Things Unseen, Chapter 52

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“No?”

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

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

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

“What do we do to break it then?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And what is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?”

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

“Vesonna,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I did not speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll banish him,” Aryden offered.

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

“How will you do that?”

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 50

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

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

“I’m seeing her now,” I said, dour.

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

“Thanks, Endan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Iaren?” he asked again.

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

“Are you alright?”

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

I said nothing, but turned to leave.

For the next chapter, click here.

Things Unseen, Chapter 49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t deny it?”

“That I killed the boy? No.”

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

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

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

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

“A reminder of what?” I continued.

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

“So you killed him for it?”

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

“Which was?”

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

“Then why kill him?”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Aryden. They didn’t.”

“What?”

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

“The witch had nothing to do with it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Speak plainly.”

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

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

“She must have.”

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

“No,” I told him.

“But—”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“Right,” I said, noncommittally.

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 48

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

Worvo’s Tavern in New Vaina constituted the farthest location to which I could flee without the appearance of abandoning the town altogether. By the time I arrived, little flecks of red made indeterminate shapes on the bandages wrapping my chest. The scratches underneath burned with a fire that made me wonder if I’d somehow absorbed the curse that Falla had intended for all of Vaina.

From behind the bar, Worvo first smiled to see my entrance and then frowned to see the state of me. I took a seat facing him, perching myself upon a stool next to the bar and leaning my sword to rest against the solid counter. Before I let the belt dangle to the ground, I removed a coin from my purse and set it on the bar, perhaps more forcefully than I’d intended.

The tavernkeeper raised an eyebrow at me. “My lord, that’s enough for a cask of ale,” he said.

I looked down to see the silver hawk I’d placed before him. “The day’s young, isn’t it?” I told him, my voice glum and without wit.

“It is, my lord.”

“Iaren,” I corrected.

He brought me a tankard filled with a sweet ale, refreshing in the summer’s morning suns, and especially after the heat of the bonfire. “Would you like something to eat, my—Iaren?”

“I’d rather not interrupt my drinking,” I told him.

For about an hour, I drank in silence, Worvo filling the cup when it ran low and occasionally looking over to see whether I might make some gesture indicating I wanted something else, but otherwise leaving me to my own devices.

Over and over, I ran through the past day’s events. The wedding ceremony, the conflict with Magaréil, finding Nilma with Orren’s body, the Aryden’s conspiracy, Edanu’s solicitation, Falla’s pleading, Nilma’s confession, the confrontation with Orren. But mostly this morning. I can’t say how many times Falla burned again in my mind, her tears becoming so much steam in the heat of the fire, escaping into the ether. I hoped that her spirit did so as well. More than once, I think, I whispered a prayer to her for forgiveness.

I could feel the ale taking effect as I’d hoped, replacing the weight of guilt with an air of carelessness. Not the sense of being free of care, mind you, but a feeling that, however bad, however many cares I had, everything was actually okay. In that moment, I understood the allure of drink from which some never escape.

The thought didn’t stop me, though it did slow me into comfortably settling into that state of mildly euphoric apathy rather than pushing beyond into senselessness altogether.
Time began to lose meaning, and I couldn’t tell you how long I sat there and drank before I noticed someone pulling up the stool beside me. Turning to see, I gritted my teeth. Edanu had interjected himself into my gray revelry.

“Fuck off,” I said before I’d thought of a greeting.

“Oh ho!” Edanu smiled, “Far from court now, aren’t we?”

I turned back to my drink, staring into the bottom of the cup in the hope that the courtier would simply disappear. I had something of a mind to make him, but neither the will nor the clarity of thought to make good.

“Perhaps I owe you an apology, my lord,” Edanu said. I turned to look at him, suspicious, and he continued, “It was not my intent to come here and disturb you or anger you—”

“Then why come at all?” I grumbled.

“Because you are owed gratitude for what you did this morning. Falla’s death curse could have ruined this place for a long time. Most folk won’t ever realize the extent of what you prevented—if they understand at all. But I do, and I thank you for protecting Vaina.”
“Had I thought about how you might have benefited, perhaps I’d not have acted. I’m not sure that this town is worth the defending. No one’s innocent here, I—” Mid-sentence, I realized that I had to include myself in that pitiable lot; my other thought fell dead in its tracks.

“Haven’t you read the Book, my lord? No one anywhere is innocent, save The One.” Edanu offered.

“But some are good, as much as they can be. Elsewhere, I mean. Not here.”

“And now we come to the true philosophy,” Edanu said, managing a meager smile, “empowered by drink, free from the conceits of courtly talk and Temple expectations.”

“You haven’t come to philosophize, Edanu.”

“Perhaps not, but I try to enjoy the unexpected benefits of my work wherever I can.”

“Cut the bullshit, then. Why have you come?”

“Pity,” he returned. “Yours is a mind I’d very much like to see into.”

“Not today. What do you want?”

“To revisit our previous conversation.”

“About your supposed ‘Place of Power?’ I don’t know anything today that I didn’t know yesterday.”

“Precisely!” Edanu pointed out. “I think you knew everything I needed when we last spoke. But I have more to tell you. I have spoken with my superiors, and—”

“How?” I asked, incredulous.

“Artifice, of course.” His response was nonchalant, perhaps even a gentle rebuke that I’d not assumed from the beginning that he was capable of such.

“What has that to do with me?”

“I could only make tentative promises to you yesterday in exchange for your assistance. Today I have a solid offer, to be memorialized in a written contract—and even fatebound, if you like—should you accept.”

“Not interested.”

“You don’t even want to hear the offer?”

“Not particularly.”

“It includes your family home in the Upper City of Ilessa.”

“That has not been my home for a long time, Edanu.”

“But it could be again.”

“I have no need for such a place. What would I do with it?”

“Whatever you wish; that’s not the sum of the offer. You would have servants, resources enough to conduct whatever research and study you would like, assurances that you’d be well provided-for should the Call take you, status and respect.”

“What else does the House want besides this Place of Power you so believe in? I told you I’d not be some shadowman working the shadows for House Meradhvor’s profit.”

Edanu smiled at my question, at the interest and consideration it evidenced. “Nor would such be asked of you. You would not be some expendable asset of the House, but a part of the family. We would arrange a marriage for you to one of the eligible Meradhvor women. You would have a place to belong.”

“Which Meradhvor woman?”

“That I couldn’t say for certain, but there are several who I believe would be suitable for you. Aisley Meradhvor of Uthcairn and Catryn Meradhvor of Unbronad were both mentioned; either would be…understanding of the Altaenin approach to the marriage relationship, should that be a concern for you.”

“How much money?” I continued, catching the hint of slur in my words.

“An allowance of one-thousand Ellas per year, plus additional compensation for services rendered.”

A respectable income for a gentleman or middling noble, more than enough to run the old amn Ennoc house in comfort. “Thank you,” I said.

“Does that mean we have a deal?” Edanu’s face brightened in hopeful expectation.

“Of course not,” I told him, “I just wanted to know how badly Meradhvor wants what it seeks.”

His face turned cold, hard. “Why turn our offer of friendship into one of hate? We’ll have this Place of Power with or without your help.”

“You’re not the first to offer me friendship as a thin veil over enmity and a desire for control, even in these last few days. Probably not the last, either.”

“If you live long enough,” Edanu threatened.

“The last to make such an offer did not get their way.”

“They weren’t House Meradhvor.”

“I—” I began, but before I could respond, a voice came from behind me, at the tavern’s door.

“What’s this, then?” It said. “Do you smell another fire coming? I think I smell a kindling smoke.”

I turned to see Lorent amn Esto standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the incoming light. To either side, an armsman with sword and buckler slung low on his belt, the same hope for violence on each face.

My hand grabbed my sword by the scabbard and I stumbled from the stool onto my feet—if only barely. The amount of alcohol I’d consumed hit me all at once, it seemed, as I stood, and the edges of everything in my vision blurred as they danced back and forth ever so slightly.

Lorent grinned to see me in such a condition, but a brief expression of doubt passed over him as he saw my bloody bandages. Quickly, the pleasure of finding me in such a state returned, whatever moral qualm about kicking a man when he was down he might have momentarily held fully fleeing from his mind.

Edanu stepped between us, his hands raised in the air and well away from the hilt of his own weapon. “Come friends—” he began.

“What, friends?” Lorent began, exaggeratedly looking about the tavern’s common room.

“I have no friends here save those I brought with me. I see a lackey of an Artificer House and a dispossessed and dissolute son of a noble family who plays at being a Practitioner of the Art. One who has wronged my wife personally, and must answer to me for it.” His hand moved to the hilt of the rapier he wore, but he did not yet pull it free from its home.

“You are mistaken, my lord,” Edanu said, his voice even and confident.

“Move, lackey. The amn Estos have no quarrel with Meradhvor, and I desire none,”
Lorent said to Edanu as the two bravos he’d brought with him moved towards either side of the room, flanking the two of us.

From behind me came Worvo’s voice. “Gentlemen,” he said in tones of forced hospitality and light-heartedness, “Perhaps I can offer all of you some of our finest wine. It is meant for your wedding, my lord amn Esto, but seeing as you’re here, I see no reason why—”

“No,” Lorent said. “We are not here to drink wine. Perhaps the blood of this villain you seem to be harboring, but not wine.” The young nobleman stepped forward now, only a pace away from Edanu, hand still on the grip of his rapier.

Edanu didn’t flinch. He subtly slid one foot back behind him slightly, readying to move quickly should the need arise. But he kept his hands held before his chest, palms open to the lordling. “My lord,” the emissary began, “Lord amn Ennoc is the reason your wife has been cleared of any guilt against the accusations made at your wedding. Which, I’ll remind you, is not yet complete. You might consider carefully how you behave in Lord amn Vaina’s demesne, since he holds your family’s fortunes in his hand.”

Lorent was right when he smelled a kindling fire. But it burned within me, not without. He’d struck the wrong nerve in reminding me how his wedding had led to Falla’s death. How my desire to protect Nilma and Vaina—from which he benefited—had let to her death. And now he came here to accuse and accost me?

Edanu had prepared himself to respond to Lorent’s movements, not mine. When I pushed him aside with the sweep of my arm, he lost his balance and moved obligingly. The lordling’s focus had likewise been on the emissary; when my fist suddenly replaced the object of his focus, the time for him to defend himself had already passed.
The blow took him in the nose with a satisfying crack, leaving him stumbling and cupping his face to staunch the flow of blood that poured forth. His two men drew their weapons now, as did Edanu and I. We each faced off against one of them, blades held close to the body in the cramped space of the common room. I blinked in an effort to make the two images of my opponent coalesce into a single target, which made me wonder for a second how I’d landed such a direct blow on the man’s master. Good Wyrgeas, I guess.

We each eyed one another in that tense sizing up that always precedes a fair bout of swordplay, but before the action started, the smell of actual burning caught my attention. My dueling partner’s, too, for he lowered the point of his sword and looked past me.
Not the smell of burning flesh this time, nor even of kindling. Matchsmoke, drifting lazily from the lit fuses of the matchlock arquebuses that Daedys’s men wielded as they piled in through the doorway, followed by the constable himself.

“My lord,” Daedys began.

“Yes?” Lorent and I both answered, his voice muffled behind his hands.

“My lord amn Esto, you seem to have injured yourself. If you’ll kindly return to your lodgings, I’ll send my lord’s doctor to tend to you. My lord amn Ennoc, my lord requires your presence, immediately.”

The amn Esto bravos sheathed their weapons, at which point Daedys’s men extinguished their firearms. The constable waived for me to follow, and I did, leaving Edanu behind.
We walked alone, the two of us. Back up the Vaina streets where, in the market places and around the taverns, folk drank and made merry, Falla’s death to them only a rare entertainment and spectacle punctuating a largely monotonous year.

The early distance we walked in quiet, Daedys’ men escorting Lorent and his retinue back to their lodgings.

“Why intervene? Lorent would probably have killed me and you’d not have to worry about me anymore,” I mused, still struggling somewhat to walk a straight line.

“If you’d told my lord everything that you knew, he’d probably be lighting a pyre for me right now, not sending me to fetch you. I treated you wrongly to threaten you before, and I beg your forgiveness for it. You’ve demonstrated your honor and discretion and I am in your debt. We have no quarrel. Besides, you really are the best chance I’ve got at finding out what happened to my nephew.”

He never looked at me as he spoke the words, instead continuing to watch the road. We returned to silence after that.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 47

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

I awoke in my assigned chambers, on my back in the bed, Aryden and Endan standing over me. Everything hurt, but especially my chest, where a layer of linen bandages wrapped what I could only assume were wounds Orren had caused in last evening’s confrontation.

My two attendants—Endan especially—exchanged quiet words and spoke to me as the doctor brought me a glass of mulled wine. But I wasn’t listening to them. Instead, I was trying to identify the faint smell that my befuddled mind told me meant something important. Behind the almost-whispers of those in the room, a faint sound entered through the open window, loud but muffled by distance.

Realization dawned on me, gripping my stomach and twisting it in its hands until I felt I would burst. Pain be damned, I sprang from the bed, nearly pushing Endan over (and fully spilling the wine) in my efforts to leave.

They’d left my pants and boots on me, fortunately, so I hastily threw my vest over my bandaged chest and grabbed my belt, sword and all. I rushed from the room, Aryden calling behind me.

I flew down the stairs, out of the keep, and through the castle courtyard, stumbling over myself occasionally in my haste but inexorably propelled by guilt and fear.
The jeers and jibes of a taunting crowd drew me forward through streets otherwise emptied of all inhabitants. The mass of people had overflowed from the market square and spilled into the streets radiating away from that place, forcing me to push through with elbows and shoulders.

The smell that had been at the edge of perception in my room now overshadowed all other scents as smoke bloomed into the air above us, darkening the rising brightness of the morning suns as the smell of burning blocked out the odors of those pressed against me. The smoke did drive out those creeping things that made their homes on the flesh and in the clothes of the townsfolk, though, and I cringed to see lice squirming out from under caps and mites scurrying out from collars.

That smoke did not yet carry with it the stench of burning flesh, and I thanked the One for the that, but the fires had been lit and that crescendo of flames and sickening perfumes had become inevitable.

The crowd’s heckling had become a deafening roar now that I was in the midst of it, and I could only occasionally hear Falla’s screams and maledictions from the raised pyre in the center of the square against which she’d been tied. Her voice, inevitably, drew my eyes to her.

She’d been clothed in only a filthy chemise, apparently to give her the look of a penitent. Thick ropes bound her arms behind her, wrapped around the pole that held her upright. Another ligature wrapped round her throat, tight enough to restrict her movement but loose enough not to restrict her voice. The crowd would not be sufficiently entertained if they could not hear her screams or laugh at her futile blasphemies.

Already, her feet began to involuntarily kick at the flames that licked at them, close enough to presage what was coming, not close enough for the burning to truly begin. Her head lolled as she struggled against her bonds, turning her attention skyward and then back to the crowd, straining to look behind her, where Barro, again accoutered in the formal gown of an officiant, practiced a stoic face belied by the righteous pleasure he took in watching the painful end of a seductive heretic who only existed to lead his flock astray.

Keeping a small circle between the massed townsfolk and the incipient bonfire stood a half-dozen of Aryden’s guardsmen, armored in half-plate, the visors of their sallets intimidatingly lowered, halberds held in a position of readiness. I thought of the men whom the lord had posted outside my bedchambers and wondered again whether these dour fellows were truly there to prevent my interference.

Damn me for letting Orren get the better of me! I’d intended to return to the woman—to my friend—after the confrontation, to find some way to let her escape the fate that Aryden had in mind for her. Bad wyrgeas may have prevented that effort entirely, but now it was Aryden’s own ambition ensuring that none could subvert his pawn from its intended sacrifice.

Despite the odds, my blood rose and my right hand went to the hilt of my sword, still held in its scabbard in my left along with the rest of my wrapped belt. The gawkers pressed tighter against me; I had no room to draw my blade, much less a way to quickly make it to the bonfire, fight off the guardsmen and extinguish the flames before they had passed the point of no return. Any one of those obstacles might have been a near insurmountable obstacle. Together, they were an impossibility, even for a practitioner of the Subtle Art.

So, I stayed, silent, watching. It was the least honor I could do her to face my own failure head-on. I burned within as she burned without, though I’m sure she had the worse of it.
The crowd’s enthusiasm rose to a crescendo as the first flames began to lap like waves against Falla’s feet, her flesh sizzling as she writhed in pain. Coughing and choking punctuated her screams; her muscles tensed involuntarily, flexing at the joints and straining against the ropes, her fist balled. Her skin pulled tight against her bones, a premonition of the corpse she was becoming.

I forced myself to watch, to avoid looking away. My head swam at the tumult of emotions, the roar of the spectators like a heavy burden pushing me down, my senses overwhelmed by the smells, sounds and sights. My fists clenched in sympathy, but I only observed in vain as the flames climbed her until she they wreathed her entirely, an aura of suffering that seemed to emanate from her rather than to consume her.

This caught my attention, and I expected what came next, though it surprised a part of me all the same. Falla’s head snapped forward from where it had previously lolled in excruciation; she stared a the crowd with dark eyes that bulged from their sockets. From a mouth chapped and peeling from the heat, shrunken against her teeth, she began to speak clearly and confidently in Gwaenthyri. Her voice echoed as if a choir, as if the spirits themselves were joining her in her condemnation of her murderers, in her death curse upon the gathered crowd.

In response, I did the unthinkable. If she pronounced her curse in its entirety, focused her will before she expired and finished the working, the difficulty of my job would increase tenfold. More than that, despite the injustice of her fate—and my culpability for it—I saw no benefit to the increase of collective suffering in Vaina that would arise from her curse.

By now, the nerves in her body had mostly deadened to her pain; her arcane practice allowed her to separate herself enough from the sensations of her body to focus her mind on her final working. Under no circumstance could I match the Power she drew through herself without need to consider her own survival, even were I hale and ready. No simple counter-working would suffice; I had to distract her enough for the structure of the curse to fall apart under its own weight.

So I began my own working, chanting aloud with equal fury and determination, imagining the healing of her body sufficiently that she could feel anew, willing the enlivening of her sensations enough that the fire would once again torture her into submission.

I am ashamed that it worked. At first her cadence slowed, became less confident, as sensation tingled at the periphery of her awareness, part of her focus breaking away from the curse to investigate. Such inquiry only opened her up to the full feeling of the flames about her once more; the cadence of her chanting took on the staccato of a desperate attempt to finish the words, until screaming erupted anew from her burning mouth. I could feel the air thin out once again as the imminence drained from the curse and its possibility dissipated into so much nothingness.

The Flux from my counter-working caused the flames to expand outward, the fire burning improbably across the ground in front of the bonfire into a wider circle centered on Falla. Even the guardsmen abandoned their posts, hair singed by the sudden expansion of heat and flame. The crowd dispersed now, unsure whether the conflagration represented the first effects of her curse or the intent of my own working. They fled past me, those who had heckled bumping me as they stumbled against one another to get away. I hated them. I hated them for what they’d made me do.

By the time I could hold to my footing and return my attention to the crowd’s victim, Falla had fallen silent, sensation again receding from her and leaving her with the cold knowledge that she would soon die. She coughed as the gasses from the fire, fueled by her own body, floated up and past her face. Only the two of us remained in the market place, her and I, our eyes locked upon one another in a silence broken only by her wheezing and the continuing crackle of the fire.

She needed no words, and I had none to speak. Her eyes conveyed the sense of betrayal, a knife plunged directly into my heart, well enough. Did she see the regret, the guilt in mine? I don’t know, and I don’t know that it would have mattered whether she did. My actions had spoken for me, and they could not be taken back.

She only lasted a few more minutes before her head leaned forward in final defeat, her skin becoming waxy and wet from the heat. Knowing Barro would perform no rites for her, I did what I could, uttering a quiet prayer to The One for her soul and her salvation, that she might be ushered on to a life better than this one if not given immediate ascension to the Supernal Realms for her martyrdom here. Maybe it was a prayer for my own fate as much as for hers. Tears mingled with sweat from the heat as I stumbled through the words I spoke in silence to The One who hears all things.

My chest burned on the outside from Orren’s scratches, on the inside from the smoke that filled the air in an expanding cloud, now turned dark as Falla’s body began to char. Coughing, I took what comfort I could from the faith that I had, however much it was, and thought of a more worldly comfort. I needed a drink.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 46

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

I followed the master of arms through the hallway, down the stairs, passing panicked servants along the way.

I heard gasps of “He has not left!” or “The priest failed to allay his spirit!” or myriad variations on the theme. Between the vagaries of arcane knowledge and the long-deposited weight of superstition, there are often chances for “I told you so’s” in my line of work, but they’re never satisfying. They always mean more work.

The bystanders were fleeing toward one another as often as in the same direction; Orren’s spirit flitted about the whole keep again, seeking targets of opportunity rather than a fixed purpose. The burning of his body and the last rites may not have destroyed the anchor keeping him here, but he had been upset, thrown off balance and disoriented. It made him more dangerous rather than less.

As Gamven again changed course in the chase, I knew that we were not headed to a position fixed, but following after suspicions of the specter’s current location. That game was no good; we’d played it enough before and I was in no mood for another ethereal ambush.

“Stop!” I told the warrior.

He turned to face me, eyebrow raised.

“I’m going to where he’ll come to me,” I said. “Don’t follow.”

I left Gamven behind. He took an initial step to follow but decided against it, falling away as I ran toward the great hall, through one of the side doors, and down the stairs into the cellar where Orren had been murdered. Was I taunting him by heading there, or trying to bring him somewhere familiar? I didn’t know, but suspected it didn’t much matter.

Once in the cellar, I brought the candles and lamps to bright, dancing flames with a sorcery, providing that ancient bastion against shadow and darkness. I drew my wand from its sheath, wishing that I had my staff instead. The wand is a tool for precision and direction, an implement for finesse in a working. This makes it as much a tool of war as of peace, at least for those practitioners with a penchant for focused destruction in their thaumaturgy. But I had no particular need for precision; I needed blunt force, stalwart protection. And I wanted for it.

I caught the first unnatural movement of a shadow in my peripheral vision, turning to find nothing there. I swept my head across the room, moving to the edge of one of the long rows of shelved wine casks and leaning around its corner. I felt a rush of air behind me and turned only to find the flames of sconced candles and fixed lamps bending with the sudden wind. My eyes followed the flow of the air but met only with more shadows. I’d be getting my ambush after all.

Suddenly, the top row of casks on either side of the shelf blew open in sequence, the head of each barrel bursting forth in a timed succession approaching me, crimson wines flowing freely and sloshing across the floor like so much blood.

I turned just in time to meet Orren’s first lunge, stepping sideways and riposting with a lance of pure Power from the tip of the wand, the crudest of sorceries, but all that I had the wherewithal to summon in such a short time. The energy seemed to sting the spirit, as it recoiled its outstretched and clawed hand in an all-too-human movement: the hand brought too close to fire.

Only the briefest of instances elapsed before the second attack. I attempted to repeat the answer given to the first, but my own dodging movement had brought the tip of the wand off of line and sent a burst of energy into the stone wall behind Orren, chipping away at it as if striking it with a pickax.

My head swam at the exertion of calling forth the Power with so little preparation, even for a sorcery, and I focused all my energies on continued evasion. We danced around the cellar in erratic lines and half circles, my boots kicking up splashes and sprays of wine that passed right through my assailant’s ethereal form. When I dodged to one side of one of the shelves, hoping to put an obstacle between us, Orren simply passed right through and continued the assault.

My mind raced through alternative options to continuing this dance until I made a misstep and met with the spirit’s rending claws. I thought to set Magaréil in my defense, but I’d left the binding disk in my room above. I’d no time to draw a protective circle or sigil, and probably too little focus to shape a working of any substance anyway. Then I remembered the rings on my fingers, there for just such a purpose. As I continued to evade Orren’s grasping talons, I tried to recall the specific workings I’d stored for later use. I had no need for the tragicomedy that would follow the activation of a working for the abatement of rain when I needed an aegis of defense.

I settled on a ring that stored a working intended to harden flesh against blows. Focusing my will on the ring’s sigil, I summoned forth the working within. To no avail; I’d not empowered the working so that it would be ready for use, only slipped on the rings so that I’d have them if I needed them. Foolishness and fatigue catching up to me. Too late, I began another step away from Orren’s thrash; the tips of his clawed hands drew lightly across my skin, opening shallow but painful tracks across my left upper arm.

A curse issued from my lips, an involuntary response to the pain, and the death’s head in the midst of the spirit’s ethereal form bared its teeth from behind taut spectral skin, a mask in the memory of Orren’s face.

“Stop!” I said, willing Power into an empyrean wall between the ghost and myself. Claws rebounded against the translucent structure, and Orren paused to stare at me a moment.
We both understood that I could not sustain this defense indefinitely—perhaps not even for a substantial amount of time—but I would take every second that I could to devise my next move.

“I am trying to help you, you stubborn bastard!” I spat. “If I can get you justice, perhaps you can move on.”

A rasping whisper came in response. “No justice,” it slowly scratched in both my ears and my mind.

In all honesty, I’d not expected it to speak at all. More than its assault, more than the violence, this took me aback. I almost let fall my warding wall in my distraction, the spirit taking a cautious step closer as it flickered. “Not justice? What then?” I asked.

“Vengeance. No justice.” The slow cadence of its voice felt like a long rush of cold, sharp wind passing over me. Without a more complex grammatical structure, I couldn’t tell if Orren meant to correct me only in the specific sense or to reject the idea of justice altogether.

“For your murder? You were murdered in this very room, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” he rasped, “and more than murder.”

“More than murder? What does that mean?”

“I will take the lives of the amn Vainas as my retribution. This place shall be mine.”

“Fool,” I said. “You can’t rule this place. All you’ll be is alone here. Everyone will flee this place. Then where will you be?”

“I will take Aryden and Aevala to dwell here with me, as my servants. Perhaps Vesonna, too.”

“It was Aryden. Aryden murdered you, didn’t he?”

“Yes.” The word dragged on in sibilant susurration.

“Why?” I asked, but my curiosity had drawn my mind away from the sorcery that kept us separated, that allowed this conversation.

We realized the lapse at the same time. Orren’s spirit lunged at me, both arms outstretched. I in desperation unleashed a final blast of the Power intended to bluntly bludgeon the specter back across the veil. For a time, at least.

I felt a piercing cold rake across my chest, Orren’s claws finding flesh to rend. But as quickly as the pain began, it stopped, and darkness overtook me.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 45

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

Nilma sat in a chair facing the window, not far from the canopy bed that filled much of the space in a guest room very similar in layout and furnishings to mine. Night had come upon us and the young woman gained no light from the open window, but a soft breeze, cooler than the heat of the day, entered and eddied between us.

The alchemical lamps glowed with a half-light that reminded me of the Sea of Dreams. They illuminated us enough for reading—Nilma held a Book of the Tree in her hand as she faced away from me, though she’d closed it on a thumb to hold the page when I’d entered. But they also cast deep shadows, causing me to exhale a quick puff of amusement of the appropriateness of it all.

As with our first meeting, she spoke to the wall, or rather the window, instead of turning to face me. “What do you want, now?” she asked petulantly.

The day and the previous conversations had drained me of all sense of tact and decorum, I must admit. “Why would you speak to me like that, girl, when I have saved your life?”

“My lord amn Vaina saved my life.” With her left hand, she absentmindedly stroked the embossed tree on her book’s leather binding.

“And how would he have known that the spirit that invaded your nuptials was not Orren and that it was a liar unless I had told him?”

“It wasn’t Orren?”

In my mind, I breathed a sigh of relief. I hadn’t been sure how much Aryden had let her into his plans. “No. But you believe he would blame you for his death. Why?”

She shifted uncomfortably in her chair but said nothing.

“Tell me about what happened with the potion you got from Falla,” I continued.

“Witch,” she said reflexively.

“Hypocrite,” I returned, also reflexively. I’d grown too weary to stop myself.

“Nothing.”

“Nilma, that’s not true, and we both know it. I told you before that I would not use the Art to influence you, and that remains true. But if you do not tell me what I need to know, I will make sure that your wedding to Lorent amn Esto does not happen.”

“You monster! You’d deprive me of a life of happiness?” she protested.

“I will.”

She began to sob, softly. My stomach turned at that; no one wants to make the damsel cry. But I had a means to achieve an end I couldn’t turn from, so monster I’d be. To her, at least. I remembered that, in some way, that’s what I’d always been to her, and my empathy subsided a little.

“I love—loved—Orren. But he spurned me. But that alone wasn’t enough; he decided that he’d turn my feelings to torture, to a cruel game against me. He flaunted his dalliances with the other girls before me, taunting me with them. Before the other handmaidens and servants, he’d remind them how lovestruck I was, and then lead them in mocking me for it. I hated him for it. But I kept loving him all the same. I don’t know why.”

“So you got the love potion from Falla.”

“It was Lady Aevala’s idea. She wanted to help me, said that justice must be done in matters of love or the world suffers for it.”

“Lady Aevala had been to Falla before?”

“I don’t think so. Not personally. She’d sent servants before to fetch her things. But the Lady couldn’t be seen to consort with a witch.”

“Of course not,” I said sarcastically.

“Especially with Barro so close to her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lady Aevala is very pious. It’s she who gave me this copy of the Book of the Tree, though I’d left it here in the keep when I fled from Orren’s spirit. She spends—spent—a lot of time with the priest: giving confessions, discussing the Book with him, seeking his advice on matters of governance.”

“I see. Let’s go back to this potion. At your lady’s prompting, you went to Falla to get it.”

“She gave me the coin to pay for it. Said I should give it to Orren and then use my influence over him to exact my retribution. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to use the potion to make him love me.”

“But it didn’t work out that way, did it?”

“No.”

“What happened?”

“We—the servants and some of my Lady’s handmaids—were sitting down to eat dinner. I thought I’d put the potion into his wine, that he wouldn’t notice in all of the commotion. He did; he grabbed my wrist and took the vial from me just before I could pour it. At first he thought I was trying to poison him, kill him, so I told him what the potion was. He saw another chance for his cruel games, drew everyone’s attention to us and was going to force me to drink it in front of all of them, so they could watch my suffering deepen and know the reason as they did. No one thought to stop him—they were all too afraid he knew their secrets and that the Lord and Lady held him in too high of regard.”

“But Lady Aevala was helping you against him.”

“Yes, but until only recently she, too, had doted upon him, held him in high favor. He was smart and handsome, charming.”

“So he forced you to drink Falla’s potion.”

“No! The old man, Eldis, came in before he could. He hid it somewhere before the steward could see what was going on, and I never saw it again.”

“Did you tell Aevala what happened?”

“No. I was too embarrassed, and she became distant. She and my lord had been fighting about something and she pushed all of her handmaidens away from her. Stopped confiding in us as she had and turned only to Barro.”

“What did Orren do with the potion?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long was all of this before he disappeared?”

“A month? Maybe a month-and-a-half? I’m not sure exactly.” Now she looked exhausted, worn weary by my threats and by reliving the pain Orren had caused her without the respite that would have come if she had lost her feelings for him. Beautiful sometimes, but a dangerous thing, love.

As I opened my mouth to continue, there came a furious rapping at the door, followed quickly by it bursting forth. Gamven stood in the doorway. “Iaren,” he said, “the spirit is back. Come quickly.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 44

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The dungeon stench hit me like a hammer, fouler than the putrescent atmosphere of Endan’s lab with a rotting corpse within it, and lacking the sweet undertones of a decaying cadaver. I imagined that Aryden never ventured into this place, knew little about what happened down here, cared even less. No one wants to know how the sausage is made if it tastes okay.

Then there was the lack of light. Only sporadic torches, all of them burning low and smoky, dotted the sconces on the walls, providing just enough illumination to color the dungeon’s contents with gray upon gray upon black, touched by the occasional orange or red.

I could hear two men talking, low to one another.

“Come on, then,” the first said. “Don’t you think she needs some more punishment?”

“Yeah,” agreed the second. “But I’ve grown bored of hitting her. Perhaps she needs something a little more suited to teaching a lesson to a woman.”

“Try it and I’ll curse your cock to rot and fall off,” came a low voice in response, the threatening grumble of a cornered animal more than willing to take its attacker with it into death.

“And I’ll make sure it doesn’t come back,” I said, startling the two men. They turned, at first readying their short clubs, but, upon recognizing me, they moved them behind their backs like children hiding something they weren’t supposed to have. “Go,” I continued, “and don’t come back until I send for you. And if I hear that you’ve touched her again, you’ll have plenty to fear from the both of us.”

They scrambled past me, leaving the cell door open, making their way past the other stone and iron cages and up the stairs into the light. With a minor sorcery, I brought the flames of the torches to a brighter burn, allowing me to see Falla, chained by her arms to the stone wall, her hair wild, dress ragged at the edges, body bruised and bloody.

“So you’ve come to interrogate me now they’ve prepared the way,” Falla growled at me.

“Why—”

“You waited until they’d beaten me. Badly. Thanks for that.” She spit blood and mucus onto the dungeon’s dirt floor to accentuate the statement. “They weren’t asking me any questions, just afraid I’d put a curse on them if they left me able to think straight. At least they gave me these nice chains to lean on.”

To make her point, she braced her feet in the seam between floor and wall and leaned forward, suspending herself in mid air by her arms, the chains that bound them pulled taught and screeching softly and link rubbed against link. She held this position for only a moment before her muscles began to tremble and she collapsed with a gasp, unable to sit fully because of the height of the chains, too tired and injured to support herself with her legs.

“Damn you, Iaren amn Ennoc,” she whispered. “After I came to your rescue, and you let me be arrested like some common criminal, like some worshiper of the Abyss.”

“I didn’t ‘let’ anything happen, Falla! I can’t be two places at once. You sent me after Nilma. How could I know that Barro would find Aryden and use this whole mess against you?”

“I thought you were clever,” she said, smiling sardonically with her bloody teeth. “How could you not see that coming? They’re going to burn me, you know.”

Before I responded, I found a stool in the narrow hallway outside of the stool, brought it in and placed it under Falla so that she could sit on it. “I know,” I said.

“How are you going to stop it?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t yet thought of a way that lets me keep Magaréil’s cult a secret.”

“You haven’t told Aryden?”

“I haven’t. You asked me not to and I gave you my word. Why would you think that I’d broken it so quickly?”

“You betrayed me, didn’t you? Left me here to be Aryden’s scapegoat. Isn’t that about right? Let me be to blame for what Magaréil did so that the status quo can be maintained? Gave Barro what he’s wanted for some time and placate the amn Esti at the same time?”

Her cunning assessment of the politics of Vaina fell by the wayside to her accusation. “I didn’t betray you!” I protested.

“You didn’t help me! Damn those fucking visions.”

The non-sequitur took me back. “What do you mean?”

“They told me you might become a killer if you pursued your path. They didn’t tell me I’d be the one you killed.”

“I’m not the one responsible!”

“Iaren, if you stand by and let them do this to me, you’ll be just as responsible as the rest of them.” She shifted on the stool, trying to find a comfortable position that avoided the bruises.

“So are you,” I said, defiant.

“Fuck you!”

“You told me not to reveal the existence of the cult. You stuck me between protecting the townsfolk and protecting you. I erred on the side of saving the most people first.”

“Happy mathematics, that,” she said, a fatalistic titter escaping her.

“No kidding.”

She looked up at me. Looked me straight in the eyes. I swear I could feel the depths of her soul in that moment, the confusing confluence of exultation in the righteousness of her sacrifice and the fear of her fate. “Don’t you let them burn me, Iaren amn Ennoc. You do whatever you can to get me out of her. I beg of you.”

The earnestness of her plea struck deeper even than the thought of my own responsibility for her state. “I’ll do what I can,” I said weakly.

She nodded and turned her face from me. “There’s one more thing.”

“What?”

“I…I gave Nilma a potion. A love potion. She’d come to me so distraught over Orren’s rejection of her and…she had coin.”

My sympathies fell away with the knowledge that she’d concealed something so important from me. “What use have you for coin?”

She looked up again, now defiant. “I cannot make everything I need to live! And the spirits do not concern themselves with such petty needs as hunger and health. From time to time, I must needs venture into town to purchase goods. I bear the signs of the Tree, the spitting, the cursing, the fear, the revulsion. You’ve seen it yourself. And yet those same people will come to me when they have need. As Nilma did.”

“Why didn’t you mention this before?”

“Nothing came of it. Orren never changed his ways with Nilma, continued to heap scorn upon her, so I thought she’d never used it. You’ll have to ask her what came of it.”

I shook my head, part disbelief, part disillusion with the thought that I’d found someone here I could trust. “This whole thing was a manipulation, wasn’t it? You never wanted to help me; you wanted me to get rid of Magaréil for you. You wanted to take their authority over the townsfolk of Vaina for yourself. And its Place of Power.”

“No!” she said at first, but paused. “Yes. I wanted to be rid of Magaréil. But not because I wanted power—they were a danger to Vaina, as you’ve seen. They were too strong for me to confront alone, but I meant to ask for your help, not to beguile you. It was happenstance—or Magaréil’s own choices—that forced the issue. I only arrived to help you when I knew you were in danger. If I’d meant to direct you, it would have been the other way around. Even then, my desire was only to protect Vaina—from the amn Vaina’s specter and from its Orösave, Your arrival gave me hope I could take action against both—with your willing help.”

I reserved any judgment about whether I believed her. At present, it really didn’t matter—what was done was done. “I have to go,” I said, “but I will come back for you.”

“You’d better,” she said. “You don’t want another specter haunting you, do you?” She smiled, but this did little to clarify the ambiguity over whether she intended a joke or a threat.

The two jailers waited at the top of the stairs in the hallway. I eyed them both, letting an awkward silence creep in before speaking. Once they began to look to one another and to the ground to avoid my gaze, I broke the quiet with hard words, barely more than a whisper, like a knife held to throat. “If you so much as touch her again, I will enact such curses upon you that you will wish you had died. But you will not. I will make it a personal pleasure to watch over you, ensure that death does not take you until I have decided that your suffering may come to an end. Do you understand me?”

They nodded.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 43

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Aryden had recalled the guardsmen who’d earlier been keeping watch at my chamber door. Either he suspected that the “amn Ydelli” wouldn’t try again, or, more likely, his reaffirmed alliance with Vitella amn Esto had lessened his fears about my investigation and behavior threatening his schemes.

Evening was upon us and the suns had begun—though far from finished—their daily descent into the netherworld. While Aryden and his retinue left the keep to feast with the amn Esti at the house of im Valladyn, I used the peace to press forward—discreetly, as Aryden had asked.

The room’s candles had been lit and, combined with the remaining light of day that slid in through the window, I had more than enough illumination for my purposes. I placed the binding disk on the floor. “Magaréil, come forth,” I said.

The smell of spring blooms emanated from the disk before any visual indication of the spirit’s presence followed. Then, a sprouting plant, a single shoot, seemed to burst from the center of the disk itself, growing and splitting into many vines. The vines wrapped around one another, tangling together until that had created the form of a man, flowers of various types and colors, unlikely in their combination on the same plants, studding that form. With just a bit more time, the foliage coalesced into a more human form, though still green. Not as tall as before, and diminished in the otherworldly grandeur that had emanated from him when he was free.

“You are ready to negotiate my ransom, Iaren amn Ennoc,” he said by way of greeting. His tone was flat, the result of anger, frustration—and,perhaps, fear—mitigated by an attempt at pleasantry.

“Not yet. Not entirely, at least. But your cooperation in answering my questions will go a long way to earning my favor,” I said.

“Indeed. You want to know what I know about Orren, yes?”

“I do.”

“Very well,” Magaréil conceded. “Ask your questions and I will answer as best I can.”

“Tell me first about your cult.”

“‘Cult’, such an unpleasant word, don’t you think? It reeks of ancient and uncivilized folk sacrificing each other to the fallen Firstborn, invoking their dark power for nefarious purposes.”

“Then how would you describe the folk of Vaina who…associate with you?”

“Fellow celebrants of creation, venerators of the Avar’s wild beauty and natural splendor, paying homage to the Three Mothers and The One.”

I looked askance at the spirit.

“You don’t like that description?” Magaréil asked. “Perhaps I should call us a confederation of farmers for the welfare of Vaina?”

I’ll admit it; that at least made me smirk. “You want me to think that you came here for the good of the townsfolk? No. You came for the Place of Power.”

“Initially, yes. But when you’ve existed as long as I have, you gain certain…sympathies…for the plight of the oppressed and downtrodden. It didn’t take much to draw the first child to come visit me, to convince her to bring her friends, for their parents to come looking for them.”

Another reason parents tell their children not to wander in the forest alone. “And you struck a bargain,” I said.

“A mutually-beneficial alliance,” Magaréil corrected. “That was nearly a century ago.”

“You’re telling me that the folk of Vaina have been involved with you for a century undetected?”

“Do you really think that was so difficult? I have many, many centuries of knowledge of the arts of scheming and strategy. I have the ability to influence the Avar, and even the minds of men. And there are many things that those who’ve not had to live close to the land now dismiss as superstitions.”

“So you protected the farmers, the shepherds, the laborers of Vaina. In exchange for what?”

“The ritual participation of the townsfolk helped me to cultivate the Place of Power for my own purposes, while keeping it secret. They gave me eyes and ears in the town, insight into those who ruled it. Occasionally, even the opportunity to subtly influence them.”

“You had an equilibrium, it seems. What changed it?”

“House Meradhvor, of course.”

“But that only happened recently.”

“Not so recently as you think. That fop, Edanu, was not the first of Meradhvor’s presence here. Long before that, not long after the Treaty, in fact, most of the Houses had their agents scouring the Avar for places that might be of use to them.”

“But Edanu doesn’t know where the Place of Power is.”

“No, he does not. But Meradhvor knows such a place is here somewhere.”

“How did you discover this?”

“I detected the practitioner Meradhvor had sent to scout the area long before she had sensed the font of Power that I had claimed; I concealed it well enough that she never located it, used my influence over the creatures of the Avar to drive her from this place before she could come too close. But my spies followed her as long as they could, learned as much about her, her plans, her allegiances as they could. And then I waited for what I knew would one day come—Meradhvor’s plans to bring their influence to Vaina. And, if not them, one of the other Houses soon enough.

Many years passed in my waiting, but I am not impatient as you immortals are. Through generations, I cultivated my spies within the amn Vaina household, solidified my influence over the humbler folk of the town. When Meradhvor first sent letters to Aryden amn Vaina, and then gifts, I knew the time was coming.

I especially liked the little bird that the House sent to the young lady Vesonna, a spy with wings, after my own heart. But that’s besides the point. My enemies were moving.”

I thought, for a moment, to ask why House Meradhvor might needs be the spirit’s enemy. But I didn’t need an explanation.

“So, what was the plan?” I asked.
“It quickly became clear that a marriage of Vesonna to House Meradhvor required a closer alliance to either the amn Esti or the amn Ydelli,” the spirit explained.

“Why?”

“Geography, boy. The amn Vaini have feuded with both families and Meradhvor needs a clear and easy path to the Sisters for this place to truly be profitable to them—Place of Power or not. So, I made plans to stop such an alliance.”

“So you planned to make a spirit of Orren to plague the amn Vaini?”

“Of course not! Such an action would be corrupt and anathema. My messengers told you that the boy was not part of my plans and that I had nothing to do with his death. Both of those things are true. My masquerade as Orren’s spirit was merely the seizing of an opportunity after the fact.”

“But Orren and Daedys both were part of your ‘community’, yes?”

“Yes. But Orren’s plans were never about me or mine. He was a selfish child. I’d not wish his present state on any spirit in Creation, so I won’t say that he got what he deserved, but ill-conceived ambitions lead to tragic consequences, do they not?”

“What exactly was his plan?”

“He wanted to insinuate himself with the amn Vaini, learn their secrets and use those to his advantage. Not too different from most of his schemes except in scale.”

“How, exactly?”

“That, I do not know.”

“Did you teach him anything of the Art?”

“He came asking, to be sure. But I do not share my secrets lightly.”

“And what about Daedys? What about trying to kill me?”

“Daedys disagreed that subtlety should be the rule of the day. He wanted to murder the amn Vaini instead. While Orren’s father lived, he kept his brother in line, but the Red Maw claimed him and Daedys became the head of the im Varde family, with no one to rein in his baser instincts.”

“So Orren’s fate was—for you, at least—fortunate happenstance?”

“Indeed. Punishment for the wicked—both he and the amn Vaini alike.”

“Are the amn Vaini truly more wicked than anyone else?” I proposed.

“Perhaps not,” Magaréil admitted. “But they have more power, and that amplifies the wrongs that they achieve. Aryden amn Vaina, like his father before him, maintains his power and position on the backs of the less fortunate on whom he depends. Oppression and the cultivation of infighting to preserve his seat. Is that just?”

I said nothing.

“So, shall we discuss the terms of my release?” the spirit asked.

“No,” I said, summarily dismissing him. His form disappeared into a green cloud, which seemed to be sucked back into the disk. There would be plenty of time for that later, and I wouldn’t risk an ancient and skilled schemer further complicating matters when the end began to draw near. Or so I hoped.

I couldn’t be sure that Magaréil had been entirely truthful to me, but his explanation matched what else I’d heard about Orren enough that I was willing to focus my efforts elsewhere for the time being. Even a bound spirit has a will, and the binding itself does not extinguish that will, even if it blunts many of its effects.

Placing the binding disk back into my pouch, I prepared my ritual items and began to draw a circle of finding on the room’s floor—the same circle I’d used to find the missing miner and one I used often in my work in Ilessa. Familiarity allowed me to create the design by rote and with little time.

With dark soon falling, I might have hesitated in performing the working at that time, but I suspected that Orren had been murdered somewhere in Vaina-town and felt the press of time more keenly than potential danger.

Into the center of the circle I placed the bag of corpse wax. I produced my wand, touched its point to the interior of the circle, closed my eyes and recited the words I knew would guide me quickly and easily through the thoughtforms to achieve my desired effect. The circle of finding, using as it does it eponymous device and drawing upon a sympathy between the object I’ve selected and the quarry, requires less Power than many other workings—and bears less risk of flux.

The ritual complete, the wand began to vibrate in my hand. This time, it bounced more furiously than it had before in the quarry, attempting to shift between two distinct points in space. One, I knew, was the body proper; I felt its tug from elsewhere in the keep. But the second direction of the wand’s twitchiness seemed to direct me outside; this I decided to follow.

Racing the falling suns, I attempted to move quickly, but the divergent locations to which the wand pointed, shifting as I moved myself, quickly became difficult to read with any precision. Maintaining my grip on the tool, I ignored it momentarily, making my way to the courtyard before I returned any attention to it.

Once there, I had no need for the wand, for I could see the funereal pyre hastily constructed outside of the castle’s chapel, Barro (again dressed in the robes of officiant) gathered in a small group with Lord Aryden, the im Vardi, and a handful of retainers or servants.

In my hand, the wand bounced between the direction of the pyre and the castle keep, beckoning me back inside. I hesitated, wondering whether I’d ought to pay my respects to the boy upon his last rites. But I decided that I needed no further entanglements this evening and turned away.

Stepping back inside, I focused my attention upon the point of the wand and not only the sensation of its movement. The device wanted to point downward as well as laterally, to the castle’s cellars—or to its dungeon. A few steps determined the former to be the location I sought, and I breathed a shallow sigh of relief that I need not renew my suspicion in Falla.

Following obediently, I made my way into the cellar, where I found myself called toward the butts and tuns of wine. Insistently, the point of the wand returned—between bouncing upward and across to Orren’s body where it lay on the pyre—to a single barrel, wide and large, turned upright against the wall so that its head faced up. A few of its fellows, used and empty, sat nearby after being removed from the rows of racks filling the space.

The candles flickered and the room became cold. I braced myself for the appearance of Orren’s spirit, dropping the working of finding within my mind and readying a defensive sorcery. But, almost as soon as the sensation had come, warmth returned and the flames returned to their more sedate dance.

With the momentary distraction abating, I examined the wine barrel more closely to find small gaps around the edge of the head plate; it had not been properly seated and wouldn’t have held wine. I looked around for something to pry the piece loose and wondered further into the cellar, to rooms storing grains, cloth, household sundries and seldom-used equipment. In one of these rooms I came across a bucket of large nails—spikes really—in a pile of old building materials.

The nail, big enough to fit dagger-like in my hand, made quick work of prying the lid off of the barrel. It took a brief working to create light enough to see into the darkened interior, and I instinctively recoiled at what I found before returning to investigate in earnest.

A brown sludge coated the bottom of the barrel, a sickly-sweet fragrance of death emanating upward, tinged with the taste of copper. But the blood was not wholly dry; it glistened slightly in places and seemed to ooze slowly—ever so slowly—within its container.

I’d heard before of bodies bleeding when the murder weapon—or murderer—was brought near, but, aside from a few instances involving the Art, most scholars considered this to be superstition. Some sympathetic reaction was occurring and, as steam began to rise from the barrel, I realized what it was. Barro had set fire to Orren’s body in accordance with his last rites.

Perhaps, then, that rush of cold had been Orren attempting to manifest himself in the cellar before the Temple rites called him away.

I watched as the blood gathered at the bottom of the barrel vaporized, becoming part of the rising steam until nothing remained. The sort of thing, as Magaréil would say, that people would call supernatural. I’d call it wondrous, at least.

For a moment, I lamented the destruction and disappearance of evidence—and a strong sympathetic link to the spirit. But I realized that I had seen what I needed. Orren had been murdered here, in this very room, by someone he intended to meet—probably in secret—in whom he trusted and who had prepared the room for his execution. No wonder, then, that some of his first and most violent manifestations had occurred here, and that he’d appeared so readily for me when I’d first come to the castle.
With nothing left to recover, it was time to move on.

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