I followed the master of arms through the hallway, down the stairs, passing panicked servants along the way.
I heard gasps of “He has not left!” or “The priest failed to allay his spirit!” or myriad variations on the theme. Between the vagaries of arcane knowledge and the long-deposited weight of superstition, there are often chances for “I told you so’s” in my line of work, but they’re never satisfying. They always mean more work.
The bystanders were fleeing toward one another as often as in the same direction; Orren’s spirit flitted about the whole keep again, seeking targets of opportunity rather than a fixed purpose. The burning of his body and the last rites may not have destroyed the anchor keeping him here, but he had been upset, thrown off balance and disoriented. It made him more dangerous rather than less.
As Gamven again changed course in the chase, I knew that we were not headed to a position fixed, but following after suspicions of the specter’s current location. That game was no good; we’d played it enough before and I was in no mood for another ethereal ambush.
“Stop!” I told the warrior.
He turned to face me, eyebrow raised.
“I’m going to where he’ll come to me,” I said. “Don’t follow.”
I left Gamven behind. He took an initial step to follow but decided against it, falling away as I ran toward the great hall, through one of the side doors, and down the stairs into the cellar where Orren had been murdered. Was I taunting him by heading there, or trying to bring him somewhere familiar? I didn’t know, but suspected it didn’t much matter.
Once in the cellar, I brought the candles and lamps to bright, dancing flames with a sorcery, providing that ancient bastion against shadow and darkness. I drew my wand from its sheath, wishing that I had my staff instead. The wand is a tool for precision and direction, an implement for finesse in a working. This makes it as much a tool of war as of peace, at least for those practitioners with a penchant for focused destruction in their thaumaturgy. But I had no particular need for precision; I needed blunt force, stalwart protection. And I wanted for it.
I caught the first unnatural movement of a shadow in my peripheral vision, turning to find nothing there. I swept my head across the room, moving to the edge of one of the long rows of shelved wine casks and leaning around its corner. I felt a rush of air behind me and turned only to find the flames of sconced candles and fixed lamps bending with the sudden wind. My eyes followed the flow of the air but met only with more shadows. I’d be getting my ambush after all.
Suddenly, the top row of casks on either side of the shelf blew open in sequence, the head of each barrel bursting forth in a timed succession approaching me, crimson wines flowing freely and sloshing across the floor like so much blood.
I turned just in time to meet Orren’s first lunge, stepping sideways and riposting with a lance of pure Power from the tip of the wand, the crudest of sorceries, but all that I had the wherewithal to summon in such a short time. The energy seemed to sting the spirit, as it recoiled its outstretched and clawed hand in an all-too-human movement: the hand brought too close to fire.
Only the briefest of instances elapsed before the second attack. I attempted to repeat the answer given to the first, but my own dodging movement had brought the tip of the wand off of line and sent a burst of energy into the stone wall behind Orren, chipping away at it as if striking it with a pickax.
My head swam at the exertion of calling forth the Power with so little preparation, even for a sorcery, and I focused all my energies on continued evasion. We danced around the cellar in erratic lines and half circles, my boots kicking up splashes and sprays of wine that passed right through my assailant’s ethereal form. When I dodged to one side of one of the shelves, hoping to put an obstacle between us, Orren simply passed right through and continued the assault.
My mind raced through alternative options to continuing this dance until I made a misstep and met with the spirit’s rending claws. I thought to set Magaréil in my defense, but I’d left the binding disk in my room above. I’d no time to draw a protective circle or sigil, and probably too little focus to shape a working of any substance anyway. Then I remembered the rings on my fingers, there for just such a purpose. As I continued to evade Orren’s grasping talons, I tried to recall the specific workings I’d stored for later use. I had no need for the tragicomedy that would follow the activation of a working for the abatement of rain when I needed an aegis of defense.
I settled on a ring that stored a working intended to harden flesh against blows. Focusing my will on the ring’s sigil, I summoned forth the working within. To no avail; I’d not empowered the working so that it would be ready for use, only slipped on the rings so that I’d have them if I needed them. Foolishness and fatigue catching up to me. Too late, I began another step away from Orren’s thrash; the tips of his clawed hands drew lightly across my skin, opening shallow but painful tracks across my left upper arm.
A curse issued from my lips, an involuntary response to the pain, and the death’s head in the midst of the spirit’s ethereal form bared its teeth from behind taut spectral skin, a mask in the memory of Orren’s face.
“Stop!” I said, willing Power into an empyrean wall between the ghost and myself. Claws rebounded against the translucent structure, and Orren paused to stare at me a moment.
We both understood that I could not sustain this defense indefinitely—perhaps not even for a substantial amount of time—but I would take every second that I could to devise my next move.
“I am trying to help you, you stubborn bastard!” I spat. “If I can get you justice, perhaps you can move on.”
A rasping whisper came in response. “No justice,” it slowly scratched in both my ears and my mind.
In all honesty, I’d not expected it to speak at all. More than its assault, more than the violence, this took me aback. I almost let fall my warding wall in my distraction, the spirit taking a cautious step closer as it flickered. “Not justice? What then?” I asked.
“Vengeance. No justice.” The slow cadence of its voice felt like a long rush of cold, sharp wind passing over me. Without a more complex grammatical structure, I couldn’t tell if Orren meant to correct me only in the specific sense or to reject the idea of justice altogether.
“For your murder? You were murdered in this very room, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” he rasped, “and more than murder.”
“More than murder? What does that mean?”
“I will take the lives of the amn Vainas as my retribution. This place shall be mine.”
“Fool,” I said. “You can’t rule this place. All you’ll be is alone here. Everyone will flee this place. Then where will you be?”
“I will take Aryden and Aevala to dwell here with me, as my servants. Perhaps Vesonna, too.”
“It was Aryden. Aryden murdered you, didn’t he?”
“Yes.” The word dragged on in sibilant susurration.
“Why?” I asked, but my curiosity had drawn my mind away from the sorcery that kept us separated, that allowed this conversation.
We realized the lapse at the same time. Orren’s spirit lunged at me, both arms outstretched. I in desperation unleashed a final blast of the Power intended to bluntly bludgeon the specter back across the veil. For a time, at least.
I felt a piercing cold rake across my chest, Orren’s claws finding flesh to rend. But as quickly as the pain began, it stopped, and darkness overtook me.