I spent the remainder of the afternoon in the cellars, learning their layout. I planned to meet the spirit there, if I was lucky, once night had fallen. The lack of any exceptional feeling, of anything that pulled at my mystical senses frustrated and disturbed me; given the stories I’d heard from those to whom I’d talked, I’d expected to feel some residual echo of anger or predation left by the spirit’s activity, but I found none. Finally, as I’d been instructed, I returned to the great hall for dinner, where the benches had set and covered with fine-smelling food: venison and pastries, delicate fruits brought from Ilessa after being imported from across the Avar, beer and wine in quantity.
I attempted to take an inconspicuous seat at one of the lower tables, but as soon as I’d moved both legs over the bench, before my ass had even touched wood, I felt a hand on my shoulder. From the corner of my eye I spied the thin alabaster fingers that could only have belonged to Vesonna. She leaned in close and, almost whispering in my ear, her breath hot on my neck, said, “My father requests that you sit with him at the head table, my lord thaumaturge.”
“Iaren,” I said, reflexively, mentally kicking myself for not saying something more charming or eloquent. She merely smiled as she led me up the raised steps where Aryden’s chair of judgment had sat earlier, now occupied by a long table, Aryden at the center flanked by his retainers on either side.
Indorma, Barro, Edanu and Eldis—to Aryden’s right, on both sides of the table—I recognized, which left most of the remaining people a mystery. As she sat across from me, Vesonna pointed to each, giving them their names as she did. To her left sat Endan, the doctor, spectacles hanging at the end of an aquiline nose, his hair pulled tight into a short ponytail and tied at the nape of his neck, beard finely trimmed deep gray hairs, almost the color of steel. His shoulders were narrow set, judging by how tall he sat in the chair, he must have been a man of lanky height. He smiled and nodded to me as Vesonna said his name.
Next to him, a large man with a ragged beard that splayed in all directions, his eyes squinted and evaluating me to determine how much resistance I might give if he decided to take me down. But the slowness of his breathing, the relaxed way in which he held himself as he eyed me, told me that this was no common ruffian or thug; this was a man who knew the ways of violence, lived close enough to them to call them friend, companion. The kind of man who accepted death as simply the final of a series of inconveniences that test one’s mettle and honor. A soldier. I knew before Vesonna said his name that this was Gamven, the sergeant of arms. As he grunted in acknowledgment of me, I made a note to myself to stay on his good side.
On my right, across from Vesonna, a noblewoman dressed in practical—almost aggressive—finery.I could see that tall riding boots stretch to the middle of her thighs, where they met with satin breaches of a deep maroon, almost the color of blood. A rapier, blade thinner than even my Altaenin sword, hung from her hip, its long point casually extending behind her seat. She something between a feminine bodice and a hunter’s jerkin, flared at the waist with fabric that, while seated, fell behind her sword and its belt. Her shirt was a fine brown, embroidered at the cuffs and neck, open as a man’s shirt might be down to where it met the bodice, accentuating her cleavage. Her hair had been pulled high and tight on the back of her skull but let to fall where it may from the knot that secured it to her head. She seemed slightly older than me, with an attractive face of sharp and predatory lines. On the strap of her bodice over her left shoulder a pin had been affixed, the crest of House amn Esto, a hawk over a maroon and brown divide. “The Lady Vitella amn Esto,” I heard Vesonna say. He turned and smiled perfunctorily, a flourish of the hand taking the place of any bow. I bowed shallowly to her.
On the other side of her a weasel-faced man with a smell of stables on him that reached even beyond Lady Vitella’s perfume. His clothes had the cut and fabric of a well-to-do retainer but had collected spots of mud; I thought I saw a short piece of stray hay in his hair. Varrel, the master of horse, I supposed. On the heels of the thought, Vesonna confirmed this. Varrel looked to me, meeting my eyes for a brief moment, and then turned away quickly, perhaps an adherent to that old superstition of looking a practitioner in the eyes.
To my left, an older man, cleanshorn and also bespectacled, a leather journal, quill and inkpot on the table beside his plate. His gray hair had been cut just over his ears, almost a bowl shape in the style of the monastics. Age had wrinkled his skin and given him liver spots, but his eyes shone with bright intellect, and he eagerly soaked in all that occurred around him. I heard Vesonna’s voice name him “Naemur,” she further explained that he was a scholar from the University of Ilessa collecting the history of Vaina (no doubt under Lord Aryden’s patronage). He muttered a, “Greetings, my lord.”
Across from the scholar, a somber man in avar-tones: foliage greens and the browns of trees and dirt. In the wilds, he would’ve been hard to see indeed. His head and face were covered in short, dark stubble, as if he’d shaved to the skin two days back. His hands bore scars and callouses, a badge of hard work and rough tasks, and, while I could only see him in profile, for he seemed to remain intentionally ignorant of the goings-on at the table as he shoveled food into his mouth, I noted three silver traces of old scars running from scalp to chin, a reminder of the claws of some fell beast. Vesonna told me that this was Savlo, the master of hunt, but I’d already made the connection. Unlike the others, Savlo made no move that indicated his awareness of my arrival. I took no offense.
Finally, she pointed to me and said, “The lord Iaren amn Ennoc, thaumaturge.”
I pulled up my chair and took my seat amidst them. For a time, we exchanged awkward glances; none but the amn Vainas were willing to look at me for longer than the briefest instance. I felt no need to speak if they didn’t, so I began to eat.
“How goes it,” Aryden asked.
“Nothing to speak of yet. Once it’s dark I’ll get to the real work and I’ll have something to share.” I took a draught of the wine at the table, a vermillion color with the slightest bite to it, just enough to be pleasant.
“How was your journey here, my lord?” asked the doctor.
“Bandits on the road last night, but otherwise pleasant.”
“Heh,” Gamven said, somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “Not any more. Found them this afternoon and strung them up.”
“Didn’t hide very well,” Savlo added, still looking to his plate. “Nor fight well.”
“I’m sure everyone will sleep easier at that,” I managed, only letting part of the sarcasm bleed through.
“I’m surprised you didn’t take them yourself, lord thaumaturge,” Gamven said.
“Not my job.”
“A man who carries a sword should be ready to use it,” Edanu followed.
“A man who rushes to use his sword is a fool and a coward.” A quote from the master strategist Ethveng eld Avingdon’s A Course of Arms. I’d read it only because there’d been a time when I could find nothing else, but I’d found it time well invested.
“How many duels did eld Avingdon fight?” the Meradhvor emissary challenged.
“How many did he win before they happened?” I answered.
“Well said,” Edanu smiled. “Best to win a fight before the other side knows you’re fighting.”
Vesonna must have noticed that I had clenched my fists around my tableware, for she changed the subject. “Is there any news from Ilessa, my lord?”
I turned to respond to her and felt her father’s gaze upon me. “My lady, I do not exactly frequent the circles of society whose news would interest you.”
“No?” she asked, eyebrows arched.
“Let us be the judge of that, my lord,” Aryden said, between bites of some sort of bird.
“As you wish. There is unrest in the Dissent, as the Council of Ten continues to make pronouncements that Dissenters are welcome in the city, but the nobility and the merchants courting the support of the Temple ensure that all arriving Dissenters—that they’re aware of, at least, and who have no power of their own—end up in the Dissent, and then make sure that the Dissent remains dangerous, squalid and contained.
“The Coin Lords continue their dance with one another. Blind-eye Berem’s people and Selbo the Youth’s are fighting over the Tangle again, with no indication that the city watch will stop them any time soon.
“The rumor is that the gray artificers themselves are hiring shadowmen to steal from the Artificer Houses more boldly than ever. So far, any retaliation from the Houses has been subtle indeed, for the Council of Twelve has made none of the usual denunciations and threats against them.”
“Because we are honoring our agreements with the Council to take no adverse action against any other person in the City,” Edanu interjected.
“So you say,” I said, not turning to respond to him directly.
We passed the time in continued conversation, the lot of us, some pleasant, some contentious, and more of the latter as the wine ran lower. I had trouble disguising my disdain for the House Meradhvor emissary and, for his part, he seemed to be taking great pleasure in provoking me. Many interventions and changes of subject became necessary.
Finally, night had fallen, and the time for my work had come. I made a quick trip to my room to recover the items I would need from my chest before I returned to the cellars, where Lord Aryden, the doctor Endan, Barro, Eldis and Naemur joined me.
We settled on a corner of the cellars nearby racks of wine butts and beer barrels. Those who’d accompanied me helped to clear the crates and sacks of grain to make room for my efforts. They changed the candles on the wall for new ones, long tapers that would last through the late hours.
The area cleared, I took my girdle, putting a metal spike through a small loop on one end and wedging that into a crevice between two flagstones in the floor, counted out to the fourth not from the end. Pulling the rope taut, holding a piece of chalk and the girdle’s knot in my right hand so that the two matched in location, I began to draw the first line of my circle, the soft point of the chalk leaving a dusty arc behind me.
“This is to summon the spirit?” Naemur asked, propping his open journal against the crook of his elbow and holding his open inkpot in the hand above it, ready quill in his right hand to take notes.
“No. If I want to summon a specific spirit, I must know its name. If I want to summon any representative of a class of spirits who will come, I must make preparations specific to the type of spirit. Neither would be helpful at present. Besides, I’ve not yet determined that the problem is a spirit. This is a circle of protection,” I told him, now moving to drawing a second, concentric circle within the first.
“It’s not very large.” This from Endan. “How will we all fit?”
“You won’t. You’re not invited. This is something I do alone.”
Aryden frowned, hands on hips. “How will we know that what you tell us happened actually happened?”
“You’ll have to trust me, my lord.”
He guffawed. Not the kind of response I’d hoped for this early in our relationship. I attempted reason, “It it is a spirit, any attempt to banish it will require great precision and concentration. If I have to protect all of you—any of you—as well, it will be that much more difficult. Besides, all you need to know is whether or not I’m successful. If I am, whatever your problem is will go away and that’ll be all the proof you need. If not, then my work continues.”
Now, I had lain the girdle as close to the inner circle as possible following the curve. On the side of the line in the space between the two rings, I made little ticks to match the locations of the knots. At each tick mark, I drew sigils, collections of straight and curved lines forming strange geometries somehow aligned with the occult qualities of Creation. I could feel the eyes of the men studying me as I worked, could feel the Veil growing thinner as the night drew darker.
The Veil is a boundary between our world and other parts of Creation: the Otherworld into which—according to legend—the Old Aenyr had retreated, the dwelling places of spirits not manifested in our world, the Sea of Dreams, and many other places described in the writings of the wise. The change in the Veil that occurs at night is not a drastic one, or spirits would overrun the Avar every time the suns withdrew and darkness fell upon us. It is a subtle change, but enough that some spirits who otherwise would be powerless to cross the Veil become able to at its thinning. This fact also indicated the probability that, despite my skepticism, the apparition in the castle was a spirit, one only able to cross that mystic threshold as it grew thin.
The group pressed in to get a closer look at my work. “Step back!” I barked at them, my patience thin. “If you disturb the circle it will hold no power. If I die down here because of your foolishness, I can assure you there will be a haunting.”
They stepped back as a group; it is a common wisdom not to anger a practitioner of the Art, and one with which they seemed to be familiar. “Now go,” I continued. “And do not enter no matter what you hear. If I do not return by morning, then you may come for me. Not before.”
Grumbling, they left. I did not care what they said, so long as they did what I asked. Even with my patience lost, I knew to choose my battles carefully.
Once they were gone, I stepped into my circle, careful not to disturb it. I took the binding disc in my hand and ran my thumb over it as I incanted words of power to activate the circle. The chalk lines began to radiate a soft blue light, and I knew that I’d completed the working. From there, I waited, and hoped. Without knowing the nature of the phenomenon castle amn Vaina had experienced, I could prepare no theurgic working for assistance beyond the circle of protection. No sorcerous working would be of use at present, and even had I thought of some effect of benefit that I might achieve, I had no desire to fatigue myself in the working of extraneous sorceries before any confrontation even took place. If I thought hard enough, I might remember or create some thaumaturgic effect to increase the likelihood that the spirit appeared, but I’d still have to draw the power for the working either from within—which again could leave me unnecessarily fatigued—or from without, which would take my concentration away from my present circumstances.
No one tells you how much of the thaumaturge’s practice is in the waiting; neither my master when I’d started as an apprentice nor my professors at the university. They let you find this out on your own, when it’s too late for the prospect to turn you away from the path. Waiting for alignments of the moons and stars to power your theurgic working, waiting to recover from the fatigue of overzealous or reckless thaumaturgy, waiting for reagents and ingredients to arrive for your alchemic projects, waiting on spirits with whom you would conduct business.
As I said, my patience had already been worn thin by the gawkers gathered to watch my preparations, and I’d not had much to begin with. My foot tapped softly while the candles that illuminated the artificial cavern burned slowly lower, their smoke adding to the coating of soot and char that covered the vaulted ceiling.
Of a sudden, the candle-flames glowed green instead of their usual orange-yellow, bathing the room in a sickly pallor. Into that uncanny radiance moved—or I should say flowed—a creature of shadow and unlight. Its form remained amorphous but its presence undeniable. I could feel the thing as much as see it, every hair standing on end and my stomach churned.
The thing’s malevolence caused this effect, not its mere presence. Creation is full of benevolent, benign and morally neutral spirits, and I’d become accustomed enough to them to no longer have such a visceral response to their mere presence. We are, after all, spirits ourselves, only clothed in flesh. But those spirits who have become corrupted or whose only aim is to do evil carry about them a palpable aura of dread. A convenient warning of this spirit’s intent, really.
Those who have the Gift have an ability to sense beyond our immediate surroundings into the deeper nature of things. We call this the Sight, but it goes well beyond the visual senses. The Sight pierces to the essence of existence, revealing relationships, correspondences and ontologies through intuition and metaphor, but the mortal mind usually interprets these revelations through the mundane senses. Perceiving these hidden layers of Creation carries with it a danger, for it exposes the mind to things it may not be capable of comprehending. Outside of exaggerated legend, I’d never heard of someone losing their mind in a single use of the Sight, but the effects of opening the mind to things terrible and strange (though the Sight sometimes reveals great beauty as well, to be sure) is known to take its toll. Yet another reason we practitioners are thought of as “eclectic” if the thinker is generous; “madmen” if not.
Nevertheless, I opened myself up to the Sight in hopes that my perceptions of this fell specter would give me more than a sense of its ill intent. The shadow resolved into a form radiating green corpselight just as the candles had done, were doing. It had the form of a rotting cadaver, skin sloughing from bone, entrails dragging the ground, nose and eyes decayed into cavernous recesses over a deathly rictus. Its fingernails had grown into claws not unlike a raptor’s, its teeth sharp as a wolf’s.
As spirits do, it sensed my use of the Sight, for the very act created a new ethereal bond between observer and observed. Somehow this enraged the phantom; it attempted to rake me with its claws but the points rebounded from the invisible wall of my protective circle.
I knew its nature now—the unquiet spirit of a deceased mortal. The accounts I’d received from all involved with whom I’d spoken indicated that it had been appearing for weeks. The lore of the wise, and the teaching of the Temple, tells us that the mortal spirit lingers near the Avar for mere days before departing across a barrier beyond the Veil none living have crossed—if all goes as it should. But there are times when a soul does not move on, refuses to return to the Path.
Such an uneasy spirit must have an anchor in the material world to prevent it from drifting onward, wherever that may be. Most often, the body of the deceased provides that anchor. For this reason, and the fear of having one’s body used in necromantic practice, the Temple directs us to burn our dead. But a corpse does not always provide the anchor for a spirit, other objects may do so as well, if the life or death of the restless soul forms a strong enough bond with the thing. The classic tale of this, used in Temple sermons and the works of moralists alike, is the greedy person, so attached to her material wealth that she cannot leave it even when it has lost all usefulness to her. But the victims of violent or tragic ends sometimes become anchored to a place or item involved in their untimely ends. There are no hard and fast rules about what can and cannot be an anchor for such a spirit.
My normal senses returned to me as I let go the Sight, leaving me in the darkened cellar with its ghostly coruscations, the specter, again a mass of ambiguous shadow and light. I returned the binding disc to the pouch on my belt and began an incantation of banishment. Without finding and destroying the spirit’s anchor, I had no chance of permanently sending it on, but I could push it back through the Veil for a time.
As if the thing understood my intent (and I could not truthfully say that I knew that it did not), it slashed ever more desperately against my barrier. Though I had faith in my defensive theurgy, I could feel a subtle tremor in my hands as I moved them through various signs in assisting my focus for the thaumaturgic working, sweat on my brow as a part of my mind wondered how long the wall would hold against such an onslaught.
Words spilled from my mouth, rhythmic and melodious. I am no gifted singer, but I incant with authority. Or so my professors told me, perhaps intending more to indicate the former quality than the latter. I had no time to think on that, lest my wandering mind spoil the working before I could complete it, giving over the power I’d drawn to some random and chaotic result, or at least forcing me to start anew. Minutes passed as I drew my mind through the thoughts, images and emotions that shaped the gathered power into a structure that would produce the object of my will. Sorceries may be achieved in an instant, but every thaumaturgic working takes time, minor ones a few seconds at least, more powerful ones like this much longer.
When I’d drawn the working to the threshold of its realization, just before releasing the raw potential of the channeled power into a discrete change in reality in accordance with the form and structure I’d created, I swept the edge of my toe over the inner circle of my theurgic diagram, dispelling its power and effect.
In the midst of dashing itself against that barrier yet again, and finding it gone, the specter raised his clawed and rotting hand, bringing it down just as I released the working of banishment to take effect. I felt the creature’s talon brush across my chest just before it jerked backward suddenly, as if yanked by some unseen hand back across the Veil. Something clattered to the floor as the candlelight returned to its mundane hue and tone; I clutched my hand to my chest in expectation of finding my vest wet and sticky, a copperish smell in the air. But I did not feel blood seeping into my clothes, and as the fallen object glinted in the light, I identified it. A button. I breathed deep, thankful I had not been injured by the spirit’s manifested weapons but also shaken that I’d come so close to such an awful wound.
A scream, high-pitched and blood-curdling, arose from somewhere high above me, piercing even the layers of stone between its origin and my ears. This forced me to collect myself just in time to startle as the nearby door flew open and bashed the wall, the Lord Aryden entering with a flurry of curses.
“What the hell just happened?” he asked, the words almost running together in his excitement.
“The scream?” I asked, trying to collect my wits all over again.
“My wife, of course. I’ve send Barro and the doctor to check on her. Tell me what happened, damn you!”
“You have a spirit.”
“I told you that!”
“Calm yourself; I’ve banished it.”
He did not take my command well, bellowing, “Then why do you say I have a spirit and not that I had one?”
“It will return, probably tomorrow night.”
“What good was banishing it, then?”
“It’s not here now.”
“Cold comfort that,” he said, but he did visibly relax. “Do you have a more permanent solution, or has this all been in vain?”
“I think so. The spirit appears to be the specter of an unquiet soul. Something has anchored it to this place or it would have moved on. If we find the anchor and destroy it, I can banish the spirit for good.”
“How do we find this ‘anchor’ as you say?”
“We find the identity of the deceased and use what we can determine about their life and death to search for the anchor.”
“How do we do that?”
“I investigate. That is what I’m best at.”
“And in the meantime?”
“I’ll put up wards in the castle to make it more difficult for the spirit to manifest.”
“And what about Aevala? You heard how she continues to suffer.”
“I don’t know. The quicker we move, the better.”
“Then we begin tonight.”
“I need to rest, my lord. I’ll be no good to you without a clear head.”
“Fine. We start first thing in the morning. How, exactly, do we begin?”
“I need to know every person who died in the weeks preceding the spirit’s appearance. We’ll go from there.”
“I’ll get the constable here in the morning. Between he and Barro, we should have all of the records.”