Remittance Witch: The Warlock’s Den

Just like the station, the inside of the house was far brighter and warmer than the outside. The walls were a shade of white that, while plain, complemented the warm orange glow of the oil lamps. To her right, a narrow and slightly crooked staircase ran up to the next floor, disappearing underneath a grey shaft of light from a window or skylight. The opposite side of the corridor led down to a pair of doors, one of which was ajar and emitted a warm, vaguely fishy smell.

None of that mattered right now. Tara’s attention was taken up entirely by the large and extremely hairy dog trotting down the stairs with far more speed than the thick, corded hair in front of its eyes should have permitted. It must have been a dog, for it bore the general four-legged shape of one, and the deep bark that emanated from underneath the white corded hair reminded her of a boarhound that one of her father’s business partners owned. But the sheer size of it put her on edge; that thing’s shoulders were just a few centimetres below her elbows, even before it reared up and planted it’s paws on von Clief’s shoulders!

Runter, du Mopp!” the warlock barked, almost sounding amused. Tara jerked her head around to look at him as he continued, “Ladies, allow me to introduce my familiar Maus.”

“A…dog?” Seema sounded disappointed. Tara was silently inclined to agree. A warlock, she quietly felt, should have something more exotic than a canine.

“Ja, a local sheepdog. Excellent trackers, and trained to take on bears if need be.”

“Why did you name him ‘Mouse’?” Rose asked, mouth twitching like she was trying to repress a laugh. Tara looked from her to von Clief as the dog dropped back to the floor and slowly began to sniff at Seema’s right hand. That thing was called Mouse?

“He fit in my hand as a puppy when I bonded with him. And it does amuse me-”

“And he’s never learned not to jump on Bernhard either. Or else he simply ignores it,” a sing-song voice broke in from the end of the corridor. Tara looked up to see a plump, stern-faced woman standing in the now-open doorway at the end, one hand draped around the doorframe. “I’m Magaly. You’re the Heywoods and Mehra?”

“Pleasure to meet you. Rose Heywood. My niece Tara, and Seema.”

“G-good evening, madam.” Tara started to curtsy.

“No need for that around me. You’ll find folks don’t usually stand on ceremony around here,” Magaly replied, her stern face briefly breaking into an amused smile. Her dark brown eyes flicked towards Rose. “Rose, you’re the new alchemist up at Magister’s Hall? Watch yourself around Nilsborg. He’s on the way out, and he doesn’t care about keeping his hands to himself.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Fancies himself a ladies’ man. If he starts flirting, just break his jaw. His pension’s guaranteed, so he doesn’t care.” She paused. “Anyway, you girls should get your luggage upstairs. Up the stairs and the third room on the right.”

Tara swung the door open and peered inside. Her eyes travelled over the cabinet opposite the door – a ceiling-high pine affair that was easily large enough for the two of them – past the curtained window, and then over the beds down the far end of the room to her right. In the gloom of the unlit room, it looked as though somebody had built the upper half of a bunk bed, and then decided they couldn’t be bothered to finish the job, leaving the bottom empty.

The von Cliefs had clearly decided to reuse the empty space by putting a squat desk and tall, narrow chair into the underside of the bed. As her eyes adjusted to the light that crept in around the edge of the dark curtains, she started to make out a candlestick holder on one of the desks. And was that a bookshelf in at one end?

“Discount bunk beds?” Seema asked rhetorically from over Tara’s left shoulder. “Well, at least there’s somewhere to work on some runes.”

“Try not to burn the bedsheets,” Tara muttered with a sideways glance as she stepped inside. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the other girl’s crimson-clad head turn towards her and tilt sharply backwards, and her heart rose in her throat as Seema huffed that it had only happened once. For a long, awkward moment, Seema kept the indignant expression on her face, before chuckling and admitting that she was just kidding. To her own surprise, Tara chuckled as well.

Putting that from her mind, she crossed over to the window and began to slide the heavy green curtains out of the way. On the other side of the small, thick window lay a small yard that sloped up to a greenhouse and a smaller copy of the stone sheds near the docks. The greenhouse and the windows of the shed were streaked from rain, and she could see two faded barrels poking out from underneath the drainpipes.

“Do you reckon that’s his workshop?” she asked, pointing at the shed. It looked so mundane.

“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” Seema agreed. “I’m starting to think he doesn’t care too much about appearances.”

“Up to a point,” somebody added from behind them. Both turned and beheld the speaker who leaned in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. The boy’s pale skin, blonde hair and pale blue eyes were classic markers of a Sydfjorder. “Finn Olsen. I’m Mrs von Clief’s apprentice, and you’re obviously the old man’s. Seema and Tara, weren’t it?” He briefly lifted his right hand and waved his thumb towards Tara and Seema.

“Other way around,” Seema replied, flashing him a grin. “You’re from this town?”

“Actually, no. I’m from Kerbalvik, about fifty miles to east. Over two thousand sheep and less than two hundred people at the last count. You’re both from Levarche?”

“I am,” Tara corrected him, ignoring the use of non-Imperial units for now. “Seema’s from Tinland.”

A smirk briefly crossed the boy’s face. “Welcome to the frozen bottom of the world. Anyway, the old man will want to bring you up to speed. He’s probably down in the kitchen again.” He turned to leave, and paused to add something. “I’m going to warn you in advance: my people don’t like magic very much.”

“Really?” Tara started. The boy’s smile returned, but this time there wasn’t even a hint of sardonic amusement to it. No, this was the bitter rictus of somebody who had been forced to bite back retorts on a regular basis.

“Ever hear of Brieborg?”

“You have never heard of Brieborg? What does the Collegium teach you these days?” Lady von Clief asked from where she stood in front of the range, her arms cross across her chest and her face contorted in a scowl. It was a shocking contract to the genuine concern she had shown Olsen, asking if his ‘attack’ had passed. The boy had quickly explained to the girls that he was prone to migraines, and while she didn’t think it polite to pry further, she suspected there was more to it than that.

The kitchen itself was probably smaller than her family’s in Levarche, not that she had ever been inside. One large, worn yet solidly built table took up the middle of the room, with several plain but equally solid chairs placed around it and enough crockery and cutlery for six placed atop it. The fishy smell coming from the pots atop the range was even more inviting than it had been earlier. All in all, it was surprisingly homely and low key. If so, why was her master here and not in his workshop or an arcane study?

The man himself leaned against one of the counters at the far end of the room, clutching a large, intricately decorated mug in his left hand and lowering a dark brown bottle onto the counter with his right. He had shed his coat, and hat to reveal a plain but well-tailored black suit and thin, greying hair. The gloves remained, however, and the giant dog ‘Maus’ next to his feet was an unnerving presence.

“My cousin spent a tour down here with the Army, madam. Most of his tales were complaining about the weather,” Seema replied. “He did mention Brieborg, but only once or twice.”

“Tinland and Levarche are far enough away that they can afford to forget the disaster,” Warlock von Clief grunted before sipping from the mug. When he lowered the mug and flipped down the pewter lid, his moustache was briefly lightened by the foam from the beer contained within. Wiping it off with the back of his other hand, he continued, “Miss Heywood, what does magic require, and what does one do with it?”

“T-thermal energy, sir. One turns it into…into…something else.”

“Not an exam answer, but good enough.” One side of the warlock’s mouth lifted upwards in a slight smile. “The official answer is that one converts it into another form of energy, which may then be used to convert one form of matter to another. Judging the correct amount of heat to draw is a tricky process to learn, but one can get a better feel for it with experience. A wand, staff or gloves is supposed to act as a heat sink.” Tara repressed a shiver as he flipped up the lid of his mug and took a sip before continuing, “Now, the weather in the Sydfjords is often cold enough to handle this for us, but one still exercise caution not to overdo it.”

“About three hundred years ago, a splinter faction of the Collegium decided to strike out on their own and found a city on Briesey for mages, by mages,” Magaly von Clief continued. “It lasted for about a century, and then the volcano exploded. A lot of what the warlocks and the military do down here is keep the results from spreading.”

“The results would be things such as dragons?” Rose added. Her left hand had clenched underneath her right again.

“Dragons, draugr, trolls, even a basilisk once about seventy years ago! All because some damned fools built a city on an active volcano! I have no idea what were they thinking,” the apothecary as she turned back towards the range.

Where else would you get that Sorcerer Overlord atmosphere? Tara wondered. It was only when the warlock chuckled that she realised she’d asked that out loud. A quick look around the room saw Rose hiding her hand behind her mouth in a manner that could only be her trying to stifle a laugh or a smile, something that neither Seema nor Olsen seemed to bother with.

“I have occasionally thought that myself,” von Clief admitted, earning himself an unamused look from his wife. He continued, “The reason they built out on Briesey is because it is an active volcano in the middle of a frozen sea – a powerful and consistent source of heat, and plenty of cold water and air in which to dissipate. The principle is still sound, and this is why magicians tend to cluster around the hot springs and lesser volcanoes down here.”

“Which includes every pyromancer, unlicensed necromancer and other hedge wizard who decides they don’t want to ‘contribute to the betterment of their fellow man’,” Olsen added, modulating his voice to sound more officious towards the end.

“Well, this is ready,” Magaly broke in as she turned back to the range. She lifted the pot in her bare hands as though she was opening a jam jar and swung it over towards the table. Tara was briefly disquieted that the woman handled this herself, but the gurgle in her stomach reminded her that she had not had anything to eat since that morning.

A mage couldn’t cast on an empty stomach.

So, after two months, I finally managed to finish this chapter. We meet von Clief’s wife and her apprentice (who is another recurring XCOM 2 character), Tara is starting to open up slightly, Seema hasn’t heard her last “don’t burn things again” comment, and von Clief is very low-key for a warlock. Are we ever going to see him cast anything?

“Maus” is based upon the Komondor, also known as the Hungarian Sheepdog. And yes, the name does mean “mouse”. Finally, I have a reason to brush up on my rusty German again! 😁