Patreon Planning

I’ve thought about it since my first post on this subject, and I’m deciding to take the leap and create a Patreon to see how it goes in expanding my production and helping me to push forward toward my goals as a writer.

First and foremost, the Patreon will not replace this blog. You should still expect to see weekly (most of the time, anyway) posts on the blog on all of the usual subjects. Instead, the Patreon will supplement the blog by providing focused materials for a portion of the blog’s readers–I do not expect that everyone who reads my writings here will be interested in what the Patreon has to offer.

The Patreon will consist of setting material, RPG rules, and fiction for my fantasy world, Avar Narn. Each week, I’ll provide patrons with a minimum of 2,500 words of background material on the world. RPG rules and fiction will be included as it is written.

Look for another post soon that gives you a “pitch” for the Avar Narn setting, so that you can see what you’d be getting into if you’re not already familiar from following the blog. You can read some of the stories and work on the “My Writing” page to get a feel for things as well.

I will be setting up three Patreon tiers with the following material:

“Tourist” Tier: For $3 per month, Patrons will receive access to a monthly newsletter and the weekly blog posts with setting material.

“Explorer” Tier: For $5 per month, Patrons will receive the benefits of the “Tourist” Tier, plus access to RPG mechanics posts, access to a Discord server to participate in a community exploring the setting together in which I will directly and regularly participate, and the ability to vote on specific topics for me to address in subsequent months.

“Venture Captain” Tier: At $8 per month, this tier includes everything in the previous tiers plus access to work-in-progress fiction set in Avar Narn (including in the immediate future the revisions and rewrites of the novel Things Unseen) and “behind-the-scenes” posts on my methods and strategies for developing the information seen in weekly posts.

Money from the Patreon will most likely be used to purchase tools, books, and services (such as the creation of artwork) to further expand the material available for Avar Narn, with the plan of eventually publishing setting books and roleplaying rules to accompany the novels and short stories I hope to publish. If the Patreon income becomes significant enough (which I do not expect), then I may use some of it to pay bills and devote more time to writing (meaning more material both in general and for Patreon).

I expect to launch the Patreon with the new year. I’d really love to hear from you if you are interested, have comments or criticisms of the above-described plan. Feel free to leave comments or send me a message or email. In all honesty, I’m a little nervous about starting this venture and would love to know that there’s actually a desire for it.

I will be posting material for other settings on this blog, but these materials will not be nearly as regular nor as detailed as those for Avar Narn on the Patreon. Depending upon how the Patreon goes, I will consider adding some of those other settings to the Patreon (with an increase in detail and frequency of writing of material for them) if doing so looks feasible to add value without detracting from my work on Avar Narn or burning me out.

Review: The Sparrow

I know; I’m a little late to the game if I’m reviewing a book that’s twenty-five years old. But I’m excited about it enough that I really don’t care about that.

So, we’re gonna talk about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, an exposition of theodicy wrapped in a sci-fi tale that’s secretly a bildungsroman of sorts. If you’re not a theology nerd, “theodicy” is the word for the study of the problems of evil and suffering. In Christianity, in particular, this problem might be more specifically phrased as “If God is all-powerful and entirely good and loving, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Why do these things happen to seemingly good people?”

Job is my favorite book of the Old Testament, in part because it addresses this very question and gives us the best answer I think can be had for it. When God appears to Job at the end of the poem, God’s answer to Job’s questioning is to tell Job that he cannot understand the answer. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, for the human brain to comprehend in all its depths. The ultimate answer God gives that humans can understand is “Trust me.” Faith, faith that God is sovereign over all things, that God is love and intends ultimate good for God’s creation, hope that everything will one day be clear and suffering and evil will be conquered fully after having served their purposes–as inscrutable to us as those purposes may be–is the answer. It is, admittedly, an answer that I find at once entirely frustrating and comforting. It’s not my job to solve the problem of evil and suffering; it’s my job to respond to evil in suffering in the way that God has instructed me.

Part of the brilliance and beauty of Russell’s book–and only part, mind you–is that she takes the same approach. There is no attempt to answer the question of suffering, only an attempt to hold it in her hands and turn it at all angles for the reader to view, to experience in part, all of its manifest complexity and difficulty. There are no apologies here, no arguments, only an investigation of the issue that is by turns beautiful and terrifying, humbling and infuriating.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I’ve got to at least tell you what the book is about, right? All of that investigation into theodicy is not exposition or diatribe, it is examined through the experiences and humanity of the characters.

The Sparrow tells of the aftermath of a first-contact mission put together in secret by the Society of Jesus to the planet of Rakhat, discovered by the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico in 2019, when the astronomy equipment there picks up radio signals that turn out to be the singing of the indigenous peoples of Rakhat.

Only priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz survives the mission; the handful of clergy and layperson companions that accompany him to Rakhat do not. The time dilation of space travel, the reports of the second, secular mission to Rakhat, and reports from the first missionaries themselves seem to tell the tale of a horrific fall from grace and into depravity on the part of Sandoz. The story jumps back and forth between the Jesuit interviews with the recovered Sandoz (in an attempt to discover the truth of the reports and, hopefully, salvage something of the Jesuit reputation after the reports of the missionary journey have decimated it), the first discovery of Rakhat and the synchronicity that brought Sandoz and his companions into the mission in the first place, and the events that actually unfolded on Rakhat. These separate narratives meet, as it were, at the climax of Sandoz’s telling of his story.

That main thread, and its analysis of theodicy, contrasted with the modern missionaries’ own thoughts about their relationship to the 16th century missions of the Jesuits to the “New World”, form the core of the text, but Russell’s writing of the missionary characters, their backgrounds, their feelings, their developing relationships to one another, their thoughts about their places in Creation as they confront their missionary (or priestly) status, provides just as much literary joy and human insight as the “mystery” that frames all of these subplots.

This is, after all, a sci-fi story (one for which Russell won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1996, the year the book was published), and great detail is paid to the physiology and culture of the peoples of Rakhat, to the methods of space travel (the missionaries convert a mined-out asteroid into their spaceship) and the believable physics of story. At the same time, those elements never get in the way of the narrative; no time is lost on long exposition about the nature of technologies or theories of culture and alien psychology. These run seamlessly throughout the text, woven in with the unfolding plot instead of interrupting it.

The writing itself is beautiful, jealousy-inducing for an aspiring writer such as myself. The blend of familiar, practical tone with clever description and amusing turn-of-phrase reveals the intelligence and imagination of the mind behind this tale in an ever-delightful manner. The pacing and plotting of the story are an example of mastercraft in that aspect of the art, something especially apparent to me as I struggle with revising the plotting and pacing of my own fledgling work.

I must also express a debt of gratitude to my wife for bringing me to read this book. It’s one she first read–and told me about–almost a decade ago. It sounded interesting, but I must not have been paying close enough attention to her explanations, because this a book that fits with my own interests so uncannily perfectly. Only when she announced that she was going to read it again, now that her experiences in ministry and seminary had sharpened her abilities to appreciate the tale, did I agree to read it alongside her. As I must often admit, she was right all along. I should’ve read it the first time she told me to. So should you.

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

Things Unseen: After-Action Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Final Chapter

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

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

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

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

“You did.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is ‘Lord Aryden’, to you!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her brow furrowed as she failed to see the connection.

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

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

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

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

“There is one more thing,” I said.

“To blackmail now, is it?”

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

“Out with it.”

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

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

“You do seek our ruin,” she rasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What of Magaréil, then?” he asked.

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

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

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

He nodded, and I returned to Ilessa.

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, lord thaumaturge.”

“When are you ready?” Aryden added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” I yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s killing her!” Aryden exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What now?” Aryden asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s safe. Enough.” I said.

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

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

“Where are you going?” he asked.

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 52

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

“What do we do to break it then?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?”

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

“Vesonna,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I did not speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll banish him,” Aryden offered.

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

“How will you do that?”

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 50

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

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

“I’m seeing her now,” I said, dour.

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

“Thanks, Endan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Iaren?” he asked again.

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

“Are you alright?”

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

I said nothing, but turned to leave.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 49

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For the previous chapter, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t deny it?”

“That I killed the boy? No.”

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

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

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

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

“A reminder of what?” I continued.

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

“So you killed him for it?”

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

“Which was?”

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

“Then why kill him?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Aryden. They didn’t.”


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

“The witch had nothing to do with it?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Speak plainly.”

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

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

“She must have.”

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

“No,” I told him.



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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“Right,” I said, noncommittally.

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

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

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

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