Things Unseen, Chapter 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t Orren?”

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

She shifted uncomfortably in her chair but said nothing.

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

“Witch,” she said reflexively.

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

“I will.”

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

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

“So you got the love potion from Falla.”

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

“Lady Aevala had been to Falla before?”

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

“Of course not,” I said sarcastically.

“Especially with Barro so close to her.”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“What happened?”

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

“But Lady Aevala was helping you against him.”

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

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

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

“Did you tell Aevala what happened?”

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

“What did Orren do with the potion?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you going to stop it?”

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

“You haven’t told Aryden?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not the one responsible!”

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

“So are you,” I said, defiant.

“Fuck you!”

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

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

“No kidding.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you mention this before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

They nodded.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

“Tell me first about your cult.”

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

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

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

I looked askance at the spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“House Meradhvor, of course.”

“But that only happened recently.”

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

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

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

“How did you discover this?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What exactly was his plan?”

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

“How, exactly?”

“That, I do not know.”

“Did you teach him anything of the Art?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 42

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is fast approaching,” Barro added.

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

I scoffed. Couldn’t help it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Iaren.”

“Fine, fine. Come in.”

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

“What—” I started.

“Close the door!” Aryden commanded.

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Aryden said.

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

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

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

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

I chuckled. “Thrice,” I told him.

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

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

“That’s our suspicion,” Vitella offered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you like.”

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

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

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

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

“Explain.”

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

Aryden grimaced. “And?”

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

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

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

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

“Very.”

“Like what?”

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

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

“So Falla is responsible,” Aryden concluded.

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

“So, what next?” Vitella asked.

“I keep investigating.”

She blew another ring of smoke in response.

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

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

“Against me?” Aryden asked. “Why?”

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

“Then what use is interrogation?” Vitella pounced.

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

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

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

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

“The…rules?” Vitella asked.

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

“Convenient,” Aryden muttered, ever cheerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 41

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

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

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

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

“Iaren’s fine, doctor,” I told him.

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

“That’s correct.”

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

“Partially. From about the waist up.”

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

“How do you know?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“I had the same thought.”

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

“How so?”

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

“But the boy was exsanguinated?”

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

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

“Yes,” Endan nodded. “I believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 40

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“What do you mean, you’ve arrested Falla?” I asked, incredulous, as I walked alongside Aryden’s horse back to the castle.

“We came across Barro as we were searching for Nilma. He told us that she was responsible for summoning the spirit that attacked the wedding, posing as Orren, so I sent Gamven, Edanu, and some of my other men to seize her and take her to the castle as well.”

I almost laughed at the paradox I’d fallen into. To have much chance at saving Falla, I’d have to reveal the existence of the cult—and I’d promised the witch I wouldn’t do that. I hoped I could be persuasive.

We trudged along the narrow ridges at the edge of the network of ditches and fields that splayed outward from Vaina. The mounted retinue moved slowly so that I could keep up. Nilma had been tied at the hands and placed in the saddle in front of one of Aryden’s riders, so she had the luxury, at least, of not slogging through the mud. I doubt she much appreciated it.

“Lord Aryden, that’s simply not true. Falla’s appearance saved Barro, Daedys and I from the spirit, allowed me to bind it so that it will trouble you no further. She sang an ancient song that blunted the spirit’s power, turned away the assaults of its minions. The very forest seemed to be at its command.”

“Isn’t that just evidence that she had power and command over the spirit in the first place?” he asked.

“No, not with a song of that kind of Power.”

“A song? Hah, you’re basing this on the fact that she sings a lovely tune?”

“Aryden,” I began, my tone perhaps a little condescending, which I blamed on weariness more than exasperation with the situation at hand. “Songs like that are rare indeed, most of them lost, and, of those that remain, few know how to sing them so that they have the intended effect. These were songs created by ancient magi, the Aenyr themselves or the first practitioners after the fall of their kingdom, the most capable magi of Cantos or Gwaenthyr.”

“Then how does a hedge witch have such knowledge, eh?”

“I don’t have an answer to that.”

“Well, something else we can ask her when we put her to the question.”

“My lord!” I pleaded. “She is innocent.”

“No one is innocent, lord thaumaturge. You of all people should know that.”

All too well, I thought. “Perhaps, but she is innocent in this.”

“But not innocent,” Aryden accentuated. “I should have been rid of her long ago anyway. She is a corrupter of the people of Vaina.”

That was the spirit, I wanted to say, but if I did, Barro would only have more for his pyres. “Then send her away. Let her go to the Sisters where she’ll trouble you no more.”
The Lord amn Vaina waved for his retinue to go on without us; they entered into a trot that carried threw up little clods of mud behind, making distance from us quickly.

“Are you sure that Nilma is innocent?” the lord asked me.

“Of Orren’s murder? Yes.”

“Good. But if she is innocent, someone else must be guilty. The amn Esti must have an explanation for today’s events that satisfies them, puts them at ease, and allows the wedding to continue. We will give them one.”

“So you’ll kill an innocent person to preserve your plans?” I asked, foolishly.

He looked at me with hard eyes. Only then did I truly understand that Lord Aryden amn Vaina was no mere entitled lordling used to getting his way. He was a nobleman of the old kind: ruthless, dedicated to his family, willing to do anything to preserve or expand the ancestral power. “Would you rather it be you, Iaren amn Ennoc? Perhaps under other circumstances, your title would protect you, but you have no family for a vendetta, and I don’t suspect that many would question your guilt in the first place. You haven’t made many friends here, have you?”

His hand had moved close to where he’d tucked the wheelock pistol into his belt, not resting upon it, but close enough that he’d have it quick to hand if need be.

“You need the amn Esto wedding to secure Vesonna’s wedding to Meradhvor, don’t you?” I asked.

“I do,” he said, matter-of-fact.

“Why so fixed on Meradhvor?”

“The Artificer Houses are the future, Iaren. Surely you know that.”

“And they want your lands. Why?”

“What does it matter, why? They can’t own them, but allying with our family is just as good. They’ll have a supply of good timber and stone, foodstuffs. We’ll have ready buyers. The commoner folk will be able to put more in their pockets, more on their tables. Maybe that will help stop their grumbling.”

“But the merchants will get richer still, won’t they? They’ll carry Meradhvor goods to market, avoid the taxes the Council has put on the Artificer Houses themselves. Everyone profits.” Except Falla, I thought to myself.

“Yes.” He paused for a moment and we continued in silence until he began again. “Once we burn Orren’s body, his ghost will depart, yes?”

“It should.”

“What do you mean, ‘it should?’ I thought you said—”

“I made no promises that that would be the end of things, Lord Aryden. It’s obvious that he was murdered, so we may need to bring him some semblance of justice to allay his spirit.”

Aryden frowned. “Dammit. Well, we’ll have Barro give him his rites, and you’ll tell the amn Esti and Edanu that Falla was responsible for his death and raising his spirit. She made Orren’s spirit attack the wedding—we can leave this second spirit out of it entirely. We’ll keep the amn Esti out of the keep and, if necessary, you can continue to work quietly on getting rid of him once and for all.”

“I won’t,” I protested.

“You won’t what?” Aryden said, voice sharp.

“I won’t lie for you. I won’t let you kill Falla for convenience. I’m your investigator, but I’m not your lackey to be ordered about.”

“You ‘won’t let?’ You have no say in how I run my demesne, Iaren, nor how I govern—or protect—my people. Do not forget your place.”

“I’ll not lie for you.”

“As long as you don’t contradict me, and you work quietly, I can live with that,” he conceded. Practical, pragmatic, political.

“I’ll need to talk to Falla and Nilma,” I said.

“Fine,” Aryden agreed.

“And I’ll want to examine the body before it is burnt.”

“It will be with Endan while Barro prepares. He’ll assist you.”

“And if Orren’s spirit does not leave after he receives his rites, I need to see your wife.”

Now Aryden glared. But I could see the trepidation creeping in at the edges of his face, undercutting his well-practiced hardness of visage. “If the spirit does not depart, we will discuss it.”

With a squeeze of his legs, amn Vaina spurred his horse into a canter, leaving me to journey alone to the town and its castle.

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Things Unseen, Chapter 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked at me in disbelief. “How?”

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

“Impostor? From where?”

“Never mind that now.”

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

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

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

“I—I don’t know,” she replied.

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“I—I didn’t want to lose him.”

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

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

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

“Nilma?” the father called.

“Father?” daughter responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—” he attempted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord, if I may—” Dalen began.

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

“But—”

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at the disk in my hand.

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

“What? How?”

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my line,” I told him.

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

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

“Huh?” The third man said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Things Unseen, Chapter 35

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For the previous chapter, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

“Very well, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought the same myself,” Daedys offered.

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face hardened, “And what are those?”

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

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

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

“I’m not familiar—”

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

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

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

“But you are?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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