arched high and balanced precariously, the loose head dangling back over its neck.
“Come on, damn you, breathe!”
Its voice came upon a rising croak, low and agonised, ending on a keening sigh. “D-d-daaayyy…seeeee.”
The Ermane-doll raised its head in palsied jerks, Danar’s Heart still fixed to its forehead. One of its black eyes shifted sideways, searching for Dace. It tried to sit up, heaving against its bondages.
“Dacey?” it whispered through a slack jaw.
“Over here,” Dace said. Both eyes swivelled towards her, spirit eyes that needed no physical connection. “Hello Ermie. Yes. Focus. Well, how do I look, dearest?”
“L-l-like ssshit,” replied the doll that was her sister. The preserved tongue flapped about in its mouth, tasting and testing the words.
“So do you,” said Dace.
The wooden mouth clacked up and down in soundless laughter. Dace smiled too and, for a moment, one cannot tell which sister is the corpse.
“I knew,” the Ermane-doll rasped, “if anyone could do it, you would.”
“I promised you I’d always be there. I told you I’d come for you.”
“I have missed you,” it said almost wistfully.
“How dare you,” Dace hissed, “how dare you when I’m the one who’s been rotting in prison for ten years. Exiled to a foreign realm, flogged and starved and ridiculed. Oh but I thought about you all the time. You were the only thing that kept me going.
“So you can imagine my disgruntlement when I came back and discovered you’d been living in comfort and freedom all this time, trading your old identity for new. What’s more, you denied any involvement with me. You denied my very existence. You sold me out.”
The Ermane-doll cocked its head and studied her with its flat quartz eyes. “Oh, Dacey. I’m so sorry.”
Dace quashed the rage and despair, the way she had taught herself. “Start talking,” she said.
to be continued…