Things Unseen, Chapter 26

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

The moons provided sufficient light to navigate by even away from the lamps and torches of the town, though the shadows remained deep and difficult to penetrate. Away from the eyes of curious townsfolk, I moved my engraved rings to gloved fingers. In my haste, I had grabbed them with the thought to empower each with the working it had been designed to hold, but the height of the moons reminded me that I might not have the time to spend in the multiple workings they could collectively store. Instead, I chose one, its sigil designed to hold a working that would confuse and disorient those around me, one that had saved my life at least once before in Ilessa.

I whispered the incantations lest I draw attention to myself, formed the hand-signs to assist with the working with both hands, drawing my mind through the serious of thoughts and images I used to shape the working. Then, when on the cusp of completion, I drew the construct into the sigil itself, sealing it and the Power I’d summoned within, ready to be activated in an instant.

You may be wondering why I do not constantly have such workings stored and ready for use in these rings; the reasons are manifold. First, sigils are a useful tool, but perhaps not as reliable as you might first suspect. You see, having bound the working into the ring before it took effect, I did not yet know what the specific effect would be—without having seen the results, I could not be absolutely sure that I’d properly performed the working and that it would have the intended effect when triggered, or that it would lack side effects. That’s not too different from any working, I suppose, but, once the working is stored, it must either be allowed to take effect or the Power bled out of it, likely into random Flux. Neither result is ideal, so it’s not wise to walk around with stored workings you might not immediately need. Over time, the Power will leak from the sigil and working as Flux anyway, attaching itself to me or to the environment more subtly that what might otherwise be released from a working, thus more likely to go unnoticed until it manifests itself in extremely unhelpful—if not disastrous—ways. Perhaps I should put it this way: I don’t make a practice of carrying around many ready-and-waiting workings for the same reason I don’t generally carry loaded pistols. Triggers can be tricky, and accidents are highly embarrassing at the very least and deadly at the worst.

There’s another reason though, a matter of habit or practitioner’s courtesy more than practicality, I suppose. Even without the sight, we practitioners may feel the present of a working delayed through a sigil or other effect, the more Power invested in one or more such suspending workings, the likelier we are to notice. A practitioner who comes to you loaded with workings ready to manifest seems to have come looking for trouble. It’s the same as a soldier who comes to have a chat wearing full plate and festooned with weapons—it just doesn’t send the right message. Besides, the spirit at the center of this nighttime excursion could likely sense suspended workings as well as any practitioner, which would obviate the purpose of preparing myriad obfuscatory workings and storing them for use only should I be detected. One would suffice.

I checked my belt, the weapons, tools and items suspended from it, working and tightening straps to ensure as little clanging and jingling as I attempted to move unnoticed.

All of these preparations complete, I stilled myself, quieting my mind and hoping to feel any detectable resonance caused by the immaterial. For a long moment, I felt nothing. I’ve never been as adept at this aspect of the Subtle Art as many others, as “quieting my mind” is a relative term at best and I have great difficulty purging myself of thoughts and focus enough to become truly receptive to those delicate tremulations of spiritual energies that can sometimes be felt as vibrations or, as the uninitiated might say, “tingles.”

Just as I prepared to give up, I felt something like the echo of an echo, a sensation of distant disturbance. Part of me wondered if I hadn’t just heard something in Vaina, the faraway barking of a dog or the braying of a mule, and mistook it for something more mystical. But there was a directionality to the sensation, if a broad and unfocused one, and I had no other method for finding the occult gathering I sought.

I followed one of the well-trod roads to the west of Vaina as long as I could but soon found that it twisted sharply away from the direction in which I’d felt that subtle perturbation of the material avar. High grass greeted me as I took my first steps from the road, and I cursed that I couldn’t find by moonlight the route that the celebrants of this supposed cultic meeting followed through the terrain, though part of me knew there had been little chance of me finding the hidden route used regularly by locals wishing to remain unnoticed.

Before long, I found myself within a wood, one not yet touched by Vaina’s timbering efforts, far enough from the mill to be inconvenient until it became the closest forested area to the town. Under the leaves the moons had less sway and I struggled to make out branches, leaves and other ground covering that might alert others to my presence amongst the subtle differences in blacks and grays. I could ill afford the thaumaturgic light I’d used when first approaching Vaina and, perhaps because fatigue already had its hooks in me, I struggled to extemporize a working that would allow my eyes to see better with the available light in the environment. A moment’s thought on the matter had allowed my eyes to adjust somewhat, so I decided to make due as I could.

I shuffled forward, thanking The One that I did so in summertime, when leaf-fall was minimal, but I nevertheless whispered the occasional curse as I stepped on an unseen twig or rolled my ankle on some half-hidden rock.

The trees fully concealed the lights of Vaina town behind me as I began to hear the first noises that indicated something ahead of me. At first the sounds came as low susurration, deeper than that of the wind blowing the leaves. My cautious approach eventually allowed the whisper to become a palpable rhythm, drums played softly. A melody of sorts, punctuated by cacophonous outbursts, accompanied the drums, some sort of chanting or incantation.

My heart beat faster in my chest as I recognized what must have been a ritual of summoning, a chant in Gwaenthyri, a people who, being at the end of their empire, had had an easier time throwing of the yoke of the Aenyr hegemony, stealing their knowledge of the Subtle Art without paying as heavy a price as those more western subjects had done. I wondered for a moment at the oddity of such a tongue being spoken here, for no people currently living speak the language; since the Gwaenthyri League had been shattered by the Cantic Empire long ago. Stranger still because neither Cantos nor the Gwaenthyri had ever laid successful claim to Altaene or the Sisters, the islands being nearly equidistant between the two powers and the logistics of maintaining such an outpost being more dissuasive than the resistance of its people—though that hadn’t hurt us either. How the tongue had come to be spoken by a cult of spirit-worshipers defied me, unless the spirit itself had taught them. From whence would it have learned?
A flickering flame dancing between trees in the distance cut short my wonder; the cultists had constructed a bonfire that burned at least at my height if my estimates of perspective and distance held true. Dark shapes occasionally passed in front of the flames, silhouetting themselves, bodies in the midst of some ecstatic trance. I’d read of such things, but had never personally dealt with a cult during my time working in Ilessa—a threat better left to the Temple fanatics, the Vigil or the secular inquisitors than me. Besides, no one had ever offered me money to investigate one. Before this, of course, though by all accounts Aryden had no idea that he’d hired me for such a purpose when he handed me the coin.

As I came as close as I dared, I whispered a working of obfuscation. Nothing so powerful as to render me actually invisible or inaudible, but enough to blunt the senses of those not specifically searching for me. For their part, the entranced townsfolk had more than enough to occupy them and I doubted that they might detect me even if I walked in amongst them. It was the spirit I feared.

There are many, many, types of spirits in the Avar Narn, some as old as the Avar itself, others only newly come to consciousness and sentience. The power wielded by this one narrowed the possibilities dramatically, but still not enough as to give me an idea about its nature or abilities. For that, I’d have to wait and watch.

The townsfolk moved frenetically against the flaming backdrop, their naked flesh illuminated in hues of yellow-orange contrasting with the shadows clinging to those parts of them faced away from the fire. Though they’d removed all of their clothing, they’d donned masks and I could identify none of them. That would make things plenty more difficult.

The masks appeared to be fashioned from wood, carefully carved to resemble the benevolent forest spirits often carved into architectural accents or creatures of the wood—foxes, bears, wolves, deer, badgers and the like. Had I encountered the masks alone, without the ominous accoutrements of drum and dance, I’d have taken them for the props of some tradesman’s play about pastoral perfection. I imagined they looked benign enough on their own, even childish and quaint. But here, given visages of anger and wrath by the flames flickering against them, they had a decidedly demonic tone that threatened even without intent.

Both young and old capered and gamboled about the fire, some holding hands, others solitary. Between the dazzling light and the grasping shadows, I could not identify particular bodies well enough to make any count of the number in attendance, though I estimated by the size and sound perhaps fifty souls. The entire cult, or merely some fraction that come for tonight’s supplication? More than a thousand people dwelt in Vaina.

The air had become thick as the thinned Veil allowed the substance of some other existence to spill through. Even those spirits who are born of the Avar sometimes create demesnes for themselves, pocket dimensions to which they may retreat, so this sensation did little beyond reassuring me of the spirit’s power.

I waited with the same expectant anxiety as the flailing supplicants for the appearance of the being we sought. I expected a grand show of an entrance, a flash of light, manifestations of flux, some gaudy display that immediately seized the attention. You know, the sort of thing that says, “Worship me, mere mortals!” I was disappointed in this and more.

Between a blink of my eyes, the spirit manifested itself. How it had come and from whence denied all logic or inquiry, its sudden presence defying any onlooker to declare that it had not always been there.

No better way to describe the spirit exists than to say that it manifested as nature itself, in the shape of a human being formed of branches and vines, nettles and flowers, thorns and lichen. Some sort of glowing fungus must have occupied what served as eye sockets, for light emanated from them. Its various parts represented the Avar in all its seasons, from leaves in autumnal splendor to dry and barren branches lightly dusted in snow, to the deep green of summer foliage and the many-colored blooms of springtime . A primeval thing, radiating the power of natural forces, the beauty and anger of Avarienne herself in equal measure. I don’t know if I gasped audibly upon perceiving it for the first time, but I should have.

At its arrival, the supplicants ceased their dance round the fire, bowing to the spirit as they might in a nobleman’s court, broken and heavily-accented Gwaenthyri in unsynchronized and unmelodious utterances spilling forth from them as they did.
When the spirit opened its mouth in reply, it spoke with a voice like the wind itself, soft and sibilant, alluring and enveloping. Apparently, the wind also speaks Gwaenthyri. Not really the language you’d expect a spirit to speak unless, during its long history, it had been present when the language had been spoken by the mortal kindred and the time proved…formative. I’m not sure that the word fits well in this instance, but I wouldn’t know how else to describe it. Awakened spirits are often emblematic of ideas, constructs or archetypes when they are “born,” but the magi say that they grow and “mature,” achieving ever more individual personality as they continue to exist in sentient form. Unlike us, however, they do not seem to be on the Path or the Wheel.

None of that mattered at the time, of course. I struggled to make out the words the spirit spoke—between the alienness of its speech and my lack of use of the language combining to make the effort highly frustrating. What I could make out caused me to smile to myself: a trading of empty formalities, not at all unlike the one I’d observed earlier in the evening between nobles of remarkably high opinion of their own worth based on little more than lucky birth.

The formalities had not gone far before the spirit stopped mid-sentence, its branches waving rhythmically for a moment as it made some unintelligible gesture. The sound of air rushing into something in short, sharp bursts accompanied the motion and I almost thought that it was sniffing, smelling the air for something—for me. I realized that an actual sense of smell was irrelevant—it was reaching out with whatever senses it possessed, scouring the environment for the source of something it had only had the faintest taste of. Something that concerned it greatly.

My obfuscatory working fell to pieces once they started to search for me. How the spirit had detected me so quickly eluded my understanding, but I had little time to worry about that. The spirit didn’t lift its arm to point in my direction; instead, the vines and leafy tendrils that constituted the appendage unwrapped themselves and formed again in an indication of where the supplicants should search.

Several of them, men and women of the more athletic sort, broke from their bows and started toward me, backlit by the fire, masks threateningly shadowed. The nearby trees seemed to surrender branches willingly to them, conveniently club-like growths that separated delicately from the trunk when seized. The trees’ other arms bent out of the way to make easy passage for the spirit’s scouts.

Watching the cohort against the brightness of the bonfire had burned an afterglow into my eyes; I fled blindly in a direction I hoped would take me closer to Vaina. Fortunately, the cultists suffered the same effect, resulting in a comically slow chase full of stops, stumbles and false starts. Comical if my life had not been in danger, at least.
The trees themselves betrayed me, rustling nearby to give an auditory sign of my location. Once my pursuers caught on to this, they closed the gap between us with stunning efficiency. My eyes had just adjusted to the dark as they came near; I could make out six figures but few details: still nude, still masked, still armed. Not much else mattered at the time.

I had worn my sword and dagger but had little confidence for the odds. At worst, only three of them could attack me at once with a reasonable chance of not stumbling over or clubbing each other in the chaotic fray, but the others would still be there waiting, fresh for the fight as my energy flagged. And, despite their homicidal preference for secrecy, I didn’t actually know that these folk had any evil intent in their intimacy with the spirit. Having seen it, I could be relatively sure that it was indeed a child of Avarienne and, while fickle as nature itself, not categorically malevolent. Recalling Falla’s words about pyres, I understood that these cultists feared for their lives as much as I. Stabbing them in response seemed discourteous. Not that I wouldn’t if it came to it, but I chose to proceed with less lethal tactics first.

Instead, I raised the ring on my left hand and triggered the suspended working contained within. For a moment, the group stood dumbfounded as the working stripped away the foremost of their thoughts, leaving them with that troublesome feeling of walking into a room only to forget what you’d been looking for in the first place. Effective, but short-lived; just enough to give me a head start in the chase proper.
I made about ten paces from them by the time they recovered their purpose. Had there been fewer of them, the working might have lasted longer, but the Power stored by the sigil can only go so far. Pumping my legs as fast as I could, heedless of the hidden perils in the terrain, the large tree roots, the low limbs, rocks and shallow pits, I dashed to put more ground between us. I whispered an incantation to make myself more nimble and surefooted, panting in between syllables for a full minute, my mind split between the working and the chase, my hands contorting into mnemonic signifiers as they swung back and forth, before the working took effect.

With that advantage, I became more daring, taking sudden turns and ducking through narrow gaps in trees, forcing my pursuers to chance the same stunts as I or to find alternate routes, losing time and distance as they did. I heard an “oof!” as one of them tripped, feet tangled in a mass of tree routes. Five left.

We’d made enough distance now that the cultists lacked the arcane support of the spirit; no longer did the trees give away my position or track me with their rustling movements. Even so, they stayed on my trail, too close for comfort. My chest burned now with the exertion; I could feel the thaumaturgic blessing of grace I’d placed upon myself slipping away, my mind grasping for the fraying edges as they snapped loose from their moorings, one after another. Too many distractions, too many factors to consider all at once; I couldn’t keep the focus necessary to sustain the working an longer.

My thaumaturgy lost its effect just as I hit a root with my toes, the pain reverberating through my foot and causing me to curse loudly. Worse, the leverage of the kick had tossed me forward and off my feet so that I rolled roughly down the side of a small valley between the rises of hills I hadn’t noticed in my pursuit. The pitch was steep enough to dissuade anyone from following, at least not immediately, though it also caused me to land hard in the “v” shape at the bottom, some drainage channel etched by the rainwater. The wind flew from my lungs, and my skin burned from myriad scratches torn by the brambles and bushes that lined the gulch. Fortunately, those thorny assailants also provided some cover, so I made a desperate gamble.

Summoning the last of my strength, I performed another thaumaturgic working. I could ill afford to aid myself with the handforms and incantations that would help focus me given the purpose of the working, so I steeled myself as best I could and hoped that sheer will would provide sufficient form to the working to have any chance at success. I strained at the effort of it, my vision collapsing into a narrow tunnel surrounded by darkness.

In that tunnel, I watched myself clambering up the other embankment, away from the cultists, sprinting afresh into the cover of the trees. And then I passed out.

I don’t know how long unconsciousness held me with any precision, but it couldn’t have been too long, for the moons had not much moved in the sky above me. Everything ached; I could feel the bruises in my back from where I’d taken hard hits rolling down the side of the hill, the long dull ache across the back of my leg where I’d landed on my sword, each and every thin tear in my skin ripped by branches and brambles as I neared the trough of the miniature valley in which I lay. But still I smiled, for I was alone.

My pursuers must have seen what I saw before passing out, the illusion I’d created of me continuing my flight away from them. The image couldn’t have lasted longer than I remained conscious to sustain it, but it had given them enough, and they must have left to pursue it. Even in the moonlight, I doubted that they could find their way back to this particular ditch if they realized their error. I breathed a sigh, and my lungs burnt slightly.

For a time, I waited without moving, trying to keep my breath shallow and quiet. Hearing no stirring around me except for the occasional cry of an owl or scuttering of a field mouse, I slowly pushed away the foliage covering me enough to stand. Using the position of the moons, I estimated the direction toward Vaina and began the march back. I chose a long and circuitous route, fearful that the spirit might have commanded its supplicants to set an ambush for me. If they had, I managed to avoid them, and the only trouble I had in my return journey was continually putting one foot in front of the other.

By slow degrees the New Town of Vaina moved closer to me, until I wearily began to trudge up the hill toward the castle. Every shadow between buildings threatened; I imagined assailants waiting around every corner, behind every wagon or stall left by the main road overnight. However unlikely, it was possible that my pursuers had broken off the search from me and returned to their spirit master, who had ordered others to the town in front of me, so slow was my own return.

My fear was unproductive; no matter how careful or vigilant I might be, I lacked all strength for any kind of confrontation. A dull ache, a consequence of the fall or of my thaumaturgies, had settled in the back of my head; my feet felt leaden as I willed them to continue the ascent toward my destination.

I reached the gate in the wall between towns Old and New still alive, much to my own surprise. A watchman from atop the gate signaled for his fellows to open the sally port in the great doors to me. As I passed through, the watchman below laughed to himself and pushed my shoulder gently before realizing he’d touched a lord and feeling quiet sheepish about the mistake. “Out for that kind of investigating, my lord?” he asked with a smile that overcame his awkward coyness. “Looks like you were successful!”

I wondered at first what he meant before I reached to my head to touch the grass and small twigs still nestled within my hair, looked down to the dirt that powdered my boots and clothing, felt the sweat that continued to bead across my brow. But I had no energy for a clever quip, or even to disabuse him of his notion. I continued silently forward, focusing on my footsteps, the image of my bed fixed in my mind like some glimmering beacon to the sailor lost at sea. Unfortunately, I would not yet be allowed to reach my destination.

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

[This is the last chapter of the first draft that I have finished as of the day it is posted. Chapters will now be posted as they are completed, which I expect to be at a frequency of one every few days. I hope that you are hooked well enough that this comes as disappointing news!]

Things Unseen, Chapter 25

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

Vesonna led me across the ramparts, through the back of the courtyard, into the keep, and down hallways so that we appeared in the great hall discretely, as if we’d been there waiting the entire time.

The guests and Lord amn Vaina’s folk mingled, enjoying wine and beer along with those stronger spirits a few had brought for themselves. Seats at the trestle tables had not yet been taken, else we’d have attracted everyone’s attention by our entrance. Servants darted in between the clusters of gathered celebrants, the prominent folk of Vaina mingling with the nobility and magnates of Esto on rare occasion, moving back and forth between kitchens and tables to prepare the initial feast. Beeswax candles lit the hall, providing clean light and a subtle scent of honey that coalesced with the smells of the various dishes, making my mouth water.

I turned to find that Vesonna had already left might side; I’d never even felt her hand slip from mine so slight was its grasp in the first place. A good thing, too, for I had no desire for the conversations that would inevitably follow had someone observed us holding hands—especially given how little the gesture actually meant.

Finding some wine for myself became the first task at hand. This didn’t take long, because, before I’d even really collected and oriented myself, the Lords Aryden and Issano stood before me. Issano’s squires had doffed his armor before he joined the feast, leaving him dressed in extravagant attire in his family’s colors. If the rumors proved true, and I had no reason to doubt them, such a display represented a precarious risk on Issano amn Esto’s part, for if he could scarce afford to let the im Valladyni money fall through his hands before, he could not at all now after the expenditures of gauche (but expected) display for the impending wedding. This was only the welcome feast, after all; his wedding attire would have to exceed even the sumptuousness of his current display.
Aryden extended to me a hand holding a pewter goblet filled with a semi-sweet white wine of the kinds grown in Aedys and Velmys to the east. The cup itself was cold to the touch; both it and the wine must have come from the castle’s ice house, a luxury facilitated by relative proximity to the Tursa Elvor, the only prominent mountains in the islands the Sisters call home. Ice from the high places there can be transported quickly by river, reaching even Ilessa and the other Sisters intact without the intervention of the subtle art—though practitioners in the cities can create ice without the hassle of transportation as well.

Issano spoke as I took the cup from Aryden. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord amn Ennoc. I am so sorry to hear about your family. I know nothing of the truth of the allegations against your father, but no noble line should end as ignominiously as yours did.”

“It hasn’t. Not yet,” I told him. I’m not sure why I said it, I didn’t think I cared about such things.

“And you’ve taken on a trade,” he continued. “That’s quite intriguing. Had you ever considered mercenary work? There’s many a young nobleman who’s restored his family’s fortune and glory through feats of arms.”

“If only I had such an extravagant suit of armor as yours, and without a scratch upon it!” I retorted. I may not be a killer of men, but I have no qualms about murdering an ego.

Aryden intervened. “As you know, Issano, Iaren has been investigating our little spirit. He can tell you more about the situation,” he eyed me purposefully to communicate his desires in my response, though there was no need.

“A relatively minor thing,” I began, adopting the air of the detached expert, the scholar of history or the lecturer of arcana. “Restless spirits and the like are perhaps commoner than many think, for those unfortunately afflicted often prefer not to make their problems known, for fear of the stigma that attaches to such things. Here, though, we have just that. I’ve seen no evidence of a curse or anything far reaching enough to cause great concern.” The last was an outright lie. Every hour spent here, every further conversation, every piece of the puzzle made me surer and surer that much more was going on here than I was being told, that Orren’s predations constituted more than a cosmic mistake.

“But what about Lady Aevala?” Issano asked, pressing the issue.

Now I shot a look to Aryden, though I hoped mine proved subtler than Lord amn Esto’s. “Unfortunate happenstance, but not causation. I don’t see any indication that the spirit and the Lady amn Vaina are connected in any way.” A half-truth this time. I’d found only anecdotal evidence of some connection between the lady and the phantom, nothing decisive, but my intuition prevented me from rejecting the suspicion. The nature of the connection eluded, but not a growing conviction of its existence, proof or no.

“A natural illness, then?” amn Esto dubiously inquired. He’d been corresponding with Vitella, to be sure, so his suspicions were no doubt well-founded.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I assured him.

“Of course not! I’m not staying in the castle!”

My turn to look to Aryden for an answer.

“We’ve made comfortable accommodations for the amn Esti in a house in the Old Town, so that they may have their privacy,” the Lord amn Vaina stated.

So they don’t see anything you don’t want them to, I thought. “Of course,” I said and smiled. I took a swig of the wine to wash the taste of deceit from my mouth. It didn’t work.

Thankfully, Aryden now led Issano away from me. I’d completed the task he needed me for and now best I not be involved in the conversation lest it remain focused on ghost, curses, witches and the like. This wasn’t the first time that a job had involved my providing cover for my employer, but that didn’t mean I liked it. I stood alone and awkward for a time, wondering when and how I might make my escape to continue my investigation. The impending danger of intruding upon a cult to a nature spirit didn’t sit quite well with me and I found that I had little appetite, but the excitement of the prospect also energized me strangely.

On the high table, Nilma had already been seated with Lorent; the two flirted and played with one another, each apparently happy (and no doubt relieved) with the reality of their intended. They alone occupied the table; everyone else remained standing, moving from one group to another as need or desire suited, enjoying the informality that existed until the Lord of the house called for everyone to sit, when station and importance became painstakingly clear. For now, though, the town’s potentates could flirt with the women of house amn Esto, the merchant wives could gossip with one another and gawk at the young men in the amn Esto retinue, and the retainers of each house could pursue the servants of the other, setting up those late-night trysts and other dalliances that often punctuate events such as this one.

I saw Vitella approaching from the corner of my eye, new immediately that she’d set me for her prey, and turned to face her. “So, what did you tell my uncle, Lord Thaumaturge?”

I said nothing for a moment, trying to read the expression on her face.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she smiled. “I haven’t told him much; he’ll believe whatever you told him. Truth be told, my cousin is charming, but a dolt—I’ll not be the reason this prospect falls through for our family. Besides, if there were some curse to be caught here, I’d have it already, and I still haven’t seen the damned spirit with my own eyes!” Her words slurred ever so slightly as she spoke; she’d been partaking for some time before the start of the festivities (and now that I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t observed her in the group during the earlier formalities) but held herself as one long-accustomed to prodigious drinking.

“I told him he doesn’t need to be worried.”

“But does the Lady Aevala?”

I said nothing.

“I see,” she returned, smiling that damnable smile of amused knowing. “Well, tell me of the day’s events. I am fascinated by your process.”

Behind her, wedged in the corner of the hall and dispassionately observing all that went on, I spied the historian Naemur. With a half-hearted, “pardon, my lady,” I brushed past my inquisitor and made my way to him. The others gathered had given Naemur a wide berth, lest they be drawn into one of his dry lectures or random musings. This played to my advantage, as I’d hoped for a private conversation with him.

I set my chalice—by now empty—on one of the tables as I passed by, having decided I’d ought to keep a clear head for my later expedition, so I reached the historian empty-handed and a little unsure how to occupy myself as we spoke.

“My Lord amn Ennoc,” he said, smiling, as I came near, evidently excited to have someone to talk to after all.

“Naemur,” I returned with a shallow nod of the head. “I’ve got some questions for you about Vaina.”

“Do you?” His eyes lit up as he spoke.

“Indeed. But they are of a delicate nature and I must be assured of your discretion.”

“My lord, the first thing a decent historian learns is what not to write—but to remember!”

“Very good.” I admit that I swept my head to both sides behind me to ensure that none had given us attention before I pressed my questions. Satisfied, I began. “Tell me about the factions with influence over Vaina.”

“Other than the amn Vaini? You mean the families of note? The Valladyni of course,” he said, sweeping a hand to the gathering behind me, “and the Osi, the Vardi, the Norreni, the im Darqosi? The town is largely split between the mercantile interests of the Old Town and the pastoral interests of the New Town—”

“No, not that, exactly,” I interrupted. “Are there any other powerful or influential groups? Crafting guilds, perhaps?”

“Guilds? No, not in Vaina. The merchant families’ relationships with the craftsmen govern those businesses, and there’s enough goodwill between the two sides that those who make have seen no benefit in forming an organization to represent their mutual interests against the merchants. I’m told the im Osi instigated for such at one point, but the im Darqosi and im Valladyni—perhaps under amn Vaina influence—preempted the strategem by providing new concessions to the tradesmen. Those tradesmen represent the influence of Old Town extending into New Vaina, much to the chagrin of the magnates there, I’m sure.”

“What about Barro’s power, the Temple influence?”

“Barro has influence over the attitudes of folk, but that’s about where it ends. He’s so allied to Lord amn Vaina that his influence belongs to the lord, in effect.”

“Falla or her mother?”

“From what I gather, the amn Vaini have tolerated that family with calculated purpose. The threat of violence and retribution for overstepping their bounds kept the mother in check, as it now does for the daughter. They provide a service to the amn Vaini, after all, giving some succor to folk against common ailments, freeing up the amn Vaina resources and wealth for other things. I’m told that the previous generation of the amn Vaini even consulted with Falla’s mother themselves from time to time.”

“Have you come across any groups that may not be well known in how they exercise their influence, even to the folk of Vaina themselves?”

“What do you mean, Lord Iaren? Conspiracies? Plots? Intrigue? In the past, perhaps, but not since the amn Vaini set up the current positions of the families in the Old and New Towns.”

I hesitate to continue the questioning, as freely as he spoke with me I rather doubted his ability to keep any confidence, his pedantry easily overcoming any desire to hold something back. I attempted to skirt the issue once more. “Have you any idea why Vaina seems to have been spared those common calamities that have afflicted its neighbors from time to time? Pestilence, famine, disaster?”

“Well, they have recently had a visit from the Red Maw, haven’t they?” he rebuffed.

“Such a small one hardly counts in the face of what a town of this size must usually face, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, I suppose.”

“Well?”

“You suspect some Otherworldly influence then?” he asked.

“Do you?”

“I hadn’t much thought about it, I’m afraid.”

A lie. Any university lecturer on history worth her salt would constantly remind students to consider and include the influences of the Subtle Art, the Firstborn, spirits and other preternatural phenomena upon course of events; I doubted that Naemur would suddenly forget such a key component of the scholarly approach. But, was it a lie that mattered?

“Come now,” I tried in my best sympathetic voice, “You’ve not thought of arcane or spiritual influences over Vaina even since my arrival?”

“Well, I’ve speculated somewhat, but I’d rather see what happens and then get the facts from you, you see?”

“An admirable approach, I suppose. But present circumstances haven’t dredged anything to mind from the town’s past?”

“No, my lord. I am sorry.”

I had no recourse but to accept his recalcitrance; the cost of any coercive measure to press the issue further would be far too dear, no matter the information I might recover. I’d have to try another approach and return to Naemur only as a last resort.

It never sat well with me to leave a potential source of knowledge less than fully-tapped, but I’d been forced to accustom myself to such wisdom in the face of social and political realities. In Ilessa, patrons, protectors and networks of influence are far better armor than any piece of steel or ward of the Art; often it’s not about the ability to stop the harm altogether, but simply making the debt the injury accrues too heavy to make all but the most foolish unwilling to accept the consequences of attacking you. Working for both the Coin Lords and the Council of Ten had put me in situations where I could ill afford to take the direct approach because of a person’s status or influence, and I’d learned to adapt.

I spent the rest of the meal looking for an opening to leave without attracting attention—not least of which because, if this cult of Falla’s were real, there was a possibility that someone in the room could be affiliated with it. My escape required little, in the end.

Aryden had really only wanted my presence for the brief assurances I’d given Lord amn Esto and little more. I was seated at the lord’s table, yes, but at the last seat on an end, limiting those with whom I could speak—and those who might speak with me—as thoroughly as possible. On my left, Eldis, whose aged ears left him mostly unable to hear any conversation at all with the general din of merriment and jokemaking that had filled the hall from floor to beam. Across from me, Naemur, who by now was regaling no one in particular with tales of the Cantic Empire. Next to him sat Gamven, quiet and stern.
Whether he was still mourning the loss of his compatriots—for which none could blame him—or maintained a silent vigil against unexpected threats to his master, I couldn’t tell.

I requested that one of the servants bring me water without making my choice of beverage obvious to anyone else, slipping one of the coins Aryden had given me as gratuity for the favor. I counted each time one of my neighbors had his glass filled again, waited until convinced that they’d given leave to the majority of their senses and memory for the remainder of the night. Gamven barely ate, nor drank much, but the intensity of his lack of focus on me left me assured that he would miss me no more than the others seated near me.

Finally, Aryden stood and wobbled slightly before calling for music and dancing, words which summoned players as if from thin air, the sound of lute and viol in turn calling the happily-inebriated to mutual amusement as they collectively stumbled through popular dances, all the while politely ignoring each other’s glaring mistakes and missteps. The commotion offered plenty of cover as I snuck through one of the hall’s side doors and made my way quietly back to my room, encountering a single patrolling guardsman as I navigated the lamplit corridors.

Once in my chambers, I looked from my window at the moons, Nyryne and Annyn, the former whitish-gray, the latter its pale red, stood near apex in the sky. If whatever ritualistic gathering of this cult had not already begun, it would soon. I needed to move quickly. I recovered my backpack from the chest at the foot of the bed, removed the rings, the iron key and brass bell from it, and replaced the rest. Tucking these into one of the pouches on my belt, I left the chamber and returned to empty halls.

I met no other soul as I exited the keep through the most expedient route that avoided the main hall and those areas closest to it. The courtyard still bristled with life—servants completing nightly duties, retainers who’d tired of the festivities or had been worn down by their recent journey, revelers who’d retreated to any available dark space to engage in more intimate cavorting. None of these had any care for me and I ignored them as well.

Someone had brought beer to the guards at the mighty gatehouse in the castle’s inner wall; I could hear the sounds of laughter and tavern singing from every loophole or murder slot built into the towers flanking the great doors. The two guardsmen assigned to the inside of the door grumbled to one another, upset to be working while their fellows played, no doubt. They stopped their gripes to one another as I approached, apparently thankful for the distraction—any distraction—that might speed the passage of time.

The man on the left, a younger man with the beginnings of a downy, tawny beard, stepped forward, his polearm still leaning backwards against his shoulder at a relaxed angle. “My lord,” he said, “out late are we?”

“My business for your lord does not wait for the convenience of day, I’m afraid. I need to visit the New Town.”

The older man, grown slightly portly and clean-shaven, nodded in response to the boy’s questioning glance at him, sending the younger guardsman to unfasten the bars and locks securing the sally port in the left of the heavy gatehouse doors. “May I ask your business in the New Town at this hour?” the veteran asked.

“No.”

“Very well, my lord. Should we expect your return before day?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll let the boys know to expect you then,” he offered.

I thanked him and passed through the now-open door into the Old Town, where quiet streets livened only by the sound of distant steps of lonely watchmen on patrol waited. The journey to the outer wall between the Old Town and the New passed quickly, my pace enlivened by the prospect of encountering a free spirit in its own demesne—though it should have perhaps been slowed with caution and trepidation. I’ll admit to being curiouser than I am brave, but foolishness and bravery are sometimes a distinction without a difference.

My passage through the gate in the outer wall transpired much as the previous—the watchmen offered tentative resistance and inquiry when I demanded egress but quickly acquiesced. The New Town felt livelier than the Old, most of its residents uninvited to the castle feast and going about their own nighttime festivities—perhaps a subtle protest of those enjoyed by the highborn up the hill. A few folk, having had their fill at Worvo’s inn or some other tavern, strolled or stumbled home, some singing or humming, others grousing to themselves, others silent in their meandering. I nodded to some of those I passed, that subtle nod of acknowledgment but tacit agreement to never make mention of the meeting, and continued on my way until I came to the dirt path leaving town.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 24

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

In Vaina, a lordly procession made its way, imperiously slowly, through the new town toward the old. Flute, trumpet and drum filled their air with a sonorous score to the trouping retinue, their tune punctuated by the irregular staccato of many ironshod hooves clapping pavement stones on the main road.

An armored man, clothed in steel except for his head, which was covered in short-shorn hair dappled with greys and blacks, led the march, his warhorse (in full barding) taking high and exaggerated steps to demonstrate its training and discipline. At his side, hilt pointing behind him in sign of peace, he wore a hand-and-a-halfer in an elaborately tooled and worked leather scabbard of a chestnut brown. The weapon’s pommel had been shaped into two fish, back to back, as if diving apart from one another. If there’d been any doubt, this marked him as one of the amn Esti. Lord Issano amn Esto, no doubt. He wore a yellow sash, embroidered with scenes I could not make out from my vantage point, across his chest. Behind Issano, a footman carried his tournament helmet, a monstrous device topped with the crest of a leaping fish.

This man was flanked by two others in the place of squires, one carrying a light lance with a yellow pennant trailing dramatically from the tip in the light breeze of the early evening, the other holding a shield emblazoned with the amn Esto crest—more fish.

A row of three mounted men-at-arms trailed Lord amn Esto’s weapons-bearers, these wearing half-plate to allow for their elaborate and dagged sleeves and slops, yellow over blue. Like their lord’s scabbard, their leather boots had been tooled with intricate patterns. Despite a light coating of dust from the road, these boots had not been worn much before; they must have been crafted specifically for the occasion. The men—or rather two men and a woman—scowled, their countenances stern and threatening, though purely as a matter of decorum.

Lady Osynna amn Esto, Issano’s wife, rode side-saddle atop a well-groomed palfrey with braided hair and caparisoned in the heraldry of her house, the center of a group of ladies-in-waiting, all smiling and chatting with one another. Between them walked the commoner maidservants, a bit wearier for having walked but feigning high spirits, at least.

Lesser members of the house, distant relatives and all their retinues trailed behind, perhaps a hundred people in total, all wearing some variation on the amn Esto arms. I did not remember my heraldry well enough to distinguish between the various cadet branches of the family in those variations, but neither did I care much about it. If I had my way, I’d be allowed to mostly ignore the amn Esti and continue my investigation undisturbed. Somehow, though, I doubted that that would be the case.

I followed behind at a respectful distance, not because I am a particularly patient man but because I hoped to avoid notice or causing a scene by rushing in front of them to the castle. I thanked the One that their slow speed, as infuriating as it was otherwise, at least left no cloud of dust behind them for me to cough my way through.

As would be expected, many of the townsfolk of Vaina had lined the street to watch this parade. Even many of the im Norenni and im Vardi I’d seen earlier had joined the crowd, though they lacked much of the enthusiasm of the other inhabitants of the New Town, those for whom the amn Esti did not threaten some further loss of status and influence, for they’d never enjoyed any to begin with.

The im Valladyni would be waiting in the castle with Lord Aryden, but the other merchant families of the Old Town, dressed in their finery, throwing flowers and calling out to the processing nobility, lined both sides of the street just as they had in the New Town. I smiled a bit and wondered how many professional thieves a town the size of Vaina might have; this must have been an irresistible opportunity for them. They were good, I admitted, for I could catch sight of none, though the crowds and the failing light offered them the advantage. Behind the lines of folk watching the amn Esto entrance, I could see members of Daedys’ watch, surveying the crowd for the same thing as I.

Dusk had fallen over us as we passed under the grand gatehouse into the castle courtyard. As quickly as I could, I made my way to one of the wings of that space, hoping to avoid notice that would require me to remain through the ceremonies of greeting and all of the nonsense that accompanied such pomp and circumstance.

For a moment, it appeared that I’d successfully evaded detection, until I felt a delicate hand slip its way into the crook of my arm and heard the quiet whirring of the gears that animated the mechanical bird, Ethelyn. “My lady,” I said, without looking to my side.

“No taste for decorum and custom?” she asked, her voice touching the words only lightly.

“None, I’m afraid.”

“Me, neither. Let us hide together.”

She tugged at my arm gently and I turned to follow her. Now, part of me did worry about decorum. The last thing I needed gossip about me sneaking off with the Lord amn Vaina’s daughter while everyone else was occupied with the amn Estos. It reeked of salacious intrigue. Still, I needed to talk to Vesonna, and I didn’t know what better chance I might get to find her without Mistress Indorma Vesith tagging along.

She took me to one of the doors in the wall between the courtyard and the Old Town, a circular stairwell already lit by lamplight. Holding my hand—which by now had passed into the realm of discomfort—she pulled me along as we ascended to the ramparts. Atop the wall, we continued around it until she found just the spot she wanted. Those few guardsmen posted atop the defense ignored us and looked inward, where Lords Aryden and Issano, and [Mr. Im Valldyn], exchanged formulaic niceties.

“There we are,” she said, finally. She positioned us to overlook the hill upon which Vaina sat, the suns slowly falling over the horizon in the distance. I had to admit, it was a pleasant viewpoint. After a moment of silence, simply regarding the landscape, I remember our clasped hands and pulled away.

Making no mention of my move, she spoke again. “And where did your investigation take you today, lord thaumaturge?”

“Amongst the magnates of your town, my lady.”

“And what did you discover?”

“I’ve heard that you had no love for Orren,” I said flatly. “Why?”

She smiled, a mischievous smile. “Let’s play a game.”

I frowned. “I have no time for games, my lady.”

She shook her head at that. “What else do you have to do at present?”

I looked up and away, a poor attempt to conceal my admission that she was right. In response, Vesonna grinned and nearly hopped with excitement, pushing herself briefly to the tips of her toes and gracefully returning to flat feet.

“What’s the game?” I asked her.

“You answer my questions, and I’ll answer yours. No lying, no leaving anything out, no dodging.”

I took a deep breath. I’m not one to enjoy talking about myself, but the price was a relatively low one to continue my search for answers. “Fine,” I told her, suddenly remembering Falla’s words. Those who rule cannot rule themselves.

“Excellent,” she smiled. “I’ll go first. Tell me about what happened to your family.”

“You know that story, I’m sure,” I resisted.

“That’s not the game you agreed to,” she warned, tone light but meaning all too serious. “I know that the amn Ennocs were declared traitors by the Council of Ten, that their lands were seized, and that you were spared by reason of your absence. But I don’t know what happened.”

“That’s not enough?”

“Of course not,” she smiled deviously. “I’m curious. Call me an investigator, a historian,” she smiled again. “Now stop warding the question and answer it. Else I’ll answer nothing you ask.”

With a deeper sigh, this time, I began the tale. “I was only six when my parents suspected that I had the Gift. They summoned an Ealthen Magus, Marten Ravenswing—”

“What a silly name!” she interjected.

“It’s not his real name. There’s a habit among practitioners to hide their true names, lest they be used against them. It’s the same reason the Aenyr were called as they were.”

“But you use your true name,” she protested.

“I use the name I was born to, yes. There’s much more to a true name than that. Anyway, Marten took me to his manse in Ealthe to apprentice. That was the last I saw of my family.”

“What was it like to be an apprentice to a magus?”

I wagged my finger at her. “That’s not the question.”

She made her face faux-apologetic for a brief moment and waived for me to continue.

“We corresponded, of course, but it takes weeks for a letter to pass between Ealthe and Altaene, and the magus would not allow me to use the Art to communicate with them, even once I became capable of it. And to be honest, I had little interest in doing so. They weren’t much of my life, after all.”

“Now you’re not answering the question!”

“Right. So, after my apprenticeship, Marten had me enrolled in the Arcane College of the University of Asterfaen. He’d not come from nobility, and, admittedly, had little love for born to power and status, so he refused to allow my family to pay for my education and enrolled me as a sizar.”

“What’s that?”

“The university paid for my education, but I had to work as a servant to the other students.”

“How awful!”

“I hated it at the time, of course, but it taught me some valuable lessons. It never stopped me from enjoying my time at the university, anyway.”

“Studying?”

“I enjoyed, that, sure. But not as much then as I do now. Back then I was something of a rake. I spent as much time as I could in the taverns, carousing, chasing women, or in the schools of defense, learning sword and staff, fighting feigned duels over stupid slights, generally getting into trouble. These distractions kept me from realizing the dire straits my family had entered until the letters stopped altogether. I’m sure they did as much as they could to conceal the truth of things from me, anyway. I only discovered what had happened much later, when I returned to Altaene.”

“Which was?”

“Ennoc was never a wealthy place of its own, so our family created its wealth and power in the City, in Ilessa, in much the same way as the other wealthy folk there: trade. The amn Ennoci were no captains, no adventurers, but they had coin to invest. Through luck or skill—I suppose which doesn’t matter—their trade endeavors made them rich and powerful Our noble title prohibited us from sitting on the Council of Ten, of course, but the patriarchs and matriarchs of my family were content to influence politics from a distance.

“Things changed after the Artificer War. The amn Ennocci personally financed a mercenary company to fight in that war, one of several groups that served as Altaene’s proxies on the continent. The spoils of war added substantially to our coffers, especially once the Houses ransomed the Artifice captured by the other combatants as part of the treaty.

“My grandmother, Tanyle, was an especially sly woman, some might say devious. She was the third daughter of her generation, expendable though capable, so she had been sent to manage the mercenary company employed by the family. I’m told she even fought alongside them on occasion. With great foresight—or so she thought—she brought with her several Ilmarin craftsmen, the most skilled in Artifice she could find who were not beholden to the Houses. By the time she’d surrendered the Artifice she’d captured to its previous owners, her craftsmen had learned at least some of the techniques used in the creation of the devices. These Ilmarin became some of Ilessa’s first Gray Artificers, though certainly not the only ones, and a portion of their profits flowed into our coffers.

“Most of the Artifice she’d taken had come from House Meradhvor, for her company had fought largely in Old Cantos, where Meradhvor had its home at the time. Despite the treaty, Meradhvor never forgot those who most sorely injured them in the war, though they bided their time to regroup, raise themselves back up, and regain their footing in the new order established under the treaty before they took their revenge.

“Tanyle eventually became the amn Ennoc matriarch, her skill and ruthlessness brushing aside her older brothers. Under her guidance, the family was one of the most powerful in Ilessa, influencing trade, politics, civil life, and even the Temple and the Council of Coin through its wealth and connections. This made enemies.
“My father, I’m told, was not have the astute commander and politician that my grandmother was. Meradhvor first approached him to lease some warehouses in near the Ilessin docks in the Lower City.”

“Because they couldn’t own them themselves,” Vesonna observed.

“Yes. It’s the same reason they want to marry someone into your family. You won’t technically be an amn Vaina anymore, since they can’t hold titles, and you’ll never inherit Vaina or your family’s holdings, but the relationship you establish between the amn Vaini and House Meradhvor will help them to circumvent the strict rules of the treaty, to gain access to the things they want that they’re not allowed to own directly.”

“What do they want in Vaina?” she asked. She didn’t seem offended by the idea; she’d somehow already become accustomed to the way the world works and had accepted it for immutable fact. Her tone indicated curiosity instead, as perhaps she thought about how to make her own advantage of a hard truth.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. I had a suspicion, but I wouldn’t confirm it until later that night.

“Fine. Continue.”

“Anyway, Meradhvor increased their business dealings with my family over time, garnering trust as they gathered more and more information to use against them.”

“‘Them?’ Not ‘us?’”

“I told you. They were never really my family after I left—I never saw them again. We share a name, but not much else.”

“Sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter. Eventually, after having planted several spies within the family’s staff and servants, House Meradhvor made a marriage proposal for my sister. It was accepted, of course, and my father evidently thought himself somehow as gifted as his mother. On the night of the wedding, when the entirety of my family had been gathered for the event, the City’s watch burst in and arrested all of them. The Council of Ten declared them traitors.”

“For a marriage alliance with Meradhvor?”

“No, of course not. No one was particularly happy about that arrangement, and it probably had much to do with what happened next, as the House itself had counted on, but it was not part of the official charge, as it was no crime.

“Meradhvor had used its spies to plant evidence that my father was conspiring with the Council of Coin and others to overthrow the Council of Ten and declare himself the only lord of Ilessa. This was nonsense, but it had happened before in the past in nearly all of the Sisters, so the threat is always taken seriously, and the imperiousness of my father’s behavior did nothing to allay suspicions. Besides, the Artificer House had used its dealings with him to string him along and provoke him into several actions that gave the idea credence. More than that, though, the City itself was tired of my family’s overbearing influence over it—there was tacit agreement that little real investigation into the matter was necessary if what the evidence already presented sufficient grounds to be rid of the amn Ennocci.”

“And House Meradhvor had provided the evidence in the first place?”

“Of course. They styled themselves as ‘conscientiously abiding by the treaty.’ They’d already made secret deals with several members of the Council of Ten—and several of the Council of Coin—well before the arrests. Everyone had something to gain from the ruse, so everyone went along with it.”

“What happened then?”

“Many things. After a short trial, my family was convicted of the treason of which they were accused and sentenced to banishment and seizure of all of their property within the City, most of which the City itself took control of officially, but it ended up in the possession of members of the Council of Ten, the Council of Coin, or other prominent families who needed extra incentive to go along. My families villa in the Upper City was quickly leased out—to House Meradhvor, as it happens. A ‘just reward for service to the City.’

“Street gangs belonging to the members of the Council of Coin but led by operatives of House Meradhvor raided those Gray Markets where my family retained some influence, taking all Artifice they found and murdering the Gray Artificers there, few if any of whom had actually been with Tanyle in the first place.

“The amn Yvossi sacked Ennoc within the week after the order of banishment; only ruins remain now.”

“And your family?”

“Put on a ship for Ealthe. One that never arrived. There were rumors of storms at sea, or pirates, but I found some evidence indicating that Meradhvor had employed the entire crew. I suspect they went far enough out to sea to avoid notice and murdered everyone wholesale: my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, all of those with relations close enough to my father to be rightly called ‘amn Ennocci’.”

“That’s terrible!”

“That’s politics.”

“But you live in the City. How does that work?”

“The Council of Ten specifically exempted me from the charges and sentence. Someone had advocated on my behalf, argued that I could not have been involved. It’s possible that this was my father’s doing, but more likely some unknown benefactor. I was allowed none of my family’s holdings, but they could not lawfully strip me of the name and made public that I was under no shadow of suspicion and to be welcome in the City should I return.”

“And you haven’t revenged this?” she asked, almost incredulous.

“It was nearly a year past by the time I came home to Ilessa, and another before I’d discerned what had actually happened. Besides, what was there to gain by revenge? I’d hardly known my family, I never cared about the title or the legacy, and being wealthy and powerful earns you the enmity of others; there’s no honor in it.”

“But your family deserves justice, don’t they?”

“What have I to do with justice?”

“But I thought—”

“You thought that’s what I’d come here for? I came here for your father’s coin, Vesonna. I fix problems; that’s my living. It’s not the same as justice. Justice is too costly a thing in this world; I’ll leave the justice to The One. Besides, would you refuse to wed into House Meradhvor now that you have this knowledge?”

She paused for a moment. “No,” she said at last.

“Then what care you for justice?”

“It’s not my revenge to be had,” she attempted.

“Revenge and justice are not the same, Vesonna. I’ve seen plenty of revenges in my work, petty ones and grand ones. You know what revenge gets?”

She didn’t answer.

“More revenge,” I told her. “More blood, more death, more deceit, more evil.”

Ethelyn let out a chirp, then, one that sounded of sage agreement. Vesonna gave the mechanical bird a sullen look, as if it had betrayed her.

“My turn,” I continued. “Tell me about your relationship with Orren?”

“What about it?” she parried.

“Don’t dodge. I’m told you treated him rather cruelly. Why?”

“Not at first, I didn’t. He was handsome, had some wit to him, a silver tongue. I found him intriguing when he first came to apprentice to Eldis, if only because he was a new face. I quickly realized that behind that alluring mask was a person I did not wish to be near.”

“Why not?” I continued.

She held a finger up to my lips, smiling coyly. “That’s not how we play; we get one question each.”

I moved her hand away from me, perhaps too quickly. “You asked several questions; I answered them all.”

She sighed. “Fine.”

“How did you come to your opinion of Orren?”

“By watching him. He pursued anyone and everyone he thought might have an interest in him. For most, it was only flirting, enticing them that they might grant him favors in hopes of continued attention. Extra food, secrets kept when he would sneak out at night, gossip about others in the castle. For others, he went much further. With those who couldn’t offer him anything, he only satisfied his lusts with them and moved on. For those who could, he dallied until he got what he was after and then left them to their disappointment. He treated those from whom he needed nothing and for whom he had no desire with contempt. It disgusted me. He made a whore of himself and, what’s worse, a dishonest one. It is one thing to trade coin or power for pleasure when both parties are in agreement; we all must do that from time to time, I’m afraid. But it is entirely another when such arrangements are disguised behind passionate play until the prey is entrapped and indebted.”

“He pursued you, too.”

“Of course he did. We flirted for some time, until I saw him for who he was. I realized that he had little interest in me, in particular; he wanted a ladder he could climb into my parents’ favor.”

“I thought Aryden and Aevalla thought well of him.”

“They did. But not enough for his ambitions. He wanted favor enough that they might send him away from here to do their bidding, pouches laden with coin and no one to look over his shoulder so that he might turn his position to his own advantage as much as possible.”

“What about his treatment of Nilma?”

“Ah, ah, ah, Lord Iaren. I believe we are now even in the answering of questions; it is my turn once again.”

I waived my hand to indicate that she proceed.

“Why didn’t you finish your education at the university?”

“I, um.”

“You know the rules, my lord,” she chided.

“I wore out my welcome, let’s say.”

“What does that mean—that’s not another question. That’s an admonition for you to answer the question I asked.”

“As I said, I was a sizar and I spent a lot of time learning to fence. I had a hotter head back then and the combination wasn’t a good one. I took only so much disrespect from my fellows at the university before I started fancying myself a duelist and challenging others to fights over insults real and perceived. Vengeance, you might say. The Ealthen style of dueling is very different from the Altaenin. It is about blood, not about finesse and precision. Well, to the extent that any fight isn’t about finesse and precision and to the extent that every fight threatens blood. But the difference in real: here we focus on a display of superiority over the other party; there on bodily injury as recompense for social injury.”

“You killed someone?”

“No. But almost, and under somewhat pathetic circumstances. I’d slept with the man’s paramour, more of spite than true attraction, and she thus became an object for us to fight over rather than the rather remarkable woman she was. The duel turned ugly, uglier than it already was, when the man’s friends attempted to come to the aid of their fellow. This was against the rules of the duel, of course, but I’d made enough of a nuisance of myself that none of them cared much about that.”

“Oh.”

“No, I’m not finished. The woman used a sorcery to defend me from the man’s friends. In the confusion, I injured the man—badly, though thankfully he recovered—and I ran. I returned to my rooms, took what I could carry with me, and left Asterfaen for Ilessa. I’d received news of my family’s misfortune only a few months before and that seemed as good an excuse to come home as any. For a while, I even talked myself into thinking that a desire to find the truth about my family and not a need to flee the failures of my time at university had brought me back to the Sisters. Time clarifies things, though, and I’ve realized better.”

“Who was this person you dueled? Or the woman for that matter?”

Now I smiled. “My turn,” I said. “Nilma.”

“Let me illustrate. Nilma had been taken with Orren for some time, but he’d never much responded to her. She spent an entire day when she had no duties in the castle collecting flowers for him. That night, she brought them to him while several of the servants were gathered in the hall; I was there as well. He took the flowers, laughed in her face, and distributed them to the other girls who were present—except for Nilma—and told her that he’d given them to the women who had merit deserving of such decoration. When she burst into tears, he took to her like a wolf after one who flees, worrying the wound he’d already given her until she could bear no more and withdrew to her chamber.”

“And after that?”

“The poor girl. She resented him, but she still wanted him. Now, when you returned to Ilessa, what did you do?”

“For a while, not much. I thought about joining a mercenary company, but that final duel had not left me much enamored with violence as a way of life. The Coin Lords courted me for a short time, but they quickly realized that I wasn’t much for obedience—especially of the blind variety. It was one of Blind-Eye Berem’s boys who offered me my first job as a finder, actually. Something had been stolen from him and he needed help finding it. I had the skills for it and it turned out to be a pretty easy job—the item in question had been misplaced rather than stolen. Still, he was happy enough with the result, so a few others came asking for assistance afterward. Some of them related to the Council of Coin in one way or another, but some of them not. I did some work for private citizens, the Council of Coin when they needed someone independent to answer a questions for them, even a job or two for the Council of Ten. Enough to make a modest living, to continue my studies.”

“You’re like one of the shadowmen, then?”

I bristled, instinctively. “No. I am nothing like a shadowman. You hire shadowmen when you want something stolen, someone kidnapped, someone killed and you don’t want anyone to know who’s behind the job. I’m the opposite. I find things and people and I solve problems. I don’t kill people.”

“But the jobs have to be dangerous, working for the Coin Lords.”

“Sometimes. But there’s a difference between defending oneself and murder. I’ve been in some fights; I’ve hurt some people to stop them from hurting me. But I’ve never killed anyone. And the Coin Lords don’t come to me for violence; they had their own folk for that kind of work. They come to me mostly because they don’t trust each other to speak the truth, so the Council itself hires me, not any one of the Lords, so that they get answers from someone not beholden to any of them. There’s a sort of protection in that; any Lord who acted against me outright would look guilty to his peers. So, they try to hide things from me, obfuscate the truth, bribe me, instead of threaten. To be honest, most of the things they ask me to investigate have stakes too low to be worth violence anyway. And jobs from them aren’t all too common.”

“Hence your coming here.”

“First job I’ve had outside the City. Thought it might be nice to get away for a change.”

“And?”

“I’m not sure I made the right choice.” Before she could respond, I asked my own question. “You said ‘was’ when you spoke about Orren. Why?”

“You yourself have told my father you believe it’s his spirit that haunts us. I see no reason it wouldn’t be. Why should he be less selfish or predatory in death than he was in life?”
She had a point. “But you’re willing to take my word for it?”

“You’re the expert, my lord.”

Below us, Lorent amn Esto moved through the last of the customary performances in thanking the amn Vaini for their hospitality, only accentuating Aevala’s absence. The young man’s armored father elbowed him at that, and Lorent nearly stumbled over in response. Already, the valets and servants were spiriting away the entourage’s horses, showing servants to the storerooms for goods and the chambers for themselves. Even those of higher station, who could not simply fade away during the observations of decorum, struggled to contain their growing boredom.

Whether Lorent had finished his expected speech or had only paused for breath, Aryden interjected with a mighty, “Bah; that’s enough of that, isn’t it? Let’s eat—and drink!”
Vesonna tugged at my hand, gently, lightly. “Come, let’s away before they noticed we’re gone.”

“I could use a drink,” I said.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 23

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

Excitement carried me along as I left the am Norreni house and headed again to the wilds outside of Vaina town. Though he’d not understood it, what the painter had told me about Ovaelo’s midnight excursions could only indicate the arcane. If a citizen of Ilessa—where practitioners of the Subtle Art were far more common and their services had practically become a part of every day life—had not noticed, it was no wonder that no one else in Vaina had said anything about his attempts at the Art. If the boy had been experimenting with forces he did not understand, this could explain his present condition as an angry spirit. It was possible even that no one had murdered him; that he’d succumbed to some misuse of the Power. He’d not be the first to so perish; even trained practitioners sometimes fell victim to their own ignorance or desperation in foolishly forming a working beyond their ability. If that had happened, it would explain why no one had found a body.

Only one person in Vaina—out of Vaina, actually—might have additional insight. The witch, Falla. So, once again, I made my way to her cottage near the ruins of the ancient Aenyr fort.

My thoughts about the potential implications of Orren’s involvement with the Art occupied me as I walked the old path toward my destination and, despite myself, I lost my usual caution about jumping to conclusions, spinning ever more fantastic threads of speculative possibility as I journeyed. None of the scenarios I imagined made a connection between the young man and Lady Aevala. Nilma or Vesonna both seemed likelier targets of his anger, but the facts were the facts. Even if Orren’s arcane talent or experimentation answered one question, it did not complete the puzzle.

Before I reached the edge of the clearing, I could hear the chanting. A single voice, Falla’s, singing as much as incanting, pleasant and enticing in its melody and timbre, the words liquid and flowing one into the other, each somehow simultaneously independent and yet part of an inseparable string of sounds. Beautiful. I felt the Power in the air around us, even at a distance from which I could not yet see her. I could feel raw possibility organizing itself into visions of potentiality, the many skeins of contingencies weaving themselves into an array of alternative futures, only one of which would come to pass. No longer did I doubt Falla’s abilities as a seer, cryptic though she’d been. This knowledge of her intimacy with the divinatory practices required that I trust her statements on the nature of that aspect of the Art more than I had.

As I edged closer to her clearing, her incanting became more intense, less melodic but ever-more rhythmic, and quickened in that rhythm. I caught sight of her at last. She knelt, her legs tucked under her, in a clear spot of grass in the glade, naked but for the pigments with which she’d slathered herself and the tattoos that covered much of her body. If she’d looked wild before, she now appeared nothing but chaotic. Her hair splayed about her head as if buoyed by some invisible force—not taut but languid, as invisible hands seemed to hold her up against falling, tossing her this way and that in time with the rhythm of her chanting, which had grown uneven so that she was sometimes propelled with inhuman alacrity and sometimes drawn into contortions the strongest of muscles could not create with such gradual movement. I sensed no spirit, no other being operating upon her; the Power itself swirled about her and held her thusly, suspending her in such strange positions as it swirled about her, passing through her to fuel her visions.

Her eyes opened suddenly, the iris and whites alike obscured by solid and dark color, swirling and changing subtly in gloomy hues. Her mouth opened and her voice issued forth, low and without melody, her lips unmoving as she nevertheless formed the words that spilled out.

“Master thaumaturge,” she said. “Are you prepared to pay the cost for seeking after death?”

“I—” I began, but the seeress would brook no interruption.

“Death begets death; it is the way of this world. Did you think that you’d find only one death at the end of your journey?

“Your time is running short. The powers at work in this place conspire against you, even as they struggle with one another, and lives hang in the balance. Not the least of which yours, though many precede you. Medryn, Errys, Savlo. For what? Who else will you bring with you to the brink before someone nudges you over?

“You look to petty histories of petty lives for answers when you do not yet know even the questions. You think the boy responsible for his own fate when he, too, is only a pawn in the games of others, just as you are. Have you any idea who pulls the strings? Who are the ones who truly rule here?”

More riddles, but I now took it on faith that they were not useless ones. Falla clearly had too much skill in the Art for that. “Who?” I asked.

Her mouth widened in an impossible smile as words passed through the gate her lips had opened without touching any part of the portal they passed through. Only then did I realize that there might be no audible words at all; I might only be hearing her through some telepathic communication. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference. “The ones who rule cannot rule themselves, and those who seek power are doomed to fall. The bolt of cloth threatens to tear itself asunder as each end pulls its own way,” she said.

I opened my mouth to speak again, but she collapsed into a heap, unconscious but breathing heavily. The inevitable consequence of calling on so much power. I only hoped she’d not injured herself permanently. The spectacle of her foresight not diminished, I turned my head aside, averting my gaze in respect for her compromised state. The exoticness of her painted skin, with its combination of designs in permanent inks and recently-added pigments carried an erotic temptation that required effort to ignore. I did my best, venturing into her cottage where I might find something to cover her with.

I’d expected to step into the darkness endemic to most such structures but found instead that light illuminated the interior as well as the outside under the twin suns, now high ascended. No torches or candles flickered, nor did I see the alchemical lamps so commonly used by those of means. She had enchanted the light into the rafters themselves with runes at once precise and indicative of her wild independence. The more I came to understand her practice, the more I admired her, both for her skill and her character. She paid a heavy price for her freedom, and she paid it willingly and without hesitation. There is no greater freedom than that.

In a manner uncharacteristic of any practitioner’s study I’d ever observed, the mundane flowed into the arcane here without any noticeable transition. An herb with occult properties hung next to strips of smoked and dried meats. One does often get hungry while undertaking an extended working, I suppose. Those of us who are trained by masters and at the university are instructed to keep a harsh separation between our laboratories and other chambers. They rationalize the tradition with warnings of allowing the imagination to wonder into the use of the Power accidentally when such division is not maintained, but I’d never found the argument all that compelling, and Falla’s cottage seemed to indicate no true threat justifying the approach. The Subtle Art is delicate and mysterious for all of our desire to truly control it, and thus it sometimes becomes difficult to separate important aspects of practice from mere superstition.
A humble bed waited patiently in the corner of the single room, unkempt but clean. Preternaturally so, as I pulled the blanket off of it for a covering for the witch, I noticed no fleas, no bugs, nothing crawling out from the straw stuffing. Rare is the bed without some form of pest or pestilence. I made a note to remember to ask her about the enchantments she’d used.

Returning to the clearing, I laid the rough-spun blanket over her gently, careful not to touch or disturb her. By then her breathing had settled some and I ceased to worry about her not coming back. My stomach growled and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten yet, so I took the liberty of taking some of the vegetables lain on the table inside the cottage, chopped them, and added them to the cauldron in the center of the clearing, as it was clean and empty. She kept a barrel of fresh water, perhaps collected from the rain, near the door of the cottage and I used a ladle to transfer some into the waiting pot. On the side of the cottage Falla had stacked firewood, which I stacked carefully under the vessel along with some tinder I scrounged from beneath the trees at the edge of the glade.

On this visit, we had no audience of animals in the trees and shadows; I imagined that Falla’s use of so much Power had temporarily driven them away. I set the tinder ablaze with a quick sorcery and sat on the well-worn log nearby. I unbuckled my sword belt and lay the weapon and leatherwork gently on the ground behind me, unlaced and opened my vest as some relief from the afternoon heat.

I sat quietly with as much patience as I could gather—which admittedly didn’t last long—before I rose in search of something to drink. Inside the cottage, in the corner on the same wall as the door (which I told myself was the reason I hadn’t noticed them in the first place) a collection of corked pottery bottles lay on their sides, stacked nearly as high as my waist. I took one from the top, delicately, and pulled the cork with a little effort. The smell of ale greeted me, evoking a smile. After an introductory swig, I took the bottle to my perch on the log and resumed my vigil over the unconscious witch.

As I sat and sipped at the sweet concoction, I mulled over Falla’s prophetic utterances. The ones who rule cannot rule themselves. Did that mean the amn Vaini or the im Valldyni and the im Vardi? Those who seek power are doomed to fall. I assumed that this meant Orren, who did little to hide his ambitions, but a part of me wanted this to refer to Edanu and his Artificer House, even after we’d built some camaraderie on the field of battle. His kind would find little well-wishing in my heart. Even so, though, the ambiguity of the statement meant that I might apply it to many in the town: Nilma and her family, the constable Daedys, Lady Vesonna, perhaps even me, from a certain perspective. The bolt of cloth threatens to tear itself asunder as each end pulls its own way? But who, or what, was the fabric? The town itself seemed to be the answer, as ancient rivalries the amn Vaini had once quelled by dividing mastery of the demesnes resources amongst the prominent families seeped to the surface anew. Could Orren have been a pawn in a conflict between the old town and the new, or were the amn Vaini the manipulated ones, the ultimate prize over which their factions of followers fought?

I’d downed half the bottle by the time the contents of the pot began to pop and boil, which happened to be about the time that Falla opened her eyes. I like to think that it was the pottage that woke her. She blinked, bleary-eyed, before sitting upright. The blanket slid off of her as she did, but she ignored it, standing up to her full height without embarrassment or shame. There was nothing meant to entice or invite in the movement; she simply didn’t care that she was naked in my presence, as if such a thing were so natural that neither of us need mention it.

Looking at the bubbling pot and the earthenware vessel in my hand, she smirked. “Made yourself at home, didn’t you?”

“I asked if you minded,” I lied. “You didn’t object.”

A quick burst of air passed her lips, the expulsion of minor amusement, as she walked past me and into the cottage. She returned a moment later, clothed in a simple dress and carrying two wooden bowls. She took the ladle I’d used to water the cauldron and served some of the soup into one her bowls, which she passed to me. “What did I say?” she asked.

“You don’t know?”

“This time? No. When I sensed you coming, I started the working, hoping that I could divine something useful for you. I was overzealous. I reached out to scry the spirit itself, but it is more powerful than I’d imagined. I had to give myself over to the visions entirely or allow it to follow me back here. I will not be so foolish again.” She filled her own bowl now, setting it on the ground near the log, where she sat down beside me. With a look, she demanded the ale from me, which I passed to her willingly. She took a swig, a long one, and I could see the faintest remnant of trembling in her hands. I’d thought her fearless, in a way, but she reminded me that none of us is.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Why what?” she said, wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her dress, leaving a smudge of color behind. She’d not washed the pigments from her face, and the arcane runes formed in blues and greens seemed to dance on the background of orange, yellow and black whenever I looked at her from the corner of my eye.

“Why risk so much to help me?”

She shrugged. “You trusted me enough not to despise me in our first encounter, enough to return to seek my advice. And I am a guardian of Vaina, in my way; there are spirits enough in this place without such a malevolent one making its home among us.”
I said nothing for a moment, motioning for her to hand back the ale. She held it out for me, but didn’t release it when I grasped it, using the chance to look me square in the eyes. “What did I say?” she asked again. She smiled playfully, but an intensity in her eyes revealed her desperation for the answer.

“You told me that the powers in this place are conspiring against me.”

“But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“Suspicion is a natural state for me, yes.”

“And what does that suspicion tell you.”

“For every answer I get, there are two held back. I don’t know the right questions to ask, so I’m letting the folk of this town evade me in the most important matters. Until Ovaelo, at least. He’s an outsider here like me, doesn’t have the advantages the Vaina townsfolk do in knowing the terrain here—social, political—like one’s own thoughts.”
“And what did the painter tell you?” she replied, the look in her eyes again cryptic, enigmatic. A look that told me that she, too, was waiting for me to ask the right answers. Unlike the others of Vaina, she would give me the answers she had freely, but only if I asked for them specifically.

“He described the boy, Orren, leaving in the middle of the night, coming back giving off the aura of one who’d been practicing the Art.”

“Or of one who’s been touched by something with Power itself.”

“What does that mean?”

“You think the boy had the Gift? And I wouldn’t have told you that the first time we met?”

“Well…damn. There goes the best theory I had.”

She smiled patronizingly.

“Wait—” I said. “What did you mean when you said there are spirits enough in this place?”

Her smile turned playful again, pleased even. I’d asked the right question. “You know that there are spirits everywhere,” she told me.

“I do, but most of them are dormant or driven by such focused nature that they are merely the representations of the things they embody. That’s not what you meant. You meant Awakened spirits.”

“Yes.”

“You’re telling me that Orren was communing with an Awakened spirit, that he wasn’t a practitioner?”

“I am.”

“Explain.”

“There is an old and powerful spirit that dwells near Vaina town, a child of Avarienne, a spirit of nature, bound only to the land itself. It, too, sees itself as a guardian of Vaina, but it guards its own desires for the place, not the commonwealth of its people. It uses the people as a means to its own ends, and they are indebted to it deeply.”

“This spirit has a cult?”

“Of a sort. Nothing like what you’d normally ascribe to that word—these are not servants of the ones whose names I shall not speak. They do not spread corruption and evil. To those who venerate it, this spirit is like unto the Firstborn, or the saints of the Temple—a steward of the creation of The One, but not the creator Themselves. They do its bidding in exchange for the blessings it bestows upon them, not because they worship it. In fact, I imagine some in its thrall fear and resent the spirit more than venerate it, and they are right to. This spirit is powerful, and while it is no demon-thing, its volition is its own and, like nature, it is ultimately uncaring for those affected by its whims and maneuvers.”

“You fear this spirit, too,” I accused.

Her lips pursed, not quite a frown but certainly an expression of doubt. “I do. I am a rival to it, I suppose. We both offer succor to the townsfolk, though its is far more general and mine far more personal. But anyone who seeks help from me is not seeking help from the spirit; this diminishes its power, however slightly.”

“This all would have been good information to have had from our first encounter.”

“Iaren, if Aryden and Barro had any knowledge of this group or its spirit, there would be pyres in the streets. They would make no distinction between this kind of relationship with a spirit and the far more sinister ones found in the secret cults of the cities. The innocent would suffer, greatly, and my silence on the matter intended to protect them without having to rely on your discretion.”

“You don’t trust me,” I said, a little offended.

“I see many things, Iaren, but they are only possibilities. I might guess at probabilities of events, but I cannot see inside the hearts of men. I do not know you, my lord. Not well enough to trust without need. Besides, we both know that this spirit and the one afflicting Lord amn Vaina’s castle are not the same.”

“But they could be related, Falla.”

“After my latest trance, I agree. Orren was a member of this group.”

“Who else?”

“Do you not see the distinction?”

The picture became clearer in my mind. This spirit was the reason that Vaina had fared so well when other towns and villages had been wracked with storms, famine and plagues. The spirit offered bountiful harvests and natural wealth to the people of Vaina in exchange for their fealty to it. And who stood to gain from that? Everyone, potentially, but particularly the folk of the new town, who made their living in farming or forestry, by the natural bounty of the Avar. If they wanted a powerful patron to struggle against the influence of the old Vaina merchants and the lord who favored them, this spirit was it. And it knew it. This minor cult may not have been one devoted to Sedhwe or his lieutenants, or to Daea and her monster queens, but its existence was sinister all the same. And the mystery ran deeper. “What else can you tell me about this cult? When do they meet?”

“Iaren, you must swear to me that you will not reveal these folk to the priest or to Lord Aryden.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“Iaren, please,” she didn’t beg; she delivered the words flatly and straightforwardly. A firm request born of concern and consideration for consequences, not of emotion.

“You know that I cannot control all things,” I objected.

“But swear that you will control the things you can.”

I hesitated a moment. “I swear it, Falla. Are you going to ask to fatebind me to the declaration?”

“No,” she said. “Your word is stronger.”

“How do you know that? You said you don’t know me.”

“I know enough. The cult will meet tonight, while Nyryne is full, as is their custom. They meet in a place west of Vaina in the wild while the moons are high. You’ll feel it from a distance and be able to follow your sense of the Power and the spirit itself. But be careful. These folk mean no evil, but they will protect themselves, and they know the stakes if they are discovered.”

Perhaps now I understood what her prophecies had meant. Vaina had two rulers, just as it was split between old and new, split between haughty merchants and stubborn farmers. And Orren had been at the center of it, moving as he did between both worlds. But this only broadened the possibilities for Orren’s murder, made everyone a suspect again. Even Falla, perhaps. Her easygoing demeanor and frank speech had lulled me into a sense of trust. But was it a false one? Maybe she was like everyone else, giving me the answers she wanted me to have to lead me away from questions she did not care to answer. I still didn’t take her for a killer, manipulative though she might have been. But I’d been wrong before. Don’t tell anyone.

The pottage had cooled sufficiently; I slurped it out of the bowl to avoid having to speak as much as to slake my hunger. “This cult must have long roots. How long has it existed?”
“The spirit itself? Who knows. This arrangement with the folk of Vaina? Since before ‘twas my mother who stood in my place, lived in this cottage. People told tales about the ‘spirit of the wood’ since time immemorial, but it never revealed itself nor bargained so openly with the townsfolk until Lord Aryden’s ancestors set im Valldyni and im Darqosi over the town’s trade and the im Vardi, the im Osi and the im Norenni over the towns agriculture. That division gave it a place to gain power, to use the struggles of Vaina against itself for its own profit.”

“How has it gone this long without the amn Vaini discovering it?”

“If the benefits it provides—and perhaps the threats as well—are not enough to ensure the silence of those who serve it, then surely it is a master of deceit and obfuscation, with and without the Art.”

“Damn it.” I said, more to myself than to Falla. This job just kept getting more and more complicated—and dangerous. As if victims of the Red Maw and a child of Daea had not been enough to earn my pay twice over already. And I couldn’t ask for more, not without breaking my vow to Falla. But she was right—at least some of those who had devoted themselves to this spirit were innocent; I wouldn’t feel good about sacrificing them simply to make things easier for myself.

“Thanks for your advice and hospitality,” I told her, rising and giving a short bow.
She laughed at that, stood and curtsied in mockery of the entire gesture, plucked my sword and belt from the ground and handed it to me in both hands. I took a last swig of the ale and traded her bottle for blade. I fastened the belt around me again as I made my way to back to Vaina; the afternoon had mostly passed and I desired to be back to the castle before dark—though I wouldn’t be staying long.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 22

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

By the time I left the residence of the im Vardi, the suns had more than peeked out from the horizon and begun their daily ascent; even now, the promised heat of the day declared itself at the edge of sensation, though the distance of Vaina from the Inner Sea spared us some of the humidity of the Sisters. For this I was thankful.

Ovaelo’s apprentices had risen early as well, perhaps earlier than I, and work had already begun inside and outside of the brick warehouse he had claimed for his workshop. I ignored those meandering around the outside of the building, their jerkins hanging open, untied, and their general appearance of those exerting more effort to look like they’re doing work without actually doing any than the work itself would require. In response, I assumed incompetence.

The inside of the workshop had much the same appearance as the first time I’d entered: a general blanket of darkness punctuated by alchemical lamps at the various workstations, the spilled illumination from those devices providing just enough to see the rest of the interior in shades of grays and blacks. None looked up at my entrance, as they’d committed themselves too desperately to the completion of their relegated tasks to give any attention to ought else.

I shattered this focus with a word, bellowing, “Ovaelo,” with as much bass and authority as I could summon. The name burst forth not as question but as statement, demand. There were starts and curses amongst the apprentices; at least one had jerked an errant brush across the canvas, creating a gash of color that would require hours to remedy. An atmosphere of threatening tension flared briefly as the young men and women shared angry glances with one another and considered riot. But this was not Ilessa, and the wayward behavior of unruly apprentices would not be so lightly tolerated in Vaina. Besides, when they saw the intruder upon their concentration, they quickly considered better of threats and resigned themselves to my presence, almost with a collective sigh.

“Master Ovaelo is not here,” one spoke up, though I could not their face behind a masking halo of bright light. “He’s gone early to the home of the im Norreni to work on a commission for them.”

“Fine,” I said, and made my way to the back room where I’d encountered the madman before. None followed and I closed the door behind me after igniting the alchemical lamps within.

Ovaelo’s personal workspace had been wracked by chaos, the outward demonstration of a mind too generative of creative ideas to bother with the petty requirements of everyday life. For all the mess, though, the tools of his trade—those he hadn’t taken with him, at least, had been immaculately cleaned and organized on a purpose-built desk in the room’s corner. The bristles of each brush had been obsessively cleaned, trimmed with impressive precision into various shapes and points.

Around the room, though, discarded works littered the floor—pieces of sketched-upon parchment strewn about, canvases begun and then stripped from their frames in a burst of frustration or a change of whim, half-finished paintings stacked in corners or leaned against the walls in precarious piles. I wondered briefly whether madness and genius must accompany one another, but recalled myself to the task at hand.

One by one, I sifted through the disarray of the canvases, discovering that some had in fact been finished and simply tossed aside. Some had clearly been started by the apprentices, with Ovaelo’s master strokes atop the blocking and basic shading of his underlings. Others appeared to have been ceased mid-stroke. There were paintings of nightmare creatures, of scenes from history and legend, of persons perhaps both real and imagined.

Among them, I found a finished canvas, recent by the look of the congealed and thickly painted oils atop it. A young man, one with features not too distant from those of Daedys and his family, nude with sword in hand, standing atop some slain beast of amorphous design, the pose in the style of ancient Cantic works, the scene undoubtedly from some tale I’d either forgotten or never read. The man had been painted with painful precision, every sinew and muscle highlighted with realistic intimacy and accuracy. The expression on the subject’s face held the hint of a sly smirk, ambiguously both inviting and derisive. I was convicted that I’d found a painting of Orren, one that told me far more than the painter himself had confessed. So far, at least.

I swept the painting up in an oil-stained dropcloth that lay under the easel in the center of the room, wrapped it to conceal the work within, and made my way from Ovaelo’s chamber, ignoring the protests of the apprentices who considered me a thief but lacked the will to stop me.

Only upon exiting the building did I realize that I didn’t know where to find the home of the im Norreni, though it couldn’t be easy to miss. I looked to one of the slacking apprentices leaning against the side of the brickwork in the building’s shadow, already evading the heat of the day’s suns. “Which way did your master go?” I asked.

He didn’t speak, only pointed. It was enough, and I set out in the direction he’d indicated, Ovaelo’s painting wrapped and secured under my arm. While the canvas and its frame were not heavy, the size of the work, which strained the last two joints of my fingers to keep a grip on the thing, made the journey less than comfortable and soured my mood. If it had ever been well inclined in the first place.

As I suspected, the home of the im Norrene family attempted no humility. Wherever possible, the edifice employed large stones, taller and wider than myself, carefully shaped using the town’s stone mill. The only brick of the building served to patch holes between the older stones—these had been painted in grays and tans to match the original colors of construction, but the attentive eye found them quickly given the great disparity in size between the stones used in the general construction and the clusters of small, rectangular brick sealed with copious mortar. A low stone wall, topped by an elegant wrought-iron fence in a style often found in the Sisters, separated the home from the street—or rather, the dirt path that served as a street in the New Town.

The iron double-gate in this wall had been swung open and left there; the one retainer of the family left to stand guard sat slumped against the wall near the home’s great door, snoring softly. Apparently the im Norreni had little fear of intruders or assailants, much to my advantage.

After watching the guardsman briefly to ensure that he slept deeply, I quietly strode past, gently trying the door. Finding it unlocked and easy on its hinges, I let myself inside.
The home matched the opulence of the other prominent families of Vaina; I need not describe it again, I think. In the middle of this complex lay a courtyard, decorated in its corners with some vegetation and brass statuary but open in the center and on long, evenly cobbled walkways centered on each side of the square.

A haven for the natural light of the suns, now sufficiently-risen to provide adequate illumination into this interior space, the courtyard proved the prime spot for Ovaelo’s work, and this is where I found him, the rest of the family and their servants gathered at the courtyard’s perimeter watching as the artist made an initial sketch of their eldest and most eligible daughter, a young woman of homely features but an impressive bearing that held a beauty all its own.

A piece of parchment stretched taut over the backing plate of the easel Ovaelo had brought with him, somehow secured to the device so that it made no movement as the artist slashed at it in short, sharp strokes with a piece of charcoal. Every few attacks he would step back from the easel, look afresh at his subject, frown, and select a different stick of charcoal from the small table the family had brought in for him to unfurl his roll of tools atop.

Murmurs began to run through the gathered groups, perhaps a dozen people, as my presence became known. A thin, well-dressed woman in a dark-colored dress tailored for active work—perhaps a riding dress—stepped forward into the courtyard as the wave of whispers reached her, her eyes clearly focused on me. Though my height, she managed to look down her nose at me, her hair in two tight buns high atop either side of her head, stray wisps extending out from them like seeking tendrils, like tiny bits of easy-going character attempting to escape the straight-laced form of their master. She reminded me too much of several tutors I had in my youth, forcing me to resist the automatic response of the embarrassed schoolboy.

“Who are you?” She asked, imperiously, though her pursed lips gave away her lack of surety. With the covered painting under my arm, I might well be one of Ovaelo’s apprentices, in which case she would have every right to scold and heap scorn upon me. But apprentice artists do not wear swords, as a general rule, and my clothing, though travel-worn and not comparable to her own finery, did bear the remnants of the dress of one of station and authority. When she made the sign of the Tree, I understood that she’d put enough of the details together to identify me.

Despite her warding gesture, she initiated a curtsy to follow. Not a deep or thorough one, not the kind she’d give to Lord Aryden, but just enough to make it difficult for one of my ambiguous social status to complain. Not that I had any interest in doing so.

“My lord thaumaturge,” she said with feigned welcome, “my apologies that my servants were so distracted as to require you to show yourself in.”

“Think nothing of it, Mistress im Norrene,” I told her. I realized I had no idea of her given name, hoped that we could end the formalities before this became evident. “I regret the intrusion upon your home, but I’m afraid I have pressing business with Master Ovaelo,” I said, tapping the covered canvas with my left hand.

Only now did the madman look to me, his hair wild as before, eyes bloodshot, visage dark and haughty with the judgment of a man who assumes he has no equals, in intelligence and creativity if not in social standing. He turned his head ever so slightly at seeing the package wrapped underneath my arm, but I could not judge the meaning of the movement.

“I will need a moment alone, Mistress,” I continued.

When neither I nor Ovaelo moved, she took my meaning. Clapping her hands, she ordered the gathered household to disperse until summoned again. The young lady standing as the painter’s subject disappeared faster than I could manage with the Art—apparently she did not enjoy standing still for so long.

After a few moments of the crowd meandering to and fro, being unsuccessfully herded by the im Norrene matriarch, the last of the stragglers finally removed themselves from our presence, leaving me alone once again with the artist.

He looked at the covered item under my arm and stroked his wild mustache and goatee with his left hand. “Now is hardly the time to make good on our arrangement,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I moved into the light of the courtyard now, stepping confidently toward him now that I had some leverage. I set the canvas, still covered, atop the ledge of the easel and leaned it back so that it rested covering the charcoal sketch. Ovaelo grimaced and ripped the oil-cloth free of the painting, revealing Orren’s nude form staring back at him with that enigmatic smirk. The man’s mouth dropped slightly agape before his brows furrowed and he poked at me with the charcoal, leaving little black splotches on my vest where he made contact. “Now what is all of this about?” he asked, the sharpness of his voice born of annoyedness rather than the fear or embarrassment I’d expected.

I should’ve known. “This is the boy, Orren, is it not?” I pressed.

“No.”

“No?”

“No. It is the likeness of the boy Orren, to be sure, but this is Xendarnus, a legendary hero of the Cantic Empire in its crusades. Do you not know your mythology, lord thaumaturge?”

I nearly punched a whole through the canvas right there, but I caught myself and recentered before allowing him to get the upper hand with such childish deflections.

“Master painter; he’s naked.”

“And? Lord thaumaturge, you are from Ilessa, surely you know how to appreciate the male form.”

“I don’t care that you’ve painted a nude man, Ovaelo. I care that you’ve painted this man nude.”

“A lover?” Ovaelo asked.

“Not mine, you fool, yours!” I worried for a moment that my voice carried far enough that the im Norreni might overhear, but then I wondered whether it would matter regardless.

“No,” the painter returned, straight-faced. “Not a lover. Not my lover, at least.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I did not love him, though he tried his best to make me.”

“So you were more than companions cavorting at the taverns, then?”

“Did we fuck, do you mean? We did, and delightfully so. Delicious as it was, though, the rest of the boy’s plots and schemes made the cost dearer than deserved.”

I thought to make an accusation, but I couldn’t tell whether the man was too mad to understand the implications of his admissions or simply didn’t care—or perhaps he was innocent of any wrongdoing altogether. Instead, I pried further. “What cost?”

“He only slept with me because he wanted me to make an apprentice of him, to take him back to Ilessa with me. Said he needed to escape this place, be his own man.”

“Did you agree?”

“Hah! Not in a thousand years would I have taken that boy as an apprentice. Not if he fucked like the Sapphire Queen herself! There was no talent within him, and I am far too great an artist to suffer the talentless in my company.”

“What happened when you told him, ‘no’?”

“The threats of a cantankerous youth, of course, all acid and vinegar.”

“What kind of threats?”

“He threatened to tell others of our affair, of course. I laughed in his face at the quaintness of his bucolic notion. Perhaps the prudes of a backwater such as this give scorn to such matters, but I am Ilessin. I know what it is to be alive, and human, and passionate—and that there can be no stigma in that. When he saw the threat was empty, he called me some names, though the ones I returned were far better. Then he said the strangest thing; I suppose intending another threat.”

“What was that?”

“He said something about serving a power greater than I fathomed, greater even than Lord Aryden, and I should take care not to cross him again.”

“What do you think he meant by that?”

“I thought what any good Ilessin would think—he’s spying for someone. Maybe another petty lord, maybe one of the Houses. Did you ever think how or why Meradhvor might have taken an interest in the amn Vaini in the first place?”

I brushed aside the accusation, at least for now. It was a possibility I couldn’t dismiss, but I presently had no evidence to suggest any tie between Orren and an outside power. “You parted ways after this fight?”

“Not before he stole some of my coin, but at that point, it seemed a small price to pay to be rid of him. I’d tired of him, and it was clear that he’d been having affairs with others throughout our relationship.”

He’d given me a motive, there was no doubt, but I couldn’t help but feel that he’d have stopped his mouth despite his narcissism had he anything to conceal.“That bothered you? Jealousy is unbefitting the cultured Ilessin such as yourself.”

“Hah,” he barked. “In and of itself, of course not. But it was only more proof that his interest in me was pecuniary and not truly passionate, and I must admit my heart took a blow from that knowledge.”

“Who might the other affair have been with?”

“This he never let on. I detected it in the small things, implications of his speech, inconsistencies of explanations about where he’d been when we were not together. You know what I mean, I’m sure. One has a sort of…intuition, about these things.”

“Did he mention Nilma, or the Lady Vesonna? Could it have been one of them?”

“More than once I had to listen to him drone on about one or the other. Insufferable, it was. He complained incessantly about his ill treatment at the hands of the Lady Vesonna, though it seemed bitterness that she’d rejected his attentions more than that she’d committed any true offense. With Nilma, it was the opposite. He heaped scorn upon her because she was smitten with him and he held no desire for her. Failed to see the incongruity in the two complaints. Alas, I am a painter and a sculptor, and no poet, or it would be the start of a wonderful tale of love and betrayal.” He smiled at me, devilish, knowing full well he could be describing the nature of the truth I currently sought.

“Nilma had some affection for the boy?” I asked, my interest piqued.

“Orren said so. Though, as I’ve mentioned the boy had no talent for art, so I wouldn’t place any wagers on his seeing the truth as it really is.” While speaking, Ovaelo removed the painting of the boy from his easel, leaning it against one of the contraption’s feet. I’d disturbed his work for too long and he intended to continue with it during our interview.
Someone had lied. Either Orren or Nilma. Given his reputation, it would be easy indeed to cast aside this hearsay as egotistical fantasy, but the girl had gone out of her way to feign a certain distance from intimacy with the young scoundrel, just as one rejected might. Perhaps she neglected to mention these affections for fear that suspicion might fall upon her. Perhaps she had good reason for that fear. It would explain why she had been singled out by the spirit, but Lady Aevala suffered the worst of the specter’s predations, making me unwilling to accept such a straightforward hypothesis as the jilted lover murdering the object of her desire—despite the weapon-like precision with which Nilma had moved her needles.

“But you think neither was his paramour?”

“No. The boy was cunning, but not so subtle as to disguise his feelings and motivations with such pretense.”

“Anything else you can tell me about him? Any detail might prove useful.”

Ovaelo made some casual scratches at the background of his sketch while thinking, wild hair bouncing slightly with his violent movements. “He would leave in the middle of the night, sometimes. Return hours later sweaty and exhausted—but without the reek of an amorous affair upon him. The smell of grass and ash, an aura about him that made one’s hair stand on end. Subtle, but noticeable to one already suspicious of his departure. I figured he was messing with the mechanica the Meradhvor envoy had brought with him, trying to find some way to steal them or gain some other advantage.”

I perked up at this. A minor aside for the painter, but to me, a lead of potentially great value.

At about this time, the mistress of the house peeked out from one of the perimeter hallways to check in on us. I nodded to her and waved her forward, picking up the painting of Orren/Xendarnus as she approached, careful not to allow her to see any of it before I covered it again in the oil cloth.

“My apologies for the interruption,” I told Mistress im Norrene. “Master Ovaelo has addressed the matter to great satisfaction; it seems a small misunderstanding on my part in retrospect. I’m embarrassed to have wasted everyone’s time, in fact. I’ll trouble you no more and leave the master painter to his work.”

I’d turned to leave even before she could answer. Behind me, I could hear her clap her hands loudly to summon the rest of the household, the kind of action that could only be successful in such a large building if she’d commanded respect and authority such that everyone had been waiting and listening for just such a sign.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 21

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

The next morning, I left my chambers early, before the suns had risen, before Lord Aryden could catch me for another scolding. Until daylight broke, I paced the Old Town, hoping to chance across Errys but finding no familiar faces amongst the guardsmen I encountered. Then I remembered.

As soon as the gates to the New Town had opened, I made my way to the home of the constable. The building sprawled; I might have expected it to be a large tavern or inn in Ilessa’s Lower City had I not known better. It had about the same appearance, too, humble, perhaps ramshackle in some places, an agglutination of expansions and modifications as need demanded and coin allowed made clear by tell-tale differences in the gathered mildew and general patina of the various portions.

No personal retainers stood at the gate like those manses of the wealthy merchants that occupied the Old Town, but a gaggle of guardsmen waiting for instructions, smoking cigarillos and telling each other dirty jokes, leaned against the outer wall next to the gate.
I passed through the cloud of smoke they’d generated—thick as if they’d fired a volley of arquebuses—and puffed out air as I did, hoping to avoid inhaling the stuff. I’d never picked up the habit, thankfully (I have too many expensive habits as it is), and tolerated the stench of their indulgence with some distaste.

One of the men, a mustachioed would-be bravo in a dark-stained munition-grade breastplate with an acutely-pointed thrusting sword slung rakishly at his side, called out at me as I put my hand on the bar to the gate. “Who the fuck are you, and what do you think you’re doing at this time in the morning?”

“Same as you, I suppose. Just looking for some friends to share some filthy humor with before I start the day’s work.”

The duelist looked back to his compatriots with a cocky smile. “He’s kinda funny, ain’t he boys? I’ve got a joke for you. D’ja hear the one about the man with four holes?” He rested his sword hand on the hilt of his blade to make the point.

Too many people pick up a weapon and suddenly think they’re dangerous. They get unrealistic expectations of their own prowess and the nature of combat itself, don’t understand that it’s blood and guts and terror, not the kind of sport you find in the schools of defense, the drill field or the private tutor’s studio. All the best fighters I’ve known tried to avoid fighting as best they could. They’d give hell, and endure it when they had to, but it was never their first choice. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the necessary evil that is violence deserves that contempt. But, it only takes one person’s will for two to come to blows, and this man lacked the familiarity with death that might give him pause to come asking for it.

“No longer was he as full of shit as you?” I asked.

I couldn’t help myself, to be honest. The sarcasm just sprung forth from me, and I’d seen the man pulling his sword on me as too inevitable to bother to stop myself.

Sure enough, he obliged, though I worked a minor sorcery as he drew the blade and it flew from his hand as if unsheathed too roughly with too delicate a grip, the steel landing dully in the muddy street outside the constable’s gate. Before he could recover from the shock, I was upon him, gripping his clothes about his throat with my right hand and kicking his legs out from under him with my foot. This put him down hard, knocking the breath out of him, and I had the point of my dagger an inch from his neck by the time he recovered his senses.

His fellow guardsmen just stood there laughing at the mustached man’s misfortune, puffing on their cigarillos and waiting to see what happened next. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too hard about what they’d do once I made my move—one problem at a time, you see—and breathed a little easier that they proved unwilling to intervene. Whether it was fear or laziness, I wasn’t sure, and didn’t much care.

“I’m the thaumaturge Lord Aryden hired,” I growled into the supine man’s face. That’s what the fuck I’m doing. How about you? Is disturbing the peace somewhere in the orders for watchmen? I’m sure the constable will be interested to hear about your behavior when I speak to him.”

There was no shock in the man’s eyes, no fear of reprisal. He knew who I was. Which meant that Daedys had said or done something, whether explicit or implicit, to give the man the idea that he should try to bully me. I slid my dagger back into the sheath behind my back, dropped the man’s head into the dirt as I released the grip with my right hand.
As I stood again, I noticed that the door to the constable’s house had opened; an inquisitive servant, an older man, standing in the doorway. He motioned to me and I quickly passed through the gate to meet him.

He had the care-worn face of the diligent servant, if possessed of independent and personal desires, they’d been sunk deep beyond the reaches of his countenance. The wrinkles around his eyes and brows indicated suspicion, but he otherwise held himself in the expectant grace of welcoming. “You are the lord thaumaturge?” the man asked.

“I am.”

He moved sideways, making room in the doorway for me to pass by him. “I’d been told to expect you, but we did not anticipate your arrival at such an…odd hour.”

I entered into the manor’s entryway and turned back to the servant, though not before noticing the incongruity of the inside of the home with the outside. While the building may have lacked the opulence of design and layout of the merchant manors of the Old Town, the same materials decorated the interior. Marble-tiled floors topped by rugs woven from rich and colorful—if now mudstained—threads, oil paintings on those walls not directly painted with fresco, brass fixtures to hold the candles, intricate cornicework at the joints of walls to ceiling. Daedys’ family had done well for itself in its management of forestry and farming for the amn Vainas.

“Time always runs short for me,” I said, “so I cannot always spare the niceties to which one of your master’s station are entitled.”

“Of course, my lord.”

“Iaren is fine. Your name?”

“Mosan, sir. If you’ll follow me.”

He led me from the impressive entryway into an even more impressive parlor, one containing all of the finery I’d previously observed with the addition of wooden furniture,a few bookshelves and a writing desk, elaborately carved out of some dark wood I did not recognize, and a collection of couches and chairs, each thickly upholstered in brocaded and embroidered blue cloth, the stitching the color of gold or silver. Mosan motioned for a place for me to sit, but I kept my feet. He waited as long as could be interpreted to be polite, then, nodding gently, said, “I’ll wake the family for you,” and left.

Mosan couldn’t have but cleared the hallway when Daedys stormed in, a blue robe that almost matched the furniture covering his nightclothes. His movement stopped him short just out of arms reach, where he put his hands on his hips, feet spread the width of his shoulders, as if attempting to block some door through which I’d intended to walk. “I’d appreciate it if you did not wear your weapons in my home,” he said by way of introduction, flicking a pointing finger at my belt.

I waited a moment so as not to acquiesce too quickly—he was trying to disarm me more than literally, after all—and obliged him, unbuckling the belt that held my sword and dagger, wand, and pouches of useful arcane gewgaws. I leaned the sword against the far corner of the room, gently letting the belt hang in a way that permitted nothing to fall free from pouch or sheath or to scratch annoyingly against the plastered and painted walls.

By the time I returned to my original position, Daedys’ family trailed in, dressed similarly to the patriarch, rubbing eyes and stifling yawns. A woman, dour and wild-haired entered first, whom Daedys introduced as his wife, Ymelda. Two men younger than Daedys followed, two of Daedys’ three brothers, Orren’s father, Alayn, having been lost to the Crimson Close. These he named Ormas and Evor. Another woman, younger, stricken with the temporary madness of deep mourning, came last. Daedys introduced her as Inera, mother of Orren and widow of Alayn. The four arranged themselves on the furniture behind Daedys, who, like me, continued to stand. The left an ornate, high-backed chair empty, presumably the seat of Poltor, the former patriarch of the family who, like his son Alayn, had been claimed by the Maw.

Cold-faced, Daedys waited for me to speak, his family behind him, faces slightly lower but similar in expression.

“I believe that Orren is, in fact, dead. I believe that it is his spirit that afflicts the amn Vaini,” I began, a sob bursting forth from Inera, Ormas placing a too-familiar hand on her shoulder in comfort.

Daedys looked to his feet for a moment. “Putting Kalvor to rest didn’t work?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Another attack from the specter last night,” I replied. “And since you know of no other recent deaths in the town…”

“I understand,” he said, looking up, a light of defiance within his eyes. I didn’t understand the source of the sentiment, but its presence nonetheless alerted me to there being more at stake than I originally surmised. “What do you need from us?”

“I need to know anything you can tell me about Orren. Everything you can tell me. The smallest detail might lead me to discover his killer and bring him justice and peace.”
The widow looked up from her sobbing, her eyes daggers piercing through the veil of tears she’d accumulated. “You’re not interested in Orren for his sake, so don’t lie to us like you are! Your loyalty is to the amn Vaini; all you care about is fixing their problem and taking your coin. You’ll leave us damned if it suits you!”

Like a child parroting its parents’ secret comments, I took her outburst as an indication of Daedys’ thoughts about me, expressed in the relative safety of his own home. The constable held his hand behind him, a subtle cue for her to control herself, which she did, falling backwards against the support of the couch and continuing to sob.

“Perhaps, mistress Inera might be excused from us,” I offered, “I do not mean to cause her pain.”

Daedys raised the same hand with which he’d silenced her to point at me. “She deserves more than any of us to know what you have to say.”

“Fine,” I said. “In front of your lord you played ignorant of Orren’s misadventures among the townsfolk, and while he remained only one of many possibilities for the amn Vaini’s haunting I had no reason to delve deeper. Now, I’m afraid, I must.”

“Again with these slanders!” the man burst forth, hands dropping exasperatedly to his sides.

“The girl, Nilma, has confirmed both that the boy pursued many lovers amongst the daughters of Vaina and had crossed many of the merchants as well,” I told him, turning away to look at the art on the walls.

“The im Valladyni? They have no love for us; I’m sure the girl will say anything to make Orren look the scoundrel.”

“Then perhaps I should spend time talking to the town’s fathers? To the servant girls of the castle? To the merchants? To your deputies?”

Daedys stepped forward, his finger now an inch from my chest. “Perhaps my deputies would like to talk to you, as well. I have a nice private place for such a conversation.”

“Now Daedys,” Ymelda said in an even tone. “I apologize Master Iaren, but my husband is taking to his duty to protect our family—reputation included—very seriously since his father’s death. I’m sure he forgets himself and does not mean to threaten.”

I wasn’t so sure. “You may address me as Lord amn Ennoc,” I told her. Daedys turned to me with hard eyes at that, eyes that understood the implications and didn’t like them very much. “But I’m sure you’re right. If the distress of the Maw and the loss of your family members were not enough, he and I have had a stressful set of days together. I’m willing to overlook a certain amount of insolence on his part. A certain amount.”

Withdrawing a pace and lowering his jousting finger, Daedys changed his tone, his voice apologetic—forcedly so, but apologetic all the same. “Forgive my behavior, Lord amn Ennoc. But you believe that Orren is dead, correct?”

“I do.”

“Then please refrain from treating him as the criminal when he is the victim,” the constable said flatly.

“Perhaps some fathers complained about my boy’s dalliances with their daughters, but I defy you to find one of their daughters who’d complain more than to say they had hurt feelings when he turned his attentions elsewhere,” Inera added. “Besides, it was the Lady Vesonna who treated him ill; not him mistreating the castle’s servant girls,” she said.

“You mistake me, mistress. There is no judgment in my descriptions or questions, only a need to understand the truth of things. Young men are often wild by nature; I’ll not be the hypocrite who pretends that I did not have my scoundrel days as well.” I thought about it as I spoke, wondered to myself whether I could fairly say that my youth was possessed of “scoundrel days.” Probably. “I need to know where to look if I am to bring him justice, which is what I believe will lay his spirit. I cannot do that without an accurate view of him and his life.”

“He had his amorous adventures, and plenty of them,” Ormas offered. “A bright boy, and athletic; how could he have helped it? But I doubt that you’ll find a killer in his love-life.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“You don’t murder the nephew of the town’s constable,” he returned. “That’d be stupidity at its finest.”

“Plenty of people in this world are stupid,” I told him. “Especially when emotion is involved. A father happening upon Orren with his daughter might not calculate the consequences before he acts.”

“But it was Barro who said that he had received the complaints about Orren, not our lord,” Daedys interjected.

“True,” I agreed.

“Doesn’t that seem to indicate those who believe that they have little recourse against the nephew of the constable and a member of a family favored by the amn Vaini?”

“It does,” I conceded, “but that might as easily cause someone to take justice—as he perceives it—into his own hands. Mistress Inera, you said something of the Lady Vesonna mistreating Orren. Can you elaborate?”

The woman stopped her sobbing for a moment, face hard and icy. “She heaped scorn upon him every chance she got, got him in trouble with his masters when she could, made sure he received the difficult and unpleasant tasks whenever possible. He complained about it nearly every time I saw him.”

“Did he say why?”

“Jealousy, I think. He’d rebuffed her advances—too smart to get involved with the daughter of his lord, that boy—and her admiration turned to contempt.”

“Hmm.” I said, pondering the implications were her statement true. “I’ll keep that in mind, but had someone in the amn Vaina family been responsible for Orren’s death and they knew that the spirit appeared just after, I don’t suspect that Lord Aryden would have summoned me.”

“Then you should talk to Ovaelo,” Inera offered.

“The painter? Why?”

“Orren had been spending a lot of time with him before his disappearance. A man like that is surely a corrupting influence.”

“Because he’s a painter?”

“He does not work for a living—not in an honest profession at least. Painters are liars by nature—they depict things that are not true as truth. They’re always talking about ‘beauty and truth,’ aren’t they? Dishonest. He brings all of the corruptions of the Sisters with him, with their decadence and temptation. Um, no offense intended, my lord,” the woman continued.

Offense taken, of course, but it was perhaps the best lead on the boy I’d had so far. Provided his affairs with his lovers had been mutual matters, I tended to agree with Ormas that his romantic life was not the likeliest source of his death, though my time as a finder in Ilessa had cautioned me to remain skeptical. “How much time were they spending together?”

“Far too much,” she said. “Practically all the free time he had; he rarely came home to visit the past few weeks. At first I thought it a matter of his father’s…passing; we all have our various ways of grieving. But the way he spoke of Ovaelo, he’d fallen into a passion over the man, calling him a genius and a ‘soul of depth and wit’ and other nonsense I might expect from the layabouts of the Sisters but not the hardworking and level-headed men of Vaina.”

“You think they’d become lovers?” I asked. “The way Ovaelo tells it, they’d become drinking companions chasing women together.”

“Then why did they always leave the tavern together and not with these women they reportedly chased?”

“Had Orren had many men as lovers?”

“None others, that I’m aware of. But young men will go as their passion takes them, will they not? And a foreign artist might prove an enticing paramour to a young man who has not yet got his wits about him enough to know what artists really are!”

“But what interest would Ovaelo in Orren?”

“The pleasures of young and comely flesh, of course,” she added. “Old men are fools as much as young, I suppose, and in much the same ways.”

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Things Unseen, Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said as much already,” I objected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it get in?” he pressed.

“Through the walls, it seems.”

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

“They didn’t work.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s next?” he asked, finally.

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

He frowned. “You’re sure?”

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

“So what do we do?”

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

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

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

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

“Hmph,” Aryden added.

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?” Vitella asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things Unseen, Chapter 18

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

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

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

“Get dressed,” the lord said.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what of the missing man?”

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

“And you think Kalvor was such a one?”

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

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

He harrumphed.

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

“What did you find?” I asked.

“Nothing unusual.”

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

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

“Of course, my lord,” Gamven corrected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you found no sign of Kalvor?”

“None.”

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

“No.”

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

“Yes.”

“And animals?”

“Nothing unusual.”

“Predators?”

“No.”

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

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

“No griffins, anything like that?”

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t he have them?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmph,” the constable responded.

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

“Yes, what of it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. This silence just started.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean the spawn of the forbidden ones?”

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

“How?” Vitella asked.

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

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

“Good,” Gamven responded. “But how?”

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

“Have you done this before?” Edanu asked.

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

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

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

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

“Agreed,” Gamven said grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m already loaded,” he objected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Despite myself, I smiled, too.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 16

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For the previous chapter, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And mine?” Indorma added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think that’s what I said.”

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

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

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

“Sometimes.”

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

“I do.”

“How?”

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

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

“With The One’s help and mercy, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dead men don’t talk,” I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I told him.

“What?”

“It’s mocking us.”

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