The thought that I’d killed a man, when there’d no longer been any real need, rattled me as I made my way to the courtyards of Vaina castle. Falla’s words echoed in my mind, whether I’d be a killer. I’d come to Vaina looking for one, or at least that’s where the path had taken me. Guess I’d found one.
The day had grown hot and the warm blood from my finger, my face and my would-be assassin never grew cool, only hardened and caked into a congealed brown putty that clung stubbornly to flesh and stained clothing. Fortunately, the browns of the dried blood weren’t far off enough from the earth-tones of my everyday clothes to be very conspicuous. I stopped by one of the public wells in Outer Vaina on the way to wash off what I could. Thus cleaned, I continued the journey.
I arrived in time to find a place at the back of the gathered crowd, standing in two loose groups facing the stage that had been erected only earlier that morning. Hedges composed of tall bushes planted into sacks and set in compressed lines at the perimeter of the space created the feeling of an enclosed garden, perhaps of the kind one might find in the Upper City of Ilessa. Potted trees, carefully arranged flowering plants and those clay statues displayed at the previous night’s celebrations completed the illusion. Had my mind not been otherwise occupied, I might have wondered at the ability of Aryden’s servants and hired planners to create a space at once so foreign and so inviting.
Two rows of those flowering plants, blooming in the house colors of the amn Esti, created an aisle through the center of the garden, separating the two crowds and leading to a set of stairs onto the platform, which had been wreathed in vines and brightly-colored plants so thick that those beams framing the altar to The One could hardly be observed.
In front of that altar, arrayed in his finest, Barro smiled to the crowd, waiting patiently for the signal to begin. I’d nestled in with the retainers of some of the prominent families of Vaina, where my dress would not be out of place and where few would find me—if anyone looked.
I spotted Daedys im Varde, or at least the back of him, toward the front of the crowd, behind the amn Vaini and im Valladyni. I could sense no sign of discomfort in him, but, then again, he’d been hiding his membership in Vaina’s cult for years. He’d become as used to dissembling as the nobility and their courtiers. Moreso, perhaps.
Across the divide created by the plants, the amn Esti and their retainers congregated in similar fashion. Soft music without vocal accompaniment, the strings of a viol and a lute, lilted over the crowd. These sounds mingled with the smells from the makeshift garden, filling ears and nose with a sensation of hospitable decorum enhanced by subtle notes of soporific satisfaction.
To this melody, Lorent amn Vaina approached the stage through the center aisle. He wore the same clothes as the night before, a hint at the family’s desperate finances, but nevertheless moved with such self-assured nonchalance that none would dare question the nobility of his birth. Upon ascending the short steps to the stage, he exchanged brief bows with Barro and with the altar before turning also to face the crowd. The smile on his face indicated that he’d found Nilma plenty agreeable a match.
The air thickened around me, ever so slightly, but I recognized the feeling at once. A spirit pushing its way through the Veil, preparing to manifest. Orren’s ghost had not, to my knowledge or experience, manifested during the day but, given its power and the immediate sense of its approach, I had no reason to doubt that it could. I looked about me to see if anyone else felt thus disturbed but found no signs of another person aware of the impending presence.
Now Nilma appeared at the entrance to the garden, appareled in a fine gown also in the amn Esto colors, greeted by the customary sighs and comments about beauty and the like. Lady Aevala’s handmaids attended her as she moved toward the stage, her father beaming from the front row of those gathered. This was it: the elevation of a new noble family, the salvation of an old one. Like her husband-to-be, upon ascending the steps she bowed to Barro and to the altar before taking her place across from Lorent, the two standing at angles to one another like two well-trained actors, open to both their partner and to the audience.
A further thickening in the air and a taste of copper in my mouth reminded me of the imminent appearance of the specter. A moved my hand to the wand at my side, hoping that the additional precision it offered might help avoid collateral damage in the inevitable confrontation.
Unaware, Barro opened his arms wide to the crowd and began to speak. “These two have come forth to be joined in marriage. Just as The One created the Firstborn and then all other living things in the cosmos so that They would have companionship, we also are meant to be brought together in solemn and loving pairs. We remember in the holy rite of marriage The One’s desire for intimacy with each of us, which was evidenced most clearly in Their condescension to us in the person of Ashaera, and we give thanks.”
He led the crowd in a communal prayer. We all knelt to partake, but I kept my head up rather than reverently down, scanning for the location and origin of the threatened invasion. The prayer ended before the spirit manifested, and Barro began to preach. I paid no mind, the rising tension within me distracting me from any attentiveness. For a moment, I wondered if I should seek some better vantage point, both for finding the spirit as it manifest and for working the Art against it. Moving from the crowd at this point would only draw attention, and I couldn’t be sure that the ghost wasn’t simply baiting me, trying to trip me into making yet another scene that impeded the plans of amn Vaina and amn Esto, destroying what dwindling credibility I had left. So I stood still as I could and waited.
The priest continued to drone on; I could see people in the crowd begin to wonder how much longer this would take, how soon they could return to drink and revelry. Finally, reaching to the altar, Barro pulled free a long and thick ribbon in the amn Esto colors, trimmed and embroidered with golden thread. Bringing together the right hands of both Nilma and Lorent, the priest lashed them together with the ribbon, saying, “this binding is an outward signifier of an inward truth, that Wyrgeas has brought these two together, but only love and respect for one another and reverence for The One shall sustain them. They shall be bound together until death parts them and, if they and The One will it, even beyond.”
But before Barro could begin the vows, a crack as of thunder pierced the air, and a green fog spewed forth from a portal opening in the sky above the stage and the intended. Clawed fingers gripped the edges of the portal and pulled through the likeness of a putrescent corpse, larger than a human, rotting and tormented.
With a voice that itself clawed at the mind and ears as it rasped, the specter moaned, “I have come to name my murderer! The bride before you, Nilma, killed me with poison, and I will neither rest nor cease to afflict this place until she is brought to justice and life pays for life!”
The sudden appearance of the spectral being drove the quickest-reflexed in the crowd running before it even began to speak, pushing over the carefully-arranged hedge walls—and each other—in their attempts to flee. Others stood dumbfounded, frozen in place watching the apparition as it cried for vengeance.
Having expected such a manifestation, my mind had not been stymied like the those around me, and my facilities of intuition and deduction continued to function. I realized that, had Nilma murdered Orren and revenge against her been his motivation, he’d likely have revealed such facts long before rather than waiting until now. I gave myself over to the Sight and looked anew at the intruding ghost.
Though the spirit had the outward appearance of Orren, uncannily similar to what I’d observed when I first encountered his phantom in the cellars of Vaina Castle, the Sight revealed something altogether different.
Stripped of the illusory pretense it had gathered around itself, the spirit appeared in the shape of a man, skin green-tinged and perhaps a bit hirsute but built as someone used to pastoral labor. Small, flowering vines circled torso and limbs, the various colors of their buds giving the impression of the height of spring. The spirit wore a beard, short but wild, and antlers protruded from his forehead. Altogether, I had the impression of nature become a man. This, then, was the Orösave at the center of the Vaina cult.
Which meant that this also was my chance to play along with the charade and gain an ally. At the expense of Nilma’s life, and that I could not agree to.
By now, everything had become chaos. Several of the men who, against decorum but according to tacit expectation, had carried concealed wheelock pistols to the occasion, fired upon the manifest spirit, each ball leaving tendrils like blown smoke as they passed through the Orösave’s ethereal form.
Elsewhere, the attendees had fully scattered now, leaving the garden toppled and wrecked, a tangle of broken pots, spilled dirt and tangled vegetation. Upon the stage, Barro stood speechless, mouth agape in the presence of the supernatural force just over an arm’s length from him. Lorent and Nilma had retreated with the rest of their families. The spirit’s invading, infesting voice filled all of the space abandoned by the congregants, creating a claustrophobic oppression all about.
Daedys still stood near the stage, a look of cold determination having gripped him. In surveilling the scene, he spotted me. Immediately, he began to clear the ground between us. I drew my sword but held the point down in an attempt to demonstrate that I would defend myself if necessary but wanted no violence. He drew his own blade but stopped far enough away that neither could close the distance in a lunge.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He yelled. Thunder cracked in the air above us, heavy droplets of rain beginning to haphazardly fall around us, the Orösave having brought a summer cloudburst with him to further frighten and confuse his victims.
“You believe that?” I said, almost incredulous. “You’re smarter than that. That’s not your nephew; it’s your true master.”
“You lie!” Despite his frustration, he maintained his distance.
“Why would I?”
“Because it’s what Aryden wants!”
“Fuck what Aryden wants.” I told him, the wind picking up into short gales that rolled the overturned plants along the ground. The rain had become fuller now, heavy in its frequency as well as the size of its droplets. “Aryden paid for the truth; that’s what he’s going to get. Nilma isn’t it. You know that the spirit was plotting something, but you didn’t know what. See how this fits? Stop the marriage between the amn Esti and the im Valladyni, hurt the amn Vaini reputation, maybe put a stop to the Meradhvor marriage, too.”
Daedys’ frown curved upward into a grin, and he burst into laughter, the laughter of a man who realizes he’s the cause of his own tragedy, a madman. “If I hadn’t ordered you killed, you’d not have come looking for me, would you have? You’d have left me alone and focused on Magaréil, probably solved my problem for me.” He laughed more. “But now, this foolishness, this revelation, it is our undoing!”
“It doesn’t have to be,” I tried to assure him.
In his desperation, he had started to ignore me, turning away, his sword scraping against the ground. But my words called him back to me, his face still wide with that maniacal grin that did little to conceal his inner turmoil. “What do you mean?” he asked.
The priest had recovered his senses wherever he had hidden, and now sidled up to us. “What’s all this, then?” he asked.
“Those still willing to fight,” I told him, hoping he’d see Daedys’ demeanor as a result of fear rather than despair.
“Well, thaumaturge, how do we fight?” Barro asked. Overhead, the Orösave swooped and dove against those attendants it could still find, continuing its impostorship and summoning every acuity for terror it could.
I thought for a moment. “First we draw it away.”
Daedys, having decided that assisting me was his best play, collected himself and joined the conversation. “How do we do that?”
“We attack it at its home,” I returned.
“In the castle?” asked the priest.
“No. Despite appearances, this is not Orren’s ghost. It is another spirit.”
“Two spirits? By The One! We have an infestation! Who is summoning these spirits
against us? That which Falla, no doubt, in whom you naively trusted.”
“We can argue about that on the way. Collect whatever you need to take with you and we’ll meet back here as soon as everyone’s ready.”
“Why not go now?” Daedys asked.
“I need some things myself.”
Without waiting for responses, I made my way toward my room. As I should have expected, I encountered Aryden, Eldis and Gamven just inside the keep’s great hall.
The Lord amn Vaina looked to me upon my entrance, his face clothed not in anger, but fear. “Lord Thaumaturge,” he began, voice hardened in the manner of a warrior used to choking back his own dread, “what are you doing? What can you do?”
This confrontation had snapped him into the mode of captain rather than entitled lordling; it fit him well. Take stock of assets before giving orders. “I am taking care of this problem, my lord, but I need some of my tools to do so. I would very much like to explain to you the details, but I think you can agree that we’re better off if I confront the threat at hand first and explain after.”
“Agreed,” he said. “What can we do?”
“Wait. When the spirit departs, tend to those who’ve been wounded or who are otherwise frightened. Restore order. Tell them that this specter is not Orren but an impostor, a spirit intending to frighten them into stopping the wedding.”
“Later,” I said, already moving past him. From my room I recovered my staff, my engraved binding disk, the bell and the key from my thaumaturgical supplies. As an afterthought, I pulled free my pistols as well. I had no runic shot that I’d carved for an Orösave, so they wouldn’t be much good in the fight at hand, but I figured it better to have them than not.
Barro, clad in his hauberk and carrying his mace and shield, already sodden and slow in the rain, arrived in the ruins of the wedding garden at the same time I did. Deadys had slipped away long enough to find some drink; he held his free hand over the top of a wooden tankard to ward off the rain between drinks. When we arrived, he took a long, final swig and tossed the vessel into the mud.
“Do you know the way?” he asked me, his tone an attempt not to give himself away.
“Well enough,” I assured him, setting away. For now, the spirit above us failed to notice, continuing its phantasmal assaults on those few who remained in the courtyard, though most had already fled.
The rain lightened as we made our way through Vaina, stopping entirely once we’d passed the limits of the town. Still, by that point, our soaked clothes made trudging along slow and unpleasant as everything stuck to skin and chafed with every movement. I occasionally sent a look to Daedys for guidance and watched for his subtle signs of direction; Barro busied himself overmuch with searching for some unsuspecting ambush to notice.
At first I thought him foolish to waste such effort, but I remembered that Daedys represented the not-so-loyal opposition to Magaréil’s plans, and it could be that some of the more fanatic cultists might forget their desire for secrecy in the defense of their master.
Barro tried to ask a few questions in hushed tones, but I silenced him quickly.
We struggled through the undergrowth and brush after leaving the road outside of Vaina, though the light of day made the journey easier than my first foray to the spirit’s place of Power. No sudden assault from cultists manifested itself, but every twisted vine that caught a foot, every deer path that seemed to loop back on itself, every thorny bush that pricked and scratched convinced me that the forest was resisting our approach in the subtle ways it could. But very soon, subtle confrontation would not be a possibility.