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.”