Things Unseen, Chapter 51

For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.

I made a quick sally to my room to recover my shirt before quitting Vaina Castle. The afternoon stretched into evening now, and the suns had begun their daily descent. Still, I pressed on, undisturbed—or perhaps spurred on by—the impending darkness. Though I tried to brush them all aside, the knot in my stomach would not let me forget how the anxiety that, over the past few days, dangers both manmade and supernatural had repeatedly assailed me once night fell. They’d be likely to do so again.

Barro’s home lay only a short distance from the castle, and I found myself there forthwith. I forewent the politeness of knocking and check the door to find it unlocked. Evidently, Vaina town is a perfectly safe place for the right kind of folk.

I pushed my way inside and found the lavish interior surprisingly quiet, devoid of the acolyte servants that had attended the Lady Vesonna and I the last time I’d been here. Perhaps they had gone with their master to the chapel or to the Temple to perform services or rites. It didn’t matter; they’d left me alone to explore as I liked and only that mattered to me.

Without any ado, since I had little idea how much time I might have, I returned to Barro’s impressive library. I must admit, a small part of me wondered whether a few of those tomes would really be missed if they happened to steal away with me. But I am no thief, and, even were I, I’m pragmatic enough to understand that petty thievery would be unlikely to do anything but worsen the already dire predicament in which I found myself.
So, I returned to the spot where I’d previously drawn my arcane circle and repeated the endeavor, all the while thinking of the chalky dust in Aevala’s room. The circle complete, I retrieved parchment and quill and, not bothering to tear smaller pieces from the whole, wrote the words curse, ritual and circle.

Laying the single leaf into the arcane circle, I knelt beside and again conducted the thaumaturgy to empower it. As I rose, several of the library’s books glowed faintly.

Without checking bindings or frontispieces, I pulled the tomes that called out to be and stacked them on the reading table, a cartography of knowledge in breadth and elevation forming as I did. Satisfied that I’d recovered all those works indicated by the working, I set to sorting through them. The poesy I removed first. To say that no truth might be found in such works would be a lie; there are categories of truth, different senses in which things may be true, but the truths contained in stories and tales did not apply to the present circumstances.

None of the remaining works seemed to be exactly on topic. Histories—many of which were no better than the fictions I’d already cast off—and speculative treatises of natural philosophy made up the greater part of the remaining stacks, with the odd theological tome or travelogue punctuating the rest. The back of my neck tingled as I worried how I might search the pile before the home’s inhabitants returned from their vespers.

By sheer instinct, perhaps because some part of me realized the folly of searching such books for instructions detailed enough for a person without the Gift to perform a ritual working, I decided to open the cover of each, searching every frontispiece for symbolism that might indicate an encoded work of the Art. It is not unknown for practitioners to use allegorical tales to encrypt their thaumaturgical treatises as a safeguard against the meddling of the uninitiated.

That just such a safeguard would likely have kept the work I sought from providing sufficient instruction to a layperson to perform a powerful ritual of cursing somehow eluded conscious thought. But the technique captured my quarry all the same, the reality being less complex than I had imagined during my search.

Wearing a fine leather binding declaring it to be Davari’s History of the Cantic Empire in Three Parts was another text altogether. Eld Caithra’s Bindings and Loosings, a Treatise of Sympathies. Among practitioner’s, eld Caithra had a mixed reputation at best. A talented magus to be sure, and a prolific writer, her personal history, and her own uses of the Art, left her morally untrustworthy at best, and a seductress calling practitioners to a fallen path at worst. In the university libraries, such tomes would be kept in the locked reserves alongside other works the potential necessity of future consultation grudgingly kept them from the fires. Another necessary evil in a world already full of so much of the unnecessary kind.

More important, Barro should never have possessed such a work, the Temple held the very fires that awaited such treatises, with only the Conclave keeping flame and kindling separated. The Conclave had no more power in Ilessa than the Temple did, all things considered, but Barro belonged to the Temple.

Hesitantly, I flipped through the pages, finding plainly written instructions for workings of many types. Eld Caithra’s specialty had been in conjury, but she showed talent in several of the other Ways as well. That she made no effort to encrypt her writings or to otherwise protect the innocent from them displayed the corruption or illness of mind that plagued her later days.

Finally, I came to it, a working for a profound curse born out through theurgic practice such that any person determined and precise enough might achieve the end. Eld Caithra called it the “curse of the living death.” If she were to be believed—and I had no cause to doubt her—the curse would cause the taste of all food and drink to turn to ash in one’s mouth, the loss of the ability to enjoy any physical sensation (but full retention of the ability to feel pain and discomfort), an inability to feel restored by any amount of sleep. This kind of torment could only result in the unraveling of the mind; it would be more merciful to kill a person than to lay such a curse upon him.

I understood now why Orren bore such hatred for Aevala. It had not been the indignation of love spurned or ambitions stymied. She had sentenced him to a fate worse than death, held back all kindness and grace from him, denied him even the benevolence of a basic respect for other lives and souls. And now I understood why eld Caithra’s name was spoken in whispers between students of the collegia intending to frighten and warn one another—our own versions of the fairy tales told by the common folk. Any person who could devise such a working was a monster; one who could write it down for the use of others was something altogether worse.
But another thought occurred now. Orren hadn’t suffered the effects of the curse. Aryden had killed him before that could happen. But he had been cursed, as his lingering spirit attested. Only one possibility revealed itself, at once tragic and poetic, too symmetrical to be true, too real to be false. Aryden had murdered Orren at the same time that Aevala conducted the ritual curse, the boy’s death further empowering the working, transforming it into something even direr than intended, something eld Caithra had not considered in her wildest imaginings.

I laughed aloud to myself, partly in wonder about the unlikely mystery I’d become privy to, but more in desperation about how I might overcome such a cosmically-empowered curse, compounded by the ill intent of multiple actors, augmented by an unforeseen confluence of events.

“My Lord amn Ennoc,” came Barro’s voice at the entrance to the library.

“What are you doing here?”

Emotion took me. Anger that the priest had put the weapon in Aevala’s hand. Fear that I might be impotent to change the results of their conspiracy. Existential terror at the recognition of Orren’s plight. Indignation that I’d been drawn into such a pit of vipers and asked to extricate them from the consequences of their own ill-made choices.

Without answering, I closed the thick book, gripped it in both hands. In three great strides I’d closed the distance to the priest, and I brought the book down upon him diagonally, as if making the wrath strike with a longsword, smashing him in the side of the face hard enough to knock him flat. My chest burned and I knew that I’d torn at least one of the stitches in my assault, but the pain only seemed to bolster my sense of righteousness.

“You bastard,” I spat. “You burn innocent folk for using the Art when you peddle curses yourself? Let Sedhwé have you; I hope the One will not.”

He whimpered in response, too surprised and sore to form words. In the room behind him, his acolytes stood frozen, unsure what had just transpired or why. I stepped over Barro and out of the library, book still clutched in both hands.

“A judgment was necessary,” the priest pushed through taut lips. “My lord had broken his oath, and the boy had caused him to.”

I turned on my heels, fire in my chest and head. I thought to bring the book down upon the man again, a judgment of my own. But doing so would only make me a hypocrite to the anger I felt at his daring to pronounce judgments on the moral failings of others.

Instead, I turned to the priest’s acolytes. “Bring your master to Lord Aryden,” I told them. “He has an account to give.”

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