"Lone Power," Katarina Claes says in the Speech, fifteen years old in this life, not a light mage nor a dark mage nor a Wizard, now, not able to see dark magic's ghosts, yet staring straight through Raphael's eyes into the eyes of the shadow haunting him, "I may not be on Errantry anymore- but, Eldest, Fairest, Fallen: Greetings and Defiance."
They have all met that Power before, but usually indirectly. Geord remembers whispers coiling at his eldest brother's back. Alan remembers a drowning kitten, fished out of one of the palace fountains; she runs the worldgates in the capital now, but there was a shadow in the water that day. Keith remembers blood on his brothers' faces, well before Wizardry found him. Nicol remembers a thousand sins inked into the paperwork he sifts through, searching for the path to a golden future for them all. Sophia remembers flashes of an eerie not-foreigner in a strange, blackened land of metal and glass and towers.
Only Mary has spoken with him, though.
Mary Hunt is seven years old.
"So you're Death?" she asks, book clutched in her small arms.
The red-haired man smiles at her, a serpent in the garden. "If you like. I see you have quite a story there." He nods toward the book, and her grip tightens. She lets her eyes drop.
"Oh-" she remembers, "Eldest, Fairest, and Fallen, greetings and defiance. I am on Errantry, a-and-"
"And you've come to stop me." The man says casually, but his eyes are cruel, cold, sharp. "What a shame. And here I thought I was doing you such a favor." He smiles, and it's almost friendly.
Mary's eyes snap up to meet his, and this time her gaze doesn't falter. The man's smile only widens.
"Why, whatever favor do you mean, Lone Power," Mary says, with the icy grace she's heard adults use at parties, the grace she aims to master as her shield.
"Oh, Lady Mary, surely you've noticed. It's not just the wilting of the roses and the absence of the bees. Those terrible sisters of yours have been too ill to trouble you very much lately, haven't they?"
Mary's stomach drops. She hadn't thought of that. She'd barely noticed, honestly. She'd been too grateful for a break from their ceaseless barbs and cruelties. She'd wished this respite would last forever. And now....
"It was... you? But- why would you do that? Lone One," she adds, hoping it's the right sort of respectful.
She's had her Manual for a mere two days, all spent trying to find a way to revive her beloved roses, stricken inexplicably by a blight. Now she's wishing she'd spent a little bit more time on the section about how to properly address the Powers That Be.
The man laughs, and it sounds strangely gentle, strangely kind. How can this be the Lone Power, the Kindler of Wildfires?
"Lady Mary Hunt, dear child. You don't deserve their harsh words, their cruelties. They're only jealous that you are best beloved by your father, that your mother loved you more than theirs loved them, before her passing. You're such a sweet child, after all." His words are honeyed, and Mary knows they're the words of a politician, but he sounds so sincere...
"So on a whim, I thought I might do you this one favor. Oh, soon enough their little illness might take a nasty turn, a little more coughing here and there, a shortness of breath, and, one by one, they will simply... not wake up again. And then you'll be the heir to your house, dear Lady Mary Hunt-" but she's frozen, and doesn't hear any more than that.
It's not the idea her sisters may not wake up. She does not wish that on them, not at all, but in this moment she cannot muster the care to bother with that. No.
'Her illness took a nasty turn, I'm afraid.'
'It's okay, dear one, just a little bit of a cough.'
'The shortness of breath is a bad sign, you should prepare yourself-'
One day, her mother simply... never woke up.
Mary remembers that this man is Death.
"You killed my mother." Her voice is cold and distant. She thinks it should sound smaller.
The man's- no. The Lone Power's grin does not waver.
"Death comes for everything, in the end, little Lady. It was her time. Oh, I am sorry it's hurt you-" and that's a lie, if Mary has every heard any lie in her entire life "-but I shall make it up for you now. You'll be your father's only child, the apple of his eye, and the future of your whole house at your fingertips. No more terrible whispers, no more missing possessions, no more taunts about the virtue of your mother... won't that be a wonderful, charmed life?"
Mary hesitates, and it's a moment too long.
"I won't ask anything of you in the future, you know," It continues smoothly. "You will grow to become a powerful lady, but this is just a whim of mine, that's all. Just a small favor for a deserving, charming young lady."
The Lone Power falls silent, then, just in time for Mary's thoughts to catch upon the offer.
It's- despite everything she knows, the little she's read in her Manual and everything that comes along with the idea of speaking with Death like this, it's still an incredibly appealing idea. It's- it's almost everything she wants. She- she doesn't want to admit it, but part of her would almost be willing to sacrifice her sisters for this vision of the future. (She's certain they'd be willing to sacrifice her.)
It's not everything she wants. What she wants is something this Death cannot, will not give her.
After all, it is Death that took it from her in the first place.
"Can you give my mother back?" Mary asks, calm. She knows the answer.
"Why yes, of course I can-" the Lone Power begins, and she's heard this voice before, of course she has; it's in all her sisters' courtesies, after all. Lies of syrup that pour from elegant lips.
"Will you give my mother back, whole, healthy, as though she'd never gone? Do promise me, dear Lone Power, in the Speech?" Her own voice is crystal and rosewater. She knows the answer to this, too.
It does not reply, but Its eyes grow colder.
"I'm terribly afraid, Lone Power, I must decline your generous offer," Mary replies, then, not a hint of a stammer in her voice. She has not been a Wizard long, but this, she is trained in; she is terribly afraid of the being that stands before her, and though she thinks this offer is very generous, it was never an offer she ever could have taken. Any noble, whether grown or child, knows a favor is never just a favor in the end.
For a moment, there is something terrible about the entity who looks like a man. Its hair is a raging fire that will consume the world and Mary and all her roses; Its face is too sharp, the sort of handsome that steals the memory of anything else in the world; and Its eyes are the grey of an endless storm, of a forest crumbled into ashes.
And then It smiles, and it is not a terrible smile. It is the smile of a kind, gentle young man.
"Well then, I'm sorry to have taken so much of your time. Do take care, young Lady Mary. I'm sure your sisters will be well, very soon. I have no doubt they'll be entirely back to their usual selves in no time." Then It bows a perfect, courtly bow, and if it were anyone else perhaps the correct response would be to allow It to draw her hand to Its lips. Instead, she merely smiles politely, her knuckles white as she clutches her Manual close. The Lone Power laughs that gentle laugh once more, even as Its grey eyes pierce her like iron thorns. "Good luck with your roses and bees, as well, Lady. Perhaps I shall get to see them in the height of their beauty, next time we meet."
The Lone Power turns, walking out of Mary's garden, and she knows if she were to follow, It would be nowhere to be found.
The next day, her roses perk up, and the bees return to her garden.
The day after that, her sisters are well enough to rise from their beds and insult Mary's hair, clothes, and hobbies over breakfast. Her newfound habit of bringing a book to the table is hardly proper, they sneer.
She stammers and hurries away, just as she has always done. But with the cover of her Manual under her fingertips, she smiles, just a little.
This will not be forever.