Usther was trying very hard not to look foolish. She'd never considered herself a fool, but something about facing a pretty girl beneath a moonlit sky on the crumbling apex of a once-observatory had robbed her of her usual wit.
The rocky face of a mountain guarded their backs. Before them, their open-roofed tower overlooked rolling plains made silver by the night, with the peaks of the distant Dragon's Spine making a darker shadow against the inky sky. The air was fresh and cold and smelled of rain, so different to the dust and decay of their home. It filled her with a hateful longing for a world and a life she had been forced to flee, so she focused instead on her companion.
The other girl stretched; Usther's gaze bobbed before she could stop herself.
'I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable.' The girl smiled coquettishly, but there was cruelty in her eyes, and it was that which Usther found irresistible.
Usther found her tongue. 'You'll have to try harder,' she said, looking away as if the other girl was beneath her notice. As if she hadn't consumed her thoughts for weeks. Her name was Symphona, considered the most powerful and canny of the necromancer acolytes their age ?— to the chagrin of Usther, still called an acolyte by most though she'd trained a practitioner more powerful than an immortal lich. Symphona was ambitious and ruthless with silken skin the colour of slate and tightly-curled hair dyed cherry-blossom pink.
It was hard to look at her face without remembering every place those lips had touched. Hard to see her hands and not remember them sliding down her bare hips. At times, it seemed like Symphona wanted nothing more than for them to gasp each other's air. At others, she kept her distance, teasing and scolding by turn, the space between them a chasm she controlled and Usther was too wrong-footed to bridge.
But Usther wasn't completely defenseless. 'How goes your ritual?' she asked. She watched Symphona sidelong, her expression schooled to mildness.
Symphona's relaxed stance where she stretched out on the ground didn't change, except for a tightening in her shoulders. Slowly, she turned to regard Usther. 'What ritual? You'll have to be more specific. I'm a busy woman, after all.'
Usther pursed her lips as if in thought. 'Oh, I'm well aware. I'm referring to your particular ritual, of course. The one you've been building in the grotto beneath the amphitheatre, that even the peons you call your cabal don't know about.'
Symphona turned to stone, everything that had once looked effortless about her pose now looking painfully tight. 'I don't know what you're talking about.'
'Don't be boring, Symphona. It's dull of you to dissemble when you know you're caught. I've seen the components, and the spell diagram painted on the ground. I have an inkling of what you are attempting, and it's admirable. If you can find a way to nest your magic in a dormant corpse, you may be able to control someone else's minion should they raise it, unaware of its contamination. I wish you the best with it; really, I do.'
As Usther spoke, Symphona's expression grew stormy. 'You spied on me.' She seemed to struggle with rage for a moment before curiosity won out. 'How?'
Usther smirked. 'I spy on everyone. And you can hardly expect me to give up my secrets when you clung so hard to yours.'
She was glad to have this moment. Her spying looked confident and powerful, and not the last resort of a practitioner too weak to demand respect through her own workings. It was the council she most wanted to impress, those ancient necromancers who had first settled the town and now ruled over it. But Symphona was so withholding with praise and approval that Usther yearned for hers as well. The scarcity, and the source, made it precious.
Symphona's eyes flashed, and that was a kind of victory too. It was hard to put Symphona out of sorts. Then she shaped her features into a pout, all anger carefully smoothed over. 'What if I ask very nicely?'
Usther's gaze went to her mouth. She cleared her throat and looked away. 'I'm not easily tempted,' she said, but her discomfort must have been clear because Symphona laughed: a high, pretty sound with an air of practice.
Later, they descended the crumbling stairs. Usther still felt tense despite Symphona's lazy confidence, or perhaps because of it. It infuriated her to think that Symphona had the upper hand in their relationship, if you could call it that. A small part of her hated that anyone had to have the upper hand, but she didn't listen much to that part. She knew how the world worked.
Back in the broad stone tunnels and carved halls of the crypt, they walked abreast. The path back to the town was a winding one, but each knew it well by now. Symphona gazed straight ahead, chin raised and shoulders back. Usther strove to do the same, though she found her eyes drawn again and again to the other girl's delicate features.
Not far into a wide chamber of stone pillars scribed in ancient glyphs, they heard the tortured shrieks of a small animal. Usther looked to Symphona. 'What do you suppose is causing that?'
'Probably a lesser dead has caught a rat or something,' Symphona said dismissively. 'I wouldn't worry about it.'
Usther fell silent, listening to the sound. The moans of the dead could not move her, but something about the cries of something living sent a shudder down her arms. What's more, she couldn't imagine a masterless dead having the coordination to catch something small and fleet. They tended to be fumbling things of little brain.
At length, she observed, 'It won't hurt to investigate.'