The amber flames of burning candles danced against the walls of Aryden’s hall, filling the air with the scent of honey more than smoke, throwing back the darkness into gently swaying shadows that spoke of mirth more than fear, a chiaroscuro of the fashioned levity tenuously held by the gathered courtiers stood vigil to determine the success of the day’s adventures in Crimson Close.
Wine flowed freely, the lord’s servants skillfully remaining out of notice until someone’s cup had been drained to the dregs, at which point, like a fleeting spirit, a comely girl or young man quickly stepped into the light and filled a cup before disappearing once again, silent guardians of the room’s mood, protectors of our collective nerves.
Aryden lazed in the ornate wooden chair from whence he judged the quick and the dead, raised above the rest of us in attendance, his feet stretched out before him as he struggled to make himself comfortable with his back wedged in the chair’s corner. Ruling is harder—and less comfortable—than most would think, it seems. He swirled a goblet of wine in his hand, for show more than for use. I suppose he wanted a clear head as he waited for answers.
I would have—should have—joined him, but the day’s events weighed on me and I felt a need to drown them somewhat under the weight of drink. Accordingly, I endeavored to walk the line between mere tipsiness and complete soddenness. I didn’t expect to be of much immediate use if the haunting spirit had not been laid by the day’s endeavors and chose to rear its ugly head again, but neither did I want to prove an incapable fool should the need to take action arise. As with most things it touches, drink is often unpredictable for its effects on the practitioner’s Art. For some, it blurs the mind and prevents the formation of any working, but for others, it quiets the fears so that focus on a working becomes pure and undistracted. To make matters worse, for most of us, there was little predicting whether any particular session of drinking would have beneficial or deleterious effects upon one’s ability. I’d heard of more than one practitioner finding himself so drawn to alcohol or some drug or another that he could only work the Art when under its influence.
On the floor below Aryden’s throne, in a votive semi-circle, I stood with the other courtiers present: Endan, the Historian, Vitella amn Esto, Edanu of House Meradhvor, Barro and Indorma.
“Of what shall we talk to pass the time this evening?” asked Vitella, standing perfectly poised and looking to Aryden in his chair.
The lord only shrugged in response, his mind obviously elsewhere.
“While we have a master thaumaturge at our disposal, perhaps we should discuss the Art and all things arcane,” Barro suggested. “I myself have always wandered what the phenomenon I understand is called the ‘Practitioner’s Dialectic’ feels like.”
All eyes turned to me with much nodding of heads and utterances of enthusiastic assent.
The investigations, I charge for; the entertaining, I do for free.
“It doesn’t feel like anything,” I began. “You, by which I mean the practitioner, feel something because of it, and in that subtlety lies the danger of the Dialectic. Perhaps a particular set of circumstances leads me to believe that I am capital “R” Right when I use a working, or perhaps its in my nature to feel that I am usually right and others are wrong. If I do not watch myself, allow this set of feelings to continue when I use the Art, then I will eventually begin to feel that I am always Right when using the Art, no matter the circumstances. Conversely, I will begin to feel that I should always use the Art when I am Right.” I paused to think about those things I’d felt when I set the victim of the Maw alight. Victim was the right word; he’d not chosen what he became, or what he did after. And yet, it had proved so easy to think of him as an intentional enemy.
“There are stories of many a practitioner being led down the wrong path by the Dialectic,” the Historian interjected.
“You again miss the subtlety of the matter,” I corrected. “The Dialectic leads no one, it only amplifies existing aspects of their character by the choices they make.”
“So it is no different from the morality of any action?” asked Indorma. “If I choose to do an evil thing, that makes it easier to do another evil thing in the future, harder to do the right thing.”
“Yes and no,” I responded. She cocked her head to the side. Barro scratched at his chin. Vitella kept her eyes fixed upon me as she sipped from her cup, her eyes peeking over the rim as she raised it to her lips. There would be no evading further explanation. “We are all shaped by our experiences, it is true. And those experiences are in turn shaped, at least in part, by our choices. When a person draws the Power for a working through himself, he touches the very rawness of all experience, of Creation itself. Thus, the experience is heightened in its impression upon the character, but it is the very mind of the practitioner that shapes this impression, so the effect must, of course, be limited by the character of the practitioner himself. Therefore, it can only accentuate traits that already exist; we mortals, practitioners of the Art or not, can only create from what we have. None of us creates from nothing.
This is why it is so easy to caricature practitioners, for by pursuing the Art they often become caricatures of themselves, with certain aspects of their personalities inflated beyond all proper proportion to the others. It is, perhaps, part of why the Aenyr named themselves the way that they did. The Wanderer, the Poet, the Queen of Air and Shadow. It wasn’t simply that they were protecting their true names from one another, but that they had become exemplars of the aspects that lent them their epithets. Of course, none of them now can be coaxed to speak of that distant past, so this is theory and conjecture, good for the universities, but not much use besides.”
“Except for scintillating conversation, my dear,” Vitella added.
Barro stepped forward slightly, a physical indication of his investment in the conversation, “Do you mean to say that the righteous person could be made more righteous by the pursuit of the Art?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then why are there so many tales of fallen and wayward practitioners, so few of entirely virtuous ones? Why do the Conclave and the Temple need the Vigil to watch over your kind, to protect from them?”
“How many truly righteous people have you known? Most of us are a mix of good and evil, and oftener than not more evil than good, I think, more oft driven by our baser desires and our own selfishness than our love for others or any high ideals of virtue and altruism. Shouldn’t you believe that more than most?”
“My faith causes me to believe that the mercy of The One may lift us above such a sad state, that we may by degrees become Good.”
“I’d like to agree with you in principle, but experience holds me back. Besides, the Art is a difficult and demanding study, a harsh mistress. Where would the practitioner find the time to train herself in righteousness in addition to maintaining sufficient skill in the Art to wield it safely and efficaciously? I think, rather, that The One’s mercy for practitioners is that there is some good in us at all, that the Dialectic is likelier to make us eccentric than evil if we are merely playing the odds. It is a lack of self-control or a conscious choice to pursue an evil path that allows the Dialectic to push a practitioner down the left-hand path, and those in such a position to begin with were likely to choose the darkness anyway, were they not?”
“Are you saying, then, that the Dialectic only makes evil men who use the Art more evil?” Barro asked with rhetorical incredulity.
“It makes for good stories,” the Historian chuckled, his white beard become pink around his mouth with careless sloshing of his wine.
“I thought you cared for Truth more than stories,” Edanu retorted.
“And what type of truth do you mean?” the Historian returned. “There is the truth of what happened, and the truth of what those events mean. Neither is typically easy to discern, so the historian does the best that he may with what he has.”
“So the conversation turns to Truth,” Vitella said with a smile. “Very good.”
“Truth?” Aryden muttered. “What do any of you know of Truth?”
“A great deal, I’d like to think,” Barro answered. “Though I must admit that what Truth I know is in Ashaera’s revelations and not from my own observations or deductions. We mortals are poor discerners of Truth, as it were.”
“You call my profession into question, do you?” The Historian barked.
“And mine?” Indorma added.
“You, Naemur, just confessed yourself that the Truth is difficult to discern,” Edanu said, smiling.
“Difficult, but not impossible! The human mind is a powerful tool, and one granted us by the One Themselves. How, therefore, could we fully deny the power of the mind to discern Truth?” the Historian replied, having composed himself and prepared for proper debate.
“It is not the mind that is the problem,” Indorma began, “but the perception. For, in our hubris, we see what we want to see and ignore the rest, and the mind cannot properly go about its work if the information it holds in view is distorted and illusory. Do you not find this to be true, lord thaumaturge?”
I had hoped the shift in the conversation would have relieved me from a responsibility to participate in it. Very consciously I’d rejected the life of the courtier, with its dissembling and conceits and performance. I’d not come to Vaina to be dragged into it. Unfortunately, we rarely get just what we want.
“I’ll agree that seeing a thing properly is a difficult thing,” I said. “Even worse when a person, who actively hides from you what they do not want you to see, plays at being something they want others to believe they are instead of being themselves.”
“Ah, but Lord Thaumaturge,” Edanu smirked, “is this not the lesson of the Practitioner’s Dialectic? If you play at being something long enough, you become that thing?”
“I don’t think that’s what I said.”
“Perhaps not, but you implied it, did you not? My dear Vitella, would you agree that the cunning courtier seeks to become what his patron desires?”
“It would be foolish not to,” she admitted.
“And would you also agree that it is within our power to so become?”
“Good enough. Barro, as a priest of the Temple, you of course believe that men can change, that they can become better than they are?”
“By choosing to become better, by striving for it.”
“And with proper striving, may an evil person become a good one?”
“With The One’s help and mercy, yes.”
“Then a man may one day become something he is not?”
The historian, catching the drift, spoke up himself. “And thus, if the Dialectic is simply a more powerful example of the natural processes of the human psyche, then it might yet make someone different than they once were by their choosing to become someone different.”
“My point exactly!” said Edanu, eyes settling on me as if we were dueling and he’d just secured an advantage.
“But history is also replete with examples of external circumstances and events causing internal change in a person of note,” the Historian continued, almost to himself and heedless of the game Edanu intended.
“But what has that to do with Truth?” the Historian asked.
Edanu pushed past him, rhetorically and physically, stepping into the circle of us to take attention. “Historian, you bring up an interesting complication. I believe that our honored thaumaturge can shed some light on that assertion as well. Tell me, Iaren, were you changed by the loss of your family?”
I clinched my teeth, felt my hands balling into fists. Which was just what Edanu wanted.
“I take your posture as a ‘yes,’” he smiled broadly. I thought, however briefly, of pulling fire from the myriad candles with a sudden sorcery and watching him burn for his insolence. A clever retort that would be. Then they’d get to see the work of the Dialectic first-hand.
But I breathed deep, let my hands relax, and put my wit to better use. “It changed me just as it demonstrated the nature of your exalted House: treacherous, base and motivated only by venality. A corporate character replicated in each of the House’s members, I understand. And what did betrayal and murder get you? A fancy building and a thin veneer of respect from the Council of Twelve draped over a deep foundation of contempt? And that at the cost of a piece of your souls, which you seem to sell so cheaply.”
The smile dropped from Edanu’s face at that and he took a step toward me. Behind him, the Historian’s face lit up, as if he’d just made the connection between my name and events of note in the history of his beloved city, events he’d forgotten while focused on the history of Vaina. From his chair, Aryden said my name—my given name only—a deep growl of warning. Amn Esto’s eyes smiled from behind her cup as she finished the last of it and held it carelessly aside to be filled anew by the silent servants. The tutor anticipated violence, backing away from the semi-circle, already broken by Edanu having crossed through it.
“Fear not, dear Edanu,” I said. “If I’d been moved by vengeance, I’d already have killed many in your House, or left you to die in the Close today. I have no intention of starting that path now, and nothing to be gained by it. What need have I for a villa in the High City with no one to share it with? What need have I for your blood when it will not bring back a family I scarcely knew in the first place, and when I hold it in such low esteem that it matters not whether it flows in your veins or spreads across Lord amn Vaina’s floor? Do you tempt me so because my lack of concern threatens your sense of worth? How is that for Truth?”
Edanu’s hand moved for the dagger in his belt. I heard Vitella giggle with delight as his face hardened. The Meradhvor envoy looked down to find my hand lightly placed on his wrist, ready to stop his draw if he started it. He looked back up to my face to judge my intent.
“Let me help you, Edanu,” I told him, our eyes locking. “Let me help you not to break the hospitality offered to you by our lord by attempting to shed blood in his hall. Let me help you to not find yourself holding in your own entrails, which is exactly where you will be if that blade leaves its sheath.”
“Is that so, amn Ennoc?” He threatened, hand tight around the dagger’s hilt but not moving it from the sheath. “I’ve not heard that you were a skilled swordsman.”
“Dead men don’t talk,” I smiled.
“My lords,” Barro said softly, putting his hands between us and pushing us apart, “I for one have seen enough violence today, and I can attest to Lord amn Ennoc’s skill with a blade. I have no doubt that you, Master Edanu, are a skilled fighter as well. But we need no demonstrations from either of you. Have you not had your fill of violence in the Close today? I know that I have.”
“And I need both of you alive,” amn Vaina added bluntly from his seat above us. “For different reasons, perhaps, but it would be mightily inconvenient to me if either of you was to kill the other, and especially if you were to both kill each other. To say nothing of my reputation for hospitality, which I’ll not have ruined by—”
A scream, high and blood-stirring, pierced the conversation, driving even the Lord amn Vaina to silence. It seemed to echo, though that could have been my mind playing a trick. A cacophony of voices followed, different pitches and timbres, in different places, with different melodies, moving throughout the keep. A tingling sensation manifested at the extent of my senses; the spirit had entered the Avar again, moving through the stones of the castle’s interior-most building at seeming random.
I bolted from the room in pursuit, made only slightly less surefooted by drink. Realizing a carried my goblet with me, I tossed it carelessly aside, hearing a cry of complaint from someone behind me—all of Aryden’s courtiers trailed behind, followed by the man himself. Now we played a game of echoes, changing course every time a new hue and cry of alarm arose from a different direction. After several minutes of the chase, we finally encountered the spirit in a second-floor hallway, free from the confines of the cellar.
The spirit radiated that sickly green light, shifting and pulsing in the shape of ghostly flames that danced around the rotting corpse of its manifest form. Without a protective circle, it sensed my vulnerability, darting toward me with preternatural speed, its claws breaking against a sorcerous shield I managed to conjure just in time, drawing the working out from a sigil on one of my rings. The gathered gawkers behind me recoiled from the savage strikes, bursts of light brightening the hall to painfulness each time claw scraped against ethereal barrier.
I poured power into the shield to maintain it against the buffet of blows, a ringing in my ears joining the afterglow clouding my vision. Water began to seep through the stones in the ceiling and the walls, the flux generated by the excess power I desperately forced through the working manifesting in random occurrences, these fortunately benign.
The thing darted away, effortlessly passing through one of the stone walls. I followed the hallway and turned in the direction it had fled, eyes sweeping back and forth for the telltale of that deathly glow. Some of the courtiers—I hadn’t time to determine who—had left off the chase after that first encounter, perturbed by the spirit’s violent outburst.
A wise choice, it seemed, for the apparition charged me from the side, coming unexpectedly through a tapestry to my right. It’s momentum knocked me back against the wall and I lost my footing, rolling out of the way instinctively just as it raked now-empty space with its claws. The pendant around my neck pulsed slightly, doing its protective work in allowing my brief escape. With another turn of my body, I found my feet, producing the binding disc and holding it before me.
“In the name of the Ladies Taelaine and Melqea, I bind you to my will.” The spirit stopped in its assault, watching me silently as I continued to incant. “In the name of Taelaine, I bind your form to my will. In the name of Melqea, I bind your essence to my will. I banish you until you are summoned to do my bidding. I bind you until such time as I loose your bonds. I abjure you from this place until you hear my call. I bind you to my will in the name of the Ladies Melqea and Taelaine, Firstborn of The One.”
The spirit let forth a rasping rush of air from its numinous throat, the forced laughter of a corpse. My thaumaturgy had been a poor one, to be sure. Without knowing the spirit’s true name, a great deal of will and power would be required to overcome its resistance, and the day’s events had drained me of both. Even drawing forth all that I had stored in the sapphires in my brass bracelets, the working remained weak respective to the specter’s own will. I’ve always been wary of dealing with spirits, having heard plenty of stories of summonings gone awry, and had satisfied myself with the practical experience of binding lesser spirits of little true power. The principles remained the same between meek spirits and forceful ones, but the difference in practice should be measured in orders of magnitude.
Behind me, I could hear Barro uttering his own form of incantations, prayers to Ashaera and The One for our protection and freedom from the phantom. Those prayers emboldened me, but I still could not think of what I might do. Aryden, however, brushed me out of the way, yelling, “Begone from here, spirit!” Bold, but dumb.
The spirit drew its empty eye sockets up and down, sizing Aryden up, or perhaps determining whether it recognized the Lord amn Vaina. It then advanced on us, slow and purposeful, enjoying the sensation of the rising fear within us. I braced myself to be rent and torn by those ephemeral claws until the spirit’s green glow illuminated the chalky form of one of the seals I had drawn on the hallway wall to ward the castle from the specter’s presence. Without my presence, the residual power I’d drawn into the ward had proved insufficient, but I might be able to supplement that power now to greater effect.
Incanting again, this time in the speech of the Old Aenyr, I drew all the power I could from the space around me. The power of Creation, that raw force that fuels a working of the Art, permeates and sustains all things, available to be tapped into with the proper skill and understanding. This is the basis of the thaumaturge’s practice.
The ward began to give off its own light now, burning with the power I channeled through it and stopping the spirit in its tracks. My voice grew louder, tinged with both excitement and fear, as I pulled everything I could into that seal. Two voices screamed at once—the spirit’s and Aevala’s—and the spirit dissipated into darkness, banished for a time once again.
“God damn it,” Aryden said, his voice carrying both relief and anger. The eidolon had come close to him before I had banished it, almost close enough to touch.
“Well, I guess our efforts today were for naught,” Edanu tossed out, off-handedly.
“But what about the fire around it? Doesn’t that mean something?” Barro asked.
“Yes,” I told him.
“It’s mocking us.”