by Martin Hall

   Berg scooted rapidly across the quadrangle, hoping to catch Master Kollsson's eye before he disappeared through the doors to his chambers. The young student's feet shot across the snowy cobbles which framed the lawn, clattering through the crisp quiet air. Kollsson turned, an expression of curiosity and paternal amusement on his face. "Berg Osmondson. What brings you over here so urgently at such a late hour?" he asked, his voice quiet as the student stopped and gasped for breath, doubled up. Berg quickly straightened himself.

   "The point you made earlier today, sir. The use of Laerdom as an instrument as the will of Theus, rather than a tool of Legion."

   Kollsson waited. "Yes?" He laughed lightly. "I remember what I said, young Berg. I said it scarcely an hour ago. What did you wish to know? Was my lecture remiss?"

   Berg shook his head. "No, Master Kollsson. Of course not. You mentioned Du Mar and Wenger, their views on the subject, their writings. I was wondering, to which of their works were you referring? I have made a comprehensive study and I never"

   Kollsson held up a hand. "Neither you would. The particular passages in the vigil and the Book of the Prophets they concern themselves with are found in little-known commentaries penned by those theological giants. I can make those available to you next week, if you'd like to study them."

   Enlightenment dawned on Berg's face. "I see. But the primary thread of your argument, however"

   Kollsson smiled and shrugged. "All my own work, I'm afraid. Let us hope I can convince the Apostles' Council of the merits of Laerdom as we convinced the Merchant Marines, eh? As you and I both know, it doesn't require any kind of ridiculous belief in Living Runes or the Vesten traditions."

   Berg nodded vigorously. "Of course. I look forward to reading the commentaries next week, Master Kollsson." He stopped, his mouth open. "The chapel! They expect a sermon from me, and I have nothing ready!" He turned and shot across the quadrangle to the dormitories. "I'm sorry!" he shouted over his shoulder, his feet almost escaping him.

   As Kollsson turned back toward his door, a frown passed across his features, for just an instant. The boy would have to be watched.

   The study was quiet late at night, when the students had left for their dormitories. Boli Kollsson sat down by the fire with a sigh, placing his tall hat on the floor and running a hand through his hair. Taking a pinch of leaf from the jar which sat on the small table by his elbow, he filled his pipe with painstaking attention before turning to the smoke which drifted slowly up from the fire, from the battle-weary face that floated in the flames. The spirit drew itself out from the heat and smoke, a tall Vesten warrior of centuries past. The unimposing Vendel remained unconcerned at the sight, lighting a taper from the fire and concentrating on lighting the pipe. The smoky ghost waited at his side like a loyal dog.

   As Kollsson breathed the pipe-smoke in deeply, he smiled contentedly, enjoying the rewards of an honest day's labour. "Ragnar?" he said, his voice betraying no surprise at all at seeing a spectre of smoke and fire standing in his private rooms. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"

   The Vesten warrior shifted, smoke flowing through the rough outline of his form. "Know this, Vendel. Your time is at hand, and when you die, none shall mourn nor remember you. Oblivion is all that awaits you."

   Kollsson blew a smoke ring. "Indeed. Let me make something clear to you, Ragnar. I am a busy man, and I do not have time for this pathetic blustering. Very little remains to tie you to the world. If you do not help me, you shall be snuffed out. You understand me, spirit?" He leaned forward in his chair, smoke wreathing his face.

   The warrior looked pained, humiliated. "They talk." He spoke, and the words seemed dragged from him against his will. "Songs are sung. The Vesten will rise against you and your hated ilk, and all your tortures will be visited upon you a thousand-fold on that day."

   Kollsson glared darkly from his chair at the Vesten ghost. "They talk. What do they talk of? Speak."

   Ragnar snapped around, the smoke that gave him form tugged into place. Kollsson's eyes glowed in the firelight. "The Runes will be found. The End is approaching. The end of the Vendel." Ragnar spat the last word, his face an insubstantial mask of hate.

   The air began to crackle. A sudden wind whipped open a book of prayers on Kollsson's desk, then dragged it heavily to the floor. A worn and heavy-looking axe spun from the bracket it rested on into Kollsson's hands. "I tire of your threats, Ragnar. I took away your family, I took away your history, and with a word, I can take away all that is left of you. You know this. Now, tell me - what runes?"

   The ghostly Vesten shuddered, smoke pouring away from his fingers. "Olafsdottir. She seeks the Living Runes."

   Kollsson thought for a moment, the axe lying across his lap. "Impossible. Fables. Even if they were not, that Raider does not have the knowledge to perform such a task."

   The spirit glanced fearfully at the axe. "It is so. She speaks with many thousands of spirits. They work to aid her, to save our people. She has already found one."

   Kollsson's hand tightened on the hilt of the axe. "What?" His voice cut coldly through the hot air.

   "This is true." Ragnar gained some measure of defiance. "She will find them, and those who betrayed the Sons of the North will perish in the face of their power."

   "Tell me where to find the others, spirit. You were there, you must know." Smoke rose from the hilt of the axe under Kollsson's hand, joining with the rest in the study.

   Ragnar gazed back at Kollsson. "I will not tell you, Vendel. I am no traitor."

   Kollsson shrugged. "I know enough." Kollsson calmly turned to the small table, dipped a pen in the ink, and wrote a single symbol on a small piece of smooth paper. He spoke a word, and the world listened. The axe crumbled into dust and rot, and Ragnar's spirit bubbled and twisted as it faded away, shrieking constantly. Kollsson stood up and dusted himself off, making sure as much of the mess as possible ended up in the fireplace. He opened the door and called out into the corridor. "Carl?"

   A servant trotted obediently forward. "Councilman?"

   "It appears that one of the artefacts the Historical Commission retrieved for me was infested with some sort of rot. If you could get a maid to sweep up the study?"

   Carl nodded. "Certainly, sir. Anything else?"

   Kollsson tugged at his beard. "Yes. The Merchant Marines have been bothering me lately. I feel that the citizens of Kirk are not safe these days, with the Raiders terrorising shipping so close to home. A lot of money is being poured into the project with very little in the way of results. Remind me to speak on this at council."

   "Of course, sir."

   Carl bowed from the waist, and retreated down the halls in search of a maid. Returning to the study, Boli Kollsson opened a window and breathed in the cool night air of Kirk. Living Runes. A difficult business, indeed, he thought, but one which will spell the end of the Vesten, and bring him one step closer to his objectives. For that kind of work, he would need some of the more adept students. Thos who could be trusted with this sort of bloody work, or those who would not be missed if it turned out they couldn't be trusted.

   Somewhere, on the edge of his vision, he swore he could see his Grandfather.