Chapter 1



Adwin was a runner in many of the ways the word could be used. She had run for fun and exercise since her days in high school. She was a runner in that she was built for it, long legged and with lungs for those long cross country trials. Finally she was on the run from the local magistrate making her the fugitive kind of runner.

A day after her crime found her climbing over the walls of Baile an Ti Mhoir. While the walls were indeed high at close to 70 feet and there were two of them going in concentric circles around the port city separated by a hundred yards of bare earth. They were far from unscalable, having large grooves between blocks for hands and feet with no guards patrolling the tops in these times of peace. In fact no army had laid siege to them in the over 200 years since the Revolutionary war. No criminal had gone over them in 20 years, so there very well might be guards on the fortifications tomorrow. That was why she was going over them tonight before they realized she was pulling a runner.

She hadn't been able to go home for fear of being caught, so she was fleeing with nothing more than the clothes she was wearing and a few coins in her pocket. The city was surrounded first by small communities of people without enough money to live within the walls. Then with walled estates of those rich enough to be safe outside of the city. Then lastly farm lands that supported the rest with fresh food. It wasn't hard at first taking one farm lane after another constantly heading north. Adwin would be safer in Pennsylvania where even if she were caught by the local authorities they would need an extradition order to return her to Mary's land and Baile an Ti Mhoir.

She ran a marathon's distance before she felt safe enough to ask a farmer for a ride in the back of his wagon. Hiding the mage-mark on her cheek to avoid questions of why an American Academy graduate would need to hitch rides and worry about the cost of food. Adwin kept moving stopping only to eat a couple quick meals in little hamlets she passed with a cafe or general store. The money wouldn't last long but it was worth spending some of her coins to be able to keep moving fast. Adwin was almost to the forests of Pennsylvania when she felt the first tinges of cold dread. Nothing else she knew felt like that but creatures of necromancy. It was time to start going cross country.

The brier patch parted as Adwin ran up to it, plants leaning as far away from her as their roots would allow. She barely noticed the tribute paid to her by the plants since she was busy running for her life. Soon as the young woman passed by the thorny shrubs they went back to their original state of tangled defiance daring any who should follow to go through them. Adwin was tired and dirty, scratched from occasional falls onto rocks or dead plants unable to get out of her path. She wasn't about to stop; behind her was a pack of zombies, undead humans and hunting hounds, tirelessly trailing her through the northern woods.

As a lifemage Adwin could influence most living things with a thought causing plants to move away, animals not to notice her, or healing small wounds with a touch of her hand but she had no control over the dead. A single zombie would not have been a problem for her in these woods with so much life around her. Grass would tangle its feet, vines could bind its limbs, and the very trees surrounding it would beat the monster to a pulp at the request of a spell. Unfortunately it wasn't a single monster following her but a large group of over 30 creatures way more than she could possibly hope to stop before they overwhelmed her. They never tired and they never stopped, the zombies would get her eventually unless she could somehow destroy them.

For the first time in her life Adwin found herself wishing she had been born to some other type of magic. A pyromancer could throw a fireball destroying ten at a time. A geomancer could open the earth at their feet crushing them en mass when he slammed the rock closed. Just about any other type of caster could deal with being hunted by the relentless armies of justice easier than she could, of course that was why the tribunal had sent undead after her in the first place.

A noise crept into her awareness, at first a gentle whisper building to a much louder sound of water rushing over rocks. This was her first bit of luck in days, the stream was at least 20 yards across and disappeared off into the woods in either direction with no sign of a nearby dry crossing. Adwin didn't hesitate for a moment before plunging into the water and wading across, the water only reaching midway up her small frame. It would slow the dead up some since they couldn't cross running water without someway of staying dry. They would have to search for a bridge or a really large tree to make it across, that could possibly mean days of travel for them. The Hunt would never give up but this would at least give her a small reprieve while they searched for her trail again.

There was no sign of the undead again that day. It was also proof that there wasn't a mage trailing her to help them. Many of her colleagues could have parted water, made bridges or tunnels to by pass the small river with barely a pause. Adwin guessed she didn't rate that kind of attention from the authorities. Maybe their minions would only restrain her instead of passing sentence the moment they caught her. And maybe she would do better never being caught by them.

The next day had Adwin checking with the trees this side of the river every couple of hours. None of the trees felt the cold entropy of the dead anywhere near them, her pursuers had not made it this far yet. Her network of life extended out for miles around anywhere a living plant's root or leaf touched another plant. Without eyes or ears they couldn't see or hear for her but all life felt the cold touch of death when it was near. Few other magic users could be as well informed about their enemies as her. Maybe a aeromancer could have the wind tell him or a necromancer would feel the pull of his own creations, but a lifemage connected to every living thing that touched another living being for miles. She could even see through the eyes of a squirrel on a tree or a badger in the brush. She didn't bother with the extra effort though since the greens were enough to track the forces of Necromancy.

A few days later found her slipping over the walls of Harris-town with the help of a kindly old oak tree. Adwin's dark hair was longer than the day before, her skin a few shades lighter than anyone who had known her would recognize. A little household magic had cleaned and patched her clothes so she wouldn't stand out in a crowd. There were sure to be portraits being distributed to all the officers of law that could be reached by the mirror network. They'd not spot her by sight at least and if she kept her nose clean they'd not have reason to look deeper. She just needed to avoid any of the town's no longer human guards, they would not be fooled by a few cosmetic changes. Luckily most people where uncomfortable around the products of necromancy so they were restricted to the gates, sewers, and other less wholesome places.

The few coins in her pockets had done her no good out in the wilds but here they were her ticket to a hot meal and a comfortable bed. It felt good to be among people again, too long in the woods left her feeling lonely and dispirited. Adwin hadn't felt this relaxed in weeks since she started her flight from the law. She needed a plan, something more than the endless running. She didn't have enough to purchase a airship ride to Canada or The Aztec Empire. There didn't seem to be a way to earn any money using her biomancer training least nothing that wouldn't give her away. Her thoughts made her trace the area on her right cheek where her sanctioned mage brand had been.

Every mage who graduated from the American Academy was inscribed with a calligraphic symbol of his or her Art and degree they had studied, for those who could read the symbols it was your resume. Unalterable by most it stayed with you for life growing and changing as you did in your arts. The process was so deep into a person that you could run your tongue along the inside of your mouth and feel the ridges from the inside. For those who made their living by the arts it was a part of you like a hand or foot.

A day after her crime Adwin had tried to remove it by every spell she knew. She was versed in more magic than most having spent extra studies in the army, but nothing seemed to work. Finally she had come to her wits and times end as she was sure they would find her soon if it wasn't gone. Her teeth clenched into a piece of wood, her right eye shut, a small pond as a mirror; Adwin used her belt knife to cut away her own cheek. Her only comfort, peppermint leaves chewed to numb her face a little. Once a half dollar sized circle of flesh had been removed, she was just able to stop the blood and heal the edges before she passed out. It was odd to wake up with her face throbbing, her mouth and teeth dry from air constantly blowing on her oral cavity. It was weirder still to grow back the missing flesh without the mage-mark glowing in response. Every spell she had done since academy had caused a small warm glow on her face, and now it was gone.

She needed money if she wanted to travel. A couple of subtle inquiries later landed her a quiet job under the table as a dish washer in a local tavern. The little magics everyone used to heat the dishwater or curse off a really tough piece of food weren't likely to get her noticed by anyone. On the contrary not using those things would get her noticed faster than a one legged zombie at a high school prom. Every kid was taught those basic cantrips as a matter of growing up, weather you were going on to academy or ended up as a growing tomatoes for the family business.

The tavern owner was an older man with a white walrus mustache and a belly to make Saint Nick jealous. He kept his position at the bar as a helmsman guides his ship. Old Jake as he was known seemed never to move from the center of his domain yet nothing in the tavern or rooms above it went unnoticed. His waitresses were family and no one would dare take advantage of Old Jake's family, not if they knew what was good for them. It was not long before Adwin under the name of Jenny was welcomed home as a long lost daughter.

A week turned into two and still no sign of the Hunt approaching Harris-town. Adwin stayed away from the river docks, city gates, and anywhere else the undead might be used. She might have gotten away for the time being even though her portrait was still displayed nightly on the network mirrors. Adwin worked each day in the tavern and slept nights in the main room once the last revelers had gone home. Soon she had enough money to buy a ticket to any where an airship from Harris-town was likely to go. She studied the destinations on the board in front of the sky port whenever a tavern errand took her past it. Unfortunately none of the places listed in the shippers office was named Safe, Free, or Unfound.

As it moved on towards a month Adwin started to feel increasingly nervous, nothing untoward had happened but it felt like her luck couldn't last forever. She let the kind tavern owner know that she would be moving on again in the morning. Old Jake was sad at her leaving since he had never had such a conscientious and hard working employee before. He wasn't surprised though since few willing chose a life of kitchen work as their career. He would miss Jenny but he made sure she got a few extra coins and some traveling food to go with her. She even had a small satchel with a couple items in it to help make life easier. All in all she was doing much better than she had since this whole mess had over taken her. On the way to the sky port Alice, one of the waitresses, caught up with Adwin and started to walk alongside her. Adwin gave her a curious look and kept her own consul for a few minutes. She intended to let Alice be the first to break the silence so as to not accidentally give something away.

"I know what happened in Baile an Tí Mhoir, I just had to tell you that I would of done the same. If I was you. Your secret is safe,"

It stunned Adwin for a moment, she had assumed that no one had recognized her during her time in Harris-town. "How did you know?"

"Mostly it was the timing, that and you didn't change your features just your hair and tan," she said with an embarrassed shrug.

"I guess I need to work on my disguise some. Thanks for being a friend Alice, I didn't realize how good of a friend till now,"

As Adwin turned to go into the sky port Alice put a gentle hand on her arm holding her up to press a few more coins into her palm, "Take these with you, it may come in handy."

The short conversation played over and over in Adwin's mind as she went into the woman's room inside the port. A quick check to make sure no one was in the bathroom with her. A locked stall gave her a place to change into her only other set of clothes, a yellow sundress and sandals. With a spell she had learned as a prank all her hair fell out in a big waterfall of black tresses. Bald as the day she was born she used another spell to regrow her hair blond leaving it short and messy. Next she changed her facial features longer nose, green eyes replaced blue, and a smaller chin made her so much harder to notice. With a final casting she gave herself an additional little post adolescent growth spurt to top off the new and improved look. Adwin nearly collapsed after the last spell, she was out of practice and changing one self was always much harder than casting on others. A quick rest in the lavatory did her a world of good.

Hours later Adwin leaned her elbows on the ship's railing gazing across the forested slopes of the Appalachian mountains. She wasn't the only passenger enjoying the novelty of air travel. The creak of the masts, the snap of the canvas, the chant of the aeromancer it all made for a unique experience one most of the passengers had never had before now. Below them like ants to a picnic was a caravan of bison from the Central Native lands each bull carrying hundreds of pounds of trade goods bound for the eastern cities of the Confederation of Sovereign American States. Maybe she should head to the great plains instead of north to Canada, sure magic tended to act a little different out there but it wasn't like she could use much anyway. She wouldn't be sought out there, almost no one immigrated out west, not if you liked civilization.

Montreal had a sweet sound in Adwin's mind, like sunshine or music, it was a promise of freedom. It was also a chance to get off this bloody ship, three days aboard had her nerves strung tighter than guitar strings. It wasn't just the crowded conditions and bland food but also the cut-off sensation from that part of her that touched the web of life. The ship was beautiful in its polished wood and brass, gentle curves fitted with the image of a top of the line cruiser able to make more than a hundred and fifty miles a day in favorable conditions but it was still a dead thing, so blank and empty to one of her senses. She had never been this long unconnected to the world. The occasional brush against a deck hand or other passenger kept her sane but not happy. Even those touches needed to be limited so as not to draw attention to herself or gain the reputation of a trollop.

"Not taken with sailing the winds?"

"Huh? Oh no it's alright I guess. I'm just a little nervous." Adwin replied to the man next to her. He was a little taller than her, dark of both hair and eye. A crooked smile touched his face as he turned to lean casually on the rail and talk with her.

"You see that is what I have been trying to figure out. You obviously don't like being on the ship, yet you stay at the rails looking over when ever you aren't sleeping or eating. Most women who were nervous wouldn't be close to the edge."

"I guess I'm just trying to face my fears,"

"You look a little flushed, are sure you wouldn't rather face your fears later and perhaps have a drink in the lounge with me now?" His hand brushing hers in a familiar way. She almost panicked when he touched her, his magic brushed against hers it had a cool moist feel to it. He was a born necromancer, though untrained if his smooth cheeks were any indication. He showed no sign of having been aware of any interaction on any level other than the purely physical one. Her magic called for her to heal a cut on his forearm as if it was tired of not being used.

"I couldn't accompany a stranger to the lounge, it wouldn't be proper,"

"My manners must of deserted me. I am Michael Woodson cabinet maker extraordinaire,"

"Was that how you cut yourself, In the cabinet shop? You really should go now and get the ship's lifemage to look at it."

"I cut it on board whilst carving something in my cabin. Unfortunately there isn't a lifemage on board to care for it. Would you perhaps grace me your name, miss?"

"Wendy Johnson of Delmarva, pleased to make your acquaintance,"

Michael offered his arm to Adwin then trapping her in her own over formal behavior. They spent the evening in conversation in the passenger lounge with Michael insisting on paying for Adwin since he had invited her to accompany him. It wasn't hard for her to deflect his questions about her since he was much more interested in talking about himself and his business than talking about the presumed life of a rural debutant. His family made pantries with food preservation spells built into them preventing spoilage. This involved the usual cabinet makers tools and the addition of a few key necromantic spells. Adwin wasn't too sure about necromancy and food but if it could keep a zombie from rotting I guess it could protect her steak. It also explained the magic in him too, family trained there was no need for mage marks. Without academy training there was little chance of him realizing whom he was having dinner with tonight. As soon as that thought went through her Adwin relaxed some before retiring alone to her very small cabin.

The weather soon changed for the worse and a covering of dark clouds overtook the ship the following day. Passengers were advised to stay in their cabins or in the steerage compartment till the weather changed again for the better. Adwin's closet sized cabin did have one window over looking the deck she was able to see deck hands reefing sails, lashing down loose items on deck and generally making ready for bad weather. The promised storm didn't wait long in coming either. It descended upon them with fury, as lightning flashed around them and rain washed over the deck like a river. The ship's two areomancers chanted spell after spell from their positions at either end of the ship. Both of them were roped to their spots to prevent them from being thrown overboard by the swaying of the ship or the raging storm's winds. More than one bolt of heavenly wrath was diverted away from the ship thanks to their efforts.

In terror Adwin watched one of the masts snap and start to fall as lines strove to keep it upright. The weight of the mast and the force of the wind proved too much for the lines, one by one they popped and let the ships trunk finish its journey to the deck. Through it all the aft mage chanted even as the lumber lunged towards him, not even the spar passing through his abdomen stopped him. Pain etched his face as he kept his hands up and pleaded with magic to keep the ship aloft. The crew swarmed around him trying to keep the mast stable while others cut the spar loose from its trunk. Still he kept up chanting, blood touched spells seemed to steady the ship even more. The first mate looked ashen as he wrapped sheets around the mage's midsection, it wasn't long till crimson started to stain them.

Adwin ran out onto the windswept deck unable to sit and watch from her cabin anymore. The rain fell almost sideways and stung mightily whenever it hit exposed skin. She forced her way through the tangle of wood and lines to reach the stricken man. It was worse than she thought when she made it to him. He was loosing blood too quickly to last the hour at this rate.

"Get back to your cabin Miss there's nothing you can do here!" The mate yelled distressed over the forth coming death of his crewman.

Adwin didn't bother to reply she just motioned for him to unwrap the sheet and get ready to pull the wood from the wound. The mate hesitated for a moment before he saw something in her look that made he go ahead with it. It took two people pulling together to start to extract the three inch diameter spar from the man. It was the pain of removal that finally caused the areomancer's chanting to falter and when it did there was a sickening lurch sideways and down for the ship. He regained control again when Adwin's hands slid through the holes in his shirt covering his wounds both front and back. That was when her own chanting started healing, reconstruction, antiseptic, and anesthetic spells woven together into a complex knot of energy tying them together leaving an impression on his soul like a name scrawled in concrete.

The storm passed and the sky cleared. Everyone crew and fellow passengers alike wished to express their thanks to her for saving one of the weather-masters and thereby probably saving the ship. Even Michael gave her thanks and asked her if she might spare a moment for his arm. This sparked a mild rush as various people came to her for everything from motion sickness to an arm broken by the storm tossed ship. The heroine of the ship dined the next day in the Captain's own cabin along with Mr Woodson and a couple of the ships officers. Conversation was light and pleasant for the most part everyone being happy that they came through the ordeal so well.

"So Captain, tomorrow we will be in Fort Covington, New York last stop before going on to Montreal" the first Mate said out of no where at dinner.

"That is right Mr Williams, and we shall have to go through those dreadful customs inspections before being allowed to cross over into Canada"

"Surely its just a quick look in the holds and a wave on with us," Michael Woodson chimed in.

Adwin was starting to wonder this was all about since it had the feel of a scripted play about it. When she looked toward the men none of them would meet her eyes but kept talking like this was perfectly normal. The confusion soon left her as the gist of the play made itself clear.

"Normally that might be the case, but with the ship damaged and the passengers excited still the customs officials will want to talk with everyone. You know to make sure the crew didn't do anything wrong or nothing Unusual happened on our way."

"Would interviews like that take a while and be very detailed?" asked Michael

So the conversation went for awhile till Adwin excused herself to go lay down in her cabin for a bit. Once in her cabin Adwin did anything but lay about, instead she gathered her few possessions into her satchel and paced the cabin seeking an idea of how to get the 500 feet down to the forest below. She didn't regret saving that man's life but there was no way she would be able to cross the border into Canada anywhere near Fort Covington now. Without a real plan she wandered out onto the main deck hoping to get an idea by looking around. The stars were so bright overhead such strange and beautiful night for feeling so trapped and desperate right out in the open. The other people on the deck greeted her as she walked to the aft but left her to her own devices. Finally she was alone to lean on the rail and look out to where they had been.

Dawn was coming soon and with it a day closer to the customs officials that would find her, sending her back in chains to stand trial in Baile an Tí Mhoir. The trial wouldn't last long her signature was all over the spell, she couldn't deny her guilt. Appeals rarely went well for rogue lifemages, harsh punishments were the rule when it was someone entrusted with the care of people. She would be executed and then brought back as a zombie to chase down the lawless for eternity. After all there were never enough human bodies for necromancers to use, most people made sure to have themselves cremated just to avoid those kinds of fates. Zombies did help to keep serious crime down, after all who wanted that doom upon them.

Adwin was seriously considering whether she could survive a fall into the forest below the ship. When the smell of pipe tobacco wafted over to her. She turned to find the weather-mage she saved standing behind her. A small smile curled around the stem of his pipe as he stood next to her at the rail. The silence stretched out a trifle uncomfortably as Adwin wondered what if anything she should say to him. He smoked in silence for a minute before tapping out the ashes over the rail and watching them drift down for a moment.

"You ever wonder how the crew can climb in and out of the rigging so far above the deck or even on some of the yard arms out away from the ship with no fear of falling?"he asked as he lit his pipe again. " You see each sailor has a belt woven by me or my partner that automatically reduces the weight of the wearer to that of a dandelion if they fall more than 10 feet vertically. They only work one time until you stop falling for more that a minute. With that in mind we always have to weave extras in case one gets used during our voyage. We even keep them available on deck in those lockers in case we ever have to abandon ship and have to get passengers off. Just thought I would amuse the Lady who saved my life with some trivia,"

Having said his piece he wandered off to leave Adwin to her own thoughts. She had not spoken a word to the man but he had repaid his debt to her while keeping himself clear of any wrong doing, just like the officers at dinner. She shook her head at the kindness of others, others who knew nothing of her but whatever the news had to say of her. Well the news and her own actions since coming aboard the ship. The rope belts glowed with a soft blue light for those who knew how to look. Funny how all hands were ordered to report for inspection right when she went to get a belt for herself.

A couple of days later the first Mate would be publicly reprimanded in front of customs for having miscounting the number of belts they had when they left port. When questioned not one of the people who had traveled with her could quite remember what Wendy the Lifemage looked like or when the last time they saw her after the storm was. No one likes an intrusive government agent especially when they are questioning the motives of a hero.

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Story tagged with:
Magic / Zombies / Transformation /