On the cobbled gatepost, there sat a skull.
A human skull, set in a divot midst the stones. Brown, crusty. A fresh wreath of floral daisy pixies, their heads torn off, crowned its sun-dried pate. A lump of clay carved with runes was tied in its gaping jaw.
Gate hinges creaked. Black riding boots squished through the muddy garden. A gloved hand rapped at the door, beside the toad and the mud-drawn symbols. The Rangers met eyes, raised curious brows. They waited.
A mock orange pixie, sweetly white and tittering, gently assaulted the man's earlobe. He brushed it away. In the distance, a crow creaked thrice.
"Come on. Is she there?" mused the woman. She knocked again, scratched her insect-bitten neck. "Bollocks. There's no end of flies."
"Maybe she's hard of hearing," chewed the man.
She grumped, raised a fist to knock again.
The door jerked open.
"Uh." The blonde Ranger shut her mouth, politely clasped her hands. "Good day." They both smiled determinedly, but winced. A rank aura of pickling and rancid butter wafted from within.
"Hallo," said the hunched woman in the door. She grinned, loosing a liver-y breath and a glimpse of three black teeth. "Ah, Ranyers! Ooh, would ye look at te two of ye? So smart, in yer little ridin' capes n' hoods." She drawled in a thickly pastoral Awnish accent, pricked at the nearer ranger's grey hem.
The Rangers, their navy summer uniforms stained with sweat and dust, smiled politely. "Old Nan Dagne, I presume?" said the man, chewing, extending a hand. Old Nan gripped it softly in bony fingers, shook. A bit of ash came off on the Ranger's glove.
"Ja, ja," Nan said. "Would ye care te come in? Have a bit o' kraut n' sour cream on a hot day?" She gestured into the cottage. It was dark and moistly hot, within. Some things, herbs or pheasants or coneys, hung swaying in the dim, backlit by a greasy peat fire, lit despite the summer's heat.
"No, thank you, Nan. That won't be necessary. We only have some quick questions, if you'd oblige us," said the blonde Ranger, hurriedly.
"Oh o' course," said Nan. She passively smoothed her filthy paisley apron. "So good o' ye te sheck on te old folk. Sush good little Ranyers."
"Listen, Nan," said the chewer. "Would ya happen to know anything about that?" He pointed back, towards the square and the woven form of twigs.
"Oh, ja," smiled Nan, again revealing those three teeth. The Rangers subtly averted their gaze. "Te effigy! A very happy old tradition. Part of te majstång. "
"The midsommar festival?"
"Can you elaborate? You burn it, right?"
Nan Dagne nodded. "We burn him, and burn away all te ills of yesteryear. And his ashes fertilize te fields." She grinned wickedly, pointed at the blonde ranger's midriff. "And te young ladies, eh?" She nodded knowingly.
The Ranger glared at her, stepped back once. "Okay, fine," she said. "That's all you burn? Just a wicker man?"
"Ja," said Nan, confusedly. "What else would we burn?"
"What about that skull?" said the man, pointing back. "Did you burn him?"
"No?" said Nan. "He is pleased to be dere."
The Rangers blinked awhile. Old Nan mugged at them, toothlessley.
"Nan," said the blonde. "Would you mind terribly if some of us from the Fort attended your Midsommar festivities?"
"Not at all!"
"Uh, grand. Wonderful."
They all stood. Nan mugged all the while.
"We'll be off, then," said the Ranger woman, as last, turning faster than usual.
Out at sea, between the overcast, drizzling sky and equally grey waves, hung a black ship. A barque with a glistening hull painted with tar, and sails of luxuriant burgundy. Billowing anthracite smoke puffed forth from triple stacks amidships, swathed the craft in a stormy veil; a thundercloud out at sea.
At shore, behind an old wall overlooking a slimy stone moorage, huddled children in down coats. They shivered for the chill drizzle, peered over the mossy stone, covertly, eyes fixed on the ship.
"Help me up!" squeaked a tiny voice. Someone hoisted a sweater-clad mouse pup, small and fat as a football, up onto the wall. "Wow!" he exclaimed, pitchily.
The eldest child, a serious-looking redheaded girl, nodded knowingly. "Aye. And you lot said it wouldn't come. I told you: a've seen it before. Her ship, with her red sails."
"The Sorceress!" cried the mouse. The other children held fingers to their lips, hushed him.
"Look, look," said the pup, quieter. "There's a little boat lowering down."
And there was: A long shuttle boat, similarly black, had lowered and put out oars. It started towards the wave-licked moorage, oars heaving, fast as a water-strider over the lapping sea. From its stern fluttered a curling, burgundy banderole marked with runes of silver thread.
"Who are they?" said a shivering boy. He stuck a grubby finger at the moorage, where an entourage of folk in black suits and flapping fur and broadcloth cloaks had appeared, battered by the wind. One and all, they wore silver, gold, and alabaster masks under their long hoods. At their lead, first on the dock, stood a man haloed by wind-whipped silken black hair. Glittering rings encrusted his clasped, satin-gloved hands.
"Dunno. More sorcerers?"
"Aristos, Galder. See their masks? Only aristos wear them."
"Wow," said the boy, mouth agape.
The shuttle neared. The oars withdrew. Attendants, clad in rubber jumpsuits and sack hoods, leapt to the pier and hauled the craft to dock with stout ropes. They tied it off and lowered a gangplank.
Across, shielded by umbrella-wielding attendants, came a mismatched pair. First, an impossibly tall woman in crisp black. A narrow hood and cherry-red streamers of hair framed her onyx, sneering mask. She stepped onto the dock, and all bowed, save the ring-fingered man, who shook her red-gloved hand. At the sight of her, the children gasped. Someone shushed the pup.
Next among the pair came a mask-less woman. A small presence, beside the towering lead. She too wore formal black, a split-sleeve frock coat, but was otherwise austere and unadorned; with short shiny hair and no jewels. She stood, naked hands clasped, nodding primly to the entourage.
"Who is she?" squeaked the mouse, too loud. His thin voice cut clearly through the wind. The children all hushed him again, but too late: The mask-less woman flicked a glance towards their wall, raised one thin brow. The kids ducked for cover. Someone yanked the mouse down, too, and covered his brown snout.
The eldest girl pressed a finger to her lips, for subdued conversation gained, soft over the wind. The entourage was approaching via the narrow, winding stone path up the hill. It abutted the old wall's edge.
Pained, horrified expressions passed over the other children's faces. Someone mouthed oh no.
Footsteps. Hard heels on mossy stone. Shadows passed round the wall, and flapping cloaks and tails of coats rounded too. The masked folk spoke softly, with some amusement in their tone, in a language unknown.
They paid no notice to the children, save the maskless one. She came last, and, lip curled in amusement, winked at them. One white, long-fingered, horribly scarred hand waved, passively, in greeting.
Dumbstruck, Galder waived back.
The Sorceress and her entourage departed, laughing and mumbling in forgotten words.
"Oh, I've pissed meself," whined Dempsey, the pup.
"Serves you right," said a thin, pimply boy. "Thank luck the Sorceress didn't see! You almost got us killed."
Everyone looked to the eldest. She beheld them, absolutely pale.
"What? Tell us, Ivy." they demanded of her.
"You d-dolts," stammered Ivy. "The woman with the red hair and the mask, that was the Duke of Felance. I've seen her mask in the papers. It wasn't the Sorceress."
"W-what?" said Galder. "Which one was she, then?"
"The Sorceress did see us. Didn't you see her hands?" said Ivy.
"Oh my. She waved right at us."
"Galder waved back!" said the pup.
"I'm sorry," sniffled Galder. "I didn't know it was her."
"That's how they get you, Sorcerers, says my mum," said Ivy, seriously. "You never know, at all."
Neosorcery isn't illegal.
It is, after all, merely the study and application of ancient technology; no more illegal than learning Ancient Nor or building scale models of antique aqueducts. The study of ancient writing systems and irrigation, however, doesn't involve chopping people up, brewing up monsters, and dabbling in arts that long ago ushered in a Dark Age for all mankind.
Consequently, neosorcery does tend to be illegal. For it will, as a learner shifts from tantalizing theory into debauched practice, come to demand steep costs. Costs that mount without fail into the most abominable of crimes.
The Nor, whose science we call now sorcery. Whose great corpse of knowledge fed all the corrupted many minds to come. A great bloat of knowledge that nourished a two millennia Dark Age and all the horrid powers that rose, fell, and died along the way, creating, like the Nor, fertile lands for those still yet to come.
And now, in these industrial, fragile, critical days, wherein Humanity has finally reached the brink of freedom from both the encroaching Other and its own sorcerous past, sorcerous seeds bloom ever faster in the fattening, fertile soil.
Neosorcerers. Called "new" only because they are the nouveau generation of a kind apparent many times before. Divided from the sorcerer-empires of the past by their inexperience, their as-of-yet division, and their status as a weight in the balance of precipitous history.
Barely more than folk practitioners fed on scraps of ancient lore turned cultural wisdom. Medicine men and cunning women whose arts are queerly effective, and utterly queer. Practitioners who, while essentially beneficial, risk the discovery and dissemination of their potent arts to more dangerous hands.
Products of human ingenuity. Like the Nor themselves; unwitting in the danger they flaunt, or perhaps hubristic. Players with toys not fully understood.
These are the more dangerous hands. The worst of all: These powerful few, fully ensconced in carefully constructed fortresses of wealth, station, and influence, who dare to call themselves the sorcerers of modern times.
Sorcery yet lives, concealed.
Seeds on a blooming lawn.