Lillet threw herself back into her studies with great enthusiasm once she arrived back at the church. It was work, of course, but the plain fact was that entirely apart from the circumstances she loved books and history and although the situation gave the task a grim seriousness that kept it from being truly fun, she found it easy going to look through the various books. Some were recent, she discovered, while others were reprints of works nearly as old as the stories themselves. One slender manuscript, entitled The Works of the Holy Men of God in the Settlements of Northeastern Caithshire, had actually been handwritten in ink, apparently the work of a previous priest who held this living.
The major problem she encountered in the books was that they had not been written by (or for, for that matter) someone who had magical knowledge. It made a difference; Lillet herself had seen holy power "in action" before and while she could not be specific in describing its root causes and functions, she could describe its effects with a fair amount of precision. That precision was lacking, and it was compounded by the strong variance in the stories, many of which had been put to some didactic purpose by their authors and interpreted accordingly. No doubt there had been numerous word-of-mouth versions, too, passed on in the village as Father Dubbel had alluded to while telling his own. They just added their own kind of changes to the original facts.
She had found out one thing about the Gallows Tree, which was the origin of its name and use as a hanging-post. Indeed, it was a simple and straightforward reason: that tree had been where Jacob Blackstone had defeated a great evil, so the people of the growing village just followed that symbolism. After all, that was what an execution was supposed to be—society's victory over an evil, destructive force. A just punishment for the wrongdoer, a salutary lesson on the wages of sin to the onlookers, and protection for the people by removing the threat.
Which thought obviously brought her back around to Pyotr Maudite, who would die in two days for nothing other than rank bigotry and superstition. This wasn't news; she knew that it happened and she worked diligently in her role as Mage Consul to prevent those kind of injustices, but having it happen right in front of her was different, more intimate, and much harder for her to ignore.
Yet she did need to ignore it, at least now, when she was trying to do something else, something that was also about saving lives. Lillet didn't have the luxury to sit there chewing over peripheral hurts and frustrations when she needed her mind to be clear and focused on the problems at hand, regardless of how meaningful the distraction might be.
Getting mad about something wasn't particularly useful for her at any time. She wasn't a warrior, to draw strength from her rage. She solved her problems with her mind, whether by clever planning or by spellcraft. Anger just clouded her thoughts, got in the way.
If only there was a history of magic use here, she thought in frustration. The town had no magicians now, and according to records apparently had none in Jacob Blackstone's day. She couldn't tell if the strange phenomena were something that had always been present locally, were something that had only recently started—perhaps because of whatever was killing villagers—or if it had been known in the past, in the time of Jacob's fight. The idea of a connection between the past devil and the present one was obvious and appealing, but she couldn't prove it.
A key problem was that the books were all secondary or tertiary sources, drawn from research instead of being first-hand accounts of what had happened. She had to sort the books by reliability—what kind of standards had their authors used in compiling their contents? There was also bias to consider: many books on the lives of the saints were more concerned with conveying a moral lesson than in reciting precisely accurate facts.
As she did so, a clear pattern began to emerge from between the lines: the Venerable Jacob Blackstone had been a magician. To a layperson it wasn't obvious, but several of the stories of his life described things that were almost textbook glamour and necromancy. The attendant spirits of one tale of his victory over a malevolent ghost were clearly Morning Stars, for example, while a retelling of his defeat of a practitioner of ritual sorcery was just as clearly an account of a magicians' duel, stripped of its technical references. She could cite a half-dozen such incidences from different sources that made the point plain, once she knew what to look for.
Somewhat cynically, Lillet wondered if the Church was tacitly aware of the fact and this was why his cause for canonization had not been more vigorously pressed over the years.
She certainly couldn't blame the man herself, if he'd been hiding the fact. Caithshire had always been fertile ground for witch-hunters, and in those days the practice of magic had been a very dicey business at best. To do so while at the same time actively helping people using that magic, that wasn't easy at all. Lillet wondered if he weighed each lie about what he was doing in lives saved.
The point was, though, that as a magician, what Blackstone did to win the battle at Gallows Tree had likely involved magic, not a direct, miraculous intervention. There was a distinct and absolute difference between those things, and Lillet could, in going back through the references again, perhaps fasten on specific entries that made no sense to a commentator ignorant of magical practices but that fit into place for her.
That was her hope, at least.
And thus did the Venerable Jacob raise his hand against the guardian devil of the ancient wood...
She flipped a page, back to the beginning of the chapter.
When asked late in life what had been his greatest trial, the Venerable Jacob would always point to his victory over the devil in Danvers lumber-camp, the people of which had gratefully agreed with his assessment as they named the waystation, later village, that formed there after him. Asked why, he would only say that in other battles against evil he had always had the support of his lost companions, but in what became Jacob's Creek he was forced to stand alone.
Lillet drew in her breath. She set that book aside and reached for another one, this a local history of the region rather than one focused on the doings of saints and holy people. She paged through it rapidly, her fingers trembling until she came to the part that she wanted.
The Caithwood had always formed the border with Chernyakhov, serving as a channel to drive the northerners to the Plains of Averdon when they sought to invade in force. But with the success of the King's forces at Karsk and Ovelni pressing the border back over twenty miles from the northern edge of the forest, it became more expedient to advance on the forest and claim some of the land for agriculture.
Forests, if Lillet recalled correctly, weren't like mountain ranges or bodies of water when it came to making a natural border. She wasn't a military historian, but it seemed to her that an old-growth forest like the Caithwood, particularly, would not pose a major obstacle to invasion, especially since Chernyakhov wasn't known for mounted knights or formations of pikemen who'd be hampered by wooded terrain; large numbers of their forces were irregulars, which was why they had such trouble with the kingdom's armored knights and massed crossbowmen when they met on open plains.
For the first time since Pyotr Maudite's arrest, Lillet smiled from simple happiness. She had at least half of her answer about the past, although she couldn't be certain whether it also applied now. Even so, a good long look at the Gallows Tree might answer some of those questions and that would be her next step in her investigation.
Unfortunately, she had other matters that needed to be taken care of as well. Matters that weren't going to wait. She rose from her seat, replaced the pen, stoppered the inkwell, and put the books back on the shelf in as close to the order they'd been as she could remember. The sheets of paper she'd been taking notes on went into the wastebasket, as they'd only been to help her organize her thoughts, not to record anything specific that might slip her mind.
Lillet glanced at the clock. It was ten minutes past eleven, which suited her plans nicely. Late enough to be past the Green Man's closing hour (when potential witnesses would be out on the streets) but early enough that it was still reasonable for her to be returning to the inn. Were she early, she'd have had to wait around, feigning to study more, but the timing had worked in her favor.
It's about time that something did, she thought sourly. Luck was one thing that had not been on her side, since her arrival in Jacob's Creek.
The rain that had begun just before dinner was still falling steadily, clattering off roof-tiles and hissing in puddles. It was dark outside the church door, and Lillet was a little surprised. Though she'd grown up on a farm, years of city life had accustomed her to a nighttime broken up by street-lamps at regular intervals and more light that spilled from behind windows well past midnight, especially from the mansions of the well-to-do where a ball might last until three. By contrast, the streets of Jacob's Creek were unlit, and very few of the houses and shops showed a glimmer of light from lamps or candles. The rain turned the visibility even worse.
"Shall I escort you back to the inn, Your Excellency?" Sexton Ommegang offered, handing Lillet her hat. "I'm sure the good Father would not want you to be going out alone in this weather."
"Thank you, but that won't be necessary, Sexton," she assured him. "There's no reason for us both to end up near-drowned and," she added with a smile, "I'm a big girl now and can look after myself."
"As you say," the handsome blond replied, a trace of sullenness in his tone. Upset, perhaps, at his chivalrous offer being turned down? Or was it something else? Between Bogle, Cavit's maid, and Mary Framboise, Lillet wasn't proving a popular person with the local domestic set, and it seemed that Ommegang, who filled that role at the church, was joining the list.
Even so, she thought as she stepped out into the rain, feeling the chill and the damp start to bite at her almost at once, he had given her an idea. Should she happen across someone once she'd gone off the straight path, she could pretend to have taken a wrong turn in the dark due to her unfamiliarity with the village, and ask for an escort back to the Green Man.
Too, the rain and the darkness would do a good job in keeping Lillet hidden from any prying eyes, People would be all the less likely to be out in this weather—to say nothing of the threat posed by the Beast—and those few potential witnesses would find it hard to see Lillet if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which was a good thing, because thief-like stealth was not one of the Mage Consul's specialties. Sneaking up behind Amoretta to give her a surprise hug was not exactly the kind of practice that counted!
She moved through the darkness, letting her eyes adapt as best they could, so that the tiny slivers of light here and there were able to act as guides and the buildings, though indistinct, were visible as patches of absolute black among the less oppressive dark of streets and alleyways. Lillet saw no one as she made her way through the village back to the sheriff's office she'd visited that morning. It felt like it had been an age ago, now; the day's events had piled one on top of another until the earlier ones felt like distant memories.
It was the fresher events, the witch-hunter and his injustice, that brought her out now.
Lillet made her way around the corner of the building to the side near the jail cell. A light out front told her that a guard was on duty to prevent a break-out, an obvious precaution when holding a prisoner judged guilty of a capital offense.
The question was, what other precautions might have been taken? There were no obvious signs, but Lillet was wary; she extended her senses, awakening that part of herself that could see and touch mana. Many supernatural constructs could be seen by the magically active without effort, but more would lurk unseen, out of sight unless looked for. Most wards and alarms were like that, and those whose purpose was to trap an intruder often went unnoticed unless the viewer knew what to look for.
But then, Lillet did know what to look for. She'd studied ward magic with Master Tanqueray and Mistress Absinthe at the Royal House of Magic, redoubling the knowledge that she'd picked up and embedded in her soul in the looping time at the Silver Star Tower. Bluntly, the only way there would be wards on a simple village jail that she couldn't see was if a trap had been laid for her by someone with access to more power than she had.
In other words, when she saw nothing, no sign of magical defenses, it was almost certain that there were none. That would greatly simplify things.
Lillet's plan was straightforward enough. Solid walls were an excellent obstacle to physical creatures, but not for those with astral bodies. One of the necromantic familiars she commanded possessed the ability to astralize those who had bodies of substance. She would summon a grimalkin, have a skullmage astralize it, and send the devil-cat through the wall into the jail, where it would cast a sleeping spell on the guard. Then her familiars could unlock the cell and building doors, so Maudite could escape.
Of course, it would also have worked to simply astralize him and take him out through the wall, but she didn't want to break Maudite out in a way that immediately screamed "magic" to any onlooker. She did, after all, have a series of killings to stop, and her ability to do that would be hampered if she had to keep dodging accusations of complicity in a jailbreak. Especially since they'd be true. Far better to use the old story of a lazy guard and a sneaky prisoner.
First, though, she wanted to get the lay of the land. She hadn't been able to add to her stored mana at all since arriving in Jacob's Creek, having only the reserves she'd left home with. Casting the Purgatory and Chaos Nest Runes, enhancing the former to empower her skullmage to astralize, and then summoning the familiars was a commitment of mana, and if something went wrong, she'd have to then use more mana to cover for it.
To say nothing of how her magic-detection Rune had fallen apart in the courtroom. If that effect continued, she might not even get the chance to cover up. She'd fought battles before where enemy familiars would be tearing apart her Runes while she was trying to accomplish something. They tended not to go well.
Accordingly, she did something that took no mana at all. She flicked her thumb over the plain silver ring she wore on the index finger of her right hand, the one of the talismans she'd brought with her. She'd previously summoned a fairy and bound it to the ring, so that without any delay or the need to expend mana on a Rune she could summon the fairy just by drawing on the talisman's power. The familiar, looking like a two-foot-tall blonde woman wearing a green shift, dragonfly wings protruding from her back, apparently floating in the air before Lillet.
"I'm here!" she chirped.
Lillet put her finger to her lips.
"Shhh, we don't want to be overheard."
"Ugh, over all this rain, who could?" the fairy groused, but in a softer tone. Fairies were notoriously willful and independent, but they would follow the magical contract that had bound magicians to the fey folk for centuries. How enthusiastically they'd obey their summoner, of course, was an open question, highly dependent on a fairy's mood and relationship with the magician.
"Well, I hope you can at least get out of that," Lillet said. "I need you to shift to astral form so you can scout inside that building. There's a prisoner I want to free, and I need to know where his cell is, and also how many guards there are and where they're located. Oh, and if there are any other prisoners, as well. But be careful not to be seen, not over by the man we're here to rescue. I can't risk anyone raising an alarm or finding out that I'm out here working magic."
"Okay, fine. At least being all sneaky is a good reason to be standing around in the dark and the rain!"
She fluttered her wings for a moment, her face set in concentration, and then she...faded. Her body was no longer solid flesh, the colors of skin, hair, and clothing where gone. Instead, she was an image of pale blue light, her features all still quite distinct, but her entire form was translucent, so that Lillet could actually see the walls of the jail through her in the light she shed.
Then, all of a sudden, the fairy's face contorted, and she let out a high, gasping sound of pain. Through the link Lillet shared with her familiar, she could tell that the pain wasn't just that; the fairy's life was being torn away by some kind of force—but there were no wards triggered, no immediate cause.
It took only seconds for Lillet to realize what must be happening. The force that had degraded her Rune was having the same effect on the fairy. When she'd had a physical body like Lillet's own, it hadn't mattered, but as soon as she'd shifted to an astral form she'd rendered herself a construct of pure magical energy, and just like the Rune something had started eating away at that energy. Her only obvious respite was to switch back to her physical body.
Except that she didn't.
An instant later Lillet realized what the problem was. To assume astral form required that the fairy expend its own mana, the magical reserves it stored just as Lillet did. But until she ran out of mana, it would likewise take an act of will to change back. And wracked with pain as she was, she was too confused and distracted by the pain either to think of it herself or focus enough to act on it. She was trapped in astral form, and dying because of it.
"Substance change!" Lillet ordered immediately. Working through the bond of master and familiar, the command compelled the fairy to act. If recalcitrant, she could fight that command with her own will, but under the circumstances she barely had any. At once the glowing blue form was replaced by the normal flesh-and-blood form of the fairy.
Lillet blinked as the darkness swallowed everything around her again. She'd been looking directly at the luminous form of the astral fairy, and the sudden vanishing of that light momentarily blinded her.
"Ah...ah..." the familiar gasped for breath, shuddering. "What just happened?"
"I'm not sure," Lillet said. "It seems like there's some force here that attacks magical energies..."
"Now you tell me!" her familiar exploded. "You could have killed me! What if I died before I ran out of mana and changed back!"
"I'm sorry; I didn't know..."
The fairy huffed, but apparently realized Lillet's sincerity, and her genuine sorrow. Her anger faded into truculence. "Well next time, figure it out! It felt like you'd thrown me into a fire!" Folding her arms over her chest, she tapped her foot on empty air. "So what next?"
I can't stay here, Lillet realized. The fairy's light could have been seen, although she suspected only a few buildings had a vantage point to where she was. Worse, the familiar's cries could have been heard. The rain would help muffle and conceal, pounding on rooftops and rattling against window-glass, but a high-pitched sound could well cut through it. Had the cry been a loud shriek, or a softer gasp of pain? Lillet found that she couldn't properly judge. The shock of horror she'd felt at realizing what was happening to the familiar had clouded her own perceptions; her memory was of the emotion the cry had conveyed far more than it was of the cry's specific attributes. There was no real way for her to judge the likelihood of its being heard.
Besides which, it didn't matter. The fairy's experience, regardless of whether it had given the game away, had made one thing plain: Lillet's plan to rescue Maudite from his execution wouldn't work so long as whether force was active in Jacob's Creek remained. An astralized grimalkin or Maudite himself wouldn't fare any better than had the fairy.
No, the only thing to be done was to get away and back to the Green Man without being spotted, and before any discrepancy in time between when she should have arrived at the inn and when she'd actually get there would be noticed. Not that she thought there was much chance of anyone checking up on her, as the plain fact was that since the attempt at a prison break had failed before it had even gotten started, there was nothing to be investigated.
She had not, it seemed, needed to bother with establishing her alibi after all.
"There is no next. You can go; I'm not going to try anything else until I know what's happening here and what I can do about it."
The familiar sniffed, giving her a look of you should have thought about that first, then vanished, returning back to Faerie, leaving Lillet alone in the darkness.
Even so, as Lillet's eyes regained their night vision and she scuttled away from the jail, she thought for just a moment that she heard something. She turned her head, her gaze sweeping the night, senses straining, but all she heard was the rain.
She was suddenly all too aware of how exposed she was. The Demon, whatever it might be, was a real threat, and it had just been made plain to her how limited her magical resources were. Astral familiars would start to be destroyed almost as soon as she could summon them, their lives ticking away as surely as a chimera's. Any Rune she crafted would suffer the same fate, which would make it virtually impossible to use her most powerful and advanced magic. Even her personal warding spells that protected her safety against sudden attack were obviously unreliable. And her mana reserves seemed to have no way of being restored, which would put an absolute limit on whatever magic she could perform.
The shadows around her seemed as dark and threatening as any she'd known, and Lillet felt the very real sensation of relief wash over her when at last she stood dripping in the foyer of the Green Man while Bogle secured the inn door with a heavy wooden bar.
"It's still not fit for man nor beast out there, from the looks of you," the innkeeper grumbled.
"I know," Lillet said. "That's why I need that bath, or I'll be chilled through by morning." She shivered, and not for effect. Though her traveling garb was reasonably water-resistant as such things went, it wasn't like a seaman's oilskins, treated to shed water.
"Don't worry; we'll be having it for you right off."
The man was as good as his word. A wooden tub was brought up to Lillet's room, and filled with water that, if not exactly steaming, was at least warm. She locked the door to prevent casual intrusion, then stripped off her wet clothing and hung it up to be dried before the room's hearth before sinking herself into the tub with a long, blissful sigh.
It was one of life's truisms that sometimes a person didn't realize how badly they felt until they got to a point where they could relax and let their troubles ebb away. As Lillet relaxed into the bath, she began to realize how much her muscles were protesting at being repeatedly chilled in the weather, subjected to all the emotional stress, cramped from hours of research hunched over Father Dubbel's study desk, and finally rain-soaked. She craved a long soak in her own bath, or at least a proper bathhouse where she could stretch out and fully relax instead of being cramped in the utilitarian tub, followed by a night's sleep in her own bed. Neither, however, was coming.
You're getting soft, she laughed at herself. Really, just when had creature comforts become so important to her, anyway? Spoiled was another word for it. The next time I visit my parents, I'm going to make sure to roll up my sleeves and help with the chores, she resolved. Mucking out a stable would certainly be a good antidote to getting too used to the easy life!
It was all too easy for a tired mind to escape into visions of the future, she reflected, pulling herself back to the here and now. Especially when the fact was that the first day of her investigation had brought her more problems than she'd had the night before. Not only had the witch-finder claimed an innocent victim instead of confining himself to minor damage, but she was genuinely worried about her ability to stop whatever it was that was killing villagers in the night. Under ordinary circumstances, she trusted herself to be able to handle anything short of an arch-devil, but with the way magic itself seemed to be so sharply restricted in the area, that wasn't the case any more. She felt vulnerable and afraid, moreso than she had any time since leaving the Silver Star Tower, other than when Amoretta's flask had been stolen once in an attempt to blackmail her.
Whatever the Demon of Jacob's Creek was, Lillet didn't know if she could count on her magic to stop it.
She'd have to revise part of her opinion about its nature, too. It definitely wasn't an astral creature, not with the way the fairy had reacted to the mana-draining effect. But maybe that wasn't all bad, because at least one of her alternate, unlikely theories better fit with what she'd learned about Jacob Blackstone's history. Assuming, of course, that there actually is a connection between the two things. If there wasn't, even that glimmer of hope would be lost.
And there was the other matter, the thing that frightened her most of all. The sound that she'd thought she'd heard, just once, even through the rain.
The sound of footsteps, hurrying away from her in the dark.