The Bone Forest at night is a dangerous place to be. The ground is marshy, spread with silent pools of water waiting to catch the steps of the unwary. A permanent fog shrouds the air in the colder months; in winter little can be seen of the landscape save the twisted trees looming out of the dark, their branches reaching into the sky like stripped bones.
Once in a while, though, the moon shines briefly from between layers of heavy black cloud and the mists gleam bone-white in response. And even more rarely, a flicker of ghostly white near the black earthen ground begs to catch the eye: a glimpse of a marsh spectre, so easy to miss.
The marsh spectre is not, as might be inferred, a spirit but in fact a flower. It grows in only the wettest of marshes; were its delicate petals to dry out it would crumble and fade into the wind like a wraith.
It crouches low to the ground, its foliage ash-grey veined with silver. It is rare. The conditions for its growth are specific; a particular temperature, a significant degree of moisture, not too much light. Without these it will never thrive and its coveted blossoms - only one per plant - will never appear.
On one particular frosty night, few souls were abroad to witness the delicate white glow of the marsh spectre as it unfurled its petals. Coveted as it was, few could brave the dangers of the night-shrouded Bone Forest with impunity. Konrad Savast was one such, and as he navigated with care through the dripping fog a bright glow caught his eye, blazing briefly but powerfully in the grey forests that ringed the city of Ekamet. It was a light he recognised, for he had set out on this cold, wet night in search of this very blossom.
Swirling his long, dark coat out of the way of his legs, he was on his knees in an instant, heedless of the ice-touched, waterlogged mud staining the thick fabric of his trousers.
But he was not the first. He swore at finding himself too late; too late to prevent this most virulent of poisons from being harvested, processed, sold and above all, used. The centre of the flower was gone; only a few petals remained.
Konrad sat back on his heels, disturbed. Whoever had harvested this particular specimen was not a professional poison master; the drooping, bruised state of the few surviving petals spoke of the rough lack of care with which the valuable parts of the flower had been removed.
When amateurs played at poison craft, the results were never good.
He closed his eyes and let his consciousness shift into the spirit-world. In his mind’s eye the landscape drained further of colour, becoming a faded tableau in hazy white. He could see the wind streaming through the trees, feel the faint traces left by the passage of wraiths through the aether.
‘Eetapi,’ he murmured. ‘Ootapi.’
An answering whisper touched his thoughts, and then a second close behind. Twin phantoms twined through his senses like a persistent cold wind, making him shiver.
Yes, Malykant, they both said together.
Search the aether, he told them silently. Bring me news of the unquiet.
His companions caught the ribbons of the wind and sailed away. He opened his eyes and watched them go, their long serpentine bodies fading into the mist. They had been brightly coloured in life, their beaded hides advertising their venomous natures in vivid purple and red. In death they were moon-pale, insubstantial and cold as winter.
Abandoning the broken marsh spectre, Konrad straightened and continued on, picking his way expertly through the sluggish pools of water that saturated the forest. He threaded through the hillocks of drier land that dotted the landscape, ignoring the steady trickle of dampness that ran off the brim of his hat and flowed down the waxed cloth of his coat. After some minutes his workshop materialised out of the fog, a wooden structure raised on stilts high above the stagnant water. A rope ladder served as the only means of entrance; he climbed up it to his trapdoor entrance and let himself in.
The pockets of his coat were stuffed with folded cloth packets. He drew these out one at a time, storing the fruits of his ramblings in the jars and boxes that crowded the shelves in his one room. Dark purple inkwort he had found in plentiful quantity, and sunbane and weak orange pepperroot. He’d even discovered a pocket of ashleaf sheltering on the lee side of one of the taller hillocks, hidden behind a mess of tall, prickly grass. Were it not for the loss of the marsh spectre, he would have considered it a fruitful day’s work.
Harvest stored, Konrad shrugged out of his coat, stepped out of his tall boots and removed his hat. He flopped gratefully onto the rude and untidy bed, yawning. He had been walking all night and most of the day, covering many miles of the marsh in his search for the materials of his trade.
But he would not sleep yet. Not until the serpents brought him the news from the spirit lands.
He sensed their return as he framed this thought. They came billowing through his open door, bringing a renewed chill with them. He sensed agitation, some manner of disturbance in the normally placid minds of his familiars.
‘Peace, Eetapi,’ he said to soothe them. ‘Ootapi. What have you discovered?’
An unclean death, a hissing voice replied. One of your kind, Malykant. He recognised the melodic tones of Eetapi, her voice like the tolling of funeral bells.
We sense the displeasure of The Malykt, added Ootapi, in a voice like splintering ice.
Konrad tensed. The Malykt was the spirit Overlord who presided over the transition from life to death, and incidentally he was also Konrad’s master. Years ago now, The Malykt had made Konrad His chief servant, granting him the serpent-seers as his aides. As the Malykant, head of the Order of Death, Konrad’s duties were clear.
That the Overlord was displeased by this particular death did not bode well. It meant that it was time for Konrad to go to work.
Show me, he instructed, and the serpents complied, seizing his mind and carrying it away, back out into the marsh. Along the aether they sped, weaving through the ghostly trees, their essence mingling with the mist.
Less than a mile from Konrad’s workshop a wide hillock rose out of the fog like a barrow, and here they stopped. The patch of ground was dry and largely bare of trees, clothed in short, half-frozen grass. Atop it lay the corpse, shreds of its soul still lingering at the scene of death. Konrad sensed the Malykt: the Spirit Lord had been here, drawn by the dank and acrid aura of defilement that polluted the air.
An unclean death indeed. Konrad felt The Malykt’s anger and shuddered under it.
As he took note of these details Konrad was distantly aware that his body followed where his mind had already gone, drawn inexorably through the trees until consciousness and physical form merged at the splayed feet of the corpse. He stood motionless for a moment as his mind and body merged once more, waiting until the dizziness faded away. When he felt stable, he opened his eyes.
The corpse was a woman, and a young one, perhaps in her twenties. Her dark hair was decorated with jewels and she wore a fine gown. A knife was buried in her torso, a small weapon with a plain handle. But her blue tongue and blackened face told him that the stab wound had not killed her.
Poison, he judged, and he could guess which: marsh spectre. A blade coated in that sticky substance would have killed her within five, maybe ten minutes. That was far too long a time to suffer the vicious pain that this type of poison inflicted.
Konrad frowned and crouched by the woman’s side. Agony had distorted her features, but he recognised her. She had been a prominent figure in the city of Ekamet, owning a fine house in the centre and much property besides. She had also been a popular society hostess.
His frown deepened. What had Lady Navdina Rostikova been doing out in the Bones? Wearing her finery, no less, and as far as he could tell not a jewel was missing.
‘Eetapi,’ he whispered. ‘Ootapi. Bind her.’
They did as he ordered, collecting the flickering shreds of her spirit and binding them together. There was not much of her soul left; most had already fled into the Deathlands. He would be lucky to get anything out of her at all.
The Serpent Seers dived into the corpse, dragging the sundered and shredded soul with them. The corpse choked, racked with violent shivers. Then Lady Rostikova’s eyes opened and stared blankly at the sky.
‘Speak,’ he commanded.
‘Rostikova,’ the corpse gasped. ‘I am Lady Rostikova.’
‘I am aware of your name. Who killed you?’
‘Rostikova,’ the corpse repeated. ‘I am Lady Rostikova.’
‘That has been established. I ask the name of your killer.’
The corpse shuddered and said nothing.
‘Very well. Why were you here?’
‘I was meeting…’ The dead eyes blinked. ‘Rostikova,’ it said again. ‘I am Lady Rostikova.’
Konrad said nothing further. He was too late; her distressed spirit had already fled too far. She was too confused and disorientated to be of use.
‘It hurts,’ the corpse gasped, shivering more violently than ever.
‘Release her,’ he ordered. The serpent-shades streamed out of her and the corpse collapsed back into inanimate silence, its borrowed breath escaping in a long sigh. Lady Rostikova’s spirit frayed into ribbons and melted away.
Recognising his duty, Konrad bowed his head.
‘I am in the service of The Malykt,’ he said to the wind. ‘I do his bidding with respect and honour for the dead.’ He clasped his bone talisman as he spoke, protecting himself from the malignant influence of unquiet souls.
Then he drew a long and wickedly sharp knife from his boot. Kneeling by the side of the corpse, he laid his blade to her torso and cut down. Layers of clothing parted and fell away, revealing her dead white skin. This too he carved through, cutting with strength and efficiency until he could see the wet gleam of her bones.
Another few moments were all he required. With practiced movements he extracted one of the largest of her rib bones, wrapped it in cloth and stored it in his coat. Later he would clean it and sharpen its ragged edges. Until he had found Lady Rostikova’s killer, this piece of her body would remain with him at all times.
‘For The Malykt’s Justice,’ he said to the still night air. A gust of wind howled in response, brief and unnatural and very, very cold.