Everyone in town knew Milton Oxford was afraid of the dark. Saddle Ridge wasn’t quite so small that all of its citizens knew each other, anymore, but the town’s most prominent banker was recognizable enough that his habits were effectively public knowledge. Such as, for example, the fact that the light of an oil lamp was always visible in his bedroom window, all night, every night.
Nobody said a word to him about it. Oxford was the sort of man who singlehandedly redeemed the bad name of bankers in his town; he drew the line at giving away money (except through the usual charitable avenues), but bent his financial expertise and the generous loan policies he had instituted at his bank to helping everyone get ahead, as best he could. Many a shop and nearby farm owed its solvency, and some their very existence, to his compassion. Thus, nobody mocked the kind-hearted, portly old banker for his fear of the dark, even behind his back. The people of his town were likely to turn vehemently on anyone who did.
Matters might have been different if they knew why Milton Oxford feared the dark. He knew exactly what was lurking in it.
For similar reasons, he had never been a sound sleeper, usually waking three or four times a night at the slightest little sounds. Normally, his first act would be to glance at the oil lamp on his bedstand, then perform a quick visual survey of the corners of the room. He had laid out his furniture such that his lamp illuminated everything, leaving no patches of shadow. It was dim, yes—his financial instincts rebelled at the waste of leaving a lamp burning at full strength all night, he spent enough on oil as it was—but left no black space in which they could hide. Many had tried to convince him to switch to the steadier, modern fairy lights, but Oxford was old and comfortable in his ways.
There was never anything there. That never stopped him from waking again the next time.
On this night, however, he opened his eyes at close to two in the morning and found a wood elf standing at the foot of his bed.
“Who—wha—how!?” He scuttled backward, working himself to a sitting position against his headboard and clutching the blankets up to his neck.
The elf was dressed stereotypically—though there were obviously more plains elves in this area, he had seen enough illustrations of wood elves to recognize the type. She wore simple brown trousers and vest over a loose shirt in a shade of deep green, with blousy sleeves. Incongruously, gold-rimmed spectacles perched on the tip of her nose. The elf made no reply to his stammered queries, but tossed something onto the tented fabric between his legs.
It was the small gold statuette of Verniselle, goddess of money, which occupied pride of place in the shrine in his living room downstairs. To Oxford’s fear and confusion was suddenly added a spike of outrage.
“How dare you! That is a sacred artifact! You broke into my home just to mock my faith?”
“There seems to be a problem with your idol,” she said in a mild tone. “On the base.”
His blood went cold.
Whether through skill on her part or luck—he suddenly feared it was the former—the idol had landed with its bottom pointing at his face. The glyph carved into it was clearly visible in the lamplight.
Oxford was an honest man, as much as his position allowed him to be, but he was also a banker, and no stranger to negotiations, or bluffing. “What? You violated my home and my goddess’s shrine to show me some goldsmith’s mark? Shame on you, young woman.”
She smiled faintly. “How curious that a goldsmith would engrave an idol of Verniselle with a Black Wreath glyph to prevent the goddess from seeing anything amiss with its use.”
“What in the world are you going on about?” he blustered, even as his stomach plummeted. “The Black Wreath? Nonsense, they don’t exist. You had better explain what you are doing—”
He broke off as if choked when she tossed a second object down beside the first. A statue carved from black glass, of the horned and hooved goddess Elilial, which had stood in the other, secret shrine in his home. A shrine in a sub-basement, accessible only by a secret staircase behind a hidden panel in the kitchen pantry.
Oxford swallowed, hard, wrenching his eyes from the two statuettes up to meet the elf’s. Her expression is vaguely disdainful. “Wh-who are you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me. I do tend to get distracted.” She smiled thinly. “My name’s Arachne.”
He let out an embarrassing squeak.
“Ah,” Professor Tellwyrn said with satisfaction, “you’ve heard of me.”
“I-I-I shall call the Sheriff!”
“Oh, let’s not do this,” she said dismissively. “You are not going to involve any authorities who might want to learn about your true religion, and you know very well that you’re no threat to me even with that wand under your pillow. Stop reaching for it, Milton. No, we are going to have a nice, civil conversation, and then I’ll be on my way.”
Oxford huddled down against his pillow, pulling the blankets up to his neck. “What do you want?”
“Four years ago, you did some clerical tasks.” Tellwyrn produced a thick manilla folder from midair and began leafing through it calmly. “Of course, I doubt that helps you bring a specific incident to mind; they likely all blur together after a while, eh?” She raised her eyes and gave him another chilling smile. “If it makes a difference, I’m referring to the ones that resulted in the horrifyingly painful death of an innocent girl.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” he said shrilly.
“Oh, good, does that help you sleep?” Her smile widened, but did not grow warmer. “Let me add some detail. You were tasked with finding a pretext to present a jade ring to one June Witwill, in the nearby village of Hamlet. They really have run out of names for these little towns, haven’t they? So, Mr. Oxford, you sponsored, as one of your many admirable charity activities, a raffle through the local church out there to fund improvements to its chapel. The prize was a box of miscellaneous jewelry, including said ring—which, unbeknownst to Miss Witwill, was one of the signs whereby members of the Wreath identify one another, marked with a glyph very like that on your statue there, but modified to make her highly visible to certain demonic entities while also deflecting the attention of gods, priests, and anyone else. Standard Wreath spellcraft, but not known to anyone else. It was further bespelled to make it irresistibly alluring to its possessor, otherwise she wouldn’t have kept it. She gave away all the rest of the jewelry. That particular charm is not Wreath business, but does happen to be very much against the law.”
Oxford tried to speak, but Tellwyrn simply raised her voice and carried on her recitation right over him. “Needless to say, you fixed the results of the raffle, as you were instructed. The item fell into Miss Witwill’s possession, and you, your instructions carried out, washed your hands of the whole affair and went right back to busily pretending you had never heard of her.”
“Hearsay!” he squawked. “Baseless accusations! You’ve no proof of any of this!”
“Proof?” She raised her eyes to his, eyebrows climbing in an expression of incredulity. “Milton Oxford, you poor, sweet, honest, stupid man, you filed the paperwork. The charity raffle was duly authorized by the Church and relevant civil authorities. For the jewelry you purchased, you claimed a tax exemption for religious rites, with receipts submitted to the Imperial Treasury. Likewise for under-the-table fees for the illegal spellwork on the jade ring. You’re lucky the number jokeys down there had no idea what that was. Everything was very properly filed with your bank and with the Treasury; you left a paper trail so wide…well, you want to know how long I’ve been following it? Three days. On a trail that should have gone cold four years ago. I’m starting to wonder how the Empire manages to function under the weight of its own bureaucracy, but I do say it’s useful when one wants to know anything that has ever happened within a mile of any financial transaction in this province.”
“They…they were for a religious rite,” he mumbled. “I shouldn’t have to pay…”
She snapped the folder shut, making him jump. “You know who else is good at following painfully obvious trails, Milton? Imperial Intelligence. That is why you’ve not been contacted by anyone in the Wreath in the last four years, nor ever will be again. The Empire’s eyes are on you, and your fellow cultists know it. The Imps will wait for you to lead them to larger prey…but they won’t wait forever. Once their patience expires, some enterprising young spy will move a few papers around, remove you from a list of potentially useful free agents, and your arrest and execution will simply be a feather in the cap of his career. Honestly, man, how did someone like you end up working with the Wreath?”
Oxford tried to reply, but all that came out was an embarrassing whimper. She gave him a look of pure disgust. “Then let me tell you what happened next.”
“I don’t want to know!” he wailed. “It wasn’t my fault!”
“June Witwill,” she said loudly, “was attacked by an archdemon. It attempted to possess her, but she couldn’t contain it, so she burned. She burned alive, Milton. There was nothing left of a sixteen-year-old girl but ashes. Because you painted a target on her back!”
“I didn’t know!”
Tellwyrn stalked forward, reaching into her vest and pulling out a little silver locket. She snapped this open and thrust it into his face, revealing a tiny portrait of a smiling, freckled girl with auburn curls. “She was a choir girl. Her parents were well-off enough to give her a weekly allowance, and she donated every copper that came into her hands to the church’s poor box. June once converted a man who tried to abduct her to the faith of Omnu—he’s a monk, now. He lights a candle for her every night, and hasn’t spoken a word since her death.”
“Take it away,” he said piteously, trying to shove the locket aside, but she only pushed it back into his view.
“You will look, Milton Oxford. Look at what you did. This girl was a light in the life of everyone she touched, and she is dead. Her death was pointless, wasteful, and agonizing beyond belief. Because of you.”
Despite himself, Oxford couldn’t tear his eyes from the tiny portrait. June Witwill smiled innocently up at him, with not a hint of accusation. He imagined he saw forgiveness in her painted eyes. It made the horror dawning in him even worse; tears began to run down his plump cheeks.
“Her dog died,” Tellwyrn went on inexorably, her green eyes boring into him from above. “He just sat on her bed and refused to eat. Her mother had to be hospitalized for the shock—she’s little more than a broken shut-in, now. They still light candles at the shrine for her every night, she was so loved in that town. That’s the kind of girl she was, the kind of woman who, thanks to you, will never exist, now. All the good she would have done in the world, all the light she would have spread, gone. There is absolutely no way to calculate the damage you have done!”
“I didn’t know!” Milton blubbered. “How was I to know? It was just a ring! I’m not responsible!”
“You may lie to yourself, Milton Oxford, but don’t you dare lie to me!” Tellwyrn thundered. “You didn’t know? You dare claim that you put a demonic beacon into the hands of an innocent child and didn’t realize you were condemning her to death, or worse? You sicken me.”
“I was a child, too!” he wailed, pulling up the covers to just below his eyes and causing his feet to poke out from beneath them. “I never wanted to join the Wreath, my parents were in it! They took me to a meeting where they fed a woman to demons! They ate her, right in front of us, in front of me! I was eight years old!” He was sobbing in earnest now, scrubbing at his eyes with the blanket. “She tried to go to the Church for amnesty. That was why they killed her, why they had her eaten alive, for being a traitor. No one leaves the Wreath! You don’t say no to these people!”
Tellwyrn shook her head slowly. “You can say ‘no’ to anyone, Milton. You can say anything to anybody, for any reason. It’s just a matter of facing the consequences afterward. Don’t you realize the opportunity you squandered? For most people the slide to depravity and the climb to virtue are long, slow things, full of little steps whose significance they never realize until long after the fact. It’s a rare and priceless thing, to have so much hinge on one moment, one choice. One point, Milton, where you could have made a stand and redeemed a life you’ve wasted cowering from every shadow. Instead…you rendered yourself permanently beyond any hope of redemption.” She sighed heavily; she sounded almost mournful. “Anyway, it’s pretty much over for you. At this point it’s just a matter of waiting to learn whether the Wreath ties up the loose end you represent before the Imps get tired of waiting for them. Had your chance. You blew it.”
She stood there, silently watching him for long minutes as he sobbed into his blanket. Milton curled forward, rocking his chubby frame, wracked with spasms of grief, remorse, and increasingly muted terror. It went on for a long time, what seemed to him to be forever, though she simply stood there, her patience apparently inexhaustible. His body gave out long before the inner pain did; guilt clawed at him without reprieve, but there came a point after which he just didn’t have the strength to weep anymore.
“What do you want?” he asked finally, his voice raspy with crying.
“Have you been faithful, Milton?” she asked quietly. “You’re a lousy excuse for a diabolist, but have you kept up with your offerings? You are a servant of Elilial in good standing?”
“I…yes. Just…just prayers and little gifts, I… I never dared forsake…” he trailed off miserably.
“Good. Then I want you to carry a message to her for me.”
“What?” he choked. “I can’t just…”
“First,” Tellwyrn stated, “I have never had any argument with her and I don’t mean to start one. Second, she need have no fear of me for her daughter’s sake; I protect and train all of my students to the best of my considerable abilities, equally. Third, I want to speak with her. We need to establish some ground rules, or I’ll be left with little choice but to keep blundering across her schemes and fouling them up. Fourth, and finally,” she went on, her expression growing very grim, “she is going to answer for those girls she had murdered. For all the centuries I’ve known her, I expected better than that. Have you got it?”
“I…” He gaped up at her, finally lowering the blankets. His face was streaked with tears, snot clumped in his mustache. “I’m the lowest possible… I can’t just carry a message to a goddess! She’d never speak to me.”
“Of all the ways we send word to the gods,” Tellwyrn said evenly, “only one is guaranteed to receive their notice, by ancient compact. They may or may not pay attention to our prayers and offerings, but they always heed the willing self-sacrifice of their faithful followers.”
They stared at each other for moment, her gaze hard, his blank, broken. Then, finally, he lowered his eyes, nodding. “I understand.”
“The message, Milton?”
Oxford cleared his throat. “You want no fight with Elilial. You will not mistreat her daughter. You want to speak with her in person.” He swallowed. “And…you intend to make her pay. For…for June, and…and the others.” He gulped again at the last, convulsively, but repeated back her instructions without confusion. Even at this final, traumatic point in his life, he was a banker. He understood a contract. “Can you… Make it quick, please?”
Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow. “Do you deserve for it to be quick, Milton?”
He shrugged once, briefly, not looking up at her again. “I was…just asking.”
“Hm,” she said noncommittally, and flicked her fingers at him.
Milton Oxford’s body twitched once, convulsively, then slumped back against the headboard, utterly still, as all electrical activity in his nervous system abruptly ceased. It was quick; he didn’t feel a thing.
Arachne sighed, and tucked the silver locket bearing the picture of some nameless girl back into her pocket. She’d picked it up in a pawn shop in Calderaas; it might as well go back there. Or more likely, she’d forget about it and leave it in a drawer for years. Her embellishments to the details of June Witwill’s short life, at least, were all based on actual facts she knew. Except the bit about the dog. Any bard she’d ever known would have cringed at that heavy-handed slab of cheap pathos, but it had done well enough considering her quivering, uncritical audience. She had needed Oxford broken and willing, otherwise he’d have been useless. Only a voluntary sacrifice was assured to work.
For far from the first time in her very long career, she made a mental note to work out some more efficient, more reliable way to get a god’s attention. Then again, if it were that easy, most of her own life would have gone very differently.
She glanced around the room, then deliberately reached out and knocked over the oil lamp onto Oxford’s pillow. It immediately guttered out, but it was the matter of an instant’s concentration to cause a small spark to ignite on the fabric next to his head. She waited only long enough to be certain the little flame was spreading toward the growing puddle of lamp oil before turning and walking from the room. Oxford’s home was of fieldstone and wouldn’t burn easily, but the interior trappings of this room, including its hardwood floors, would go up nicely. There’d be nothing left for anyone to examine. Most conveniently of all, someone had probably warned him about that oil lamp long before.
Eventually, the growing blaze of Milton Oxford’s deathbed pyre heated the wand under his pillow till the wood cracked and its binding matrix failed; the blast shattered windows across the street.
By that time, Arachne Tellwyrn was a thousand miles away.