The moons provided sufficient light to navigate by even away from the lamps and torches of the town, though the shadows remained deep and difficult to penetrate. Away from the eyes of curious townsfolk, I moved my engraved rings to gloved fingers. In my haste, I had grabbed them with the thought to empower each with the working it had been designed to hold, but the height of the moons reminded me that I might not have the time to spend in the multiple workings they could collectively store. Instead, I chose one, its sigil designed to hold a working that would confuse and disorient those around me, one that had saved my life at least once before in Ilessa.
I whispered the incantations lest I draw attention to myself, formed the hand-signs to assist with the working with both hands, drawing my mind through the serious of thoughts and images I used to shape the working. Then, when on the cusp of completion, I drew the construct into the sigil itself, sealing it and the Power I’d summoned within, ready to be activated in an instant.
You may be wondering why I do not constantly have such workings stored and ready for use in these rings; the reasons are manifold. First, sigils are a useful tool, but perhaps not as reliable as you might first suspect. You see, having bound the working into the ring before it took effect, I did not yet know what the specific effect would be—without having seen the results, I could not be absolutely sure that I’d properly performed the working and that it would have the intended effect when triggered, or that it would lack side effects. That’s not too different from any working, I suppose, but, once the working is stored, it must either be allowed to take effect or the Power bled out of it, likely into random Flux. Neither result is ideal, so it’s not wise to walk around with stored workings you might not immediately need. Over time, the Power will leak from the sigil and working as Flux anyway, attaching itself to me or to the environment more subtly that what might otherwise be released from a working, thus more likely to go unnoticed until it manifests itself in extremely unhelpful—if not disastrous—ways. Perhaps I should put it this way: I don’t make a practice of carrying around many ready-and-waiting workings for the same reason I don’t generally carry loaded pistols. Triggers can be tricky, and accidents are highly embarrassing at the very least and deadly at the worst.
There’s another reason though, a matter of habit or practitioner’s courtesy more than practicality, I suppose. Even without the sight, we practitioners may feel the present of a working delayed through a sigil or other effect, the more Power invested in one or more such suspending workings, the likelier we are to notice. A practitioner who comes to you loaded with workings ready to manifest seems to have come looking for trouble. It’s the same as a soldier who comes to have a chat wearing full plate and festooned with weapons—it just doesn’t send the right message. Besides, the spirit at the center of this nighttime excursion could likely sense suspended workings as well as any practitioner, which would obviate the purpose of preparing myriad obfuscatory workings and storing them for use only should I be detected. One would suffice.
I checked my belt, the weapons, tools and items suspended from it, working and tightening straps to ensure as little clanging and jingling as I attempted to move unnoticed.
All of these preparations complete, I stilled myself, quieting my mind and hoping to feel any detectable resonance caused by the immaterial. For a long moment, I felt nothing. I’ve never been as adept at this aspect of the Subtle Art as many others, as “quieting my mind” is a relative term at best and I have great difficulty purging myself of thoughts and focus enough to become truly receptive to those delicate tremulations of spiritual energies that can sometimes be felt as vibrations or, as the uninitiated might say, “tingles.”
Just as I prepared to give up, I felt something like the echo of an echo, a sensation of distant disturbance. Part of me wondered if I hadn’t just heard something in Vaina, the faraway barking of a dog or the braying of a mule, and mistook it for something more mystical. But there was a directionality to the sensation, if a broad and unfocused one, and I had no other method for finding the occult gathering I sought.
I followed one of the well-trod roads to the west of Vaina as long as I could but soon found that it twisted sharply away from the direction in which I’d felt that subtle perturbation of the material avar. High grass greeted me as I took my first steps from the road, and I cursed that I couldn’t find by moonlight the route that the celebrants of this supposed cultic meeting followed through the terrain, though part of me knew there had been little chance of me finding the hidden route used regularly by locals wishing to remain unnoticed.
Before long, I found myself within a wood, one not yet touched by Vaina’s timbering efforts, far enough from the mill to be inconvenient until it became the closest forested area to the town. Under the leaves the moons had less sway and I struggled to make out branches, leaves and other ground covering that might alert others to my presence amongst the subtle differences in blacks and grays. I could ill afford the thaumaturgic light I’d used when first approaching Vaina and, perhaps because fatigue already had its hooks in me, I struggled to extemporize a working that would allow my eyes to see better with the available light in the environment. A moment’s thought on the matter had allowed my eyes to adjust somewhat, so I decided to make due as I could.
I shuffled forward, thanking The One that I did so in summertime, when leaf-fall was minimal, but I nevertheless whispered the occasional curse as I stepped on an unseen twig or rolled my ankle on some half-hidden rock.
The trees fully concealed the lights of Vaina town behind me as I began to hear the first noises that indicated something ahead of me. At first the sounds came as low susurration, deeper than that of the wind blowing the leaves. My cautious approach eventually allowed the whisper to become a palpable rhythm, drums played softly. A melody of sorts, punctuated by cacophonous outbursts, accompanied the drums, some sort of chanting or incantation.
My heart beat faster in my chest as I recognized what must have been a ritual of summoning, a chant in Gwaenthyri, a people who, being at the end of their empire, had had an easier time throwing of the yoke of the Aenyr hegemony, stealing their knowledge of the Subtle Art without paying as heavy a price as those more western subjects had done. I wondered for a moment at the oddity of such a tongue being spoken here, for no people currently living speak the language; since the Gwaenthyri League had been shattered by the Cantic Empire long ago. Stranger still because neither Cantos nor the Gwaenthyri had ever laid successful claim to Altaene or the Sisters, the islands being nearly equidistant between the two powers and the logistics of maintaining such an outpost being more dissuasive than the resistance of its people—though that hadn’t hurt us either. How the tongue had come to be spoken by a cult of spirit-worshipers defied me, unless the spirit itself had taught them. From whence would it have learned?
A flickering flame dancing between trees in the distance cut short my wonder; the cultists had constructed a bonfire that burned at least at my height if my estimates of perspective and distance held true. Dark shapes occasionally passed in front of the flames, silhouetting themselves, bodies in the midst of some ecstatic trance. I’d read of such things, but had never personally dealt with a cult during my time working in Ilessa—a threat better left to the Temple fanatics, the Vigil or the secular inquisitors than me. Besides, no one had ever offered me money to investigate one. Before this, of course, though by all accounts Aryden had no idea that he’d hired me for such a purpose when he handed me the coin.
As I came as close as I dared, I whispered a working of obfuscation. Nothing so powerful as to render me actually invisible or inaudible, but enough to blunt the senses of those not specifically searching for me. For their part, the entranced townsfolk had more than enough to occupy them and I doubted that they might detect me even if I walked in amongst them. It was the spirit I feared.
There are many, many, types of spirits in the Avar Narn, some as old as the Avar itself, others only newly come to consciousness and sentience. The power wielded by this one narrowed the possibilities dramatically, but still not enough as to give me an idea about its nature or abilities. For that, I’d have to wait and watch.
The townsfolk moved frenetically against the flaming backdrop, their naked flesh illuminated in hues of yellow-orange contrasting with the shadows clinging to those parts of them faced away from the fire. Though they’d removed all of their clothing, they’d donned masks and I could identify none of them. That would make things plenty more difficult.
The masks appeared to be fashioned from wood, carefully carved to resemble the benevolent forest spirits often carved into architectural accents or creatures of the wood—foxes, bears, wolves, deer, badgers and the like. Had I encountered the masks alone, without the ominous accoutrements of drum and dance, I’d have taken them for the props of some tradesman’s play about pastoral perfection. I imagined they looked benign enough on their own, even childish and quaint. But here, given visages of anger and wrath by the flames flickering against them, they had a decidedly demonic tone that threatened even without intent.
Both young and old capered and gamboled about the fire, some holding hands, others solitary. Between the dazzling light and the grasping shadows, I could not identify particular bodies well enough to make any count of the number in attendance, though I estimated by the size and sound perhaps fifty souls. The entire cult, or merely some fraction that come for tonight’s supplication? More than a thousand people dwelt in Vaina.
The air had become thick as the thinned Veil allowed the substance of some other existence to spill through. Even those spirits who are born of the Avar sometimes create demesnes for themselves, pocket dimensions to which they may retreat, so this sensation did little beyond reassuring me of the spirit’s power.
I waited with the same expectant anxiety as the flailing supplicants for the appearance of the being we sought. I expected a grand show of an entrance, a flash of light, manifestations of flux, some gaudy display that immediately seized the attention. You know, the sort of thing that says, “Worship me, mere mortals!” I was disappointed in this and more.
Between a blink of my eyes, the spirit manifested itself. How it had come and from whence denied all logic or inquiry, its sudden presence defying any onlooker to declare that it had not always been there.
No better way to describe the spirit exists than to say that it manifested as nature itself, in the shape of a human being formed of branches and vines, nettles and flowers, thorns and lichen. Some sort of glowing fungus must have occupied what served as eye sockets, for light emanated from them. Its various parts represented the Avar in all its seasons, from leaves in autumnal splendor to dry and barren branches lightly dusted in snow, to the deep green of summer foliage and the many-colored blooms of springtime . A primeval thing, radiating the power of natural forces, the beauty and anger of Avarienne herself in equal measure. I don’t know if I gasped audibly upon perceiving it for the first time, but I should have.
At its arrival, the supplicants ceased their dance round the fire, bowing to the spirit as they might in a nobleman’s court, broken and heavily-accented Gwaenthyri in unsynchronized and unmelodious utterances spilling forth from them as they did.
When the spirit opened its mouth in reply, it spoke with a voice like the wind itself, soft and sibilant, alluring and enveloping. Apparently, the wind also speaks Gwaenthyri. Not really the language you’d expect a spirit to speak unless, during its long history, it had been present when the language had been spoken by the mortal kindred and the time proved…formative. I’m not sure that the word fits well in this instance, but I wouldn’t know how else to describe it. Awakened spirits are often emblematic of ideas, constructs or archetypes when they are “born,” but the magi say that they grow and “mature,” achieving ever more individual personality as they continue to exist in sentient form. Unlike us, however, they do not seem to be on the Path or the Wheel.
None of that mattered at the time, of course. I struggled to make out the words the spirit spoke—between the alienness of its speech and my lack of use of the language combining to make the effort highly frustrating. What I could make out caused me to smile to myself: a trading of empty formalities, not at all unlike the one I’d observed earlier in the evening between nobles of remarkably high opinion of their own worth based on little more than lucky birth.
The formalities had not gone far before the spirit stopped mid-sentence, its branches waving rhythmically for a moment as it made some unintelligible gesture. The sound of air rushing into something in short, sharp bursts accompanied the motion and I almost thought that it was sniffing, smelling the air for something—for me. I realized that an actual sense of smell was irrelevant—it was reaching out with whatever senses it possessed, scouring the environment for the source of something it had only had the faintest taste of. Something that concerned it greatly.
My obfuscatory working fell to pieces once they started to search for me. How the spirit had detected me so quickly eluded my understanding, but I had little time to worry about that. The spirit didn’t lift its arm to point in my direction; instead, the vines and leafy tendrils that constituted the appendage unwrapped themselves and formed again in an indication of where the supplicants should search.
Several of them, men and women of the more athletic sort, broke from their bows and started toward me, backlit by the fire, masks threateningly shadowed. The nearby trees seemed to surrender branches willingly to them, conveniently club-like growths that separated delicately from the trunk when seized. The trees’ other arms bent out of the way to make easy passage for the spirit’s scouts.
Watching the cohort against the brightness of the bonfire had burned an afterglow into my eyes; I fled blindly in a direction I hoped would take me closer to Vaina. Fortunately, the cultists suffered the same effect, resulting in a comically slow chase full of stops, stumbles and false starts. Comical if my life had not been in danger, at least.
The trees themselves betrayed me, rustling nearby to give an auditory sign of my location. Once my pursuers caught on to this, they closed the gap between us with stunning efficiency. My eyes had just adjusted to the dark as they came near; I could make out six figures but few details: still nude, still masked, still armed. Not much else mattered at the time.
I had worn my sword and dagger but had little confidence for the odds. At worst, only three of them could attack me at once with a reasonable chance of not stumbling over or clubbing each other in the chaotic fray, but the others would still be there waiting, fresh for the fight as my energy flagged. And, despite their homicidal preference for secrecy, I didn’t actually know that these folk had any evil intent in their intimacy with the spirit. Having seen it, I could be relatively sure that it was indeed a child of Avarienne and, while fickle as nature itself, not categorically malevolent. Recalling Falla’s words about pyres, I understood that these cultists feared for their lives as much as I. Stabbing them in response seemed discourteous. Not that I wouldn’t if it came to it, but I chose to proceed with less lethal tactics first.
Instead, I raised the ring on my left hand and triggered the suspended working contained within. For a moment, the group stood dumbfounded as the working stripped away the foremost of their thoughts, leaving them with that troublesome feeling of walking into a room only to forget what you’d been looking for in the first place. Effective, but short-lived; just enough to give me a head start in the chase proper.
I made about ten paces from them by the time they recovered their purpose. Had there been fewer of them, the working might have lasted longer, but the Power stored by the sigil can only go so far. Pumping my legs as fast as I could, heedless of the hidden perils in the terrain, the large tree roots, the low limbs, rocks and shallow pits, I dashed to put more ground between us. I whispered an incantation to make myself more nimble and surefooted, panting in between syllables for a full minute, my mind split between the working and the chase, my hands contorting into mnemonic signifiers as they swung back and forth, before the working took effect.
With that advantage, I became more daring, taking sudden turns and ducking through narrow gaps in trees, forcing my pursuers to chance the same stunts as I or to find alternate routes, losing time and distance as they did. I heard an “oof!” as one of them tripped, feet tangled in a mass of tree routes. Five left.
We’d made enough distance now that the cultists lacked the arcane support of the spirit; no longer did the trees give away my position or track me with their rustling movements. Even so, they stayed on my trail, too close for comfort. My chest burned now with the exertion; I could feel the thaumaturgic blessing of grace I’d placed upon myself slipping away, my mind grasping for the fraying edges as they snapped loose from their moorings, one after another. Too many distractions, too many factors to consider all at once; I couldn’t keep the focus necessary to sustain the working an longer.
My thaumaturgy lost its effect just as I hit a root with my toes, the pain reverberating through my foot and causing me to curse loudly. Worse, the leverage of the kick had tossed me forward and off my feet so that I rolled roughly down the side of a small valley between the rises of hills I hadn’t noticed in my pursuit. The pitch was steep enough to dissuade anyone from following, at least not immediately, though it also caused me to land hard in the “v” shape at the bottom, some drainage channel etched by the rainwater. The wind flew from my lungs, and my skin burned from myriad scratches torn by the brambles and bushes that lined the gulch. Fortunately, those thorny assailants also provided some cover, so I made a desperate gamble.
Summoning the last of my strength, I performed another thaumaturgic working. I could ill afford to aid myself with the handforms and incantations that would help focus me given the purpose of the working, so I steeled myself as best I could and hoped that sheer will would provide sufficient form to the working to have any chance at success. I strained at the effort of it, my vision collapsing into a narrow tunnel surrounded by darkness.
In that tunnel, I watched myself clambering up the other embankment, away from the cultists, sprinting afresh into the cover of the trees. And then I passed out.
I don’t know how long unconsciousness held me with any precision, but it couldn’t have been too long, for the moons had not much moved in the sky above me. Everything ached; I could feel the bruises in my back from where I’d taken hard hits rolling down the side of the hill, the long dull ache across the back of my leg where I’d landed on my sword, each and every thin tear in my skin ripped by branches and brambles as I neared the trough of the miniature valley in which I lay. But still I smiled, for I was alone.
My pursuers must have seen what I saw before passing out, the illusion I’d created of me continuing my flight away from them. The image couldn’t have lasted longer than I remained conscious to sustain it, but it had given them enough, and they must have left to pursue it. Even in the moonlight, I doubted that they could find their way back to this particular ditch if they realized their error. I breathed a sigh, and my lungs burnt slightly.
For a time, I waited without moving, trying to keep my breath shallow and quiet. Hearing no stirring around me except for the occasional cry of an owl or scuttering of a field mouse, I slowly pushed away the foliage covering me enough to stand. Using the position of the moons, I estimated the direction toward Vaina and began the march back. I chose a long and circuitous route, fearful that the spirit might have commanded its supplicants to set an ambush for me. If they had, I managed to avoid them, and the only trouble I had in my return journey was continually putting one foot in front of the other.
By slow degrees the New Town of Vaina moved closer to me, until I wearily began to trudge up the hill toward the castle. Every shadow between buildings threatened; I imagined assailants waiting around every corner, behind every wagon or stall left by the main road overnight. However unlikely, it was possible that my pursuers had broken off the search from me and returned to their spirit master, who had ordered others to the town in front of me, so slow was my own return.
My fear was unproductive; no matter how careful or vigilant I might be, I lacked all strength for any kind of confrontation. A dull ache, a consequence of the fall or of my thaumaturgies, had settled in the back of my head; my feet felt leaden as I willed them to continue the ascent toward my destination.
I reached the gate in the wall between towns Old and New still alive, much to my own surprise. A watchman from atop the gate signaled for his fellows to open the sally port in the great doors to me. As I passed through, the watchman below laughed to himself and pushed my shoulder gently before realizing he’d touched a lord and feeling quiet sheepish about the mistake. “Out for that kind of investigating, my lord?” he asked with a smile that overcame his awkward coyness. “Looks like you were successful!”
I wondered at first what he meant before I reached to my head to touch the grass and small twigs still nestled within my hair, looked down to the dirt that powdered my boots and clothing, felt the sweat that continued to bead across my brow. But I had no energy for a clever quip, or even to disabuse him of his notion. I continued silently forward, focusing on my footsteps, the image of my bed fixed in my mind like some glimmering beacon to the sailor lost at sea. Unfortunately, I would not yet be allowed to reach my destination.
For a single PDF with all chapters released to date, click here.
[This is the last chapter of the first draft that I have finished as of the day it is posted. Chapters will now be posted as they are completed, which I expect to be at a frequency of one every few days. I hope that you are hooked well enough that this comes as disappointing news!]