“How’re we going to fight a spirit with swords?” Daedys asked when we’d at last entered the clearing where I’d first encountered the cult. The place thrummed with Power spilling into the Avar.
“We don’t. I use the Art.” I responded.
“Then why’d you send us out for weapons?” Barro asked, pushing up the coif that had fallen forward and partially obscured his eyes.
“Because I don’t expect this spirit to be alone.”
Daedys’ eyes narrowed, and I knew that the thought had dawned on him that he might be killing his fellow cultists, the fellow downtrodden of Vaina whom he had meant to protect with his anger and plotting. For my part, I began to wonder how I’d explain away to Barro the appearance of armed townsfolk defending the spirit without breaking my vow to Falla. But there’d be time for that, a more immediate danger was already manifesting.
Speak of the dark one and, thus, he appeareth. The air thickened as the spirit formed itself from some mysterious confluence of air and the Power that saturated its sanctuary, assuming now the form of the green man I’d previously observed through the Sight. He…it…stood taller than a human man, perhaps by a head, and it gave off an aura of authority and splendor that insinuated itself in the mind, predisposing one to deference and timidity. Of course it had formed a cult around itself; this seemed as natural a course of events as the daily rise and setting of the suns, the regularity of the tides and seasons, the inevitability of death and the Path.
I raised my staff in preparation to defend my cohorts against the supernatural attacks I expected from the Orösave, but Magaréil, to my suprise, wanted to talk. “Lord thaumaturge,” it said, voice as mellifluous as a spring breeze, “It is not too late to accept my offer, though the priest may not be allowed to tell of our bargain, and—”
“What bargain?” Barro asked, taking a wide step from my side.
“It wanted me to remain silent that it had masqueraded as Orren’s spirit,” I told him. “But instead, we are here.”
Umbrage at the temerity of a natural spirit against the realm of humanity took hold of Barro now, and he addressed Magaréil directly. “To what end such a ruse? Why attack my lord now?”
The spirit smiled. “Your lord’s ambition has exceeded his grasp,” Magaréil half-sung in response. “I have a dominion here, too, and I shall not allow his machinations to pose a threat to me.”
“A threat? How do the amn Esti threaten you? What has a marriage between mortals to do with…such as you,” the priest said, contempt gathering in his voice.
“None of your concern, priest,” Magaréil snapped. It turned its attention back to me. “There is much I could offer you, Iaren amn Ennoc. I have seen ancient secrets with my own eyes that few in the Avar know ever existed at all. I have made bargains with practitioners of the Art many times in the past. I will do so again. The question is whether you will be my ally or my enemy. You must choose, now.”
I swallowed hard before responding. “You have this final chance to leave Vaina and never return,” I said, feeling as if I was watching myself utter them, as if a stranger spoke in my place. “If you do not, I will banish you, Magaréil. You much choose…now.”
The Orösave lost its smile at hearing its name. I’d no idea how close to correct my pronunciation of it had been, for I’d never heard the nuance of its utterance from the being to whom it was attached. Nevertheless, just having the name at all gave me some power I otherwise would not have had. Between that advantage and the Power infusing this place, I might just stand a chance.
Magaréil turned to now to Daedys, knowing the source of its betrayal. In a way I cannot fully describe, the Orösave’s being suddenly took on the aspect of summer in its anger, radiating now not the intoxicating beauty of an early spring but the oppressive heat of the dog days.
But before Magaréil could speak to denounce Daedys’ treachery, a shot rang out, the ball from the constable’s little wheelock pistol passing through the spirit as through so much gathered smoke, just as had done when some of the wedding guests had attempted the same.
A roar like a deafening wind issued from Magaréil’s spectral mouth, driving the loose forest detritus in a whirlwind about the clearing, requiring us to lean forward lest we lose our feet. Then came the sound of creaking wood, as of a boat whose sails strain against the wind, and I looked round to see the ash trees ringing the glade pulling their roots from the ground, shaking the dirt from them, and standing solidly atop them like so many feet. The limbs of the animated trees variously became knotted like clubs or spearpointed at every shoot and stalk.
Now Barro and Daedys closed ranks with me against the impending onslaught. I raised my free hand and extended a lance of fire at the nearest animated tree, the quick and powerful sorcery a benefit of our presence in this place of Power. My target burst into flames, causing its fellows to recoil violently from it as it ran a panicked and irregular course through the space in the clearing, its many legs of disproportionate sizes rapidly pulling it along like the tendrils of an octopus more than any creature that lived on land.
Still, the others pressed in, and we defended ourselves with blade, staff and mace against the relentless assault of sharp or bludgeoning branches. Our weapons made some good defense to ward away the strikes but did little to damage our attackers. Were I could, I shot more gouts of flame at the wooden warriors, but Magaréil again called down a heavy rain that quenched the fires and protected its minions against further conflagration.
While the ashes presented the most immediate threat, we were lost if I could not confront Magaréil itself. Only when its power had been contained would we be free from danger. But no such opportunity presented itself, and the trees pushed ever closer, knowing that our weapons were of little threat to them.
I tried another conceit, dropping to my knees in hopes that my brothers in arms would be able to shield me—even momentarily—from the onslaught. In my mind’s eye, as I began to chant in Gwaenthyri, so that I knew Magaréil would understand, I thought of fall and winter, of falling leaves, of mushrooms growing on dead trees, of the rot and decay that accompanied every living thing. I imagined a blight upon a tree I had once observed, an arboreal sickness much akin to the plagues that affect the Naming Folk. I imagined it spreading to these trees, and when I opened my eyes I saw the bark of the ashes turning mottled grey and black, the leaves falling from once-healthy branches, which at the very least allowed Barro and Daedys to see the weapons arrayed against us more clearly.
But Magaréil had the Power available here, too, and quickly set about to counter my working. Decay struggled against new life, with the bark of the trees passing back and forth between healthy and blighted as if being washed back and forth by unseen waves. Limbs would become brittle and break off as they crashed against Barro’s shield or received a blow from his mace; sproutlings with little budding leaves would erupt from these wounds, quickly growing into new spears or blunt instruments. Our minds clashed, each seeking to overcome the other’s working and, for a brief moment, I reveled in the conflict with such a capable opponent—not a fellow practitioner in the true sense, but a wielder of the Power nonetheless. It was, in short, an opportunity to truly test what I’d learned in my private studies after leaving the university, whether my efforts bore fruit.
I found that they did as we struggled, with every fresh assault on my working from Magaréil I managed some subtle change in the pattern of the working to maintain its effectiveness. For a time at least. I knew, in that part of my mind not dedicated to perpetuating the working against the Orösave’s soldiers, that all I was doing was biding time. Time enough perhaps to invent some other, more effective, strategy. But perhaps not.
Barro and Daedys continued to hack at limbs that rotted, shattered, and regrew afresh before their eyes. They said nothing, only grunted as they blocked, parried, counterattacked as best they could. Kneeling between them, I had some modicum of shelter from the storm (both literal and figurative). Even with this temporary respite, however, I was losing the battle of wills. The Orösave was in its element; we were playing it’s game. As long as that remained the case, I stood little chance. Rain beat down upon us, denying me the opportunity to use more fire. At least, not directly. Another thought passed through my mind, and I began to draw on the Power that pervaded the glade.
The sky had darkened and become stormy in fulfilling Magaréil’s will for rain. From these dark clouds, I drew down bolts of lightning, flashing bright enough to temporarily blind us, deafening us with every accompanying crack. But each time a bolt struck one of the trees, the animating spirit fled as the bark blackened and split, leaving charred and broken bodies behind.
For a moment, the three of us grinned to one another, a sudden hope filling us. But then we saw freshly-animated trees joining the fray, and we thought of how much fodder Magaréil truly had in the midst of a forest. Hope sank into despair; I made what signs of apology I could to my compatriots as we prepared to be overwhelmed and overrun.
But, as the ringing in our ears returned to some semblance of normal hearing, we heard the voice of a newcomer to the fight. That voice raised no fearsome warcry, no bellow of rage, no pompous taunt, no challenge to enemies. Instead, we heard a melody, lilting in ancient language, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Falla’s voice.
She walked slowly, gracefully, into the clearing, the rain breaking against some invisible barrier around her as if loath to touch her against her wishes. Her feet made no sound as she tread, no crunch of leaf or branch, no shift of odd stone, no scrape against root or hard-packed avar. A gentle wind blew into the clearing alongside her, and small animals trailed behind, awestruck by her song, desperate to hear it for as long as they could.
When the melody fell upon the trees attacking us, they fled into the deeper forest, seeking the comfort of their still-sleeping brethren. Magaréil roared with a voice that reminded me of rushing rivers and rising floodwaters, of landslides and avarquakes. But his fury only revealed that he had little wherewithal to contradict a force so ancient, so brimming with primordial Power, so pure that it must have come from the Firstborn themselves, perhaps a song sung by Avarienne to her first progeny when the Avar was young indeed.
I rose to my feet, hair standing on end in the aftermath of the lightning strikes, pushing myself up by my staff. With the Flux dissipating from the massive displays of the Art, the massive Power drawn and shaped in a place already receptive to sympathetic contagions, the rain turned to snow at the same time the flowers began to bloom as if the spring had come, fresh and sudden. The darkened clouds now blocked out the light of the suns and the Avar became far darker than it had any right to be in the mid-afternoon. In the shadows cast by the trees and the clouds, one could make out the almost-imperceptible forms of people, masked and naked, dancing and making supplication to Magaréil. Not spirits, truly, but fragments what had been, echoes of souls that had once been in this place, resounding like shadows cast against the cave wall of the future by an invisible, eternal flame of the Power, of raw possibility and Creation itself.
Such sights had little effect on me; I’d seen their like enough before to know them for what they were. But the writhing images—or, more likely, the hoarse whispers of Gwaenthyri chanting that accompanied them, held Barro and Daedys as if transfixed.
Magaréil focused on Falla. “Finally, you have come here to challenge me,” it said to her. “I have long felt your fear from afar, have heard my people whisper about your petty incantations and false potions, while drew power has dwelt nearby you since before even your mother had come to this place. Who do you think taught her the things she knew? The things she taught you, that you have corrupted. Diluted. I wondered when your jealousy would get the better of you, when you would seek to truly usurp me for the favor of my people, instead of living off of the scraps of my wisdom and my benevolences.
But did you think do have a chance against a mind centuries your senior, studied in esoterica you could never hope to find in your own travels, for they have long since been lost to your kind?”
The hedge witch turned away from him, tossing her cloak out behind her as if brushing him aside. She continued to sing her ancient song, and the snow, too, refused to damped her hair or clothes. The nonchalance of it was once of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. That was true power. Not the kind we practitioners borrow from what The One has left us to use, but a power that comes from conviction of oneself. I don’t know whether she had ever been jealous of Magaréil, or if it spoke the truth about her mother and the source of their knowledge. But I know that, in that moment, I was jealous of Falla, for no number of titles, nor dusty tomes, nor prestigious educations, can bestow what she demonstrated in her defiance of the Orösave.
It was Magaréil who proved coward, afraid of the power Falla wielded in the beauty of a song. While her back was turned, the spirit’s arm became like a venomous snake, lashing out across the too-wide distance with ease. But I stood ready with my staff and interposed myself between, the whip-like snake rebounding off of the shield of force I conjured with a sudden sorcery.
“We could have been such allies,” it said to me, seemingly sickening under the effects of Falla’s song. It’s voice was pitiable instead of fierce, desperate rather than imperious, forlorn over haughty.
I dropped the shield and my staff, pulling key and binding disk from my belt. Holding both aloft and drawing upon the Power, I focused on the spirit, my own confidence bolstered by Falla’s continued melody.
“Magaréil, in the name of Lady Avariennë, I bind you to my will…” I began.
A buzzing filled my ears, like a swarm of stinging insects surrounding my head, as the Orösave initiated a final assault on my mind. Though no creatures actually encircled me—Falla’s song had prevented the spirit from such an exercise of its power—I could feel the sensation of pricks and stings, painful and distracting. A clever ruse, I must now admit, and it almost distracted me enough from my working for it to fail. Almost.
“Magaréil, in the name of Lady Taelainë, I bind you to my will,” I continued, striking the key against the binding disk with each statement, my voice straining against the psychic onslaught of imagined bees and wasps. “Magaréil, in the name of Lady Melqéa, I bind you to my will! With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the East. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the West. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the South. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the North. I bind your will to mine own. I bind your spirit to the stone I hold before me. You shall take no action I do not permit. You shall harm no one. You reside within the stone until I summon you. You shall obey my commands until I release you. By the secret names of The One, I bind you!”
The snow and the insects stopped suddenly, replaced by a flash of light and a wave of heat that scorched the life out of the grass and trees surrounding the glade, leaving behind parched and dry plants like those suffering under an extended drought. The avar had become dry, gone was the mud softened by Magaréil’s driving rains. The confrontation, my workings and Magaréil’s own uses of the Power, to say nothing of Falla’s sad ballad, had drained the place of its Power. But only temporarily, for the Veil was thin here and Power would continue to leak in from parts unknown.
Gone, too, was the spirit itself, though the subtle thrumming of the disk in my hand assured me of its presence there. The binding had worked, thanks not to my own power as a practitioner of the Subtle Art, but to the ancient and secret song Falla had brought to our aid.
I turned to find that Barro had departed. When, exactly, he’d lost his nerve and run I couldn’t say, but I supposed that it didn’t much matter, either. Daedys was in the process of recovering his senses, albeit slowly.
The witch had ceased her singing and approached now, a subtle smile of self-satisfaction writ large across her face. “Well, that’s one threat to Vaina dealt with,” she said.
“Where did you learn that song?” I asked, my curiosity and wonder plainly evident.
“A story for another time,” she returned. “You’ve got more pressing matters at hand.”
I looked at the disk in my hand.
“Not that, either,” she explained. “That can wait now that the spirit is bound. I came across Nilma on my way here. She’s with Orren’s body.”
“I don’t know, but I figured you’d want to see it.”