Things Unseen, Chapter 20

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

I slept soundly that night. The missing man’s body had been found in the cave from which the monstrosity had sprung at us. We’d taken it back with our own slain, and Barro had given them all of the proper rites upon our return. A thing well done, if not the end of our troubles.

I mean that I slept soundly until a high shriek pierced my slumber, jarring me awake and stunning me momentarily as the waking world flooded into my consciousness. As it had penetrated my dreaming mind, that first scream seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere all at once. For a brief instant, I wondered if I’d dreamt it, startled awake over nothing. But more screaming—this time several voices from the floor below me, confirmed my fears.

I flung the bedsheets aside, grabbing for my staff as I threw open the door and stepped into the castle’s hallways without bothering to add anything to cover my bedclothes. Screams came again, but not from the same location as before, farther below this time.
For tenuous moments I tracked the phenomenon by sound, changing directions and orientation with every new scream, passing by servants opening the doors to their quarters to inquire about the commotion, closing them again at seeing me and understanding. A retinue formed behind me, Gamven with the subtle limp his wound had left him, Barro sidling along. I knew Lord Aryden had joined us by the heavy thunk of his Artificial foot against the stone.

“It wasn’t Kalvor, then?” the priest asked as we tracked through hallways grown labyrinthine with the spirit’s trickery.

“Evidently not,” I said through gritted teeth, nearly colliding with my companions as I turned to the freshest cries of alarm.

“What is it doing?” Aryden asked between breaths, for we had quickened to a jog in our attempts to reach the spirit before it transported itself away again.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

To put a point on the statement, a blue light flashed between us, moving through one hallway wall and to the other. Audible gasps rose from my companions as I concentrated and gripped my staff tight. Just in time, too, for the spirit dashed into the hallway again, ethereal claws striking against the arcane shield I’d raised just in time to protect our fellowship.

Instinctively, Gamven slashed at the manifestation with the short sword, a short fat thing with a blade like an isosceles triangle. The weapon connected only with the wall, making a clank and causing the warrior to grit his teeth as the sword jarred and vibrated uncomfortably through his arm. Again the specter charged us, its strike shattering the warding force I’d raised against it.

“Run!” I spat, waiving my companions off with my free hand.

But they only stood dumbfounded, overwhelmed by the unnaturalness of the assaulting phantom until it darted away again, no doubt preparing its next ambush. If I used the Sight, I could detect the spirit even beyond the material impediments behind which it hid. But I dared not, for I was not yet ready to view the hideous essence of the malevolent soul a second time.

Instead, I drew in a breath, hoping to slow my pulse and find some calm. I pulled the maelstrom of thoughts in my head into focus, prepared to draw upon the Power to restore the shield that had protected us a moment before. But the hairs on my arms and neck no longer stood on end, the cold I’d felt a moment before had melted away, and the tingling of the skin one sometimes gets during a thunderstorm fled as well. The spirit had gone, had retreated from the fight. Was it only testing me? Looking for my weaknesses to better plan our next encounter? I frowned in the low candlelight that lit the hallway. Where we on the second floor or the third? I couldn’t remember.

Lord Aryden observed my downcast visage and matched it. “You don’t know what it’s doing, do you?”

“I said as much already,” I objected.

Gamven and Barro looked elsewhere down the hallway, whether in expectation of a renewed attack or simply to avoid the tension between their lord and I, I do not know.
I opened my mouth to speak again, but the hallway once more filled with blue flames, that empyreal aura that clung to the spirit like Gwaenthyri fire, dancing to its own tune, filled with its own life. Those flames lashed at me with renewed fury, forcing me to draw upon a working stored within my staff’s sigils to ward the attack. The force of it knocked me to my ass, the impact sending the staff skittering across stone.

Unable to draw focus with all the questions about how it had evaded my detection, fooled my very instinctive responses to its presence, running through my head, I rolled out of the way of its following slashes, rolling again to the other side of the hallway as it struck again.

It caught me in the middle of the hallway, without sufficient room to evade to either side. Resigned, I brought myself up on my elbows to look at the spirit directly (defiantly, I hoped) as it prepared to attack again. The shadowy form in the center of the flickering aura bore down on me; two hollow eyes through which the flames lapped focused upon me. I could make out the outline of a skull formed of the very essence of gloom, a rictus grin broadening into an open mouth as it enjoyed my fear.

A blade pierced through that mouth from behind, the tip only inches from my chest. Gamven had gathered his courage, though it availed him not. The shade merely turned in place, its mouth and skull passing through the blade just as its whole form had passed through the walls. It traveled toward the master-of-arms, riding up the blade as if pulled along it by some invisible rope, until its shadowy face—if it could truly be called such, stopped mere inches away from Gamven’s.

But, before it could act, something knocked the spirit aside, flinging it through the wall again to only The One knows where. Aryden had kicked the thing with his Artificial leg, the Power that allowed the device to function apparently also allowing it to connect with the spirit’s ethereal form.

I used the time he’d bought us to gather myself and find my feet. I pulled the same nub of chalk I’d used in my first confrontation with the spirit and began to sketch a rough design, a seven-pointed star, on the wall nearest me. I could hear Aryden cursing as I added sigils along the lines, but I ignored him, drawing the Power into the point of Spirit, mumbling to myself and trying to ignore the tingling in my back as my body anticipated the next assault.

Screams echoed again throughout the castle, the specter’s attempts to further taunt us and draw us into its waiting traps. A hand grasped my shoulder, Aryden’s no doubt, but I shook it off, smudging one of the shapes on the wall with the tip of my finger before redrawing it. The frustrated straining of the muscles in the lord’s face could be heard, felt, in the silence between intermittent screams, but he restrained himself at least enough to let me work.

The sigil complete and empowered, I stepped back. Gamven scanned back and forth along the hallway, his instincts overtaking his knowledge that he had little power against the spirit. Aryden began to pace with a soft clank, clank as his Artificial leg lightly graced the stone floor. Barro said a quiet prayer.

We waited, the looks of my companions becoming ever more troubled as the call-and-response of screams through the castle quarters continued to accompany the whole affair. With their eyes, they beckoned me to give chase again, to stop the spirit’s torments of their friends and compatriots. I hardened my face and turned away from them, reaching out with my intuition to feel for the specter’s location.

An overwhelming wave of impending doom crashed over me as I felt the spirit charging for me once again, hurtling through mortal obstructions in furious ambuscade. At the height of the sensation, I sidestepped and activated the sigil, holding in place the amorphous conglomerate of light and shadow that composed the spirit’s form. It reached for me, ethereal claws just out of reach of my flesh, the slashes strong and almost rhythmic at first, but becoming more chaotic as the being grew more desperate.

I couldn’t help but smile as I began the incantations that accompanied my thaumaturgic banishment. The others stood by, wide-eyed now, witnessing first hand this time what they had only heard in the cellar during my first confrontation with this malevolent force.

Midway through the working, the spirit stopped struggling, accepting the inevitable as a dog who is beaten at its master’s whim. Finally, with a pop and a crack, the spirit vanished into itself, leaving the hallway in pitch darkness until Barro managed to retrieve a lamp from somewhere else.

The silence persisted only seconds after the light returned to us. Aryden barked at me, “What the hell was that?”

After enduring a true threat from that supernatural force, the lord’s entitled fussing wore through the last of my patience. “An attack,” I said, my voice the tone of a animal that knows it’s bigger than you, so growls quietly without baring teeth.

“How did it get in?” he pressed.

“Through the walls, it seems.”

He stepped angrily toward me, his Artificial foot clanging with definite authority as he drew himself up in front of me. Aryden was a good deal larger than I, broad-shouldered with a warrior’s build, and though his best fighting days might have been behind him, he still cut an intimidating figure. I did my best not to flinch as he stopped just short of pushing me; I stared him in the eyes, defiant. “What about the fucking wards?” he yelled.

“They didn’t work.”

The lord recoiled from my answer as if it had been a slap in the face, my insolence so offensive to his countenance and bearing that the two could not occupy the same space.

“What good are you to me?” He spat contemptuously. “Take your things and be gone!”

I let the command blow past and around me, as if I were now the spirit moving effortlessly through it. I just stared back at him, my face cold and unfeeling against the warmth of the flickering lamplight. I’d become plenty comfortable with silence between two people, but I’ve also found that most people are not. There’s a power to be had there. Minor, perhaps, but leverage nonetheless.

The technique worked. I could watch Aryden’s face contort as he played out the different scenarios in light of my tacit refusal to obey. He could escalate the situation, force me out of his demesne, but then he’d be labeled a fool when the spirit returned and he’d banished his best hope of solution. Or, he could acquiesce. I hadn’t explicitly disobeyed him and only close confidants remained present, so he had little face to lose in changing course.

“What’s next?” he asked, finally.

“We’ve run out of alternatives,” I told him. “The spirit must be the missing boy, Orren.”

He frowned. “You’re sure?”

“Unless there’s been some other death in the town I’m unaware of.”

“So what do we do?”

“I find out what happened to him, see if we can recover the body and burn it, just as we’ve done with the others. Or, perhaps, I’ll uncover something else that might be working as an anchor for his spirit.”

Barro interjected, “But why the focus on Lady Aevalla? What would Orren want from her?”

Aryden turned, scowling, to face the priest, his countenance demanding an answer as to why the man would even ask the question.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. A suspicion immediately came to mind, but I put it aside until I could find some scrap of information that might support it. “It’s possible he held a grudge against the lord and lady,” I hedged.

“Hmph,” Aryden added.

A scream, high-pitched and blood-curdling. Aevalla’s. Aryden looked to me briefly, the hardness fallen away from him, leaving only worry.

“I’ll begin first thing in the morning. I need to rest,” I told him.

He nodded quickly before setting off for his lady’s chamber, his companions in tow.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 19

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

Gamven’s muffled grunting caught my attention as soon as my head had cleared. Pulling myself to my feet I searched him out, which didn’t take long in spite of his attempts to stifle his involuntary groans.

Wet carmine stained his right pant leg below a tear in the cloth patched with a tightly-pulled bandage, this too red and glistening. With both hands, Gamven pulled at either end of the encircling cloth, cinching it tighter against the mangled flesh. He’d evidently put a small stick into his own mouth before tending the wound and bit furiously into it as he pulled, his teeth carving indentations into its surface as he did.

I knelt down next to him, and gently took the bandage from his grip. I continued to pull it tight as he continued to bite and fuss; I needed to buy myself some time to think. To heal the wound, I’d need to see it, and it was quite clear that the gash would bleed profusely as soon as I pulled the bandage free. I’d have limited time for the working once that occurred. In death and comedy, timing is everything, isn’t it? The thought made me smile at myself a bit; Gamven tensed his face in worried puzzlement at seeing that.

By now, my surviving companions had drawn close. “Hold him down,” I commanded.

“What? Why?” Vitella asked.

“As much as it hurts when the wound is made, it’s going to hurt more when it closes,” I told her. She took my point quickly and knelt by the warrior’s head, pulling his hands upward and tucking them into her armpits. He didn’t fight.

Once they’d taken hold of him, I began to focus my mind. I felt the Power around me, seething in the living things and between them, holding everything up as assuredly as some giant holding the sphere of heaven. This I tugged at, gently at first, more
aggressively when I felt my will had seized it tight. I pulled it toward me, focusing it into an invisible ball of raw potentiality, splitting my concentration between the structure of the working and holding the essence that would power it.

Focusing my consciousness now on the structure of the working, I began to build it within my mind, regulating the thoughts and images in sequence that, once I’d poured the Power I held through it, might achieve the desired effect. A chant, quiet at first, uttered from my lips, the words Old Aenyr, pulling the edges of my focus taut, centering me as I shaped the Power.

I do not know how much time passed like this—time begins to feel irrelevant during the working of a thaumaturgy—but it must have been several minutes. I closed my eyes as I worked, ignoring the surrounding world but keeping the ends of the bandage pulled hard as I employed the subtle art. I could feel the Power taking shape, form emerging where before there had been none, possibility becoming potentiality.

My eyes opened and I ripped the bandage free of Gamven’s leg, placing both hands on either side of the deep laceration, trying not to let the glint of bone distract me from my purpose. I could feel the Power flowing through me now, through my hands and into Gamven as I chanted all the while. He began to writhe and scream as layers of flesh knit themselves together, muscle and tissue burning with every sensation of the process. I’d not pulled enough of the Power to finish the working. I knew that I’d taken that risk not looking at the wound before beginning, and now here we were.

I had a choice, though one with fewer options than I’d have liked. Had I not just fought with a monster and used sorcery to protect myself, I might have been able to draw the remaining power from within myself, quickly and efficiently if exhaustingly. In my present circumstances, though, I had no such luxury. So, two options were left me. I could release the working and hope that what structure I’d given it held, at least partially closing the wound and staunching the flow of blood enough that Gamven might survive. But, if I wasn’t lucky, the possibility within the Power once the structure fell away might cause some unwanted effect, some mutation of the flesh or worsening of the wound.

It wasn’t really a choice at all, I realize. My chanting rising in tone and intensity, I ripped a chunk of the Power free from my surroundings, forcing it into the working like meat into a grinder. Some of it fell away, free to become whatever chaotic thing chance determined. One of the nearby trees burst into flame, heavy droplets of rain pounded Lord Aryden from a clear sky. Worms burrowed out of the ground, their low cunning sensing the danger and squirming away from any other random catastrophe that might occur as quickly as they could manage.

Vitella remained in her position, struggling against Gamven until he passed out, even as the sleeves of her shirt rotted from her arms as if time had accelerated for them prodigiously. I could hear Aryden muttering a prayer to the One now, but drew my focus back to Gamven’s leg, still chanting and imagining and shaping each movement of the closing wound before burning the Power and willing it to be.

Finally, the flesh stitched itself closed leaving a patch of discolored and roughly textured skin where the gash had been. I let the remainder of the Power I’d gathered fall from my grasp, becoming more Flux. Some of it attached itself to me, I could feel it. As chance dictated—but probably at the least opportune time—it would manifest in some event like the ones already occurring. The remainder proceeded to do so, creating additional marvels around us: dancing lights, patches of hoarfrost, the sudden growth of some flowering weed sprouting through the ground. None of them, save perhaps the burning tree, presented any danger, so my Wyrgeas must have been good. Better than expected.

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 18

(What happened to Chapter 17? It tentatively describes another dream Iaren has with semi-prophetic visions. It hasn’t been written yet, and I’ve forged on ahead to other chapters (presently wrapping up Chapter 25) and haven’t yet gone back to it. Will add later).

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

I startled awake as the door to my room swung open, rebounding from the stone wall of my chamber it had been pushed so hard. Aryden, fully dressed and armed, flanked by Savlo and Gamven, entered imperiously.

“Get dressed,” the lord said.

I looked to the window. Dark. The faintest tinge of light peeking around the far edge of the Avar with the promise of a morning still distant in the coming. “Huh?” I managed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

“We’re going hunting.” For his sudden energy, the lord looked like he hadn’t slept during the night, his hair wild and only cursorily brushed into something approximating a tuft of wild weed, wet with dew. He wore a breastplate and tassets, just as Gamven did. Savlo, though, wore only a simple hunting jerkin, long knife in his belt and a linpiped hood pulled over his head and shoulders.

“Hunting?” I repeated slowly, still in the daze of dreams not yet forgotten.

“Disposing of the people in the Close didn’t work, lord thaumaturge,” Aryden said,the dubiousness of my title fully evident, “so we go to the next possibility, yes?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

“Good. Get ready and meet us in the stables.”

As suddenly as they’d entered, the three departed, the door rattling as it slammed home in its frame. Only then did I remember the missing woodsman and the reason for the extemporaneous hunt.

[Potentially expand this in line with Outline, where Iaren takes his time and Aryden fusses and berates him.] I took little time to ready myself, splashing enough water over my face to gain some modicum of wakefulness, arming myself much as I had for the Close the day previous, but leaving my pistols empty of charge and shot. Before I left, I pulled the drawstring bag of runeshot from my backpack and secured it on my belt. The other foresters had claimed to have seen some unnatural beast, and I thought the shot might prove useful.

The light at the horizon seemed to have moved only imperceptibly as I left the keep for the stables. Outside the building, Aryden and his two trusted retainers sat astride their horses already, not proud and haughty warhorses, but lean and nimble palfreys, suited to the hunt. A recurve bow occupied a wide sheath set against Savlo’s horse’s flank, forward of the saddle. Aryden leaned a wheelock musket over his right shoulder, reins held loosely in the left. Gamven held a light lance aloft, a banner with Aryden’s crest on it flapping in an early breeze. Varro, astride his own mount, waited patiently at the edge of our group, looking the mounts up and down to ensure his satisfaction with them.

Vitella amn Esto stood nearby, back turned to me and dressed in a tight-fitting riding jacket with impressive decolletage and flared at the waist, the tails drawing attention to her hips. A cigarello hung from her lips, the end of it blooming into reddish-orange life whenever she drew upon it, which was frequently as she checked that her horse’s girth and stirrups had been properly configured and tightened. No servant assisted her, which might have been a point of pride or a matter of her family’s diminished wealth—an issue soon to be rectified if the amn Vaini and Valladyni had their way. Like Aryden, she had brought both a single-edged, curved hunting sword and a wheelock musket, the sword hanging from her side and the musket in a sheath near the saddle.

Behind her, Edanu mounted his horse, a jet black destrier he must have brought with him from elsewhere—the kind one might find in the Ealthen Empire or the Tatters but only rarely in Altaena. He had traded his Artificial crossbow for a matchlock musket, perhaps Medryn’s—we’d decided as a group that he ought not recover those bolts expended in the Close, just for good measure. He sat a good deal higher than the others on his beast of a mount, the thing stamping the avar impatiently and snorting derisively at its company.

Part of me had feared that I’d be riding behind on Windborne, chagrined at the poor choice of name and eating dust all day. Fortunately, one of the grooms led another palfrey to me, a brown beauty of Altaenin stock, perhaps not powerful but with a comfortable gait that made long riding tolerable to the ass.

“Iphadrex,” the young man told me, handing me the reins.

A name from the Cantic Empire, dead and gone long before the rise and fall of Ealthe as the dominant power. And I thought I could be pretentious.

I mounted the horse, who shifted easily under me, ready but not impetuous, and neither so sluggish as the horse I’d rode in on. With a click of his tongue, Aryden started his mount moving. The rest of us exchanged looks with one another, trying to calculate who had rights to follow closest to our host lord. I motioned for Vitella to pass before me once she’d mounted; she directed her palfrey to a position behind amn Vaina and angled his right, waiving for me to come alongside her on the left. The others formed up behind us so that we made a wedge, like some gallant charge in ages past. Gallant and foolhardy, no doubt. And much slower.

We processed thus through the courtyard, those servants already set to work in the wee hours abandoning their tasks momentarily to watch us pass by with a mix of awe and fear. They’d already heard tales of our misadventures in the Close and certainly some of them would be mourning the absence of Errys and Medryn. Myself, I tried to push them out of my mind for the present, lest distractedness send some of my present company to join them.

Our handsome wedge condensed into a small clot of horses and riders as we passed under the gateway from the inner courtyard to Old Vaina, Edanu falling behind to avoid his horse biting one of the others. Warhorses and their knights have far too much in common—both full of violence and without sense enough to know when it isn’t warranted. That Edanu pretended to such a status surprised me, given his preference for foppish dress and feigned nonchalance—and yet didn’t. There’s not a member of an Artificer House I’ve ever met who wasn’t cold, calculating and ruthless, ambitious at any cost. Subtler on the whole than men-at-arms, but equally deadly and uncaring.

Although the craftsmen bustled about, already setting to their daily tasks, and the merchants had already begun to open the windows to their storefronts and set out their prized wares, the townsfolk of Old Vaina paid little attention to our hunting party, and I enjoyed the lack of wary looks cast in my direction followed by the sign of the Tree or apotropaic spitting—not that either had any effect.

The gates to New Vaina had not yet been opened, and the night watch, perhaps only moments from a changing of the guard, scrambled to pull the winches to raise the portcullis and open the doors before they forced us to stop and wait. The constable Daedys waited for us on the other side, atop a working horse arrayed in simple but well-made tack. A matchlock musket occupied a sheath next to the saddle in the same fashion as Vitella’s and he carried a boar spear in his hand, a heftier companion to Gamven’s light lance.

“My lords,” the constable nodded, letting go the reins for a moment to remove his flat cap in deference.

Amn Vaina nodded back, barely, without breaking stride, leaving Daedys to fall into the last row and sort out a position for himself.

“I’m sorry for the loss of your men,” I could hear Daedys tell Gamven behind me.

“It was a close thing.” the master-of-arms returned. I fought a smile as cold and bitter as a new tomb.

“Anything you can tell us about the creature the woodsmen claim to have seen?” I asked, turning in my saddle to look at the constable and straining in the effort.

“Only that they agree that it’s an unnatural thing. Everyone’s story is different, and I’m inclined to believe that they are just that—stories.”

“Then what of the missing man?”

“Kalvor, his name. As I said before, most likely wolves or some other natural predator. It’s not unknown for them to take a stray woodsman who’s wandered too far from his fellows. Hasn’t happened in several years—until now, I suppose—but it happens ever so often. If he’s dead at all. Timbering is hard work, and there’s always some who find they haven’t the mettle for an honest living.”

“And you think Kalvor was such a one?”

“Perhaps. He was young, hadn’t been at the work for too long, no wife, no children. Nothing to hold him down if he decided to leave.”

“That’s the same story I’ve heard of your nephew Orren, Master Daedys.”

He harrumphed.

Savlo joined in. “I spent the day yesterday looking for tracks in the area Kalvor supposedly went missing in. No wolves.”

“What did you find?” I asked.

“Nothing unusual.”

“So what are we fucking looking for?” Gamven growled.

“Whatever there is,” Aryden spat without turning, an equal amount of gravel in his voice.

“Of course, my lord,” Gamven corrected.

We took a side path through New Vaina that led along the hillside to the stream running parallel to the town, providing running water to the larger homes in Old Vaina and supplying the New Vaina wells at the base of the hill. But before they did either of those things, the flowing water supplied a trio of mills, the fast flow steadily turning wooden wheels and the gears connected to them. This flow had evidently been diverted after a stone channel,complete with sluice gates to control the water had been built into the hillside with a drop above each waterwheel, making them more powerful pitchback mills. The lowest of the three, most accessible to the townsfolk, was a gristmill for the products of the many surrounding farms. The second mill emitted the steady rhythm of blade against wood while the highest sang with the bass thump thump of pounding. Industrial music, of a sort.

We made for the timber mill in the middle of the trio, where men already stripped to bare chests in the heat of the summer morning and of exertion worked in teams to remove branches and bark from felled trees before carrying them to the mill’s hungry mouth. A foreman, less sweaty than his fellows, bowed to his knee upon seeing our approach. The gesture, somehow both overwrought and embarrassingly amateur, made me uneasy, though Aryden and Vitella both nodded with satisfaction.

“My lord,” the foreman began, “I had not expected you to come personally to see to the loss of our man. We were thankful that you sent your master of hunt to search yesterday, especially since Master Daedys’…inquiry…turned up nothing but tales from the men and, I presume, no indication of where to search for Kalvor, since he made no effort to do so.”
Daedys shifted uncomfortably in his saddle while Vitella grinned at the man’s brazenness to speak so poorly of his landlord before their mutual liege lord. Aryden remained stonefaced.

“My brother had just been put in the Close, my lord, and I had to make sense of his papers to step into his place as the head of our family,” Daedys offered, driving his boar spear into the ground next to his horse so that he could push his hair back under his cap, looking away from amn Vaina as he did.

“We’re here now,” Aryden said simply, “and, as you see, with capable assistance.”

Turning to me, he continued, “Well, lord thaumaturge?”

I dismounted and handed the reigns to Savlo before approaching the foreman. “This man, Kalvor, do you have anything that belongs to him?”

“Hmm, let me see.” The man wondered off to talk to those in his charge.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Gamven asked. Behind him, Edanu smiled knowingly.

I ignored them both. “Savlo, how far did you range from here in search of the missing man?”

“A mile or two in every direction from the farthest reaches the woodsman work at.”

“And you found no sign of Kalvor?”

“None.”

“No prints, no broken boughs, no blood?”

“No.”

“It’s been too long since his disappearance to expect much of that, hasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“And animals?”

“Nothing unusual.”

“Predators?”

“No.”

“Has anyone seen a dragon or drake in these parts in recent memory?”

“Only closer to the mountains, days from here, and even then only rarely. Why?” Aryden interjected.

“No griffins, anything like that?”

“No. No signs of flying predators, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“It is,” I affirmed. “Doesn’t give us much to go on.”

At this point, the foreman returned, holding his closed fist out to drop something into my hand. I held it out for him and two knucklebones fell onto my palm, blackened pips delicately marked on each of the faces. “Kalvor’s lucky dice,” the foreman said.

“Not that lucky,” Vitella remarked, Edanu smiling along with her.

“Why didn’t he have them?” I asked.

“Lost them in game a few days before he went missing.”

“Perhaps lucky is too strong a word,” Vitella continued.

“How long had he owned them?” I pressed.

“Long time, I guess,” the foreman said. “Talked about ‘em a lot. Big on games that one. When he won a decent haul from the others, he’d not show up for days after, spending it all on drink and women in Vaina. He’d always come crawling back when the drink went dry and the whores turned him away.”

“How do we know that he’s not somewhere drinking and cavorting?” Daedys asked.

“Because he lost his dice,” I said flatly. “He hadn’t won anything before he disappeared. And I imagine that no one’s seen him in town for some time, or he wouldn’t be called ‘missing.’”

“Hmph,” the constable responded.

I continued my interrogation of the foreman. “You’re sure that he owned these for a long time?”

“Yes, what of it?”

Rather than respond, I took the bones, smooth on the edges from long use or from nervous rubbing, and moved away from the mill’s activity, my companions and the foreman all following behind. Where I found a flat- and large-enough stone in the ground, I placed the dice down upon it, procuring the chalk from my belt pouch and drawing a set of circles around the objects followed by glyphs at the edges. I heard the foreman spit behind me and turn away, but I continued unperturbed. Once I’d drawn the symbols for my working, a bastardized hybrid between a theurgy and a thaumaturgy, I returned the chalk to its pouch and pulled my wand from its small sheath. Touching the tip of the wand to the dice, I closed my eyes and focused, muttering soft words to guide my mind through the structure of the working.

I know not how my fellows reacted to this, my concentration drowning out all sense of the world around me. My use of the Art complete, I opened my eyes, swept up the dice into my left hand and clutched the want lightly in my right. I waited for a moment before feeling the first subtle twitch in the wood, its pull turning my hand, the wand now pointing as a compass arrow, straight into the woods to the east. To be sure, I deliberately turned the wand away from the direction it had indicated and felt it pull back to true.

I began to walk, not fast, but steadily, waiving with my free hand for the rest of the hunters to follow. We proceeded in this manner for at least an hour, passing near the old road I’d followed previously to Falla’s cottage, buried amidst the ruins of a that forgotten Aenyr outpost. No one spoke as they followed, or if they did I could not hear them, but as we neared that maligned practitioner’s abode I heard amn Vaina and amn Esto pull the hammers of their wheelocks to a ready position, the snick of the retaining pin snapping into place unmistakable. The sound of a friction striker followed as Edanu lit his matchcord.

Still convinced that Falla had nothing to do with the Vaina castle haunting, or the disappearance of Kalvor for that matter, I cringed at those sounds. The wand tugged us along a path that soon diverged from the Aenyr road and Falla’s cottage, and I breathed a little easier at that. For several more miles I walked, my mounted companions followed behind but leaving an increasing berth between me and them. The forest became thicker the farther we progressed, the hills leaving the ground broken and treacherous, forcing everyone to dismount.

“Iaren,” Aryden said softly, the hunter’s concern for noise having taken him at some point along our journey. I turned with my torso and head, leaving my feet still aligned with the wand and careful not to move it from the direction it currently pointed. “Should we leave the horses?” Lord amn Vaina asked.

“They’re not my horses,” I returned. “You do as you think best.”

“What are we going to find in these woods?” Savlo asked.

“Hell if I know,” I told him. “I’m just following the direction the wand points. It should lead us to Kalvor, but I have no idea what we’ll find along with him.”

“What if he’s gone a great distance away?” Vitella asked, not so amused now.

“Then it’s going to be a very long walk,” I smiled. The suns had by now risen in the sky, the morning growing warm with customary summer heat. But it was early in the day yet, and I was willing to walk a good distance more before calling my working a failed effort.

“Varro,” amn Vaina began. “Stay here with the horses. If we’re not back within a few hours, make a camp for us. If we don’t return by tomorrow, go home and seek for more soldiers to come after us.”

We paused for a moment as each member of the party transfered weapons and other useful belongings from saddlebags or sheaths to their persons. Those of us with arquebuses carried them at the ready now, silent smoke trailing from Edanu’s match, the chemical sent sure to give us away. Savlo must have had this thought, too, for he continually threw disapproving glances to the Meradhvor dignitary, but decided not to verbalize his complaint.

Once everyone had satisfied themselves with their gear, we set out again. We took heavy steps, the dry grasses crunching softly underneath our feet, that cloud of sulfurous miasma preceding us. Our journey continued until the suns had reached the apex of their daily circuit, their rays piercing the canopy above us like spearpoints that illumined small pockets of the forest with the full light of day, leaving the rest in a twilight liminality.

Suddenly, there came a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to find Savlo motioning for the entire band to freeze in place. We did so, leaving only the tension (and that damnable sulfur stench) hanging in the air. For a moment, I stared blankly at the hunter, waiting for some explanation of our brief respite. Seeing my lack of understanding, he silently tapped his ear and pointed upward. Then I realized his intent: only the tension and smell of burning matches lingered. The birdsong had gone silent, as had the incessant clicking of the cicadas, the occasional tumble and creak of branches from fleeing or pursuing fauna, any of the customary sounds of forest life.

“A predator is close,” Savlo whispered to me, his voice barely the suggestion of speech.
“They’re not reacting to us?” I asked quietly.

“No. This silence just started.”

I took a few steps back to the rest of the party, my feet harsh upon the forest floor, a reminder of my lack of serious experience in the wilds. Savlo followed behind, his presence felt more than heard, another stalking thing in the shadows under the canopy of the old trees.

We huddled together, faces shining now with summer sweat, the clanks and clicks of Gamven’s armor audaciously loud in the relative silence. “Savlo and I will move forward and scout ahead; there’s something up there. Something dangerous.”

“We can’t go around it?” Aryden asked.

“Kalvor is close. I’m guessing we’ve found the creature the woodsmen were complaining of,” I told him.

“When you say, ‘creature,’ what exactly do you mean?” Edanu followed.

“You can’t feel that?” I asked him. “That’s no child of Avarienne. It’s something from beyond the Avar, intruding here.”

“You mean the spawn of the forbidden ones?”

“The get of Sedhwe or Daea, most likely, yes.” Faces sank all around, and our day in the Crimson Close seemed a relaxing stroll through town in comparison.

“How?” Vitella asked.

“Like other spirits, they can sometimes cross the Verge and pierce the Veil,” I told her.

“When they do, they tend to stay here. Whether by choice or by necessity is anyone’s guess. Some are left from dark times past, hidden and biding their time.”

“For what?”

I shrugged. “And, of course, sometimes they are brought to the Avar Narn purposefully.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Gamven asked.

“The power-hungry, the desperate, the mad, the curious, the arrogant. There is a reason the Vigil exists, after all, even if it is not recognized in the Sisters.”

“Is this the source of the haunting, then?” Aryden asked, hopeful.

“Doubtful. At least not directly. If it has killed Kalvor, then I suppose the likelihood that his spirit is haunting your home is increased, but these sorts of creatures are not typically known for subtle action.”

“But if we’re nearing its home—or lair—or whatever you want to call it,” Savlo said, “Then it ranged quite a ways to seize upon poor Kalvor.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Assuming it is such a creature, how do we defeat it?” Gamven asked.

“Such things are difficult to kill, it is true. But anything that has physically manifested in the Avar may be defeated through force of arms.”

“Good,” Gamven responded. “But how?”

“That depends on what it is, particularly. Until we know that, I cannot say. If things are as I suspect, though, you will find that your weapons are far less effective than against other foes. Still useful, but far less effective. The foe will be a truly dangerous one. We will need to be careful and cunning to defeat it.”

“Have you done this before?” Edanu asked.

“No. Of course not,” I told him. The group let out a collective sigh of trepidation.

“Must we do this?” the Meradhvor emissary challenged?

“We’ve come all this way. We know that the creature is a threat to Vaina and will continue to be so, and there is still the possibility that it is Kalvor’s spirit haunting Vaina castle and that we might put him—and this whole affair—to rest by recovering his body and properly honoring it.”

“Alright, then,” Savlo resolved. “Let’s get to it. I’d rather have this done by dark if we can.”

“Agreed,” Gamven said grimly.

Savlo and I moved forward cautiously in the direction the wand pulled; I tried to follow behind him precisely, stepping where he had stepped and matching his movements in avoidance of obstructing branches or brush. My lack of skill proved plain, and Savlo shot me constant looks of silent frustration combined with exasperated hand signals I did not understand. The undergrowth complained with nearly ever step I took, and the heavy feeling of being watched by an unseen predator fell upon me.

Despite the height of summer, the foliage over which we passed had become brown and dead despite the regular rains. The trees bore no leaves and showed signs of dry rot, bark cracked and peeling with decay. The very life of the woods had been sucked away here, a sure sign of some malevolent presence manifested across that dark divide of the Abyss. I noticed that my knuckles had become white over the grip of my wand, the fingers of my free hand nervously contorted, stretching in anticipation of urgent need of them. The pallor of corruption filled the air, and as we continued onward the trees became not only bare and lifeless, but twisted into unnatural forms, bulbous knots protruding from unexpected locations, the tips of dry branches sharply pointed.

Savlo noticed this, too, of course, and his hands quietly slid an arrow from his quiver and knocked it against the string of his bow. He never stopped or looked down as he did this, working by practiced instinct as he continued to sneak quietly forward, scanning the gaps between the now-sparse trees for threats.

We moved forward like this for several moments, the dead grasses and shrubs under our feet giving way to dry dirt. Only then did my feet agree to silence as we moved. Presently, we reached a rocky clearing at the base of a rising hill topped by a copse of thick trees. The wand trembled in my hand in indication of immediate proximity; Savlo pointed to a cave opening in the side of the hill’s ascent before returning the hand to its position just behind the arrow’s flights.

We stood at the edge of those final trees that had not yet been corrupted to oblivion by the monster’s presence, neither of us ready to move into the clearing itself, despite the fact that we had no concealment where we stood nor any to be found in the vicinity.
Only a short time passed before a shadow moved within the darkness of the cave’s mouth. For a moment I remembered the dream I’d had when I’d arrived in Vaina; the thought that such an unrequested divination seemed to have foreshadowed present circumstances steeled me somewhat—or at least kept my feet from turning and moving despite my will to stay.

A long, snakelike neck emerged from the obscured interior of the cavern, scaly and tipped by a sharp beak not unlike the kind you’d find on a falcon or some other bird of prey. Above that daunting protrusion sat two clusters of eyes, spider-like, their dark pupils searching independently of one another briefly. When the thing had spotted us, all of the interior eyes shot into formation, piercingly focused on we intruders. Those eyes on the outer edge of each cluster continued to sweep about, searching the thing’s peripheral vision for hidden dangers.

Satisfied that only the two of us had come, the monster emerged fully from its lair. Scales became dark feathers of a shadowbending sheen where the protruding neck met the corpulent and misshapen body, seven legs, some like those of a wolf and some like those of a chicken—each tipped in deadly claws—moved the thing along in a waddling gait of unnatural speed. A long, leathery tail, like a newly-shorn sheepskin, trailed from the darkness of the cave, ending in a set of bony, mace-like protuberances. A creature out of some fever-dream, sharply defiant of the natural order of Avarienne’s children, and one that I would not soon forget.

We thought that the thing’s size might allow us some protection amongst the more closely-spaced trees, though in retrospect their rotting and dying condition would have left them crumbling and broken with even the slightest force. But this mattered not, for the monster squeezed and contorted itself in its pursuit of us, body bulging at one end and then the other as it effortlessly moved between obstacles without disturbing them.
I dropped my wand and drew my sword; it had decided to kill me first. I waived to Savlo to make use of the distraction; he dodged back and withdrew, dropping his bow and arrow as he did. At first, I thought he’d lost his nerve and run, but I had no time to revel in anger or despair over that—the monster struck at me with withering fury, neck weaving between and around trees with unnatural celerity to strike first from my left and then my right, unrelenting in the assault. I warded with blade and dodged as best I could, the sword’s edge having little effect on the beast’s scales but at least knocking that striking neck enough to purchase a short space between that beak (which I now noticed was lined with a predator’s teeth within) and my flesh. My saving grace was that it was a duel of sorts, the kind of fight to which I was most accustomed, and my feet proved agile and steady enough to keep injury, if not the monster itself, at bay.

A horn sounded, loud and nearby; Savlo had chosen to sound the alarm and call our fellows to our aid rather than to take a shot of unknown efficacy with his weapon. A wise choice, though it called the attention of our otherworldy foe to him. As it turned its neck I struck a blow, one that left a shallow line across its scaly neck. It turned and snapped at me, with annoyance rather than fear or anger, and then turned to Savlo, strange form waddling and yet passing gracefully between the trees again.

Freed from immediate danger, I sheathed my sword and pulled free the pouch of runescribed shot from my belt, pouring the metal balls into an open palm. I searched for those with runes effective against either the spawn of Sedhwe or the get of Daea, dropping the rest onto the dusty ground, for there was no time to return them gently to the pouch nor were they of any use to me at present.

Which was it? A child of that demoness of deceit and damnation, or a corrupted creation of the archenemy? I struggled to remember my days of instruction at the hands of my first master, the piles of dusty tomes I’d read as a student at the university, separating the thoughts that arose into their proper categories—or so I hoped. They are so closely related, Daea being a creation of Sedhwe and his intended spouse, she the fallen spirit of the direst of fallen spirits. But Sedhwe learnt his craft from the One, or from watching the other Firstborn work; he wrought his spawn first from the darker side of imagination and later from the nightmares of the naming peoples. Daea had inherited some skill from her creator and would-be husband, but had stolen more from the secret arts of the other Firstborn, twisting them and grafting them together like some primordial fleshcrafter to create her progeny, for she could bear no child herself. This creature, then, an amalgam of parts taken from Avarienne’s children, must have belonged to that archdemoness. How it came to dwell here was anyone’s guess, but I had neither time nor care for the answer.

In his precarious flight from the snapping beak of the monster, Savlo had abandoned his bow, pulling his hunting sword from its sheath and hacking wildly to hold the beast at bay, much as I had done only a moment before. Daea’s child showed no sign of fatigue, no indication that it might offer any respite or quarter, while Savlo breathed heavily and took steps of failing soundness, rolling on his ankle painfully and hobbling thereafter, carried only by the adrenaline that no doubt crashed over him like an angry tide.
There came the crack of an arquebus, the thud of its projectile smashing into the feathery torso of the unnatural predator with little effect. “Fuck me!” I heard Edanu’s voice. “The thing shrugged it off like I’d spit at it!”

It had. The ball had rebounded from the leathery hide or bony plate or whatever foul armor lie beneath the coat of feathers, which now raised up somewhat, like the spines of a porcupine, their iridescence a visible sign of the thing’s rising ire. The beast turned to glare at our oncoming fellows, outer eyes still watching Savlo and I from the corners of their bulbous windows.

A deafening screech bellowed from the creature’s elongated throat, stopping all of us in our tracks as we vainly attempted to stop up our hearing. I let fall the runic shot from my hand as I covered my ears, the little balls rolling this way or that according to the whim of the dirt at my feet where they mingled anonymously with the ones I’d dropped before in hopes of efficiently sorting out what I needed. Now I’d have to search out each in turn and check its rune—if I could find the right ones at all. I dropped to my knees in the search.

Occupied as I was, I did not watch the battle unfold around me. I’ve pieced together what follows from the scraps of my recollection and the tales told by my companions after the fact.

Aryden, Gamven, Vitella and Daedys drove the assault, splitting apart from one another and each darting in and out of engagement from various angles to confuse and harry the beast. Their attacks did little more than distract the creature as it snapped back and forth between them, always just too late to catch one. They bought Savlo enough time to limp away from the fray; he circled back around at a safe distance to join me as I crawled along the ground searching for shiny objects.

“Shouldn’t I be the one crawling around?” He said flatly.

I smirked, though he couldn’t see it. Daedys flew past us suddenly, picked up and tossed through the air with a violent snap of the creature’s neck. He took a moment to recover the wind that’d been knocked out of him and then rejoined the fight.

Savlo must have picked up the arquebus his lord had dropped when charging in, for he held the ornate wheelock delicately. The dogleg rested tight against the flashpan; Savlo had no intention of firing the weapon at present.

Edanu joined the two of us, planting his feet and muttering to himself before he began the long course of actions to reload his own arquebus and being especially careful not to bring his powder horn close to the waiting match.

“Wait,” I whispered to him, more than a little nervous that the three of us standing together and moving but little might draw the attention of the creature to easy prey. “You’re going to need something better than regular shot to stand a chance of seriously injuring that thing, and it looks that we’ll tire long before it does if we try to do things the hard way.”

I’d been grasping at the metal balls one by one during all of this, checking each rune and tossing hard and far those with markings unhelpful to the present struggle. So far, that had been all I’d inspected. Now, though, I chanced upon the first projectile bearing the proper marks. I held it up over my shoulder to Edanu and said, “load this one.” I could hear him pulling the ramrod free of his weapon to tamp down the powder and wadding before loading the ball I’d given him.

The grunts and shouts of our companions provided a constant harmony as I searched, Edanu loaded and Savlo waited.

“What the hell are you three doing over there?” came Aryden’s voice, thunderous and imperious.

“Looking for our balls!” Edanu shouted back with a smile.

“When you find them, we could use some help!” the lord returned. A grunt and a scraping sound followed his words as the creature’s beak slid across Aryden’s breastplate, a bite than might otherwise have proved fatal.

At that time, I’d found a second ball of the proper marking, which I handed to Savlo.

“I’m already loaded,” he objected.

I opened my mouth to answer the hunter, but Edanu had finished loading and brought the caliver to his shoulder.

“Wait!” I said, louder than I’d meant to. “Wait until we’re all loaded!”

“They’re running out of time,” Edanu replied, his voice firm but trembling with anxiety at its edges.

“A single shot won’t fix that. Savlo, you’re going to have to fire your piece and reload.”

The hunter grunted in response. We all knew that his doing so would bring us unwanted attention; I was thankful he held the ball tight in one hand and bided his time.

While I continued to search, our fighting companions were taking a beating. The monster had struck no life-threatening blow as of yet, but Gamven had been injured sorely enough to be forced to withdraw. Repeated bludgeoning with its strong neck and many close calls with its razor beak had taken a toll on both the vigor and morale of the others. Daedys’ thrusts with his boar spear became ever more cursory and obviously intended to gain the creature’s focus rather than to do real harm. As it realized this, it had begun to ignore him, turning its attention toward Aryden and Vitella.

Where they had begun by distracting the beast and forcing it to maneuver back and forth between them, now the creature had seized the initiative, forcing the pair to suddenly change direction to avoid snapping jaws and to step lively to avoid colliding with one another as they continuously repositioned, Daedys trailing behind in an effort to remain relevant to the fight at all.

Again the monster issued its bloodcurdling screech, driving the combatants back and almost to their knees as the sound pierced their ears and plunged cold and sharp into their very minds. Even somewhat removed from the monster’s presence the shriek filled the three of us with pain, our own cries drowned amidst the sea of sound the beast had created. It was as if the sound pushed my spirit from my body and I looked down momentarily on the scene, unable to act or to think with clarity while the echoes of the sonorous attack coursed through me.

I felt rather than heard the concussion of Savlo’s arquebus firing into the air, emptying itself of its contents to be filled afresh. When only the ringing in our ears remained of that scream, Savlo motioned to Edanu for his powder horn. The emissary passed the container to the hunter without words—or if there were any I could not hear them—and Savlo set to his task more assuredly than Edanu had done with his own piece.

For wadding, Savlo tore a piece from the end of his cloak, already worn and threadbare, stuffing some down the barrel to hold the tamped powder in place and wrapping the ball in a bit before ramming it home, too. As he recovered the ramrod from the barrel he glared at me, nudged me with his foot. I realized I’d been watching him work rather than continuing with my own task, which I returned to anon.

As hearing returned, the shouts of our companions grew louder, more desperate. I’m told that Vitella and Aryden saved each other’s lives more than once, that Daedys’ efforts in spite of exhaustion proved vital. All I heard, though, was the growing doom in their voices and the sighing sounds of the beast as it attacked without ceasing.

Finally, I found a third ball marked against Daea’s brood. I wiped the dirt from it by rubbing it against my vest before popping it into my mouth—the best place I could devise to safely hold it while I loaded one of my pistols. The monster passed close by and I froze, its tail mindlessly swinging near my face as the beast turned in pursuit of one of my companions. Fingers trembling, I fumbled for one of my chargers, pulling it from the string on which it hanged and turning it over the barrel of my piece, held upright in my left hand. Some of the powder spilt around the mouth of the barrel, landing softly on the webbing between thumb and forefinger at the pistol’s grip. Tossing the charger aside, I brushed the grains I could from hand to ignition pan, hoping it would be enough.

After tamping the powder with the ramrod, I pulled a thin patch of cloth from one of my belt pouches and spit the ball into it, pulling the cloth around the shot before pushing both into the waiting barrel and ramming these home, too. Forgetting my own advice and tossing the ramrod aside in my haste, I rose with the pistol to take aim at the beast.
I tracked it with my arm, waiting until I felt I had a proper lead on the moving target, willing a flame at the tip of my index finger, which lay in the pan. A flare burst from the ignition hole, but the pistol failed to recoil in my hand; it had not fired. An agonizing second passed, the pistol’s aim lagging behind the location of the beast, before the powder finally decided to ignite, the shot spinning wild in my unpreparedness and wasted.

Not entirely wasted-the blast had captured the beast’s attention. The monster turned abruptly and charged me. In an act of will not entirely born of conscious thought, I threw up a shield of arcane force, enough to keep me from significant injury but far too little to stop the charge. Without ever touching me directly, acting only through the invisible bindings between my outstretched hand, the shield and the creature’s downturned forehead, it flung me as easily as if I’d been picked up and tossed carelessly aside by the hand of the One.

I hit the ground sprawled on my back, the wind knocked from my lungs. The creature pursued after its charge and forced me to roll away from its lunging beak. The hilt of my sword pushed into my side as I spun, bruising my hip bone but reminding me of its existence.

With another roll augmented by a quick sorcery, I recovered my feet, sword in hand and already slashing at the beast’s face as it turned to strike again. My light blade recoiled from the thing’s scales, the hilt ringing painfully in my hand as if I’d struck a wall. I felt a warm damp on my upper lip and tasted copper, whether a side effect of my sorceries or an injury from being flung, I could not tell—not that it really mattered.

A second shot rang out—I would later learn that this was Savlo’s—connecting with the creature with a wet sound not unlike the sound of stumbling into a deep and muddy puddle. Black ichor sprayed from the monster in response, thick and sticky, accompanied by another of those otherworldly screams that seemed to drive an icicle into mind and soul. I lashed out feebly with my sword in response, what might have been a deadly thrust in another fight in spite of the lack of full intent, again it glanced off the creature.
Savlo’s shot had injured the creature but not slowed it much. I narrowly sidestepped the monster’s riposte, beak snapping close enough that I felt the rush of air around it. It turned now in Savlo’s direction, reaching him in three strides of its unnatural feet.

He tried to dodge, but his ankle betrayed him and he bought dear what little distance he acquired. The creature’s beak, both fast and precise, snatched a chunk of flesh from the hunter, leaving a ragged gap between neck and shoulder, having stolen flesh and bone alike from the poor man. He had only started to turn his head to the wound when he slumped over, falling face-first in the dirt, twitching his death-throes.

Anger washed over me, overwhelming my fear. I took umbrage at the creature’s fortitude, the injustice of its resistance to us, the impunity with which it assaulted us. Without thinking, I flung my sword at the thing’s side, overhand, yelling my frustration as I did.

I expected the weapon to bounce aside, casually and pathetically, but the sword instead penetrated halfway to the hilt, which bobbed up and down happily as the blade flexed with the force of the blow. My shout had not just been some exasperated expletive—it had accompanied a further sorcery, one that had empowered the weapon to do its work. I had no time to recall how I’d extemporized such a fortunate working; the creature returned to press me.

Willingly disarmed, I drew my parrying dagger as a desperate last line of defense; it did me little good. By now, Aryden, Vitella and Daedys had caught up to me, their tired attacks at least pulling some attention away from me.

But the monster had been enraged now, too, and the desperation of its injuries only seemed to have strengthened it. It feinted with its head toward Vitella but kicked Aryden viciously instead, claws screeching as they left long dents in the lord’s breastplate and sprawling him.

In dividing my attention to my companions I had failed to maintain a safe distance from the creature; it knocked me to the ground with a casual turn of its head and neck, not the devastating blow from its previous charge but enough to put me on my ass again. With another flick of its neck it seized Daedys’ spear in its beak, ripping it from his grasp and pulling him prostrate as he attempted to hold onto it. The weapon snapped into two halves and fell to the avar.

Only Vitella stood in defiance of the beast now, it seemed, for I could not see Edanu. I presumed he’d lost his nerve and ran. Like mine, the Lady Vitella’s blade left only light scratches—minor annoyances—in the monster’s hide. But cold determination had replaced the aloof amusedness in her expression and I wondered to myself—inappropriately given the situation, I realize—at a sort of beauty that existed in such a frank display of willfulness.

The monster turned its neck to look at her, and I knew that hers would be the next life taken by the beast if nothing could be done. Still driven more by rage than hope, I grabbed the metal-tipped end of Daedys’ hunting spear and drove its point into the base of the creature’s neck. It didn’t penetrate, instead cutting only a shallow groove where scales met with leathery, feather-covered hide. If only I’d had been conscious of what I’d done to injure the creature with my sword!

The monster turned again, pulling its neck up into an “S”-like curve so that it could look down at me, its spider eyes intently focused upon me. It opened its beak slowly, pointed teeth within glistening with slavering spit. Slowly, it extended its neck, beak and tearing teeth coming ever closer to my face. I pushed against its neck with my hands, but even hale I’d not have had the strength to resist the force with which it approached.

Just as I’d resolved to look it in the eyes as it killed me, to defy it in that one meaningless way left to me, a shot rang out and a black fog exploded from the side of the thing’s head. As it fell on its side, lifeless, I saw Edanu standing there, still holding his caliver at the ready, close enough he must have almost pressed the muzzle to the monster’s face as he pulled the trigger.

I guffawed with surprise that he’d have bothered to save me; I would have expected him to wait until I, too had a massive chunk of flesh liberated from my body before he made that mortal shot. The emotion that followed, irrational as it might have been, was chagrin. I hated that I owed him something, the kind of debt not easily repaid.

My thoughts must have been plain on my face, for Edanu only shrugged. “You gave up your balls for this fight,” he smiled. “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything else.”

Despite myself, I smiled, too.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 16

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For the previous chapter, click here.

The amber flames of burning candles danced against the walls of Aryden’s hall, filling the air with the scent of honey more than smoke, throwing back the darkness into gently swaying shadows that spoke of mirth more than fear, a chiaroscuro of the fashioned levity tenuously held by the gathered courtiers stood vigil to determine the success of the day’s adventures in Crimson Close.

Wine flowed freely, the lord’s servants skillfully remaining out of notice until someone’s cup had been drained to the dregs, at which point, like a fleeting spirit, a comely girl or young man quickly stepped into the light and filled a cup before disappearing once again, silent guardians of the room’s mood, protectors of our collective nerves.

Aryden lazed in the ornate wooden chair from whence he judged the quick and the dead, raised above the rest of us in attendance, his feet stretched out before him as he struggled to make himself comfortable with his back wedged in the chair’s corner. Ruling is harder—and less comfortable—than most would think, it seems. He swirled a goblet of wine in his hand, for show more than for use. I suppose he wanted a clear head as he waited for answers.

I would have—should have—joined him, but the day’s events weighed on me and I felt a need to drown them somewhat under the weight of drink. Accordingly, I endeavored to walk the line between mere tipsiness and complete soddenness. I didn’t expect to be of much immediate use if the haunting spirit had not been laid by the day’s endeavors and chose to rear its ugly head again, but neither did I want to prove an incapable fool should the need to take action arise. As with most things it touches, drink is often unpredictable for its effects on the practitioner’s Art. For some, it blurs the mind and prevents the formation of any working, but for others, it quiets the fears so that focus on a working becomes pure and undistracted. To make matters worse, for most of us, there was little predicting whether any particular session of drinking would have beneficial or deleterious effects upon one’s ability. I’d heard of more than one practitioner finding himself so drawn to alcohol or some drug or another that he could only work the Art when under its influence.

On the floor below Aryden’s throne, in a votive semi-circle, I stood with the other courtiers present: Endan, the Historian, Vitella amn Esto, Edanu of House Meradhvor, Barro and Indorma.

“Of what shall we talk to pass the time this evening?” asked Vitella, standing perfectly poised and looking to Aryden in his chair.

The lord only shrugged in response, his mind obviously elsewhere.

“While we have a master thaumaturge at our disposal, perhaps we should discuss the Art and all things arcane,” Barro suggested. “I myself have always wandered what the phenomenon I understand is called the ‘Practitioner’s Dialectic’ feels like.”

All eyes turned to me with much nodding of heads and utterances of enthusiastic assent.

The investigations, I charge for; the entertaining, I do for free.

“It doesn’t feel like anything,” I began. “You, by which I mean the practitioner, feel something because of it, and in that subtlety lies the danger of the Dialectic. Perhaps a particular set of circumstances leads me to believe that I am capital “R” Right when I use a working, or perhaps its in my nature to feel that I am usually right and others are wrong. If I do not watch myself, allow this set of feelings to continue when I use the Art, then I will eventually begin to feel that I am always Right when using the Art, no matter the circumstances. Conversely, I will begin to feel that I should always use the Art when I am Right.” I paused to think about those things I’d felt when I set the victim of the Maw alight. Victim was the right word; he’d not chosen what he became, or what he did after. And yet, it had proved so easy to think of him as an intentional enemy.

“There are stories of many a practitioner being led down the wrong path by the Dialectic,” the Historian interjected.

“You again miss the subtlety of the matter,” I corrected. “The Dialectic leads no one, it only amplifies existing aspects of their character by the choices they make.”

“So it is no different from the morality of any action?” asked Indorma. “If I choose to do an evil thing, that makes it easier to do another evil thing in the future, harder to do the right thing.”

“Yes and no,” I responded. She cocked her head to the side. Barro scratched at his chin. Vitella kept her eyes fixed upon me as she sipped from her cup, her eyes peeking over the rim as she raised it to her lips. There would be no evading further explanation. “We are all shaped by our experiences, it is true. And those experiences are in turn shaped, at least in part, by our choices. When a person draws the Power for a working through himself, he touches the very rawness of all experience, of Creation itself. Thus, the experience is heightened in its impression upon the character, but it is the very mind of the practitioner that shapes this impression, so the effect must, of course, be limited by the character of the practitioner himself. Therefore, it can only accentuate traits that already exist; we mortals, practitioners of the Art or not, can only create from what we have. None of us creates from nothing.

This is why it is so easy to caricature practitioners, for by pursuing the Art they often become caricatures of themselves, with certain aspects of their personalities inflated beyond all proper proportion to the others. It is, perhaps, part of why the Aenyr named themselves the way that they did. The Wanderer, the Poet, the Queen of Air and Shadow. It wasn’t simply that they were protecting their true names from one another, but that they had become exemplars of the aspects that lent them their epithets. Of course, none of them now can be coaxed to speak of that distant past, so this is theory and conjecture, good for the universities, but not much use besides.”

“Except for scintillating conversation, my dear,” Vitella added.

Barro stepped forward slightly, a physical indication of his investment in the conversation, “Do you mean to say that the righteous person could be made more righteous by the pursuit of the Art?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then why are there so many tales of fallen and wayward practitioners, so few of entirely virtuous ones? Why do the Conclave and the Temple need the Vigil to watch over your kind, to protect from them?”

“How many truly righteous people have you known? Most of us are a mix of good and evil, and oftener than not more evil than good, I think, more oft driven by our baser desires and our own selfishness than our love for others or any high ideals of virtue and altruism. Shouldn’t you believe that more than most?”

“My faith causes me to believe that the mercy of The One may lift us above such a sad state, that we may by degrees become Good.”

“I’d like to agree with you in principle, but experience holds me back. Besides, the Art is a difficult and demanding study, a harsh mistress. Where would the practitioner find the time to train herself in righteousness in addition to maintaining sufficient skill in the Art to wield it safely and efficaciously? I think, rather, that The One’s mercy for practitioners is that there is some good in us at all, that the Dialectic is likelier to make us eccentric than evil if we are merely playing the odds. It is a lack of self-control or a conscious choice to pursue an evil path that allows the Dialectic to push a practitioner down the left-hand path, and those in such a position to begin with were likely to choose the darkness anyway, were they not?”

“Are you saying, then, that the Dialectic only makes evil men who use the Art more evil?” Barro asked with rhetorical incredulity.

“It makes for good stories,” the Historian chuckled, his white beard become pink around his mouth with careless sloshing of his wine.

“I thought you cared for Truth more than stories,” Edanu retorted.

“And what type of truth do you mean?” the Historian returned. “There is the truth of what happened, and the truth of what those events mean. Neither is typically easy to discern, so the historian does the best that he may with what he has.”

“So the conversation turns to Truth,” Vitella said with a smile. “Very good.”

“Truth?” Aryden muttered. “What do any of you know of Truth?”

“A great deal, I’d like to think,” Barro answered. “Though I must admit that what Truth I know is in Ashaera’s revelations and not from my own observations or deductions. We mortals are poor discerners of Truth, as it were.”

“You call my profession into question, do you?” The Historian barked.

“And mine?” Indorma added.

“You, Naemur, just confessed yourself that the Truth is difficult to discern,” Edanu said, smiling.

“Difficult, but not impossible! The human mind is a powerful tool, and one granted us by the One Themselves. How, therefore, could we fully deny the power of the mind to discern Truth?” the Historian replied, having composed himself and prepared for proper debate.

“It is not the mind that is the problem,” Indorma began, “but the perception. For, in our hubris, we see what we want to see and ignore the rest, and the mind cannot properly go about its work if the information it holds in view is distorted and illusory. Do you not find this to be true, lord thaumaturge?”

I had hoped the shift in the conversation would have relieved me from a responsibility to participate in it. Very consciously I’d rejected the life of the courtier, with its dissembling and conceits and performance. I’d not come to Vaina to be dragged into it. Unfortunately, we rarely get just what we want.

“I’ll agree that seeing a thing properly is a difficult thing,” I said. “Even worse when a person, who actively hides from you what they do not want you to see, plays at being something they want others to believe they are instead of being themselves.”

“Ah, but Lord Thaumaturge,” Edanu smirked, “is this not the lesson of the Practitioner’s Dialectic? If you play at being something long enough, you become that thing?”

“I don’t think that’s what I said.”

“Perhaps not, but you implied it, did you not? My dear Vitella, would you agree that the cunning courtier seeks to become what his patron desires?”

“It would be foolish not to,” she admitted.

“And would you also agree that it is within our power to so become?”

“Sometimes.”

“Good enough. Barro, as a priest of the Temple, you of course believe that men can change, that they can become better than they are?”

“I do.”

“How?”

“By choosing to become better, by striving for it.”

“And with proper striving, may an evil person become a good one?”

“With The One’s help and mercy, yes.”

“Then a man may one day become something he is not?”

The historian, catching the drift, spoke up himself. “And thus, if the Dialectic is simply a more powerful example of the natural processes of the human psyche, then it might yet make someone different than they once were by their choosing to become someone different.”

“My point exactly!” said Edanu, eyes settling on me as if we were dueling and he’d just secured an advantage.

“But history is also replete with examples of external circumstances and events causing internal change in a person of note,” the Historian continued, almost to himself and heedless of the game Edanu intended.

“But what has that to do with Truth?” the Historian asked.

Edanu pushed past him, rhetorically and physically, stepping into the circle of us to take attention. “Historian, you bring up an interesting complication. I believe that our honored thaumaturge can shed some light on that assertion as well. Tell me, Iaren, were you changed by the loss of your family?”

I clinched my teeth, felt my hands balling into fists. Which was just what Edanu wanted.

“I take your posture as a ‘yes,’” he smiled broadly. I thought, however briefly, of pulling fire from the myriad candles with a sudden sorcery and watching him burn for his insolence. A clever retort that would be. Then they’d get to see the work of the Dialectic first-hand.

But I breathed deep, let my hands relax, and put my wit to better use. “It changed me just as it demonstrated the nature of your exalted House: treacherous, base and motivated only by venality. A corporate character replicated in each of the House’s members, I understand. And what did betrayal and murder get you? A fancy building and a thin veneer of respect from the Council of Twelve draped over a deep foundation of contempt? And that at the cost of a piece of your souls, which you seem to sell so cheaply.”

The smile dropped from Edanu’s face at that and he took a step toward me. Behind him, the Historian’s face lit up, as if he’d just made the connection between my name and events of note in the history of his beloved city, events he’d forgotten while focused on the history of Vaina. From his chair, Aryden said my name—my given name only—a deep growl of warning. Amn Esto’s eyes smiled from behind her cup as she finished the last of it and held it carelessly aside to be filled anew by the silent servants. The tutor anticipated violence, backing away from the semi-circle, already broken by Edanu having crossed through it.

“Fear not, dear Edanu,” I said. “If I’d been moved by vengeance, I’d already have killed many in your House, or left you to die in the Close today. I have no intention of starting that path now, and nothing to be gained by it. What need have I for a villa in the High City with no one to share it with? What need have I for your blood when it will not bring back a family I scarcely knew in the first place, and when I hold it in such low esteem that it matters not whether it flows in your veins or spreads across Lord amn Vaina’s floor? Do you tempt me so because my lack of concern threatens your sense of worth? How is that for Truth?”

Edanu’s hand moved for the dagger in his belt. I heard Vitella giggle with delight as his face hardened. The Meradhvor envoy looked down to find my hand lightly placed on his wrist, ready to stop his draw if he started it. He looked back up to my face to judge my intent.

“Let me help you, Edanu,” I told him, our eyes locking. “Let me help you not to break the hospitality offered to you by our lord by attempting to shed blood in his hall. Let me help you to not find yourself holding in your own entrails, which is exactly where you will be if that blade leaves its sheath.”

“Is that so, amn Ennoc?” He threatened, hand tight around the dagger’s hilt but not moving it from the sheath. “I’ve not heard that you were a skilled swordsman.”

“Dead men don’t talk,” I smiled.

“My lords,” Barro said softly, putting his hands between us and pushing us apart, “I for one have seen enough violence today, and I can attest to Lord amn Ennoc’s skill with a blade. I have no doubt that you, Master Edanu, are a skilled fighter as well. But we need no demonstrations from either of you. Have you not had your fill of violence in the Close today? I know that I have.”

“And I need both of you alive,” amn Vaina added bluntly from his seat above us. “For different reasons, perhaps, but it would be mightily inconvenient to me if either of you was to kill the other, and especially if you were to both kill each other. To say nothing of my reputation for hospitality, which I’ll not have ruined by—”

A scream, high and blood-stirring, pierced the conversation, driving even the Lord amn Vaina to silence. It seemed to echo, though that could have been my mind playing a trick. A cacophony of voices followed, different pitches and timbres, in different places, with different melodies, moving throughout the keep. A tingling sensation manifested at the extent of my senses; the spirit had entered the Avar again, moving through the stones of the castle’s interior-most building at seeming random.

I bolted from the room in pursuit, made only slightly less surefooted by drink. Realizing a carried my goblet with me, I tossed it carelessly aside, hearing a cry of complaint from someone behind me—all of Aryden’s courtiers trailed behind, followed by the man himself. Now we played a game of echoes, changing course every time a new hue and cry of alarm arose from a different direction. After several minutes of the chase, we finally encountered the spirit in a second-floor hallway, free from the confines of the cellar.
The spirit radiated that sickly green light, shifting and pulsing in the shape of ghostly flames that danced around the rotting corpse of its manifest form. Without a protective circle, it sensed my vulnerability, darting toward me with preternatural speed, its claws breaking against a sorcerous shield I managed to conjure just in time, drawing the working out from a sigil on one of my rings. The gathered gawkers behind me recoiled from the savage strikes, bursts of light brightening the hall to painfulness each time claw scraped against ethereal barrier.

I poured power into the shield to maintain it against the buffet of blows, a ringing in my ears joining the afterglow clouding my vision. Water began to seep through the stones in the ceiling and the walls, the flux generated by the excess power I desperately forced through the working manifesting in random occurrences, these fortunately benign.
The thing darted away, effortlessly passing through one of the stone walls. I followed the hallway and turned in the direction it had fled, eyes sweeping back and forth for the telltale of that deathly glow. Some of the courtiers—I hadn’t time to determine who—had left off the chase after that first encounter, perturbed by the spirit’s violent outburst.
A wise choice, it seemed, for the apparition charged me from the side, coming unexpectedly through a tapestry to my right. It’s momentum knocked me back against the wall and I lost my footing, rolling out of the way instinctively just as it raked now-empty space with its claws. The pendant around my neck pulsed slightly, doing its protective work in allowing my brief escape. With another turn of my body, I found my feet, producing the binding disc and holding it before me.

“In the name of the Ladies Taelaine and Melqea, I bind you to my will.” The spirit stopped in its assault, watching me silently as I continued to incant. “In the name of Taelaine, I bind your form to my will. In the name of Melqea, I bind your essence to my will. I banish you until you are summoned to do my bidding. I bind you until such time as I loose your bonds. I abjure you from this place until you hear my call. I bind you to my will in the name of the Ladies Melqea and Taelaine, Firstborn of The One.”

The spirit let forth a rasping rush of air from its numinous throat, the forced laughter of a corpse. My thaumaturgy had been a poor one, to be sure. Without knowing the spirit’s true name, a great deal of will and power would be required to overcome its resistance, and the day’s events had drained me of both. Even drawing forth all that I had stored in the sapphires in my brass bracelets, the working remained weak respective to the specter’s own will. I’ve always been wary of dealing with spirits, having heard plenty of stories of summonings gone awry, and had satisfied myself with the practical experience of binding lesser spirits of little true power. The principles remained the same between meek spirits and forceful ones, but the difference in practice should be measured in orders of magnitude.

Behind me, I could hear Barro uttering his own form of incantations, prayers to Ashaera and The One for our protection and freedom from the phantom. Those prayers emboldened me, but I still could not think of what I might do. Aryden, however, brushed me out of the way, yelling, “Begone from here, spirit!” Bold, but dumb.

The spirit drew its empty eye sockets up and down, sizing Aryden up, or perhaps determining whether it recognized the Lord amn Vaina. It then advanced on us, slow and purposeful, enjoying the sensation of the rising fear within us. I braced myself to be rent and torn by those ephemeral claws until the spirit’s green glow illuminated the chalky form of one of the seals I had drawn on the hallway wall to ward the castle from the specter’s presence. Without my presence, the residual power I’d drawn into the ward had proved insufficient, but I might be able to supplement that power now to greater effect.

Incanting again, this time in the speech of the Old Aenyr, I drew all the power I could from the space around me. The power of Creation, that raw force that fuels a working of the Art, permeates and sustains all things, available to be tapped into with the proper skill and understanding. This is the basis of the thaumaturge’s practice.

The ward began to give off its own light now, burning with the power I channeled through it and stopping the spirit in its tracks. My voice grew louder, tinged with both excitement and fear, as I pulled everything I could into that seal. Two voices screamed at once—the spirit’s and Aevala’s—and the spirit dissipated into darkness, banished for a time once again.

“God damn it,” Aryden said, his voice carrying both relief and anger. The eidolon had come close to him before I had banished it, almost close enough to touch.

“Well, I guess our efforts today were for naught,” Edanu tossed out, off-handedly.

“But what about the fire around it? Doesn’t that mean something?” Barro asked.

“Yes,” I told him.

“What?”

“It’s mocking us.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 15

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

Once we’d passed through the gateway, the men atop the portal released their hold on the door’s winch, letting it spin freely, the counterweights slamming the doors shut with a resounding crash that alerted all who could hear to our entry into this forsaken place. Now, I couldn’t help but throw a glance rearward, if only to confirm what I already knew—we were trapped inside. The men who’d opened the gate scuttled back down the ladder as quickly as they could manage, eager to be away from whatever danger the Close contained.

Our scarves did little to purify the air around us, heavy with decay and death. The ruins of the buildings caught within the wall silently testified to the ravages of time, all crumbling to one degree or another, some entirely collapsed in on themselves, others partial husks of their original multi-story glory, the rubble that had sloughed off of them forming rough ramps to the upper stories.

Vines and overgrown weeds penetrated stone and plaster alike wherever they could find purchase. If you squinted, and focused more on the blue sky overhead than the crumbling state of the buildings, you might even be able to imagine yourself in a quiet garden. But where foliage had not taken hold was the demesne of molds and mildew, sickly greens and rust browns tinting the once-ivory plaster sides of the former homes. In many places, thick mushrooms ascended the large wood beams of the buildings, like handholds for some creature of the Otherworld. Dirt and mud covered those places that had once been flagstone streets, now only scarce gray survivors poking up through the muck.

A thick quiet pervaded everything, heavy and tense with possibility, none of it hopeful. Each of scanned in all directions, expecting sudden attack from some unexpected quarter. We’d all heard the stories, of Maw-driven victims, cadaver-thin, covered from chin to toes in slick maroon, glossy wet in some places, crusty and drying in others. I single victim in the grip of the Maw’s true terror could be easily managed by our group—provided we were not successfully ambushed. But there had been nineteen lost to the latest resurgence of the virulence, plenty to overwhelm us if their hunger drove them to us in force.

A sudden movement of shadows down a sidestreet caught everyone’s attention; as one we turned to face the threat, weapons readying and several of us raising cries of alarm. My pistols had sprung into my hands and pointed in the direction of the disturbance before I realized—along with my brothers and sister in arms—what had startled us. A single scavenger rat, coming close to investigate what we might have brought with us into the Close that it might eat. Our abrupt movements had scared it off, of course, our bodies responding faster than our minds with the excitement coursing through our veins.

We collectively chuckled at ourselves, nervously. Most of us, at least. “What the fuck was all that?” Gamven asked in a commanding whisper. “If we’re attacked and we all turn the same way, who’s watching our backs and sides? Get that shit out of your systems now and let’s have a soldier’s response to the next fright, eh?” The doctor turned his oversized head to look at me; I imagined that, like me, he was wondering if that command had been intended for his two followers or for all of us. I couldn’t tell his true intent, hidden as it was behind the thick glass lenses that covered his eyes, all expressions hidden by the mask and distorted by the hooked beak protruding from under those reflective portals.

Not long after we recovered ourselves, we encountered a grim marker of the history of the Close: a skeleton, all of the skin stripped from its bones, still wearing the tattered and rotting remains of a pair of leather boots, slumped against one of the ruined walls as if it had been casually waiting for our arrival, the skull even turned toward us as if in a slight nod of greeting.

“See, there’s more here to fear than the Maw. Old corpses like that are frequent abodes for pestilence. Good thing we brought masks,” Endan said, tapping his long leather nose.

“Should we?” Barro asked.

“Maybe later,” I said, “That one’s old. It would’ve manifested as a spirit a long time back if the poor soul hadn’t walked the Path already.

Gamven waited for no further talk before moving ahead again.

The silence settling heavy around us again, we pushed onward. “What is it that we’re doing exactly?” Edanu whispered, turning to look at me. We’d jockeyed for position for a short while until it became clear that I’d not oblige his standing behind me and, shrugging in feigned carelessness, he finally moved in front of me in the group, leaving me at the rear. Maybe I should’ve let him play rearguard in hopes that some slavering once-human would snatch him into the shadows and I’d never have to see him or hear his voice again, but I feared him more than I feared the monsters the Maw had made, so we found ourselves thus arranged.

“We’re going to recover the bodies of the recently-taken, give them their last rites, and burn them as should be done,” I told him. Though I’d let my arms drop to my sides, each hand still clutched one of the pistols; no use putting them back now.

“Of course,” Edanu said, searching the area to our right as we slowly moved. “But we’ll have to kill them a second time first, won’t we?”

“It’s likely,” I admitted.

Gamven stopped and motioned for us to do the same. He pointed to the building on our left, a crumbling hulk bereft of any wall on our side, its crumbled floor sloping downward into darkness, the remains of long-forgotten cellars. “Could be one down there,” the master-of arms posited. “I’ll check it out,” he continued.

“Perhaps you should not go alone?” Errys questioned.

“It’ll be too cramped for me to get ganged up on down there; I’ll be fine. Besides, I’ll keep a cooler head if I know all of you are watching my back, keeping my escape route clear. Give me your lamp.”

Errys and Medryn lit her lantern, she holding it up with the door open, Medryn using his lit match to ignite the oil within. She exchanged the lantern for Gamven’s pollaxe. The veteran drew his sword, holding the lantern high in his off hand, and cautiously descending what remained of an old staircase, the light quickly enveloped by the darkness below until we could see no sign of it.

“Eyes up!” Errys said, noticing that we were all focused on the same place again. The command proved enough to shake us from our inattention, and just in time. At the other end of an alleyway, obscured in the shadow of overhanging upper stories, something almost human moved. Not quickly, but some smoothly and determinedly that it flashed in and out of sight in a blink. Merdyn readied his arquebus, thin tendrils of smoke dancing upward from the burning match. He waited, eyes focused to pierce the obscuring shadows in hopes of a target. I turned to watch over one of the other streets, wanting to return my attention to where I knew there had been movement, but trusting Medryn to do his own part.

“Hold fast,” said Errys, scanning one of the other open routes, holding the pollaxe in the same stance Gamven had only moments before.

We waited like that, each of us looking for the first attack. This was the worst part, when imagination took hold and played out myriad scenarios of what might happen next. Once the violence started, things would be easier. Not easy, but easier. The fight was a matter of action and reaction, of certainties more than possibilities. Someone—or, hopefully, some things—would die, and injuries would be shared all around.

The tension heightened with every passing moment without action, like a rope being pulled ever more taut until the first few cords snap free and you being to wonder when the whole line will burst apart. But no climactic event, no monster running free and headlong toward us in the light, broke that final thread. We stayed tense like that until we could no more, breaths becoming deep, the fatigue of holding ourselves ready beginning to take a toll.

“Are they supposed to do that?” Errys whispered to me.

“Do what?”

“That. Play tricks. Bide their time. Scare us until they find us unready.”

“I don’t know that they’re supposed to do anything. Not the commonest topic of study given the danger of the exercise. Most of the writing about the Red Maw is speculations about its origin, its causes, methods for prevention, techniques for containing an outbreak. Descriptions of the symptoms until the victim seems to die, not much about what happens after. That’s the stuff of hunters and slayers, and they don’t tend to write their secrets down. Bad for business to give them away to your competitors.”

“You think Gamven’s okay?” Endan asked, his voice muffled by his mask, even more than ours were by our scarves.

“Give him a few more minutes,” I said, trying not to reveal the doubt already chewing away at my stomach. They did, and we spent another short, silent eternity scanning for former citizens of Vaina who might be stalking us.

“Maybe they all got lucky,” Edanu mused. “Maybe none of them came back and we’re worrying ourselves over nothing. How long can they survive without sustenance anyway?”

“They have all the sustenance they need,” I returned. “You saw the rat, right?”

“Alright you bastard!” Medryn said, and I heard him move forward several steps, planting his feet. There came the click as the trigger released the cam on his arquebus’s action, the hot match plunging into the flash pan with a dull thud. Just a second later came the reverberating ssschkoom! of the weapon’s bark, hot projectile spit violently from the muzzle.

The sound echoed off of every nearby building, deafening me except for a high-pitched whine that seemed to come from within my head. Unable to hear the aftermath of that shot, I turned to look, just in time to see Medryn fumbling his way through a reload, the shambling cadaver of a former citizen of Vaina moving toward him faster than it had any right to. Having first packed the powder into the weapon’s barrel, the ball rolled from Medryn’s fingers just as he tried to slip it into the muzzle. All the while, the ghoul-thing continued its charge, slavering spittle in long trails behind it like a proud battle-flag.

I swung my head back and forth to shake away the tunnel vision that accompanied the sudden rush of energy. Errys, Edanu, Endan and Barro searched for additional attackers as well. I left them to their task, stepping in front of Medryn and emptying both barrels of my pistols into the fiend at less than an arm’s length.

Smoke filled the street, mingling with the fog of the previous arquebus blast to form a dense cloud of grayish, sulfur-smelling air, a scent like demons. I stepped back from that haze, lowering my weapons and breathing a sigh of relief. At that range, there was little chance of missing, even with my lack of practice, and I had confidence that the two shots would have shattered bone and torn what flesh remained from those sinews that held it fast. Had the assailant been a true monster, a child of one of the fallen Firstborn or a chimeric creation of experimenting magi, I’d have expected the thing to prove resilient to such an attack. But this had been a man, and one ravaged by disease unto death, such frailty would not stand against modern weapons.

All of this confidence fell away when a rotting hand pushed through the smokecloud and grabbed my vest, pulling me close the the cadaver’s face. One of its eyes hung freely from the socket by a brownish-pink bundle of nerves; stinking breath—the air of the grave itself—spilt from between teeth that seemed uncannily pointed. Dried blood covered the entire surrounds of its mouth, thickly coating its chin.

“Red Maw” is no mere metaphor or euphemism; it is a description of the most terrifying aspect of the affliction. Those who succumb to the disease die after a few days of intense agony and malaise—or at least seem to. Not long after that, the corpses (whether or not bereft of soul is a matter of debate, with conflicting reports from the use of the Sight, which I had no desire to employ here) rise again, hungry for flesh, no longer contagious by general miasma but carrying infection in their blood-stained mouths.

The corpse’s neck trembled as it expelled a heavy wave of air at me: what I suspected was a shriek of some sort but had no way to confirm with the lingering ringing in my ears, now extended by the discharge of my own pieces. It began to pull me closer to those teeth.

I dropped my pistols to the mud and, shouting myself, enacted a sharp and sudden sorcery, a blast of wind that threw the unliving creature backward and away from me, with the bonus of dispersing the thick sulfur-tinged cloud of gunsmoke. I drew my sword and dropped into a duelist’s stance.

Something rushed behind me, brushing against me as it lifted Medryn off of his feet and into the ruins of a bordering building. Another one of them!

While the first one struggled back to its feet after hitting the hard-packed avar, I checked our situation. I couldn’t see far enough into the building to determine where Medryn had ended up, and I couldn’t abandon my own position and leave the rest of my companions with an open flank already tested by one of the enemy.

I caught a glimpse of Edanu deftly slamming another cartridge into his Artificial crossbow, racking the next bolt into place as Errys swung the pollaxe into the skull of one of the creatures, its own blood—or whatever dark ichor now motivated it—arcing up into the air in a graceful line. Unable to free it from its resting place, she let it go and drew the longsword from its sheath.

Endan and Barro fended off another, the creature full of fury but unsure which of them to assault as they taunted it with tentative blows and alternating yells (or at least the appearance of yells).

Gamven emerged from the passage below, his sword sheathed and the corpse of another of the flesheaters dragged behind him, its head separated from its body and hanging from his belt.

I turned back to the one who had first attacked Medryn; it had pulled itself back to its feet and flailed at me viciously, fingers curved into makeshift claws. Behind me, my hearing finally recovering, I could hear Gamven yelling, “The head! The head!”

I sidestepped the creature’s lunge, bringing my blade down upon it in a diagonal from above my right shoulder. But my angle was off, and I only managed to mangle its arm at the shoulder, leaving it dangling, fingers still twitching and grasping for whatever it might seize. It rotated to face me again, close and bending its legs to spring for me with all the strength it could muster. As it began its leap, I recovered from my strike and aimed a thrust, my sword arm across my body and twisted at the elbow to bring my hand up to my eye level, knuckles upward and blade pointed forward. A slightly awkward position for a thrust with a single-handed sword, but plenty effective. The acute point of my thin blade met the creature’s face mid-leap, the edge severing that dangling eye and causing it to roll away as the sword pierced the front of the skull and burst through the back, brains, blood and bits of bone spewing forth.

The weight of the body, now gone slack with lack of animation, pulled itself free from my sword, and I again scanned our small battlefield for additional foes. The rest of those nineteen victims now gathered in, clambering on all fours over the broken ruins or running full tilt down open streets, shrieking with a call that curdled the blood and raised every hair on the back of my neck.

I hesitated, unsure whether to keep my place and hold the line or to go to Medryn’s assistance. With the building through which he’d crashed closer than any other enemy, I chose the latter. My free hand allowed me some purchase as I surmounted the broken rubble into an almost-enclosed room on the ruin’s lower floor. Shadow ruled here and the contrast from the burning sunlight, the one salubrious element of this One-forsaken place, caused me to pause as my eyes adjusted. They did so just in time to see the animated corpse bearing down hard on Medryn, who held both the creature’s wrists in his own hands but struggled to keep the thing’s mouth away from his exposed neck.
My slash at the thing went amiss as it squirmed just when the blade would have met with its neck, steel instead biting into its shoulder and lodging against the collarbone. In the blink of an eye it turned on me, grabbing my knees to push me to the ground and clambering up me until its face came even with mine. Now I held it back by its arms with all of my might as it slobbered and worked its jaw in anticipating of tasting flesh. As we fought, I craned my neck to the side in hopes of seeing Medryn now coming to my aid, but he lay there on the floor moaning, unrecovered from his own assault.

With no hope of assistance, I began to think of a means of escape. My sword lay lodged in the creature’s back, its point often coming dangerously close to cutting me as we struggled. I dared not grip its blade for fear of cutting myself and allowing the dark ichor that seeped forth as a viscous black sludge to mix with my own blood. I couldn’t free a hand to grab my dagger; in the short time I left the thing unopposed by the full force of my strength it would sink its teeth into me and that would be the end.

I focused my will, drawing upon my fear and anger as I did—not a wise choice as a practitioner, but desperation often drives poor decisions. Those dark emotions coursed through me, pleasurable sensations, righteous. After all, this thing should not be, destroying it would be a service to The One, my companions, and all the Avar. My mouth opened, spilling unintelligible syllables. My sorcery lacked the complexity of a thaumaturgy, where incantation might help me to form the working’s manifestation in the world. No, this was raw will, exerted upon the Avar with petulant force and stubborn expectation.

The creature’s eyes widened, as if its unliving brain understood that something injurious was about to happen but couldn’t sort the details. With a piercing shriek, its head burst into flame, filling the room with the putrid scent of burning flesh. As soon as its struggles weakened, I pushed it from me and rolled out of the way as the fire spread to its entire body. It rebounded from the wall, the jarring force against my sword’s hilt sending it clattering across the floor; I stopped it with my foot and recovered it to its sheath, waited a brief moment to make sure the undead thing would not be rising again, and went to Medryn, finding a pool of crimson expanding slowly outward from under him.

I rolled him slightly to find a thin beam of rotting wood jutting from his back; it must have pierced him when the ghoul first pushed him into the building.

“You’re bleeding,” he said.

It took me a moment to understand that he wasn’t speaking gibberish; feeling something warm and coppery drip into my lips, I put my gloved hand to my face and it came back touched with dark blood. A side effect of the sorcery—there’s no time with such a quick working to draw power from anywhere but within yourself. If you’re lucky, or good, you won’t even feel the effects of a sporadic or limited working, but with the pressure of circumstances preventing the cleanest performance of the working, fatigue, aches, pains and injury are not unlikely.

He sputtered, drawing me back to the present, a red spatter leaving small droplet on his face. “Go,” he said, “help the others.”

I did.

Back in the streets, I found chaos. A handful of bodies—our attackers’—littered the ground, but the fight had become a general melee. Nearby an arm cut off by some wayward strike inched along in attempt to return to its erstwhile owner, fingers moving like oversized caterpillars as a motive force. I stepped on it, feeling a satisfying crunch of fingerbones, as I drew my sword and moved in to aid the other five.

Barro and Endan continued to work as a team, using each other as distractions to maim opponents until they could fight no more, Endan’s cleaver severing tendons and muscles while Barro’s mace split and splintered bone, crippling the ghouls limb by limb until a finishing blow could be administered. Edanu had changed his crossbow for his own sword, but several of the creatures had been peppered with his short, fat bolts.

Unfortunately, none of them had struck a face or head, leaving the cadavers porcupine-like but still able to fight. Edanu now fought bravely against the two that had closed the distance with him.

The majority of the group—I hadn’t time or presence of mind to count—were being held back by the combined efforts of Gamven and Errys. I could tell by the the sluggishness of their strikes that they were tiring from the effort, though their work accounted for the majority of the cadavers that had been returned to true corpsehood.

I closed into them, far enough away that we had no danger of striking each other with careless blows but close enough that I could draw some of the assailants from the press against the two. Two of the creatures broke off from the pack that Aryden’s soldiers had kept at bay and shambled toward me. They moved well enough to dodge several of my blows and to force me to resort to desperate footwork to keep one of them from circling to my rear. The maintained a distance to prevent me from striking them without extending myself, and each time I tried, the other would lunge for me in counterattack, giving us what might have seemed the appearance of schoolboys playing a game of touch. But this was not amusing, not to me, at least, and I doubted the hungry dead felt much of anything at all, though I did marvel somewhat at their low cunning.

Our dance brought us to a positioning that I could see Gamven and Errys fighting behind my own assailants; I tried not to let their own fights distract me, but when one of the creatures caught Errys by the wrist as she readied a swing, I could not help myself.
The other two victims of the Maw piled in, pushing her to the ground and swarming on top of her. I screamed and tried to move to help, but the two ghouls attacking me prevented it. One made a mistep, though, and I caught it between head and shoulders with my blade. The strike stopped at the spine, opening up an oozing flap of skin that the cadaver made no sign of noticing. In the short second I had, I struck again, completing the blow and sending the head rolling off across the dirt and cobblestones, trailing its black ichor.

After that, dispatching the second thing took only short work and a small chase—it dodged my blows until I backed it into a wall and cut it to pieces.

I turned in time to see Errys pick herself up from the ground, two of the ghouls rolling off of her and the third clinging to her back, teeth clench around the side of her throat. This one she grabbed by the back of the head, holding it close as she drew a short dagger with her left hand and plunged it into the creature’s skull with a sickening crunch splat of shattering skull and leaking brains. It fell away from her, lifeless, revealing two long gouges in her neck, deep chasms of torn flesh. But these oozed rather than sprayed, it had missed her vital arteries. Uncaring, her face scrunched—not with the rage that might be expected but with the cold determination of a warrior who refuses to die until her mission is complete—she recovered her longsword in time to skewer one of the recovering undead walkers through the chest, easily withdrawing the blade and turning to strike full force at the other, the sword biting clean through its chest almost to the naval. Neither of these blows stopped the creatures, but she followed with a flurry of strikes, fast and hard, with the precision of a master swordswoman, until all that remained of her attackers were carved-up bodies with severed heads. The fight complete, she collapsed.

I moved to support Gamven now but he called me off with a below to check on Errys. He’d shifted his grip on his sword, holding it with both gloved hands by the blade. We swung the straight quillons into a cadaver’s skull with another wet crunch, dropping it. One remained before him as he returned the weapon to a true grip, nimbly stepping aside as it lunged at him, taking its head with a sweeping blow from behind.

A dropped to my knees next to Errys’ unmoving body. The bite on her neck might have been the deepest, but it had companions, many of them, little paired crescents of craggy flesh ragged at the edges on her arms, hands, and even the backs of her legs. For a moment, I thought about preparing a working to heal her. It’s not my forte by any means, but I have some proficiency in the healing arts. I had some confidence that, if I could prepare a ritual in time, bring together the proper correspondences, I could draw in enough power to close those wounds again. There’d be scars, nasty ones, but some hope existed that I might prevent her from exsanguinating.

I quickly realized that thought for the foolhardy dream it was. Even if I could pull off the arcane binding of so many wounds, I would remain powerless to do anything about the curse that caused the Maw in the first place. Leaving the university had allowed me to broaden my studies into the Art at the expense of the depth I might have enjoyed in particular foci while learning from the masters of those practices. I lacked the background and resources to make any serious study into the Maw’s origins and first causes; what arrogance I bear doesn’t extend to thought that I might prevail in such a regard where more learned scholars had failed. Even if I’d had all the time in the world, which I did not.

I could potentially patch up the wounds, yes. But the fever would still take her. She’d cough up blood like other victims of the Red Maw before succumbing to the grip of the disease. And then she would rise again, one of these flesh-craving creatures of only low cunning, doomed to perpetually hunt the living and yet never feel sated. So I did what I could. I pulled her unconscious body to rest on the cadavers she’d killed, thankful that she’d kept her hair clear of her neck. I raised my blade, took what purchase I could on the short hilt with my second hand, and brought it down fast and hard as I could, the sword’s arc passing thankfully cleanly through both flesh and bone. Her head dropped to the ground with the same force that something unseen dropped into the pit of my stomach. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. As I wiped the blade clean on her cloak, careful to remove every last drop of tainted blood, Falla’s words appeared unbidden in my mind and I wondered if she really did have some divinatory gift.

“What the fuck have you done? By The One and all the Firstborn! By Ashaera on the Tree. What the fuck are you thinking?” Gamven yelled from behind me, armor clinking slightly as he took a few steps toward me. The rest of our attackers had been felled and all of our party left standing had watched me kill her.

I turned and dropped my sword, holding my hands up to him. Trying to keep my voice calm, despite trembling in the aftermath of the danger and excitement, I spoke softly. “Gamven, you saw what happened to her. She wouldn’t have survived. We could have waited for her to turn, let her be a threat to the rest of us. But she wouldn’t have wanted that, would she?”

“Damn it all,” he said, his voice quiet with the realization that I spoke the truth. “God damn it,” he repeated. After a pause, “Where’s Medryn?”

“Dead, but not like Errys. He caught a bit of a wood frame when one of the monsters pushed him into the ruins over there. He’s bled out by now.”

“Was there nothing you could do, lord thaumaturge?” the words dripped with accusation, and I understood that he expected miracles. Those who don’t spend much time with the Art usually do; they don’t understand that it is never without cost and that it is limited by circumstance as with all mortal endeavors.

“I could have tried to help him or I could have returned to try to help you. Chances weren’t good with him, and I hoped to prevent someone else from falling as well.”

“Then you failed twice, Iaren,” he said contemptuously.

Endan had removed the long-beaked mask from his head, probably in hopes of getting some clean air after sweating and suffocating in that voluntary prison all through the fight. A splatter of dark ichor, smeared in the attempt to wipe it off, covered one of the mask’s lenses. Better there than in a place where it might have infected the doctor. “He may be a worker of the subtle science,” Endan began, “But he is not The One, Gamven, nor one of the Firstborn. He cannot control everything.”

“Two people have died to save one life,” the master-at-arms muttered.

“And that is the way of the world, my friend,” Edanu returned. “Not all lives are of equal weight, unfortunately. These two have carried out their duty well in service to their lord, and that loyalty deserves honor and our respect. But that does not mean we attempt to change The One’s cosmic mathematics.”

I couldn’t tell whether the House ambassador meant to rub in the fact or actually thought he was helping. It felt like watering the seed of discontent the day had planted in Gamven; I didn’t want to see what blossomed from such an endeavor.

“What now?” Edanu continued.

“We collect the bodies, Barro gives them their rites, and we burn them,” I said.

“Then what?” Endan asked.

“Then we hope that this concludes the matter.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 14

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

For all the bravado I’d shown to Aryden, I didn’t look forward to running headlong into a place likely inhabited by the flesh-hungry victims of the Red Maw. Anyone who looks forward to risking his life is a fool; I pride myself on not being a fool, at least when I can avoid it. On the other hand, anyone who won’t risk his life when necessity demands is coward, and I also pride myself on not being a coward. When I can avoid it.

The night had proved mostly sleepless despite my fatigue, as I tossed and turned in my bed with that mix of excitement and dread that precedes such days. Before the suns had risen, I had abandoned the bed altogether, more tired of laying awake but inactive than of wakefulness itself. I busied myself with what preparations I could, checking that my sword and dagger remained sharp (they did), that I’d packed the pouches of my belt with all of the arcane tools I might need (I had), determining whether my belt needed further adjustment in preparedness for danger (it, of course, did not).

Satisfied with these things, I unlocked again the chest at the foot of the bed, this time retrieving not the backpack with my occult belongings but the saddlebags next to them. From these I produced two pistols, or at least devices that had the basic form of pistols.
Each was a slightly curved piece of good wood, shaped into a wider ball on one end to form the edge of a grip from which my hands were unlikely to slip. The curve of each piece, however, was subtler than might be expected in a traditional weapon. These were not traditional. A barrel had been set into each, of a normal length and bore, simple and unadorned by well-made. Each had a priming pan with a swinging cover, secured by strong springs so that it was unlikely to move from the open or closed positions within an intentional push. But neither had a lock or trigger affixed to it, for I needed none. Instead, the angle of the grips allowed me to place my index finger—one had been created for my right hand and one for my left—directly at the priming pan. With a quick sorcery, the kind so mundane and humble in scope as to require little effort and minimal risk of unwanted side effects or Flux, I could generate a spark at the tip of my finger to ignite the powder within and fire the shot at will. A more reliable system than a matchlock weapon to be sure, and one that didn’t require a lit fuse to maintain in preparation for use. More reliable even than the clockwork pistols favored by the wealthy—which I couldn’t afford anyway and which required the use of a spanner to reload. Simple tools, and effective.

Along with them I took a pouch containing shot and wadding as well as a set of six wooden apostles hung from a long string and two loose ones, each having been filled with the exact amount of powder to load and prime a pistol for a single shot. Taking my time, for there was no reason to do otherwise, I used the loose apostles to load the pistols, taking shot and cloth from the pouch. I traded the loose wooden tubes for a deep red sash; this I tied around my waist tightly just above my belt, sticking the pistols, pans closed and protected under it where they’d be held securely but over my belt where they’d not cause the latter to sag once removed. I threw the stringed apostles over my head and my left arm so that each wooden cylinder hung diagonally across my body, highest below my right shoulder and lowest near by left hip, where it rested between the hilt of my sword and my body.

I have never fought in a battle, but I spent as much of my time as I could while at university with a dueling master—a factor that ultimately contributed to my inability to conclude my education—and I’d fought a few single combats. With the sword, I was comfortable. While I’d practiced with the pistol on a few occasions (it proved difficult to find a place to practice without drawing unwanted attention in the City, and those places where no attention was paid to stray reports of a firearm were far more dangerous, for the expected reasons). These weapons, of my own design (though not manufacture, of course), had not been tested in the heat of true conflict. But, as I’d mentioned, a good gun is often a better option than combat sorcery, and I figured I’d have to learn to use them under duress at some point anyway.

By the time I’d concluded all of this, and then checked my equipment for a second time, the suns had still not revealed themselves over the far crest of the Avar. My stomach rumbled, providing another excellent distraction from the imminent task. I made my way downstairs to the kitchens, where servants were already well underway in preparing for breakfast. Knowing me for the thaumaturge, and seeing me so heavily armed as well, they avoided me as best they could, averting even their gaze whenever they could do so without threatening to bump into me. This provided me ample opportunity to graze as I desired, pouring myself some small beer, grabbing a piece of rough bread and smearing it with butter, and taking a whole sausage fresh from the fire to satisfy my appetites.

Before long, Gamven had joined me. He’d come better armed even than I, well-oiled breastplate and faulds over chest and thighs, bastard sword on his hip and barbute and pollaxe carried in the crook of his left arm. He wore it easily, as if a second skin, and I little doubted that long use had indeed made it so. He ate greedily, smiling at me the whole time, undisturbed by our impending doom. Enlivened by it, even.

I’d said before that those willing to run headlong into danger threatening death are fools. Every rule has its exceptions, though, and there are those rare individuals who only truly step into the fullness of themselves when defying death, who are most alive only when dancing at the edge of the fire, if not inside it. They are made differently from the rest of us. For them, the dullness of everyday life free from danger is uncomfortable and awkward, a heavy haze over them from which they unceasingly wish to wake. Gamven was one of these. “A good day to die, eh?” he said.

“I’ve not found one of those yet,” I offered.

He laughed, hearty, mirthful, and strangely reassuring. “The truth is: one’s as good as another.”

Seeing the look on my face, he laughed again, clapping me on the shoulder with a fist full of sausage, grease splashing onto the shoulder of my vest. “You look like you know to comport yourself well enough when it comes to it,” he continued, “It’s the priest and the doctor I’m worried about. Sure we need them?”

“I am. The priest at least. We’ll see how much use the doctor proves.”

“Indeed, we will! There’s much of a man you can’t learn except by seeing him fight for his life.”

“And much of that need never be known at all.”

“Hah, a philosopher are you?”

That’s not what I’d have called it, but before I had to give answer, Gamven’s two guardsmen joined us. I recognized the easy confidence of the first of them immediately: Errys, who’d greeted me upon my first arrival. “So I’m expendable, is it?” she said to Gamven as she approached, smiling wide.

“Oh dear,” her commander responded in the voice of an old maid who’d unintentionally offended, “did no one tell you?” They both laughed and clutched forearms in greeting, and I had a momentary sense that they were friends more than leader and subservient soldier.

She’d apparently traded her halberd for a well-made longsword that she’d leaned against the wall next to the kitchen’s door upon entering. The blade’s deep brown leather sheath, wrapped over a wood core, had been tooled with exquisite detail matching the carefully shaped hilt, bowed somewhat in the middle to give additional purchase between the hands. A fish scale pommel and “V”-shaped quillons, simpler in detail but bright and sturdy, completed all that I could see of the weapon. She spied me looking at it and said, “the Lord amn Vaina’s, lent me for the purpose,” her eyes full of pride, those tiny creases of happiness forming at the edges.

“It’s the closest he gets to come, poor bastard,” Gamven said. “If the leg weren’t bad enough, the Lady would kill him for going as soon as he’d returned.”

“Were she able,” said the third man, gaunt-faced and stoic, the tone of his voice matter-of-fact.

Gamven shot him a sidelong glance. “Aye, were she able,” he repeated, a grumble like chewing loose gravel as much as words.

The three of them looked at me; it took me a moment to realize they were waiting for something. Expecting something from me. “If our Wyrgeas is good, she’ll be more than able by the time we get back,” I managed.

“We’ll soon find out,” Gamven said, chugging the remainder of his mug and slamming it on the nearby table, causing the other assorted foodstuffs to jump momentarily. There was a collective protest from the other side of the room and only then did I notice the collected servants huddled in the corner like mice waiting for the dogs to wonder away, biding time until they could repair the damage we’d done and get on with their tasks. Gamven was already pushing the man whose name I hadn’t yet caught toward the exit. Errys fell in behind the two of them, gracefully plucking her longsword from the wall as she did. I pulled up the rear.

In the great hall, Barro caught my eye first. He’d donned a hauberk of riveted mail, metallic hood hanging over a skull cap, rings nearly to his eyes. The shirt hung almost to his knees and, overall, gave the impression of a poorly-fitted nightshirt. His expression could only be described as “dog that angered his master forced to lay out in the rain.” A flanged mace dangled from a leather lanyard around his right wrist, swaying lazily as he moved his hand, gesticulating along with a conversation with Lord amn Vaina I couldn’t quite make out. A round shield with a steel boss, just bigger than a buckler, lay on the stone floor next to the priest, still bleeding off some of the force of its fall with slow rotation. Barro must have forgotten he was holding it and simply let it slip from his hand.

Behind Barro and the Lord stood Edanu, slender sword on his hip and an Artificial crossbow, one of those repeaters so favored by the soldiers of the Artificer Houses, in his hands. Slung across his chest so that it hung on his right, a canvas bag held bolts for the weapon, loaded into slim square boxes that could be slammed into the crossbow in place of the previous one whenever it ran dry. Not so accurate nor powerful as a mundane crossbow, but it made up for this with its impressive rate of fire, something only the most talented of traditional archers with a lightly-strung bow could hope to compete with.
While the Artificer Houses bought favor with gifts at many occasions, they seldom traded away their arms and armor, lest the one great equalizer they had against the superior numbers they typically faced when committed to war—though no one ever called it war, no. Officially, the peace that settled the Artificer War remained in full effect and had never been breached, lest the agreements within the treaty that established that peace need revisiting, to the loss of all involved. That would be detrimental to business.

“What the hell is he doing here?” I asked, not thinking before speaking.

The priest and Lord Aryden broke from their conversation to face me, the soldiers I’d entered with exercising the better part of valor and making themselves scarce. Face stern and uncompromising, Aryden said, “He’s going with you.”

“Why?” I asked, incredulous.

“Because he wants to,” the lord said in that tone of his that brooks no argument.

“Besides, it makes you seven, good Wyrgeas.”

“Don’t worry, lord thaumaturge; I’ll make sure no ill fate befalls you,” Edanu smirked.

“I’m sure. Where’s the doctor?”

“Here, my lords, here!” Endan waddled in, weighed down by his clothing. He’d donned the full garb of a doctor treating plague, thick black canvas and leather covering him from head to toe and leaving only his face exposed. For this, he held a large black hooded mask in his left hand, bulging eyes and long leather beak giving the thing the appearance of a crow—a fitting companion for the dead. In his right hand he held a number of linen scarves; the kind you might find covering a bandit’s face during a daylight raid were it not for the bright colors.

“The Maw spreads mostly by blood and bite and scratch,” I said.

“True enough, my lord thaumaturge, but it must also have some form of miasmal component. Otherwise, how would it first appear where there have been no signs for decades?” Endan told me, face apologetic. “I find that this suit will protect me all the same, and why take unnecessary risks?”

I couldn’t—didn’t argue as he passed out the scarves. Receiving one, a soft shade of blue commonly associated with Qosh, I wrapped it around my neck so that I could easily pull it over my mouth and nose. The others had done the same, so that we looked like a band of brigands.

“Your weapons?” Gamven asked the physician.

Pulling back a fold of his heavy robes revealed a thick single-edged blade, the kind that folk in the Tatters affectionately referred to as “big knives” or “warknives.” The doctor patted the hilt as if it were an old friend.

Gamven smiled wide. “I’d not have guessed, old man!”

Endan frowned at the epithet. “I served in one of the mercenary companies for a time in my younger days. A good way for a physician to learn the barber-surgeon’s craft.”
“Indeed,” the master-of-arms replied, placing his barbute atop his head and moving the pollaxe into his right hand. “We are gathered. Are we ready?”

“As we’ll be,” I uttered.

“C’mon, Iaren, chin up. It’ll be fun,” Edanu snarked, racking the action on his crossbow to load the first bolt into the recessed slot from which it would be fired, short fletchings just visible in the narrow window in the uppermost part of the weapon that ran atop both bolt and string, partially enclosing them.

“There are guards there already to open the gate for us. And Daedys has raised some of the militia to stand watch, just in case.”

“Let’s go,” Aryden confirmed, already taking the first steps toward the hall’s great doors. Everyone followed, at first in somber silence. By the time we’d reached the gatehouse to the old town, the chatter started up, simply to fill the silence and the nerves that accompanied it, I suppose.

I learned that the third man with Errys and Gamven was named Medryn; his family came from the new town but he’d early chosen a life of arms over farming. He’d spent a few years abroad with one of the Ilessin companies, much as Endan had; they traded a few war stories and had us all laughing.

“Is it true that the Maw was made by a magus, lord thaumaturge? As a weapon?” It was Errys’ question. She must have been waiting for a time to ask it, for she’d hardly waited for the last bout of laughter to die down before springing it.

“That’s what is written about it,” I told her. “And it stands to reason; I know of no other plague that turns its victims into weapons against those who don’t succumb at first.”

“The Aenyr made it?” This from Gamven.

“No. I don’t think so. The first mentions of the pestilence are after they’d left. Those who’d stolen the secrets of the Art from them turned on each other soon after they’d driven off their masters, and those struggles lasted for centuries. Dark times, and we’ve few reliable records. It’s likely some practitioner-king created it then to make war on his enemies. The rumors and legends tell of many dark deeds by the first practitioners after the Aenyr. Their use of the Art corrupted them faster and more fully than it ever had any Aen. Those men and women engaged in many practices long-since forbidden, forbidden with good cause.”

“And no one since has been able to get rid of it?” Errys again.

“The nature of the Maw is a curse. Curses require sacrifice to create and sacrifice to break. The sacrifice made to bring the Maw into existence must have been great indeed—on a magnitude no person should be willing to make. If anyone has found a way to undo the curse, they’ve found the sacrifice necessary to do so far too great to pay.”

“So if you’re willing to pay a higher price than another practitioner, they won’t be able to undo what you’ve done?”

“It can be a little more complicated than that. A working isn’t simply a matter of will, it must be shaped and formed. Those with greater skill in the shaping of a working can make their will do more with less. But, fundamentally, all workings are acts of will, and sacrifice is one of the greatest acts of will there is, so when we’re talking about workings that involve sacrifice, what you’ve said is often true.”

“What kind of sacrifices are we talking about,” Endan asked. “Life? Blood?”

“Those are powerful things to sacrifice, but nothing in the Art is simple. The effect of the sacrifice is dependent upon the meaning of the sacrifice to the practitioner drawing upon it. You can kill a stranger and draw power from that death to use in a working, to be sure. But in that case, the power is coming more from the escaping lifeforce of your victim—Creation itself leaving the body—than it is about any sacrifice. Many sacrifices can be used—an oath to refrain from some pleasurable activity, the destruction of a dear possession, the willing loss of one’s own blood or life.”

“That’s why a practitioner’s death curse is so powerful,” Edanu added.

“Yes,” I confirmed. “In part. When a practitioner is nearing his final act upon the Avar, there is great power in the meaning of that act, coming from many places: leaning into one’s death as a sacrifice to power the curse, the cosmic significance of a death—any death, the ability to draw upon power without regard to what doing so might wreak on the practitioner’s body. Powerful indeed, but it must still be shaped before the practitioner expires or it amounts to nothing.”

“This is why you never let a practitioner see it coming,” Edanu said, coldly.

We had arrived at the gates to Crimson Close, sparing me the need to answer the unveiled threat. Nevertheless, it left me unnerved about what might befall us in the Close, and not just from the Maw itself.

As Gamven had told us, a block of militia men, without uniforms and armed with munitions breastplates and helmets, holding spears and shields, stood at the ready, the Constable Daedys pacing back and forth before them, himself arrayed in a dark three-quarters plate more ceremonial than effective. He wore no helmet—the easier for his men to identify him—and looked at his men only occasionally through sidelong glances, as if playing a game in which he might suddenly find them slacking in the rigor of their presentation.

Closer to the gate, four of Aryden’s liveried men waited, nervous eyes settled on the wooden door. A tall ladder had been leaned against the wall to the Close to the right of the gate, and two more uniformed soldiers stood atop the gate, ready to turn the winch that held the doors fast. These two kept looking nervously into the interior of the close below them, searching for signs of movement or threats from the Maw’s victims, but the Close had been a large area when it was first walled off, several blocks of Vaina town, and the ruins of dilapidated and rotting buildings blocked their sightlines.

Aryden walked to the front of our small band and turned to look at us. I nodded to him and pulled the scarf up over my mouth and nose, my compatriots following suit. He nodded in return and rotated to face the men atop the wall. “Open it up,” he shouted. The winch began to turn.

The liveried men before the door readied their weapons, and the spearmen of the militia lowered their arms as if preparing for attack—the constable moved to their side and then behind them, just in case.

The doors pulled open painfully slowly in rhythmic lurches as the men on the winch completed each rotation of the knobbed wheels controlling its operation. I cleared the lump in my throat, quietly as I could manage, and fought to keep my hands from the grips of my pistols. It remained far too premature to draw weapons, and the last thing I wanted to do was to put my fellow adventurers on edge.

Not that it mattered. Errys had strapped the longsword to her side during the walk to the Close but rested her left hand on the sheath and her right on the sword’s grip. Gamven held the pollaxe before him as if adopting a ready stance for a duel. Endan pulled the massive hook-nosed mask over his head and again pushed his robe aside to free his warknife. Edanu rested his crossbow jauntily on his shoulder, as if waiting for a military parade to begin. Barro lightly tapped an open palm with the head of his mace, doing his best to portray himself as resolved and threatening. Medryn used a flint and steel to light a matchcord and unslung his arquebus from his shoulder to fit it.

Finally, the doors swung wide, rebounded softly from their fullest extent. A stench of death and decay moved through the open portal like some foul northern wind, and I silently thanked The One that Endan had thought to procure the scarves.

Gamven took the first step forward, but Aryden held a hand out for him to wait.

“Torches? You need torches and oil. To light the bodies.”

“It’s covered,” I said.

The Lord amn Vaina nodded and stepped aside, Gamven again taking the lead with his pollaxe held before him as if he expected an ambush at any moment. He did, and with good cause. The remaining six of us formed up just behind him, keeping slow pace as we moved in. It took a great deal of focus to keep myself from looking back behind me as we passed under the archway into the Close. My hands trembled slightly with both fear and excitement. There’d be no turning back now, and that fact lessened some of the fear with the uncertainty it removed.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 13

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

The suns had only begun their long summer descent into darkness as I returned to the castle. I replayed conversations in my head, pouring over them again in search of any slip that might reveal some further lead, but finding little onto which I could grasp. Lost in thought, I once again found myself before the mighty gates with the red “X” upon them. The Crimson Close.

The sounds of the town, its people rushing to finish final errands before businesses closed, merchants went home to their families and drunkards visited their favorite taverns, were far enough removed from this place that they seemed whispers at the edge of hearing.

Slowly, I approached the door. The solid wood, perhaps half a foot thick, barred and locked, provided ample protection from whatever dwelt within that desolated place, but still I came close only with trepidation and tentativeness. I pressed my ear against the door to listen, though I knew not what to expect. I knew the course of the Red Maw only through reading, having been fortunate enough never to have seen it first-hand, so the best I could do was to guess at the state of those who’d been quarantined those weeks back. Dead to the world, or as good as, but I’d come here to investigate what seemed to be the ghost of one recently deceased—I understood full well that a range of possibilities existed between the states “dead” and “alive.”

Whether any audible emanations lacked sufficient force to reach me or none existed at all, no cognizable sound made its way to my ears. Disappointed and relieved, I pulled away from the heavy oak. As I turned, a person came into view, nearly within arm’s reach of me, and I startled, half pulling my sword from its scabbard before I realized the stealthy creature for a young girl, not yet a woman, startling herself at my sudden aggression. Embarrassed, I slid the blade back to its resting place and dropped onto my haunches, leaning against my staff so that my eyes came closer to her level. With my right hand, I took off my cap, holding it to my chest, filling my hands in hopes that this would give her some assurance.

“Is your mommy in there, too?” she asked, eyes watery. She swallowed hard, fighting the tears back.

“No child. My mommy has been gone for some time.”

“Do you still miss her?”

I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t remember much about my mother, if I was honest. I’d left the household so long ago and never seen her again, had only letters in which she reminded me of her love, which by that point had become such an abstraction that it failed to attach to any true emotion. “Every day,” I lied. “But I know she watches over me, and I’m sure yours watches over you.” I didn’t know anything of the sort. I’d read theologies and philosophies, the ravings of madmen and the dreams of mystics, the Book of the Tree and commentaries upon it—all of it speculation, or at least a result of experience that could never be proved to another soul. My experience in the Art had given me some insights to things that might befall a soul after death, but only in some temporal sense; the eternal and divine remain as obscured to me as anyone else.

But the girl nodded some understanding or agreement and shook with one of those hiccups that seems to only come in the midst of a bout of crying, that combination of snort and gulp that moves the whole body. I took my leave of her before she required me to lie again, returning to the proper path toward Vaina keep.

At that gatehouse in the inner wall leading to the courtyard before Aryden’s keep, a third guardsman reclined against the wall between the two gates, armed only with a sword, and smoking a cigarillo, which he threw to the ground and snuffed with the heel of his boot as I approached, pulling himself from his waiting spot and making straight for me. I met him just at the first gate, under the edge of the gatehouse arch.

“My lord, my…lord expects you. If you will proceed to the main hall, I will inform him of your arrival and he’ll meet you there.”

“Fine,” I told him. He turned around and made quick distance from me, him moving almost at a job and me meandering with no particular urgency.

As the man said, the lord—joined by Barro, Eldis, Gamven, Endan and Edanu—processed in from a door at the rear of the hall as I made my way toward the short steps to the raised dais. By the time I arrived, Aryden had taken the seat of judgment and the others had arranged themselves below him, all facing me.

“We proceed by council, now, do we?” I asked.

Aryden gave a small, short laugh to that, the kind whose earnestness is impossible to discern. “What news have you, lord thaumaturge?”

“Unfortunately, not much, my lord. I’ve spoken to the sorceress, Falla—”

“The witch, you mean,” Barro interjected.

“The sorceress,” I repeated. “I do not believe that she has any involvement in the matter.”

“None?” Aryden questioned. “How do you know?”

“I questioned her, and I also sensed no connection between her Art and the spirit.”

Gamven harrumphed, turning to his patron. “My lord, let me apprehend the witch and put her to the question proper. Then we’ll have some answers.”

“She is a practitioner, Master Gamven, and by my judgment a relatively skilled one. You think you could break such a one possessed of such will and discipline?” A conceit, to be sure. I’d seen enough of the Avar to know that everyone put to the question breaks eventually. But maybe they didn’t know that. “It’s true that she has little love for those in power here, but I don’t believe that she has turned her practice to the exercise of such ill will. You bring her here and set blades and hammers to her and I assure you she’ll bring down a curse upon you. Were there some benefit to be had, perhaps it would be worth the risk. But, as I’ve said, my suspicions of her have been allayed. Unless we find some undeniable evidence pointing to her, there are other avenues to investigate first.”

“Protecting a fellow practitioner are we?” Edanu stated.

“Protecting an innocent person, not that you could understand the difference,” I returned.

“Enough,” Aryden said. “What else.”

“I spoke also with the girl Nilma and the artist Ovaelo. Neither had much of use to me to share.”

“So you’ve wasted a day?”

“Time spent eliminating possibilities is as valuable as that that produces evidence.”

“I’m not so sure of that, master thaumaturge. What is your plan now?”

“Immediately? I’ll put up some wards in hopes of preventing the spirit from manifesting while I continue the investigation. After that, I’ll sleep. In the morning, I’m going into Crimson Close.”

“Are you insane?” the doctor Endan asked, unable to stop himself. “That’s a death sentence!”

“Only if the Maw remains active within the Close, and even then only if one of the…victims…bites me or manages to draw blood.”

“But why? What good will it do?” Endan continued to press.

“Perhaps master thaumaturge wishes to demonstrate his bravery—or foolishness—after such an unproductive day,” Edanu added.

“As I told you last night, my lord, the spirit is almost certainly the restless ghost of one recently deceased. This morning, when I inquired about recent deaths, your people informed me of two events that would have resulted in bodies that did not receive proper rites. The first was the latest wave of the Red Maw to sweep through the town. The second is your missing timberworker, probably killed in the forest by some beast. There’s the missing boy, Orren, as well, but everyone I questioned today seems to think that he’s left the town for Ilessa, so I’ll look to the other likelihoods first. It only makes sense that I check the victims of the Maw first—it is a matter of many possibilities against one with the missing laborer. I’ll play those odds and hope that it expedites a result.”

Aryden leaned forward in his chair. “What will you do in the Close?”

“If there are any who have not finally fallen to the plague, I’ll dispatch them. Then, we’ll burn the bodies as should’ve been done and give them their last rites.”

“You are not qualified to perform the rights,” Barro objected. “You haven’t been ordained by the Temple.”

“You’re right. That’s why you’re coming with me.”

“What?” The shock of the idea drained all color from the priest’s face; he stepped away from me and held his hands up in surrender, as if I’d just told him I intended to run him through myself. He looked pleadingly to Lord Aryden.

Amn Vaina frowned for a moment, running through the possibilities. “I don’t see another choice, Barro. You’re going.”

“Then I’ll go as well,” said Gamven, “I’ll bring two of my men. Not enough that you’ll miss them if we don’t come back, but enough to give us some chance of coming back at all.”

I nodded to him in thanks. Sternly and subtly, he nodded back, a thin smile forming at the corners of his mouth. I realized the man appreciated the opportunity to see some real action, something he’d perhaps been deprived of for some time.

“Endan,” Aryden said after a pause. “You’ll go, too.”

“My lord?” the doctor suddenly said, both question and protest.

“You’re not doing my wife any good here. Perhaps there’s something you can do inside the Close along with the lord thaumaturge.”

“What could I possibly do inside that place?” he asked.

“You can keep me company,” I said with a sardonic grin. “And you can help burn the bodies.”

“It’s settled then,” Lord amn Vaina concluded, his tone conveying the finality of both his decisions and the conversation.

“Until the morning, then,” I said, making a slight bow and doffing my cap briefly before setting to the business of creating the wards.

This took several hours as I selected the various locations for the warding seals, drew them intricately in chalk on the stone walls in places where I hoped they were unlikely to be disturbed, and channeled power into them while performing the workings to structure the invisible barriers against spirits that the wards represented. Exhausted by the conclusion of the work, both by the workings themselves and the tediousness of preparing the seals, I slipped quietly to my room and into the bed.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 12

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

I still had some hours until nightfall and another person to call upon, so I walked down the Old Vaina streets, slightly broader than those of the New Town below, but not by much, until I came across a large brick warehouse abuzz with activity.

In the open space before the building’s large wooden doors, two young men fussed about a large block of marble, white with swirls of blue-gray, chiseling at it delicately with a few taps at a time, small pieces no larger than a coin sloughing off with each effort. Between each assault on the stone, the two men stood back to look at the results of their work, occasionally conferring with glances and hushed remarks, their faces scrunched with worry and second-guessing.

They looked to me as I approached, saw my sword and staff, the wand at my side. Neither flinched nor made the sign of the Tree. These young men came from the City; they’d seen my kind before, commonly enough that our existence had become mundane to them, just another fact of life, like the Ilessin street gangs, or the mechanica on the docks.

“Ovaelo?” I asked.

They pointed inside the building perfunctorily before returning to their discussion, it subsequently becoming more heated as they whispered to one another in forceful outbursts that only just qualified as whispers.

Having no curiosity for the results of their conference, I went to a small wooden door in the brick of the wall that ran perpendicular to the wall in which the large doors had been set, forming an “L” between them.

The interior of the warehouse presented a strange chiaroscuro, mostly darkened compared to the brightness of the outside, with bright alchemical lamps shining upon each of the workstations where apprentices began works that their master would finish, blocking in basic shapes, ensuring proper perspective, and painting the first levels of shadow and highlight from the initial colors. Young men and women alike, all with the same look of intensity upon them as the men I’d encountered outside. In its uniformity I saw that the expression carried with it not only focus, but fear. Their master treated them harshly, brooked few mistakes, had no compunctions about letting them go and replacing them with other eager young artists.

The painter Ovaelo had a reputation in the City for being something of a mad genius, one of the most celebrated (and expensive) of the Sisters’ artists in several media, as the various projects at work in this makeshift studio attested. Most of the apprentices here worked around several smaller trestle tables pushed together to form a long rectangle, each station holding canvas on easel. There were, of course, the two men outside preparing quarried stone for sculpting, and in one of the corners of warehouse’s large central room, another apprentice, perhaps the oldest of them, worked at a piece of wood, gouging splinters out to form an image in relief—the beginnings of a woodcut.

The images in production had various subjects and stages of completion. Many displayed scenes from the Book—the Aenyr Ithladen spiriting away the child Ashaera as the Cantic authorities searched for her, Ashaera on the Tree before her sincerest followers, the first appearance of Ashaera to those same followers after they had seen her die, various stories of events in the early life of those who maintained faith in The One. Then there were those paintings that depicted stories from the legends of Creation, from the First War and the remaking of the Avar, stories that intertwined with those of the Book, but, by some at least, were held to be of a separate kind, either by origin or meaning. Amongst these: the Firstborn Nyryna, Annyn and Qaidha being gifted the three moons after Elqadh and Ellembea created them; Sedhwe’s creation of Daea; Eqata’s creation of the Verge.

Those apprentices who looked up at me at all from their painting quickly determined that their work demanded their attention more than I and settled back into their frozen faces of determined fixation motivated by both ambition and fear. The one working at the woodcut, however, stepped away from the block to meet me. He took a look at my worn and faded outfit and did his best to hide his disapproval—which effort was neither good nor successful

“I’m sorry, sir, but we cannot take on any more work at present. If you will leave your name and where you may be found, I’m sure my master will send for you when we do have availability—if we are not occupied with current projects until our return to Ilessa.” For a man in clothes rougher than mine, splattered with paint and clay, with oils for finishing wood and perhaps a little blood from mistakes with the tools of the trade, he looked down his nose at me as if he’d had much practice at the technique. Supposing who he worked for, I supposed he had.

“I’m not here to commission something,” I growled, “I am here to speak with your master. I am Lord Iaren amn Ennoc, thaumaturge of Ilessa, working on behalf of Lord Aryden amn Vaina, and I have questions for Ovaelo.”

Disdain turned to nervousness. “I am sorry my lord, but my master wishes not to be disturbed—and I must admit he may be in no condition to answer your questions at present. Could I beg of you to return tomorrow?”

“You could not. Where is he?”

Without additional words, the apprentice pointed behind himself to a door separating the main warehouse space from an additional room, perhaps one intended to be an office or the like.

I pushed past the man, his shoulder spinning away from mine as I brushed him, and stopped at the door briefly. I could hear singing from the other side. A bawdy tavern song from the Gracaelas Street brothels in the City, the words slurred but, ingeniously, chosen to remain relatively intelligible when sung in such condition and manner.

Waiting for the end of the verse—it seemed the appropriate thing to do—I pushed the door open enough to pass through it, shutting it quietly behind me.

Not quietly enough. A crescendo of verbal assault greeted me, starting low and baritone and rising in pitch, tenor and volume as it lengthened. “You fucking pissant, apprentice, shit in your breeches and more wax than brains in your head! Did I not fucking tell you to leave me the fuck alone, damn you? I don’t care what you’ve fucked up, or why, or how, so you can keep your bitching and belly-aching to yourself. This is not the fucking time for teaching! It is a time for you to learn to unfuck your own mistakes! Though it’s too late for your mother to cram you back into her womb, and that would be the ultimate amends for your pathetic fucking life and work! Do not even speak! Turn your ass around and hope you don’t get my boot in it as you’re leaving, you incompetent gutter snipe, you drab of distemper, you whore of watercolor, you harlot of hues, you punk of pigments! Go fuck yourself with your brushes; it’s the most pleasure you’ll get from them! And most of all: Leave. Me. The. Fuck. Alone!”

When he stopped to catch his breath, he heard me laughing—I hadn’t had the pleasure of such a creative string of profanities since leaving the City and couldn’t help myself. He almost started anew, further incensed by my audacity and foolish lack of fear of his retribution, but he noticed that I was not one of his apprentices and held back.

His hair and beard flew wild about him, jutting out at such odd angles as to nearly give the impression that he was underwater. He’d clearly neither trimmed nor brushed his locks in some time, his glassy and bloodshot eyes spoke of one who has stayed awake for days through sheer determination, supplemented by alchemical concoctions mixed with copious amounts of alcohol or other drugs. He looked every part a madman, his mouth smiling wide in an indecipherable expression, the lines of his cheeks and brow furrowed with meaningless fury.

To say that the smell of drink wafted from him is too soft an expression. Rather, it hung about him in a heavy cloud, like the poisonous aura of some fell creature of Sedhwe or Daea, intoxicating simply to contact.

His shirt had been torn open down the middle, his vest unlaced and also hanging free to the sides, exposing his hairy paunch, covered in splotches of blue and green, red and orange, paint that had made its way onto him rather than his canvas and that he’d never thought to disturb once so deposited. His pants, thankfully, remained laced tight, though he’d lost his hose and shoes somewhere along the way.

He pointed his brush at me like a wand, as if he intended some working of transmutation to change me into something less vexing but could not remember the formula or the words. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked instead.

“Lord Aryden’s investigator. You can call me Iaren.”

“Investigator or not, fuck off! You’ve ruined my muse.”

“If it’s already been ruined, Master Ovaelo, you have time to answer some questions.”

“Fuck your questions! It’s bad enough I have to remain in this backwater at some petty lord’s command, I’ll not be further insulted by being forced to answer your inane inquiries.”

“The sooner you answer my questions, the sooner I’ll be gone and you’ll be able to resume your work.”

The brush in his hand now pointed more like dagger than wand, and he stabbed the air with it as if a threat. “A few words and my apprentices will be happy to throw you out on your ass and I’ll have no need to answer anything.”

In response, I banged the butt of my staff on the stone floor, creating an echo that drew the artist’s attention to it. “I am a thaumaturge, Master Ovaelo. Your apprentices may fear your temper, but I will show them what true fear means should they raise their hands against me.”

He smiled, sincerely, at this, taking a step to the side while focusing on my face, his hands moving absentmindedly, as if drawing or painting something. “Yes! That look! That intensity! I should paint you. Would you allow me?”

I reeled with his sudden swing of mood like the horse I was riding jerked its course around like some cavalry maneuver for which I was woefully underprepared. “What?”

“Let me paint you and I’ll answer your questions.”

“Answer my questions and I’ll let you paint me.” I had neither time nor patience to sit for a painting at present, but we both hailed from Ilessa, and I figured I’d be able to delay my end of the bargain until our mutual return.

“Agreed. What would you ask me?” He wobbled and slurred his words as he spoke and I wondered how he could paint with any accuracy in such a condition. Not that I cared much about the answer.

“Tell me about working for Lord Aryden?”

“Not much different from working for any other nobleman. He’s overbearing and too used to getting his way, too ready to interrupt my flow with his amateurish and frankly asinine suggestions for my work, just as most of his peers are.”

“His people speak highly of him. They tell me they think of him as fair and compassionate in his rulership.”

“Probably because they never meet with him face to face. Hah! We all try to sell an image of ourselves to others, don’t we? Hell, that’s half of my fucking job—more than half! Help this merchant to seem pious in spite of his ill-gotten gains, make that slovenly lordling appear dashing and brave despite his obvious cravenness. And they pay handsomely for the privilege, for my images convey truth regardless of what the facts are!”

“Show me the painting of Aevala.”

“Alas, I cannot. It is with Lord Aryden.”

“Then tell me what truth you painted in it.”

“She, she required no dissembling as most do. Demure and pious, but intelligent and a witty conversationalist. There is much to refer her, and Lord Aryden is a lucky man. That is what I’ve attempted to convey in her painting, and that is more difficult than conveying any other sentiment. When the subject is true, where is there room for the imposition of my own truth?”

“How much longer would it take you to finish?”

“A day, perhaps, were I undisturbed. It’s more than half done, though between the Lady’s husband and the constant ministrations of that fool priest, Barro, I progressed but slowly.”

“Barro spends a lot of time with her?”

“Her personal confessor and advisor, he is.”

“What about after the appearance of the spirit? How long did you continue painting then?”

“I did not. Once her nightmares began, Lord Aryden pushed me into this dilapidated dump, telling me I could work for others in the town but could not leave until I finished Lady Aevala’s painting and he gave me leave.”

“So you did not encounter the spirit?”

“Never, though I suspect a revenant.”

“An interesting deduction, Master Artist, but I think not. This manifestation seems to be a disembodied spirit; I’ve heard no reports of an animated corpse being spotted.”

“No, I suppose not,” he agreed.

“Was the girl Nilma present while you were painting?”

“Sometimes.”

“Any thoughts about her?”

“Few I’m afraid. An obedient and unobtrusive servant she seemed, but perhaps simply shy. She never spoke with me directly, but she did seem to open up in the servant Orren’s presence.”

“And did you have much interaction with him?”

“With Orren? Yes, we cavorted at the taverns together some evenings. He was a beautiful boy, and witty. But like a locust, also, eating his fill, leaving barrenness behind him and finding something else to destroy.”

“Was?”

“Gone from my presence, so as good as dead to me. Left Vaina, I’m told. At any rate, I expect never to see him again, and I’ll not lose sleep over that.”

“You seem to have come to a deep understanding of the boy in a short time. How is that?”

“That is the essence of the artist, to see much with little seeing. You, for instance, you are a man driven, by desire and ambition, but also by a need to forget something.”

“Hmph,” I deflected. “That’s all I have for you now, but I’ll return if I need anything further.”

“And to sit for my painting.”

“Yes, that.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 11

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

While walking the old road back to Vaina Town, I decided that I’d ought to pay a visit to the soon-to-be noblewoman Nilma and her family. She’d experienced the ghost directly and had also been close to the Lady Aevala, so it only made sense that I found out what, exactly, she knew.

I passed again through the newer portion of the town, much like the older but, ironically, populated by older smaller buildings in worse repair and greater number. Fouler smelling, too, for Old Vaina at least had troughs for the waste dumped from the houses that collected them and moved them along; it came to rest in New Vaina, a constant reminder of the difference in status of the two parts of the settlement. When people say that “shit rolls downhill,” they usually mean it metaphorically, but I’ve found that, both here and in Ilessa and the grand cities of the continent, this was literally true as well. But Ilessa at least had grant sewers carrying refuse out to the sea, even in the lower city with its crowded neighborhoods and ubiquitous poor. Here, the effluence simply found the lowest place in the New Town it could and waited to seep back into the ground, be moved by annoyed townsfolk, or washed away—into everything else, really—with the next rain.

Once back to Old Vaina, the im Valladyn house proved easy enough to find, even though few of the passersby would look at me, much less give directions. A rising palace of red brick with gray stone and wrought iron accents, a slate roof instead of the thatch so common in the houses lower on the hill. A low brick fence, ending just below my waist except for regularly-spaced columns, black metal railing ornately twisted and turned into two-dimensional shapes above my head running atop the brick and between each column, except for two narrower-spaced columns that held wrought iron double gates with brass details and filigree between, hemmed in an outer courtyard of sorts, if a space lined entirely with flagstones can be called a “yard.”

On either side of the gate stood a man with a sword and buckler at his hip, the affected calm bravado of one attempting to prove himself to a master hanging about them both like a cheap perfume. Their clothes matched, dark green linens without any badge or coat of arms. I supposed that the Vaina laws about carrying swords only stretched so far and remembered that these men had lost on of their fellows only weeks ago. The way they eyed me and my sword, they looked ready to take revenge on anyone who gave them the slightest cause.

I’d seen plenty of armed retainers like this before; their antics and brawling constituted a regular entertainment in Ilessa, so long as one didn’t get to close to the action and become inadvertently involved therein. The Council of Twelve had long tried to tamp down such street-fighting between the servingmen and -women of the noble and merchant families, but when they found that both parties tended to suddenly become allies against the watch when such presumptuous stewards of the general peace appeared, the City’s rulers took a more circumspect approach, harshly punishing those brawlers (and their masters) whose fights injured bystanders or their property, but largely leaving unmolested those frays that resulted only in injury to the participants. Hell, some of the Council families allowed their servants to participate in the same, these skirmishes minor proxy wars between those of power and influence to release some tension when politicking and backstabbing had become tedious and mundane.

Hands went to the hilts of their swords when they realized who I was—the staff must have given it away. I held my free hand up in a sign of peace, trying to appear relaxed while simultaneously readying myself to use the staff to stop an approaching blade at a moment’s notice. “Hold, friends,” I said. “I’d only like to speak with Mistress Nilma and her father.”

The one on the left took his hand off of his blade and made the sign of the Tree at me before asking, “And who should we say you are?”

I looked at him with my best steely-eyed stare, honestly not sure if it was worth anything. “Lord Iaren amn Ennoc,” I said in a hard voice. At my name, the one on the left looked to his fellow, undoubtedly because he wasn’t sure that I was a nobleman. Admittedly, I didn’t look much the part. The one on the right shrugged back, so I continued,“Agent of Lord Aryden amn Vaina in the investigation of certain events of late to which Mistress Nilma is a witness.”

Now the one on the right spoke, “A moment, sir. I’ll see if our master is available to see you. Please wait here.” He turned and passed through the wrought-iron gate, leaving it creaking back to closed, while the swordsman on my left continued to size me up.
We stayed like that for a long moment, him staring daggers and me pretending to be unaffected. Part of me wanted to turn and walk away; the rest of me wanted to open my mouth or draw my sword and demonstrate to the ruffian exactly what he had to fear from me. I felt sheepish at realizing the haughtiness of that response—how perfectly noble of me, in the worst of ways. I wanted to relieve the tension somehow, but I couldn’t think of what to say to the man. Ask about his dead friend? He’d probably take that as a threat or insult. Some stupid comment about the weather? Not worth the breath.
Before I’d thought of what to say, the other man returned. “Our master will meet with you. You’ll have to leave your weapons.”

After passing the servant my quarterstaff, I pulled my sword, scabbard and all, from the frog on my belt and handed it over as well. I began to move past him, but he cleared his throat, causing me to turn and see why.

“Your, um, wand, sir.”

With my left hand, I pulled the carved length from its short sheath on my right side, letting its point pass across the bravo, causing him to flinch, before I turned it in my hand and held its base out to him. Moving my other items into the crook of his left arm, he reached out for the wand, pinching it between forefinger and thumb as if it might bite, or explode like some mistempered pistol.

Smiling, I turned back to go inside, where a third man held the door open for me. This one carried no weapons and wore a finer set of clothes, the kind that the least wealthy of courtiers might wear to visit his liege lord. He bowed, lower than left me comfortable.
I’d spent most of my life away from places where anyone cared overmuch about courtly etiquette and the deference expected by the nobility, even in a place such as Altaena where, except for the rural towns such as Vaina, nobility didn’t mean much at all, except to mark you as a pain in the ass. While an apprentice, before I’d even been old enough to be subject to courtly treatment, my master had reminded me at every turn that the life of a lord would no longer be mine. The spirits care nothing for titles and “amns,” “elds” or the like. A working isn’t easier for someone with a notable lineage. For a practitioner, at least a beginning one, entitlement only bred frustration and anger, neither of which provides much assistance to the focus required for success in thaumaturgic workings.

Not long after I’d arrived at university, I lost my family, their holdings, and any real claim to nobility. I’d served as a sizar during most of my education, a servant to those of more noble blood in exchange for my tuition and board. There’d been nothing for me to return to in Ilessa when I came back, no lingering sign of amn Ennoc nobility, no claim to make for a return of possessions. One more dispossessed lordling in a growing crowd of them each year. And I’d be damned if I’d behave like most of the rest of them, complaining about my misfortune and insisting on every bow and deference from others to hang on to that last vestige of high birth. I’d at least had a trade, of a sort, to fall upon; the same couldn’t be said for many of my peers. Some turned to the mercenary companies, as I’d considered. Others fell hard and turned to work in the brothels, where common folk would pay handsomely to fuck someone with a name, just for the story to tell about it.

I shook my head to free it from these thoughts as I entered the home. Though you couldn’t tell from the street, the main building had a sort of courtyard in its center, with the upper floors closed off and window to a central square uncovered by the roof and left open to the sky. On the first floor, columns supported the weight of the upper floors around this central atrium, probably forty-feet to a side, with trees and grass immaculately maintained, the landscaping undoubtedly chosen to impress, and succeeding in this mission. Bushes with various colors of blooming flowers flanked a set of stone benches surrounding a statute of Ashaera looking mercifully down upon those seated before her. A small cluster of trees, just about to bear fruit, occupied the very center of the square, and I thought that I spied a small pond on the other side.

When my eyes finally broke free of the natural splendor hosted by the home my vision drifted to the strange gallery that surrounded the atrium. The columns, it appeared, were built of marble, carved in the style of the Gwaenthyri, mirrors, positioned almost out of sight just where the walls of the upper floors surrounding the atrium opened up into the wide rectangular gallery below, moved light into all of the spaces of this large room, without need for any candle, lamp or torch. The walls had been painted with frescoes, mostly scenes from the Book, it seemed, but a few that might have depicted stories of the Aenyr or the time of legends that followed their departure.

The im Valladyn family must have done a good bit of entertaining to justify the cost of a space like this, the careful architecture and construction, the elaborate decoration, the fine furniture of dark wood and iron that filled the spaces covered by the upper floors. Looking down, I noticed that the tiles of the floor, too, had been given every extravagance; they were brightly colored mosaics in a style that I thought I recognized as Qoshi. The dark-skinned dwellers of that place followed a different religion, or at least different enough that the Temple considered them heretics, and privateers and naval officers on either side often made the central sea a dangerous place to sail. But, despite the hatred between them and the followers of the Temple, they had much to offer, beautiful artworks and great knowledge of medicines and mathematics. So, no one protested too much when they sailed into harbor in the Sisters, trading their exotic foreign goods for cargos from around the rest of the central sea. And those whose Temple piety made them think that any succor offered to a non-believer threatened their own soul could comfort themselves with the thought that they had not traded with any infidel while they enjoyed their spices or their silks. As a merchant family, I wondered what exactly the im Valladyns felt about such arrangements, such petty hypocrisies in the name of elegance and ostentation.

Servants hustled from place on side room through the vast entertaining room to another chamber in the house, carrying flowers, bolts of cloth, furniture, and smaller household goods. The flitted like brightly-colored birds coming to briefly drink the nectar of the courtyard flowers before flying somewhere new.

My escort graciously waited for me to take in my surroundings; I’m sure he’d become used to this sort of reaction in the family’s guests. When I’d recollected myself, he extended a hand to beckon that I follow him. “I hope you’ll pardon the business,” the man said, “We are busy preparing for Mistress Nilma’s impending nuptials.”

“Of course,” I acknowledged, noncommittally.

We left the great central room—smaller but more beautiful than Aryden’s great hall, and not only because it was newer—for a humbler hallway and a staircase, this one thankfully straight and comfortably wide. On the second floor the servant led me into a room entirely paneled in wood, not unlike Aryden’s study, this one with shelves better organized and illuminated both by windows and by the soft blue glow of alchemic everlamps. A fat man, elaborately mustachioed, reclined against the corner of a silk-upholstered settee, a glass of wine in one hand and a pipe in the other. He did not rise to great me. He did, however, tip his pipe at me in a gesture that reminded me of some salty sailor greeting an old shipmate in some coastal tavern, nonchalance and easy familiarity.
“Welcome, good sir, welcome. Please, have a seat,” he said, now waiving to a nearby chair with his goblet, a splash of red tide creeping over the side. “We are so glad you’ve come to resolve our lord’s…little problem. And that he secured the service of one so well-born as well, ha! What good fortune!”

I took my seat, the chair overstuffed to the point of discomfort in its upholstery, the arms too sharply curved to provide suitable resting space for an elbow. All in all, I wished I’d stayed standing.

“Tell me, lord thaumaturge, how long do you think until you’ve resolved the matter?”

“I don’t know, Master—”

“Please, it’s Dalen to my friends. I do hope we shall be friends.”
“Call me, Iaren, Dalen.”

“Wonderful!” he said, smiling wide before puffing on his pipe to leave me to fill the silence.

“Your daughter will help speed things along, I’m sure,” I told him.

“Of course, of course. But perhaps I can assist you with some of the details so that we can leave her to her preparations. You know that she’ll be marrying Lorent amn Esto in a matter of days now.”

“I have heard, yes.”

“Our family and the amn Vainas are close, you see, so perhaps you have questions that I could answer.”

The servant who’d led me to the merchant patriarch’s chamber now appeared beside me with a glass of wine, which I took and held between both hands as if some Temple relic, both sacred and valuable. “What has Nilma told you about her encounter with the castle’s spirit?”

“She will not speak of it. Not even to me,” he confessed, “which I suppose does not bode well for you.”

I frowned. “Then tell me of her service as Lady Aevala’s handmaid.”

“A token of the friendship of our families, and one that she appreciated very much. She will be a noblewoman herself, soon; it will hold her in good stead to have learned the duties of the wife of a lord.”

“How long had she served as a handmaid?”

“Almost a year before the…incident.”

“Did she visit often while in the lord’s household?”

“We visited her, of course. We are often invited to dine with our lord.”

“And how did she seem when you visited?”

“Happy. She enjoyed her position and, even before we signed the contract with the amn Estos, had a bright future to look forward to. It was only a matter of time before one noble house or another made such an offer.”

I looked around, “Your family has done quite well for itself.”

“And there are plenty of noble houses who have fallen to ruin with profligate spending and an unwillingness to dirty their hands with trade,” he said, smiling until her remembered who I was. “My apologies, my lord.”

“Don’t think of it; I’m rather profligate myself,” I managed. “Did your daughter mention anything about Lady Aevala when you saw her? Or perhaps the lord or lady confided something to you?”

“About what?”

“Anything out of the ordinary?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure yet either.”

“But you suspect something?”

“I don’t suspect anything. I’m only asking questions.”

“Then why say, ‘yet?’”

I kicked myself for taking the man for a fool. A braggart, maybe, and unsubtle about his pretensions, but not a fool, despite his easy demeanor and shit-eating grin.

“There’s a connection between the spirit and Lady Aevala,” I admitted. “I don’t know what or to what extent, but there must be a reason for it. Perhaps your daughter will know more.”

“What else have you discovered?” the man asked from the sides of his mouth between puffs of the pipe.

“I really can’t talk about that with you.”

“Then I’m afraid that my daughter is indisposed at the moment.”

“Perhaps I’ll take that fact up with your lord. We can see what he says about it.”

“Nothing, I imagine,” he smiled. “He wants the amn Esto marriage as much as we do, and I don’t think he’d do anything to disturb it—or us.”

“Why’s that?”

“Business, my boy. Business. Our family and the amn Esti owe the amn Vaini for the alliance between us. Those relationships increase his own prospects with House Meradhvor. Or Lady Vesonna’s, as the case may be. If our marriage agreement falls apart, then perhaps his does, too, and he certainly doesn’t want that. Have you been to the quarries or the mills? Have you seen the mechanica that Meradhvor has loaned, a taste of the rewards they offer for fealty to them? Have you seen the gifts to the amn Vaini directly? With mechanica, Lord Aryden can increase the yields of the farms, the woods, the stones and mining. This means more taxes, to say nothing of the income from the use of his Artificial servants.”

“The amn Vainas are already wealthy, why would they need any of that? Or why not just purchase the drudges from the Artificer Houses?”

Dalen smiled. “If I have learned one thing in my time as a trader, it is that there is only one accessory suitable for wealth.”

I bit. “And what is that?”

“More.”

“Fine. Who takes offense to Nilma’s marriage, then?”

“The families of New Vaina, of course. The im Osi, the im Vardi, the im Norreni. Every time they see us drawn closer to our lord, they believe they are pushed farther away.”

“But it seems that they’d also benefit from the Meradhvor marriage as well, then. The im Osi control the farms, the im Vardi control the mills, and the im Norreni control the quarry and mines. If their yields increase, so do their own fortunes.”

“Yes, but they fear not as much as ours. And they hold their rights at the pleasure of our lord. What happens if he decides they are no longer necessary?”

In Ilessa, my investigations often turned on the money. Who’s got it, who wants it, what are they willing to do to get it. I’d thought to get away from that this far afield, but what if this spirit, ultimately, was about stopping these new alliances? I hadn’t thought of it like that until just now, and such a thing would mean that the spirit was purposefully installed in the castle. But by whom? One of the magnate families of Outer Vaina? Where would they have gotten the resources, the knowledge for such a thing? Falla? She seemed to have plenty of motive, and perhaps opportunity, but that didn’t seem to match with who she was. Or, at least, who I thought she was.

Vesonna came to mind as well, but she neither seemed to be upset by the prospect of marrying into House Meradhvor or to bear any ill well to her mother. Unless the effects on Aevala were unintentional. A side effect of the purpose of one who summoned a spirit of the dead to Vaina castle. If the spirit’s attachment had not been spontaneous. There were too many possibilities, to many unknowns. I could speculate endlessly and get nowhere without more information. But, in the present circumstances, that wasn’t a bad thing.

“I’ll play your game, Dalen. I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered so far. But I need to speak to Nilma alone.”

“Out of the question!” the man said, his cheeks briefly flashing red, though I couldn’t tell whether that was anger or the drink. “The impropriety alone is unconscionable. The amn Esti will be arriving for the wedding in mere days. What will they think if they hear that I’ve let some strange man—lord or no—spend time with her alone just days before her nuptials.”

“I’m flattered, Master im Valladyn, but rein in your imagination. Besides, who would tell? Or don’t you trust your servants?”

He thought about it for a moment. “I agree—but only with conditions.”

“Which are?”

“First, my man here will stand just outside the door.”

“Agreed.”

“Second, you will use none of your Art upon my daughter.”

“I wouldn’t think of it.”

“Third, you will leave any mention of Nilma and my family out of any discussions of the haunting.”

“But—”

“I do not need superstitious folk saying that we’re somehow tied to that spirit’s appearance. The amn Esti would balk and I cannot—will not—have that.”

“I’ll need to tell Lord Aryden, at least.”

“You will not. You can tell him the substance of your discussions but not its source. He will understand and want the same thing I do, for the sake of our mutual plans. And, as a token of my good faith, I’ll agree to pay you five swans once my daughter’s wedding has concluded.”

“I’m not here to protect your interests, Master Dalen. I’m here to do a job for Lord Aryden. I’ll not take your coin to relocate my loyalties. I am no mercenary. Here’s what I know so far: The spirit in the castle is of one deceased who has not crossed over as they should. I am unable to discern the likeness or identity of this person. It is probable that they did not receive proper rites and that this has contributed to their failure to ascend to whatever awaits us beyond this life, but it is also possible that some overriding obsession or a tragic end caused the phenomenon that anchors them to our world.

“Although the priest, Barro, lays heavy suspicion on the sorceress Falla, I have encountered her and I am not inclined to agree. Since visiting her, I have come here to speak to your daughter, so that I may discern what additional information I can glean to identify and allay the spirit that haunts the castle. Now, take me to your daughter.”
A subtle sorcery intertwined with my words, pulling slightly at the emotions of my host as I spoke, softening the resistance he bore toward giving me what I asked. When I’d finished, my head ached dully with the exertion, but Dalen waived his pipe at the servant to show me to Nilma. Not my finest work, but I’d take it.

We passed down another short hallway and into a well-lit sitting room. In a far corner of the room, a young woman worked at needlepoint, her hands moving swiftly as she drew the needle from one side of the from to the other and it dove back down again. From where I stood in the doorway, she appeared to be completing the amn Esto arms. A fitting wedding gift, I supposed.

She looked up over her shoulder, the bright expectation of seeing a beloved family member on her face. When she saw me instead, the light left her face in a rush and she turned her back to me. With a nod to the servant, I slid the door closed behind me, leaving us alone together.

“You’re the thaumaturge?” she said, speaking to the window on the far side of the room, in which I could catch the faintest reflection of her soft face, still almost childlike.
“If you begin any incantation, our family’s guards will hear you and kill you before you can finish.”

A small laugh escaped my lips unbidden, and I recollected myself. “I’m sure they would,” I assured her. “But there’ll be no need for that. I only want to ask you some questions. No thaumaturgy. Now workings. Just words—normal words.”

“You’ll deal honestly with me, then, as one who fears The One and their judgment?”

“Just so.”

“Then ask your questions and begone.” Her free hand flashed the sign of the Tree between tugs at the needle.

“I am told that you saw the spirit that now dwells in your Lord’s castle.”

“I felt its presence. And I will not return to see it. I have wounds enough to remember the encounter the rest of my life. And perhaps in the next as well,” she said sullenly.
I found that a brush with supernatural death is often more disturbing than uplifting, proof that there are indeed fates worse than death that could await us on the other side.

“Will you show me?”

Without turning, she lifted her hair with both hands to expose the back of her neck. On either side were three parallel red lines surrounded by pink and irritated flesh. The wounds were light, relatively speaking; they could just as easily have come from an encounter with the household cat. A demonstration of affection or hatred—I’m not sure that felines much differentiate.

“Tell me how you got those,” I said, gentle, but firm.

“My lady had sent me to refill a jar of wine from the butts in the cellar. I didn’t want to go—we’d all heard about strange things happening down there. For a while, Eldis has accompanied each servant when they went down there, but he’d stopped doing that. I think he thought we were all playing some prank; once he concluded that we were not, he didn’t need to see more. I looked for him anyway so I wouldn’t have to go alone, but I couldn’t find him. So, I went down to the cellars for more wine, by myself. It was as it always was, bright and quiet—except the air felt cold. Not cool, as I’d expected. Cold. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I felt a sudden desire to run. But I knew that I could not return empty-handed.”

“What would have happened if you had?”

“My lady would have been disappointed in me. ‘A noblewoman must have courage,’ she told me. ‘For days often come when we must be the bravery of the household.’ I refused to disappoint her; she’d been so kind to me.”

“Continue.”

“I forced myself to the keg that had been tapped. I filled the jug halfway with wine so that room remained for water. My lord and lady never take their wine without water. The wine steamed as it poured into the jug. It was warm, unnatural. It smelt of vinegar and I worried it had gone bad. That’s when I heard the voice.”

I leaned forward at this. “What voice?”

“It was a whisper, faint and far away at first. It said my name, I thought, but I wasn’t sure. I thought it might be Eldis calling to me from above, calling me to some other task. I called out myself, but heard only silence in reply. Just as I began to think I’d imagined the whole thing, it spoke to me again, but I couldn’t make out the words.”

“Because of the language?”

“No, not that. It spoke in Altaenin, but I could not hear well enough to make out but scraps. And yet, it felt as though it came from both far away and from inside my head. I dropped the jug of wine and ran. As I climbed the stairs, I felt something reaching for me from behind. Something hot touched my neck and I screamed, though it seems that only the very tips of its fingers got me.”

I nodded agreement at that, but realized she couldn’t see.

“Someone, I don’t remember who it was, was at the top of the stairs. He must have heard me screaming. I don’t remember what happened after that, I just remember being home. It was night, so one of my lord’s men must have brought me home. Must’ve carried me the whole way. I haven’t returned since.”

“And you haven’t felt the spirit’s presence here since you’ve come home?”

Her back stiffened. “No. Is it here? Can it come here?”

“If you haven’t felt or seen it since you came home, it’s unlikely that it can come here at all. What do you think about your upcoming marriage?”

“I look forward to it. It is a good match. I have good reports of Lorent, that he’ll make a fine husband. And I shall make him a fine wife, to the benefit of both our families.”

“You’ll go to live in Esto?”

“No. We’ll live in a townhouse in Ilessa, in the upper city.”

“I’m sure you’ll love it. What can you tell me about the boy Orren?”

“Who?”

“The im Varde boy apprenticed to Eldis. Surely you knew him.”

“Oh, him,” she said, voice dripping with scorn.

“So you did know him.”

“Not directly. But I heard a bit about him from the other servants.”

“Like what?”

“He was always chasing after them. He’d have his way with one and then toss her aside for another.”

“Then why did young women keep falling for this?”

“They said he was smart, and charming, always seemed sincere. Perhaps they should have paid more attention to the Book, to the Temple teachings: ‘Beware those who come with smiles and gifts, thinking evil in their hearts. Know them by their deeds.’ Foolish girls, throwing away virtue and honor to some scoundrel. It’s a wonder that no father from the town took his revenge upon him.”

“How do you know they didn’t?”

“He’s too lucky for such an end. No matter his tricks on the gullible, his schemes for quick coin, he never seemed to suffer the consequences. His uncle being constable covered over many misadventures, I’m sure, but my lord and lady also thought highly of him, and that gave him great latitude for his behavior.”

“But he is missing. What do you think happened?”

“When he ran out of fools he could part from their money here, he decided to seek his fortunes in the City, I’m sure. Like so many of our town’s ambitious young men. It’ll serve him right if he ends up like the others, working in some factory or other until he’s too injured to work any more and he comes back crippled and in need of care from his family.”

“Sounds like you knew him rather well.”

She threw a sidelong glance, annoyance and umbrage, at me over her shoulder. “I said I did not, and I am no liar. But gossip is a favored pastime in noble courts, for the highborn and the low, and I listened well to what was said about many.”

“Did any of his dalliances result in children?”

“Not that I know of. Young women who have that worry and do not want to go to see the witch Falla, I’m told.”

“You’re told? You’ve been to see her yourself.”

“Lies!” she started, but calmed herself and brought her voice low again. I could hear movement from the servant on the other side of the door, but when no additional disturbance followed the outburst, he decided against barging in.

“There’s no shame in that.”

“Of course, you’d think so. You’re one of them.”

I smiled, chagrined. “So you’ve listened to Barro’s sermons enough to feel guilty about seeing her, to heap scorn on me to make yourself feel better, but not to stop you from visiting her when you felt you had need. How charitable of you.” She no longer held the needle delicately in her left hand; instead she clinched it tight, her knuckles white.
I decided not to press further on that tack. “Your family and the im Vardi do not get along, do they?”

“Petty squabbles and jealousy from them at our family’s success, nothing more. We do what we can to maintain civility, but they seek every advantage against us. They speak against us to Lord Aryden constantly, though my lord is a clever man and sees through their dissembling.”

“One of your family’s retainers was killed in a fight with one of theirs not long past. I’d call that more than petty squabbles.”

“A family is not its retainers, sir. You of all people should know that.”

She’d heard my name, then, but didn’t know much about me beyond that or she’d not have said such a thing. “I never spent much time with my family—or its retainers; I beg your pardon if I require some explanation.”

“The young men who serve our family and the im Vardi see little real fighting. They have little opportunity to prove their bravery save for conflicts they create themselves. It is not that my father—or anyone else from my family, for that matter—asks them to commit violence in our names. But sometimes blood runs hot and men become fools. Justice was done, and those men of both houses with any wits will take the lesson and avoid rough brawling in the streets for the sake of their own pride.”
I changed the subject. “What did you hear about Edanu of House Meradhvor?”

“Little to nothing; he’d only just arrived when I left my service.”

“Then what can you tell me of Lady Aevala?”

“Nothing. I am bound to keep her confidences.”

“Even if keeping those confidences means that she continues to suffer? You know that the castle’s spirit plagues her in particular. Having suffered also at its hands, I’d have thought you’d have more compassion for your lady.”

She sighed heavily, though whether with relief or frustration I could not tell. “What would you know, sir? I’ll tell you what I can without breaching the trust placed in me. It would be unbecoming and ungrateful of me to do anything to the detriment of the amn Vaini, through whose mercy and kindness I will have the life that lies before me.”

“I understand. The priest, Barro, says that Lady Aevala seemed preoccupied with something before the spirit’s appearance. Did you see the same in her?”

“She did seem worried about something, but she never told me what.”

“The Meradhvor negotiations, perhaps?”

“I don’t know. She and Lord Aryden started sending everyone out when they talked. We could hear some yelling, but I could never make out the words.”
“So the amn Vaini were fighting about something.”

She looked to her feet. “Yes.”

“And this was unusual, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Because they usually got along very well, didn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“They’re trothbonded, devoted, to each other.”

“Yes.”

“So what might they be fighting about?”

“I don’t know.”

“You can make a guess.”

“That would be nothing but slander.”

“Only if I repeat it. I won’t.”

“I don’t trust you, thaumaturge.”

“Of course not. But you were willing to see Falla when you thought she could help you. And I am here to help you. Well, maybe not you specifically, but, if I’m successful in ridding Vaina castle of the spirit, you’ll certainly rest easier, and any threat to your marriage disappears. So, trust or not, it’s in your interest to help me.”

She thought carefully for a moment; a good sign. Logical argument only works on those who can think logically, and that’s a much smaller group of people than ought to be the case. “I think they were fighting about a romantic relationship, maybe Lady Vesonna’s.”

“Vesonna? Who did she have a relationship with? Orren?”

“No,” Nilma laughed. “She was one of the few people who saw through him, flatly denied his advances.”

“Anyone else it could be?”

“I don’t know.”

“No likely candidates?”

“No.” She bowed her head to her needlepoint, her left hand plucking up the needle again and working it back and forth across the frame. A clear indication that the conversation had ended. I knew, in my mind and in my gut, that she hadn’t told me everything she could have. Still, the only option I had now was to use thaumaturgy, to forcefully enter her mind and probe for the answers I sought. A surer method for extracting information, but a violation of the innermost portions of a person’s being, the very essence of their self. Rape of a different sort, and I had no desire to engage in that kind of behavior. A man has to draw lines or he loses himself. Besides, I’d promised her no workings, and that was another line I’d drawn. And, even if I’d wanted to, Nilma was probably right that I wouldn’t make it out of her family’s home alive. So, I let it lie. “Thank you for your help, Mistress Nilma,” I told her, already making my way out of the room.

In the hallway outside of the room I found her father waiting rather than the servant. How much he’d heard of the conversation I didn’t know, but neither did it matter much to me. “My lord thaumaturge,” he said, “I’d just like to reiterate the appreciation that this family would have for you if you could treat my daughter, and any involvement she might have had in events…delicately.”

“As I said, not everything is for sale.”

“My dear Lord amn Ennoc, I am a merchant. If I’ve learned anything, it is that everything is for sale if there’s profit enough.”

I nodded and frowned, not waiting for an escort to show myself out.

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 10

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

Outside of Vaina Town, I discovered the fading remnant of an Old Aenyr road. A path once so well-constructed that you could not trip in a seam between stones had become an uneven collection of weathered pavers. If the legends were true—and many of the inventions of the Artificer Houses based on their recovery of the ancient knowledge of the Old Aenyr indicated that they were—carts and carriages that required no horse or other creature to pull them had traveled roads like this.

Altaena had been one of the easternmost reaches to which the Aenyr had expanded when they came from the West, conquering and enslaving as they went. According to the stories, the lowliest slave still lived a better life than the haughtiest peasant under Aenyr rule. I have no idea; I wasn’t there.

They say that one of the grand Aenyr cities lies buried beneath the mountains I could see to the north, the Tursa Elvor range rising above the Velucca forest. But none had found it, or Vaina and anywhere else nearby would’ve been swarmed by venture companies looking to plunder the ruins and sell their finds to the Artificer Houses. Perhaps House Meradhvor had uncovered some evidence of the place’s existence and location and that is why Edanu had come to negotiate a marriage and make a base of Vaina.

Under the treaty that ended the Artificer War, the Houses agreed that they could not own land, nor hold titles of nobility, nor trade in any place where they did not have the permission of the rulers. But they kept a monopoly on the secrets and creation of Artifice in exchange, at least where the gray Artificers did not steal those secrets and replicate them for black markets across the Avar. The treaty converted the open warfare into a struggle in the shadows, a game of politics and espionage, clandestine quests and proxy conflicts, when both sides had suffered exhaustion to the point of being unable to carry on their bloody struggle at full scale. The accord at least kept the innocent off of these now-occulted battlefields—most of the time—and I could live with that. Besides, the intrigue sometimes meant work for me.

I walked alongside the old road, finding it easier to traverse the rough and hilly ground than the uplifted and sharply angles stones of the road, now a barrier as much as a highway. The path led me northeast from the town and into the hills. I passed by the Vaina mills just outside the town, an impressive collection of three mills at terraced levels of large hill, all of them served by an aqueduct (probably originally built by the Aenyr, but possibly by the Cantics or Gwaenthyri) that carried water from springs in the hills to which I was headed.

The morning had warmed but not yet grown hot, making the journey not unpleasant. I’d brought my staff, both as an aid to the hike and in case this Falla was the evil witch they said she was, which I doubted. The rhythmic thump of the staff hitting the avar provided the music to which I journeyed. I’d walked for about an hour when I began to draw near to the sorceress’s abode. I knew I’d come close because I began to see strange talismans and warding objects set up along the road.

Animal skulls and bones arranged with vines, branches and flowers of all colors into arcane forms hung from nearby trees or fastened to tall stakes driven into the soft ground near the road on either side. Nothing about them gave me the impression of maleficium, of evil intent or effect, but neither did they make me especially comfortable. Checking the availability of my sword at short notice, I pressed onward, readying my mind for quick sorceries should the need to defend myself from attack using the Art should arise.

I’d heard and read about the hedge practice of untrained practitioners—the term usually signified those who received training outside the auspices of the established institutions of practitioners, for there were few who could manage anything beyond the simplest sorceries without significant training. Thaumaturgies, theurgies, alchemical constructs and enchantments do not occur by accident or happenstance. Not exactly, at least. New techniques are sometimes developed by magi or other practitioners, but these are nearly always incremental improvements or variations on existing practices.

You ask how the first practitioners developed the Art then. I wonder the same thing from time to time. Only the Aenyr know, and they aren’t talking. Not on that subject, at least. According to the Temple, the rebel Sedhwe taught the Art to ancient peoples before the First War. I’ve no idea whether that’s true or not, but, if it is, I wonder how the early practitioners turned the Art to benevolent purposes. The Temple priests call it the grace of The One upon Their creation. Maybe it is. That’s a reassuring thought.

I pushed these speculations aside as I made my way closer to Falla’s cottage. I began to encounter the low stone lines of ancient walls long since stripped for their stones or tumbled into rough piles by wind, rain and time. The townsfolk seemed correct when they called it the remains of an Old Aenyr fort. A pale comparison to the well-preserved Aenyr ruins found elsewhere in the Avar. The effigies came closer together now, and the surrounding forest pushed closer in as the road faded into nothingness and I walked amidst the old stones.

Before long, the trees opened into a spacious clearing, where a humble cottage, its walls covered in vines or turned green with mildew, occupied the center of the glade. A low campfire, surrounded by a ring of rocks, burned below a wooden tripod from which was suspended a small iron cauldron. A smell, acrid and sweet at the same time, wafted from the vessel, but I could not identify the contents. Surely not food; some poultice or poison, some creation of the alchemical Art.

Near the fire a log had been set for sitting upon, its uppermost surface worn smooth with long use, the rest of it somehow preserved from rot and decay. Behind that, to the right side of the cottage, lines had been run on which hung laundry, humble and of simple colors, weaved and stitched by hand, no doubt. On the other side of the cottage I could see the edge of a well-kept garden behind a simple wood fence; the majority of plant-life within it appeared to be medicinal or arcane, for few vegetables pushed their way out of the ground in that patch of avar, at least that I could see.

More of the strange icons hung from branches all around the trees hemming in the clearing, swaying slightly with the wind, some humming a low whistle and others with bones chiming against one another. The hollow eye-sockets of bird or rabbit skulls watched me as I stopped just inside the open space, taking it all in. It was then, as the swinging talismans drew my eyes upwards, that I noticed the trees were full of birds of all types: sparrows, rooks, pigeons; a silent audience, or perhaps tiny guardians of the space. Below them, rabbits and squirrels played across the field, unconcerned with my presence of that of the birds overhead. A sense of peace came over me there and I shook my head at Barro’s blind condemnation.

The door flung wide and a young woman with hair covered and wearing a dress of the type favored by the merchant class stepped out. For a moment, I thought that this was Falla; my mouth must have dropped open at the sound of my shattered expectations. But when the woman looked up and saw me standing there, she paused, equally surprised. She carried something in a small satchel and fumbled with it momentarily, almost spilling the contents. Once she’d recovered herself, she briskly passed through the clearing, making the sign of the Tree at me as she passed.

I stood for a moment dumbfounded at the contradiction, wondering if I’d walked into a joke or a riddle, perhaps one posed by the gathered animals. A second woman stepping out of the shadowed door frame broke my reverie. This one better matched my expectations, her dark hair and eyes wild, her face painted with ochre and umber, tattoos down the length of her bare arms. She wore rough-made clothing of colors similar to her facepaint, like those hanging from the line nearby. Self-sufficient living left her wiry, her skin tan and rough with exposure to the elements. She smiled a crooked smile, but she had all of her teeth. Around her neck hung miniature versions of the signs that had lined the pathway to her home; she held a rod of wood in her left hand.

“Master thaumaturge,” she said in welcoming tone, spreading her arms as if in welcome to her personal demesne. Then she laughed, and I wondered why until she gestured toward me and I realized I’d put my hand on the hilt of my sword at her appearance. “Perhaps you’ve read too many tales of witches in the woods, my friend, that you come here armed against me.”

I nodded to the implement of the Art in her own hand. “A tool,” she said, tossing it casually aside.

Removing my hand from my weapon, leaning my staff against one of the trees edging the clearing in sign of good will—though mostly for the excuse to turn my face from the woman and hide my embarrassment at my initial reaction to her, I said over my shoulder, “Every tool’s a weapon if you hold it right.”

She laughed again, “And what about you, Iaren, what kind of tool are you? How does the Lord Aryden hold you? As a weapon?”

“Lord amn Vaina does not hold me any way. I am my own man.”

“We shall see.”

“How did you know my name?”

“The Art, of course.”

I cocked my head at her, disbelieving.

“Fine, the townsfolk told me of your arrival. You’re no fun at all. But I did see you in my dreams.”

“Sure you did.”

“On an island in the Sea of Dreams, pursuing a woman herself pursued.” Seeing the change in my expression, she smiled softly. Still, I felt no malevolence in this place. A strangeness that matched her appearance, yes—she reminded me of the Wild Folk who live in the shadowed places on the continent, raiding, pillaging and worshiping dark spirits—but not threatening. “Did you think that only those with books and universities can understand the mystical ways of manipulating Creation?”

“How—”

“Did I learn? From my mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from hers stretching back to my ancestors who first learnt the Art from those who stole it from the Aenyr. Some had seen the Art used by the Aenyr to dominate and destroy; they vowed to use the power they’d acquired for healing and protection, not for for violence and ambition. I cannot say the same, I think, for those ones who taught your masters’ masters, who established the Guilds and the Conclave, who write the books they claim contain the one true way of the Art. Or for you.”

“You seem to know a lot about the world outside Vaina.”

“I was born here; my mother raised me here, but I have not always lived here. I traveled for a time, until I felt that my mother’s time drew near, when I came home to take her place.”

“You’re quite an open book yourself,” I said.

She smiled again. “A living one, the truest kind. Besides, I have nothing to hide from you. You come under suspicion that I have something to do with the Lord Aryden amn Vaina’s troubles, but I do not. I suspect that he has caused those for himself.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because hypocrites earn their own punishment. It is the way of things, the indisputable nature of nature itself.”

“Why do you call him a hypocrite?”

“Many in Vaina are hypocrites, just like the woman you met before me. She attends Temple, listens to Barro’s diatribes against me, nods along as he calls for me to be burnt, and then comes here in secret for my help.”

“What kind of help?”

“She has been with a man who is not her husband; she’s afraid she may be with child; she’s afraid of what her husband might do if he finds out, so she seeks my assistance. What would the priest say about that?”

“Nothing kind about either of you, I think.”

“True, but I am honest about what I am.”

“Have you no fear of The One?”

“Why should I? The One is mercy and love. It is the Temple priests I fear. And rightly so.”

I’d heard enough from Barro to agree with her. It didn’t mean I was ready to trust her. “Is that what you do for the townsfolk? You keep the women from the children they do not want?”

“Would you judge me for that? Do you think that I have the ability to create or destroy a spirit? Do you think that I can prevent The One from bringing a spirit into this world that They desire to dwell here? I have little power, even relative to you, perhaps, or at least that you could have. And none I know of, in the Avar or in legend has such power. Why would you condemn me for preventing the suffering of a woman and a child?”

“I—”

“You should not speak about things you know nothing about.”

“I’m not here to speak; I came to listen.”

“That is some wisdom, then. I’d feared the lord’s thaumaturge would simply come to kill me.”

“I’m not a killer.”

“You are not yet. What will you do when the time comes to decide that question?”

“What do you mean?”

“You are on a path that walks between life and death. Here and now, but also in your future. I have seen it. What will you become?”

I thought about that for a moment. This was not the conversation I’d expected to have. Part of me considered the question, and part of me wondered how she’d pushed me into this position in the first place. “I can only be what I am,” I said after a while.

“Psh,” she expelled between tight lips. “A poor aphorism, especially from one such as you. You work your will upon the world itself. How will you work your will upon yourself? What will you choose to become from what you are now? Perhaps some things will be decided for you, but not all. If you have not dominion over yourself, you have dominion over nothing. Your masters taught you that those without their training could not practice the Art without falling to corruption or madness. And yet, here I am, proof that that is not true, while many of those who have received your masters’ training have corrupted themselves, turned to Daea or Sedhwe, or, worse yet, served only their own base desires with their Art.”

“Why are you telling me all of this?”

“To help you. As I said, I have seen you in my dreams, and I believe that you, too, can be an agent of good in this dark world, of healing, though your path is very different from mine.”

“I’m just like everyone else, just trying to survive.”

“Fool. What value has survival without purpose?”

“You don’t know my path.”

“No, not fully. Not even clearly. But I have intuitions and visions of it, and I trust them. Whether you trust me is another matter.”

“If you want to help me, if you want me to trust you, tell me what you can about the haunting at the castle.”

“What is there to tell? I cannot set foot in the town without fear of violence, and it is only fear of me—misplaced as it is—that protects me here. So I have only what I am told by those who visit me and what I see in my dreams.”

“Then what have you been told?”

“There is fear in the town, many of them have come to me for protection from the spirit. I prepare trinkets for them, say a prayer over it with them, and send them on their way.”

“Without drawing upon the Power? That doesn’t do anything for them.”

“Nothing? Belief has a power of its own. They believe that it will protect them, so they sleep easier at night, spend less time worrying about something that will never effect them anyway. It does no harm and does much good for them. Not everything I do for those who seek my assistance requires the Art. I know much about herbcraft to heal through natural sympathies, and I have wisdom that others do not.”

“And humility,” I smirked.

“Of my own sort, yes.”

I’d offended her; her eyes flashed at me and her mouth turned downward. Frankly, given her own haughtiness, I didn’t care. “What else do you know? I already knew that people were scared.”

“The girl Nilma came to me, after she was attacked.”

“Now that’s something I can use. What did she tell you?”

“She said that she felt the spirit had come for her, specifically, not that it was striking at her wantonly or without forethought.”

“So she recognized the specter?”

“Perhaps.”

I frowned again. “You won’t say or you don’t know?”

“I don’t know what Nilma herself doesn’t.”

“Fine. What did she want from you?”

“Like everyone else, something to protect her.”

“Which was?”

“A charm, a minor enchantment to calm and sooth the girl. Nothing more.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me before I go?”

“I felt when the spirit settled in, a shadow upon this place. A sharp stab it was when it first appeared, I’m sure. It is a spirit of vengeance, but the vengeance is not its own. Evil returns evil it is said, and this spirit is the essence of that statement.”

“That doesn’t help; it’s just cryptic nonsense.”

“As all prophetic utterances seem at first.”

I turned away and collected my staff; I didn’t need to be played with any more, and if something else was going on here, I didn’t see it.

She spoke just as I set foot back into the forest, calling out behind me. “What are you, thaumaturge? A spirit of vengeance, or one of mercy?”

What answer could I give to that?

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