They hike a little farther before Heppa thinks to ask Kachen, “What did you cast to hold the skeletons when the forest was on fire? Or was that the staff? Did it come from the staff head? From the rune? No, wait, the rune does purple stuff and we had that staff. And I had the ice crystal. Was it just a spell you know?”
“That was some kind of crazy spell to physically hold a person,” Tric interjects. Kachen remains silent, letting him voice his theories uninterrupted. “The light was green. It had to be like the brambles, right, just… human magic.”
At this point, Kachen speaks up, embracing the new topic. “Tell me about these brambles,” he says, feigning interest to divert the elves from the original question.
“I don’t know. That’s a shaman thing, right, Heppa? You can summon brambles to hold things and move things.”
“But they don’t make green light,” Heppa counters. Turning to Kachen, she asks with great intensity, “Where is the light coming from? And with the white mages, where does that white light come from?”
Tric shrugs, brushing it off as just being part of human magic, but Kachen seizes on a topic he can speak on at length without saying anything compromising. Heppa will only understand a fraction of it, not having spent over a third of her life on Alduin like he did, but she will be satisfied and he will be safe. He discourses for a while on the human method of magic, which requires many years of study because it involves mastering how to forcibly—but safely—yank energy from the aetherium into the material plane. The energy released by this transfer creates light.
Heppa is overjoyed. Finally, someone is able to explain this to her! She does not understand half of what Kachen tells her, but it is gratifying that he is interested enough in sharing knowledge to even attempt the explanation. He uses a lot of technical language, terms she has never heard before, but the certainty in his statements relays the human perspective on how magic works as known fact, not personal theories. Kachen speaks with confidence on the topic, too—comfortably, not as one simply repeating back a memorized and ill-understood lecture. “Fascinating!” Heppa cheers when Kachen has finished his explanation. “Elvish magic does not produce a light.”
Having endured the boring lecture, Tric now leaps upon the opening created by the break in conversation. Hoping to stir the pot a bit without giving away what he already knows, he says casually, “Oh, when we fought those skeletons down in the tunnels, we ran into this archaeologist fellow. He said he was looking for something called the Book of Rhys and that he worked for some Society of Shadow. Have you ever heard of this?” Tric already knows from Heledd that Kachen has read the book, but he is curious what the man himself will say. Maybe he will reveal what his connection to it is, if one exists. Even if Kachen lies about the matter, that will still be information of a kind. He clearly desired whatever knowledge is in that book, spending night after night with it and Heledd in Rhaessa’s office.
Kachen matches the offhand tone of Tric’s original question with a history professor response. “In Queen Asheviere’s time, part of the uprising in the area around Halstead involved a group of people who termed themselves shadow mages. They were a group of mages not accepted by Alduin. Ashievere also was not fond of them, and they helped contribute to the destruction of Halstead. As for that specific book, I know nothing of that. However, because this group was considered rogue from the perspective of Alduin, it is possible that they possessed knowledge of magics that were useful for… for what we will call the final rest. I suppose that is a good term for it. Alduin mages don’t like to delve into topics adjacent to undead at all.”
“Well, how many liches were trained at Alduin originally?” Tric interjects.
“Most any human who has a hand in magic went through Alduin’s gate at one time or another. They would disclaim responsibility for any who ended up liches,” Kachen replies. “But the Society of Shadow, if they are related to these historical shadow mages, could possibly maintain some tradition of extra knowledge pertaining to how to go about dealing with this final rest.”
Tric gathers from this circumspect answer, combined with other things he has said, that Kachen’s investigation into putting undead permanently to rest is fueled by self-interest more than by concern for the well-being of others. The poor, cursed man will never be safe, never have peace and quiet, until this problem is dealt with. If it is not the skeletons asking him to be their master, it will be the people chasing him from their town. Tric does not know at what point in Kachen’s life he began to feel haunted and hunted, but clearly, it has shaped his purpose for a while. And he has no choice but to attend to it.
“If the undead are around and you’re in a weakened state, they come to you. But really, they are not a threat to you directly, are they?” Tric asks. “They’ve never tried to hurt you, have they? Or are they chaotic, uncontrolled? Is there any safe place you can go? The threats to you are from other living people who misunderstand, right?”
Tric tries not to sound judgmental with his question, but he wants to pin down the situation. Somehow Kachen sidestepped Heppa’s earlier question regarding how exactly he controlled the skeletons who were burning Estbryn Forest, and here he does the same thing, speaking for a while on tangential topics without ever addressing Tric’s question. Is he talking around the answer because he does not know for sure? Or is it because he feels that the answer would somehow be damaging to him for us to know? To Tric, it seems that Kachen does not want to be connected with the Book of Rhys at all. He is unwilling to reveal that he has any more knowledge about these things than he needs to at any point in time. The knowledge itself is forbidden, which is likely what got him expelled from Alduin.
Tric wonders about the human. Wonders, and worries. At what point will Kachen conclude that he must keep himself safe all alone, away from any other living people? Will he ever learn enough that he can stop looking for more information on undead and how they work? Or will his quest for security lead him to one day conclude that he can only ever truly be safe if he is behind an army of undead protecting him from humanity? Is this, in fact, the way that all lich stories begin? Kachen is resilient, though. He has had to be to survive what he has. Maybe with friends, he can still end up in a good place.
For now, though, he is ending up at Connie and Marvin’s place. Which, to be honest, does look better than it did before. There is some new construction, an extra shed to hold materials now that they are brewing with fresh elvish ingredients rather than just low quality potatoes. The two moonshiners are not the sort to ask many questions and readily agree to give Kachen some space to rest up for a few days.
Marvin tells Tric that their new arrangements with the Estbryn elves have been working out, as far as giving them a safer market, and that Mari-Elin’s cartwork has been a big help. “She said you were involved in some mix-up in the city,” Marvin mentions to Tric. “Some anti-underworld dealings, maybe.”
Tric demurs. “Tales of my deeds travel far and wide. I’m sure it happens to everyone. Who’s to say whether someone is helping the law or helping someone else or just helping themself? There was a gang who was messing with a friend of mine. I put them away. That’s not about law or freedom. I take care of my friends.”
Marvin takes the answer at face value. Mari-Elin had said Tric messed up her old carting job, so maybe those two are on the outs right now. It does not matter to him, as long as goods get moved and coin comes in, preferably without any going out to the earl.
Kachen listens quietly to the exchange, fitting it in with what Tric has previously said regarding Heledd’s injuries and that the people who caused them had been dealt with.
“Next time you talk to Mari-Elin, just let her know everything is fine,” Tric says.
“Sure,” Marvin replies, “we’ll smooth things over between you and the carter.”
“Yes, and if you run into any trouble, let me know. Like I said, I’ve got some connections in South Tower.”
“You opened up some new markets for us, Tric,” Marvin says. “We appreciate your continued goodwill.”
“And if I need something from you,” Tric says, “I’ll let you know. Maybe call in a favor.”
They all share a drink and some pleasantries, and then Heppa and Tric head back home to plan their next expedition.