Hunger pangs racked Navar's body, sending spasms through his midsection. He could not remember the last time he had eaten more than a discarded crust of dry bread. Even the food on the ship that had brought him here--moldy and sparse--had been better than nothing.
The sound of carriage wheels rolling across the cobblestones drew his attention. In the three weeks since his arrival, he had seen nothing like the size or grandeur of the gilded carriage that approached. It slowed to a stop in front of him. A gloved hand emerged from the window nearest him and a single finger crooked in Navar's direction. He scrambled to his feet, but before he could move forward, a heavy hand clamped down on his shoulder and turned him around.
"Where'd'ya think you're going, boy?" Brilliant green eyes peered out at Navar from beneath matted gray hair that obscured most of an old man's face.
"The carriage," Navar said. He turned back toward the carriage, disappointed to see that the beckoning hand had already withdrawn into the shadows.
"No, you don't want to get in that carriage. Not if you value your life, you don't."
"You'll thank me for it later," the man replied. "Name's Gratton."
Navar watched the carriage drive slowly away. He sighed, and then introduced himself. "Would you be so kind as to explain why a carriage such as that brings danger?"
"Boy, I've lived in this town my whole life. That carriage has been coming round for the past eight years. And never once has a young man who's gone into the carriage ever returned."
"Perhaps they are given permanent jobs at the estate where they are taken to."
Gratton shrugged. "I s'pose you might think that. But the carriage takes the older men too. At least the ones who don't know better. Brings them back round the next day. And they ain't never seen a young man in that godforsaken place."
"Where does the carriage take them?"
"That big house what overlooks the town." Gratton gestured indistinctly to the west, where a lone hill jutted out of the middle of the forest. "Listen, you're new around here, right? Came in on one of the big boats? Why not just ship back out? You'll do much better for yourself that way."
"I took poorly to shipboard life. Seasickness," Navar said. The heat of embarrassment crossed his cheeks, but he continued on, glad to have someone to talk to. "There are no jobs for learned men where I come from. I spent six years at university, and have nothing to show for it. No trade to speak of. I hoped to find people in search of knowledge and learning here."
Gratton laughed tersely, though the mirth did not reach the old man's eyes. "Well, I'm sure that something'll come your way, a good, smart lad like you."
"Something might have come my way, only you prevented me from reaching it in time. I appreciate your ill-guided attempt to prevent my alleged demise, but unless you have work to offer me, I am afraid I must look elsewhere. Good day, sir."
Navar turned to find a different spot in the town square where he could try to ignore his hunger for a while longer. As he walked away, he heard Gratton mutter, "Suit yourself, then."
The next day, with the sun far overhead, Navar looked around for Gratton. The older man was nowhere to be seen. Navar hoped that Gratton would not return, but that the carriage would. He suspected that someone with the means to own a carriage of that splendor might have a position for a learned man, and perhaps no need of the typical sort who loitered in the town square. He was not averse to hard work either, if that was requested of him. Anything to provide him a meal would do right now. Navar straightened his shirt over and over again, ran his hands through his hair to smooth it, and stared in the direction the carriage had come from the previous day.
After what felt like hours, the carriage cruised smoothly into the town square. It stopped abruptly, and Navar watched as the hand extended from the carriage window and a single finger beckoned another young man. Navar's heart sank. The other man was scruffy and far more poorly dressed than Navar, seemingly disproving Navar's earnest hope that the owner of the carriage was looking for someone like Navar. The man approached the carriage, and Navar followed him.
The other young man glanced at Navar, then turned back toward the carriage window. "You're wantin' my help?" He addressed whoever was within and ignored Navar.
A long pause followed. Even this close to the carriage, Navar could not see its inhabitants, though he felt as though someone stared at him from its depths. Sweat trickled down his back, and Navar tried to breathe normally to not reveal his fear.
A faint voice emanated from within the carriage. "We will take you both. Two may be better than one."
Navar reached for the carriage door. It swung outward before he placed his hand on the doorknob. He gestured for the other young man to go in. "After you."
"Thank you. Name's Lir."
"A pleasure, Lir. I am Navar."
Navar followed Lir into the carriage. The smell of roasted chicken washed over him. Despite the darkness within the carriage, especially after the brightness of the town square, Navar's apprehension vanished. His sole remaining fear was that if he opened his mouth, he might drool down the front of his shirt. Instead, he strained to locate the source of the aroma.
Two figures sat side by side on one bench in the carriage, dressed in dark, hooded robes. One wore black gloves, while the other, the one who had beckoned through the window, wore white gloves. Navar frowned, unsure why anyone would dress in such a way in warm weather. The figure wearing dark gloves held out a basket, and the scent of chicken intensified.
"You look like you could eat a whole chicken." The voice was deeper than the one that had invited Navar and Lir into the carriage, and much more identifiably masculine. "We didn't figure on two passengers, so you'll have to share."
Navar and Lir both took the basket, placed it on the seat between them, and dived in. By the time they began moving forward, Navar had wolfed down nearly half a drumstick.
Navar awoke with a start. He wasn't certain how he had managed to fall asleep with uneaten chicken in hand, but that he still gripped the leg bone was a testament to his earlier hunger. Now he was mostly sated.
As his senses returned, he realized he was still in the carriage, which had stopped moving. Lir was no longer beside him. Navar cursed softly under his breath, fearing that the other young man would be given a position in the household, and that he himself would be returned to the town square. Before he could rise from his seat, a faint rustling sound revealed that he was not alone.
A dark-gloved hand passed through his field of vision and opened the carriage door. "I'll show you to your room."
Navar nodded and stumbled from the carriage. The stable in which he emerged was immense, nearly twice the size of the houses in town. Lanterns hung high on posts throughout the space, illuminating an ornate door set in one of the walls. Navar approached it, curious about the elaborate engraving on what appeared to be something that few would see.
"Please follow me. You must not wander." The dark-gloved man, still covered with hood and robe, slid past Navar soundlessly and opened the door. A shiver slid up Navar's spine. He began to speak, but the other man continued. "Lady Beatrice has asked me to prepare a bath and clean clothes for you. She will meet with you--"
A horrible shriek rent the air, and the servant froze midstep. Navar pressed his hands to his ears, but the sound penetrated through his flesh. The servant grabbed Navar by his shoulders and ushered him down the hallway and into a dark room. As soon as the heavy wooden door closed, the sound diminished. A moment later, it stopped entirely.
"That was Lir, wasn't it?" Navar whispered.
The servant waited before responding. "Lady Beatrice will see you now. We will dispense with the grooming." He returned to the hallway.
Navar paused in the doorway. If the sound had been Lir, then perhaps Gratton had been right about the perils that awaited him here. Perhaps venturing forward was not the wisest choice. Navar looked back down the hall toward the stable, considering heading in that direction rather than following the servant.
But he was not ready to admit Gratton had been right yet. There could be reasons why Lir had screamed. Perhaps the task at hand involved a deformed person, and Lir had been unable to stomach the sight. Navar took a deep breath to settle his resolve, and followed the servant.
The hallways seemed unnaturally quiet, particularly now that the screaming had ended. Navar calculated the turns they made and was shocked by how large the estate must be—easily three or more times larger than his family's substantial home in Near Mezza. They passed no one as they walked, despite the fact that such a place would require a veritable army for a staff. As Navar cleared his throat to ask the servant where everyone was, the servant stopped before a door and knocked softly.
"Enter." The voice beyond the door was husky, but sounded as though it might belong to a woman. The servant gestured to the door, and Navar did as bidden.
Seated inside was a woman dressed entirely in black. Her clothing seemed to pull all the light in the room toward her. Her hair, a wild mass of dirt-colored curls, spilled across her shoulders. In the midst of their tangles, a fierce gaze drew Navar's attention.
"My servants tell me that you declined my invitation yesterday, and yet now you are here. How has this come to pass?"
"I was prevented from entering your carriage yesterday, milady." Navar dropped his gaze as he bowed.
"Prevented? You are a strapping lad. Who could prevent you from going where you would?"
Navar hesitated and looked up at her. The woman held him in her gaze, and it set his nerves on edge, despite how hard he tried to maintain his composure. "I was told that to come here would not be wise."
"Told by whom?"
"Respectfully, milady, I do not wish to divulge who, but--"
"Very well." She squared her shoulders. "Despite what you were told, you are here. And you refuse to tell me the source of your information. Brave and loyal. That makes you just the sort of young man I'm looking for. Come here."
Navar approached her chair, though trepidation slowed his step, and she rose. Her cool hands grasped his, and she whispered a single word. Before Navar could puzzle out what she had said, the entire room vanished into blackness.
The cloying darkness mired Navar as if he had been cast into a vat of tar. Pressure mounted in his chest, convincing him that if he took a breath, he might drown. He tried to move his arms, but the woman's grip remained tight. Muffled sounds ebbed and flowed around him, a confusing cacophony. He thought he heard the bells of the church in the town square. Then came the cries of seagulls, which shifted to the sounds of merchants hawking their wares. He felt dizzy from trying not to breathe. Instinct urged him to run. Then light returned, and the thick air abated.
In place of the elegant parlor furnishings was a Spartan work space with no visible windows or doors. The damp air hung heavy with the musty smell of earth. He could hear nothing other than the pounding of his heart at first. His breath came in ragged gasps as he took in the room, trying to make sense of what had happened. Large jars weighed down shelves lining the walls, each containing something stranger than the one before. Navar spotted brightly colored botanical specimens, a floating hand twice the size of a man's, and a wavering ball of light that reminded him of the tales of the will-o'-the-wisp.
Lady Beatrice cleared her throat and drew Navar's attention from the orb of light. "It occurs to me that we have not been properly introduced," she said, a slight frown creasing her brow, "which is necessary before I go further with my offer. I am Lady Beatrice Hyand, widow of Lord Swayne Hyand. This is ... was, I suppose, his laboratory."
Years of training in appropriate manners prevailed, cutting through Navar's fog of confusion. He found his voice, and managed a stiff bow. "Navar D'Andre, of Near Mezza. Er, my condolences on your loss."
Lady Beatrice waved a hand. "It was quite some time ago. Now then, the reason I mention my late husband has much to do with why I brought you here. That ball of light that you find so fascinating is all that remains of Lord Swayne Hyand."
"H-h-how?" He was staring at the will-o'-the-wisp again, though he could not recall looking away from Lady Beatrice. "How can a person be reduced to a glowing ball of light?"
"There are certain alchemical rituals that are purported to preserve the soul. I can safely say that, with appropriate preparations, these rituals work. My late husband had taken such precautions, and he left an extensive library of notes on how to restore him to a new shell after his untimely demise."
"Vessel, or host, if you prefer." She shrugged. "The terminology is imprecise because the magic involved has been translated from a long-dead language. There is, of necessity, much approximation involved."
Navar took a slow step backward, but he couldn't keep his gaze from the vessel. "You've kept your husband's soul in a jar, in the hopes of finding the right new body for it?"
"Indeed. Though I have taken it out now and again to attempt the procedure."
Navar's jaw dropped, but he did not respond. His thoughts whirled with the impossibility of what she suggested. Though he had met magicians in Near Mezza, most had been mere charlatans, their tricks easily disproved. Those who practiced true magic were few and far between and dared not dream of what Lady Beatrice claimed was a reality.
"It has not worked, as of yet. But I have taken these failed experiments as opportunities to fine-tune the ritual. I believe I have isolated the final component, and I am certain of success now. Just last week, I successfully restored two souls to new bodies. You met the recipients of those souls in the carriage today."
"The men with the gloves?"
Lady Beatrice nodded.
Navar frowned. "Where did the souls come from?"
"Here and there. Since my husband's passing, I have sought out those who are dying. When you offer someone who is dying the possibility that they might live on, many are most receptive to a few muttered incantations. Not too unlike what the priests offer."
Navar stiffened at her blasphemy, but realized his reaction was foolish. He suspected that the promises of life beyond this one, whether preached or magically applied, were simply a way of keeping the people happy. But he wondered just how far Lady Beatrice's conviction went. "Ah, I see. And where did the previous souls go?"
"When I have been successful, they remain tethered to their body as well, I believe. It seems that in cases where a man has a strong will, the two souls coexist. For those of lesser will, the original soul is suppressed to some extent. In either case, there can be occasional clashes between the personalities. I am still determining the full extent of the effects, of course."
How many other men had stood in this very spot and learned of what this woman believed herself capable of doing? And how many had agreed to the process? And probably died screaming like Lir. Navar released a long breath, fearing the answer to his next question. "And now that you've told me this ..."
Lady Beatrice gave him a tight smile, and Navar felt another shiver up his spine. Now that he was aware of her intentions, even her smile looked predatory. "I tell you this because the final component seems to be a willingness on the part of the host. When the host has been unconscious or otherwise not given a choice, the transfer has not worked. If you are willing, I am giving you the opportunity to advance my husband's studies. You will be handsomely rewarded, of course." She laid her hand on his arm and lowered her eyes coyly.
Navar used every bit of his willpower not to jerk away from her touch. Lady Beatrice was an attractive woman, and clearly wealthy as well, but the magic she proposed was abhorrent to him. "And if I refuse?"
She turned her back and stepped away, her brief moment of warmness disappearing. "You have heard the rumors. No young men ever leave this place alive."
Navar paused before he spoke again. He was certain Lady Beatrice was fanatical and likely deluded. He also suspected she was not afraid to kill him or at least have him killed. He could not escape from this room, with no doors or windows. Stalling was his only option. "May I have a few days to think on this proposition?"
Lady Beatrice half turned back to him, her gaze darting between the jar containing her former husband's soul and Navar. After what seemed an eternity, she nodded so quickly that he almost missed it.
"I will give you the time you need to make your decision. You will, of course, not be permitted to leave while you consider my offer. You understand, I'm certain."
"Of course, milady."
Late that evening, Navar opened the door to his room. One of Lady Beatrice's servants stood watch outside. "Pardon me for seeming so rude, but I have not asked your name."
"Hector," the servant replied. "My brother is Renalt."
Navar opened his mouth to ask another question of Hector, but then shook his head and returned to his room. He wanted to ask how the man found his new existence, but he could not bring himself to hear the response.
Shortly after midnight, he heard shouting outside. Navar's heart began to race. Although he could not make out the words, it sounded like someone arguing with himself. He had not considered what might happen if two souls in a single person were at war with each other, but thought it wise to be prepared to defend himself. Or perhaps he could use this opportunity to escape. He seized a sturdy-looking chair, light enough to heft, but made of thick enough wood that it might have an impact. As quietly as possible, he opened the door.
Hector stood in the same place where he had been earlier. His words were slurred as he shouted, "If she didn't stink of the privy, that is!" Hector then jerked his head to the right, and shouted, "How dare you impugn the dignity of my family name?"
Navar did not hesitate. He raised the chair above his head and brought it down on Hector's upper back. The chair broke apart, the upper portion detaching from the legs and seat.
The other man did not even stagger, though he did stop shouting. He turned toward Navar. "Do you require assistance, sir?"
Navar hoped his first attempt had just been unlucky. He lifted what remained of the chair, preparing for a second swing. Hector's left arm darted out, lightning fast, and caught Navar's right wrist. Pain shot up the length of Navar's arm, rendering his fingers numb in an instant. He tried to wrench his arm free, but Hector's grip was like a vise, only causing the agony to intensify.
"Please release the chair," Hector said.
The remains of the chair clattered to the floor. Navar lashed out with a swift kick and connected with Hector's knee. But again, Hector did not react to the impact.
"Sir, your struggles are futile, at best. My brother and I were chosen for our strength and stamina. We do not wish to hurt you, as the lady does not approve of such methods. But we cannot allow you to leave. Please return to your room and contemplate the offer Lady Beatrice has made. You will find it is the best option."
If that's the best option, then that means there are other options. I'll find them. But he sighed and nodded, and allowed Hector to lead him back into the room. Hector stepped outside and closed the door firmly. Navar rubbed his arm where Hector had grabbed him, determination dulling the pain in his tender flesh.
As the days passed, Navar became certain that the soul-transfer process was far more imperfect than Lady Beatrice admitted. Each night, he awoke to the sound of his guard screaming in the hallway. Not willing to make another attempt at slipping out past the lunatic Lady Beatrice had created, Navar only huddled farther under his blankets until it stopped.
By day, he racked his brain for ways to escape, unlikely though it seemed. Every window he had been able to check had been nailed shut, and no doors were left unlocked for longer than it took people to pass through them. His thoughts returned over and over to the bookshelves in the parlor where he had met Lady Beatrice. The laboratory space had been devoid of books, so it seemed that the parlor also served as the library. And where there were books, there lay the possibility of a different approach to escape.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, he opened the door. He glanced at the servant's gloves to identify which brother he addressed. "Renalt, is the lady in the parlor this afternoon?"
Renalt inclined his head slightly before responding. "She is occupied in the laboratory at the moment, but she is available to you if you have made your decision."
"Thank you, but no. I do not require the lady's presence. I would like to read a few books, if I am permitted."
"Of course, sir. Please follow me."
When they reached the parlor, Renalt opened the door for Navar. "I will await you in the hallway. Shall I inform you when it is dinnertime?"
Navar murmured his assent, scanning the bookshelves. He read a handful of titles on the spines and located the section he believed would be most fruitful for his research. As soon as the door closed behind him, he pulled a book from the shelf and leafed through it. He worked his way along the shelves methodically, before he had assembled a small stack of books on magical rituals.
When Renalt entered to announce dinner, several hours had passed. Navar stumbled to his feet. Stacks of books surrounded the spot he had occupied on the floor. He picked up a single tome. "Am I permitted to bring a book back to my room?"
Renalt hesitated, but then nodded slowly. "I will send Hector to put away the remainder."
Navar only picked at his dinner as he puzzled over the text, which was written in a language that bore a faint resemblance to Old Draneus. He had identified a passage that made reference to a "dark place." As he paused for a sip of wine, he realized where he had seen some of the words previously. A story in an old religious text he had tried for months to translate while at the university had turned out to be a simple cautionary tale mothers told their children. But enough of the words matched those in this tome that he began to piece together the details of the spell described. He set aside his plate and cup, and ran his finger over the text, excitement mounting.
Home. One must focus on home to arrive there.
Less than half an hour later, he stood before Lady Beatrice in the parlor. "I am ready to undergo your procedure."
Lady Beatrice arched one eyebrow and regarded him. Finally, she nodded. "Very well. Come here."
Navar took the lady's hands, certain his sweating palms would reveal his intentions. She gave no indication that she had noticed and spoke the word that would transport them to the laboratory.
The world went dark. Navar tore his hands from Lady Beatrice's and began to run in the opposite direction. At first, the darkness surrounded him, like falling into a muddy bog. His heart raced as the air gained weight and pressed in around him. It was not the drowning sensation he had felt before, but the terror it induced was similar. He thought of his home in Near Mezza, many hundreds of miles away, but the feeling did not change. He struggled, trying to hone his focus.
His mind slipped to the town square, where he had boarded the carriage that led him to this point. He heard the bells of the town church, and tried to run toward them. Without warning, his feet found purchase and he sprinted in that direction.
Navar could not tell how long he ran. His lungs burned and his legs felt like they had been encased in metal. They threatened to stop moving at any moment. The vista had not changed, and he wondered if he had run away from or toward his fate. Despair began to set in, and his exhaustion only compounded the feeling. He could run no farther. He used the last of his strength to throw himself forward.
Navar collapsed in a heap. Dust filled his nostrils and mouth as he gasped for air. The grit clung to his teeth and crept down his throat. He coughed, taking huge, ragged breaths. Slowly, his strength returned enough that he could pull himself upright.
Every bone in his body ached, but he stood and brushed himself off. He looked around and chuckled when he recognized where he was. He stood in the town square.
"Boy? Sailor boy?" From across the square, Gratton waved and began to make his way toward Navar.
Navar smiled. "I made it back from the ..." His voice sounded different. He cleared his throat.
"You should look at yourself," Gratton said softly, turning Navar toward a shop window.
Navar barely recognized his reflection. His hair stuck out at odd angles, with large clumps missing, particularly on the top. His face looked wrinkled and worn. He lifted his hands, which had become spotted and swollen at the joints. Returning his gaze to the window, he noticed that only his eyes, brimming with tears, remained recognizable.
A sob escaped Navar's lips, but with it, relief washed over him. He was alive. He had escaped. The state of his body was inconsequential compared with what he had gained.
He turned back to Gratton. "How did you recognize me?" He caught the older man's eyes and identified what he had not put his finger on before. Though Gratton looked sixty or seventy years old, he had the clear eyes of a young man.
Gratton clapped a hand on Navar's shoulder. "Around these parts, you learn to spot the survivors."
This story originally appeared in Fictionvale.