Let’s Talk About Midnight Mass


K and I recently finished Midnight Mass on Netflix. I enjoyed it–this time of year I’m always in the mood for some horror fiction and there’s a lot out there that just isn’t good (I also recently watched Gretel & Hansel, which was mildly interesting but really just doesn’t merit a post).

Much has already been said about the series’ approach to religion, but rather than respond to the thoughts of others (many of which I’ve found cogent and insightful even where I may not agree with them), I thought I’d write my own instead.

Communion and Vampirism

Let’s first address the elephant in the room, shall we? Midnight Mass is certainly not the only piece of fiction to have made an association between vampirism and Communion. The Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game played with this idea and Biblical legend has perhaps always played a part in the various cultural ideas of vampirism–after all, if you have a Christian worldview and also believe in the existence of vampires (as was somewhat broadly the case almost to the 20th century and still has its holdouts) you have to figure out how the two ideas mesh. Various possibilities have been put forth in religious folklore–Cain, Lilith, etc.

The accusation that the “love feasts” of early Christians involved the literal eating of flesh was made by the Romans (probably either in cynical propaganda or credulous misunderstandings of the new religion’s rites), but Christianity doesn’t stand alone in this regard–the “blood libel” against the Jews throughout the medieval period represents a much more serious and lasting accusation than that against Christians. If you’re unfamiliar, the “blood libel” is a long-running tradition of belief that Jews were actually eating Christian babies and children, or at least killing them and using their blood. It shouldn’t need to be said but: this was an outright anti-Semitic lie perpetuated out of a cultural need for a culpable “other” and justification for pogroms against and the exile of Jews that had financial motivations as much as socio-religious ones.

For purposes of this post, though, I’m less interested in historical beliefs and more interested in the seemingly-natural association humans seem to draw between Communion and vampirism. In other words: what does it mean to “eat the body of Christ” and “drink the blood of Christ?” This will not be a thorough discussion of the theologies of Communion, but rather some general thoughts on the matter.

The first question raised, of course, is whether the terms are intended to be literal or figurative. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation takes the meaning literally–and this, of course, is part of the reason that Midnight Mass works with Catholic liturgy and theology in a way that just wouldn’t track the same for a Protestant theology holding that the meaning of Communion is symbolic and commemorative.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is a difficult one at best. On the one hand, that means a direct confrontation with the belief that you are literally eating your Savior (and the necessary follow-up question of “why?”). On the other, this creates the additional problem of what happens to the body of Christ once you’ve ingested it, requiring a doctrine of “untransubstantiation,” because it would be improper to defecate your Lord and Savior. Yes, that’s funny, and I giggle, too, but it’s the sort of corner that theology can back itself into sometimes. I am less inclined to believe that this is a matter of the foolishness of early theologians and more inclined to believe that it simply a matter of the limitations of the human mind as it struggles with divine mystery. There’s just really no way to definitively determine the question of transubstantiation, so doctrine on the subject must be based on other theological assumptions rather than logic applied to the question itself.

As a Methodist, I belong to a tradition that denies transubstantiation and views it as a sacrament, but one that serves as reminder for grace and divine action rather than a regular miracle. Maybe that sits well with me because of my own skepticism (where, of course, skepticism is the exercise of intellectual analysis before coming to a conclusion rather than taking an answer entirely on faith–or, conversely, denying a possibility outright). This is because I think that the metaphor of Communion is two-fold: on the side of the supplicant, the metaphor is one of spiritual sustenance embodied in reference to literal sustenance. Jesus states in the Gospels that he is the source of the living water, and that he is the bread of life, but we do not take these statements to mean, literally, that Jesus was made of water or of bread. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear–God is sustainer of all things, whether that’s the coherence of reality itself or the strength of the individual soul.

The metaphor on Christ’s side–body and blood–serves as a metaphor for sacrifice. “No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Does that qualify as a mixed metaphor? Maybe, but I’d chalk it up to Chesterton’s argument that Christianity overcomes “problems” of contradiction by “combining furious opposites, keeping them both, and keeping them furious.” Hence, perhaps, the love of some Christian theologians for “both/and” as the answer to apparent contradictions.

If we view Communion in this light, the comparison to vampirism breaks down immediately. There is no predation or consumption on or of one party by the other, but two different ways of looking at the meaning of the same event, both of which are simultaneously true if not directly compatible. For me, personally, this is where I find the argument for a commemorative Communion more convincing than the argument for transubstantiation; not in the rejection of the possibility of miracle but in preference of the meaning that most fits with my understanding of Christianity as a whole.

None of this is to discount the possibility of a personal, existential and mystical encounter with God through the act and ritual of Communion, regardless of your theological view of the sacrament.

Critique of Religion

Much has been made of the character of Bev Keane as vehicle for much critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Rightly so, she is the main villain and a truly horrible person. But, I’d argue (as others have done) that the critique demonstrated by her character is not a critique of religion itself, but of the use of religion–and equally applicable to the misuse of any philosophy or system of belief adhered to without any doubt or humility. That could just as easily be aggressive atheism, materialist science, the social-Darwinism tenets of neo-capitalism, political beliefs or, in a slightly less dangerous and much more amusing version, fandom.

It is not the substantive belief (i.e. Christianity) that makes Bev Keane evil. The story provides Christian characters antithetical to such a reading. Think in particular of Annie Flynn, who first offers a verbal rebuke (from the lens of Christianity) to Bev Keane and then lays down her life for the benefit of others in that ultimate expression of love meant to counterbalance the evil Keane has worked. If you want to argue that the fact that Annie doesn’t actually die undercuts her sacrifice, I have two responses. First, there are some consequences that are worse than death–especially to a Christian who believes in the promise of eternal life. Becoming whatever she became after she transitioned into undeath would not have been a welcome prospect. Second, that does not undo the terror that must be overcome to willingly slit one’s own throat and experience what followed.

Instead, there are two possibilities for explaining Bev Keane’s evil, and both are both infuriating and ubiquitous in humanity. The first possibility is that her position and the use of her faith serves only to fulfill those petty desires of the small-minded: something to control, something to feel superior to, something to set you apart for special praise. The second is that she has allowed her convictions to stand in the way of her compassion. This is the behavior that causes Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees so many times in the Gospels, to call them “white-washed sepulchers.”

I would argue that all genuine faith (regardless of creed or theology) must begin from a place of humility and an acceptance of love for others as the deciding factor in all moral questions. It is humility that keeps us from the surety and pride in our own ideas that allows them to justify hurting others in the interests of “purity of doctrine.” It is love that guides us not to hurt others for our own gain. That Jesus demonstrates these points time and time again is one of the most convincing aspects of Christianity to me, personally. At the same time, regardless of doctrine, I cannot conceive of a good God who would not appreciate a person who follows these practices, regardless of the specifics of their theology.

Erin Greene’s Speech

Here’s the problem that I have with the narrative and the arguments it makes: Erin Greene’s “I am that I am” death speech. Now, to be complete forthright and honest, I’m biased against the argument made by this speech in the first place, so take it as you will (which may be not at all). Here’s a transcript of the monologue so that it is fresh before you:

“Speaking for myself? Myself. My self. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem with the whole thing. That word: self. That’s not the word, that’s not right, that isn’t — that isn’t. How did I forget that? When did I forget that? The body stops a cell at a time, but the brain keeps firing those neurons. Little lightning bolts, like fireworks inside, and I thought I’d despair or feel afraid, but I don’t feel any of that. None of it. Because I’m too busy. I’m too busy in this moment. Remembering. Of course. I remember that every atom in my body was forged in a star. This matter, this body, is mostly just empty space after all, and solid matter?

It’s just energy vibrating very slowly and there is no me. There never was. The electrons of my body mingle and dance with the electrons of the ground below me and the air I’m no longer breathing. And I remember there is no point where any of that ends and I begin. I remember I am energy. Not memory. Not self. My name, my personality, my choices, all came after me. I was before them and I will be after, and everything else is pictures picked up along the way. Fleeting little dreamlets printed on the tissue of my dying brain.

And I am the lightning that jumps between. I am the energy fighting the neurons. And I’m returning. Just by remembering, I’m returning home. It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean, of which it’s always been a part. All things, a part. All of us, a part. You, me, and my little girl, and my mother, and my father, everyone who’s ever been. Every plant, every animal, every atom, every star, every galaxy, all of it. More galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach.

That’s what we’re talking about when we say God. The one. The cosmos, and its infinite dreams. We are the cosmos dreaming of itself. It’s simply a dream that I think is my life, every time. But I’ll forget this. I always do. I always forget my dreams. But now, in this split second, in the moment I remember, the instant I remember, I comprehend everything at once. There is no time. There is no death. Life is a dream. It’s a wish. Made again and again and again and again and again and again and on into eternity. And I am all of it. I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.”

The first thing I take issue with is that the speech exists at all. If you’re going to spend an entire series deconstructing religion and the problems that arise within it, I find it disingenuous to substitute your own argument for cosmological truth in the final act–it just makes everything that came before a strawman for knocking down, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to lend strength to a belief about fundamental reality just as unprovable as the ones you’ve spent the rest of the story questioning. Given that the rest of the narrative raises questions about how we judge the leaps of faith we willingly make–or are called to make by others–trying to answer the question only cheapens it. The more honest approach is to leave the question open: we don’t know for sure what ultimate reality is or what happens when we die, no matter how deeply we believe in the answer provided by one faith or another, so let’s start from a place of compassion towards others and humility in our understanding of self.

For this same reason, this speech is entirely unnecessary and overreaches. The only satisfying answer that we find in the questions raised by the story lie within our lived lives, not our expectations of the afterlife. How our faith causes is to treat people in the here and now is the primary focus of any theological argument made by the show, so why suddenly go beyond that?

[Aside: I’d also note that this is the same focus that Jesus takes in the Gospels–he spends much less time (but not none) discussing the nature of the afterlife or resurrection, because (I think) however God has (or has not) structured any life to come, anything more than the hope of it is a distraction from the lives we lead now. Jesus has much more to say on how we ought to conduct ourselves in our present lives; I’d argue the central theme of his teachings is a revelation of how creation operates (or should operate) so that we can use that knowledge now.]

Here’s where, if the approach taken by Erin’s speech appeals to you, you may really want to leave off. I think it’s only fair to deconstruct that argument about the nature of reality in the same way the show does for other religious ideas. Here we go.

The speech begins with a denial that the self exists, but continues to speak in the first person. This is a problem that I have with any theological argument that asserts that denial of the self and re-assimilation to an undifferentiated whole is the purpose or end of existence. First, because this is, effectively, death. If you do not believe in an afterlife, that’s fine, this concept will work for you. But it is incompatible with the idea that we continue to exist after the assimilating event, you are, by necessity, a self.

More important, if you are arguing that the self is only an illusion (as does Greene in her monologue, as do some forms of Buddhism), who is making the argument? You have no internal consistency when you argue that there is no true thing as self and then make a bunch of statements as assertions made by yourself. This is the same problem with the materialist arguments that “there is no self, there is only the illusion of self because consciousness is an unfunctioning byproduct of firing neurons” (something that Green alludes to herself) or that we lack free will because “we’re just bags of chemicals.”

Erin’s cosmology leads to nothing morally superior to Christianity or any other philosophy or theology–it is not exempt from being misused. If I am everything and everything is me, I can justify doing whatever I want for my own power, because it’s all me anyway. If my actions only hurt myself, there is no one but me who can truly complain about anything I do, even if it seems to hurt part of me–I have the right to hurt myself as an autonomous being. Bev Keane could find ways to work with this kind of solipsism with no more difficulty than she justifies herself through Christianity.

I’m going to sidestep the hubris of decided that one is God, not to mention the absurdity of denying the existence self and then claiming such an expansive definition of self.

That said, I do believe that this philosophy is particularly apt for a horror story…if the point of the philosophy is existential terror. Really think about what Erin is arguing about her existence–she continually “forgets” and believes that she’s a self, has experiences, comes to find out she’s not a self and it has only been a “dream,” then forgets that dream and goes through the process ad infinitum. This is a cycle of believing that there is meaning in existence and then finding that there is none. It is a masturbatory universe playing with itself because there’s nothing else to do. Without variety, without self, without memory, without relationship, where can meaning be found?

Between Riley Flynn and Erin, what I really see motivating their beliefs is a desire for oblivion, a desire for the end of suffering. That’s understandable from a certain perspective; given enough suffering, the will to continue to exist in the face of pain and despair will eventually abate. I’d like to say I think of the Book of Job when I think of this, but really I think of the narrator in Fight Club: “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is a desire for escape, a desire simply to stop suffering. Given Riley and Erin’s experiences in life, I see why such a belief would be appealing. And maybe that’s all we get at the end of life, a ceasing to exist that alleviates all pain–but that also denies any of the joys of existence. I have only my faith to say otherwise.

But that is, in fact, part of why I have faith. I want to believe that there is an ultimate meaning to existence, that we exist in the creation of an omnipotent and beneficent God who wants the highest joy for each of us when all is said and done in this world. No joy that ends can be the highest joy, so it stands to reason that eternal life is necessary (though not sufficient) to the abundant life Jesus promises us. Instead of having a hope to one day escape the bad, I would rather have something more–a hope for being complete in the good.

That faith and hope makes me a better person. Yes, it helps me to suffer more patiently. Yes, it helps me to be generally happier. But it also helps me to strive to create meaning, in both life and art. It helps me to love others and to push for that abundant life here and now (what, after all, is eternity but an unending “now?”). It helps me to do good. This kind of faith isn’t a crutch; it’s a ladder.

It’s possible that Erin’s explanation of reality is the correct one; I lack the knowledge and experience to say anything conclusive on the matter. But I also see no reason, theological or practical, to live one’s life with such a belief. I, for one, will continue to set my faith on something higher.


If you watched this show and felt that it singled out Christianity for special treatment (I think there’s an argument that it went softer on Islam, but it’s also true that that may only be a matter of space in the story and the fact that it is Monsignor Pruitt and his church that is the focus), I’d ask you to ask why you think that is. There is, as I’ve mentioned above, the strange relationship between Communion and vampirism. But I’d argue that that’s not it. Instead, I’d argue that this is a matter of the times in which we find ourselves and of the nature of American Christianity (painted unfairly in the broadest possible brush, of course).

In the past few years, we’ve had conservative Christians call Obama the antichrist, act as if Trump were the Second Coming (a thought so antithetical to me that I have a physical reaction upon writing it), call the Covid-19 vaccine a sign of the End Times, use their faith as an excuse for not showing compassion to their fellow man (again with the vaccine, and I’ve written previously about the use of faith as an excuse given by child placing agencies to discriminate within the Texas foster and adoptive care systems) to support fascism undercurrents and spread lies about our government, to make arguments against equality, and so on and so on. The litany of offenses would be a long one indeed, and this is nothing new.

Given these stances and their affect on believers and non-believers alike, they should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. It should be a matter for every honest believer, regardless of their specific beliefs, to introspectively question the rightness of their theological positions as a matter of a desire to truly live faithfully–entrenched tradition and interpretations of doctrine originating in very different historical contexts should be especially subject to this process. Not because we have changed for the better, necessarily, but because the interpretations that arose in one context may be influenced by that context just as ours affects our interpretation. The argument that progressive Christians are trying to “change the Bible” because of changes in culture is a willful ignorance that all interpretation is subject to human limitation and the influence of culture on the mind. By having a greater diversity of interpretations, we may be able to make comparisons and weigh arguments to find something closer to the truth.

Those who’ve read my blog for a while know that one of the primary focuses in my religious writing is to argue against the fundamentalist and conservative interpretations of Christianity that I believe grossly miss the meaning of the faith–and create barriers to others in considering what true Christianity is about by creating an image of the faith that is repulsive to those who feel that compassion and love, not fear and hatred, is the message of a good God, regardless of the specific faith. In that sense, Midnight Mass makes a strong and valuable point–we have a moral obligation to consider whether our religious beliefs lead to good things or bad, lead us to make the world better or to make it worse. When it’s the latter, is it really fair to resort to divine mandate theory–that because God said it it’s true and moral? Or should we believe in a God that does not ask us to hurt others for vainglory?

A General Update

Wow, it’s been over a month since my last post. I’m not quite ready to put anything new of substance up, but I did want to provide some assurances that I’m still here and there’s still plenty more to come in the (near) future.

So, what’s with all the radio silence? Well, it’s probably a combo of things. Work has picked up dramatically over the past month, which is a great thing, but it’s left me less time for other pursuits. Then there’s the general COVID malaise we’re all under, of course. The time I’ve had (which hasn’t been sucked up by video games or our weekly RPG (currently Blades in the Dark)–the only way I’ve really got to hang out with friends right now–has been spent in reading and writing. But wait, if I’m writing, why isn’t there anything on the blog?

The writing I’ve been doing has been to produce first drafts of two new short stories. They need some good rounds of revision (which I need to find time and will for) before I send them off to see if either of them makes it to publication (I’ve got significant doubts about one, though I still think it’s a good story; the other I’ve got some serious hopes for). If, as it likely, both are rejected, they will appear on the blog in a short while.

In addition to those stories making it to the public in one way or another, here are some additional things to look forward to or to enjoy now:

(1) Avar Narn World Anvil: I had previously mentioned that all of the background information for my fantasy world, Avar Narn, has been made viewable for everyone. Well, because of a setting error, that wasn’t exactly true. That has been fixed, and if you want to delve more into the background and lore of the world in which my stories are set, you can go here. This will, of course, continue to be expanded upon.

I’m also, slowly, working on a set of RPG rules for Avar Narn. These will go up either here or on World Anvil (or both) as playable iterations become available. While they are being created with Avar Narn in mind specifically, most of the rules will work with other fantasy settings and game operating under similar assumptions.

(2) Fatherhood: We’re getting ready to open our home again for a foster/adoptive placement. It’s hard to believe it’s already been almost a year since the boys left, but we’re keeping up with them and their family and they seem, by all accounts, to be thriving! This may be a slow build, as we get all necessary approvals in order and then wait for something to happen, almost certainly with a narrower set of parameters than before.

(3) Frostgrave: COVID hit before I could get everything prepped to actually play this amazing game. With the time looming where I can get together with friends soon (I’ve got my second vaccination shot at the end of the month and most of my circle are already vaccinated or waiting on their second dose), I’m returning to the prep work to get this worked upon.

(4) Theology: I’ve got several half-written theology posts that I’ll be returning to shortly. I don’t want to call my time during COVID a “dark night of the soul,” per se, but I’ve been putting off writing that is very important to me on this front.

(5) Reviews: I’ve been rereading through old sword and sorcery works (Howard and Lieber, specifically), and I imagine some thoughts about the genre and the context of those stories are bubbling into an article. I also recently listened to “Black Crow, White Snow,” a fantasy novella available on Audible, which provides a great juxtaposition with the antiquated views of Howard and Lieber.

I’ve also recently reviewed a lot of different RPG systems in thinking about my own and I imagine I’ll have some things to say about all of that as well–along with my thoughts on the Blades in the Dark system after getting a few more sessions of the game experience under my belt.

Hopefully that gives everyone something to look forward to. More to come soon!

(Review) Cyberpunk 2077: This Isn’t the Future I Ordered

[I started to write this review back in mid-January, but I got distracted by life events and other writing projects and have only now come back around to finishing it.]


I waited a few weeks before I picked up my copy of Cyberpunk 2077. My brother had been playing since release day on a stock Xbox One and swore up and down he wasn’t having massive crashes or game-breaking bugs. So, about the start of the new year, I plunked my creds down and unlocked that deluge of bytes and bits that, a short time later, coalesced into the game on my Xbox One X. It seems only fitting to get the game through such a method, though I didn’t manage to find a way that I could download the game straight into my brain. Some of the things I was promised by the Cyberpunk of my youth are yet to come to fruition.

I played through most of the available content, having fewer than half-a-dozen side missions left and about as many of the available NCPD gigs. In that time, the game hard crashed fewer than tens times and, between the system’s assertive autosaving and my own constant backups, I never lost more than five minutes of playtime when a crash happened. I lost much larger chunks of play when AC: Valhalla crashed on me, which happened with less frequency than Cyberpunk crashes, but not by much.

I only noticed one other major glitch while playing, and that was that, once I equipped the Mantis Blades, they would never retract, even when I switched weapons, and continued to take up a good half of the screen. The issue resolved when I switched back to the monowire cyberweapon instead and I didn’t try the Mantis Blades again during my playthrough. There were a few minor visual bugs or errors–such as being unable to pick up certain (very low value) items that had been marked as pick-upable. Overall, the game played smoothly, was pretty to look at on an few-years-old Samsung HD flat screen, and didn’t suffer from the litany of problems I’d been led to expect. The game actually convinced me that upgrading to the Xbox Series X might not be as imminent a necessity as I’d previously thought. Your mileage may vary.

A subsequent second full playthrough (and about half of a third) had me see most of the rest of the game’s side missions, with fewer crashes or issues each time–thanks to consistent updates by CD Projekt Red.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s talk about the ugly first; get it out of the way: Cyberpunk 2077 decided to resort to gimmick and shock value in its treatment of sexual issues. The range of gender presentations that had been promised in the character builder was lacking at best. Instead, you can pick your penis size, or have a vagina. None of the choices matters, and there’s really no purpose to them. I don’t mind sex and romance relationships being part of the story lines of video games–I’m a generally hard person to offend, so those things merely being there don’t incite me to anger. That said, I’m not sure that I’ve ever come across a romance system (or dialogue) or a “sex scene” in a video game that didn’t make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. You can find elsewhere a deep discussion of some of the sexualized gimmicks and mistakes made by the game designers. For my part, what I really want to comment on is the missed opportunity here, with the clumsiness of the shock-value choices made by the developers underscoring the lack of thought given to their approach. I’m not interested in the debate of whether sexual topics should have been omitted from the game altogether; with regard to such issues, my first question is always “what does the inclusion accomplish for the story” and, while the answer in Western media is often that it’s included only to pique the prurient interests of the audience, I also stand amazed, like G.R.R. Martin and others, that American society in general is simultaneously so uncomfortable with sexual issues and so comfortable with the graphic depiction of violence.

Cyberpunk, as a genre, provides us with warnings not just about technology used without regard for ethical considerations, but also the commodification of everything human by ultra-capitalist systems. While the former is certainly an increasing worry for modern society, the latter is the far more pressing issue in my mind–after making it through the widespread disaster that was Texas’s (lack of) preparedness for winter storms last week, which to my mind clearly demonstrates the problem with allowing profit-driven private interests to trump public welfare (as does the system of pharmaceutical development in the U.S. and its effects on the current pandemic)–the increasing dangers of a society caught in a death-spiral propelled by the veneration of capitalism above all other ideologies feels close to home. So, when Cyberpunk resorts to using sex and nudity only as window dressings, instead of commenting on the increasing commodification of sex and human desire, I honestly feel a little cheated about what could be meaningful narrative that could pull Cyberpunk 2077 from entertaining game into the realm of participatory literature. Even the plotline with Evelyn and her fate does little more than provide plot points without much consideration of what it means to be a “doll” sacrificing personal identity to satisfy the needs of others (sexual or not) and the plots that revolve around Clouds likewise use the profound sexual issues as a backdrop without making profound use of narrative potential.

You Get What You Give

I read another review of Cyberpunk 2077 that criticized the lack of defined personality for V, complaining that The Witcher had you play a character with a defined personality for whom you still had meaningful choices to make and further lamenting that V’s personality can swing psychopathically based on the whims of the player. I’d like to respond to that evaluation and, since it’s my blog, I will. My kneejerk reaction to this sentiment is that the critic needs to play more roleplaying games (pen and paper, preferably) to appreciate a video game in which you have the opportunity to create a personality for your character without having that personality defined for you. I, for one, would rather play a protagonist I get to design for myself rather than playing someone else’s character in a story. If the character comes across as inconsistent, that’s on the player more than the designers, because you have opportunities in Cyberpunk to make consistent character choices. If, on the other hand, you approach every dialogue option from the perspective of yourself staring at a screen where you have an avatar to wonder around in making choices according to your every whim, of course you’re going to end up with an inconsistent character. Feature, not bug, in my book.

That said, not all of the character choices have enough effect in the game to be meaningful. Some aspects work well without changing the storyline much or at all–the developing relationship between V and Johnny can be cathartic, dramatic and satisfying on its own (though this is undercut somewhat by having a “secret” end-mission option based on your relationship score with Johnny causing a split between immersively playing a character and meta-gaming the program). Otherwise, though, many of the choices are too limited in effects to truly be felt. Yes, some choices will open up romantic relationships, and some will allow for different end-game missions and resolutions to the main plot, and there are a very select few that will have a later result (freeing Brick in the initial confrontation with Maelstrom may have a later effect if you play through all of Johnny’s missions), many follow the pattern of “let them say whatever they want so long as they do what you want them to.”

Maybe I’m chained to my existentialist leanings, but it seems that there’s a lot of Cyberpunk’s story and main character that only bears the meaning you personally create for it. Just like the ambiguity of life in general, that could be immensely freeing and satisfying or terrifying and ennui-inducing. Or both at once.

I played my first playthrough on the “normal” difficulty setting, increasing the difficulty for each subsequent playthrough after I’d grokked the game’s systems and idiosyncrasies. My first character ended up as a sort of generalist, my second a street samurai foregoing any hacking for a Sandevistan and later a Berserk module, my third going full Netrunner.

The game is devastatingly easy, even on the highest difficulty setting, for netrunner characters. One reviewer compared netrunners to wizards in fantasy settings, with programs approximating spells. I think that’s relatively true, especially because the programs work in ways that are especially “gamey” and unrealistic. If you’re going to implant yourself with cyberware, you’re not going to allow that cyberware to be wirelessly-enabled for any punk with a computer to hack into, and you’re probably going to invest in a decent firewall as well. Systems aren’t going to be designed with such blatant faults in them that you can electrocute or overheat the user. So yes, the hacking in Cyberpunk is essentially magic.

The pure combat approach, even with a good deal of stealth, is much more difficult, especially on higher difficulties. Without the ability to hack cameras, you have to be especially careful. Attacks must be carefully planned so as not to be overwhelmed. I kind of think that this was the most enjoyable approach to the game, though, both for pleasure of gameplay itself and the satisfaction of achievement. There’s something thrilling about beating a machinegun-wielding punk to the punch while swinging a katana, and the gunplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty good, too–and I love a good tactical shooter.

Another exploit to use or avoid is finding the Armadillo mod blueprint. I don’t think that there’s any Technical skill requirement on being able to craft the Armadillo mod at any rarity level–the rarity level of each one you make is just randomized–and few materials are required to make them. If you keep to clothes with multiple mod slots and fill them all with level-appropriate Armadillo mods, you can maintain an Armor rating sufficient at any given level to feel nearly invulnerable.

The game lacks some of the exploration elements you might expect in an open-world RPG; you’re not going to find as many of the sorts of locations that tell their own little stories like you would in Fallout or Elder Scrolls. But the side jobs are interesting–some of them more interesting than the main story, I think–and search them out, as well as the NCPD hustles, fills some of the gap.

Substance and Style
The feel of Cyberpunk 2077 is the feel of 80’s sci-fi in the setting tone and dressing. On the one hand, that’s fitting; cyberpunk was born in the 80’s. But it’s also been more than 30 years since the end of that decade. Technology and culture have changed. Our cultural fears and suppositions have evolved. World events have shown us that, while the danger of megacorporations is real, it might not be so melodramatic as we expected. We’ve had Brexit, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the realization (by us–often willingly–ignorant white folk) that racial injustice has never been overcome, the resurgence of far-right terror groups and white nationalists, and the shift of widespread economic fears focusing on Japan to focusing on China. But we’ve also seen some things change for the better–green energy is innovating and being taken seriously, a majority of the world (if a slight one) believes in the reality of climate change and the moral obligation to do something about, technology has provided for democratization and methods of social resistance as much as domination.

Bear in mind that the original Cyberpunk RPG setting took place in 2013; the most popular version of the game was set in 2020. Moving the timeline forward (either all the way to 2077 as in the video game or to the 2050’s as in the tabletop Cyberpunk Red) begs the question–why hasn’t anything really changed? Yes, Mike Pondsmith and the other members of the creative teams of both projects did hard work in balancing a setting that feels at once like nostalgic Cyberpunk and just a bit different. That’s a difficult line to walk, so I’ll admit that my comments here should really be applied to the cyberpunk genre in general and not to the Cyberpunk setting specifically, in any of its guises.

But I’m ready for cyberpunk as a whole to grow up, to evolve with us. It’s insufficient to continue to dwell on the cyberpunk of the early years–though we must acknowledge a debt to Pondsmith, Gibson, Stephenson and the early fathers of the genre. Where’s a cyberpunk for my middle years, one that includes all the myriad shades of gray endemic to any genre born from noir, but that also includes some dashes of color hear and there, that gives us a gritty optimism, reasons to fight the evil in the world to preserve the good, reasons to do more than only survive?

Maybe I need to read more cli-fi and other developments out of the cyberpunk genre. My own fiction writing, while fantasy in genre, takes a number of cues from cyberpunk–but that’s not quite what I’m talking about either. Where’s the wise old cyberpunk that’s introspective in new ways? I’m seriously asking–if you’ve found it before me, drop me a line!

So, while enjoying the neon retro-future that Cyberpunk 2077 offers, I’m also left wanting something more.

I enjoyed Cyberpunk 2077 well enough to return to play it with different character builds, and it’s definitely reminded me of my nostalgia for the cyberpunk genre. I think that it’s the gameplay, though, that did it for me more than anything. The narratives have their clever points, drama and empathy-invoking aspects, but if you’re looking for storytelling on quite the same level as The Witcher, you’re not going to find it here. Maybe it was just too much hype for its own good. Maybe too many promises that didn’t make it into the release build. Or maybe it promised us a world we’ve already left behind in our hearts and minds.

Things Unseen: After-Action Report

First and foremost: Thank you to those of you who’ve accompanied me in this process, whether reading online or off, whether sharing your thoughts with me or not. Every “like” on a chapter post gave me motivation to keep writing. I cannot say how much I appreciate your support.

It ended at 150,794 words, six weeks after I’d planned to be finished. The last bit was hard to slog through, honestly. Not only because life–as it tends to do–intervened to make sitting to write more difficult, but also because the more I realized how significant of rewriting I was going to need to do, the harder it became to sit and write an ending I knew would be subject to change, potentially drastic change. So yes, I rushed the ending. Badly. For that, I apologize.

But, I decided that there was great value to finishing the first draft in its entirety, regardless of how satisfied with it I was, and that the sense of accomplishment for doing so, however small, would be an important motivator in starting the difficult work of getting the text to where I might consider it being “great.”

I’d call it a solid “okay,” as it stands. I’ve read some things that managed to be published that I think, even in its current state, this text is better than. But that’s not saying much. And I don’t really want to be a “passable” author, I want to be a brilliant one. That’s going to require a lot more work on my part!

The good news is that at least have a solid idea of how to get there. If I had to sum it up in a phrase, the novel needs “more and less.” On the “less” side, I need to cut out some of those parts that don’t really pull their weight with regard to the main story. This includes the trip to the Crimson Close and the fight against the Child of Daea. As much as I enjoyed writing those chapters, and as much as they provide some important background to the world of Avar Narn, I think that they take up space that could be better devoted to focusing on the core story of Orren’s spirit and the interlocking desires and machinations of the people of Vaina.

And that’s where the “more” comes in. I need to deepen the characterization across the board, build more depth for the interweaving plots of the suspect and involved characters. The whole story needs to be “tighter” in that regard; gaps need to be eliminated between the logic of events and the storytelling. Which is not to say that I intend to cut out the jumps from one scene to another so much as to more carefully consider the pacing.

To that end, I’m considering this first draft more of a very extended plot outline than a full draft. Where I can, I’ll be pulling from scenes as written to form jumping-off points for rewrites. But first, I’m going to do my own readthrough, distill each chapter to its plot points as an updated outline, and then use that to create a new outline that goes not just scene by scene, but beat by beat, notating for intended “feel” as well as plot and for the sensory details and descriptive elements I want to include.

I’ve written several times on the blog about the approach to writing as “brain hacking;” that good writing carefully constructs the string of thoughts and emotions in the reader. I don’t want to commit to that thought as the One True Way of writing, but I do feel that it describes the approach I think I need to take to take the novel from “meh” to amazing. And I’m really just not willing to settle for less.

It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it. I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

Things Unseen, Final Chapter

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

I enjoyed a night of relative peace before guards summoned me in the early morning. The suns had not risen yet; I understood that this was business to be taken care of before prying eyes were awake to witness it. The two men who’d come to get me wore breastplates and swords, but neither helmets nor polearms. An attempt to seem less threatening, perhaps. Not that it mattered.

They gave me a short time to dress and strap on my belt before calling me onward. I hoped not to need my blade but suspected that things could come to that—especially after catching the expressions traded between the two men as I took up my sword. the guardsmen led me down the castle hallways and staircases, not to Aryden’s study as I’d expected, but to the great hall.
There, Lady Aevale amn Vaina occupied the chair of judgment. Four more guardsmen I didn’t recognize flanked her, two on either side. Barro, freed from the imprisonment to which Aryden had sent him, stood directly next to Aevale’s seat. The expression of pious serenity he wore like a mask inflamed my anger more than if he wore the grin of smug satisfaction at his return to power. I looked around for Aryden, for Vesonna and her tight-laced tutor, for Gamven or Deadys, but it was only the seven of us.

“I saw you,” Aevale said, her voice low and raw, out of practice. “In my dreams. Nightmares, really.”

“You did.”

“Barro has filled me in on what has befallen us since your arrival, what transpired last night. You’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t you, lord thaumaturge?”

In my cynicism, I’d expected something like this, the rationalization of recanting on a deal after services had already been rendered. I’d prepared for it. Son I said nothing.

“You have left all of my husband’s plans hanging by a thread. The amn Estos threaten to leave without a wedding. Edanu has halted negotiations for Vesonna’s wedding to House Meradhvor. My priest had been imprisoned. You’ve spread rumors that the burning of a witch was unjust, and you’ve nearly fallen into fights with every important person of the town.”


“To say nothing of my husband! He has left us, like a thief in the night. For what?”

“He chose exile, my lady. For your sake.”

“So I’m told. That’s awful convenient, isn’t it?”

I took a step forward, only for the guardsmen to put hands to sword hilts. My own hands fell to my hips obstinately. “And you think that I’ve arranged all of this for just such a purpose? To undermine your petty kingdom? For what?”

“For my husband’s siblings,” she spat.

“You and Aryden are more alike than I’d expected.”

“That is ‘Lord Aryden’, to you!”

“It’s not,” I quipped. “Not anymore. Not to anyone. He renounced that title, bonded his own Wyrgeas to enforce the abjuration of his position. And he did that to save you from death as revenge for his murder—and your own curse. Point your finger all you want, Lady Aevale; you know where responsibility for all these things lies. Even had I wanted to, I’d have needed to take no action to destabilize the delicate balance of power your family has managed to hold here for so long. The consequences of your own actions unfolded to do that. Have you no decency, no humility, no introspection to admit your own role in your fate? I have completed the task for which your husband hired me; I have my payment. I’ll collect my things and be on my way.”

I turned to leave but found the tips of swords pointed in my direction. Far enough to not be an immediate threat, but close enough to send their message clearly.

“I’m afraid not,” Aevale rasped from behind. “I can’t risk you spreading lies and calumnies about what you ‘witnessed’ here. I will not allow you to make our family’s ruin complete.”

I smiled a little, reaching my left hand into one of my pouch pockets, a maneuver that caused the guardsmen to step cautiously away from me. Over my shoulder I lifted a small ultramarine clod, the dried paint I’d stolen away from Ovaelo’s palette. Now that I thought about it, the oily residue in my hand held quiet a value; part of me regretted not choosing a more common hue for my purposes. Regardless, though, that chunk of paint had more value to me now that to anyone else in the world, for in this moment, it meant my life.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aevale asked, croaking.

“Did Barro explain the counter-ritual to you? Did he explain the working I performed with your husband’s help last night?”

“He said you bound Orren’s spirit into Ovaelo’s painting of me.”

I turned to face her now. “Yes. And this is paint used in that painting.”

Her brow furrowed as she failed to see the connection.

“Which means that this little blue clod bears a sympathetic link to the painting itself, a link that I can use from wherever I am to create a working that affects the painting itself. Should that painting be sufficiently damaged, Orren will escape and resume his assault upon you. Aryden’s sacrifice is already made; it cannot be made again. So I do not believe you would find renewed respite from the curse that you wrought upon yourself.”

“So you would be the arbiter of justice, then?”

I spat. “None of us knows well enough to use that word well. For me, this is only a vengeance against you should you flout the help I have given your family. It is a surety against your good behavior, a letter of safe passage. Beyond that, I care not. I’ll be happy to be done with this place, and with all who bear your name.”

“Then begone with you, and do not return.”

“There is one more thing,” I said.

“To blackmail now, is it?”

“Call it what you want,” I told her. “I never made a claim that it was justice.”

“Out with it.”

“There is a place within your demesne, a place where the veil is thin and the Power spills into our world more readily than elsewhere. I believe the folk of Vaina know it well.

This place is why Meradhvor is so interested in a marriage alliance; they want to exploit it for their own ends. As long as you are alive and hold power as the Lady amn Vaina, you shall not allow any of the Artificer Houses to make claim to that place. If you do, I shall restore your torment to you.”

“You do seek our ruin,” she rasped.

“As I said, my task is done. I no longer owe your family anything. I’ll take my leave.”

The guards stepped back, unsure of what would transpire if they did otherwise, and I passed between them without incident. Briefly, I returned to my room to collect my belongings and then proceeded directly to the stables to recover Windborne.

None of the servants had yet taken their place with the horses, which suited me fine. I recovered the saddle and tack and fitted them to my mount on my own, thinking of Savlo and Errys, of Falla—even of Orren’s pitiable fate. I would pray that The One speed them all to new life and happiness, for I knew no other justice to be had for them.

I lead Windborne carefully from the stables, her stiff joints needing time to limber up before I mounted. Wordlessly, the guardsmen opened the castle gate for me, and I passed into Old Vaina, where the townsfolk were just beginning to come to life as the first of our suns peeked over the horizon. I ignored the signs of the Tree, the suspicious looks and spitting that once again greeted me amongst the townsfolk. They would never be allowed to know the fullness of the service I rendered to the amn Vaini, nor how the amn Vaini had wrought their own maladies. To them, I would always be just one more wicked thaumaturge, in league with forces dubious at best, but more likely evil. At that moment, I pledged not to take another job outside of the Sisters—I preferred being caught in the machinations of the Coin Lords over those of the nobility. The former, at least, knew what they were and didn’t insult you by trying to hide their duplicity while stabbing you in the back. But, even as I made the pledge to myself, I knew it would not hold. I’d go where the opportunities were. For coin, yes, but more to push the boundaries of my own abilities. This job had done exactly that, and I’d kept eld Caithra’s hidden book for my collection as well. For all the nastiness that accompanied my time in Vaina; for all the moral failings of mankind, all of the suffering wrought by unintended confluences, by things unseen and only felt upon their consequence; even for the less-than-happy ending, I didn’t regret coming here. Some of the things I did and said, sure. Some of the paths not taken that might have been better for all of us? Absolutely. But I could not summon up regret that I had come at all. There’d be plenty of time for that later, if it manifested.

When I passed under the gate into New Vaina, I found the constable Daedys waiting for me. How long he’d been standing in the dark before the suns rose I could only guess, but he carried no weapons and I breathed in a sigh of relief that he’d not come for some misguided but renewed insistence upon vengeance against me. Which gave me a thought.

“You are leaving, I see. How did it turn out?”

“Walk with me,” I instructed. He did as asked. I told him everything I’d learned without holding back. Someone had to know the truth, and at least once, I had to tell it. I told him how Orren had intended to take advantage of the amn Vainas for his own profit, how the potion Falla had given Nilma provided an unexpected opportunity. How he’d used that opportunity to seduce not Lady Aevale, but Aryden, causing him to break his trothbond to his wife. How, when Aryden discovered the treachery, he plotted to and then murdered the boy. How, at that very moment, Aevale, who’d also discovered the affair, had been undertaking a working to curse Orren, a working given to her by the priest Barro even as he offered such fear and hatred for Falla from his pulpit. How Orren’s murder acted as a sacrificial release of power that warped the curse into something else entirely, transforming Orren into a vampiric spirit of unusual power. I told him of Aryden’s sacrifice to undo the curse, of Orren’s binding to the painting as the only respite for anyone. Only this did I attempt to soften, explaining that the scholars seem to agree that mortal spirits somehow bound to the Avar do not stay indefinitely, but only for a time before they return to the Path and the Wheel. I finished with the information that Aryden had left in the night, a fulfillment of his oath, and that the recovered Lady Aevale now sat the seat of judgment in Vaina.

I don’t know how much he listened to. He was mumbling to himself, “Aryden killed my nephew,” over and over. A mantra, an oath. I could see that cold desire for vengeance re-enter his eyes, and I wondered whether he would find the wandering former lord—and what might happen if he did.

“There’s something I need to ask of you,” I told him.

This broke him, at least momentarily, from his obsessive course of thought.
“What is that?”

“Your place of Power, the place where you met with Magaréil. It is without a defender. I would ask that you watch over it, that you prevent it from falling into the hands of man or spirit who would exploit it. If you find such, write to me in the City.”

“What of Magaréil, then?” he asked.

“I don’t know yet. They’re coming with me, and I think we have a lot to discuss, they and I. From there I suppose I’ll have to find some place to free them where they cannot seek power over mortals as they did here.”

“You’ve deprived the folk here of their greatest ally, you know,” Daedys said.

“I’ve done a great many things that have changed this place for a long time. I meant well, but only time will tell how much good intentions had to do with, or how accurate my understanding of ‘good’ is. We make the choices we have and we live with the consequences.”

He nodded, and I returned to Ilessa.

[Return tomorrow for my own thoughts on the first draft. I’d love to hear yours!]

Things Unseen, Chapter 53

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

We convened in Aevale’s chamber: Aryden, the painter Ovaelo and myself. Ovaelo set up his easel and the half-finished portrait of the Lady Aevale upon it while I drew out three circles on the floor. Aryden mumbled to himself about The One knows what, throwing worried glances toward his wife and throwing cautious attention to every corner of the room where shadow danced at the edge of the light cast by the lanterns and candles we’d set up in abundance.

I moved as quickly as I could to sketch the apotropaic marks around and between the diagrams I’d constructed through the use of my knotted girdle. Already, the air became thick with the imminence of Orren’s manifestation, or perhaps only my own trepidation.

For his part, Ovaelo laid out his pigments and brushes on a small folding work table as if he had all the time in the world. I couldn’t tell whether his bravado drove him to such display or if he really failed to realize the danger that confronted us.

“Your line is not straight,” he said, as I hunched over near him, working on the symbols that would keep Orren’s spectral talons from rending his flesh.

“Shut up,” I returned, too fatigued to assume any civility.

I’d spent the last hours, while Ovaelo had been hunted down and pulled from some brothel in lower Vaina, to pour over Eld Caithra’s book and to develop some semblance of a ritual to counter the serendipitous confluence that had led to this mess in the first place. Time was running out for Aevale, so this would have to do.

In the corner of my eye, I noticed Aryden checking every so often for a sword that wasn’t there. I’d forbidden him from bringing any weapons into the room with us, as they would be of no use against the spirit but, in frenzy and fear, might easily be employed against the rest of us. Another thing for him to grumble about, I suppose.

“Shall I begin?” Ovaelo asked over my shoulder.

“To finish the painting? Yes, the sooner the better. The act of painting isn’t part of our ritual; the finished product is.”

“Of course, lord thaumaturge.”

“When are you ready?” Aryden added.

“When I’m ready,” I spat back. My hand cramped with the repetition of the symbols of protection, each repeated thrice for three warding circles, and the mental exhaustion of hurriedly writing a ritual of this scale took a definite toll on my focus.

We proceeded thus for the better part of two hours as a scribed the circles. Finally, I ensured that everyone stood in his proper place before I incanted the working to empower the wards against spirits.

Just in time, too, for as I began the words, the room plunged into darkness, the lights extinguishing in perfect synchronicity.

“I can’t work in the dark, lord thaumaturge,” Ovaelo whined, as if the darkness had been targeted specifically at him. Maybe it had.

A quick sorcery returned some of the flames to their rightful places, flickering atop wicks in lanterns and on candles, revealing a hunched, inhuman form, perched on Aevale’s chest like a predator ready to strike.
Orren’s spectral cadaver eyed us each in turn, a smile on its sharpened teeth that resembled that of dog resisting the urge to snap. He eyed each of us closely in turn; the empowered symbols in the circles at our feet illuminating us with their glow.

Ovaelo had dropped his brush at the sight, and it had rolled away across the floor, across the protective circle. Thankfully, the wards had not been smudged or broken by either the motion itself or the periodic globs of unused paint left in the brush’s path. Instinctively, Ovaelo began to reach for the utensil.

“Stop!” I yelled.

He snapped his hand back just before it breached the plane of the circle. On the other side, Orren’s spirit stood at the edge, waiting for the painter’s mistake, having moved too fast to be seen by the eye.

The normal bravado and pride drained from him by the proximity to danger, the painter straightened himself and breathed slowly, the air ragged as he sucked it in, trembling all the while.

“Keep going!” I told him, my voice a loud whisper for no reason apparent to me.

Ovaelo selected a new brush from the tray near him, looking back to the painting to determine what he’d been working on before Orren’s appearance. Having satisfied himself, he delicately touched brush bristles to palette, hand still shaking, and took in another deep breath before returning to his work. Orren squatted as near as he could to the man, watching him all the while, grinning that threatening and cadaverous grin.

“How long?” Aryden asked, his impatience palpable.

“You cannot rush excellence!” Ovaelo snapped back, the impertinent question restoring some of his usual haughtiness.

“We don’t need excellence,” I interjected. “A passable resemblance will be just fine.”

“I would not put my name on a work that is not excellent!” the painter objected.

“Then don’t sign it, you bastard!” Aryden returned.

Ovaelo stopped his work for a moment, considering whether or not to stand his ground. He decided against it, and the Lord amn Vaina and I both breathed easier for it. “Fine,” he said. “The original is almost finished…but I need to add our…companion.”

At that Orren’s specter slashed at the ward surrounding the painter, throwing up blue and green arcane sparks as ethereal claws scratched against the barrier. In the blink of an eye, he tested Aryden’s and my wards as well, before settling, squatting, on the chest of Aevale as he had first appeared to us.

“Yes,” Ovaelo said, his artistic sense overcoming his fear. “That pose will do nicely.”

We could hear gasping breaths from Aevale’s unconscious form as the phantom committed itself to pulling the last remaining life force from her.

“He’s killing her!” Aryden exclaimed.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Now the race begins.”

“Ovaelo, if this doesn’t work, you’ll never paint again. I’ll have your hands!” Lord amn Vaina followed, the desperation in his voice making the statement more believable.

“You’ll do no such thing,” I reprimanded. “He’s doing the best he can to help you, you miserable old man.”

Aryden opened his mouth to return insult for insult, but instead turned his focus back to his wife. Each breath she took seemed slightly shallower than the last, but we had no way of knowing for sure how long she could hold out.

So we watched, the Lord amn Vaina and I, shifting our focus back and forth between the vampiric spirit and the painter, shifting between hope and fear and despair moment by moment as we wondered who would finish first.

I can’t say how long actually passed in that lesser eternity. There are times when the march of time is irrefutable and inexorable, and times when it seems to bend and curl back on itself like the eddies of a stream, meandering forward, yes, but in its own time and to its own whim. This was one of those latter times, and the waiting sapped our resolve.

Finally, Ovaelo turned the painting to show us that he had completed it, but the leg of the easel scratched across the protective runes as he did, and the ward fell away from him at once. I noticed the mistake before the spirit did, with just enough time to fling the specter to the corner of the room with a sorcery before it could pounce. “Run, and close the door behind you!” I shouted.

The painter needed no second urging and I’d purchased just enough time for him to escape; Orren’s claws left broad gashes in the wood of the door as it slammed before him. For an instant, the spirit seemed to consider pursuit of the fleeing man, but he quickly returned to the task of bringing Aevale into the spirit world he now inhabited.

“What now?” Aryden asked.

I ignored him, clearing my mind and beginning the incantations I’d prepared to redirect the curse. The color drained from Aevale’s skin, the urgency of my work flustering me as I attempted to recite line by line as I’d written it.

I’ve said before that incantations are a method for focusing the mind, not an inherent part of the act of thaumaturgy, and that is true. But this working, this was theurgy, and ritual workings function by the sympathies constructed within them. Sometimes that requires certain dress or items, props even. Sometimes, as with my protective circles, it involves elaborate diagrams and symbology. Here, though, the performance bore the weight of establishing the bonds between microcosm and macrocosm that allowed the working to take effect, and that had been set when Aevale performed a ritual from eld Caithra’s book, one that required no Gift and little understanding of the Art if it could be performed with specificity, as it apparently had.

So I’d had to construct the counter-ritual as a response to the act that brought the curse into being in the first place, so I’d needed language, as Aevale’s working had used. I spoke in High Aenyric, as Barro had instructed Aevale to do. She had repeated words she did not understand, relying on eld Caithra’s skill to bolster her intent. I, at least, had a passable understanding of the language, enough to understand what she had spoken, to literally respond and undo them. As best I could. For a brief second, I wondered how different things might have been if Aevale had had the Gift, even if she’d never been trained in its use. Her inability to feed the Power directly into the working provided the only weakness I could exploit to unravel what she had done, so powerful had Orren’s unintended sacrifice been in empowering the curse. A chill ran up my spine with the thought, but I cast it aside as quickly as consciousness would allow.

Orren continued in his own work, if not working. Aevale’s breaths came shallower now, only the last wisps of life remaining in her. Time was running short.

“Now!” I told Aryden, waking him from his reverie.

He hesitated. He looked to his feet, away from his wife’s suffering.

“Don’t you dare turn away from her, you bastard!” I shouted. “Not here, not now. She is about to die, and I can only hope that that won’t bring her under Orren’s control in the world between—but I assume that it will. She’ll be in a place no amount of wanting will allow me to bring her back from, and you will be to blame. Not Orren; you.”

“He was a liar, a cheat. He’s the reason we’re here!” Aryden protested, hands balling into fists.

“No, he’s not,” I returned, voice hardened by the strain of holding the working taut so that he could do his part. “You murdered him. You and your wife broke him, together, if not knowing what you did. Whatever he was before, you made him this. You are responsible. Will you face that? Will you save your wife? Will you honor your oath to her after all?”

The Lord amn Vaina took a step back, physically distancing himself from the moral quandary I’d given him. His foot broke the back of his ward; we could both feel it fall into nothing.

Several things happened at once, just then, and I’m still not sure how they all fell into place. I moved from my own protective circle in response, leaping between Aryden and what instinct told me was coming. With my right hand, I raised a sorcerous shield to block Orren’s strike, the move so fast once he’d initiated it that he appeared to be both raking his claws against the ethereal barrier and still sitting on Aevale’s chest at the same time. The second Orren continued to rend at the shield, and I knew it would not hold for long. So did he.

Miraculously, I’d managed to hold the ritual we’d initiated together in place while all of this happened. Had I thought about any of it, my focus would have shattered into smithereens, but instinct had carried our defense instead.

“Now, damn you!” I pushed between gritted teeth.

He hesitated another moment, his pride full-fledged before him. Finally, though, the words came, softly at first. “I, Lord Aryden amn Vaina, renounce my name and my lordship, my position and power, all favor I have garnered in this life, my worldly goods and wealth. I renounce all things but faith in The One and my family. I agree to suffer, willingly, for breaking my bond of oath, and to live in poverty and anonymity, so that my wife may be free of this curse. I ask The One that my Wyrgeas be changed so that this oath comes to pass no matter my actions, no matter my own weakness. I surrender myself freely for the good of the one I love, whom I have harmed.”

The lord—former lord—had no time to wonder whether his sacrifice would be accepted. The air thickened, the flames of candles seemed to dance away from their wicks, to hang in mid air, while the room drained of its heat. Sensing the moment, I continued my own incantation, speaking the Aenyr words, drawing that sacrificial Power into the working.

“Orren,” I continued, no longer needing the shield to protect me from the specter, who now cowered pitifully before me. “I bind you. I bind you by the secret names of The One. I bind you by the authority of the Lady Taelaine. I bind you by the authority of the Lady Melqea. I bind you by the authority of the Lord Doqun. You shall be bound to this painting and shall not leave it until it is destroyed or The One calls you onward from your shadowed place. You shall trouble no mortal, and you shall return to Aevale what you have taken. Begone!”

As I finished the words, the room returned to the kind of lighting one might naturally expect, and no trace of Orren’s spirit remained before me. Aevale stirred in her bed, her breathing normal once again. She made the plaintive sounds of one resisting waking up, not for something holding her back, but merely for the joy of a soft, warm bed. Behind me, Aryden had collapsed into the corner of the room. He said nothing, but I knew that part of him wished he’d never said the words, that he’d taken the risk that Orren might be satisfied with his wife’s spirit and trouble him no more.

I turned to the painting. Ovaelo had done well, despite his many protestations. The perspective and realism of the image impressed—but the likeness of Orren disturbed, particularly since it resembled so closely the phantom that had been attempting to kill me a moment before. Any time I turned my head, so that the painting occupied the corner of my vision, I could see Orren’s figure move within the image. Slightly, subtly, but definitely. I sighed heavily in the knowledge that the ritual had worked. Orren had not been banished, only confined to Ovaelo’s artwork. But that would be enough. From the stand by the easel, where Ovaelo had left his paints to dry in the air, I scraped a chunk of blue pigment free, finished drying it with a subtle sorcery, and put it into one of my pouches for safekeeping.

Meanwhile, Aevale had sat up; she and Aryden stared at one another without speaking, each processing all they had done to one another; all they had done together.

A knock came at the door. “Is it safe?” asked Vesonna from the other side.

“It’s safe. Enough.” I said.

She burst through the door like a child long kept from a parent, moving past me without acknowledgment and throwing her arms around her mother, who smiled a wan smile in response.

Outside, past the now open door, Eldis waited cautiously for an invitation to enter. I stopped to speak with him briefly on my way out. “Secure the painting,” I said. “It must be kept in an absolutely safe place.”

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To have a drink and a bit of rest. I’ve earned it.”

Things Unseen, Chapter 52

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

I slammed eld Caithra’s book onto the desk in Aryden’s study. “This is the instrument of your suffering, though you and your wife are the wielders,” I said.

By now, Aryden had begun the evening’s drinking; his languid eyes betrayed the depths to which he’d drunk himself already. “What?” he asked, and I wasn’t sure if the word meant incredulity or that he simply hadn’t understood me.

Turning the book to face him, I opened it to the frontispiece. “Eld Caithra’s Bindings and Loosings. Aevala knew of your affair with Orren, but rather than confront you or do anything that might spread rumors, she decided to act against the one she believed had undone you. She was trying to protect you, I think, though she chose about the most foolish method she could find for her attempt.
And that is Barro’s fault. He brought her this book. He showed her the cursing ritual written within it, assisted her in its completion.”

“So it is a curse,” Aryden mumbled, almost to himself. “So you can undo it.”



“This curse never took effect. Not as it was written in these pages, anyway. Orren never suffered the effects the working describes.”

“Then why bring me this text? Other than to implicate our Temple priest?”

“It’s more complicated than that, I’m afraid. The curse is the source of Orren’s manifestation as a spirit; I’ve found no other reasonable explanation. Which means that, by Wyrgeas or happenstance, at the same time that Aevala and Barro reached the completion of their ritual, you were murdering Orren. Between Aevala’s intent, some mix of love for you and desire to protect you, and the Power released by Orren’s death, an unintended sacrifice, the working was warped. It could no longer take effect as written and planned, but it had been infused with too much Power and shaped with too much emotion to have no effect.
The curse both bound Orren here and empowered him to take his revenge against you two.”

“What do we do to break it then?”

“As I said, I can’t. Were you not listening? A human life was sacrificed to empower this working! It is beyond my ability to simply undo.”

“What about a repetition of the cause?” Lord Aryden asked, somber and serious.

“What? No! I’ll not partake in another murder for your comfort and safety. I can’t break the curse; I can’t undo it entirely. But there may be a way to render it effectively harmless.”

Aryden leaned forward in his chair at that. “How?”

“I can’t be certain that my plan will work, but it is the only possible resolution I can conceive. For now, you needn’t worry about the details. There is a decision you must first make if we are to have any chance of success.”

“And what is that?”

“Sacrifice. Sacrifice—especially done freely and willingly—is the most powerful sympathy for the creation of a working. Orren’s unwilling sacrifice has strengthened the curse that has created him as he is now. A willing sacrifice will be necessary to counteract what you have wrought. The sacrifice must be yours.”

He eyed me warily now. “What kind of sacrifice?”

“By its very nature, something dear to you must be sacrificed. Giving away something of no value to you is meaningless.”

“But not life?” he asked, searching for some assurance.

“Were that the case, I would not consider my plan a viable option.”

“Then what?”

“What do you have that would pain you the most to lose?”

“Vesonna,” he said.

“You’re thinking too literally, perhaps. Besides, anything to do with another person will be their sacrifice as much as yours, and that just won’t do. The meaning of the sacrifice, what makes it so powerful in this case, is the contrition it shows for the wrongs that led to the curse. It must be yours alone.”

He took a swig of wine from the goblet on his desk and leaned back into his chair, his neck rolling so that he faced upward, his eyes closing as he searched his thoughts for an answer—one that I might accept and he might live with.

Finally, he looked up with realization. “No,” he said, voice hard.

I said nothing in response; it had the effect I’d intended.

“No!” he said, now an impudent child refusing to obey.

Still, I did not speak.

“No,” he spoke. This time, resignation and grief colored his voice, the beginnings of acceptance. But then he looked up at me with cold eyes again, and I knew to expect his last sally in avoidance of the inevitable. He rose from his chair, knocking the goblet aside as an empty display of violence before pointing his finger level at my chest. “This is what you’ve wanted all along, isn’t it? This is why my siblings sent you here, so that one of them may take my place at the head of our line. I send to them for help and they see an opportunity at usurpation! No, I will not agree to this! I will not allow this further impunity, against me, against the order established by The One and the traditions of our people! This seat is mine by right, and I shall not be stripped of it by grasping relatives!”

“Who said we’re talking about rights?” I asked him, voice flat and unmoved by his display, though my stomach turned at the tension of the exchange.

“What’s ‘fair’ and what’s ‘right’ aren’t part of this conversation. I’m not a priest or a philosopher to weigh those things with you; I’m a thaumaturge here to solve a problem. What you have to sacrifice for a solution to work is not within my power to change. That being the case, moral inquiry into the matter is not my concern.” But in my heart, I did wonder whether there was a certain justice here, and whether the balancing of sacrificial powers in competition with one another really was a part of The One’s greater design.
Aryden slumped back into the chair. “I need some time to think on it,” he said.

“No; you don’t. The choice is simple. Your power or the wife to who you are trothbonded. If there is any choice there, then you deserve neither.”

He moved to rise from his seat again, to raise his voice, to ask me how I dared speak to him that way. Sometimes, though, the truth has a power all of its own, and in this instant that power overcame all indignation, trampled all objection.

“So how do we do it, then?” the lord asked.

“I’ll have to design a counter-ritual. During that ritual, you will renounce your claim to your throne, your wealth, and your position within the family. That abjuration will be fatebound; your refusal to abide by it will result in curses and calamity upon you. It’s important that you understand that. These are not just words. These words have a power to them; the Avar itself will seek to enforce them. Once you’ve made your renunciation, I’ll use the power of it to remove Orren’s influence over Aevala and this place.”

“You’ll banish him,” Aryden offered.

“No. As I said, I don’t have the power to fully break the curse and banish Orren’s spirit, only to render it harmless as long as certain measures are followed. I’ll transfer Orren’s authority elsewhere.”

“How will you do that?”

“Send for Ovaelo; I’ll have need of his assistance. Make sure he brings the painting of Lady Aevala.”

There came a knocking at the door. Aryden yelled for the supplicant to enter. Eldis cracked the door open and stuck his head in, like an old turtle cautiously reaching for a leaf in the midst of danger. “Barro is here; he says it’s to beg your forgiveness, my lord.”

“What do I do with him?” the lord asked me.

“The responsibility for justice remains yours for the time,” I said. “But keep him from me, for my desire is vengeance.”

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.”

For a single PDF with all chapters published to date, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 50

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

Endan stopped me before the door to Aevala’s chamber. “She is in a most delicate state,” he said. “In this condition, we’ve been unable to feed her. We’ve given her water by means of a sponge. She doesn’t choke on it, but I can’t say how much of it she’s really getting. She is wasting away, and the end will be soon if you are unable to help her. In all honesty, I’m not sure why Lord Aryden has not allowed you to see her sooner.”

“I’m seeing her now,” I said, dour.

“Yes. If there are any materials that might aid any working to heal her, I am at your service, of course.”

“Thanks, Endan.”

I pushed open the door, which creaked a warning to those who dared enter. One I ignored.

The inside of the room had been decorated less lavishly than I’d anticipated, bordering on humble and sparse. Aevala lay in an extravagantly-carved canopy bed, but it had been covered in homespun rather than the silks and brocades one might expect of a wealthy noblewoman. A nightstand of simple, rustic design occupied a place next to the bed, one with a single simple drawer and topped by a copy of the Book of the Tree and a candelabra, the candles of which had all long since been melted down to stubs.

A simple wooden rocking chair faced the room’s window, which had been covered with a thick tapestry, leaving it lit only by candles on the walls, these, too, low after burning through most of the day. They were beeswax candles, at least, and burned sweetly and cleanly, leaving the room feeling fresher than might otherwise be the case with the window so thoroughly blocked.

A carving of the Tree hung above a small fireplace opposite Aevala’s bed, where she would have been able to see it had she been able to open her eyes. This and the tapestry over the window provided the only decorations adoring the room’s walls. The only other items in the room were a small stool—a sitting place for servants in attendance and currently occupied by a young woman of Nilma’s age, simply dressed in clean and well-made clothing, and a rug that covered the majority of the floor. That covering had done so for quite some time without being refreshed; gobs of spilt wax intertwined with the decorative threads criss-crossing the fabric to form several tableaus, each a scene from the Book.

To each her own, but this approach to piety never endeared me much. At best, those who tended toward it missed most of the joys The One created for us in this world. At worst, they tried to make everyone else forsake those joys as well. This kind of rejection of the world does little for the soul and less for the world, I think. Except for leaving the rest of us to our fun, maybe.

The handmaid started as I entered the room, settled somewhat by Endan’s appearance behind me. Rather than speak, she elected to return to the stool and determine whether her shoes needed cleaning.

Aevala herself appeared much as she did in the Sea of Dreams, like a forsaken princess doomed by poison in one of those fantastic tales born of some historical event (usually involving the Art) and then exaggerated to unrecognizable proportions. But her face did not bear the expression of sublime and serene slumber one might expect to encounter in the ballads and lays. No, the skin on her face was taut, not fully contorted into the grimace of suffering, but highly suggestive of it.

Her hands had been folded over one another across her chest atop linens that had been pulled tight around her, as it intended to keep her from floating away. She looked as if already dead. This caused me to stop in my tracks a moment and to watch and wait, filled with anticipation, until I became sure that I had seen her chest rise and fall with breath several times in a row.

“Any change since earlier?” Endan asked the handmaid.

“No, sir,” she said in response, not looking up from her shoes.

“Well, what can I tell you, Iaren? Would you like to know the treatments I have attempted?”

“Not yet, doctor,” I assured him, already hunched over and peering at the room’s minutest details, hoping for something that might present a path forward. At length, I pulled back the rug to check the floorboards. Nestled within the troughs of the wood lay flecks of white powder, the detritus of chalk drawings. No shape had been retained by the scattered powder, but I knew its former purpose. Too many times had I swept away a similar coating of pigment in my own humble apartment in the city; even now one could find the same telltale in my own room here at Vaina Castle. The remnants of an arcane circle. Someone had used the Art in this very room.
That explained, perhaps, the obfuscating presence I’d seen surrounding this place, a dark cloud left as a byproduct of the working. But now that I was inside, no such gloom would inhibit my perception.

Without thinking overmuch about it, I employed the Sight. Immediately, the room’s shadows lengthened, began to move apart from the forms demanded by flickering candles. I thought I caught Orren’s spirit in the corner of my eye, but turned to find the space empty save for a startled Endan. There came a whispering, faint and at the edge of perception; whatever Art had been employed in this place had drawn the interest of entities that ought not be enticed. It had been a dark working indeed, and though the ritual itself had taken place far enough in the past that the drawn circle radiated only the faintest light, such that I couldn’t reliably capture the intricacy of its form, enough of the Power remained behind that I could see that it had been.

Through the Sight, Aevala seemed even more cadaverous than before. Black tendrils of wispy shadow extended upward from her, the same as those I’d detected on Orren in our first encounter. The Art that had been employed in this room had bound them together; I inadvertently smiled as the additional complexities of what had happened to the amn Vainas set in.
But the whispering grew louder, and I began to think that the shadows had ceased simply swaying uncannily but were now reaching toward me, and I could endure the Sight no longer. Even though the disturbing details lurking beyond the mundane had vanished, the room felt irrevocably darker, more dangerous.

I stood lost in my own reverie, thinking about how such a powerful theurgic working might have fallen into the hands of Lady Aevala. As he raised his voice to a level uncomfortable to everyone in the room—for decorum’s sake if not for volume—I shook free of myself and turned to look at him. Evidently, he’d been talking to me for some time while I stood dumbfounded.

“Iaren?” he asked again.

“Yes, Endan,” I responded, making every effort not to sound as annoyed as I felt.

“Are you alright?”

Despite myself, I laughed at that. Was I? In the midst of a room filled with the lingering effects of the darker Art? In a castle whose lord neither trusted me nor would appreciate the results of my efforts? To whom my knowledge would be as much danger as relief? In a town that had once already demonstrated its willingness to burn my kind? With a noble scion who wished to kill me, an operative of House Meradhvor who wished to bend me to his purposes, and a fell spirit who would unravel me if given the chance? Sure. Fine.

I said nothing, but turned to leave.

For the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 49

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

When we arrived at Aryden’s office, Daedys nudged me in, his face a sympathetic wish of good luck, and closed the door behind me, leaving Lord amn Vaina and I alone.

“Where the fuck have you been? God, man, you’re not even fully dressed,” he railed.
I looked down at my bandaged chest, beige linen flecked and stained with red against beige flesh. With the drink beginning to wear off, I noticed the considerable pain from where I’d stretched my wounds. The sharp pull of flesh indicated that the wounds underneath had been stitched together, which had limited the loss of blood from my active morning but ached fiercely where the stitches had strained against flesh. “I went for a drink,” I said petulantly.

“You went for a—” he stopped himself and drew in a breath before continuing in a more controlled voice, “We do not have time for such indulgences, lord thaumaturge. I need you to finish your investigation and be rid of this spirit before anyone realizes that the witch had little to do with it.”

“I’ve solved the murder,” I told him, bluntly.

Aryden leaned forward against his desk, steepling his fingers. “You have?”

“You murdered Orren im Varde, Aryden. And then you hired me to investigate the crime you’d committed.”

“I didn’t hire you to investigate a crime, foolish boy. I hired you to get rid of a spirit.”

“You don’t deny it?”

“That I killed the boy? No.”

“He was having an affair with your wife and you killed him for it.”

“What? No, Aevale is innocent in this.”

“Then why does Orren’s spirit afflict her?”

“I don’t know. Vengeance upon me, I imagine. A cruel reminder.” Aryden’s eyes began to water slightly before he wiped them with the back of his hands, drew in another slow breath, and hardened himself.

“A reminder of what?” I continued.

He looked at his desktop as he spoke, avoiding my eyes. “My wife did not have an affair with Orren,” he paused, and for a moment I thought he had finished his statement, but he continued, “I did. I’d never felt much attraction for men before, but I found myself besotted with him, uncontrollable in my passions. I broke my pledge to Aevala, may I be damned for it.
“But after the first few weeks of our tryst, the truth revealed itself. My passions waned and, realizing it, Orren sprang the trap he’d always intended. He told me that he’d reveal our secret if I did not give him what he wanted, ruin my relationship with Aevala, ruin my reputation, dash all of the plans I’ve so carefully been making all of these years—”

“So you killed him for it?”

“No. Not for that. Not that only, at least. I’d thought to give him what he wanted.”

“Which was?”

“A great deal of money. Letters of introduction to our contacts in Ilessa. A betrothal to Vesonna—not to be completed, but enough to bring him some fame amongst the nobility and help him establish a reputation. He wanted me to make a gentleman of him, living free in the city at my expense. It was a setback to my own designs, to be sure, but one I could manage. And I was desperate.”

“Then why kill him?”

Now, Aryden looked up at me. “Because he told me how he’d done it. How he’d put me in such a position.”

Pieces fell into place within my mind. “A love potion,” I said.

He nodded. “One he said he’d gotten from Falla. The two of them schemed against me together.”

“I’m sorry, Aryden. They didn’t.”


“Nilma got the potion from Falla. To use on Orren. Only he stole it from her and used it on you.”

“The witch had nothing to do with it?”

“No. You burned her only for your appearances.”

Aryden swallowed hard at that. “Unfortunate. But necessary all the same,” he said, perhaps to himself as much as to me. “So where does that leave us in terms of getting rid of Orren? We’ve burnt the body. You know now how he died. What do we do?”

“I’ve been wondering about that myself,” I told him.

“Then what good are you?” his voice turned from vulnerability to accusation in a heartbeat.

“The murder isn’t the cause,” I said, the realization only coming to me as I spoke the words.


“Put your pride and ego aside, my lord,” I told him, the final two words unavoidably caustic. “This isn’t about you. You made it happen, in part, yes. But not fully. It’s about Aevala. Orren’s spirit has attached itself to her because of something she did. His revenge is on her. At least until she dies. I suspect you will be the next.”

“Speak plainly.”

“Something Aevala did set this in motion. She must have cursed Orren.”

“How could she—” the color drained from his face as realization crashed over him like a wave. “She knew,” he said, almost a whisper.

“She must have.”

“But how would she know how to curse the boy? The witch?” It was an idle hope, grasping at clearing his conscience more than providing an answer.

“No,” I told him.



“Then how?” color and cantankerousness returned to him as he asked.

“Theurgy does not require the Gift, necessarily. It helps, to be sure, but if she’d somehow had access to the right ritual, and been able to enact it precisely and faithfully, she could achieve such an end.”

“Who would she get such information from? And without anyone knowing?”

“That’s a good question, Aryden, but let’s confirm whether I’m right first, shall we?”

“You’re going to ask again to see her, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“You are to say nothing of the details of our discussion just now, yes? And nothing about what you’ve come to know about Orren’s…death. I will of course compensate you for your loyalty. Handsomely.”

“Right,” I said, noncommittally.

“Iaren!” Aryden said, rising from his chair, a small hiss puffing from his Artificial leg. He put his hands flat on the desk and stared me in the eyes. “I will do anything to protect my family,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s something you understand, but you’d be well-advised not to test me on this.”

He’d murdered before to protect his family—or at least to protect himself. I didn’t know how much he actually separated the two from one another. So I nodded again, slowly, though even I wasn’t sure how much I meant it.

“Have Endan take you up,” the lord amn Vaina said, nodding to the door to indicate that I should leave. “Whatever you find, you discuss it only with me.”

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