Things Unseen, Chapter 42

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

Edanu and Barro both waited in the hallway outside Endan’s laboratory. On reflex, I almost shoved the priest, now returned to his liturgical vestments, against the wall and choked him for what he’d done to Falla. But, with the House Meradhvor representative present, I had to restrain myself.

“Have you completed your investigation?” Barro asked. “Don’t you think it’s been quite long enough that the boy had gone without his rites, his spirit restless.”

“You’ll have to ask Endan,” I said. “I’ve gleaned what I can, but Endan’s the expert in this field. He didn’t seem to be finished entirely.” I didn’t share my suspicion that the doctor’s examination had turned from specific investigation to general medical curiosity.

“Why spend all this time on a corpse anyway?” Edanu smiled, as if he already knew the answer. “Once the rites are finished we’re done with the spirit, right? Ought to get that done before nightfall.”

“Which is fast approaching,” Barro added.

I pushed past him and continued on my way. Edanu drew up next to me, following along. “I know, my lord, that my House has not extended you much in the way of favor or courtesy,” he began.

I scoffed. Couldn’t help it.

He remained undeterred. “But we—I—would be very much indebted to you for your assistance.”

I stopped and checked down the hallway in both directions. We were alone. “With what?” I demanded, my voice sharp.

He grinned. “What the hell exactly is going on here?”

“You don’t already know?” I asked, suspicious.

“Unfortunately not. I’ve heard something about a second spirit, but that only raises more questions while answering none. You know why I’m here—”

“To make sure Lord amn Vaina’s daughter appraises at the value offered—or at least that everything that comes with her does.”

“Uh—if you must be so crass about it, yes.”

“I don’t have anything to do with that,” I told him. “Nor do I want to.”

“Look, my lord, I don’t have a whole lot of sway here, nor much to offer you at present, but you know the influence Meradhvor wields in Ilessa and the rest of the Sisters. You’re clearly both a skilled practitioner and investigator. Imagine getting jobs from us, and everything that entails.”

“I can, and I have. I’m no shadowman. There are already plenty who will do your dirty work for you in the Sisters.”

“Nor would you be treated as such, my lord. You’ve worked for the Council of Coin, could we really be so much worse?”

“The Council of Coin may be criminals, but they’re an honester sort than the Houses. They don’t smile at you while they twist the knife in your back.”

He stared blankly for a moment. Not because I’d offended or taken him aback; he was only searching his mind for some pathway that might lead him to be successful in his efforts to persuade. “I’m sure we can find some other arrangement, then, so that you may avoid any longterm entanglements with us. Surely a man in your position could make good use of valuable Artifice. You’ve seen the wonders our House can provide in the gifts we’ve made to Lady Vesonna and Lord Aryden.”

“What is it, exactly, that you’re after, Edanu?”

“We have intelligence that there is a Place of Power somewhere in these parts. Something has been obfuscating its precise location. I assume that this was that ‘second spirit’ that I’ve heard about—that would be the most sensible explanation. If you’ve indeed had dealings with this spirit, then you must know the location of this place.”
At the most basic, Artifice is a combination of alchemy, enchantment and engineering. It needs a power source—the Power, really, to function continuously. Since gemstones may store the Power, these are used as an animating source for the engines of Artifice. The Artifice itself is worth a great price, but the need to keep it functioning makes for a longer-term client—not unlike the hornroot peddlers in Ilessa’s Lower City. A client who needs you continuously makes for a more lucrative trade than one that does not.
All of that meant that the Houses needed to supply the fuel for their machines as well as the machines themselves. They employ a small army of minor practitioners with skill enough to channel the Power into gemstones to fuel their House’s creations but too little skill in the Art to achieve much more. More drudges in their servitude, like the poor folk who work their factories. The labor is cheap, considering; it’s the need for access to prolific sources of the Power to charge their little baubles that proves rarer and dearer.

That explained the Meradhvor interest in Vaina. The town’s access to raw materials proved a bonus, not the primary draw. They wanted something they figured even Aryden knew nothing about—and need know little about until the marriage was sealed. The family that claimed the lands, and their people, would see plenty of benefits from the arrangement without any reference to the Place of Power. Once they started to enjoy those benefits, what would it matter what some Meradhvor servants were doing out in the woods?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told him.

Again, he smiled. “You should learn to lie better,” he said. “You have more pressing matters to attend to, I understand. But let’s you and I revisit this conversation very soon.”

“Hmph,” I said, leaving him behind. Everyone seems to think I’m for sale, I thought to myself. But the thought of locations gave me an idea—one I was a little embarrassed not to have thought of before. I turned around and went back to Endan’s infirmary.

Barro was inside now, anxiously tapping his foot while Endan ignored him and continued to examine the body. “Is this desecration really necessary?” the priest asked.

“Yes,” Endan and I said at once, my voice from behind causing Barro to jump slightly.

The doctor looked past Barro to me. “Is there something else you needed?”

“There is, in fact,” I responded. “I’m going to need a piece of the body. A small one.”

“What?” Barro turned full force, eyes aflame with righteous indignation. “How am I to give the body its last rites if I don’t have the whole body?”

My hands went to my hips and I cocked my head condescendingly. “Surely, this is not the first body to not be whole when given the rites. Besides, there’s plenty of him already missing.”

“It’s not the same when some natural process affects the body, but when you take a piece intentionally…”

“There are plenty of folk who die without proper rites at all, and few of them become restless spirits. The last rites are a ritual, the symbolism and intent of which are more important than the formalities,” I explained, already moving past him to the doctor.

“Says the thaumaturge, for whom absolute precision in ritual is such a concern, quipped the clergyman.

“That’s the difference between theurgy and theology, my friend.”

“And you wonder why the Temple views practitioners with such suspicion.”

“I don’t think about it much at all, actually,” I told him.

Endan cut a piece of the corpse wax from the body, wrapping it several times over in a piece of cloth before putting the bundle in an oiled and waxed drawstring pouch that sat nearby. He nonchalantly extended the package to me and I took it.

Without further ceremony, I pushed past Barro again, still aghast at my apostasy, and left the room. Finding that Edanu had left, I continued down the hallway, up the stairs and toward Aryden’s office, hoping to find him there.

Hearing voices from within, I stopped at the door to the office. After three brief raps of my hand against the wood, there came the voice of Lord amn Vaina: “Who’s there, dammit?”

“Iaren.”

“Fine, fine. Come in.”

The door swung easily aside to reveal Vitella amn Esto leaning casually against the room’s window sill, smoking a cigarello.

“What—” I started.

“Close the door!” Aryden commanded.

I did, and then repeated the question. “What’s she doing here?”

She smiled at me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m a co-conspirator.”

“Huh?”

“I suspected something was wrong about what happened today, gathered some information to confirm those suspicions and then met with our lord here to find a way in which I could assist.”

“Damn gossips,” Aryden interjected. “But if everyone else has spies in our house, I won’t say ‘no’ to one in someone else’s.”

“Our family needs this marriage,” Vitella joined in. “And I’ll not let the fool that leads it throw that away because of a spirit or two. So, I’ll help sell the story about the witch—and help you resolve the real problem if I can—and we’ll preserve what we’ve all worked so hard to achieve in the first place.”

“And keep our arrangement with House Meradhvor in place,” Aryden added. “So, you can speak freely in front of Lady Vitella.”

I’d come hoping to convince Aryden to change his mind about his misuse of Falla, but his having expanded his conspiracy dashed those hopes. I’d have to find another way to do what I could for her.

“Did your people find the man who tried to kill me?” I asked.

“No,” Aryden said.

I looked to amn Esto. “It wasn’t us,” she said, face contorting to indicate the shock and offense that I’d even suggest the possibility. “As I said, the family needs the marriage—so we need you.”

“Daedys says some of his men have gone missing as well,” Aryden added. “I suspect assassins sent by the amn Ydelli, another effort to thwart the marriage and the alliance between amn Vaina and amn Esto that it represents.”

More politics between nobles. “Why would they care?” I asked, stoking the fire.

“You passed through their lands in the south, on your way to Vaina. How many times were you stopped my a roadwarden for taxes?”

I chuckled. “Thrice,” I told him.

“Exactly. That’s what happens every time our merchants send goods through their territory; they attempt to steal the profits of our honest folk. At present, the carts have to go around amn Ydella lands, and that hurts profits, too, though not so severely. The alliance between amn Vaina and amn Esto gives us easier roads to market as well as more leverage in negotiating an end to the amn Ydella robberies.”

“So they send someone to kill me, hoping that that keeps your haunting unresolved and upsets the marriage?”

“That’s our suspicion,” Vitella offered.

“How would they know enough to plan something like that?”

“As I said,” Aryden returned, “It seems everyone has spies in our house.”

Their paranoia benefited me, so I did nothing to change their mind.

“Well? What did you and Endan discover?” Aryden rejoined.

“Perhaps we should wait until Barro’s performed the rites on Orren’s body to worry about that,” I responded. I needed time, and any conversation that kept me here would eat that time away like so many hungry dogs.

“You didn’t seem to have much confidence that last rites would be sufficient to allay the spirit,” Aryden rebutted. “I don’t have time to waste in resolving the matter fully and finally, so let us proceed as if more will be necessary from you and, if not, that can be a happy development.”

Vitella blew a ring of smoke into the air and smiled.

“Fine,” I said. “The boy’s throat was cut, ear to ear, and deep. Someone with strength and likely with some experience in warfare or murder—or both. He was bled out and then the body was moved and buried shallow where we found it.”

“Where Nilma found it, you mean,” the Lady amn Esto retorted.

“If you like.”

“Hmm,” Aryden said, contemplating. “So where was he killed?”

“I don’t know yet, but I have a method to find out.”

“So, once you find this killer, what happens then? You kill him?”

“I don’t think so. If Orren’s spirit had remained here simply to accuse his murderer, he would have done so by now. There’s something else, something more complex, binding him here than just his death. His spirit seems to want revenge, yes, but not by accusation.”

“Explain.”

“We both know that Orren is killing your wife. Slowly, but inevitably, if he is not stopped.”

Aryden grimaced. “And?”

“And that either means that Orren believes she’s somehow responsible for his death or doesn’t know who is and is lashing out indiscriminately.”

“Then why does his murderer matter at all?” Vitella asked.

“It may be that the circumstances of his death, the motives and the meaning, are more important than the killer himself,” I explained. “But I need to understand the sympathies in play that transformed Orren into the powerful spirit that he is—a ghost, yes, but no mere phantom of the common variety, else he’d be banished and we’d been done with this already.”

“So, something out of the ordinary happened in relation to his murder?” the Lady continued.

“Very.”

“Like what?”

“Do not say the phases of the moons,” Aryden warned.

I couldn’t help but smile a little at that. “No. I suspect the Art was at play here.”

“So Falla is responsible,” Aryden concluded.

“No. Perhaps the spirit that attacked the wedding is responsible for that aspect of Orren’s death, or the killer had some knowledge of the Art or Orren himself had some latent facility with the Art that had gone undetected.”

“So, what next?” Vitella asked.

“I keep investigating.”

She blew another ring of smoke in response.

“What about this other spirit. Barro said you bound it.” Aryden asked.

I produced the disk from my belt pouch and showed it to him. “It is imprisoned in this,” I said. “I’ll be able to interrogate it shortly and determine to what extent it had any involvement. It’s possible that it and Orren had developed a friendship of sorts and that the spirit had allied with him against you.”

“Against me?” Aryden asked. “Why?”

“It is an Orösave, a child of the Three Mothers. Ancient and bound to the Avar. The mind of such a being is not like the mind of one of mortal folk. Its designs are inscrutable to a great degree.”

“Then what use is interrogation?” Vitella pounced.

I hesitated a second, searching for an explanation that wouldn’t call into question the rest of the half-truths I’d spun to avoid mentioning the rest of the cult. “Motives, no. But facts and history, yes,” I said. “I don’t necessarily need to know why it was involved if I know how.”

“But I thought you said that motive was more important than identity,” Aryden added.
Fortunately, I’d moved into the mindset of dissembling now, and the response came quicker. “I’m simplifying things, of course. Depending upon how the spirit was involved, that may itself provide the remedy.”

“Why can’t you just bind Orren like you did this…Orösave,” Aryden asked.

“If it hadn’t been for Falla’s song, I wouldn’t have been able to,” I began. “And the comparison isn’t a good one. The Orösave is a natural spirit; Orren is a human soul, corrupted, yes, but still a human soul. The rules are different.”

“The…rules?” Vitella asked.

“Why would it surprise you that there are rules to the operation of the forces we call ‘supernatural’? What does that word even mean—the Orösave is as much a ‘natural’ part of this world as we are. People use that word to describe things that they don’t understand—the Art, spirits, Wyrgeas, the get of Sedhwé or Daea, and so on. But The One created all that is created, and They do not create without form and structure. Just look at the avar and you see this. That we don’t understand the ineffable laws by which these things operate does not mean that there are none.”

“Convenient,” Aryden muttered, ever cheerful.

“If there were not ‘rules’, structure and inescapable metaphysical laws by which Orren’s apparition operated, what good would I be to you? You might as well bring in every soothsayer in Ilessa’s lower city to advise you and try their recommendations. They’d be cheaper.”

“I know, damn you,” Aryden spat. “Why are we wasting time talking here when you could be about the business of it?”

I had to try before I left. “Falla may seem a mere hedge witch to you, but she has traveled and has learnt things many practitioners of the Art do not know. She could be very helpful to me if—”

“No,” Aryden said, his voice a slamming door. “You may talk to her in the dungeon, but that is all. If she is as you say, she’s even more dangerous to my people than I thought. That only further justifies my decision.”

“Fine,” I said, more petulant than I’d have liked. I closed the office door behind me as I left, leaving the two nobles to return to their scheming.

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 41

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

Muddy water and putrefaction pooled around Orren’s corpse on the iron slab where it had been placed in the center of Endan’s infimary. Glassy eyed, rotting face frozen in an expression of surprise and fear, the young man—what had been the young man—lay on its back, staring upward at nothing.

Examining it through a pair of glasses fixed with additional rotating lenses of various magnifying powers, occasionally shifting between them, the doctor mumbled to himself. At regular intervals, he shifted to the lit lectern set nearby and scrawled a line or two of notes.

I watched silently, hoping that his observations might supplement my own and not wanting to skew his conclusions with my own thoughts. Most doctors would have had little useful knowledge in ascertaining details of death from a corpse. There purview was to save the living, of course, and except for the occasional dissection of cadavers for purposes of physiological speculation, few had anything to do with a body once the spirit had left it. But Endan had been a barber-surgeon as much as a doctor, a military medic who’d no doubt seen as much death as life. I imagined that he’d often been forced into that worst of triages: determining who might still be saved and leaving those beyond help to the business of dying. Beyond that, I expected that he’d walked many battlefields after the fact, his medical knowledge allowing insights into the observed processes of decay and decomposition that his fellows from the university had never experienced.

“Lord thaumaturge,” he said, looking up from a bout of his notes.

“Iaren’s fine, doctor,” I told him.

“Yes. My lord has informed me that we are not to believe the outcry of the errant spirit that appeared o’er the amn Esto wedding and to discount Nilma as the killer. I’m not sure I received all of the details, but Lord Aryden seemed to indicate that the spirit meant to exact an unrelated vengeance in making such a claim. He said that you’d want as thorough an inspection of the body as possible in hopes of finding the true killer, since our victim seems not to be so forthcoming. I’m told he was pulled out of a ditch in the far fields.”

“That’s correct.”

“And when you encountered him, he was exposed? His body, I mean.”

“Partially. From about the waist up.”

“He’d been fully buried originally. Not deeply, mind you. But someone had taken the time to hide the body.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

With the edge of a small knife, he pointed to a yellowed, waxy patch of flesh exposed in the young man’s torso. “See that?” he asked. “Corpse wax, it’s called. You see it when a body is submerged. Swamps and the like. When it isn’t exposed to the air, otherwise—” he pointed to the less stable viscera nearby the preserved spot, which seemed to be slowly flowing even now, “you get that kind of liquefying rot. He didn’t stay buried long. That’s no surprise in one of those ditches running between fields, where the rains will make mud of the earth and then the suns will dry it back out until it cracks and powders. A body remains buoyant for some time after death, so each of those rains typically pushes it back to the surface, bit by bit. One of many reasons we don’t bury our dead.”

“Hmm,” I responded. “So whoever buried him there either didn’t know better or wanted the body to be found.”

“I agree,” Endan said, marking the observation amongst his notes. “A sign of remorse, perhaps? The killer needed time to distance himself—or herself—from suspicion but hoped that the body would ultimately receive its last rites? Perhaps the killer feared that he would become a restless spirit without them? Who does that remind us of?”

“That could be anyone, Endan. Ask any person in Vaina and I bet they can tell you a story about restless spirits and vengeful ghosts. Besides, I expect that whoever did this had some experience with violence, perhaps a history of military service.”

Endan paused a moment to think about it. “Perhaps. The depth and width of the slice to poor Orren’s throat indicates strength if not skill. The cut is clean at the edges; there was no hesitation in making it. One fell sweep of the hand. Our killer either had experience in such an act or had determined the action well before-hand. This would have been a bloody-handed thing, though its time in the ditch has washed the body somewhat, so an experienced—or clever—killer would have stood behind when it happened.” He waved the knife over the boy’s neck in mimicry of the action.

“I had the same thought.”

“I’d say at first that it reminds me of a scout silencing a sentry, but there’s something of the butcher’s trade in it, too,” the doctor added.

“How so?”

“The boy’s head was jerked hard enough to dislocate the vertebrae. This is unlikely to have happened on its own, but with such a deep cut destroying much of the supportive tissue around it, the act would require violence of execution but not too much in the way of strength. It suggests that the killer pulled Orren’s head back to expose the throat but pushed it forward after finishing the slice. Like a butcher holds a goat’s or a pig’s head if it hasn’t been strung up, to let the blood flow freely and away from the butcher himself. To exsanguinate the creature. A soldier acting on habit would have let the body fall, moved on to the next task at hand, more likely.”

“But the boy was exsanguinated?”

“Most definitely. If he’d not been soon after the attack, some of the blood would have congealed in the body, but I’ve found none. The movement of the blood through the severed arteries would have accomplished bleeding him out at first, but at some point the boy may have needed to be hoisted by the legs to let gravity do the rest.”

“The killer knew he’d be transporting the body somewhere and didn’t want to leave a trail behind him.”

“Yes,” Endan nodded. “I believe so.”

“Then either multiple people had to have been involved or everything in the ambush had to be perfectly arranged beforehand.”

“With this much decay, it’s difficult to tell, but I’m not sure I see any signs of struggle. He was a calf to the slaughter. Quick and nothing to be done once the knife had struck. At least, that’s how it looks.”

“Then the boy definitely knew the killer, had some comfort around him or her. Had his guard down.”

“Or the killer used the Art on him,” Endan said, again writing the thought into the leather-bound notebook resting on his lectern. “Would you be able to detect that, lord thaumaturge?”

“This far after the fact? No. Every working leaves a lingering presence, one that can be read like a signature for those with the skill and enough knowledge of the practitioner. But they fade, some quicker than others. Only the most powerful linger more than a few days or weeks.”

“Too bad,” Endan mused. “Between you and I, we speak freely. But officially, the witch Falla did this, my lord says. I had hoped that the official and the unofficial might be one and the same.”

“They are not, I’m afraid,” I told him.

“I see. Well then, I hope you find justice for the boy, since I cannot.”

I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t there for that. But it didn’t matter.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 39

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

My feet raced nearly as fast as my mind as I followed Falla’s directions to where she’d seen Nilma, in a drainage ditch in the wheat fields on the other side of Vaina, between the town and the witch’s cottage. I’d thought that Magaréil had lied when it had posed as Orren’s ghost and accused the bride-to-be, but now I could not be so sure. How else might she know where to find his body?

I wondered also whose help she might have had in the murder; I still felt her incapable of the deed on her own, though I couldn’t exactly articulate why.

Daedys had recovered his senses enough to trail behind me, and a second train of thought wondered how I’d keep him from exacting some revenge before we discovered the full truth of things.

Certainly, he was not averse to violence when it suited him. With the binding of Magaréil, a long-comfortable aspect of his life in Vaina had suddenly been pulled out from under him, and I couldn’t help but think that such instability would not prove helpful to rational thought. I’d no desire to fight him, much less to kill him. That itself seemed strange to me after I’d killed three of his lackeys. I reasoned that I’d done that in self defense, that being the difference, and had nothing to defend myself from with him, at least not at present.

We didn’t speak as we traveled. For what reason would we? He knew what had happened to his men if I’d showed up at the wedding—the details didn’t particularly matter. And I knew enough about his involvement in, and then resistance of, Magaréil’s cult for my investigation. We may have been momentarily united in purpose, but there was no trust between us, and we at least had the courtesy not to force one another to lie.
Falla did not accompany us, though I’d no idea what other, more pressing, matter she had to attend to. Still, I couldn’t be in more than one place at a time, so I had to prioritize. My investigation took precedence.

We moved in zig-zag patterns, skirting the perimeters of the square fields of wheat, barley, and other grains, following the edges of enclosures for cattle or sheep. The farmers looked up from their work, briefly, nodding respectfully to their constable, making the sign of the Tree at me. It mattered not; I’d grown a bit accustomed to the gesture now, and it seemed to mark those who felt too powerless to take any real action against me. Ironic that I found a symbol of my own safety in such a gesture when had first proved so intimidating.

After nearly an hour of travel, the suns beating down upon us with the heat of the late afternoon, we finally came across a ditch next to one of the fields where Nilma sat, cradling Orren’s rotting cadaver and sobbing.

Daedys began to move in front of me, but I held him back, throwing a glance over my shoulder that conveyed the intensity of purpose I now felt. He stopped where he was and let me move closer without him.

I stopped at the edge of the ditch and knelt down, hoping it would make me less daunting to an already-distraught young woman. It didn’t.

Nilma looked up at me, eyes blurred with tears, still cradling the putrid remains of Orren’s half-buried corpse. When she realized who I was, she spat. Even from the distance I stood, the stench rankled and nauseated me. I tried to fight back any reaction, lest it worsen a delicate situation.

I decided not to speak first. Instead, while I waited for the uncomfortable silence to spur her to conversation, I gathered what details I could about Orren’s resting place.

A layer of brown sludge covered the ditch’s trough, making it a quagmire of water retained after recent rains. Orren’s body remained half concealed under the muck his tattered and worm-eaten shirt clinging to his body like some bloody flag fallen on a battlefield. But there was no blood, the clods of mud stuck haphazardly to his torso and face having a decidedly lighter hue. Of course, sitting in wet avar, rotting and bloating, would make any determination of the body’s original state before its deposition speculative at best.

The likely cause of death, though, was obvious; the boy’s throat had been slit from under one ear to the other, the wound deep and ragged, exposing the glint of dirty spine underneath. From that orifice, the water and mud would have entered the body, quickening deterioration under the hot suns, leaving us less to discover from the corpse than I’d hoped for. At a minimum, the appearance of the wound made clear that the attack had not been made in the heat of passion. It may have been quick, a surprise ambush, but it would have had to have been planned, premeditated. The killer would have either had to hold the boy down or stood behind him to get such a thorough cut through the neck. I bet on behind, where the arterial spray would have been less likely to cover the killer and inhibit an escape.

The location also made clear that the murder had not occurred here. This field lay at the edges of the farmers’ fields ringing Vaina, the ditch on the outward-facing edge of the field, where the farmer would be unlikely to pay much attention until harvest time—barring some unforeseen event in the interim, at least.

No, I supposed that the body had been moved here, dumped so that it was unlikely to be found. How then had Nilma come across it?

The young woman wiped a tear from her face, leaving a smudge of wet avar across her cheek. Her wedding dress had been torn and ruined by the absorption of the ditchwater and even more putrescent liquids. I stared at her now, hoping to glean some insight into her mind by her appearance and behavior. My mind dragged now after the confrontation with Magaréil and my overuse of the Art; had I wanted to use less conventional means to steal her thoughts from her, I still would have been unable to. And, as I said before, I had no desire to walk down that path of the Art, not for all the advantages it might have. The fruit it would bear would be poisoned, indeed.

Nilma’s expression indicated despair. Not despair at being discovered; it had neither resignation nor defiance of expected consequences. No, it carried the sorrow of memory, of tragedy relived in the mind but that could never be changed, never rewritten. I realized then that she had, for better or worse (and I supposed the latter), loved Orren, despite the treatment she’d received at his hands. I’m told that love is a many-splendored thing, the greatest of all possible relationships to be had by any spirit, anywhere. But my experience, of both reality and the ballads, is that love is more often tragic.

But in that moment, I knew that she had little to do with Orren’s death. I remained unwilling to say “nothing,” because I’d seen plenty of unintended consequences of act or omission lead to the injury of a loved one, and I expected the same to be likely here.

“Orren’s spirit lied!” she said, softly, still choking back tears.

“I know,” I told her in the gentlest voice I could manage.

She looked at me in disbelief. “How?”

“Because I have the Sight, and I saw that the spirit pretending to be Orren to spoil your wedding was an impostor.”

“Impostor? From where?”

“Never mind that now.”

Deadys stood far enough back that he couldn’t hear our conversation. “What are you doing over there…lord thaumaturge? Pull her out of that ditch so that I may arrest her and bring her to justice.”

I threw him a glance, more threatening than the first, that warned him against making further demands of me at such a time. His frustration caused him to pace as I continued my conversation with the young woman.

“How did Orren come to rest here?” I asked.

“I—I don’t know,” she replied.

“Then how did you come to find him here?”

“I didn’t believe them when they said he’d left town. So I looked for him. I spent all of my free time in the mornings and the evenings looking for him. One day, about a month after he left, I found him here.”

“And you’ve told no one that he was here?”

“No.”

“Despite the fact that his spirit attacked you? Despite the fact that his spirit torments Lady Aevale even now?”

“I—I didn’t want to lose him.”

It was a fool’s answer, to be sure, but foolish enough that I believed it. Love does strange things to a person’s mind.

The sound of heavy footsteps interrupted our conversation. I turned, expecting to see Daedys advancing once again, but instead I saw only his back, turned against newcomers, his sword drawn. I stood and turned as well, but without pulling my blade before I understood the situation.

Dalen im Valladyn waddled closer, three of his lackeys pacing slowly before him, armed with halberds. They stopped far enough away that no blows could be exchanged. At their distance, none of them could see what was in the ditch behind us, but they knew all the same. They’d come looking for the woman in the first place, and someone had told them where to search.

“Nilma?” the father called.

“Father?” daughter responded.

At that, Dalen took a step forward, but Daedys brought his sword into a ready stance, stopping the fat man in his tracks.

“She’s under arrest,” Daedys said, voice cold and irrefutable.

“Now, now, Master Constable,” the merchant returned. “I’m sure we need not be so hasty as to take the ramblings of a mad spirit as evidence.”

“That accusing spirit was my nephew, what evidence more do you need?”

“But it wasn’t, Daedys. You know that,” I reminded him.

He responded to me without turning his gaze from the Valladyni intruders. “But she knew where to find the body. And she lied about it.”

“That doesn’t make her a murderer,” I told him.

“Yes, listen to the Lord Thaumaturge. He speaks reason,” im Valladyn interjected.

“Shut up,” Daedys and I said to him, almost in unison. The merchant stepped back at the affront, as if slapped. His men brought their halberds into readied positions.

“I’ve talked to her,” I pleaded. “She had feelings for your nephew—strong ones—but she didn’t kill him.”

“She’s lied to you before,” he protested. “There are better ways of putting her to the question.” That was the wrong thing for him to say.

“Like you tried to do to me?” I asked, anger surging. He’d made me kill men, and no amount of temporary camaraderie would assuage the blame I held him to for that.

“I—” he attempted.

“That is quite enough,” im Valladyn said, not in the voice of a warrior but in the voice of a father whose petulant child has driven him to exasperation. It wasn’t entirely inappropriate, I suppose. “You will turn over my daughter to me, or there will be blood.”

I pulled my staff, which I’d left lying at the edge of the ditch, to my hand with a minor sorcery. The polearmed retainers stepped back at that, expecting more. I had no more to give after confronting Magaréil, but they need not know that.

“Are you sure that’s what you want, Dalen im Valladyn?” I warned.

“Want? Want has nothing to do with it! You will give me my daughter!”

He was right, of course. No petty theatrics would dissuade him from his parental duties. I drew my sword, letting the point fall low toward the ground, and took a place at the constable’s side, forming a two-man wall between the interlopers and the ditch. “I’m sorry, Master Dalen, but this must be done the right way. And I do have more questions for your daughter before we are done, though I assure you that no harm will come to her.”

The halberdiers took another step forward, but Dalen raised his hand and called for them to halt. “Wait! Maybe there is another way that we can rectify this. You know I am a man of means. Perhaps we can come to an arrangement of some sort that benefits everyone more than violence?”

“Damn you, im Valladyn,” Daedys growled. “Thinking your wealth sets you above the rest of us. I’ll not let you subvert justice with your filthy lucre!”

I wasn’t sure that either of them had but the most tenuous grasp of justice at this point, but neither was justice my primary concern. Nilma might have more information that I could use; I’d not let that opportunity pass by.

Im Valldyn looked to me, eyebrow arched. What made him still think he could buy me defied belief and offended me to my core. “No, Master Dalen. This will not be about money.”

“Isn’t it, though?” He returned. “That’s why you’re here in the first place, isn’t it?”

He wasn’t wrong, but a man has to have a code. “I’m a professional, not a mercenary,” I told him. “I made an oath to Lord amn Vaina to see my investigation to the end, and I intend to do just that.”

The merchant drew in a deep breath of exasperation and resignation. “So be it,” he said. “Put them down, but try not to kill them,” he told his retainers.

The men moved forward cautiously, warily observing our stances as they approached, searching for some weakness of defense. Thinking he’d found one, the first of the halberdiers pulled his weapon back to strike at me. I moved sword and staff together to ward what would undoubtedly be a heavy blow.

It never came. Instead, a gunshot pierced the air. Too distant to have been fired by one of the combatants, but close enough to throw a shiver down every man’s spine. The sound of hooves followed the crack of the weapon, and we were soon surrounded by Lord Aryden and several of his guardsmen, arranging themselves in a semi-circle against the ditch.

The lord had shoved the arquebus he’d fired into a sheath on his saddle and now held one of his wheelock pistols. “Throw down your arms,” he said.

We did as we were told, all of us. What alternative was there?

From horseback, Aryden could see Nilma in the ditch, still holding onto Orren’s putrefying corpse. “Good God, girl!” he exclaimed. “What in all the hells are you doing down there in the mud clutching a dead boy?”

He looked to me, expecting some explanation. “Daedys and I found her here like this,” I said. “I don’t think that she’s responsible for Orren’s murder, but she did know that the body was here. Has for some time, it seems.”

“My lord, if I may—” Dalen began.

“You may not, Master im Valladyn. I’m sorry, but your daughter will be coming with me. She’ll be treated as a guest, of course, until we’ve got this all sorted out. Go home and wait for me to send for you.”

“But—”

“Go home!” Aryden’s command was unquestionably final. Dalen’s retainers hesitated until their lord indicated that they could recover their weapons, at which point they picked them up and moved swiftly through the gap between horses that Aryden’s men allowed. Dalen waddled behind, muttering to himself.

“Lord thaumaturge, I believe you have a good deal to explain to me about what’s befallen us these past hours. Walk with me,” He turned to his own retainers. “Passyl, please escort Mistress Nilma to the castle and have Eldis prepare a room and fresh clothing for her. Sateros and Gallo, recover the body and bring it to Master Endan for examination.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 38

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

“How’re we going to fight a spirit with swords?” Daedys asked when we’d at last entered the clearing where I’d first encountered the cult. The place thrummed with Power spilling into the Avar.

“We don’t. I use the Art.” I responded.

“Then why’d you send us out for weapons?” Barro asked, pushing up the coif that had fallen forward and partially obscured his eyes.

“Because I don’t expect this spirit to be alone.”

Daedys’ eyes narrowed, and I knew that the thought had dawned on him that he might be killing his fellow cultists, the fellow downtrodden of Vaina whom he had meant to protect with his anger and plotting. For my part, I began to wonder how I’d explain away to Barro the appearance of armed townsfolk defending the spirit without breaking my vow to Falla. But there’d be time for that, a more immediate danger was already manifesting.

Speak of the dark one and, thus, he appeareth. The air thickened as the spirit formed itself from some mysterious confluence of air and the Power that saturated its sanctuary, assuming now the form of the green man I’d previously observed through the Sight. He…it…stood taller than a human man, perhaps by a head, and it gave off an aura of authority and splendor that insinuated itself in the mind, predisposing one to deference and timidity. Of course it had formed a cult around itself; this seemed as natural a course of events as the daily rise and setting of the suns, the regularity of the tides and seasons, the inevitability of death and the Path.

I raised my staff in preparation to defend my cohorts against the supernatural attacks I expected from the Orösave, but Magaréil, to my suprise, wanted to talk. “Lord thaumaturge,” it said, voice as mellifluous as a spring breeze, “It is not too late to accept my offer, though the priest may not be allowed to tell of our bargain, and—”

“What bargain?” Barro asked, taking a wide step from my side.

“It wanted me to remain silent that it had masqueraded as Orren’s spirit,” I told him. “But instead, we are here.”

Umbrage at the temerity of a natural spirit against the realm of humanity took hold of Barro now, and he addressed Magaréil directly. “To what end such a ruse? Why attack my lord now?”

The spirit smiled. “Your lord’s ambition has exceeded his grasp,” Magaréil half-sung in response. “I have a dominion here, too, and I shall not allow his machinations to pose a threat to me.”

“A threat? How do the amn Esti threaten you? What has a marriage between mortals to do with…such as you,” the priest said, contempt gathering in his voice.

“None of your concern, priest,” Magaréil snapped. It turned its attention back to me. “There is much I could offer you, Iaren amn Ennoc. I have seen ancient secrets with my own eyes that few in the Avar know ever existed at all. I have made bargains with practitioners of the Art many times in the past. I will do so again. The question is whether you will be my ally or my enemy. You must choose, now.”

I swallowed hard before responding. “You have this final chance to leave Vaina and never return,” I said, feeling as if I was watching myself utter them, as if a stranger spoke in my place. “If you do not, I will banish you, Magaréil. You much choose…now.”

The Orösave lost its smile at hearing its name. I’d no idea how close to correct my pronunciation of it had been, for I’d never heard the nuance of its utterance from the being to whom it was attached. Nevertheless, just having the name at all gave me some power I otherwise would not have had. Between that advantage and the Power infusing this place, I might just stand a chance.

Magaréil turned to now to Daedys, knowing the source of its betrayal. In a way I cannot fully describe, the Orösave’s being suddenly took on the aspect of summer in its anger, radiating now not the intoxicating beauty of an early spring but the oppressive heat of the dog days.

But before Magaréil could speak to denounce Daedys’ treachery, a shot rang out, the ball from the constable’s little wheelock pistol passing through the spirit as through so much gathered smoke, just as had done when some of the wedding guests had attempted the same.

A roar like a deafening wind issued from Magaréil’s spectral mouth, driving the loose forest detritus in a whirlwind about the clearing, requiring us to lean forward lest we lose our feet. Then came the sound of creaking wood, as of a boat whose sails strain against the wind, and I looked round to see the ash trees ringing the glade pulling their roots from the ground, shaking the dirt from them, and standing solidly atop them like so many feet. The limbs of the animated trees variously became knotted like clubs or spearpointed at every shoot and stalk.

Now Barro and Daedys closed ranks with me against the impending onslaught. I raised my free hand and extended a lance of fire at the nearest animated tree, the quick and powerful sorcery a benefit of our presence in this place of Power. My target burst into flames, causing its fellows to recoil violently from it as it ran a panicked and irregular course through the space in the clearing, its many legs of disproportionate sizes rapidly pulling it along like the tendrils of an octopus more than any creature that lived on land.
Still, the others pressed in, and we defended ourselves with blade, staff and mace against the relentless assault of sharp or bludgeoning branches. Our weapons made some good defense to ward away the strikes but did little to damage our attackers. Were I could, I shot more gouts of flame at the wooden warriors, but Magaréil again called down a heavy rain that quenched the fires and protected its minions against further conflagration.

While the ashes presented the most immediate threat, we were lost if I could not confront Magaréil itself. Only when its power had been contained would we be free from danger. But no such opportunity presented itself, and the trees pushed ever closer, knowing that our weapons were of little threat to them.

I tried another conceit, dropping to my knees in hopes that my brothers in arms would be able to shield me—even momentarily—from the onslaught. In my mind’s eye, as I began to chant in Gwaenthyri, so that I knew Magaréil would understand, I thought of fall and winter, of falling leaves, of mushrooms growing on dead trees, of the rot and decay that accompanied every living thing. I imagined a blight upon a tree I had once observed, an arboreal sickness much akin to the plagues that affect the Naming Folk. I imagined it spreading to these trees, and when I opened my eyes I saw the bark of the ashes turning mottled grey and black, the leaves falling from once-healthy branches, which at the very least allowed Barro and Daedys to see the weapons arrayed against us more clearly.

But Magaréil had the Power available here, too, and quickly set about to counter my working. Decay struggled against new life, with the bark of the trees passing back and forth between healthy and blighted as if being washed back and forth by unseen waves. Limbs would become brittle and break off as they crashed against Barro’s shield or received a blow from his mace; sproutlings with little budding leaves would erupt from these wounds, quickly growing into new spears or blunt instruments. Our minds clashed, each seeking to overcome the other’s working and, for a brief moment, I reveled in the conflict with such a capable opponent—not a fellow practitioner in the true sense, but a wielder of the Power nonetheless. It was, in short, an opportunity to truly test what I’d learned in my private studies after leaving the university, whether my efforts bore fruit.
I found that they did as we struggled, with every fresh assault on my working from Magaréil I managed some subtle change in the pattern of the working to maintain its effectiveness. For a time at least. I knew, in that part of my mind not dedicated to perpetuating the working against the Orösave’s soldiers, that all I was doing was biding time. Time enough perhaps to invent some other, more effective, strategy. But perhaps not.

Barro and Daedys continued to hack at limbs that rotted, shattered, and regrew afresh before their eyes. They said nothing, only grunted as they blocked, parried, counterattacked as best they could. Kneeling between them, I had some modicum of shelter from the storm (both literal and figurative). Even with this temporary respite, however, I was losing the battle of wills. The Orösave was in its element; we were playing it’s game. As long as that remained the case, I stood little chance. Rain beat down upon us, denying me the opportunity to use more fire. At least, not directly. Another thought passed through my mind, and I began to draw on the Power that pervaded the glade.

The sky had darkened and become stormy in fulfilling Magaréil’s will for rain. From these dark clouds, I drew down bolts of lightning, flashing bright enough to temporarily blind us, deafening us with every accompanying crack. But each time a bolt struck one of the trees, the animating spirit fled as the bark blackened and split, leaving charred and broken bodies behind.

For a moment, the three of us grinned to one another, a sudden hope filling us. But then we saw freshly-animated trees joining the fray, and we thought of how much fodder Magaréil truly had in the midst of a forest. Hope sank into despair; I made what signs of apology I could to my compatriots as we prepared to be overwhelmed and overrun.

But, as the ringing in our ears returned to some semblance of normal hearing, we heard the voice of a newcomer to the fight. That voice raised no fearsome warcry, no bellow of rage, no pompous taunt, no challenge to enemies. Instead, we heard a melody, lilting in ancient language, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. Falla’s voice.

She walked slowly, gracefully, into the clearing, the rain breaking against some invisible barrier around her as if loath to touch her against her wishes. Her feet made no sound as she tread, no crunch of leaf or branch, no shift of odd stone, no scrape against root or hard-packed avar. A gentle wind blew into the clearing alongside her, and small animals trailed behind, awestruck by her song, desperate to hear it for as long as they could.

When the melody fell upon the trees attacking us, they fled into the deeper forest, seeking the comfort of their still-sleeping brethren. Magaréil roared with a voice that reminded me of rushing rivers and rising floodwaters, of landslides and avarquakes. But his fury only revealed that he had little wherewithal to contradict a force so ancient, so brimming with primordial Power, so pure that it must have come from the Firstborn themselves, perhaps a song sung by Avarienne to her first progeny when the Avar was young indeed.

I rose to my feet, hair standing on end in the aftermath of the lightning strikes, pushing myself up by my staff. With the Flux dissipating from the massive displays of the Art, the massive Power drawn and shaped in a place already receptive to sympathetic contagions, the rain turned to snow at the same time the flowers began to bloom as if the spring had come, fresh and sudden. The darkened clouds now blocked out the light of the suns and the Avar became far darker than it had any right to be in the mid-afternoon. In the shadows cast by the trees and the clouds, one could make out the almost-imperceptible forms of people, masked and naked, dancing and making supplication to Magaréil. Not spirits, truly, but fragments what had been, echoes of souls that had once been in this place, resounding like shadows cast against the cave wall of the future by an invisible, eternal flame of the Power, of raw possibility and Creation itself.

Such sights had little effect on me; I’d seen their like enough before to know them for what they were. But the writhing images—or, more likely, the hoarse whispers of Gwaenthyri chanting that accompanied them, held Barro and Daedys as if transfixed.

Magaréil focused on Falla. “Finally, you have come here to challenge me,” it said to her. “I have long felt your fear from afar, have heard my people whisper about your petty incantations and false potions, while drew power has dwelt nearby you since before even your mother had come to this place. Who do you think taught her the things she knew? The things she taught you, that you have corrupted. Diluted. I wondered when your jealousy would get the better of you, when you would seek to truly usurp me for the favor of my people, instead of living off of the scraps of my wisdom and my benevolences.

But did you think do have a chance against a mind centuries your senior, studied in esoterica you could never hope to find in your own travels, for they have long since been lost to your kind?”
The hedge witch turned away from him, tossing her cloak out behind her as if brushing him aside. She continued to sing her ancient song, and the snow, too, refused to damped her hair or clothes. The nonchalance of it was once of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. That was true power. Not the kind we practitioners borrow from what The One has left us to use, but a power that comes from conviction of oneself. I don’t know whether she had ever been jealous of Magaréil, or if it spoke the truth about her mother and the source of their knowledge. But I know that, in that moment, I was jealous of Falla, for no number of titles, nor dusty tomes, nor prestigious educations, can bestow what she demonstrated in her defiance of the Orösave.

It was Magaréil who proved coward, afraid of the power Falla wielded in the beauty of a song. While her back was turned, the spirit’s arm became like a venomous snake, lashing out across the too-wide distance with ease. But I stood ready with my staff and interposed myself between, the whip-like snake rebounding off of the shield of force I conjured with a sudden sorcery.

“We could have been such allies,” it said to me, seemingly sickening under the effects of Falla’s song. It’s voice was pitiable instead of fierce, desperate rather than imperious, forlorn over haughty.

I dropped the shield and my staff, pulling key and binding disk from my belt. Holding both aloft and drawing upon the Power, I focused on the spirit, my own confidence bolstered by Falla’s continued melody.

“Magaréil, in the name of Lady Avariennë, I bind you to my will…” I began.
A buzzing filled my ears, like a swarm of stinging insects surrounding my head, as the Orösave initiated a final assault on my mind. Though no creatures actually encircled me—Falla’s song had prevented the spirit from such an exercise of its power—I could feel the sensation of pricks and stings, painful and distracting. A clever ruse, I must now admit, and it almost distracted me enough from my working for it to fail. Almost.

“Magaréil, in the name of Lady Taelainë, I bind you to my will,” I continued, striking the key against the binding disk with each statement, my voice straining against the psychic onslaught of imagined bees and wasps. “Magaréil, in the name of Lady Melqéa, I bind you to my will! With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the East. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the West. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the South. With the authority of the Three Mothers, I bind you from the North. I bind your will to mine own. I bind your spirit to the stone I hold before me. You shall take no action I do not permit. You shall harm no one. You reside within the stone until I summon you. You shall obey my commands until I release you. By the secret names of The One, I bind you!”

The snow and the insects stopped suddenly, replaced by a flash of light and a wave of heat that scorched the life out of the grass and trees surrounding the glade, leaving behind parched and dry plants like those suffering under an extended drought. The avar had become dry, gone was the mud softened by Magaréil’s driving rains. The confrontation, my workings and Magaréil’s own uses of the Power, to say nothing of Falla’s sad ballad, had drained the place of its Power. But only temporarily, for the Veil was thin here and Power would continue to leak in from parts unknown.

Gone, too, was the spirit itself, though the subtle thrumming of the disk in my hand assured me of its presence there. The binding had worked, thanks not to my own power as a practitioner of the Subtle Art, but to the ancient and secret song Falla had brought to our aid.

I turned to find that Barro had departed. When, exactly, he’d lost his nerve and run I couldn’t say, but I supposed that it didn’t much matter, either. Daedys was in the process of recovering his senses, albeit slowly.

The witch had ceased her singing and approached now, a subtle smile of self-satisfaction writ large across her face. “Well, that’s one threat to Vaina dealt with,” she said.

“Where did you learn that song?” I asked, my curiosity and wonder plainly evident.

“A story for another time,” she returned. “You’ve got more pressing matters at hand.”

I looked at the disk in my hand.

“Not that, either,” she explained. “That can wait now that the spirit is bound. I came across Nilma on my way here. She’s with Orren’s body.”

“What? How?”

“I don’t know, but I figured you’d want to see it.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 37

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

The thought that I’d killed a man, when there’d no longer been any real need, rattled me as I made my way to the courtyards of Vaina castle. Falla’s words echoed in my mind, whether I’d be a killer. I’d come to Vaina looking for one, or at least that’s where the path had taken me. Guess I’d found one.

The day had grown hot and the warm blood from my finger, my face and my would-be assassin never grew cool, only hardened and caked into a congealed brown putty that clung stubbornly to flesh and stained clothing. Fortunately, the browns of the dried blood weren’t far off enough from the earth-tones of my everyday clothes to be very conspicuous. I stopped by one of the public wells in Outer Vaina on the way to wash off what I could. Thus cleaned, I continued the journey.

I arrived in time to find a place at the back of the gathered crowd, standing in two loose groups facing the stage that had been erected only earlier that morning. Hedges composed of tall bushes planted into sacks and set in compressed lines at the perimeter of the space created the feeling of an enclosed garden, perhaps of the kind one might find in the Upper City of Ilessa. Potted trees, carefully arranged flowering plants and those clay statues displayed at the previous night’s celebrations completed the illusion. Had my mind not been otherwise occupied, I might have wondered at the ability of Aryden’s servants and hired planners to create a space at once so foreign and so inviting.
Two rows of those flowering plants, blooming in the house colors of the amn Esti, created an aisle through the center of the garden, separating the two crowds and leading to a set of stairs onto the platform, which had been wreathed in vines and brightly-colored plants so thick that those beams framing the altar to The One could hardly be observed.

In front of that altar, arrayed in his finest, Barro smiled to the crowd, waiting patiently for the signal to begin. I’d nestled in with the retainers of some of the prominent families of Vaina, where my dress would not be out of place and where few would find me—if anyone looked.

I spotted Daedys im Varde, or at least the back of him, toward the front of the crowd, behind the amn Vaini and im Valladyni. I could sense no sign of discomfort in him, but, then again, he’d been hiding his membership in Vaina’s cult for years. He’d become as used to dissembling as the nobility and their courtiers. Moreso, perhaps.

Across the divide created by the plants, the amn Esti and their retainers congregated in similar fashion. Soft music without vocal accompaniment, the strings of a viol and a lute, lilted over the crowd. These sounds mingled with the smells from the makeshift garden, filling ears and nose with a sensation of hospitable decorum enhanced by subtle notes of soporific satisfaction.

To this melody, Lorent amn Vaina approached the stage through the center aisle. He wore the same clothes as the night before, a hint at the family’s desperate finances, but nevertheless moved with such self-assured nonchalance that none would dare question the nobility of his birth. Upon ascending the short steps to the stage, he exchanged brief bows with Barro and with the altar before turning also to face the crowd. The smile on his face indicated that he’d found Nilma plenty agreeable a match.

The air thickened around me, ever so slightly, but I recognized the feeling at once. A spirit pushing its way through the Veil, preparing to manifest. Orren’s ghost had not, to my knowledge or experience, manifested during the day but, given its power and the immediate sense of its approach, I had no reason to doubt that it could. I looked about me to see if anyone else felt thus disturbed but found no signs of another person aware of the impending presence.

Now Nilma appeared at the entrance to the garden, appareled in a fine gown also in the amn Esto colors, greeted by the customary sighs and comments about beauty and the like. Lady Aevala’s handmaids attended her as she moved toward the stage, her father beaming from the front row of those gathered. This was it: the elevation of a new noble family, the salvation of an old one. Like her husband-to-be, upon ascending the steps she bowed to Barro and to the altar before taking her place across from Lorent, the two standing at angles to one another like two well-trained actors, open to both their partner and to the audience.

A further thickening in the air and a taste of copper in my mouth reminded me of the imminent appearance of the specter. A moved my hand to the wand at my side, hoping that the additional precision it offered might help avoid collateral damage in the inevitable confrontation.

Unaware, Barro opened his arms wide to the crowd and began to speak. “These two have come forth to be joined in marriage. Just as The One created the Firstborn and then all other living things in the cosmos so that They would have companionship, we also are meant to be brought together in solemn and loving pairs. We remember in the holy rite of marriage The One’s desire for intimacy with each of us, which was evidenced most clearly in Their condescension to us in the person of Ashaera, and we give thanks.”

He led the crowd in a communal prayer. We all knelt to partake, but I kept my head up rather than reverently down, scanning for the location and origin of the threatened invasion. The prayer ended before the spirit manifested, and Barro began to preach. I paid no mind, the rising tension within me distracting me from any attentiveness. For a moment, I wondered if I should seek some better vantage point, both for finding the spirit as it manifest and for working the Art against it. Moving from the crowd at this point would only draw attention, and I couldn’t be sure that the ghost wasn’t simply baiting me, trying to trip me into making yet another scene that impeded the plans of amn Vaina and amn Esto, destroying what dwindling credibility I had left. So I stood still as I could and waited.

The priest continued to drone on; I could see people in the crowd begin to wonder how much longer this would take, how soon they could return to drink and revelry. Finally, reaching to the altar, Barro pulled free a long and thick ribbon in the amn Esto colors, trimmed and embroidered with golden thread. Bringing together the right hands of both Nilma and Lorent, the priest lashed them together with the ribbon, saying, “this binding is an outward signifier of an inward truth, that Wyrgeas has brought these two together, but only love and respect for one another and reverence for The One shall sustain them. They shall be bound together until death parts them and, if they and The One will it, even beyond.”

But before Barro could begin the vows, a crack as of thunder pierced the air, and a green fog spewed forth from a portal opening in the sky above the stage and the intended. Clawed fingers gripped the edges of the portal and pulled through the likeness of a putrescent corpse, larger than a human, rotting and tormented.

With a voice that itself clawed at the mind and ears as it rasped, the specter moaned, “I have come to name my murderer! The bride before you, Nilma, killed me with poison, and I will neither rest nor cease to afflict this place until she is brought to justice and life pays for life!”

The sudden appearance of the spectral being drove the quickest-reflexed in the crowd running before it even began to speak, pushing over the carefully-arranged hedge walls—and each other—in their attempts to flee. Others stood dumbfounded, frozen in place watching the apparition as it cried for vengeance.

Having expected such a manifestation, my mind had not been stymied like the those around me, and my facilities of intuition and deduction continued to function. I realized that, had Nilma murdered Orren and revenge against her been his motivation, he’d likely have revealed such facts long before rather than waiting until now. I gave myself over to the Sight and looked anew at the intruding ghost.

Though the spirit had the outward appearance of Orren, uncannily similar to what I’d observed when I first encountered his phantom in the cellars of Vaina Castle, the Sight revealed something altogether different.

Stripped of the illusory pretense it had gathered around itself, the spirit appeared in the shape of a man, skin green-tinged and perhaps a bit hirsute but built as someone used to pastoral labor. Small, flowering vines circled torso and limbs, the various colors of their buds giving the impression of the height of spring. The spirit wore a beard, short but wild, and antlers protruded from his forehead. Altogether, I had the impression of nature become a man. This, then, was the Orösave at the center of the Vaina cult.
Which meant that this also was my chance to play along with the charade and gain an ally. At the expense of Nilma’s life, and that I could not agree to.

By now, everything had become chaos. Several of the men who, against decorum but according to tacit expectation, had carried concealed wheelock pistols to the occasion, fired upon the manifest spirit, each ball leaving tendrils like blown smoke as they passed through the Orösave’s ethereal form.

Elsewhere, the attendees had fully scattered now, leaving the garden toppled and wrecked, a tangle of broken pots, spilled dirt and tangled vegetation. Upon the stage, Barro stood speechless, mouth agape in the presence of the supernatural force just over an arm’s length from him. Lorent and Nilma had retreated with the rest of their families. The spirit’s invading, infesting voice filled all of the space abandoned by the congregants, creating a claustrophobic oppression all about.

Daedys still stood near the stage, a look of cold determination having gripped him. In surveilling the scene, he spotted me. Immediately, he began to clear the ground between us. I drew my sword but held the point down in an attempt to demonstrate that I would defend myself if necessary but wanted no violence. He drew his own blade but stopped far enough away that neither could close the distance in a lunge.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” He yelled. Thunder cracked in the air above us, heavy droplets of rain beginning to haphazardly fall around us, the Orösave having brought a summer cloudburst with him to further frighten and confuse his victims.

“You believe that?” I said, almost incredulous. “You’re smarter than that. That’s not your nephew; it’s your true master.”

“You lie!” Despite his frustration, he maintained his distance.

“Why would I?”

“Because it’s what Aryden wants!”

“Fuck what Aryden wants.” I told him, the wind picking up into short gales that rolled the overturned plants along the ground. The rain had become fuller now, heavy in its frequency as well as the size of its droplets. “Aryden paid for the truth; that’s what he’s going to get. Nilma isn’t it. You know that the spirit was plotting something, but you didn’t know what. See how this fits? Stop the marriage between the amn Esti and the im Valladyni, hurt the amn Vaini reputation, maybe put a stop to the Meradhvor marriage, too.”

Daedys’ frown curved upward into a grin, and he burst into laughter, the laughter of a man who realizes he’s the cause of his own tragedy, a madman. “If I hadn’t ordered you killed, you’d not have come looking for me, would you have? You’d have left me alone and focused on Magaréil, probably solved my problem for me.” He laughed more. “But now, this foolishness, this revelation, it is our undoing!”

“It doesn’t have to be,” I tried to assure him.

In his desperation, he had started to ignore me, turning away, his sword scraping against the ground. But my words called him back to me, his face still wide with that maniacal grin that did little to conceal his inner turmoil. “What do you mean?” he asked.

The priest had recovered his senses wherever he had hidden, and now sidled up to us. “What’s all this, then?” he asked.

“Those still willing to fight,” I told him, hoping he’d see Daedys’ demeanor as a result of fear rather than despair.

“Well, thaumaturge, how do we fight?” Barro asked. Overhead, the Orösave swooped and dove against those attendants it could still find, continuing its impostorship and summoning every acuity for terror it could.

I thought for a moment. “First we draw it away.”

Daedys, having decided that assisting me was his best play, collected himself and joined the conversation. “How do we do that?”

“We attack it at its home,” I returned.

“In the castle?” asked the priest.

“No. Despite appearances, this is not Orren’s ghost. It is another spirit.”

“Two spirits? By The One! We have an infestation! Who is summoning these spirits
against us? That which Falla, no doubt, in whom you naively trusted.”

“We can argue about that on the way. Collect whatever you need to take with you and we’ll meet back here as soon as everyone’s ready.”

“Why not go now?” Daedys asked.

“I need some things myself.”

Without waiting for responses, I made my way toward my room. As I should have expected, I encountered Aryden, Eldis and Gamven just inside the keep’s great hall.
The Lord amn Vaina looked to me upon my entrance, his face clothed not in anger, but fear. “Lord Thaumaturge,” he began, voice hardened in the manner of a warrior used to choking back his own dread, “what are you doing? What can you do?”

This confrontation had snapped him into the mode of captain rather than entitled lordling; it fit him well. Take stock of assets before giving orders. “I am taking care of this problem, my lord, but I need some of my tools to do so. I would very much like to explain to you the details, but I think you can agree that we’re better off if I confront the threat at hand first and explain after.”

“Agreed,” he said. “What can we do?”

“Wait. When the spirit departs, tend to those who’ve been wounded or who are otherwise frightened. Restore order. Tell them that this specter is not Orren but an impostor, a spirit intending to frighten them into stopping the wedding.”

“What? Why?”

“Later,” I said, already moving past him. From my room I recovered my staff, my engraved binding disk, the bell and the key from my thaumaturgical supplies. As an afterthought, I pulled free my pistols as well. I had no runic shot that I’d carved for an Orösave, so they wouldn’t be much good in the fight at hand, but I figured it better to have them than not.

Barro, clad in his hauberk and carrying his mace and shield, already sodden and slow in the rain, arrived in the ruins of the wedding garden at the same time I did. Deadys had slipped away long enough to find some drink; he held his free hand over the top of a wooden tankard to ward off the rain between drinks. When we arrived, he took a long, final swig and tossed the vessel into the mud.

“Do you know the way?” he asked me, his tone an attempt not to give himself away.

“Well enough,” I assured him, setting away. For now, the spirit above us failed to notice, continuing its phantasmal assaults on those few who remained in the courtyard, though most had already fled.

The rain lightened as we made our way through Vaina, stopping entirely once we’d passed the limits of the town. Still, by that point, our soaked clothes made trudging along slow and unpleasant as everything stuck to skin and chafed with every movement. I occasionally sent a look to Daedys for guidance and watched for his subtle signs of direction; Barro busied himself overmuch with searching for some unsuspecting ambush to notice.

At first I thought him foolish to waste such effort, but I  remembered that Daedys represented the not-so-loyal opposition to Magaréil’s plans, and it could be that some of the more fanatic cultists might forget their desire for secrecy in the defense of their master.

Barro tried to ask a few questions in hushed tones, but I silenced him quickly.

We struggled through the undergrowth and brush after leaving the road outside of Vaina, though the light of day made the journey easier than my first foray to the spirit’s place of Power. No sudden assault from cultists manifested itself, but every twisted vine that caught a foot, every deer path that seemed to loop back on itself, every thorny bush that pricked and scratched convinced me that the forest was resisting our approach in the subtle ways it could. But very soon, subtle confrontation would not be a possibility.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my line,” I told him.

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

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

“Huh?” The third man said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

“Very well, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought the same myself,” Daedys offered.

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face hardened, “And what are those?”

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

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

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

“I’m not familiar—”

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

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

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

“But you are?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am making progress, Aryden.”

“Which is?”

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

“That does not instill trust in said progress.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does that fit our situation?” Gamven asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lorent amn Esto?”

“Just so.”

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

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

“To keep watch again, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

“I’m doing everything I can.”

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

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To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To proceed to the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I-I heard noises,” he said feebly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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