The exhilarating rush that filled me as I returned to my body made it clear that sleep would not come soon, or easily. With the revels continuing in the courtyard below, I gathered that the same would be true for many others in Vaina, so perhaps I would not lose much valuable time in my investigation if I could take some further action now and sleep in a bit once exhaustion finally set in.
I had just the task. Kneeling in the center of the concentric circles that set the foundation of my ritual circle, I began to wipe away at the various symbols I had drawn before without touching those circles themselves. As the runes and sigils began to smudge rather than fade, I wet the cloth near the bowl of water on the table across from the bed and scrubbed, using the wet cloth to pick up the particles of chalk and the dry to wipe away the water left behind.
The floor cleared of its original diagrams, I began to draw another, this one intended for a journey of a different sort, one more harrowing than simply leaving the body.
Again, the ritual forced me to resort to my grimoire repeatedly, turning back and forth between open book and floor, narrowly undoing the details of my work with a careless knee or an outstretched hand searching to balance myself in my movements. I expected the nosy guardsman to intrude once again, but he did not. Perhaps my “threatening thaumaturge” demeanor had become better than I’d thought it. This would be progress as a practitioner—at the university we often laughed about disapproving stares and reproachful gazes being core skills of the magus.
In time, less in fact than the previous ritual drawing had taken, I had completed the new ritual space. I sat within it as before, but hesitated. My last foray to the Sea of Dreams had been both involuntary and life-threatening, and I wondered if the potential benefit of another intrusion really did outweigh the risks. Ultimately, I concluded that, without Aryden allowing me to see his wife (which did not seem to be any nearer to happening than when I’d first arrived) or the wards around the lady’s chamber suddenly and spontaneously collapsing, I had no other available paths to the specific vein of knowledge I sought.
It might have been possible for me to dispel the wards upon Aevala’s chambers, but that, too, would have required physical proximity to them—I did not believe I had sufficient skill to ethereally project myself and dispel them that way, clumsy though they might have been. And, I’ve already explained my general reservations to the use of such techniques.
The drive to know the truth of the matter, more than the potential rewards for satisfying Lord Aryden, overcame my fears. I closed my eyes, remaining silent for this working, quieting my mind except for the image of my destination. This was not an easy task, for my mind remains in a general state of disquiet at the calmest of times. The One did not create me for simple contemplation or for still satisfaction, apparently.
For some time, I struggled with myself, thoughts intruding upon my attempted meditation, images entering my mind unbidden, drawing me into consideration of this event or that clue in my investigation—or even the merits of Worvo’s beer. I shook my head in sympathetic attempt to shake the thoughts from my mind, my inability to focus on a single thing increasing my frustration, increasing the difficulty with which I tried to focus.
As if running into a stone wall built of my own vexation, I opened my eyes in anger. To my surprise, I found that I sat not within my room in Vaina Castle, but within a rowboat, gently bobbing up and down under the twilit sky that blankets the Sea of Dreams.
I looked behind me, to the horizon, for the forested island I’d come to visit. Like a mirage made real, the hazy image of my destination appeared in the distance, gradually becoming solid. Taking up the rowboat’s oars, I pulled myself in that direction.
As I did, I could see other islands in the distance, some hazy, some as solid and real as any island in the Avar. Atop one, a gray and lonely castle; spreading across another relatively nearby (though spatial relationships are remarkably flexible in realms such as this) a bleak desert, baking in the heat of an invisible sun. Turning to check whether my course remained true, a new island, a mountainous dagger rising from the limitless deep, pushed its way into my path, forcing me to divert around it and reacquire my destination before continuing.
In the time that I rowed, I contemplate the potential meanings of the Sea of Dreams’ geography: why each dream-containing island formed in the way it did, why certain islands seemed closer in their relative positions to some but not others, what meaning belonged to these relationships—for whatever meaning there was did not originate from physical laws.
The study of the Art teaches that there are subtle relationships between many things, those that are not readily apparent to the casual observer (as they only sometimes correspond to physical properties and are just as likely to be symbolic or metaphorical) but that may be discovered through careful analysis and study. This principle, these sympathies, are the basis of the various practices of the art. In alchemy, sympathies are used to create desired effects through the relationships between physical materials and those desired results. With sorcery, thaumaturgy, it is the thoughts and images formed and held in the mind that create sympathies with the purpose and direction of the will. This is not simply a matter of visualizing the desired result—although there is some of that to be sure—it is a matter of creating meaning through association, and then using the Power to make that meaning manifest in the Avar. Theurgy and enchantment are hybrid practices, using drawn or carved symbols to create certain sympathies while also relying upon the careful thought and construction of the practitioner.
It only stands to reason that a place such as the Sea of Dreams operates by similar principles. Those private demesnes created by powerful magi, modest examples of that final great working of the Aenyr, likewise operate by rules based in sympathies—and the idiosyncrasies of their creators.
These thoughts passed the time until the rowboat jerked with a hollow thump that indicated I’d arrived on land—the beach of Lady Aevala’s dreams. Leaving the boat, I recovered my balance, it having been disrupted by the waves of an imaginary ocean.
The heavy pall of fear and death continued to hang about this place, the atmosphere thick with imminent tragedy that spoke of a reality entirely independent from Aevala’s dream-state. That dread impelled me this time rather than slowing my steps. Isn’t it strange that its sometimes easier to be brave for someone else’s sake than your own? While that sour feeling in the pit of my stomach yelled at me like a village alarm, my head remained clear as I pushed into the island’s interior, shrouded by the thick canopy of the strangely-shaped trees.
I searched for the pond at which I’d first encountered the lady, for the rocky outcropping and the cave to which I’d chased her, ignoring any potential threats from the sides or behind as I focused on the path forward. I went from one heavy footfall to the next, quickening my pace in frustration and anger as I failed to find any of the landmarks I’d seen before.
In the periphery of my vision, I could see shadows twisting unnaturally between the trunks of trees, as if animated and aware. Whether Orren’s spirit had elected to confront me here, or these manifestations only represented the strange nature of the Sea of Dreams and its innumerable islands, I did not know.
It didn’t matter to me. I felt up for a fight, if only to enjoy something simple and straightforward for a change, and if the spirit thought it’s power enhanced by being in this place, I would match it. As I’d come of my own volition, and had forced my fear down well enough to keep my wits about be, my own long-honed will would have as much benefit in a place formed of desires and will as anything the spirit might hope to gain here.
Indeed, when I finally encountered Aevala, I found the spirit there, too, standing over her, grinning at me as if daring me to attack. The specter aimed its threat not at me, though, but at the woman behind whom it stood.
Aevala lay stretched out on her back over a stone slab, intricately carved with visions from the Book of the Tree, the sort typically reserved for the preparation of the dead for their last rites. Funerary clothes covered her, though no shroud masked her face.
Foolish of me to expect some climactic combat here, as if such a thing would prove useful anyway. I could only hope to banish the spirit again for a time, and nothing would have changed. Not really. I might have kept my wits, but anger had surely clouded my expectations and my judgment.
Drawing in a deep breath, I attempted to do what I’m best at: observe and analyze, hold the situation in my hand and turn it to observe all angles, all of the consequences to the various ways things might play out. This is no element of the Art, merely the application of careful thought and conjecture based on experience and logic, though I’d argue that my practice of the Art had tempered my skill in such endeavors all the same.
Recentering myself gave some relief, as I noticed the subtle rise and fall of Aevala’s chest, indicated she had not yet died, as the props seemed to indicate, but had fallen into a slumber. Over her, cadaverous hand outstretched as if drawing the life out of her bit by bit, breath by breath, Orren’s spirit continued to smile at me, believing itself to have the upper hand. Based on all that had transpired so far, I couldn’t say definitively that it was wrong.
We stared at each other in a sort of stalemate, the phantom and I, my mere presence threatening at least temporary violence to it, it revealing its deepening ability to inflict suffering upon the woman I’d been hired to save, after a fashion. Things are always so much more straightforward in the stories of knights and their lovers.
I had two real options: move against the specter here and now, risking further injury to Aevala, or leave, failing to do anything about the lingering suffering the spirit inflicted upon her. A sensation of warmth surrounded my hands and I looked down to find them wreathed in dancing fire, a visible symbol of my inner anger. What would have required a conscious effort of the will (and a thorough application of technique) to achieve in the Avar required only emotion and the subconscious here in the Sea of Dreams. In the back of my head I made a note to myself to further research this phenomenon on my return to the city—if that happened.
Seeing my manifest animosity, the spirit only smiled wider. If there had been any doubt that vengeance and hatred powered this spirit, that grin disabused me of it in an instant. The feeling of impotence only stoked my fury’s flames; whatever calm I’d generated as I’d analyzed the situation burned away as so much paper.
Aevala’s sleeping form let out a low moan, driving me forward a step in empathy. A chill ran through me as I stepped into the spirit’s cold aura, the shock of it bringing a much-needed reprieve from my anger, however brief. Before me, the specter’s fingers elongated into dagger-like claws in anticipation.
I knew that the spirit could not kill Aevala right away—if it could have, it would have done so already. It required time to complete its design, though that time was running short. Whatever injunction prevented the spirit from taking immediate vengeance on the target of its ire (at least its current target) did not apply to me. Should it rend me apart in this place, I would be dead in all places. That would make it difficult in the extreme to continue my investigation and find some final way to banish the specter once and for all.
As cold as the air around me, my mind weighed the options afresh, finding the risk of a current confrontation too disproportionate to any benefit for logic to support it. It pained me to see Aevala’s condition worsening, her suffering prolonged and deepening, but if I was to help her, I would have to leave her to her suffering a while longer.
I turned. Using all of my strength, I ignored the knot in my gut, no longer a warning of danger but a natural response to ignoring the suffering of another mortal being. I retreated slowly, deliberately, pausing several times to consider turning back toward the lady and coming to her rescue—like one of those knights in stories, perhaps. But ultimately, I reminded myself of the fantasy of such things, and the fantastic nature the dreamforged island around me accentuated the point. So, I kept moving.
I kept moving through what felt like long hours of walking, hoping that by traveling in a single direction I would eventually reach the island’s beach, which I could then follow around to my boat. Time consuming, but the most reliable method of navigation I could imagine in this ephemeral place.
A thought occurred to me that I’d not considered before: what would happen if Aevala’s dream ended before I’d left the island? If I’d only been dreaming, I’m sure that I would have simply awoken myself. But I had projected myself here in spirit, made myself more present by my will to be here rather than the natural workings of the Sea. Would the island suddenly disappear, leaving me to fall into an empty patch of the Sea? Would I be stuck in some in-between place? If so, would I be freed at the onset of the lady’s next dream and able to return to my body—if it continued to be able to house my spirit?
Some comforted existed then that Aevala had entered into a seemingly-impenetrable sleep from which she was unlikely to wake, cold comfort though that was.
Finally, I returned to the little rowboat waiting for me on the shore. I pushed it free of the sandy beach and leapt in, but not without soaking myself in the process. Pulling at the oars, I made my way into an open patch of the Sea before closing my eyes and thinking of that room in Vaina Castle where my body awaited me.
Even more than in my attempt to reach the Sea of Dreams in the first place, my mind raced, eschewing all attempts at focus or quiet meditation. Behind the constant stream of thoughts, I growing panic began to gnaw at me: what if I could not achieve peace enough to return at all? What if my own idiosyncrasies prevented me from leaving? Would I be stuck here for all eternity, some stranger making unexpected and inexplicable appearances in the dreams of the Avar’s sleepers? Did such a class of unfortunate—or over-ambitious—practitioners exist?
Remember what I said about sympathies, about the bonds of symbolism and meaning between things both alike and seemingly disparate? Apparently, the sympathy between a body and soul is a particularly strong one. This makes sense, I suppose—how else keep a thing by nature so free and eternal bound within something so frail and limited? The power of that bond, more than any of my own doing, brought me safely home again.
The warm air of the summer night greeted me as I returned to myself. I opened my eyes to find the my room’s window ajar. This brought me quickly to my feet, though as my mind caught up to my shock I realized that I’d likely already be dead if another assassin had entered through the window while my body sat empty and defenseless in the middle of the room.
Checking the window and the wall outside, I found no signs of entry or a forcing of the window. More likely, the flux of the theurgic ritual had drawn another gust of wind that blew the window open. Only once calm hit me did I realize that the wet of the Sea of Dreams had followed me back to the Avar. I’d dripped a trail across the room from the ritual circle to the window, water continuing to fall from my clothes in heavy drops.
Below, the celebration had finally begun to wind down. The music had stopped and only the low sounds of whispered conversations, punctuated by the occasional raucous laughter, remained, the remnants of those who refused to take to their beds but who had nowhere better to be. The hour must have been later indeed, though not so late as I’d expected given the amount of time I’d felt pass in the Sea of Dreams. But time moves differently there.
I removed my wet clothes, again, and hung them on the window sill as I had done before. Still damp, I fell into the bed, drifting quickly to my own emergent island somewhere in the Sea, hopefully far away from the one occupied by Aevala and her captor.
I’d need whatever sleep I could get. Time was running short, and I had much to do to banish Orren’s ghost.