I removed my mask and tossed it atop the bed, glad to be free of its tight embrace. The air felt easier to breathe and my broadened perception allayed some of the claustrophobia I’d felt when surrounded by dozens of potential assailants.
For a moment, I just stood there, mulling of the spirit’s messenger’s words, turning them over in my mind in hopes of uncovering some hidden implication or meaning. Everyone in Vaina, had a secret he wanted to keep, even the incorporeal citizens. Especially the incorporeal inhabitants, perhaps.
But supposition would do me little good, and I soon turned my thoughts to find something within my power to search for more clues rather than to keep pushing the ones I had together like some half-missing puzzle set.
I changed back into my regular attire and obtained my ritual belt and a piece of chalk. Taking my time, I drew out the concentric circles on the floor boards, careful to keep the lines as regular as possible over the seams between planks and the minor textures and irregularities in the wood. Once I’d completed the circles, I procured my grimoire from the chest at the foot of the bed, searching through for the specific runes and patterns I wanted for this working.
Having not performed such a working in quite some time, I had to reference the pages of my collected knowledge of the Art (that I didn’t know by rote, at least) many times to ensure the proper placement and designs of the symbols necessary to the circle’s function.
Finally, perhaps an hour after I’d begun, I sat down within the circle, legs folded, and closed my eyes. I whispered the incantations softly, hoping not to disturb the watchers at my door, allowing my consciousness to release its moorings to my body. Just as I felt myself beginning to float free, the door to my room opened.
I snapped back into myself with a gasp, my eyes opening wide to see one of the guardsmen with the door half-open, making much the same expression I had.
“What are you doing,” I shot, doing my best impression of the thaumaturge not to be trifled with. My annoyance assisted in this.
“I-I heard noises,” he said feebly.
Indeed, a sudden wind had apparently blown through the room, knocking around some of my belongings. The room’s window remained closed. In preparing to leave my body, my senses had been distracted from the physical world around me, and I’d remained oblivious.
“You will hear noises,” I growled. “Ignore them. Unless I call for you, keep an eye that no one enters my room. Including. You.”
He nodded his assent and closed the door again. I could hear a mumbled exchange in unsure voices between the two guardsmen, and then silence.
With the calm and quiet restored, I turned back to my task. Again I closed my eyes and chanted, visualizing my spirit leaving my body until I felt it happening. I floated above myself, looking down upon my sitting form, my mouth still repeating the incantations despite my absence from it.
This is not a technique of the Art that I enjoy. It makes me feel more vulnerable than empowered. Unlike a being whose essential condition is inherently incorporeal and ethereal, being a disembodied practitioner feels much like looking at the world above while one’s head is underwater—a general sense may be made of things, but one must deal with distortion and confusion in the senses. Theologians who are also practitioners of the Subtle Art have debated why this is the case, with some arguing about the significance of being incarnated beings and others preferring to rely on the mortal practitioner’s relative inexperience of being ethereal as the cause. The latter speculate that, given enough time out of body, we could adjust and sharpen our senses. Still, the body itself begins to die if emptied of its inhabiting spirit for long enough, so none has been able to test this theory overmuch.
A side effect of inhibited senses when projecting consciousness is that it is difficult to use the Art as well. The better the visualization of the target of an effect, the easier that effect is to achieve. This by itself degrades performance. To say nothing of the fact that we practitioners receive our training in drawing the Power through our bodies to empower sorceries and thaumaturgies, using our physical selves as intermediary between the external world and the internal self. Channeling the Power for a working while disembodied is thus especially difficult.
These things combined to leave me relatively defenseless in a confrontation with either of the rogue spirits of Vaina. But I intended no such confrontation—if Orren’s spirit manifested itself during the night, I would immediately return to my body to engage with it. Should I encounter the natural spirit of Vaina, I would likewise return to my body. Not to fight with it, but to disengage.
For all my reservations, there are of course advantages to projecting the consciousness in this manner. To begin, I am not bound by most of the physical barriers that impede normal movement, nor am I confined to movement at the speed my feet may carry me. Second, spirits and souls—of both those bound to flesh and those less so—are like shining beacons to one who has projected into the ethereal world that borders our own. While my perceptions were generally dimmed, I had the ability to see things I could not with my physical eyes when looking at another person through this medium.
The Sight, in most ways, is simply peering into the ethereal without projecting into it fully. Of course, all of the dangers attendant to that practice also accompany this one.
Loosed into the ethereal as a bright and floating spirit, I first scanned through the interior of the keep, able to see through stone and wood, searching for any sign of Orren’s spirit.
Finding none, I next turned my attention to Lady Aevala’s chambers, hoping I might see something that could substitute for the direct observation that her husband had so obstinately prevented. A shroud of sorts, a dark barrier through which my ethereal senses could not penetrate, surrounded the room like a sphere. Someone had inscribed and empowered crude wards upon the room, wards that did not prevent Orren’s specter from reaching the afflicted woman but that would prevent my efforts to scry into that space. Had Orren established these before his death? That might explain his ability to pass through them, though his strange power as a spirit—far in excess of any mere phantom I’d encountered before—might allow him to force his way through the protections just as easily.
Noting the disturbing detail but without time to further investigate at present, I at once left my bedchamber through its outer wall, looking down upon the continuing festivities below, where the light now came from those who danced, cavorted, drank and entertained themselves rather than the lamps or torches, which now flickered only dimly to my sight, shadows in the shape of flames.
Descending, moving closer to that crowd of gathered courtiers of which I’d been a part not so long before, I searched for Daedys among them. Both his demeanor over the course of his evening and the words of the anonymous messenger impressed upon me the idea that I might find something of use among the constable’s secrets. Orren had been his nephew, after all; if the boy had been part of the cult, the probability followed that the im Vardi were involved as a whole. Further, if a dispute existed between factions within the cult, as the messenger had intimated, and Orren had acted against the designs of the spirit at the center of that cult, then Daedys likely also belonged to that dissenting faction—or would at least know something about it.
Such thoughts occupied my mind as I watched, invisible. For a long time, the constable only sulked, continuing to nurse his drinks slowly, and probably maintaining a clearer head than most around him. Eventually, though, perhaps when he’d decided he’d stayed long enough to be decorous—though given his behavior at the festivities I rather thought he’d left decorum behind long before—he approached the bride- and groom-to-be, wished them well in their preparations for the wedding tomorrow, thanked Lord Aryden for the hospitality and generosity, and took his leave.
I followed after him, leaving a good space between us out of habit more than need, for he could not see me in such a state—not without the Sight. He walked a normal course to the inner gatehouse and passed through into Old Vaina, continuing without deviation to the outer gatehouse and New Vaina. But, once here, his path did not lead straight home. Instead, glancing around briefly for anyone else roaming about, he ducked into one of the smaller alleys between buildings, making quick turns and evasive dodges through sidestreets and lesser-used paths. Had I been following him physically, I’d have had a hard time indeed keeping up with him, especially without giving myself away.
As it were, his deft maneuvers availed him nothing. I tracked him to the darkened corner, out of the light of any torch or lantern, where he made his rendezvous with another soul, a man waiting there for him.
Before Daedys had fully arrived, the man rocked back and forth on his heels, impatient, agitated. Through the distortion of my ethereal vision, I could not make out the facial features of the waiting figure—though, through this form of the Sight, I plainly observed the absence of the last joint of his right thumb.
He wore simple clothing that could have belonged to anyone from New Vaina, from the tenant farmers and cottagers to the minor tradesmen who served the wants and whims of the town’s merchants and magnates. I perceived the color as dark, though this could have been a matter of my idiosyncratic mode of perception.
Likewise, the sounds from the conversation came to me muffled, as if an echo at a distance, and I struggled to make out what words I could. From what I could glean, the men were familiar with one another. Daedys exerted authority over the man, who seemed to be complaining of—and excusing—the failure of his attack upon me.
The suspicions given to me by the cult’s messenger not so long before had been proved valid by this exchange—Daedys and Orren must have belonged to that dissenting faction within the Vaina cult, the one which, against the command of the spectral master, had attempted to cut short my life this very evening.
My racing mind, conspiring with the inherent difficulty of the task, prevented me from capturing any helpful detail of the exchange between the two men, which ended with them parting ways, both apparently upset. But the details would come soon enough—knowledge of the meeting itself provided direction for my further investigation. And the revelation of any enemy against whom I could now protect myself.
Anger and indignation replaced fear now that I had the source of the threat, though I knew it still too premature to take any direct action against the constable. He enjoyed Lord Aryden’s trust and I did not; I would need tangible evidence beyond my own testimony to convince my employer that I was not simply grasping at straws.
Further, Daedys’ motives, or Orren’s, or the cult’s spirit’s for that matter, all remained obscured to me, and I knew I would be wise to seek greater understanding of the situation before doing anything drastic—despite the emotion pushing me to swift retribution. After my own words to Lorent, I would not make a hypocrite of myself. The line of morality may be sometimes blurred in my work, but the line of hypocrisy remains a clear beacon to all people at all times.
Already, I had spent as much time away from my body as I dared, counting myself fortunate that the activity had not drawn any unwanted attention. At the speed of a thought, I returned to myself, opening my eyes and savoring the rush of sensation restored.
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