The years leave a stain, whether it's the liver spots on Alin's skin or the coal soot layered over the cathedral's stones. Even with the sun shining through the low-hanging clouds like a pale dandelion gone to seed, even with the dearth of men due to conscription for the church's holy wars, even with all the villagers voices raised in a throaty disharmony, her skin itched and she wished she was home in her rough-thatched lean-to on the barrow plains. She shook her head, not ready to give up so easily. She needed a youth and had delayed too long already, trying to convince herself she could be self-sufficient, remembering the mentor who had coerced her apprenticeship. When she first learned the ways of harvesting the deathwalkers, she'd promised herself she wouldn't force servitude, but age warped a person. Here she lurked, waiting to harvest her own apprentice.
The cathedral's bone bells announced the end of services. Alin stretched the shawl over her shoulders, retreating into an alley's darkness, her fingers casting id -- not her own, but that of the harvested deathwalkers -- to weave a glamour ball into reality. Villagers spewed from the maw of the great cathedral's doors. Their eyes flickered and skipped past Alin's alley.
The boy, Tavian, straggled with a handful of other young children. Alin nodded at the way the others abandoned him, leaving a separation between them. She knew his father had been drafted and Tavian had received no notice of life nor death since the spring thaw took his father. But their real fear came from what the summer rotting months had brought his mother. The Black Death. Orphaned, the church would see he was assigned guardians. But the losses would fester.
She prayed the crust over his emotional wounds would be weak, would allow her to poke through, would not require coercing. She played the glamour ball into the square. Only Tavian would see it.
"Yes, my lifewalker. Yes, take hold of destiny." The others slipped past him. His guardians neglected to watch for him. She drew the glamour ball towards herself, and the boy followed.
His hands trapped the ball. He squeaked. "Where did you come from?"
"How do you know my name?" He twitched as if trying to retreat, but the glamour had him.
She promised herself using power to coerce him to stay wasn't breaking her promises. She would leave him to make the decision, but she needed the id's power to get this chance to make him the offer. "Not important. Your mother is dead. Your father is dead."
The boy gulped.
Alin used more of the id and wove a miniature image of the battlefield, men strewn across it like rocks on a moor. Tavian's father lay on his back with his hands clutching at the spear wound. The illusion crowded out the reality of the alley. The boy loomed over the body. "Your life is dead. But it doesn't have to be."
She blinked. She needed strength. He wasn't refusing this opportunity, she hadn't even made her offer, but rather he denied the truth. A finality he'd already accepted.
"The soul dies, but it leaves behind the id."
"You... you're a souleater."
"Not the words I like to use. We do not eat souls, but release the essence. Otherwise, your folks will wander the earth as deathwalkers, cursed with an id unwilling to leave, haunted by the echoes their senses leaves them, jealous of the life you live. They will shamble beyond the villages walls, drawn by the cathedral's life force."
"My parents --"
"Only their id remains."
"I want to see them."
He wouldn't enjoy discovering their deathwalking shell. "I can take you to them, but first, you must agree to owe me service."
He would make a strong apprentice. His life id was strong. She was using his emotions, but she hadn't coerced his response with magic. She tried to convince herself that was what mattered. Her hand was warm on his back and fed on his id as she led him toward the barrows.