Things Unseen, Chapter 36

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

I awoke, groggy-headed, strapped to a chair. The scene reminded me of something I’d been likelier to find in Ilessa, had I run afoul of one of the Coin Lords or their various lieutenants.

The chair, and thus I, sat in the center of a crude cellar, undoubtedly under the im Varde home. I could smell mold and rot, the sweetness of spilled wine and wood, something like petrichor that I assumed was the upturned dirt, rectangular, that had been freshly dug next to me.

A wooden table and several hooks anchored in the support beams built into the earthen wall to my left held a curious array of farming and gardening implements: trowels, hoes, knives, saws and axes, any of which could handily be turned into a crude device of torture.

The three men with whom I’d fought leaned against the wall in which the descending stairs had been cut or stood nearby, all of them focused on Daedys, who by now had clothed himself in the finery of someone of the wealth he feigned having but lacked altogether.

The bravos had left their weapons above, probably along with the belt I now found missing. I’d have very much liked to burn them where they stood with a sorcery or thaumaturgic incantation, and without their pressing attacks to distract me, I might have been able to execute such a working, were it not for the pounding headache and mild sense of vertigo that continued to plague me from the bump on my skull. It would have hurt to burn them up anyway, given the Power it would have required. Might even have been truly dangerous to my body. Had my thoughts been clearer, I’d probably have accepted the risk. In my present state, though, I was just as likely to set myself aflame instead of them and to die watching them laugh at me.

I strained to hear the words that Daedys whispered to his lackeys, but I could make out none of it. Still, I grasped the situation. They hadn’t killed me, so they were keeping me alive to find out what I knew. About what in particular, I wasn’t sure, but I knew their very questions might prove clues themselves—if I managed to survive after the interrogation had concluded. A short window of opportunity lay before me now; if I couldn’t escape before that time had passed, that would be the end of it.

Once the constable had finished giving the men his orders, he set off up the stairs, on his way to attend the earliest of the day’s wedding events, thereby avoiding suspicion for what would come later, or at least working on his alibi.

The three men grinned to one another like idiots, like children told that no one would be watching over them for a time, that they could get away with whatever they wanted so long as one commanded thing was done. This, I imagined, was what they’d joined Deadys’ constabulary for in the first place—not to protect their fellow townsfolk, not even to avoid the harder labor of the fields. For the chance to hurt people. Really hurt them. And I had become that chance.

The first man looked to the other two. “Shouldn’t we gag ‘im or something? So as he doesn’t enchant us or nothin’?”

The furthest right (to me) of the three men looked to the first with an expression of superiority that almost made my laugh; I knew intuitively what he was about to say. “How’s he gonna talk, then? Think, Balen!”

Balen shrugged sheepishly in response. Briskly, he strode up to be and struck me across the face with his fist. I could feel my brain swing around the inside of my skull and jiggle slightly before coming to rest.

“You’re supposed to ask a question, first,” I told him, spitting a bit of blood into the adjacent grave.

“You’ve got to learn who’s in charge, first,” Balen responded.

“Daedys is. You’re just the lackey.” I don’t know why I said it. Anger, a defiant streak in me that overcomes my common sense, a conviction that I’m just that funny.

It certainly wasn’t that I wasn’t scared. I was. Deeply. Between the chair that held me immobile, the three men and the ad hoc burial I had to look forward to, I didn’t see a lot of hope in my future. And there’s not much that makes a thaumaturge feel helpless than when he can’t perform a working—once you’ve tasted that power it’s a hard thing to be without it. More comforting than a good blade or a fine pistol, the Art is when it comes to defense. And yet, my anger at the unfairness of it all, at the lack of chance I seemed to have, pushed my fear aside just enough to keep some modicum of cool.

Balen raised his fist to strike again, but the third man stepped forward with his hand raised to stop him. The remaining bravo leaned against the back wall, watching, silent.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” the third man said. “It can go easy.”

“That’s my line,” I told him.

“Balen, get a hook from the table. Let’s see how tough the lord thaumaturge really is.”

I looked to the makeshift grave. “You don’t think that’s ironic?” I asked.

“Huh?” The third man said.

“Well, I came here to investigate a spirit haunting the castle. Deadys has decided you should kill me and—without any rites—bury me in his cellar. You’ve heard from Barro that killing a man without giving him his rites is a good way to create a restless spirit, haven’t you? Did you know that the Aenyr and other ancient cultures used to bury animals alive for the exact purpose of creating guardian spirits to watch over a place?”

Both Balen and the third man hesitated for just a moment, but the second spoke up. “It’s not our house,” he growled. “Not our problem.”

I smiled my bloody smile. “Maybe not that part. At first. But you’ve heard of death curses, haven’t you? Who do you think mine will fall on? Blood is Power, and the more of mine you spill, the heavier my curse will be on you.”

“Pfft,” the second man guffawed. “You don’t know our names. How can you curse us without our names? ‘Cept Balen, of course. Guess he’s plowed.” The second and third men chuckled as Balen cringed.

“Fool. You’re standing right in front of me. I see you, as you are, your essence. What need have I of a name?” Exaggerated, maybe, but mostly true.

The three men became uncomfortable now. They huddled together, speaking in low tones, one of them occasionally throwing a glance over his shoulder at me. I almost wanted to laugh, but my face hurt.

Instead, I concentrated as best I could on the ropes that bound me to the chair, tugging at them with a sorcery, hoping to find the right angle to pull them looser rather than tighter. Without being able to see what I was doing, the work would be slow. As long as the men conferenced, I kept at it.

They didn’t give me long. Not nearly long enough. The second man broke from the group and went to the bench of tools, pulling free a set of sheep shears. “Get a set of tongs,” he said to Balen. “We’ll be out with his tongue and then we’ll see how well he can curse us.” Without hesitation, Balen left the room in search of the implement.

“Again, how are you going to get me to talk if cut out my tongue?”

“Aw, I bet a smart fellow like you can write his answers if we get some parchment for you. You’re right-handed, ain’t ya? Sword arm and all. Guess that means we’ll have to start our work on the left hand to leave you the good one for your answers, huh?”

I thought to explain to the man that a working doesn’t require speech, which only serves as an aid for focusing the mind, but I’d already played on his superstitions enough that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pull that thread.

The man pushed my hand flat against the chair’s armrest, splaying my fingers out so that he could grab my pinky finger and maneuver the old scissors around it. I struggled, to little avail, which only made him smile the wider. Behind him, the third man now watched patiently, and I saw little chance of quickly finding a way to get him to intervene and stall the inevitable.

“You’re supposed to ask a question first,” I offered, feeling the sweat beading on palms and forehead.

“I think it’s probably better you get a taste of the consequences first,” he smiled with a mouth of half-rotten teeth.

He started, slowly, savoring the moment, to close the blades against flesh. I let out a gasp at the first bite of the iron, the slow, building pressure excrutiating. Only then did I notice that this my torturer was missing the end of his own left thumb, which had been wrapped in a linen bandage. I expected no reprieve now and doubted even that the man would take seriously Daedys’ orders to question me first.

But a reprieve, most expected, did come. Before the sheers had progressed too far, we all heard Balen’s footsteps on the stairs. He clambered down hurriedly, no tongs but a matchlock pistol, match fuming, in his hand. His companions shouted at him as he raised the piece to point at me, but he’d made up his mind, the fear of my reprisal against him too much to bear.

The pain had clarified some of the daze caused by the blow to my head, and the clear and present danger of immediate death allowed a sort of focus that I’d not had a moment before. And so I worked a sorcery, a sense of justified retaliation welling up within me as I did.

I imagined the ball within the barrel of that piece, nestled within the wadding that held it and powder in place. I imagined the ball welding itself to the barrel, forming itself so that sealed the open end of the pistol shut, a solid piece of crude metal corking the weapon. I thought of wax, melting, flowing and solidifying. In my minds eye I held the thought of the glowing ingot in the blacksmith’s forge, soft and malleable. I imagined a corked wineskin exploding as the pressure of fermenting grapes became too much to bear. I uttered no words, could make no gestures. I hoped that my will and the clarity of my sympathetic analogies were sufficient to create the effect I intended.

Balen, desperation across his face and in his trembling hand, pulled the trigger, plunging the lit matchcord into the chamber. For a split-second, nothing happened; the fire required a moment to ignite the powder. When it did, thunder and lightning filled the room as the pistol exploded into a thousand slivers of angry wood and steel. Balen, of course, took the brunt of it, the force of detonation mangling his hand and sending shards of the disintegrating weapon into body and face at high speed.

Though they stood farther away, the other two men caught a fair amount of the fragments of the makeshift grenado as well, my assassin’s back thankfully shielding me from the brunt of the explosion. The blast propelled him forward against me, the shears cutting against the web between my fingers before it clattered to the floor. We followed, my torturer and I, as he pushed the chair backwards along his own trajectory.

The chair shattered against the hard-packed earth of the cellar floor, leaving me tangled in a wreckage of wood and rope, some storm-tossed sailor borne aloft by good Wyrgeas.
We all lay there, moaning, for a moment, our collective bleating dulled by the assault upon our ears the detonation had wrought. All sound I could make out pushed its way through a barrier of constant ringing and a pressure in my ear canals that caused me to worry that they, too, might explode.

But the projectiles created by the pistol itself had mostly missed me, and—aside from a bloody finger, a bruise across the face and a large bump forming on the back of my skull (which I’d narrowly managed to avoid striking against the floor in my fall)—I remained mostly hale.

I craned my neck under the weight of the man atop me, searching with my eyes for the shears. Seeing them in the glint of the lamplight, I stretched my fingers out, my hand pulling itself across the floor in an effort to gain the slightest extra reach, until I could touch them with the tips of my middle three fingers. I pulled at them, fruitlessly at first, before gaining just enough purchase with the pads of my fingers to bring the shears into my palm and a complete grip.

My torturer could see what I was doing, but in the concussion of the blast and the pain of the shards embedded in his back, he had no energy to defy me. Instead, he only looked pleadingly at me, begging me with his eyes not to do what we both knew I would do. His mouth trembled as he tried to make a sound but could not.

I brought the shears down into his back, over and over again, a matter of catharsis more than survival, the sudden release of all the tension I’d had a moment before when torture and execution seemed to be all I had left. I rolled the body off of me and into the makeshift grave beside. It seemed fitting.

Slowly, achingly, I stood, shaking the remnants of the chair and my bonds free like some spirit breaking out of a summoning circle.

Balen had been killed by the blast, or near enough that I couldn’t tell the difference. The third man lay on his back, small splinters of wood and steel protruding in an irregular pattern from his face, torso and hands. One appeared to be lodged in his eye, wiggling slightly as his gaze darted from place to place, attempting to recover a knowledge of where he lay and what had happened. He posed no threat and I had neither need nor desire for further violence, having purged the drive with the stabbing of the man who’d tried to drown me the night before.

Having been drawn by the sound of the explosion, the servant Mosan peered down from the top of the stairs. Seeing me coming out of the smoke that lingered in the air, he fled. I smiled.

I hobbled back to the main floor and, after meandering amongst scattering servants for a few moments, found my sword belt. I checked my gear and, finding it all still there, made my way from the sprawling complex and back out to the street.

The suns had risen high, so I must have been out for some time before I came to in the cellar. I didn’t have long before the amn Esto wedding would begin.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 35

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

Not long after Aryden had left, I did as well. I traveled by way of the kitchens, where I picked up some breakfast on my way. With so few hours of sleep, I longed for some coffee, but the delicacy had not made its way outside of the Sisters, so I settled for a hot tea with some bread and cheese.

As refreshed as I could expect to be, I traveled the long stretch back to the im Varde home in New Vaina. The walk refreshed, but thoughts of what I would do or say upon confronting Daedys darkened things substantially. I tried to push back my speculations, to wait for Daedys’ own words as to why he’d tried to have me killed, but the possibilities spilled forth nonetheless.

Like before, several of the constable’s men, those rough thugs best suited to keeping the peace through threats and violence rather than providing serious protection as Gamven’s watch did, congregated at the fence to the im Varde home. Unlike before, they only watched me with cold eyes, making no motions toward me and saying nothing. I’d have liked to think that my past demonstration with their fellow bravo had earned this respect, but it was likelier that something else caused them to keep their distance—a command from their master or perhaps some other knowledge about the less direct danger I represented.

I had no desire to engage with them if they were wiling to let me alone, so I strode past to the gate, and then to the home’s front door. Striking the knocker, I waited patiently, tapping my foot idly, for Mosan to greet me.

After a moment he swung the door open, a look of surprise upon his face. “Lord amn Ennoc,” he said, quickly recovering his expression. “You wish to speak with Master Daedys?”

“I do.”

“Very well, my lord.”

He led me again to the im Varde parlour and its collected grandeur. “Would you sit, my lord?” he asked.

“I’ll stand, thank you.” I wanted to keep my sword ready and my feet free to move should the need arise.

The constable kept me waiting for some time; while I tried to keep an eye on the doorway into the parlor, I distracted myself somewhat with the inspection of the furniture pieces that decorated the room. Given this time, I noticed details I had not before. The furniture was all of fine craftsmanship and quality materials, indeed, and, aside from those pieces intended and used for sitting upon, like new. Too new, given the style of the pieces, of a fashion many decades gone.

The decorative furniture in this room was just that—decorative. I pulled at one of the drawers on the writing desk to find that it did not open. The desk had the look of a desk but not its function, as if it had been made as a set piece for some work upon the stage—the impression of a desk, but not its essence.

I took one of the books from the nearby shelves and opened it to find only blank pages within the leatherbound cover, the faint smell of mildew emanating from within. The parlor, then, had been meant to keep up appearances, to give a showing of the kind of wealth enjoyed by the merchants of Old Vaina without the cost. I imagined that the parts of the im Varde home I’d seen—the entry and this parlor—were the extent of the building decorated so lavishly, concealing considerable humbler accoutrements within the living spaces used by the family.

I thought about how growing up in such a place might have shaped Orren—the constant reminder of the sham of the political settlement between the magnates of the Old Town and New that so impressed those without access to the truth, the resentment at the manipulation of the amn Vaini, forcing them to keep up such appearances while being left outside that prosperity that accrued to the town. Moral or not, I understood better the origin of the boy’s ambitions.

In the corner of my eye, I caught Daedys entering the room, clad in a robe over his nightclothes, a look in his face that intimated he may not have been finished drinking when he’d returned home last night. He wore no weapons, though he could have been concealing a dagger or other blade beneath the robe.

“You’ve come to discuss the attempt on your life yesterday?” He asked, fatalistically more than expectantly. His voice made clear the hungoveredness implied by his disheveled appearance.

His bluntness took me aback for a moment. “I have.”

“I don’t have any information yet, but my men are searching for a man missing part of his thumb.”

He doesn’t know that I know, I thought to myself. Of course he didn’t, how could he? Perhaps I’d not fully recovered my wits myself. “The man must be someone above general suspicion, someone who could have entered the lord’s keep without attracting attention in the first place.”

“I thought the same myself,” Daedys offered.

“Someone in your employ? One of your constable’s men?”

He frowned, but I saw through it. “Hmm,” he said. “That’s possible. I hadn’t thought of it.”

“But why would one of your men try to kill me?”

“I have no idea,” he said. He feigned the appearance of shock as he said, “Could one of my own men be responsible for my nephew’s death? Have you uncovered evidence that might indicate that?”

“No.”

“Then it’s likely not one of mine, is it?”

“Perhaps not,” I allowed. “But then, who? One of the lord’s servants? A member of Gamven’s watch? And then, why?”

“You must be getting closer to uncovering Orren’s murderer,” Daedys said.

“Or I’ve found something else someone wants kept secret.”

The constable looked directly at me now, trying to read my meaning in my eyes. Let him, I thought.

“I’m sure you come across sundry secrets in your work, Iaren, some only embarrassments to an individual and some of much greater import,” he said.

“Yes, as I’ve come across one of yours. Several, in fact.”

His face hardened, “And what are those?”

“You’re familiar with a spirit that makes its home in Vaina,” I began.

“Of course I am; it’s why you’re here.”

“No. Not the phantom preying on the amn Vaini. Not your nephew. The other one. An ancient spirit, not from here originally, but that has made its home here. Has cultivated worship here.”

“I’m not familiar—”

“But you are. It’s been your ally in the prosperity of this town, a champion of the common folk who till the fields and tend the herds—of the people who sustain Vaina while a small few get rich.

Originally, folk here took up with the spirit for good crops and safety from disaster. But it seems that that became insufficient when it did not bring wealth enough to compete with the im Valladyni and the im Darqosi, while the amn Vaini increased their influence and power by reliance on your assured harvests, without so much as acknowledging the equal value of the service New Vaina provides. Some of those within the group pushed for more…aggressive…action. Perhaps that’s what Orren was up to?”

His expression revealed nothing in response to my sudden thrust. “You think my nephew had something to do with this…cult?”

“Don’t play stupid, Daedys. It doesn’t suit you. This cult is why you sent one of your men to kill me. It has nothing to do with Orren. Not directly, anyway. You’re trying to protect your best weapon against the amn Vaini, your own interests. Nothing more.”

“I—”

“Do not insult me by lying, constable,” I commanded.

“Then you’ve come to what? Arrest me? Take your vengeance? You’ve come alone, so you haven’t disclosed your accusations to Lord Aryden. That was a mistake.” Calmly, he produced from within his robe a small pistol, not much larger than his hand, its clockwork mechanism allowing for ready use even from concealment.

I might have flinched at having the firearm pointed at me, briefly wished that I’d brought my own. But I recovered myself and my calm quickly, part of my mind preparing for a defensive sorcery if such became necessary. “I do few things haphazardly or by accident, Master Daedys,” I warned. “I did not come for violence, nor for threats. I came for information.”

“I have none of that for you,” the constable said, almost wistfully. “I cannot trust you to keep this secret from Lord amn Vaina, and I will not be responsible for the blood in the streets if that damnable priest of his hears of a cult in the town. You understand, I hope.”
Behind him, the three bravos from outside entered the room. He must have sent Mosan for them before he met with me, a backup plan for just this situation. The men smiled darkly, hungry for blood and unconcerned with any sense of honor in the getting of it. Not that I cared much for honor either. Regardless of the supposed nobility of any particular circumstance, I prefer my blood to stay in my body, thank you very much.
“There is, perhaps, one way this doesn’t have to end badly for all of us,” Daedys said. “As you’ve said, there are secrets enough in Vaina already; I’d like not to have to keep your fate as another one. If you leave, now, and do not return, and never speak of what you saw here, I can live with that—and so can you.”

A sardonic smile passed over my lips. “Were it so easy, Daedys. But I took a job and I gave my word. I’m not leaving until that job is finished.”

“That—that’s your sense of honor?” the constable asked, somewhat incredulous.

“I don’t know about honor,” I admitted. “But a man has to have a code. Besides, your master has already made me a better offer.”

“What does that mean?”

“That same spirit to which you feign allegiance even now sent a messenger to me. I know that there is disagreement between you and those who side with you and the spirit’s own more loyal supporters. That messenger both disavowed the cult’s involvement in my attempted assassination—pointing the finger to you in the process—and promised me safety should I not interfere with the spirit’s designs.”

Daedys looked around exaggeratedly before turning back to me. “I don’t see any protection for you here. Perhaps you’ve failed to see what some of my fellows have also missed—our patron spirit is not The One: is neither omnipotent nor omniscient; is not infallible. It may have had much time to gather wisdom and intelligence, yes, but that does not mean its decisions and decrees are always right.”

“But you are?” I asked.

“This time, yes. A more…forceful approach is necessary to the guile and deceit our patron espouses. This seems to leave us at an impasse, Lord Thaumaturge. But I will maintain my offer to spare your life a little longer. Let us depart this place as friends—or at least not enemies. You may leave Vaina to its fate, yes, but I’m sure there are others who will need your help—who you can actually help. Perhaps its best that you not be so shortsighted and that you think of future unfortunates.”

I had to admit, he made a compelling argument—as much as there was one to be made. But I could not bring myself to consider only future possibilities, when a present calamity stared at me from Vaina castle. The question, then, became whether I would lie to him to escape.

Quickly, I ran through the possibilities with that part of my mind not preparing for a working of defense. If I said I’d leave, I’d no doubt that Daedys’ men would accompany me until I’d actually left, maybe all the way back to Ilessa. If they let me get so far—I wasn’t sure that these bloodthirsty bravos wouldn’t attempt to permanently remedy the danger once we’d made it far enough afield, whether or not it was their master’s command to do so.

Even if I made it out of town and survived, I’d just be coming right back, and Daedys would have his agents on the watch for such a thing. It would only prolong the confrontation between us. No point in such dilation.

With my right hand, I began to draw my sword; I extended the left to protect a sorcerous shield. Just in time, too, for Daedys’ pistol’s pan flashed briefly before the barrel erupted, the heavy ball rebounding from my shield as if hitting a wall.

The fury of the pistol in close quarters thundered from the walls, stunning everyone within and causing us to hunch, hands to ears instinctively. Were it not for the deadly intent of the shot itself and the pandemonium soon to follow, our collective suffering might have been comical.

I recovered just in time to ward the first incoming sword strike with my own blade. The space within the parlor allowed some room for the maneuver of both feet and blade, but a fight between four people would be tight indeed. I’d attempted to turn my parry into a riposte against my first attacker, but the incoming thrust of the second required me to redirect my weapon to a second parry instead.

With my left hand, I drew my dagger from its sheath at my back—I needed more steel were I to continue to deflect the attacks of all three men. If I could survive long enough, I might find an opening wide enough to take one of the men out of the fight and improve my odds.

Circling steel clashed against sonorous strikes as I moved my hands and weapons back and forth between the attackers. The furniture offered sufficient obstacles to assist in my evasion of the occasional attack but restricted my footwork to the narrowest of margins in turning or sidestepping to avoid injury. I would grow weary against such and onslaught, I knew, though slow maneuvering brought be closer to the parlor door and potential escape. Daedys had disappeared.

My best advantage was that my opponents were suited to the brawl rather than the fight proper; they’d become more used to striking swords against bucklers to make great clamor and show of bravery than to actually kill. I played by no such rules and, besides, I had no buckler with which to ward myself, only my sword and dagger. Their training and experience caused no great hesitation in their willingness to swing steel at me, but they employed technique made sloppy by half-hearted use, offering me just enough to parry blows that might have otherwise overrun my defenses.

For my own part, I noticed some loss of skill of my own; a casualty of more time spent in books than with blade, I admit. Only during the press of their assault did I regret such a choice and, if I managed to survive without so much as a scratch, I imagine I’d have left the thought of returning to more arduous study of the art of defense (which idea currently loomed large in my mind) quite quickly.

Alas, I did not come out unscathed; as my footwork brought me round to the opening from the parlor to the hallway, something heavy fell across the back of my head, a sudden, sharp shock that lead to momentary oblivion.

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To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 34

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

The creaking of my chamber door awoke me, as Lord Aryden pushed into the room, Eldis, the doctor Endan, and Barro following. Orange light from the rising suns illuminated the room with the impression of fire. The lord looked at the remnants of the ritual circle on the floor, smeared by my feet and by the water that had run from me as I exited it and made a low sound to himself.

“So this is how you kept us at peace last night, is it? You could have thought to do it sooner. Or were you waiting for a special occasion?”

I thought to correct his misapprehension, but then thought better of it. “There is a sort of trial and error to my work,” I explained, “It is called the ‘Subtle Art’, after all.”

“Yes, well.” Aryden said, more to himself than to anyone else. “For all your minor successes, our situation continues to deteriorate. My wife cannot be awoken from her slumber. Tell him, Endan.”

Part of me wanted to interrupt and tell them I already knew this, but I decided to play my cards a bit closer to the chest—I’d already chosen to conceal the existence of the cult from Lord Aryden, what would it hurt to keep a little more to myself until I’d deduced the full cause of his lady’s suffering.

The doctor began, “While the phantom may not have appeared to torment the night’s celebrations, my lady’s condition worsens, and I can find no physical cause for her decline. She has no fever, no sweats, no boils or buboes. Her blood appears normal and so does her urine. She’s been in this condition without dying or recovering for too long to suspect toxins, but she shows no signs of disease—and none of her handmaids have fallen ill. And yet, as my lord has mentioned, she is in a slumber and none can wake her. The cause must be spiritual, as we have suspected all along.”

“We are running out of time,” Aryden interrupted. “You are running out of time, Lord Thaumaturge.”

“I am making progress, Aryden.”

“Which is?”

“I’d rather not share all of the details at present.”

“That does not instill trust in said progress.”

“I understand that, but caution is necessary in these matters. We know now that it is Orren’s spirit that haunts your castle. At least, all evidence points that direction and I’ve seen none to contradict it. But we don’t know who killed him and why, both of which are essential to discover if I am to have any chance of banishing the spirit permanently. Gossip travels, and I am loath to let the killer, whoever it is, know what I know lest they plan some way to misdirect me.”

“Hmph,” Aryden responded. “And then there’s the issue of my daughter,” he continued. Behind him, Gamven frowned.

“What issue with your daughter? I already told Gamven what happened.”

“And you can tell me, now,” he insisted.

“What is there to tell? As your servants saw, she entered the room while I was bathing, forgetting herself in her excitement to share with me a clue she’d found in Barro’s library but not remembered until just then and, once she told me, she realized the situation and immediately withdrew.”

“What was it that she found and had so urgently to tell you?”

“That, according to Savute, vengeful spirits sometimes rise when a person dies under Qaidhë’s moon.”

“Does that fit our situation?” Gamven asked.

“I have to do the math, determine when Qaidhë’s moon was last in the sky, see if it fits our timeline.”

Aryden again. “If it does, what does that mean? I thought you said you needed the killer and the motive?”

“If Qaidhë’s moon is an influence, then there may be a ritual to undo that influence. If that’s the true cause, then the boy’s death might actually have been an accident, and there might be no killer at all.”

“An interesting prospect,” the lord said. “And a convenient one, I think.”

I rose from the bed. “If you don’t trust me, Aryden, perhaps I should leave. You come in here first with an accusation of my failure, then of my bedding your daughter, and then of playing some sort of trick on you—and to what purpose? If I were aware of such a simple solution from the first, why would I put myself in harm’s way in the Close? Or with the creature in the forest? Besides, I don’t think that that will be our answer. The spirit here feels…to empowered for some mere operation of the cosmos to be our cause. I’d not even have mentioned the possibility unless I’d checked the stars and found some basis for further investigation—which, as I said, I’ve not yet done.

If you won’t confide in me to do my job as I gave my word I would, how can I help you? When I do find what needs to be done, what happens if you don’t want to hear it? What happens if the person to blame is not someone you are willing to punish? What then?”
Lord amn Vaina was taken aback, either by the forwardness of my words or the revelation that I wore nothing under the bedsheets, though he would’ve known that already if he’d been observant. My underclothes had dried, thankfully, and I put them on as I waited for some response.”

“Dammit,” Aryden said resignedly. “I know you’re right. I don’t like it, but I’m man enough to admit it. I’m—I grow weary of this plague upon our house and my wife. It makes me suspicious. And stubborn.”

“I’m not here to judge you,” I told him. “I’m here to help you. Let me.”

He sighed. “Yes. Of course. But there is one more thing.”

“Lorent amn Esto?”

“Just so.”

“I’ll avoid him,” I said. “You have my word.”

“You’ll be needed at the wedding ceremony this afternoon,” Aryden reminded.

“To keep watch again, yes.”

“So, you’ll spend the morning making the calculations about Vesonna’s theory?”

“I’ll need more information. Can you have Eldis let us know or find out when Qaidhë’s moon was last seen? I can do the rest from there.”

“The farmers will know; they keep an eye on such things. In the meantime?”

“In the meantime, I need to speak with the constable.” By now, I’d donned my clothes for the day and strapped on my belt. As I sat on the edge of the bed to pull my boots on, Aryden and his retainers turned for the door.

Before he left, though, the lord turned back. “Lord thaumaturge…” he began.

“Yes?”

“Work quickly. Save my wife. Please,” I’d not heard such desperation in his voice before, though I’d seen it in is his actions, felt it in his words.

“I’m doing everything I can.”

For a moment, I thought that he’d return the statement with a threat or chastisement that what I was doing was not enough. But he only nodded before he passed through the door.

For a single PDF containing all chapters released to date, click here.
To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 33

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

The exhilarating rush that filled me as I returned to my body made it clear that sleep would not come soon, or easily. With the revels continuing in the courtyard below, I gathered that the same would be true for many others in Vaina, so perhaps I would not lose much valuable time in my investigation if I could take some further action now and sleep in a bit once exhaustion finally set in.

I had just the task. Kneeling in the center of the concentric circles that set the foundation of my ritual circle, I began to wipe away at the various symbols I had drawn before without touching those circles themselves. As the runes and sigils began to smudge rather than fade, I wet the cloth near the bowl of water on the table across from the bed and scrubbed, using the wet cloth to pick up the particles of chalk and the dry to wipe away the water left behind.

The floor cleared of its original diagrams, I began to draw another, this one intended for a journey of a different sort, one more harrowing than simply leaving the body.

Again, the ritual forced me to resort to my grimoire repeatedly, turning back and forth between open book and floor, narrowly undoing the details of my work with a careless knee or an outstretched hand searching to balance myself in my movements. I expected the nosy guardsman to intrude once again, but he did not. Perhaps my “threatening thaumaturge” demeanor had become better than I’d thought it. This would be progress as a practitioner—at the university we often laughed about disapproving stares and reproachful gazes being core skills of the magus.

In time, less in fact than the previous ritual drawing had taken, I had completed the new ritual space. I sat within it as before, but hesitated. My last foray to the Sea of Dreams had been both involuntary and life-threatening, and I wondered if the potential benefit of another intrusion really did outweigh the risks. Ultimately, I concluded that, without Aryden allowing me to see his wife (which did not seem to be any nearer to happening than when I’d first arrived) or the wards around the lady’s chamber suddenly and spontaneously collapsing, I had no other available paths to the specific vein of knowledge I sought.

It might have been possible for me to dispel the wards upon Aevala’s chambers, but that, too, would have required physical proximity to them—I did not believe I had sufficient skill to ethereally project myself and dispel them that way, clumsy though they might have been. And, I’ve already explained my general reservations to the use of such techniques.

The drive to know the truth of the matter, more than the potential rewards for satisfying Lord Aryden, overcame my fears. I closed my eyes, remaining silent for this working, quieting my mind except for the image of my destination. This was not an easy task, for my mind remains in a general state of disquiet at the calmest of times. The One did not create me for simple contemplation or for still satisfaction, apparently.

For some time, I struggled with myself, thoughts intruding upon my attempted meditation, images entering my mind unbidden, drawing me into consideration of this event or that clue in my investigation—or even the merits of Worvo’s beer. I shook my head in sympathetic attempt to shake the thoughts from my mind, my inability to focus on a single thing increasing my frustration, increasing the difficulty with which I tried to focus.

As if running into a stone wall built of my own vexation, I opened my eyes in anger. To my surprise, I found that I sat not within my room in Vaina Castle, but within a rowboat, gently bobbing up and down under the twilit sky that blankets the Sea of Dreams.
I looked behind me, to the horizon, for the forested island I’d come to visit. Like a mirage made real, the hazy image of my destination appeared in the distance, gradually becoming solid. Taking up the rowboat’s oars, I pulled myself in that direction.
As I did, I could see other islands in the distance, some hazy, some as solid and real as any island in the Avar. Atop one, a gray and lonely castle; spreading across another relatively nearby (though spatial relationships are remarkably flexible in realms such as this) a bleak desert, baking in the heat of an invisible sun. Turning to check whether my course remained true, a new island, a mountainous dagger rising from the limitless deep, pushed its way into my path, forcing me to divert around it and reacquire my destination before continuing.

In the time that I rowed, I contemplate the potential meanings of the Sea of Dreams’ geography: why each dream-containing island formed in the way it did, why certain islands seemed closer in their relative positions to some but not others, what meaning belonged to these relationships—for whatever meaning there was did not originate from physical laws.

The study of the Art teaches that there are subtle relationships between many things, those that are not readily apparent to the casual observer (as they only sometimes correspond to physical properties and are just as likely to be symbolic or metaphorical) but that may be discovered through careful analysis and study. This principle, these sympathies, are the basis of the various practices of the art. In alchemy, sympathies are used to create desired effects through the relationships between physical materials and those desired results. With sorcery, thaumaturgy, it is the thoughts and images formed and held in the mind that create sympathies with the purpose and direction of the will. This is not simply a matter of visualizing the desired result—although there is some of that to be sure—it is a matter of creating meaning through association, and then using the Power to make that meaning manifest in the Avar. Theurgy and enchantment are hybrid practices, using drawn or carved symbols to create certain sympathies while also relying upon the careful thought and construction of the practitioner.

It only stands to reason that a place such as the Sea of Dreams operates by similar principles. Those private demesnes created by powerful magi, modest examples of that final great working of the Aenyr, likewise operate by rules based in sympathies—and the idiosyncrasies of their creators.

These thoughts passed the time until the rowboat jerked with a hollow thump that indicated I’d arrived on land—the beach of Lady Aevala’s dreams. Leaving the boat, I recovered my balance, it having been disrupted by the waves of an imaginary ocean.
The heavy pall of fear and death continued to hang about this place, the atmosphere thick with imminent tragedy that spoke of a reality entirely independent from Aevala’s dream-state. That dread impelled me this time rather than slowing my steps. Isn’t it strange that its sometimes easier to be brave for someone else’s sake than your own? While that sour feeling in the pit of my stomach yelled at me like a village alarm, my head remained clear as I pushed into the island’s interior, shrouded by the thick canopy of the strangely-shaped trees.

I searched for the pond at which I’d first encountered the lady, for the rocky outcropping and the cave to which I’d chased her, ignoring any potential threats from the sides or behind as I focused on the path forward. I went from one heavy footfall to the next, quickening my pace in frustration and anger as I failed to find any of the landmarks I’d seen before.

In the periphery of my vision, I could see shadows twisting unnaturally between the trunks of trees, as if animated and aware. Whether Orren’s spirit had elected to confront me here, or these manifestations only represented the strange nature of the Sea of Dreams and its innumerable islands, I did not know.

It didn’t matter to me. I felt up for a fight, if only to enjoy something simple and straightforward for a change, and if the spirit thought it’s power enhanced by being in this place, I would match it. As I’d come of my own volition, and had forced my fear down well enough to keep my wits about be, my own long-honed will would have as much benefit in a place formed of desires and will as anything the spirit might hope to gain here.

Indeed, when I finally encountered Aevala, I found the spirit there, too, standing over her, grinning at me as if daring me to attack. The specter aimed its threat not at me, though, but at the woman behind whom it stood.

Aevala lay stretched out on her back over a stone slab, intricately carved with visions from the Book of the Tree, the sort typically reserved for the preparation of the dead for their last rites. Funerary clothes covered her, though no shroud masked her face.
Foolish of me to expect some climactic combat here, as if such a thing would prove useful anyway. I could only hope to banish the spirit again for a time, and nothing would have changed. Not really. I might have kept my wits, but anger had surely clouded my expectations and my judgment.

Drawing in a deep breath, I attempted to do what I’m best at: observe and analyze, hold the situation in my hand and turn it to observe all angles, all of the consequences to the various ways things might play out. This is no element of the Art, merely the application of careful thought and conjecture based on experience and logic, though I’d argue that my practice of the Art had tempered my skill in such endeavors all the same.

Recentering myself gave some relief, as I noticed the subtle rise and fall of Aevala’s chest, indicated she had not yet died, as the props seemed to indicate, but had fallen into a slumber. Over her, cadaverous hand outstretched as if drawing the life out of her bit by bit, breath by breath, Orren’s spirit continued to smile at me, believing itself to have the upper hand. Based on all that had transpired so far, I couldn’t say definitively that it was wrong.

We stared at each other in a sort of stalemate, the phantom and I, my mere presence threatening at least temporary violence to it, it revealing its deepening ability to inflict suffering upon the woman I’d been hired to save, after a fashion. Things are always so much more straightforward in the stories of knights and their lovers.

I had two real options: move against the specter here and now, risking further injury to Aevala, or leave, failing to do anything about the lingering suffering the spirit inflicted upon her. A sensation of warmth surrounded my hands and I looked down to find them wreathed in dancing fire, a visible symbol of my inner anger. What would have required a conscious effort of the will (and a thorough application of technique) to achieve in the Avar required only emotion and the subconscious here in the Sea of Dreams. In the back of my head I made a note to myself to further research this phenomenon on my return to the city—if that happened.

Seeing my manifest animosity, the spirit only smiled wider. If there had been any doubt that vengeance and hatred powered this spirit, that grin disabused me of it in an instant. The feeling of impotence only stoked my fury’s flames; whatever calm I’d generated as I’d analyzed the situation burned away as so much paper.

Aevala’s sleeping form let out a low moan, driving me forward a step in empathy. A chill ran through me as I stepped into the spirit’s cold aura, the shock of it bringing a much-needed reprieve from my anger, however brief. Before me, the specter’s fingers elongated into dagger-like claws in anticipation.

I knew that the spirit could not kill Aevala right away—if it could have, it would have done so already. It required time to complete its design, though that time was running short. Whatever injunction prevented the spirit from taking immediate vengeance on the target of its ire (at least its current target) did not apply to me. Should it rend me apart in this place, I would be dead in all places. That would make it difficult in the extreme to continue my investigation and find some final way to banish the specter once and for all.
As cold as the air around me, my mind weighed the options afresh, finding the risk of a current confrontation too disproportionate to any benefit for logic to support it. It pained me to see Aevala’s condition worsening, her suffering prolonged and deepening, but if I was to help her, I would have to leave her to her suffering a while longer.

I turned. Using all of my strength, I ignored the knot in my gut, no longer a warning of danger but a natural response to ignoring the suffering of another mortal being. I retreated slowly, deliberately, pausing several times to consider turning back toward the lady and coming to her rescue—like one of those knights in stories, perhaps. But ultimately, I reminded myself of the fantasy of such things, and the fantastic nature the dreamforged island around me accentuated the point. So, I kept moving.

I kept moving through what felt like long hours of walking, hoping that by traveling in a single direction I would eventually reach the island’s beach, which I could then follow around to my boat. Time consuming, but the most reliable method of navigation I could imagine in this ephemeral place.

A thought occurred to me that I’d not considered before: what would happen if Aevala’s dream ended before I’d left the island? If I’d only been dreaming, I’m sure that I would have simply awoken myself. But I had projected myself here in spirit, made myself more present by my will to be here rather than the natural workings of the Sea. Would the island suddenly disappear, leaving me to fall into an empty patch of the Sea? Would I be stuck in some in-between place? If so, would I be freed at the onset of the lady’s next dream and able to return to my body—if it continued to be able to house my spirit?
Some comforted existed then that Aevala had entered into a seemingly-impenetrable sleep from which she was unlikely to wake, cold comfort though that was.

Finally, I returned to the little rowboat waiting for me on the shore. I pushed it free of the sandy beach and leapt in, but not without soaking myself in the process. Pulling at the oars, I made my way into an open patch of the Sea before closing my eyes and thinking of that room in Vaina Castle where my body awaited me.

Even more than in my attempt to reach the Sea of Dreams in the first place, my mind raced, eschewing all attempts at focus or quiet meditation. Behind the constant stream of thoughts, I growing panic began to gnaw at me: what if I could not achieve peace enough to return at all? What if my own idiosyncrasies prevented me from leaving? Would I be stuck here for all eternity, some stranger making unexpected and inexplicable appearances in the dreams of the Avar’s sleepers? Did such a class of unfortunate—or over-ambitious—practitioners exist?

Remember what I said about sympathies, about the bonds of symbolism and meaning between things both alike and seemingly disparate? Apparently, the sympathy between a body and soul is a particularly strong one. This makes sense, I suppose—how else keep a thing by nature so free and eternal bound within something so frail and limited? The power of that bond, more than any of my own doing, brought me safely home again.
The warm air of the summer night greeted me as I returned to myself. I opened my eyes to find the my room’s window ajar. This brought me quickly to my feet, though as my mind caught up to my shock I realized that I’d likely already be dead if another assassin had entered through the window while my body sat empty and defenseless in the middle of the room.

Checking the window and the wall outside, I found no signs of entry or a forcing of the window. More likely, the flux of the theurgic ritual had drawn another gust of wind that blew the window open. Only once calm hit me did I realize that the wet of the Sea of Dreams had followed me back to the Avar. I’d dripped a trail across the room from the ritual circle to the window, water continuing to fall from my clothes in heavy drops.
Below, the celebration had finally begun to wind down. The music had stopped and only the low sounds of whispered conversations, punctuated by the occasional raucous laughter, remained, the remnants of those who refused to take to their beds but who had nowhere better to be. The hour must have been later indeed, though not so late as I’d expected given the amount of time I’d felt pass in the Sea of Dreams. But time moves differently there.

I removed my wet clothes, again, and hung them on the window sill as I had done before. Still damp, I fell into the bed, drifting quickly to my own emergent island somewhere in the Sea, hopefully far away from the one occupied by Aevala and her captor.

I’d need whatever sleep I could get. Time was running short, and I had much to do to banish Orren’s ghost.

For a single PDF with all chapters released to date, click here.
To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 32

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

I removed my mask and tossed it atop the bed, glad to be free of its tight embrace. The air felt easier to breathe and my broadened perception allayed some of the claustrophobia I’d felt when surrounded by dozens of potential assailants.

For a moment, I just stood there, mulling of the spirit’s messenger’s words, turning them over in my mind in hopes of uncovering some hidden implication or meaning. Everyone in Vaina, had a secret he wanted to keep, even the incorporeal citizens. Especially the incorporeal inhabitants, perhaps.

But supposition would do me little good, and I soon turned my thoughts to find something within my power to search for more clues rather than to keep pushing the ones I had together like some half-missing puzzle set.

I changed back into my regular attire and obtained my ritual belt and a piece of chalk. Taking my time, I drew out the concentric circles on the floor boards, careful to keep the lines as regular as possible over the seams between planks and the minor textures and irregularities in the wood. Once I’d completed the circles, I procured my grimoire from the chest at the foot of the bed, searching through for the specific runes and patterns I wanted for this working.

Having not performed such a working in quite some time, I had to reference the pages of my collected knowledge of the Art (that I didn’t know by rote, at least) many times to ensure the proper placement and designs of the symbols necessary to the circle’s function.

Finally, perhaps an hour after I’d begun, I sat down within the circle, legs folded, and closed my eyes. I whispered the incantations softly, hoping not to disturb the watchers at my door, allowing my consciousness to release its moorings to my body. Just as I felt myself beginning to float free, the door to my room opened.

I snapped back into myself with a gasp, my eyes opening wide to see one of the guardsmen with the door half-open, making much the same expression I had.
“What are you doing,” I shot, doing my best impression of the thaumaturge not to be trifled with. My annoyance assisted in this.

“I-I heard noises,” he said feebly.

Indeed, a sudden wind had apparently blown through the room, knocking around some of my belongings. The room’s window remained closed. In preparing to leave my body, my senses had been distracted from the physical world around me, and I’d remained oblivious.

“You will hear noises,” I growled. “Ignore them. Unless I call for you, keep an eye that no one enters my room. Including. You.”

He nodded his assent and closed the door again. I could hear a mumbled exchange in unsure voices between the two guardsmen, and then silence.

With the calm and quiet restored, I turned back to my task. Again I closed my eyes and chanted, visualizing my spirit leaving my body until I felt it happening. I floated above myself, looking down upon my sitting form, my mouth still repeating the incantations despite my absence from it.

This is not a technique of the Art that I enjoy. It makes me feel more vulnerable than empowered. Unlike a being whose essential condition is inherently incorporeal and ethereal, being a disembodied practitioner feels much like looking at the world above while one’s head is underwater—a general sense may be made of things, but one must deal with distortion and confusion in the senses. Theologians who are also practitioners of the Subtle Art have debated why this is the case, with some arguing about the significance of being incarnated beings and others preferring to rely on the mortal practitioner’s relative inexperience of being ethereal as the cause. The latter speculate that, given enough time out of body, we could adjust and sharpen our senses. Still, the body itself begins to die if emptied of its inhabiting spirit for long enough, so none has been able to test this theory overmuch.

A side effect of inhibited senses when projecting consciousness is that it is difficult to use the Art as well. The better the visualization of the target of an effect, the easier that effect is to achieve. This by itself degrades performance. To say nothing of the fact that we practitioners receive our training in drawing the Power through our bodies to empower sorceries and thaumaturgies, using our physical selves as intermediary between the external world and the internal self. Channeling the Power for a working while disembodied is thus especially difficult.

These things combined to leave me relatively defenseless in a confrontation with either of the rogue spirits of Vaina. But I intended no such confrontation—if Orren’s spirit manifested itself during the night, I would immediately return to my body to engage with it. Should I encounter the natural spirit of Vaina, I would likewise return to my body. Not to fight with it, but to disengage.

For all my reservations, there are of course advantages to projecting the consciousness in this manner. To begin, I am not bound by most of the physical barriers that impede normal movement, nor am I confined to movement at the speed my feet may carry me. Second, spirits and souls—of both those bound to flesh and those less so—are like shining beacons to one who has projected into the ethereal world that borders our own. While my perceptions were generally dimmed, I had the ability to see things I could not with my physical eyes when looking at another person through this medium.
The Sight, in most ways, is simply peering into the ethereal without projecting into it fully. Of course, all of the dangers attendant to that practice also accompany this one.
Loosed into the ethereal as a bright and floating spirit, I first scanned through the interior of the keep, able to see through stone and wood, searching for any sign of Orren’s spirit.

Finding none, I next turned my attention to Lady Aevala’s chambers, hoping I might see something that could substitute for the direct observation that her husband had so obstinately prevented. A shroud of sorts, a dark barrier through which my ethereal senses could not penetrate, surrounded the room like a sphere. Someone had inscribed and empowered crude wards upon the room, wards that did not prevent Orren’s specter from reaching the afflicted woman but that would prevent my efforts to scry into that space. Had Orren established these before his death? That might explain his ability to pass through them, though his strange power as a spirit—far in excess of any mere phantom I’d encountered before—might allow him to force his way through the protections just as easily.

Noting the disturbing detail but without time to further investigate at present, I at once left my bedchamber through its outer wall, looking down upon the continuing festivities below, where the light now came from those who danced, cavorted, drank and entertained themselves rather than the lamps or torches, which now flickered only dimly to my sight, shadows in the shape of flames.

Descending, moving closer to that crowd of gathered courtiers of which I’d been a part not so long before, I searched for Daedys among them. Both his demeanor over the course of his evening and the words of the anonymous messenger impressed upon me the idea that I might find something of use among the constable’s secrets. Orren had been his nephew, after all; if the boy had been part of the cult, the probability followed that the im Vardi were involved as a whole. Further, if a dispute existed between factions within the cult, as the messenger had intimated, and Orren had acted against the designs of the spirit at the center of that cult, then Daedys likely also belonged to that dissenting faction—or would at least know something about it.

Such thoughts occupied my mind as I watched, invisible. For a long time, the constable only sulked, continuing to nurse his drinks slowly, and probably maintaining a clearer head than most around him. Eventually, though, perhaps when he’d decided he’d stayed long enough to be decorous—though given his behavior at the festivities I rather thought he’d left decorum behind long before—he approached the bride- and groom-to-be, wished them well in their preparations for the wedding tomorrow, thanked Lord Aryden for the hospitality and generosity, and took his leave.

I followed after him, leaving a good space between us out of habit more than need, for he could not see me in such a state—not without the Sight. He walked a normal course to the inner gatehouse and passed through into Old Vaina, continuing without deviation to the outer gatehouse and New Vaina. But, once here, his path did not lead straight home. Instead, glancing around briefly for anyone else roaming about, he ducked into one of the smaller alleys between buildings, making quick turns and evasive dodges through sidestreets and lesser-used paths. Had I been following him physically, I’d have had a hard time indeed keeping up with him, especially without giving myself away.
As it were, his deft maneuvers availed him nothing. I tracked him to the darkened corner, out of the light of any torch or lantern, where he made his rendezvous with another soul, a man waiting there for him.

Before Daedys had fully arrived, the man rocked back and forth on his heels, impatient, agitated. Through the distortion of my ethereal vision, I could not make out the facial features of the waiting figure—though, through this form of the Sight, I plainly observed the absence of the last joint of his right thumb.

He wore simple clothing that could have belonged to anyone from New Vaina, from the tenant farmers and cottagers to the minor tradesmen who served the wants and whims of the town’s merchants and magnates. I perceived the color as dark, though this could have been a matter of my idiosyncratic mode of perception.

Likewise, the sounds from the conversation came to me muffled, as if an echo at a distance, and I struggled to make out what words I could. From what I could glean, the men were familiar with one another. Daedys exerted authority over the man, who seemed to be complaining of—and excusing—the failure of his attack upon me.

The suspicions given to me by the cult’s messenger not so long before had been proved valid by this exchange—Daedys and Orren must have belonged to that dissenting faction within the Vaina cult, the one which, against the command of the spectral master, had attempted to cut short my life this very evening.

My racing mind, conspiring with the inherent difficulty of the task, prevented me from capturing any helpful detail of the exchange between the two men, which ended with them parting ways, both apparently upset. But the details would come soon enough—knowledge of the meeting itself provided direction for my further investigation. And the revelation of any enemy against whom I could now protect myself.

Anger and indignation replaced fear now that I had the source of the threat, though I knew it still too premature to take any direct action against the constable. He enjoyed Lord Aryden’s trust and I did not; I would need tangible evidence beyond my own testimony to convince my employer that I was not simply grasping at straws.

Further, Daedys’ motives, or Orren’s, or the cult’s spirit’s for that matter, all remained obscured to me, and I knew I would be wise to seek greater understanding of the situation before doing anything drastic—despite the emotion pushing me to swift retribution. After my own words to Lorent, I would not make a hypocrite of myself. The line of morality may be sometimes blurred in my work, but the line of hypocrisy remains a clear beacon to all people at all times.

Already, I had spent as much time away from my body as I dared, counting myself fortunate that the activity had not drawn any unwanted attention. At the speed of a thought, I returned to myself, opening my eyes and savoring the rush of sensation restored.

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 31

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

I arrived late to the party but clean and in my finery. By now the festivities had grown loud, expanding to fill up every corner of the courtyard, and probably some of the darker places in the nearby towers of the inner wall as well.

Everywhere were masks in all manner of colors and materials, from subtle leather suggestions of demons and devils to gaudy metallic indications of the Firstborn. I caught Vesonna quickly, dressed in the colors of her house with a fine mask of blackened steel and gilt accents, not unlike well-crafted armor. The mask’s sculpture, tiny roses around delicate features, must have been the likeness of Samaradha, the Lady with dominion over the flora of the Avar and, daughter of the Firstborn Melqéa and Avariennë. She turned away from me when she recognized my full mask and I didn’t pursue. I couldn’t think of anything but time that might ease her embarrassment and anger, though I had no intention of saying anything to anyone that might cause her public shame, or even gossip.

I could hear plenty of gossip around me as I moved through the crowds. Given the general din of festivities, only disjointed and out-of-context words came to my ears, but I caught enough to discern that at least some of the talk revolved around my naked and bloody run through the castle. Naught to do about that but laugh with them. Except I couldn’t. The image of that face, too darkened by its hood and my collapsing eyesight to be made out as the person it belonged to tried to murder me, kept me from seeing the humor in the absurdity of what followed the attack.

Being surrounded by a sea of masked revelers, few of whom I could positively identify by some eccentricity of form, only worsened the sense of dread that grew within me. Glimpses I’d caught of naked but masked supplicants revering Vaina’s ancient resident spirit overlay with the sights of the party; the smell of smoke from a wood fire matched the smell of the cult’s bonfire. For a moment, I was back in those woods fleeing desperately from pursuers—the same who’d sent my assassin. I’d no doubt that some of whom moved within the crowd, easily identifying me while shrouded from my own searching.

As I wandered through the various clusters of folk gathered around this performer or that, a large man with a slight limp stepped in front of me. His beard, neatly combed, nevertheless splayed from under his mask given its size. He wore a metallic mask, extravagant in the thin metal leaves that protruded upward and all about from both sides, the entirety alchemically dyed green to give the impression of a wild man of the forest.

Gamven grabbed my arm, firmly but not aggressively, and pulled me to the side. “My lord,” he said, “My lord Aryden has asked me to talk to you immediately. Some of the servants told him they saw Vesonna enter your bathing room and, of course…”
“She did,” I admitted.

“My lord, after our adventures together we are like brothers, bonded in blood and fire. But I am bound to carry out my lord’s orders.”

He couldn’t see my expression under my mask, and I feared that put me at a disadvantage. But maybe not, for as much as he could read no sincerity, he could also see no tells of misdirection or dissembling. “You needn’t worry,” I told him, flatly, a small hole in the mask’s mouth allowing my voice to escape without being too muffled. “She remembered something of import from the library and foolishly rushed into the room to tell me. Nothing untoward occurred. She gave me the message and departed. Ask those same servants and they should tell you she wasn’t in the room long enough to do…anything they might have implied she may have. That’s gossip for you, half-truths and insinuations. The Lady Vesonna means well and knows her duty to her family. Besides, were she to dally with someone, it would not be me.”

Gamven smiled, showing his teeth. “That is a relief, my friend. Come, let’s get you a drink!”

I followed the green man to an area where a makeshift tavern had been arranged in the courtyard, several tables and benches arrayed before a long, thin table, behind which lay several squatting barrels of beer. Worvo, the owner of the Farmer’s Folly in Outer Vaina, tended the bar. Here, the servants and retainers of the amn Vainas and amn Estos seeking a more relaxed environment took shelter, casually swapping stories with one another while drinking copious amounts of their lords’ stocks.

Worvo smiled as we approached the erstwhile bar, filling two tankards and setting them on the table for us. “How goes it, my lord?” he asked.

“Well met, Master Worvo,” I responded. “We are making progress, and soon to have the matter resolved.”

“Excellent,” the tavernkeeper said.

Before he could say any more, Gamven interrupted. “I’m sorry, my friend, but Lord Iaren cannot stay; he’s due to be present amongst the higher-born guests.” He put an edge in the words “higher-born” that intimated some ambivalence about the meaning of those words. I agreed. “I just thought he could use a bit of Vaina’s finest beer before treading amongst the wolves.”

I raised the mug a bit before remembering the metal gate that barred my mouth. I lifted the mask back on my head enough to reach the lip of the tankard with my own, taking a swig of the hoppy, bitter beer, a hint of spices lingering like Vaina’s ghost after I’d swallowed. I raised the mug in salute to the barkeep; he nodded back, still smiling.
Gamven turned me gently, “And now your true task,” he said to me quietly as we walked.
I gasped sarcastically. “I’m to be more than one more pretty fencepost? More than a demonstration of your lord’s wealth and influence?”

“We all have our roles to play, my lord,” Gamven said in a tone suggesting the soldier’s sense of duty.

“What, exactly, is Aryden asking of me?”

“Your role is much like mine this evening,” the master-of-arms began. “You’re to stand watch so that nothing happens to interrupt the evening’s festivities—no uninvited guests, I mean.”

“I got it.”

“But, whereas I have the advantage of watching from afar, my lord desires that you also mingle with his distinguished guests. Being one of them, of course.”

“Of course.”

We approached the area of the courtyard where the nobles sipped their wine, shared the latest gossip from courts afield, and danced to the tunes of a large ensemble of musicians—dancing both the more formal dances of court and alternatively capering and gamboling to the livelier songs of the common folk.

While servants and retainers were fewer in number here, not all had been given the night to celebrate for themselves. These moved mutely among their masters, anticipating needs and serving by knowledge of custom rather than by interrupting communications. Some downed the dregs of their lords’ wine as they removed old cups to bring fresh ones, others listened quietly and patiently to both the raucous banter and the whispered insinuations, searching them out for some intelligence that might be sold to an interested party for a little extra coin. Some even served faithfully and diligently, but these interested me less.

Some of the prominent folk of the town had joined the nobility with their own families. Mistress im Norrene in a silver gown with a black mask with horns and tendril like rivulets of leather-formed hair laughed at something said by a man whose dark mask had the tusks of a boar. In the flickering light of the lamps and torches, I could not tell whether the mask intended to be a boar or to mock the Blooded who called themselves the Rukhosi.

In a corner of the makeshift enclosure, another courtier, well-dressed but not so extravagantly as many of his fellows, watched sulkily, sipping long, considered swigs of his lord’s wine. A mask with real antlers and a sharp brow formed in dark, waxed leather concealed his face, but I knew him to be the constable Daedys by his demeanor. A guest at his lord’s celebrations, to be sure, but attendance required him to bear witness to a decline in his own family’s influence. A slight decline, in the great scheme of things, perhaps, as the slip only mattered relative to the prestige of the other non-noble magnate families in Vaina, but for a man of pride, the slightest loss of prestige may feel devastating.

But, the question remained: was it devastating enough to cause the im Vardi to turn on their lord and master? Had Orren been involved in such a plot? Had he somehow been foiled in whatever machinations he took part in but held a hatred so ingrained in him by his family that he refused to leave his vengeance even after death? It seemed a trite thing to me to keep one from the Path and Wheel, but different folk mete out their meaning differently than I. The bigger problem in my line of thought was the question of—if the preceding were true—why amn Vaina would keep the same secret, why not take more drastic action against the im Vardi? Why not strip them of all power to oppose him altogether? No, like all my theories so far, this seemed too simple. Neither Daedys nor amn Vaina knew the location of Orren’s body nor suspected him as the cause, or the lord would’ve never sent for me in the first place.

A change in tune from one of the more staid courtly dances to something livelier broke my reverie, particularly as a woman wearing an exquisite dress of ultramarine paired with a blue-painted mask that could only have meant to capture the essence of the Aenyr known as the Sapphire Queen took my hand from my side and dragged me into nearby the crowd of dancers, her grip hard enough to nearly pull me off my balance and onto my face. I dropped and forgot the mug that Worvo had given me as I swept forward, but I’d emptied it anyway.

We swung for a moment with the dance, those standing or sitting around us to talk or drink becoming a blur as I struggled to keep up with unknown steps, the frenetic need to acquit myself well overcoming my discomfort at the attention dancing always seemed to call to me—and not because of my skill.

Only when the woman laughed did I realize her for Vitella amn Esto. Her breath was hot and sweet with wine. Given her normal proclivity for drink and that the wedding of a younger relative accentuated her age (though I believed her to be only a year or two older than me) and her single status. As her dress twirled with her movements—precise and graceful despite the wine—I caught a glimpse of Ilmarion flowers sewn within the folds, perhaps only visible with activity as vigorous as dancing. I would’ve stopped to ponder this had not the rhythm required me to move quickly, lest I be bludgeoned with flailing arm or leg or, worse still, make obvious the many minor blunders and missteps I made in attempting to keep up with the Lady Vitella.

When the musicians paused momentarily to adjust their instruments, the lady showed sympathy for me and led me away from the other dancers. “Well, that was quite amusing, my lord,” she smiled and winked, sliding past me to greet some other partygoer she’d only just recognized.

Across the other side of the space made for dancing, Daedys watched dispassionately, the distance too great to tell if his eyes fell upon me or only my general vicinity. Ignoring him, my eyes fell on the betrothed, distanced somewhat from the rest of the group, talking with one another sweetly and laughing, he in a mask of bronze fire, a perfectly circular sun over the forehead with what I imagined were chariot horses trailing away from the star, she in a mask dyed with various shades of blue accentuated by engraved clouds painted white. Ialos and Qatemë, the original Lord of Fire, for whom the larger of our suns had been named; she the Lady of Sky, his lover. A fitting metaphor, I supposed.
I watched them until Lorent amn Esto took his leave of his bride-to-be for a moment, perhaps to consult with family or simply to find another glass of wine. With Nilma left alone, I swept in to take the opportunity for another conversation.

Her disdain—disgust, really—at seeing me became apparent as her mouth twisted between her mask, which I noticed had been alchemically treated to give the illusion of the clouds moving across it as she turned her head back and forth.

“I’ve nothing to say to you,” she said. “Leave me alone to celebrate.”

“But I have things to say to you,” I told her, my voice perhaps more ominous from behind the mask. “You lied to me.”

That pricked her sufficiently; she turned toward me quickly, with a, “How dare you!”

I smiled, though she couldn’t see it. “You’ll make quite the lady, with a temper like that,” I taunted.

“You will not speak to me that way!” she continued.

Turning to face her, I stared with the static expression of the mask. “Do you deny it?”

“I…”

“My lady, I’m not hear to threaten or cajole you. I have no desire to upset you or to disturb the joy that is due to you upon your nuptials.”

“Then why do you call me a liar to my face?”

“Because I am polite enough not to do it behind your back. And I need your attention. I mean to cause no offense, but I do need your help.”

“Help? How?”
“You told me you didn’t know Orren when we first spoke. We both know that’s not true. I need you to tell me what you do know about him.”

“I—”she began.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to find Lorent, grinning under his mask, reaching out and grasping me with the foolish bravery of youth. “Master thaumaturge—” he said before I cut him off.

“Lord thaumaturge,” I said, brusquely swiping his hand away.

“You appear to be bothering my bride,” he said, smile still wide.

I looked back to Nilma in response. She stared blankly at us, noncommittally.

Lorent took it as sign enough he was in the right. “You should go,” he commanded.
For a brief moment, I considered my options. I wore no weapons—nor would they have done me in good if I had, save to find me more trouble. Lorent had a dagger at his side. His hand did not rest upon the grip, but it was balled at his hip just nearby. For the same reason a direct escalation in confrontation would only worsen things, any use of the Art would have the same effect if detected. Behind Lorent, the lords Aryden and Issano watched over the scene, silent gargoyles threatening to pounce. “My lord,” I said, finally, “I have need only to ask a few questions and I’ll excuse myself from your presence.”

“You will do that now,” he said, his grinning face begging to be slapped hard enough to tear the mask from it.

“That is not how you get what you want, little lordling,” I said loud enough to draw the attention of those nearby, including the two lords. “Why command when you can ask nicely?”

“Because my words carry the weight of a man of honor. They always demand satisfaction.”

“Do not threaten someone unless you mean to do them violence, for a person of honor and courage is likely to oblige your demand for blood all too quickly.”

“And what, you’re a man of honor,” he asked, mockingly.

I turned away from him, to the crowd of nobles, retainers and hangers-on. “Honor is such a gaudy accessory,” I said. “These clothes are a gift from our mutual host. Aside from them, I have nothing to wear honor with! Alas!”

Some laughs in the crowd.

“So you’re a coward then?”

I turned back to him with a flourish, adopting the stance of the fencer. He startled and nearly drew his weapon. I took a fencer’s step forward, holding some invisible blade before shifting my mask’s gaze between my empty hand and the upstart lordling, as if only now realizing that I was unarmed. More laughter.

“I will not kill you with wit, my lord, only bleed you a little. And we can play at courage. I will cut you with my words, bit by bit, and we shall see when such injuries require you to strike with steel. Then we shall see your courage!”

More laughter now, and this no longer at my antics, but at my target. Derisive. Offensive.

“How dare you speak to me with such insolence, on such an occasion?” the lordling said, spitting before me as if throwing down a gauntlet.

Now I was glad for the mask that concealed all of my face. “On the one hand you say I am a coward, on the other you accuse me of being over-daring. How can such qualities exist in the same man?”

“Perhaps I should cut you open and see,” the young man threatened.

“There. There,” I said. “That’s it. You’ve confused a readiness for violence with courage and honor. They are not the same.”

“They are related,” he protested. “That’s the essence of vendetta. But I know that’s something you do not understand, Iaren amn Ennoc.”

He got the better of me, and my controlled mockery fell away into a purer scorn. “You know nothing of vendetta, lordling, as you know so little of the rest of the world. Live among folk who have no time to worry about ‘honor’ and ‘respect’ if they are to survive and you might see how mistaken you are. Although, since this marriage is intended to rescue you from such a fate, I imagine you’ll continue to live in ignorance.”

That strike cut him deep, as I’d promised, but deeper than I’d actually intended. The light of the alchemical lamps glinted off of the short length of his dagger’s blade as he pulled it slightly from its sheath before thinking the better of it and pushing the weapon back home.

Before either of us could further spar, Aryden’s hand had grasped my upper arm. To the others it appeared a friendly gesture to lead a friend to new introductions, but I felt the tips of his fingers push deep into the muscle. “Pardon Lord amn Ennoc,” he told the lordling. “He has been preoccupied with his work of late and may not be pleasant company.”

“No,” I agreed, adding nothing.

As my employer pulled me away from the crowd, which quickly turned back to the music and dancing, he scolded, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You told me I had to be here,” I returned, petulantly.

“To prevent any unseemly event from disturbing festivities, not to cause one!”

“I can do that from elsewhere.”

“Then perhaps you should. Wait a moment for propriety’s sake and then remove yourself to the keep. You can keep your watch for our unwanted guest from there.”

“Fine.”

Aryden stopped to give some quiet command to Gamven before he returned to his conversations with the Lord amn Esto, and the master-of-arms looked at me with a dubious expression as he received his orders, hesitating slightly before leaving the celebration.

Before I could follow, however, the Sapphire Queen stepped before me again, smiling that mischievous smile of her. “That was even more amusing,” she said before I could react.

“Really?” I managed. “I figured you’d be as upset with me as everyone else.”

“On the contrary.” She briefly paused for another sip of wine. “It’s nice to see the little shit put in his place for once. As you pointed out, this is his destiny, and because of its importance to our family, he’s been coddled. He’s seen little of the world as you suggest, certainly not enough to provide even a modicum of humility, some of which even we highborns need, no?”

“Yes. And I’m glad, once again, to have provided you some amusement.”

She smiled, looked into her empty cup, and turned away. Daedys, still sulking at the edge of the celebration, continued to watch over me, and I remembered that others might be doing the same. Nevertheless, I could not remain without further infuriating the man who had brought me here, and my welcome had worn quite thin as it were. I ducked away.

My pace quickened as progressed through the courtyard, ignoring the mummery and other entertainments and the crowds gathered round them in favor of a speedy return. I’d been safer in the crowd of Aryden’s most esteemed guests, where I knew at least some of those present not to be members of the Vaina cult. But here, in the darkness between localized celebrations, I felt vulnerable, remembering at once fleeing in the forest under a similar cover of night and my brief confrontation with the would-be robbers on my way into town.

Perhaps that last thought had some unintended prescience to it, for I found three men standing in my line of travel, just far enough from the nearest lanterns that few would notice their loitering—if they could have been seen at all. I stopped a good distance from them, enough that I might have time for at least one defensive sorcery before they were upon me. I’d not expected the cult—if that were the source of the evening’s previous assassin—to arrange another attempt quite so quickly—or so brazenly.

Each of the figures was appropriately masked, the shapes of their disguises seeming to take the form of woodland creatures, though I couldn’t be sure in the dark and distance. Their clothing had the cut and fashion of servingmen, though I could tell neither the status nor identity of their master. They wore no weapons, but I had little doubt that they had some sharp and insidious blades hidden about their persons.

The lead figure, the collar of his long jacket pulled up to conceal the lower half of his face, raised an open hand in a gesture that either warned me to stop (which I already had) or intended to signal peaceful intent. “We wish you no harm, Lord Thaumaturge. Only to deliver a message.”

I was not ready to believe them, but neither had I any intent to escalate the matter given the circumstances. “And what’s that?”

“Our master wishes no quarrel with you, Iaren amn Ennoc. We wish no quarrel with you.”

“It’s a bit late for that, isn’t it? One of yours did try to kill me, after all.”

“One of ours, but not with our master’s blessing.”

“Dissension in the ranks, huh? That’s going to make staying hidden difficult.”

“Let us to worry about that. Provided you do not meddle in our affairs, we will leave you to yours.”

“I can’t promise that. I have a job to do.”

“Orren’s death has nothing to do with us.”

“And I’m supposed to just trust you on that? Was he a part of your…faction?”

The man paused for a moment. “He was. But not a part of our plans. You are not a part of our plans, either, but if you become entangled in them, we must needs be enemies. That is not what our master wants. Our master is willing to offer something of great value to you if you will stand aside.”

“And what is that?”

“Knowledge. There are many secrets one such as our master has access to that you may not discover in a lifetime.”

“And what, exactly, am I being asked to do?”

“You will know our master’s intent when it is revealed. There will be a secret to keep, but it will not prevent you from pursuing your own task. Our master might even assist with the completion of that task. And we all may go about our ways enriched, and friends.”

More riddles, I thought to myself. “I’m not agreeing to anything,” I said. “Not in advance.”

“Nor would we ask you to,” the man said. “We mean only to bring an offer of peace between us and to communicate our intentions to you. You will do as you see best. We hope that it will leave us friends and not enemies.”

The messenger’s outstretched hand turned to wave his comrades to follow and they withdrew into the darker recesses of the courtyard as I continued to the entrance of the keep, where Gamven waited for me.

“My lord has asked me to post guards at your chamber,” the master-of-arms said bluntly as he followed just behind me to my quarters. “After the earlier attack on you, he thought it might be wise to provide you with some additional protection.”

“And all the better to keep me in line as well, huh?” I replied.

Gamven said nothing. I took that to mean that he respected me well enough not to lie to me and thought that we were, indeed, friends. I understood his adherence to his duties and wished to cause him no trouble for his loyalty or to test our friendship against that loyalty. That would only cause him pain, and I would lose all the same.

Two men of Gamven’s guard flanked the door to my room, wearing the same sort of breastplate and gambeson Errys had when I met her. A pang of regret washed across me, but I pushed it aside just as I pushed open the door to my chamber. Despite the presence of my guardians, my night had not yet ended.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 30

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

The courtyard between the castle’s inner wall and its keep bustled with activity as servants set up alchemical lamps, cloth decorations, platforms for entertainment, long lines of trestle tables and benches, and all the other accoutrements of a celebration intended to be spectacle as much as respite from the worries of the world. We passed fire-eaters, jugglers and mummers, actors, musicians and all manner of other players hired to provide distraction and entertainment throughout the night. Servants of both the amn Vaini and the amn Esti erected avilions of fine cloths bearing the families’ coats of arms, flanked and surrounded by clay statues, probably the rushed product of Ovaelo’s apprentices, of various mythological figures.

We passed unmolested between these various obstacles, at one point dodging a pair of young folk delicately maneuvering a cask of wine between the gauntlet of competing workers, at another ducking under a long carpet tightly rolled and carried like a piece of fresh-cut timber by some of the stronger lads.

Eldis greeted us at the doors into the lord’s great hall, flanked by several of the household servants. Without missing a step, Vesonna continued into her home, her waiting handmaids falling into line behind her as she disappeared through one of the side doors. Indorma followed behind.

The aging steward held a hand up to me, however, causing me to pause on the steps into the hall. By the nervous faces of the two servants who remained behind him, I could tell they’d been assigned to attend to me in some task and wished they hadn’t. I recognized the stout girl who’d brought me my breakfast that morning. Beside her, a taller, thinner, older woman whose calm demeanor bespoke an attitude to the world immune to surprise and impractical superstitions. I hoped that her younger companion would take some strength from her—and perhaps not continue to make the sign of the Tree at me when she thought I wasn’t looking.

“My lord has arranged a new set of clothes for you for this evening. And a bath for your comfort, my lord,” Eldis said, tone bereft of any opinion whatsoever. “These good women will escort you and see that you are provided for. I trust your day in Barro’s books proved useful?”

“Enough.”

“Very good, my lord.” He waived his hands to signal the two women to lead on. I followed.

They took me to a room on the same floor as my bedchamber. The windows had been opened to let in the still-warm air of the summer night, and the faint sounds of the workers continuing to build the labyrinth of amusements below mingled with the first tentative practices of the musicians. A large tub, bigger than a butt of wine set on its side and split open, occupied the center of the room. A wooden tray at the height of a desktop straddled the entire piece; on this had been set a small mirror on a stand, several soaps and a collection of shaving implements. Nearby, a short rack held several towels awaiting the finished bather.

In the far right-hand corner of the room stood a mannequin, on which had been arrayed a set of fine clothes, black satin with copper colored cloth in the dags, those befitting a nobleman of my title, if not my wealth. Frankly, they looked stiff and too expensive—the kind of thing that causes you to fret with every movement that you might tear or scuff or scrape its meticulous craftsmanship. I prefer something sturdier, harder-wearing, and less likely to draw attention.

A mask, tied to the otherwise blank face of the mannequin, stared at me with beige eyes. No one had mentioned that the party would be a masquerade. At first I damned my luck, for the masks would make it difficult for me to identify those who the party would give me opportunity to question. On the other hand, since the celebrants at the cult’s gathering the night previous had also been masked, perhaps something—the shape of a chin or the way one’s hair fell about the mask—would inspire some intuition of identity.
My mask had been shaped to cover the full face, like the masks worn by the Avarian Aenyr after the [Name of] Treaty. Most of the masks, I knew, would be half-masks in the typical style of such parties in the Sisters, so mine would undoubtedly stand out. That it was blackened iron gilt in bronze accents of faux-arcane symbols further enhanced the otherness the article would provide. The upturned bronze wings, like those of the messenger spirits of the Firstborn, completed the strangeness, dwarfing the other attributes of the mask with their conspicuousness. I wondered at the amount of time required to make such a mask; had it been made to Aryden’s orders in a short time, or had it somehow been procured from the Sisters?

The shorter of the servant-women turned to me from a table on the side of the room, speaking while she poured wine into a goblet sitting next to a hunk of bread and some dried meats, “It will take us some time to fetch the water, my lord. There will be much food at the celebration this evening, but my lord thought you might be famished and sent you this food and drink to tide you until then.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “You may call me, ‘Iaren.’”

“No, my lord,” she said, face pointed downward as she scurried past to join her elder companion in bringing the water to fill the bath.

They made several trips with buckets of steaming water before they filled the tub to an appropriate height, and another trip to fetch some perfume and flower petals to drop into the water. I thought of Barro’s tea and smiled to myself.

The task complete, they took their leave, closing the door behind them. Only then did I realize how much I ached—between sitting pouring over books today and the bruises of the night past, I’d acquired a number of sore patches and plaintive joints. The bath then seemed an excellent respite.

I removed my belt and leaned it and my sword against the corner of the room toward which the door opened. In that corner I sat briefly to unlace and pull off my boots before unceremoniously strewing the rest of my clothes across the floor’s warm stones. The maids had managed a perfect temperature for the water, hot enough to cause the briefest sensation of burning before becoming extremely comfortable, and I eased myself slowly into the vessel, leaning my head back and listening to the sounds coming through the window for a moment.

Just as I truly fell into relaxation, the door began to swing open, quietly. I sat up, splashing water across the mirror, and turned to see Vesonna, clothed in only a robe, hair wet from her own bathing, mechanical bird perched atop her left shoulder. She pressed the door closed behind her as quietly as she’d opened it and stepped lightly around the side of the bathtub until I had no need to crane my neck to see her.

Without a word, she let fall the robe. I’m sure it crumpled around her feet, but it might as well have disappeared into thin air. Her skin was pale and soft, untanned by a life in the fields, unscarred by a life of toil and hardships. She had an alluring combination of toned muscle and feminine curves, though I knew too little of her to guess at her athletic endeavors.

She stared at me, lips slightly parted, while her bird cocked its head and looked at me with crystalline eyes, holding the posture of a Gracaellas Street pimp about to ask if I liked what his girls had to offer me.

My own mouth dropped open a bit, and I swallowed hard, a lump in my throat and my stomach developing that tingle of nervousness that accompanies an event both enticing in its promise and fraught with the possibility of disaster.

It took me a moment to speak, and I did so with a voice less sure than I’d hoped for. “Vesonna,” I began. “I—”

Her face became a frown. She knew what was coming next.

“You don’t find me attractive?” I couldn’t tell whether the pout in her voice meant playfulness or deep offense.

“It’s not that,” I managed. “Not at all.”

She stepped forward, eyes widening as she peered into the bathwater. “I see that it’s not,” she smiled mischievously.

I tried to move the tray table to cover the parts of me that had her attention. “I would like to,” I admitted, voice still trembling slightly. How is it that I could steel myself against the horrors of the Close or a child of Daea and yet I found myself entirely unraveled by something so…natural?

She leaned down next to the bath and put a hand on my face. “Then why not?” she asked, quiet and breathy, the entrancing melody of her voice accompanied by the faint whirring of the Artificial bird.

As self-assuredly as I could manage, I took her hand in mine, removing it from my face and placing it against the side of the bathtub. “You know why,” I said.

“Tell me.”

“Your father,” I complained, nervousness dissipating ever-so-slightly. “My relationship with him is strained enough as it is, and I’m sure you understand how—” I wanted to say jealous but decided against it, “protective he is of you. I simply can’t afford the consequences.”

She stepped back, rising to her full height, pulling her hands to her chest. “Am I some ledger-book to you, some accounting that needs balancing that you should weigh passion against consequence? I thought you were a man of the Sisters, that you understand the value of passion against aught else!”

Perfect, I thought to myself. “Under different circumstances, I would not hesitate, believe me. But I need this job and I’m not sure I’d survive your father’s wrath—more than he’s already directed it to me.”

“Your love is money?” she asked, incredulous.

“Do I look to you like a man for whom coin is a motivating desire?” I pointed to the dusty and worn clothes in their path across the floor. “But I need enough coin to survive. Passion isn’t a luxury I can afford at present. Maybe it is accounting, in the end. And I know passion well enough, thank you. I feel it even now. But I’m also no fool to let himself be undone by his passion.”

“So you would make a fool of me, then?” she barked, bending over to gather her robe again. The sight was painful to behold, a heart-wrenching maelstrom of my compassion for her position and my own aching at the knowledge of what I’d turned down.

I opened my mouth to speak but thought the better of it as she tied the robe closed around her, bird flapping its wings tentatively as she stormed from the room, huffing and mumbling angrily to herself. Apparently, she had her father’s temper.

I sank back into the water, leaning my head back and closing my eyes, running the conversation through my head, wondering how I could have done things differently so as not to lose the woman’s friendship, which I was certain I had.

My thoughts whirled through my head one after the other, often contradictory, mostly unresolved, until I heard the door open once again. I assumed that Vesonna had returned to make a fresh argument, and I said her name without opening my eyes.
When no response came, I turned just in time to see a hooded figure moving quickly toward me. I grabbed for the razor on the bath tray, but my assailant tossed the whole thing aside before I could lay fingers on the blade. I blocked a punch with my left elbow, but he used my distraction to push me down into the water.

I hadn’t had time to catch a breath before I collapsed into the tub; my eyesight quickly began focusing into a limited circle around which lie only darkness. Between that and the refraction of light off of the water’s surface, I could neither make out my attacker nor any weapon close to hand. As my head and lungs began to burn, I knew that I had no focus to work even a sorcery upon the man; I struggled through the fog in my mind to thinks of any way I might escape. Meanwhile, the killer’s hands tightened around my neck, pushing me against the bottom of the vessel as my legs kicked, splashing water.

I moved my right hand upward from his wrist, jamming my fingers under his palm and tucking my thumb into the webbing between his own thumb and fingers. This gave me the leverage to pull that hand back far enough from my neck that I could lean and clamp my teeth around his thumb. I bit down as hard as I could, an inky cloud of blood spreading forth from the wound. Now he thrashed, attempting to throttle me into releasing his hand, but mine were now free to shield my face from his desperate blows.
He fell back from me only when his thumb tore apart between my teeth; I must have bitten down right at the joint not to have been stopped by bone. He recoiled, clutching at his mangled hand, as I pushed myself back into the air, spitting the ragged flesh from my mouth and gasping. I could hear him screaming now, but only as a distant sound despite his proximity.

The would-be assassin ran, but adrenaline had kicked in now, and as soon as I had the least sufficient amount of air in my chest to give chase, I did, panting my way down the hallway in pursuit of the trail of blood, trying not to slip on wet feet against stone. But my head continued to pound and my lungs burned with the exertion and I knew I could not follow for long.

My attacker must have bound his bloody hand with whatever he had available, for his trail stopped somewhere within the stairwell. Not knowing where to exit, I continued downward into the main hall. Without that crimson path to guide me, I knew I could not reach him in my current state. As rationality set in, I understood also that I’d be to tired to survive a confrontation even if I had caught the man.

As I collected myself from the fury of the chase, I noticed that I was not alone. Eldis, Edanu, Aryden and a collection of servants had gathered there, no doubt discussing the last-minute changes to the plans for the celebration. The maidservants gave me a look up and down and then turned to one another, whispering and giggling. I looked down at myself and remember that I was naked—and covered in blood. I grinned sheepishly, tasting copper.

“Did a man in a hood run through here?” I asked in a stream of words without spaces between them.

“What the hell are you doing?” Aryden asked in return.

“I was attacked,” I told him, catching my breath in short pants between words.

Glances were exchanged between the three men before Edanu approached. Instinctively, I raised my hands in a defensive posture, but he only unlatched his cloak and draped it over my shoulders so that I had something with which I could cover myself.

“Send Gamven to have the premises searched. Find this person,” Aryden told Eldis, who immediately set about the task.

The lord turned back to me. “Are you okay, my lord? Is any of that blood yours?”

“No. I’ll be fine. But I think I’m going to need another bath.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 29

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

There came a knock at the door. Rotating my legs out from under the bedcovers and onto the floor, I arose. Still a bit dizzy, I grasped for the nearby canopy post at the foot of the bed, leaning on it momentarily as I let my head stop swimming. The flux-created rain had moistened everything thoroughly, to say nothing of my own sweat, and my underclothes clung to me like an unwelcome relative. The floor, at least, had not gathered puddles, so I made my way to the door over dry land.

I unlatched the door and pulled it open a crack to find a plump servant girl, pock-marked face dropped slightly agape when she saw the state of me, holding a tray of food and drink. “Are—are you alright, my lord?” she asked, nervously. I suspected the tray occupying her hands and preventing her from making the sign of the Tree at me only added to her discomfort.

“Fine, thank you. How are you on this fine morning?” I managed.

Her mouth continued to hang open still, and she blinked several times before realizing that I’d answered her. “My lord amn Vaina requested that food be brought to you first thing in the morning, my lord.”

“Thank you,” I repeated, letting the door swing open a little more so that I could gently take the tray from her hands.

As soon as I had, she turned and made her way down the hallway back to the stairs, arms moving in front of her to form the sign of the Tree as she did. Closing the door, I took the tray and placed it on the table near the bed, the one that held the bowl of water for washing and underneath which hid the chamberpot. I tried to be annoyed at the message Aryden sent with such an order, but the fresh milk, small beer, dark, dense bread and rasher of bacon blunted the edge of the act’s meaning with the welcomeness of the act itself. Before eating, I swung open the leaded window through which light began to flood the room, removed my wet bedclothes, and hung them on the window sill to let the sun dry them. Already, I could feel the heat of the day beating upon my forearms as they lay the linens out; little time would be required to remove the moisture. My underclothes occupied the entire space of the sill, but I picked up my jerkin, pants, and jacket to determine how damp my day looked. Not as much as I feared, but more than I hoped. These I laid out across the floor where the sunlight fell most directly, the best I could do without a place to hang them.

No sooner had I taken my first bite of bacon, savoring the salty-sweetness of the meat, than there came another knock at my chamber door. I cringed, fearing that Aryden might have intended to catch me in just such a position for another scolding. Reluctantly, I swallowed the bacon prematurely, nearly choking on it, and took a swig of the beer before returning to the door.

When I put my hand on the latch, I heard a voice from the other side. “Iaren?” it asked. Vesonna’s voice.

I opened the door a bit more eagerly, but just a bit, hiding my naked self behind it. Viewing part of my shoulder and chest, and evidently understanding what my posture meant, Vesonna smiled briefly for a moment before becoming serious again. “Are you alright, Iaren? Aela said you were soaked in sweat and looked ill. Should I fetch the doctor for you?”

“No. Thank you. I’m fine.”

She held the back of her hand to my forehead, moving it into position before I’d even realized what she was doing, much less in time to prevent the action. “No fever,” she said. “That’s good. Perhaps something you ate last night?”

“A bad dream is all.”

“Of the spirit? Like my mother’s?”

“In a certain sense, yes.”

“What was the dream?” she put her hand on the door, as if to push her way in, but exerted no force upon it. A message of her desire but not an effort to impose her will.
“I’ll tell you of it later,” I said. “But I need to make use of Barro’s library today, so I need to eat my breakfast and be on my way.”

“Excellent!” she said, a bit giddy. “You could use an assistant in your research. I’ll go ahead to Barro’s and make things ready.”

She left before I could object. To be honest, the company in the task would be welcome, and I could think of far less pleasant companions.

When I’d finished my breakfast, I found my underclothes dry again, though donning my true attire somewhat dampened them again. The leather of my belt and pouches remained wet as well, creaking and sticking to itself as I pulled it on.

I drew my sword from its scabbard, though I knew I had no need to check it. In the fuller of the blade, I’d etched a rune of protection, which kept the weapon sharp, strong, and free from rust without a need for maintenance. I necessary precaution, because I often found myself preoccupied and too willing to neglect the maintenance of my gear.

When most think of supernaturally-empowered weapons, they thing of swords that burst into fire when drawn, spears that can cut through all armor like so much paper, bows that never miss their target. Such things exist, but rare enough that they remain mostly left to legend. Wondrous effects of the type people remember typically result from the Awakening of a spirit within the weapon or the accrual of symbolic meaning over time, as Power subtly attaches to the object to give tangible effect to what the weapon has come to represent. This requires the weapon to repeatedly be used in acts of great significance over time—and a little Wyrgeas besides. Hence the rarity.

Far more common are the wondrous weapons of my sort, inscribed with a rune or two and imbued with Power enough to sustain the workings represented by the rune. The more powerful the effect, the more often more Power must be brought into the rune to keep it active. Mine required that I imbue additional Power into it only rarely, less than yearly. That a rune for the easy maintenance of my weapon itself required little maintenance seemed just and right.

The rune itself actually meant more to me for what it symbolized in my own pursuit of the Art than for the benefit it provided. I’d used a theurgic ritual to form the engraving by manipulating the metal of the blade itself, shaping it through the Art rather than by physical of chemical means of inscription. This left the edges of the rune distinct but rounded, without the hard corners of chisel or acid. A step on the path of mastery of the Art, for I’d created the ritual myself, from scratch.

Sheathing the blade again, I sat against the side of the bed and pulled on my boots. The meal had refreshed me a good deal, but I could still feel the weight of fatigue pulling on the edges of my consciousness, dulling them ever so subtly.

Clothed and armed, I declared myself ready for the day. From the trunk at the foot of the bed, I gathered my quills, inks and my notebook, the tools of the student remain comfortably familiar to me. Placing these into my backpack along with my ritual girdle, I left for Barro’s home.

Like Aryden’s other most trusted allies, the priest’s home occupied a portion of the Old Town, where it exhibited the same gaudy ostentation as the homes of Vaina’s wealthiest merchant families. A bit smaller than those familial compounds, given that it had been intended for a single person and a handful of attendants, but no less grand in its appearance.

Technically, the Temple owned the house and its effects, but I imagine that made little difference to the occupants, who enjoyed its splendor all the same. Should the elders that govern the Temple move Barro to a new posting, it would likely enjoy the same magnificence, or more. Unless, that is, Barro displeased his superiors and they purposefully appointed him to a humbler position as a means of expressing their displeasure. Many are the tales of Temple politics and scheming priests.

Unlike the merchant homes, no gate surrounded the exterior of the building, no bravos guarded the door. I supposed that some combination of respect for Barro himself and fear of the vengeance of The One and Their loyal Firstborn provided protection enough. It’s not dissimilar in the Ilessa, where the Coin Lords leave no obvious defenses about their homes—those whose homes are identifiable, anyway. They invite thieves and murderers to attempt an intrusion, the threat of a life perpetually on the run from ubiquitous vengeance dissausion enough to keep the homes secure, though I assume there are plenty of armed footsoldiers and thugs within, just in case. That’s not to say that the Coin Lords are never robbed or murdered, only that it never happens in their homes.

Before I reached the door to knock upon it, one of Barro’s acolytes, a somber-faced teenage boy with a clipped ear, likely a punishment for theft, swung the door open to me. “My lord amn Ennoc,” he said. “My master awaits you.”

As soon as I stepped inside, I could hear the voices of Barro and Vesonna making pleasantries. Nevertheless, I took a moment to inspect the artwork hanging in the entry hall before following after the acolyte, who looked back at me impatiently.

Like the merchant families, gilt frames held the works of talented artists, props set to impress a guest, though these had been calculated to put one in a more reverent mindset rather than to intimidate or titillate. Religious images, all of them. There were the obligatory scenes of Ashaera on the Tree, Ieladrun spiriting her away as a child, the risen Ashaera appearing to the first believers. Others depicted the lore of the Temple after the writing of the Book of the Tree—the acts of saints and Chosen strewn between the miracles of the loyal Firstborn. Here, Melqéa descended into the underworld to make it a haven for those souls between incarnations, her willing sacrifice when Sedhwé’s misdeeds revealed that misfortune we call death. There, Aelessyn concealing the garden made by Baruvin, Tamsé, Samaradha and Avariennë, where The One will create the first humans.

One of these stood out in contrast to the others, a scene of macabre torment and threatening meaning. In the center, disembodied spirits, as if caught in a whirlwind, spiraled upward toward some unseen oblivion, while all around strange beings—some inanimate objects come to life, others horrid hybrids of incongruous creatures that even the most imaginative and insane of fleshcrafters would not consider. On the lower right, a humongous pair of shears cleft a man in two, while on a ledge above it a horde of pig-bird-snake-things stripped pieces of flesh from a fallen victim, and many more scenes of a sort besides. The torments of those who chose corruption throughout their lives, who served only themselves and evil. Or so I hoped, thinking myself not among them before a pang of doubt made me wonder. In the upper left corner of the painting a shadow loomed over all, almost bearing human features if one squinted. Sedhwé, I imagined.
I recognized the painter’s mark tucked into the underside of one of the shadowy ledges on which tortures were carried out—Ovaelo. No wonder he was a madman, living with such images in his mind’s eye.

The acolyte led me into the parlor where Barro and Vesonna sat, the lady’s tutor, Indorma, sitting disapprovingly in the corner as the former two chatted. When I entered, the shadow over Indorma deepened further.

“My lord, amn Ennoc,” the priest said, rising. “You do look—” he had wanted to say well, but his desire to speak truthfully, given the fatigue that had settled over me, prevented it. “Well, I am glad to see you relatively uninjured after facing down the beast in the woods. A child of Daea, stalking the forests just outside of town. What are times coming to, eh? As if our adventure in the Close where not enough for a lifetime. For me, at least.”

“Several,” I agreed, managing the best smile I could.

A second acolyte, this one stout and bow legged, entered through a far door in the parlor. In his hands, a tray containing a teapot and several pewter cups.

“Ah, thank you, Bennard,” the priest said, waiving for the boy to place the tray on the small table between him and his guests. He waived for me to sit and I obliged. “I hope you’ll humor me in a cup of tea before you begin,” he offered, almost apologetically. “I think you’ll find this variety will lend you well to your work. It’s all the way from the isle of Vindh in the Outer Sea, months of travel to reach the Sisters, longer to reach us here. A gift from the im Valladyni, to whom it was a gift from one of their trading partners. They know that I have a weak spot for strange teas; it makes a most welcome token of appreciation. And, for seeing me out of the very maw of death in the Crimson Close, I most happily share it with you, my lord.”

“Thank you,” I told him, raising the cup in salute. “To those did not come home with us.”
“To Medryn and Errys,” the priest said, eyes down in reverence, “May The One reward them as they deserve.”

I sipped at the tea, comfortable that Barro was not amongst the revelers I had observed the night before and that I had little fear of poisoning in front of Lady Vesonna. Still, the realization of the ensuing paranoia, the fact that I had little way of identifying any of the cultists should I chance across one, left me unsettled. I faked a smile as I pushed the thought aside.

“My lord, you remain convinced that the witch Falla has nothing to do with my lord’s predicament?” Barro asked, breaking the enjoyable silence.

“I do.” By my expression, I countenanced no further answer than that.

He took the hint. “And so you believe that the phantom is indeed the spirit of the boy Orren?”

“Yes.”

“And you believe that you may discover him in my library?” He smiled, overly enjoying his own cleverness.

I permitted a smile and the subtlest semblance of a laugh. I may not enjoy it, but I can dissemble and play at social niceties with the best of them when I must. “An investigation has many parts, father. To be sure, finding Orren’s body will likely be necessary, but I must understand more about the phenomena that has made of him an angry spirit to know what must be done to remove him back to the Path.”

“My library is a grand one, my lord. Perhaps one of the finest outside the Sisters. But I’m afraid I have little in the way of thaumaturgical texts. Some descriptions of the wonders of the Art and arcane matters, but those designed for laypersons and without practical information. I am sorry for that. Would you not be better served returning to Ilessa for a time to conduct your research there?”

“We make do with what we have, father,” I told him. “I do not think Lord Aryden would appreciate my departure, and the trip would cost me three days at a minimum.” From the corner of my eye, I could see a reaction from Vesonna, but I could not tell what it meant. A knowing nod about her father’s authoritarian leanings? Relief that I would not be leaving so soon—or that I was committed to ridding the amn Vaina home of their spirit after all? It didn’t matter. “Besides, the sort of information I’m looking for need not be found in a grimoire or practical text. That information I have well enough. Something that helps me to determine the precise nature of the spirit will help me put that practical knowledge to use, and such things may often be found hinted at or described in legend or experiences related in books on subjects unrelated to the Subtle Art.”

“Then I will endeavor to think up a list of books that might contain such information to ease your search. Otherwise you have the entire library to examine.”

There came an audible sigh from Indorma, who held her tea in her lap, attentive instead to the conversation.

“I don’t think the size of the library will be as much of an impediment as you might think,” I told the priest, setting my now-empty tea cup on the table between us.

He downed the rest of his own cup with a swig and smile before standing. “Then shall I let you set to it?”

Indorma and Vesonna likewise finished their tea and returned the cups to the tray that Bennard had brought in to us. Barro led us through a few short hallways—no less decorated with art and statuary than the entry, to a large hall, the kind of room one might mistake for a chapel by its design, save for the fact that this one had been lined with shelves from floor to ceiling on three sides, two stories high, sliding ladders on affixed to tracks above and below allowing access to the topmost shelves. Books packed every shelf tightly, leather covers dyed various colors of the spectrum, wooden slates bound by carefully laced string or sinew, tracts with rough-glued bindings lacking the perseverance or splendor of their more expensive peers. The smell of old books filled my nose, that combination of vellum and leather mixed with a tinge of mildew; I felt at home at once.

A single round table, possessed of four elaborately-carved chairs and also stacked with books, occupied the center of the room. There I sat my backpack and unpacked the journal, quills and inks.

“How did you—” Vesonna wondered aloud.

“Amass such a collection?” Barro answered for her, voice full of pride.

“You well know the reputations of many priests of the Temple of my standing. Where others of my station squander the resources with which their service blesses them upon personal luxuries, I have turned the incomes from my office toward the collection and preservation of knowledge. Often do I send the merchants of the im Valladyni or the im Darqosi certain sums for the purchase of books when they travel to the Sisters, and there are few markets across the Avar Narn better for the trade in books. I must admit that some of these are written in languages I cannot identify, much less decipher. But the majority are written in Ealthebad, or Altaenin, or Old Aenyr, which I do understand.”

“There must be more than a thousand books here,” Vesonna continued, to herself as much as anyone else. When she realized this, she turned to the priest and asked him, “Have you read them all—those you can, at least?”

Barro chuckled slightly, “No, my dear, I have not. It is a great fallacy of the lover of books that when one purchases a book, one thinks he is also purchasing the time to read the things. Alas, this is not often the case.”

“Then why keep them?” the lady asked.

Indorma answered, “Child, you know well that books—good ones, at least—are treasures worth more than gold are silver, and well worth preserving for posterity.”

“Just so, mistress,” Barro told her. “Now, my lord, I have had my acolytes spend some time in arranging the books in some semblance of organization. You’ll find bestiaries and tomes on flora at the far back on the right on the lower shelves. Above them, travelogues and geographies. The next section closest to us contains treatises on law as well as chronicles and histories. Closer still are collections of philosophical and theological matters. The section closest to us on the right-hand side holds military manuals, writings on horsemanship…”

He kept speaking, but I stopped listening. I would navigate my own way through his library, and my methods would have little to do with his system of organization. While I appreciated Vesonna’s company and assistance, I would need to dissemble enough to keep her from some of the true targets of my research while still giving her productive work to do. I especially had no desire to reveal my concerns about free spirits and occulted organizations to Indorma. In Barro’s house, I could afford few risks were I to keep my promise to Falla.

Having given us the lay of the land, the priest took his leave. Indorma stared at me dubiously. “How to you expect to sort through all of this?” she asked, waiving her arm to indicate the breadth of the library.

“It’s impressive,” I admitted, “but we both know it’s dwarfed by the university libraries.”
“Where people spend lifetimes searching out lost knowledge contained in forgotten tomes,” she chastised. “How long do you have to search these books?”

I was already moving as I responded, “Enough.” First, I removed my sword belt and leaned it against a corner nearest the door. Before I left it, though, I withdrew a piece of chalk from one of the pouches. Proceeding deeper into the room, past the table to where a finely embroidered rug provided some protection against the winter cold of the stones—which was of course no current worry. I pulled that carpet aside, clearing the floor. “Would you mind rolling that up?” I asked my companions.

They both continued to stare at me, waiting to observe the theurgy in which I prepared to engage. For a while they watched as I, taking using the knots in my the ritual rope to measure out distances and aid in the drawing of accurate circles, began to create the circle of the Art through which I would execute my working. As they began to realize the time necessary to complete the process, they gathered up the carpet and rolled it into a tube, which they leaned against the corner opposite my sword belt. After completing the chore, they settled into two of the chairs at the reading table and waited.

Half an hour passed before I’d completed the design for my working, the runes, sigils and empowered words at their appointed places, connected by strange combinations of regular and asymmetric geometries. The circles and designs complete, I joined the ladies at the table, where I recovered a quill, a bottle of ink, and a piece of loose parchment. Vesonna watched with impatient expectation, Indorma with pessimistic disinterest.
I tore a small fragment from the corner of the leaf of parchment, ragged but large enough to fit a few words upon. Opening the ink and dipping the quill, I scrawled the words specter, phantom, spirit, dead onto the scrap. I placed this into the midst of the circle and knelt beside it, chanting the words of focus to draw the Power into the circle to complete the working. After a moment of incantation, I heard Vesonna gasp as different books within the library began to emit a faint light, easily drawing the eye to them. With the working sustained by the ritual circle itself, I stood.

“We gather all of these,” I began. “These will be for you and Mistress Indorma to review.”
Vesonna immediately mounted one of the sliding ladders, ascending in search of the highest-shelved books first, but her tutor frowned. “Who said I was going to assist in this foolhardy venture?”

“You’re here, aren’t you? As you can see, the Lady is in fact here to help me research and not for something more nefarious, so a chaperone is less than necessary. You can sit and watch and be bored all day, or you can help move things along.”

She sighed. “What are we looking for within these books, exactly?”

Vesonna passed in front of her mistress, arms loaded with books fresh-gathered from the library walls. Dropping them on the table with a dull thud, she looked up as well, ready for instruction.

“Once we’ve gathered all of these, you’ll search through them for mentions of spirits of the dead who remain in the Avar—or at least close by. We’re looking for reasons given for such occurrences and the ways in which the spirits were driven onward.”

Now the tutor smiled a smile replete with disdain and pleasure in my subtle admission. “You mean that you don’t know how to get rid of the spirit?” She asked. Rhetorically, of course.

I frowned by reflex. “No. It’s reasonably assured that the spirit is that of the boy Orren, but I still do not have an idea of what caused his…situation. Without an idea of cause, I cannot be sure of the best methods for removing the spirit.”

“What about finding an anchor?” Vesonna asked. “I thought you’d told my father that before. That destroying the anchor would allay the spirit.”

“That may still be the proper methodology, but, again, without some idea of the events that led to Orren’s rising as an unquiet spirit, I have little means of where to look exactly for such a thing.”

“Can’t you simply use the Sight to find an anchor?” Indorma asked.

“It’s not so simple,” I said, feeling the hairs on my neck bristle with defensiveness. “Only fools and madmen walk around using the Sight without good cause. Some things are best left unseen. Besides, I’ve used the Sight on the spirit. While I sensed some connection tethering it, I could not make out where it led—some power has obfuscated the thing.”

“Hmph,” she said in response.

I turned myself away, looking to the shelves on my side of the room that held radiant books. Stacking these on the table in turn, I busied myself with drudgery until my two companions had opened books and begun to pour through them.

While they remained distracted in their work, I tore another scrap of paper from the parchment. On this, I wrote the word, Orösaven, the Old Aenyr name for those spirits created by the Three Mothers—Avariennë along with Melqéa and Taelainë—that were not given flesh when the animals and plants of the Avar were first made. I suspected that the spirit at the center of Vaina’s cult had its origins in this order of beings.

Repeating the ritual with this new scrap, only three of the library’s tomes lit up in response; I gathered these in a small stack near the empty chair at the table I’d claimed as my own. I then wrote the word curse on a third fragment of the paper, but Vesonna interrupted before I could make my way back to the circle.

“Here’s something,” she began, still looking to the page that had caught her attention. “This says that vengeful spirits can be created when a person dies under Qaidhë’s moon.”

“Who’s the author?” Indorma and I asked, almost simultaneously.

The Lady flipped the book to the frontispiece. “Um…Savute? Kevis Savute.”

Indorma sucked her teeth. “Toss that one aside. He purports to be a historian, but he’s a purveyor of old wives’ tales and superstitions.”

I nodded in agreement and took comfort that there was something—anything—that Mistress Indorma held the same opinion of.

“Why do you say that?” Vesonna asked.

“Logic,” I said. “If every person who dies under Qaidhë’s moon rose again as a specter, why don’t we have regular intervals of waves of restless spirits plaguing all civilizations across the Avar?”

“If you keep reading,” Indorma warned, “you’ll also see that all deformities are the result of curses, all accidents are the action of malevolent spirits, and locking the door of your hovel will protect you from roaming demons.”

“If someone will publish all of this nonsense, how do we keep straight what is real and what is not?” the student asked.

“Experience,” both Indorma and I said, a chorus. We smiled at each other at that.

“Have you paid no attention to me, child? The point of education is to develop the tools of the scholar—the ability to ask and answer questions, to think critically about the assertions of others, to look at the evidence and determine the likeliest truth. It’s not always as precise as we’d like, but it’s what we have.”

Sighing, Vesonna set the book on the floor and retrieved a different one, while I continued to my third execution of the working of discovery. Of the books that began to glow this time, I pulled those from the stacks between Indorma and Vesonna and moved them to my own pile, leaving those that had not responded to the first ritual to the shelves.

The day progressed in much the same way, with either Indorma or Vesonna finding a passage of interest and reading it aloud, some discussions of metaphysics or the Art to follow. Indorma’s general air of disdain for me abated somewhat as I revealed the scope of my learning, though she continued to make clear her disapproval of any engagement between the Lady and I but the most formal and directly-related to the work at hand.
As I’d anticipated, though my companions uncovered many fascinating anecdotes and minutiae of the nature of various kinds of spirits and how one might deal with them, little of it had the slightest relevance to the situation at hand. Except for one thing.
Indorma read to us a lengthy description of the ancient practice of grimming, whereby an animal would be ritually sacrificed to create a guardian spirit of a place. The passage out of Vaalt Trimjen’s History of the Art, continued to describe stories that certain malicious practitioners (though whether those of the demon kingdoms or simply corrupted individuals within otherwise less-avowedly evil societies the author could not say) had used a similar technique to create stalking specters for the harassment or murder of enemies.

Could this cult have been preparing Orren for just such a fate? Was that why he returned to Ovaelo with the aura of flux and Power about him? Could they have murdered him out of revenge on the amn Vainas for what they saw as an unfair arrangement between the magnates of the Old Town and those of the New? It might explain why no body had been found—the corpse itself would provide the anchor for Orren’s spirit. Were the cadaver to be discovered and sent to Barro for last rites and for burning, the bond between spirit and anchor would be destroyed.

The idea gave me some hope that ending the affliction might prove easier than I’d begun to fear, but it unsettled me deeply that the cult might be so dangerous after all. If the being at the center of the group’s veneration was an Orösave, it would have had plenty of time to learn both the existence and technique of such operations. If the inherent power of the spirit were not enough, it seemed that Vaina’s second spirit had learned the Art as well.

My own research offered little of value as well. I came across some examples of Orösaven who had bound themselves to a particular place, drawing the natural Power of the land and its features to bolster the spirit’s inherent preternatural abilities, if restraining it to a particular geographic area. It was a footnote in one of the works that particularly caught my attention: the most powerful spirits that become an embodiment of the land itself in such a way are those that secure for themselves a place where the Veil is thin, where Power naturally leaks into the Avar.

I’d felt just that in the place where the cult gathered, and another piece fell into place—this explained House Meradhvor’s interest in the Vaina holdings. They weren’t looking for natural resources, or for pleasant climes—they wanted a place where they could easily siphon the Power, storing it into the crystals and gems that provided one part of the alchemical fuel that powered that Artifice which needed a source of energy. For the summoning and storing of the Power in this manner, the Houses employed myriad lesser practitioners, those who had some minor talent in the Art but who lacked skill enough to become competitive as even a limited worker in the Subtle Art: an evoker or fleshcrafter, diviner or the like. But how did Meradhvor come to know that such a place existed in Vaina at all? Had it hired Orren to spy for them as Ovaelo intimated? The idea didn’t seem to match with the cult’s use of the boy as a sacrificial spirit of vengeance.

As the suns began to descend, the three of us left Barro’s library with more questions than answers, though I attempted to convince the Lady and her tutor of the invaluable nature of their assistance. How much they believed me, I could not tell.

For his part, Barro pleaded with us not to pick up the mess we’d made, assuring us that his acolytes would gladly return the books to their proper locations. Something about building character might have been mentioned, and I knew the priest took greater pleasure in volunteering his apprentices than they took in being volunteered.

Nonetheless, I didn’t protest. Better them than me, I supposed. Besides, there would be a party that night, and the Lord had demanded my presence. It would take me some time to prepare myself—physically of course, but more mentally than anything. Dealing with the buffoons and snobs of the nobility requires a mask of a sort, a mental construct that did not involve the Art but was no less real.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 28

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

No sooner had my head hit the pillow than I awoke again, the sensation of water lapping at my feet. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked down to find that I was in no bed, but on a beach, a mix of sand and gravel underneath me. Waves danced around my heels, swirling in little eddies to the sides of them, stopping just short of soaking into my pants.

I could feel that my elbows rested on soft grass, and the shade of a tree cast a shadow over me in the against the twilight sky. I wore only my bedclothes; a cold breeze passed over me and caused me to shudder. Back on the Sea of Dreams, I sighed, wondering whether I’d feel that I’d gotten any rest when I awoke. If I awoke.

As before, thick woods occupied the island on which I found myself, leaving only that short stretch of rugged beach between the interior and the water. In the distance, other islands pierced the horizon, dark silhouettes against the grayish-bluish-orange of the sky. I tried not to let my thoughts dwell on what might occupy those faraway places—the demesnes of other dreamers I’d never meet.

Already the oppressive feeling that presaged the arrival of the amorphous creature I’d encountered previously in this place hanged like a mist about me. It mattered not; I had no other chances of yet to communicate with Aevale except in this place. I’d not let this one slip away unused.

Sticks and thorns seemed to cut my bare feet as I moved into the island’s forest, as if the very ground warned me away from my path—or the island itself wished me harm. I stopped occasionally to listen, my neck straining as I attempted to catch a hint of the smallest or most distant of sounds. Often, I wondered if I’d actually heard something or if I’d only wanted to hear something so badly that my mind had tricked me into satisfaction.

Cracking branches echoed from somewhere around me, the trees distorting the sounds so that I could not determine their origin. I looked back and forth, hoping for some movement to attract my focus. Finding none, I quickened my pace, thinking at least not to be caught flat-footed.

With a single blink of the eyes, I found myself transported—still on the island of Aevale’s dreaming, but not where my next steps should have led me. I stood in a clearing, in the center of which lay a shallow pool, the lady Aevale reclined over it, the edges of her white garments beginning to wick the water upward, her hand tracing signs in the water, leaving only ripples and disturbances across the surface. She did not realize the futility of her actions, for when her motions failed to leave a lasting impression, she only added force to the movement of her finger, now leaving a rough wake behind it.

I looked about for the creature of shadow, which I now presumed to be Orren’s spirit, but observed no signs of its presence. As lightly as I could manage, my bare feet torn and bruised by my running, sore even against the soft grass of the glade, I moved toward the woman, telling myself to remember every detail I possibly could when I awoke from this place.

As I approached, she turned to look at me, face drawn in a sign of mixed frustration and despair. Without speaking, she only turned back to face her ephemeral strokes through the liquid, drawing my own vision to the same. I struggled to track her movements, recreate in my mind’s eye the lines she traced, but the total structure eluded me.
The movements indicated a complex design, perhaps a seal or sigil, even a ritual circle in miniature. “What are you trying to show me?” I asked her as my silent observation failed.

Without looking back to me, eyes remaining focused on her art, she answered, “Trying to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“Remember the things that keep me here. Remember the things that draw him to me—or me to him.”

“You mean Orren?”

“I mean the creature that stalks us even now, waiting to devour us. Its name does not matter. Only what it wants.”

“And what is that?”

Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes, gaining size and mass until they fell across her cheeks like the intermittent droplets of a spring drizzle. “I can’t remember!” she sobbed.

“What do you remember?” I ventured.

“Aryden. My love. But a darkness parts us now, like a veil, and I cannot see his face.”
I pointed to her hand, still moving in the water. “Is this what brought the veil down upon you?”

“I forgot myself,” she said softly, “and I continue to lose myself ever since. It is consuming me, taking me from myself, until I become nothing. Only then will it be satisfied.”

“Revenge?” I asked her.

She dashed her hand quickly across the surface of the pond, as if erasing all that she had drawn before. Then she stood, looking me in the eyes. I could see in her face that she meant no metaphor with her words. She had diminished, somehow, something I recognized implicitly even without having known her before the process began.
I stepped back to look at her and found the edge of her form blurry to my vision, with tiny wisps trailing away in some unfelt wind, as if even now Orren’s spirit siphoned her essence from her.

Under the Law of Essence, one of the immutable laws of the Subtle Art, the true nature of a thing may not be permanently altered. Through the Art, whether thaumaturgy, theurgy or one of the other disciplines, the aspects of thing might be changed, even for very long periods with the right techniques and enough power (though the cost of such techniques prove dissuasive enough that such workings are rarely attempted, and never lightly), but never may the truth of a thing, being or object be made to be something it is not for an indefinite period. The Temple scholars believe that this is The One’s own will and power superseding the petty conjuries of mortal beings, protecting the integrity of Their creations. Changing the essence of a thing through anything other than experience and unfolding existence remains a mystery to us—as it likely should.

All of this is to say that what was happening to Aevale shouldn’t be. Orren had become no mere tormenting spirit, if the word “mere” may ever be appointed to such beings; he had become something else entirely. What, I did not know. But I marveled at the possible scenarios I could conceive that might have the slightest potential to create the situation I believed I now observed. The amount of Power necessary to such a transformation would far exceed the greatest amount I had ever drawn upon at my most foolish, most brash, most desperate. Sacrifice would be required, and more than the boy’s death alone. Something that transcends even that force that binds soul to body, that riddle of incarnation.

But I had little time to puzzle on the subject. A cold wind blew across the glade, sending Aevale running into the forest, holding up her dress, hands about her waist, cloth cascading from those hands like billows of clouds or water, to allow her feet the freedom to carry her away without tangling in her garments. I made no effort to follow her, saw nothing more that I could do for her within her own dreamscape, even as compassion pulled at me to do something, anything, to alleviate the depth of her suffering that had only now been made clear.

Orren’s spirit, predatory and possessed of wrath for the living, manifesting as a dark mist that moved with strange intent, here forming a clawed arm, there forming a glowing eye before collapsing back into amorphous vapor, entered into the clearing with me. Instinctively, my hand went to my side, searching for wand or implement that might aid me in resisting this intruder. Naturally, I found no such tool waiting for me, for they had not accompanied me to this place.

To this day, I am unclear on the metaphysics of the Sea of Dreams and its innumerable islands. I have heard tales of those who, while in this place, may will changes to the landscape, create and destroy with sheer will and thought alone, without resort to the Art, as some fortunate few do in less tangible dreams. I am not one of them, so I turned to my thaumaturgy for my defense.

Defense is perhaps the wrong word, for my previous encounter with the specter had convinced me I lacked the Power to confront the spirit in a head-on fight with much chance of success. Instead, I made a desperate gamble. As the mist-form moved ever closer, I began the incantation for a thaumaturgy intended to heighten the senses, to increase awareness of both one’s body and one’s surroundings. I sped through the words, sloppily, the images forming in my mind loose and ragged but substantial enough—or so I hoped.

As the spirit came near—near enough to strike, I closed my eyes, hoping to block out all distraction as I sought to complete the working. I felt a rush of wind across my face, undoubtedly the creature raising some malformed claw of air to rend at me—
And then I awoke, sitting bolt-upright in the bed, hyperaware of the sweaty flesh underneath my bedclothes, the slightest hint of sunlight peering into the room, the cold that surrounded me despite the summer heat, the drops of water—I hoped—condensing onto the ceiling of the room and falling upon me like heavy raindrops. Of any injury or pain, I was thankfully unaware. My gambit had worked, the sensations of my body pulling my spirit back to it from where it had traveled, and just in time to avoid the mortal blow.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 27

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

Eldis waited for me just inside the doors to the Vaina keep, his face creased in worry, his stance indicating impatience. “My lord is looking for you,” he said without pretense of decorum. “Where have you been?” The accusation in his voice had been passed to him from Aryden, I was sure—he didn’t strike me as the type to act often without respect for others. Besides, the hour had grown late to a time where few indeed have any patience at all; certainly not I.

He turned away without waiting for my answer and I followed as we ventured up the stairs and into the lord’s office, where Aryden sat, staring into an empty goblet, fatigue causing his mind to wonder, undoubtedly. As the door opened, he snapped to, his eyes focusing on me with the heat and anger that I imagined kept his vassals and servants well in line. “What the fuck have you been doing outside the castle at night?” he bellowed before I had fully entered.

“Investigating,” I said bluntly.

“Investigating, what, exactly? The spirit was here, tormenting us again, and you were not! Not that your presence did much good the last time!” He yelled enough to wake everyone within the keep, I thought, but doubted that he cared. If his anger had been purposeful, calculated to make me malleable to him, it didn’t work. I’d come across many hotheads and blowhards in Ilessa, and while some of them were competent at making good on the threats they screamed, emotion tended to make them sloppy in the execution. No, it was those folk of cold control over themselves, who explained their threats matter-of-factly and with an air of detachment that told you they didn’t really care which way things went that unnerved me. A Coin Lord who speaks in such a voice has already plotted out whatever’s threatened, to be delivered at a time and place of their choosing, when you’ve finally relaxed that such punishment might be coming.
Aryden, loud and demanding as he was, did not unsettle me like the spirit I’d encountered earlier that evening. Hell, maybe I was just too tired to be scared of him.

“May I see Lady Aevale?” I asked in response. My voice came out monotone, devoid of expression, for I had neither care nor strength for the subtleties of communication.

“What?” he said, incredulous, before overcoming the initial shock of the non-sequitur.

“No,” he said, voice replete with annoyedness that I’d even ask.
“Then how do you expect me to complete my investigation if you continue to keep her from me?”

He returned question for question. “What the hell were you investigating rolling around in the dirt?”

I opened my mouth but stopped myself before any words spilled forth. Despite my fatigue, I had to move carefully here. I’d promised Falla I’d not betray the existence of the cult and, without any definite evidence that it had been involved in Orren’s death or his manifestation within the castle, I had nothing to gain by breaking my promise anyway.

“Veil is thinner at night, remember? I went looking for any signs of Orren’s resting place.”

“How’d you end up looking like that?”

“Took a fall. Spirit’s gone again?”

“After taking its time in tormenting us, yes, it seems to have vanished for the time being.”

Eldis interjected. “I think it was looking for you, my lord.”

“For me?” I asked.

“It appeared to be searching for something. When it could not find that thing, it left. I presume the thing was you, because that’s what’s different from the last manifestation,” the seneschal offered.

“That’s not a good sign,” I said, as much to myself as to those present with me.

“None of this is good,” Aryden exclaimed, banging a fist on his desk. “Thank The One that the amn Esti were not here to share the experience! Now, account for yourself. What have you been doing all the damned day and night that you still have nothing to show for it?”

“Asking after the boy. I spoke with Daedys and his family, with the painter, Ovaelo, checked on the witch Falla again—and confirmed she is not involved in this—searched for the body in the wilderness outside of town.”

“And?”

“I’ve confirmed that your trust in the boy was misplaced.”

“Hmph,” came the lord’s response.

“You no doubt are aware of his philandering.”

“So? Boys will do what boys will do,” Aryden responded, smiling to himself.

“Most boys don’t use sex as a ladder.”

Aryden looked uncomfortable for the briefest of moments, as if the thought so breached decorum or his ideas about honor and manhood as to be inconsiderable. “Explain.”

“Orren seems not to have been chasing girls simply for the passion of it—nor only boys. By all accounts, his choice of lovers was always calculated as to bring some form of advancement or material gain.”

The lord laughed, “Well, he never tried to sleep with me! How’s that for your theory?”

“He had an affair with the painter in an attempt to secure an apprenticeship that would take him out of town and to the city.”

“If he wanted to go to the Sisters so badly, why not just leave? Why take a position in my court in the first place?”

“He was too smart to leave for Ilessa or one of the other Sisters without anything to show for himself. He’d seen or heard what happened to most young folk who took that path—the factories, the mercenary companies or the brothels. Evidently he didn’t fancy those options.”

“So the old dog Ovaelo wouldn’t give him what he wanted?”

“No. But Ovaelo wasn’t his only attempt. He pursued your daughter for a time—”

“What?” Aryden growled at the thought.

I waived my hand at him for calm. “She saw through his intentions. An astute young woman, your daughter. She had seen him trade his attentions for favors with the servants of your house enough to suspect his motives.”

He relaxed at that, but only a little. “So how does this help us?”

“This kind of behavior does not make friends of others in the long run. Jilted lovers and angry fathers have plenty of motive. I have a few suspects to start with.”

“Who?”

“Dalen im Valladyn to begin. Nilma and Orren had a…troubled…relationship at best, and I get the sense that Master im Valladyn is quite protective of his daughter.”

“Careful, Iaren,” amn Vaina warned. “It’s appropriate to be protective of one’s family, and I’ll not have you make accusations that ruin a wedding set for the day after tomorrow.”

“But what if Dalen im Valladyn did have Orren murdered?” I asked, already knowing the answer. Justice and law are wonderful things when they don’t interfere with business, but some things are better handled without the publicity—or so the Powers that Be often think.

“If you find evidence of that—hard, irrefutable evidence, you bring it to me. I will handle things and see that justice is done for Orren, my way. We will not endanger Nilma’s wellbeing for her family’s crimes—if that is the case at all.”

Well rationalized, I thought.

“But what about the connection with Lady Aevale?” Eldis asked.

I pointed to him, thankful that he’d raised the point. “This is why I need to see her. I don’t know the connection. Perhaps he had attempted his seductions upon her and his affliction of her is vengeance for her rejection of him. I can only speculate without seeing her, talking to her.”

“She suffers enough,” Lord Aryden said. “You work on casting out this spirit and she will recover.”

“My lord, I—”

“No. Only as a very last resort. Why aren’t your wards keeping the spirit out?”

“The spirit is more powerful than I’d anticipated.”

“What does that mean? I thought we were talking about the specter of a dead boy,” Aryden complained.

“I don’t know yet. It’s possible that he is strengthened by a curse—”

“You told Issano there was no curse,” Aryden objected, foolishly.

You wanted me to tell Issano that! I have no idea yet. It’s certainly a possibility.”

Eldis attempted to bring the tension down somewhat. “What are the other possibilities, my lord?” he asked me, voice calm and even.

I scratched at my stubbled chin absently as I thought about an answer, one that stepped lightly enough but that answered as honestly as possible under the circumstances. “That some practitioner of the Art is involved and as of yet remains undetected,” I began.

“The witch?” Eldis offered noncommittally.

“No. I’ve spoken with her more than once now; I’d have detected it.”

“Someone unknown, then?” This from Aryden.

“Possibly. It could also be that his spirit has been able to draw Power from some natural source in the area. If so, he would have to be draining the source so completely—or it would have to be so subtle—as to prevent my noticing it. It’s also possible that the manner of his death was so violent or so filled with passion that it empowered him somehow—changed him into what he is now.”

“And how do you determine among the possibilities, my lord?” Eldis followed.

“Normally, I would do some research, but I’m afraid I did not bring a library.”

Lord Aryden looked up at that. “Barro has one. Extensive. History, theology, plants, all that stuff you scholars distract yourselves with. Use his.”

“I doubt that he’ll have the sort of texts I need, but it won’t hurt to look. I’ll go see him in the morning. If that’s all—”

“It is not,” Aryden said, keeping me from turning to leave. “There will be a masque tomorrow, and you will attend.”

“I don’t have anything to wear,” I demurred.

“I’ll take care of that,” the lord responded, dismissing my objection.

“My lord, you didn’t hire me to attend social functions and play nice with your guests.”

“My lord, I hired you to do a fucking job. So far, it isn’t done. The least you can do is make sure that my festivities aren’t disturbed by a spirit tomorrow evening.”

“I can’t guarantee—”

“I’ve heard enough of ‘I can’t fucking guarantee,’” he said, voice raising with each word. “You will do every damn thing you can to protect my family and get rid of that damned specter as soon as humanly possible. No, as soon as thaumaturgically possible!”

“If Eldis is right, that the spirit has decided to focus on me, that could invite a spectacle to your celebration as much as prevent one.”

“Then you’ll be the entertainment,” he said. “Maybe that will lend some credence that the spirit is only a nuisance and not an affliction upon my family. Now, that is all. Begone with you!”

I opened my mouth to speak again but thought the better of it. Besides, the bed was calling to me.

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