The suns had only begun their long summer descent into darkness as I returned to the castle. I replayed conversations in my head, pouring over them again in search of any slip that might reveal some further lead, but finding little onto which I could grasp. Lost in thought, I once again found myself before the mighty gates with the red “X” upon them. The Crimson Close.
The sounds of the town, its people rushing to finish final errands before businesses closed, merchants went home to their families and drunkards visited their favorite taverns, were far enough removed from this place that they seemed whispers at the edge of hearing.
Slowly, I approached the door. The solid wood, perhaps half a foot thick, barred and locked, provided ample protection from whatever dwelt within that desolated place, but still I came close only with trepidation and tentativeness. I pressed my ear against the door to listen, though I knew not what to expect. I knew the course of the Red Maw only through reading, having been fortunate enough never to have seen it first-hand, so the best I could do was to guess at the state of those who’d been quarantined those weeks back. Dead to the world, or as good as, but I’d come here to investigate what seemed to be the ghost of one recently deceased—I understood full well that a range of possibilities existed between the states “dead” and “alive.”
Whether any audible emanations lacked sufficient force to reach me or none existed at all, no cognizable sound made its way to my ears. Disappointed and relieved, I pulled away from the heavy oak. As I turned, a person came into view, nearly within arm’s reach of me, and I startled, half pulling my sword from its scabbard before I realized the stealthy creature for a young girl, not yet a woman, startling herself at my sudden aggression. Embarrassed, I slid the blade back to its resting place and dropped onto my haunches, leaning against my staff so that my eyes came closer to her level. With my right hand, I took off my cap, holding it to my chest, filling my hands in hopes that this would give her some assurance.
“Is your mommy in there, too?” she asked, eyes watery. She swallowed hard, fighting the tears back.
“No child. My mommy has been gone for some time.”
“Do you still miss her?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t remember much about my mother, if I was honest. I’d left the household so long ago and never seen her again, had only letters in which she reminded me of her love, which by that point had become such an abstraction that it failed to attach to any true emotion. “Every day,” I lied. “But I know she watches over me, and I’m sure yours watches over you.” I didn’t know anything of the sort. I’d read theologies and philosophies, the ravings of madmen and the dreams of mystics, the Book of the Tree and commentaries upon it—all of it speculation, or at least a result of experience that could never be proved to another soul. My experience in the Art had given me some insights to things that might befall a soul after death, but only in some temporal sense; the eternal and divine remain as obscured to me as anyone else.
But the girl nodded some understanding or agreement and shook with one of those hiccups that seems to only come in the midst of a bout of crying, that combination of snort and gulp that moves the whole body. I took my leave of her before she required me to lie again, returning to the proper path toward Vaina keep.
At that gatehouse in the inner wall leading to the courtyard before Aryden’s keep, a third guardsman reclined against the wall between the two gates, armed only with a sword, and smoking a cigarillo, which he threw to the ground and snuffed with the heel of his boot as I approached, pulling himself from his waiting spot and making straight for me. I met him just at the first gate, under the edge of the gatehouse arch.
“My lord, my…lord expects you. If you will proceed to the main hall, I will inform him of your arrival and he’ll meet you there.”
“Fine,” I told him. He turned around and made quick distance from me, him moving almost at a job and me meandering with no particular urgency.
As the man said, the lord—joined by Barro, Eldis, Gamven, Endan and Edanu—processed in from a door at the rear of the hall as I made my way toward the short steps to the raised dais. By the time I arrived, Aryden had taken the seat of judgment and the others had arranged themselves below him, all facing me.
“We proceed by council, now, do we?” I asked.
Aryden gave a small, short laugh to that, the kind whose earnestness is impossible to discern. “What news have you, lord thaumaturge?”
“Unfortunately, not much, my lord. I’ve spoken to the sorceress, Falla—”
“The witch, you mean,” Barro interjected.
“The sorceress,” I repeated. “I do not believe that she has any involvement in the matter.”
“None?” Aryden questioned. “How do you know?”
“I questioned her, and I also sensed no connection between her Art and the spirit.”
Gamven harrumphed, turning to his patron. “My lord, let me apprehend the witch and put her to the question proper. Then we’ll have some answers.”
“She is a practitioner, Master Gamven, and by my judgment a relatively skilled one. You think you could break such a one possessed of such will and discipline?” A conceit, to be sure. I’d seen enough of the Avar to know that everyone put to the question breaks eventually. But maybe they didn’t know that. “It’s true that she has little love for those in power here, but I don’t believe that she has turned her practice to the exercise of such ill will. You bring her here and set blades and hammers to her and I assure you she’ll bring down a curse upon you. Were there some benefit to be had, perhaps it would be worth the risk. But, as I’ve said, my suspicions of her have been allayed. Unless we find some undeniable evidence pointing to her, there are other avenues to investigate first.”
“Protecting a fellow practitioner are we?” Edanu stated.
“Protecting an innocent person, not that you could understand the difference,” I returned.
“Enough,” Aryden said. “What else.”
“I spoke also with the girl Nilma and the artist Ovaelo. Neither had much of use to me to share.”
“So you’ve wasted a day?”
“Time spent eliminating possibilities is as valuable as that that produces evidence.”
“I’m not so sure of that, master thaumaturge. What is your plan now?”
“Immediately? I’ll put up some wards in hopes of preventing the spirit from manifesting while I continue the investigation. After that, I’ll sleep. In the morning, I’m going into Crimson Close.”
“Are you insane?” the doctor Endan asked, unable to stop himself. “That’s a death sentence!”
“Only if the Maw remains active within the Close, and even then only if one of the…victims…bites me or manages to draw blood.”
“But why? What good will it do?” Endan continued to press.
“Perhaps master thaumaturge wishes to demonstrate his bravery—or foolishness—after such an unproductive day,” Edanu added.
“As I told you last night, my lord, the spirit is almost certainly the restless ghost of one recently deceased. This morning, when I inquired about recent deaths, your people informed me of two events that would have resulted in bodies that did not receive proper rites. The first was the latest wave of the Red Maw to sweep through the town. The second is your missing timberworker, probably killed in the forest by some beast. There’s the missing boy, Orren, as well, but everyone I questioned today seems to think that he’s left the town for Ilessa, so I’ll look to the other likelihoods first. It only makes sense that I check the victims of the Maw first—it is a matter of many possibilities against one with the missing laborer. I’ll play those odds and hope that it expedites a result.”
Aryden leaned forward in his chair. “What will you do in the Close?”
“If there are any who have not finally fallen to the plague, I’ll dispatch them. Then, we’ll burn the bodies as should’ve been done and give them their last rites.”
“You are not qualified to perform the rights,” Barro objected. “You haven’t been ordained by the Temple.”
“You’re right. That’s why you’re coming with me.”
“What?” The shock of the idea drained all color from the priest’s face; he stepped away from me and held his hands up in surrender, as if I’d just told him I intended to run him through myself. He looked pleadingly to Lord Aryden.
Amn Vaina frowned for a moment, running through the possibilities. “I don’t see another choice, Barro. You’re going.”
“Then I’ll go as well,” said Gamven, “I’ll bring two of my men. Not enough that you’ll miss them if we don’t come back, but enough to give us some chance of coming back at all.”
I nodded to him in thanks. Sternly and subtly, he nodded back, a thin smile forming at the corners of his mouth. I realized the man appreciated the opportunity to see some real action, something he’d perhaps been deprived of for some time.
“Endan,” Aryden said after a pause. “You’ll go, too.”
“My lord?” the doctor suddenly said, both question and protest.
“You’re not doing my wife any good here. Perhaps there’s something you can do inside the Close along with the lord thaumaturge.”
“What could I possibly do inside that place?” he asked.
“You can keep me company,” I said with a sardonic grin. “And you can help burn the bodies.”
“It’s settled then,” Lord amn Vaina concluded, his tone conveying the finality of both his decisions and the conversation.
“Until the morning, then,” I said, making a slight bow and doffing my cap briefly before setting to the business of creating the wards.
This took several hours as I selected the various locations for the warding seals, drew them intricately in chalk on the stone walls in places where I hoped they were unlikely to be disturbed, and channeled power into them while performing the workings to structure the invisible barriers against spirits that the wards represented. Exhausted by the conclusion of the work, both by the workings themselves and the tediousness of preparing the seals, I slipped quietly to my room and into the bed.