It wasn’t that Ser was afraid of ghosts. That would be ridiculous. 

She just couldn’t abide anything that couldn’t be taken care of with a nice, traditional stabbing.

Trolls? A blade will put them down, just burn the body after. Vampires? Tricky, but they hate having their heads cut off as much as the next undead nightmare. Even demons aren’t a concern if you’re persistent enough; all you need is a strong sword arm and room to work.

But ghosts? You can’t touch a ghost, let alone stab one. Doesn’t matter what kind of sword you have or how good you are with it, you’ll just be slashing air while the spectre, rude bastards that they are, can tear you limb from limb.

All these thoughts raced through Ser’s mind as they stood side by side with her mercenary partner outside of the dilapidated manor on the outskirts of Hralsveg, but they were quickly shouted down by one singular thought. One she found herself thinking all too often.

I should’ve left Rowan with those bandits.

Rowan, turning to look at their shorter but broader companion, wore her usual smirk. The sorceress’ smile almost always rose in a lopsided grin, a habit Ser would find adorable if not for the endless supply of razor-tongued barbs that inevitably followed.

“Do you need to hold my hand?” Rowan asked, eyebrow raised. “It’s alright, Ser. Everyone gets scared sometimes. Even big, butch sword lovers.”

The pair always seemed to draw eyes, if only for the contrast. Ser, with her close-cropped hair, sizable muscles, and tapestry of scars looked every inch the mercenary her reputation claimed. If someone doubted their prowess due to her height—they were visibly shorter than her companion—then the half-dozen blades littered about her person and patch-work armor made from countless spoils of successful jobs should convince them.

Rowan, in contrast, looked like she would be more at home in a library than on the open road. Her long hair, recently dyed a soft forest green, wasn’t the most practical in a fight, but she had been shockingly firm in her refusal when Ser had suggested chopping it off. Her traveling gear was stylish and modern—a white leather overcoat and high-waisted breeches— but offered enough protection for Ser to approve.

The starkest differences came in demeanor. With Rowan’s height, long graceful limbs, and talkative, cheery attitude, she made for a sometimes comical comparison to the far more reserved, irritable sellsword.

“Fuck off,” Ser eloquently fired back as she took a few steps towards the house. 

The building had been beautiful once, they thought. While rotten and overgrown now, what remained of the woodwork showed signs of excellent workmanship. The fact that it was still standing at all was a testament to that.

From what the guard-captain had told the pair, it had belonged to a minor noble family, their name now erased from record, some two hundred years back. Story was they had fallen afoul of a witch (what exactly occurred varied from tale to tale) and found their bloodline cursed. One by one, the family died. Starting with the patriarch, gored to death on a hunting trip, and trickling down until only the youngest daughter remained. After the final funeral, as the story went, she had locked herself in the manor and was never seen again.

The story wasn’t what got Ser and Rowan their much-needed bounty, however. It was the half-dozen mutilated bodies found strung up in the surrounding woods over the last few weeks. All sporting the same yawning howl of terror frozen on their faces and wounds dripping with ectoplasm, the residual slime of the netherworld.

Ser had heard dozens of ghost stories just like Hralsveg’s, usually bored farmers exercising their imaginations, all-too-human killers taking advantage of local folklore, or a misidentified monster. That’s what Ser repeated to herself, anyway, as their hand tightened around the well-worn hilt of their broadsword.

Rowan led the way, her sword sheathed, with her hands ready to conjure a spell if needed.

Ser still only grasped the basic rules of Rowan’s spellcraft, but she couldn’t argue with the results. A well-aimed bolt of lightning had saved their hides more than once, and while she may not trust the magic itself, its wielder had more than earned Ser’s confidence. Not that she would let Rowan know that, of course.

“Remind me why you couldn’t just handle this one on your own, again?” asked Ser. 

“Because you’re the one with the reputation,” Rowan sighed. “They wouldn’t agree to the full bounty if you didn’t tag along. Idiots.”

“Right.”

Ser knew that they needed the coin. They’d used up the last of their salt pork a few days ago and were down to stale crusts of bread and whatever Ser could forage after making camp. Which, lately, wasn’t enough for two bellies. But Rowan had adjusted to life on the road better than Ser expected. Going from palatial living to huddling in a bedroll in a storm isn’t the easiest transition, but the sorceress pulled her weight and hadn’t complained once. 

Try as she might, however, Rowan couldn’t hide her lethargy after a few days with barely a meal between them. Her wandering mind and the circles under her hazel eyes gave it away, no matter how many times she brushed Ser’s concerns aside with a laugh and a smile.

Sighing under her breath, Ser put a hand on Rowan’s shoulder, stopping their forward march. “I’m not scared. But I know when I’m out of my depth,” they admitted. 

Rowan’s eyebrows rose, her eyes widening in surprise. “Sorry. I don’t think I heard that right?”

Ser’s hand pushed Rowan away with a light shove and a growl.

“Don’t gloat. I’m being practical. If it is a ghost, I’m going to be as useful as shit on a boot. This is your job, Rowan. I’m following your lead. You tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. No questions.”

As Ser spoke, Rowan’s smarmy surprise slowly gave way to resolve. Her lips formed a sharp line as she ran a hand through her long hair with a deep breath. Her eyes met Ser’s, resolve and fire shining behind them.

“Understood.”

The inside of the manor, much to Ser’s dismay, was in even worse condition than the exterior. Rotted furniture lay half collapsed in every room. The dining room, or what Ser assumed the hollowed-out mess was, was covered floor to ceiling in great gouges. Some had long since decayed, but others—upsettingly—looked far more recent. 

“Anything?” Ser asked as they shifted her attention, and broadsword, back and forth between the room’s two doorways. 

“Give me a moment,” replied Rowan, as the now-familiar ozone-tinged scent of arcane energy sparked up around her. White-blue wisps of energy darted from her fingertips, dancing through the air like embers from a bonfire. Her half-lidded eyes glowed with the same magical fire as she muttered nearly inaudible whispers under her breath.

The hair on the back of Ser’s neck rose, as it always did when Rowan cast a spell that required more than a moment’s concentration. The magic seeped into the air, saturating it with an unnatural stillness. It felt like the second before lightning struck, when the world seemed to freeze, knowing what was coming, but stretched out over however long the spell would last.

Ser shuddered. They doubted she’d ever get used to it.

After a minute or so, Rowan replied, “There’s definitely something here,” as the light fled her eyes and the motes winked out of existence in brief flashes. She stumbled for a moment, catching herself on the rotted remains of what was once an extravagant hardwood table.

Ser immediately stepped forward to help but was just as quickly waved off.

“I’m fine. Just…didn’t get enough sleep.” 

Ser knew it was a lie, and a weak one, but there would be time to deal with that later.

“Well, is it a ghost?” she asked. 

Rowan shrugged. “Yes and no. There’s lingering necrotic notes, so something undead has been here for a while.” She stood straight, supporting her own weight once more, having pulled her pack around so she could more easily sort through the chaos within. “There’s something else, though. The resonance is old, decades old, but mixed in with it is something fresh. I can’t make out exactly what it is, but…it’s spellcraft. And it’s from the past few months, at most.”

Ser lowered her sword, puzzled.”But…that doesn’t make sense. You told me anything undead can’t use magic.”

“They can’t,” Rowan said, her brow furrowing. “There’s nothing for the spell to latch onto, no life force. It’s like trying to start a fire without any tinder. For there to be a spell mixed in with the ghost’s aura, there would need to be–“

The pair realized it at the same moment, instinctively catching each other’s eye, as Ser finished the thought.

“A mage.”

They both noticed the feeling too late. The stillness from Rowan’s spell hadn’t dissipated. Magic was still in the room. 

By the time Ser reached for Rowan, who had begun to channel her own magic in an attempt at defense, the floor had already started to splinter. Rippling like the surface of a lake after a stone was thrown into it, the floor buckled beneath the pair with an unnatural speed. Ser’s fingertips brushed against Rowan’s arm, but the plummet as the floor crumbled to nothingness drew them apart before she could grab hold. The darkness below them swallowed everything, their surprised yells ending only when Ser and Rowan collided with a hard, unforgiving floor and blacked out.

Ser blinked a few times, clearing the blur from her vision. A quick assessment of their gear—an instinctual first reaction at this point in her career—revealed, to their surprise, she was unrestrained. Her sword was missing from its scabbard, as were the axe and dagger at her belt. Whoever this mage was, they didn’t want them armed but felt confident enough to keep her hands free. Stupid.

The room, wherever it was, was dimly lit by a smoldering fire pit in its center and a handful of candles on a distant desk or table. Musty, stale air and the coolness of the stone told Ser that she was underground, possibly under the house itself. They found Rowan, laying in a heap and similarly disarmed, a few feet away. The steady rise and fall of her chest meant she was still alive, at least. Ser moved to check on their companion but froze in place once the noise began.

A moan, hollow and dry like nothing Ser had ever heard before, echoed through the room. It cut through Ser like a winter’s wind, sending a primal, instinctual fear down her spine. The firepit sputtered, sparks crackling, before dimming to a barely visible glow. On either side of the flames, a sickly, transparent hand clawed its way through the floor, the rotten, spectral flesh dotted with visible streaks of bone. Pulling itself up within the dying embers themselves was the rest of the spirit. Its nose and ears sloughed off to reveal pieces of the skull beneath, it was a sight Ser could only hope would, against all odds, not take up residence in her nightmares in the years to come. Worst of all was its eyes. Sunken, hollow pits with little more than pinpoints of green flame, darting around in their sockets with a frenzied, inhuman speed.

“She always greets our guests,” said a far more human, and upsettingly calm, voice from the other side of the room. “Manners persist beyond the grave, it seems.”

A shadow passed in front of the greasy yellow candlelight before stepping into the eerie, pale light cast by the room’s spectral intruder. A woman, of average height and build. The slight wrinkles around her eyes and visible grey streaks running through her pulled back dark hair placed her in her middle years. Her clothes were of fine quality, cut in what Ser guessed to once be a fashionable style, but stains, tears, and frayed sleeves gave a distinct impression that these had not been a fashion statement for some time.

“I, however, forget myself,” the woman said with a smug smile as she offered the slightest of bows. “Jadia Kenholtz, scholar. A pleasure.”

“I didn’t expect the village to hire a proper sellsword, I must say. Must have pooled together every clipped coin those mud-farmers had stashed away.” She absent-mindedly raised her right hand, rotating rings of the same sickly green light manifesting in her palm, pointed at the spirit. 

“I took the liberty of relieving you of your…tools of the trade,” the self-proclaimed scholar said, with the flat disdain reserved for speaking to a lesser intellect. “Judging from how many you had, I assume you know how to use them and there’s no need for this to get messier than it has to be.”

She turned to examine the ghost as if verifying the effects of whatever spell she was casting on it.

As Jadia’s attention shifted to the spirit, Ser quickly ran their index finger beneath the vambrace on her right arm. A brief flash of pain and drop of blood confirmed that their captor hadn’t caught quite all of Ser’s weapons. Good. 

Whatever spell the mage was casting at the spirit, it wasn’t a pleasant experience to witness. The fiery dots forming its eyes spun with renewed frantic energy, mouth stretched into a wail of silent pain. Rotten incorporeal hands tried to latch onto anything, flailing and clawing but found no purchase in the cold, lifeless stone.

“What are you doing to…it?” Ser asked, partly out of mounting horror and partly to give her more time to formulate a plan.

Kenholtz shot Ser a sideways glance, eyebrows raised in aloof disbelief. “The spirit? Nothing you would understand.”

“You’d be surprised,” Ser fired back.

“I would, actually. Your hedgewitch may have explained a crumb or two of magic to you, sellsword, but this is something else entirely. The spirit is simply a guard dog, for lack of a better term. A convenient cover for my studies.”

A wave of her hand caused a ring of torches around the room’s circular wall to alight. Not bright enough to fully rid the room of ink-black shadows but enough to illuminate the horrors they previously hid. Desiccated corpses lay piled together like refuse outside of an inn, their skin grey and paper-dry as though they had been left in the desert sun for weeks. Ser had seen corpses before, freshly dead and filled with putrid rot, but she had never seen ones with eyes like this. Despite being dead, every single corpse sported wide-open eyes, swirling with faint magical light. Like a cruel imitation of Rowan’s when she cast certain spells. 

“As you may know, magic is fueled by the body’s life force. Just as you burn your fuel swinging those heavy swords around at…trolls?—I don’t know what you lot do—a mage burns their reserves casting magic. If you exhaust your energy, no more magic until you’ve recovered and rested. Infuriating.”

Jadia walked over to the pile of corpses, pulling and prodding their faces with the detached manner of a butcher inspecting a cow before slaughter. Her stomach turning, Ser averted her eyes to look back to Rowan. She still seemed unconscious, and Ser wasn’t even sure if Rowan had ever been knocked out before. Just as she began to worry, Ser noticed the slightest of movement. Rowan’s left hand, hidden away from Jadia and the spirit by her chest, slowly curled into a fist with the thumb tucked tightly inside. 

Ser’s heartbeat picked up. Rowan remembered. Weeks back, after yet another attempt to cash in on Rowan’s bounty ended with them in chains, the two of them worked out some contingency plans. One of them was the hand signal that Rowan was currently executing. It relayed, “I’m awake. I’m playing possum. I’ll follow your lead.” Ser cracked the heel of their boot against the stone floor twice in quick succession, an acknowledgment the message was received, playing it off as a failed attempt at standing. 

All the while, Jadia continued on with all the self-confidence of someone certain they’re the smartest one, and therefore the only one worth paying attention to, in the room.

“You can supplement with potions, of course, but using those as a natural practicioner, as someone used to real power, is demeaning. Having to drink some noxious brew like I’m a farmhand hoping to be with child? It’s worse than having nothing at all.” 

She pulled back the lips of a corpse, examining his blackened gums. “What I’m attempting to do is create a sort of arcane storage. If I can draw upon my magics to cast spells, it should be possible to place my own energy in another being until I need the use of it.” Dropping the corpse without a moment’s care, she wiped her hands on her stained skirt before turning once more to Ser with a sigh. 

“Thus far, no results. The magic goes in, but every host has died shortly after. Once death has occurred, what energy has been provided is locked away. Useless things. But you look of hardier stock. Hopefully I see improvement.”

The simmering rage in Ser’s gut boiled to a cold, quiet fury and determined focus. “They aren’t things. Those are people,” she said, hand slowly drifting to her vambrace and its hidden dagger. 

Jadia sighed. “They were people. Now they’re just waste,” she said, rubbing the bridge of her nose with a free hand. “This is what I’m talking about. My theory could revolutionize the magical community, unlock whole new fields of study! And all you care about is some forgotten sods who would have died from plague in a year or two regardless. Typical.”

She finished her sentence and looked up at Ser just in time to see the small, weighted throwing dagger hurtling towards her. 

The mage managed to dodge just swift enough, her reflexes surprising Ser, to turn the intended knife through her heart to a blade lodged in her left shoulder. The moment she howled in pain, Rowan burst into action, golden-white whips of fire cascading from her hands to ensnare the spirit as she leapt to her feet. 

“I’ve got the ghost!” she yelled. “Take care of the monster.”

The ghost’s dry, hollow wails still sent chills down Ser’s spine as it struggled against Rowan’s spell. She turned her eyes back to Jadia, still stumbling back from Ser’s surprise assault.

“You little bitch!” Jadia screamed before raising her right hand.

The tiny sparks cascading between her fingers gave Ser warning, having seen Rowan cast similar spells dozens of times. They sprinted and rolled out of the way as a gout of flame blackened the stone she was just standing in. Not hesitating for a moment, Ser bolted out of her roll, heart pounding in their ears as she closed the distance between her and the rogue mage in seconds. Before Jadia had time to react, Ser was on her and drove their leather-gloved fist right into the sorcerer’s gut, driving the wind out of her lungs. Jadia doubled over gasping as Ser spun around and caught Jadia in the back of her skull with an elbow, colliding with a sickening crack that echoed through the room. She dropped to her knees, blood dripping from her fresh wound. 

As Ser spun around, the hairs on her arms stood at attention, another sign of spellcraft they had learned from her time with Rowan. The split-second warning gave her enough time to leap backward just as the earth erupted into jagged spikes of stone and crystal. While not the lethal surprise Jadia had intended, the assault still knocked Ser across the room, colliding with the wall with a thud. Shrapnel had carved a dozen different cuts across Ser’s arms and face, and judging from the pain as she gasped for air at least one rib was cracked, but she was alive.

Rowan saw Ser crash into the wall and instinctively wanted to run to her partner, but the berserk ghost threatening to rip her throat out made a more pressing argument for attention. Ser trusted her to do this. She had to trust Ser to fend on her own, even against another mage.

The binding spell she had cast was beginning to fray, but faster than it should have. There was more than the usual necrotic energy within a spirit here, and it was eating away at her spells at an alarming rate. Rowan lashed the tethers to the stone floor, buying her a few moments to cast a spell of true sight before the magical chains snapped. 

The ghost lunged at Rowan, its hollow rasping howl growing more and more frayed. Despite her vision being consumed with the kaleidoscope of arcane signatures and residues that coated every inch of the room, Rowan’s years of swordplay gave her an instinctual level of spatial awareness and reflexes that kept the ghost’s wild swings at bay. It wouldn’t work forever, especially not if Jadia got back on her feet and became involved, but she needed time to untangle the knot of spells surrounding the spirit.

Groaning as they rose to her knees, Ser’s blurred vision cleared enough to see Rowan, eyes alight with some sort of magic, dodging the ghost’s attacks. In spite of a jagged stab of pain that tore through her side with every breath, Ser couldn’t help but be impressed by her form. Rowan was already a talented swordswoman when she and Ser had set out together all those months ago, but she had incorporated her years of fluid fencer’s training into the more practical, focused form Ser had offered a few lessons in during their evenings at camp.

The woman moved like flowing water, her long legs and arms moving with a fluidity and grace that Ser could only compare to a dancer mid-performance. Given room to maneuver and a single opponent, Rowan might be able to avoid being struck for hours, cutting and stabbing away at them between each missed swing. Unfortunately, between the size of the room and Jadia seemingly recovering her breath and fixing her eyes on Rowan, she had neither.

Ser closed their eyes. The pain stabbing through her side wasn’t important. The ache in her bones wasn’t important. The chill that still hasn’t left her spine since the ghost arrived wasn’t important. 

Rowan needed her. So they would be there. That’s all there was to it.

As Rowan opened her eyes, Jadia began to raise her shaking hand towards Rowan. Ser had no idea what spell the mage was conjuring, not that it mattered. Ser had a job to do.

Focusing her breathing, she forcefully exhaled and gripped where she assumed the broken or cracked rib was. Immediately, she broke into a sprint. Quick, shallow breaths. Anything more and the pain would have driven the air out of their lungs. Her bootheels pounded on the stone floor, echoing off the walls with each step. With little room to build up pace, Ser had to shove themselves as fast as she possibly could from the first step. 

The pain, the lack of air, none of it was on Ser’s mind. They only saw Jadia’s face, slowly turning away from Rowan and the spirit to the swiftly approaching Ser. The mage’s hand swam through the air, sparks beginning to crackle between her fingers,  but not fast enough. The distance between the two closed in seconds. On the last step, Ser lifted her left boot behind her, swinging it forward and catching the mage on the chin with its steel toe. A sickening crunch of bone rang out through the room followed by a spray of blood and a half-dozen teeth. Jadia slid across the floor, slumping against the wall, motionless.

Rowan, at the same time, had kept pace with the spirit. Each dodged swipe gave her another half-second to cut through a layer of Jadia’s spellcraft. The magic’s purpose had become clear and frighteningly cruel. The spirit had been in this house for years, the folk tale seemingly having some worth and, while cursed, did not appear to be harming anyone but itself. Whenever the supposed scholar discovered its presence, she had bound the spirit to her will and forced it to serve as her weapon and scapegoat. Any attempt to deny or defy Jadia would end in searing torment, even for a spirit beyond the veil of life.

With each new section of the spell burned away, the spirit’s attacks grew slower, less focused, in turn giving Rowan more time to unwind the spell itself. Finally, after a swipe slow enough to dodge with her eyes closed, Rowan raised her hands to the spirit’s spectral head and wrenched, shattering the invisible wards that had bound it. The spirit froze mid-swing and remained in place for mere moments before bursting into a gout of blue flame and vanishing from sight. 

Sweat pouring down her face from the combined physical and magical efforts, Rowan granted herself a brief smile before slumping to the floor, breathing heavily. She and Ser lay there for a few moments, their breaths the only sounds in the room.

Finally, Ser spoke first, breathing with great effort through the pain. “Got the ghost, then?” she asked, not moving their spot on the floor. 

“Uh-huh,” Rowan replied, still trying to catch her breath.

“How’d you do it?” Ser asked.

“Had to unwind the binding,” Rowan responded, absent-mindedly talking with her hands despite the lack of light. “She had been layering the spell for who knows how long, and the original curse was ancient, so I had to render each layer inert. In order. It took a bit of work.”

Ser waited a moment, processing the information and understanding little of it. “Makes sense.”

“How’d you handle Jadia?” Rowan asked.

“I kicked her in the face. Very hard,” Ser said.

“Ah,” Rowan replied, unsurprised. 

After another few minutes of silence, the two got to their feet and walked over to Jadia. The pool of blood that had formed beneath her head gave the impression that Ser’s kick may have killed the sorceress, but the rattling wheeze through her shattered teeth confirmed she was still alive. Ser prodded her with the same blood-stained boot that did the damage and got no response

 She turned to Rowan, shrugging. “What now?”

The swordsmage’s brows furrowed, biting her lip in thought. “I could keep her under, given enough time and energy. But we have no idea when she’ll wake up, and I’m, frankly, not in peak form here, Ser.”

Ser began to reply but was abruptly interrupted by a burst of blue flame behind them.

Leaping forward, she shouted at Rowan, “I thought you got rid of it!”

The flames flared brightly before vanishing, leaving behind a very different spirit than before. The former monstrosity was now far less horrifying. Its rotten features and talons were gone, looking every bit the human it once was. A woman, only a decade or so older than Ser and Rowan. Her clothes were fine, if outdated by a few centuries, matching her beautiful hair drifting as though she were underwater. The only indications that she was not simply a woman like any other were her translucent frame and the same burning pinpoint pupils in the center of her eyes.

Rowan hadn’t stepped away. Her eyebrows furrowed, captured by curiosity more than fear. “I didn’t banish the spirit, Ser. I just undid the bindings. Both Jadia’s and the ones from whoever cursed the family so long ago.”

Ser remained wary, inching away from the spirit. “Then why is it still here?”

Rowan’s confusion deepened, rubbing her face with a hand in frustration. 

“It should have dissipated. Without anything binding it to this plane, it would just scatter into ambient magic. The curse and spells are gone, I’m sure. What could…” Rowan followed the spirit’s fiery gaze and realized it wasn’t looking at either of them. It was fixated on the comatose mage lying between the two mercenaries.

Ser followed suit moments later. “Unfinished business,” she replied. Her fear fled, recognizing an all-too-human motivation. “I can respect that.”

The spirit looked up at Ser, emotionless, but offering a nod. Rowan cocked an eyebrow at Ser, unsure how to proceed. “Should we…let it?”

Ser shrugged. “Could we even stop it? The witch tried to kill us, did kill a dozen poor villagers, and tortured her. Justice, I think.”

“I suppose so,” Rowan sighed. “Let’s just get out of here. Where do—”

The ghost raised her hand, and the torches surrounding the room flared with the same blue flame that the spirit arrived with. They were swiftly joined by a trail of newly lit torches, illuminating an exit previously hidden by shadow that led out and up, presumably out of wherever Jadia had taken them.

Ser nodded her head towards the path, but Rowan hesitated, still looking at the spirit with a burning curiosity.

“Should we stay?” she asked. 

Ser placed a hand on Rowan’s shoulder, firm but gentle. “Whatever it—she—is going to do…it seems like something we don’t need to see, Rowan. Come on.”

Rowan sighed, but patted Ser’s hand and turned to leave. 

As they started to go, pausing to collect their confiscated weaponry piled on Jadia’s work table, the rasping wail of the ghost returned but slowly shifted. From hollow, dry howls it gained substance, focus, until it sounded almost human. A familiar noise.

The long-dead woman was laughing.

When the pair entered the stairwell, the torches all lit up, one by one, as they rose. It was a winding, concentric stairwell with just barely enough room for the two of them to walk side by side. Exhausted, wounded, and thoroughly drained, neither one said anything.

Rowan played the day’s events over in her head, making note of things to research the next time they found themselves in a city with a proper library. Her thoughts were interrupted when she noticed an incongruity. 

All of the torches were placed on the left-hand side of the stairwell as they climbed, but a single torch, sputtering brighter and more wildly than the others, was on the right. She stopped, staring at it.

It took Ser a few moments to realize Rowan had stopped walking, groaning and leaning up against the wall as she clutched her side, still trying to gut through the pain. “What is it?” she said, wincing. “I’m warning you, there’s no fucking way I’m carrying you this time.”

Rowan didn’t say anything. She closed her eyes, channeling the last of her reserves of energy into another spell of true sight. When she opened them, the stairwell was largely the same, with faint trails of Jadia’s magic leading up and down.

Except for one key difference. A small, flickering illusory ward, hidden behind the out-of-place torch. Jadia wanted it to blend in, it seems. Most mages would have missed the tiny trace of spellcraft.

Touching her fingertips to the ward, Rowan dispelled it with a quick flick of her wrist. The torch, and wall, vanished along with the section of the wall surrounding it.

Ser gasped, immediately wincing from the pain before muttering, “Great. More magic.”

The two entered the doorway to find what appeared to be a very old, very untouched room. Dust coated every inch of every surface, cobwebs the only indication that some creatures had made their home here over the centuries. The illusion, clearly, was not Jadia’s creation. 

The room was small, not meant for living, but packed to bursting with trunks, crates, mildew-riddled clothing, and other odds and ends. Rowan and Ser both looked around at the clutter before drawing their eyes to a painting leaned up against one wall. Rowan picked it up, blowing off a thick coating of dust to reveal a family portrait. A well-off family, all with stern eyes and similar harsh features. Sitting in the foreground was their ghost. Years younger, barely out of her teens, but it was the same woman. An inscription at the bottom read, “The Family Heartsbane,” 

“Well. At least our ghostly friend won’t be forgotten any longer,” she said with a weary smile. 

As Rowan examined the painting, Ser’s eyes were drawn to a small box sitting on a cluttered table. If Ser were not a craftswoman herself, it would have simply blended into the dozen other crates around it. But this box was of outstanding quality, carved from maple with a small heart placed in the center of its lid. Admiring the craftsmanship, they found a small latch on the bottom of the container, unlocking it with a quiet click. 

The lock still working after two hundred years was a surprise in itself, but it paled in comparison to the box’s contents. A shining silver necklace,at  the center of which sat an emerald the size of Ser’s thumb. Around it were beautiful engraved entwined vines. A matching ring, with a smaller but no less beautiful stone sat in the velvet-lined box alongside it. Glancing over at Rowan and noticing she was still distracted, Ser quickly stashed the ring in one of their pouches before clearing her throat.

“Well. That takes care of our money problems for a while,” she announced, lifting the necklace to Rowan’s surprise. 

She cursed, carefully setting down the portrait before yanking the necklace out of Ser’s grasp. “This is gorgeous work,” she observed.

After a few moments of examination Rowan grew still. “Ser. I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

Ser cocked her head to the side for a brief moment before laughing. “Sorry? What, for earlier? There’s nothing to be sorry about, Rowan.”She placed their hand on Rowan’s shoulder once more, gentle this time. “You did things down there I could never begin to try, you kept your wits about you and remembered what we talked about. I’m a tough woman. It’ll take more than a few names to hurt me.”

Rowan looked up at Ser, smiling softly. Her eyes shone in the flickering torchlight as she placed her hand on her partner’s.

“No. Not for that,” she said evenly. “I’m sorry because I’m realizing that that last spell was too much.” She placed a hand on Ser’s confused face. “And that you are going to have to carry me,” Rowan said, before promptly collapsing. 

Ser caught the sorceress, a sharp intake of breath catching her throat as her cracked rib protested. As she stood there, Rowan’s hair brushing against her cheek and her breath warm against her ear,the exhausted sellsword blushed, sighed, and said the only thing that came to mind.

“Well. Shit.”