It was well on into the evening when Lillet returned to Jacob's Creek, and the sky was streaked with the reds and violets of the last few minutes of sunset.
She did not head to the Green Man, but instead turned west towards the church. Sexton Ommegang was distinctly startled when he answered her knock.
"Your Excellency, we were not expecting you," he stammered, trying to cover his superficial discourtesy.
"I know; I really should have sent word around, particularly since I was hoping that I could batten myself on Father Dubbel's hospitality and join him for dinner tonight."
He blinked at her.
"Yes; he invited me yesterday, but I was unable to take advantage of it, so I hoped to play the obnoxious acquaintance and accept retroactively. Not only is your cooking consistently better than Mrs. Bogle's at the Green Man, but I also wanted to speak with Father Dubbel about the case. He did request my help, after all—well, indirectly, since he wrote to the Archbishop rather than to me personally—and I thought that he should be fully appraised of today's developments."
"I...see..." the handsome young man said, although he obviously didn't. Lillet didn't hold that against him; the truth was that she was being deliberately obscure in her explanations, like some of the gossipy matrons who twittered like birds, telling a story wrong way 'round and sideways while never coming quite to the point. Although the compliment she'd slipped in there was quite sincere. "Do come in."
She'd unconsciously timed her visit well, for within ten minutes she was sitting at the table while Ommegang ladled out a hearty beef stew with potatoes and carrots, savory with herbs and served over fluffy flour dumplings.
"I have to admit that I had an ulterior motive in visiting at this hour," she repeated her compliment. "Should the sexton ever tire of his work with the Church, he would make a first-rate taverner."
The comment made the priest chuckle.
"I can sympathize, for I find with Mr. Ommegang around, the sin of gluttony is a constant temptation."
The sexton beamed in pleasure, and once the food was served, left the dining room. Once he did, though, Father Dubbel's mien grew more somber.
"In truth, I am not unhappy to have you here, even at the cost of tomorrow's leftovers. It can't help but benefit you to be seen in friendly company with the Church as often as possible."
Lillet pulled a face.
"I gather that Gervase has been busy this afternoon?"
"Quite so. There have been a number of my parishioners who have come to me fearfully, in great concern. The witch-finder has not been shy in spreading his remarks."
"Is he still accusing me of being responsible for the Beast, or has he changed his story again? All that passion and zealotry makes it hard for him to keep his message consistent from moment to moment. He started out this morning saying that it had been sent by God to show the villagers the wages of sin are death, then after that he decided that the three dead people got what they deserved because Mr. Jackson was a drunk, Ms. Duvel was a fornicator, and Ms. Graves was as good as a witch."
The priest actually flinched at that.
"My word! He actually said so?"
"In front of Sheriff Tisdale, too. It was not the finest hour for Sterling Gervase." She paused to eat some of her tossed salad, enjoying the crisp, garden-fresh vegetables. "While obviously I can't agree with your side of the ongoing theological debate about the sinfulness of magic, at least reasonable people can acknowledge that there is a debate with valid points on both sides. That man is a monster; it's bad enough that he's a fanatic, but he doesn't even understand what he's fanatical about. I won't agree that it's right to execute people for practicing magic without a license, but Gervase doesn't understand enough about magic to even confine his murders to people who are actually breaking the law!"
"Those are very strong words, Miss Blan."
"I have very strong feelings," she said. "I think it's wrong when people say that using magic is a sin and should be a crime, particularly a capital crime. But it's something that can be worked around. I'm a magician, but I don't have to practice magic. I can choose to not cast any Runes; they don't spring up spontaneously around me. I can obey a law against magic even if I neither believe in nor respect it.
"But what Gervase does is more than just enforcing a dubious law. He doesn't know what magic is. He can't tell what is magic and what's just foolish superstition, and he lashes out at all of it. Honestly, I don't think he cares about the difference—he thinks that superstition is as bad as magic because what he's really punishing is heresy: believing that power exists that isn't God's."
Which is stupid! she wanted to howl. She couldn't understand how people could believe that God created the world but that making use of what was there was somehow acting against God, in some sort of backwards interpretation of the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. And almost inevitably, they drew the line exactly at their level of education. If a rock was falling from a cliff above, it was perfectly fine to step aside out of its way instead of waiting for Him to miraculously intervene, but taking an herbal draught to cure a fever was to extremists an unnatural interference in God's domain.
Lillet let out a deep sigh, shaking her head. Theology was such a confusing subject. Even when Scripture seemed to speak plainly, there were areas of potential confusion, and life seemed to delight in finding ways to make things even more difficult. Easy answers were the exception, not the rule, and faith and reason so often ended up being enemies even though reason was supposed to support and empower faith. Lillet could sympathize with Dr. Chartreuse and how he had used an angel's spirit to create Amoretta. The chance to gain direct access to Answers, now, that was a true temptation for a magician, particularly an alchemist who by the very nature of his art was focused on the underlying structure of the universe.
Of course, as that experiment had proved, there were no shortcuts to holy wisdom. Maybe that was part of the point of faith. Even for a magician, who touched on basic, fundamental powers all the time, there was in the end no empirical proof of right and wrong, good and evil in more than generalities. But then again, what do I know?
Lillet missed Amoretta when she had thoughts like these. The homunculus may not have had memories of her previous existence, but she was wonderful to talk with about these things, perhaps specifically because her perspective wasn't human, and so she lacked so many preconceived notions.
And missing her won't get me back to her any faster, she thought with another sigh.
She smiled, a bit of sheepishness in her voice when she answered him.
"I'm sorry, Father; that speech kept on going in my mind for quite a while after I stopped talking out loud."
He shook his head.
"You needn't apologize. I share your concern. I did, after all, write to the Archbishop specifically because I feared what this incident would do for the people of Jacob's Creek, and that Master Gervase would be unable to resolve the situation in any acceptable manner."
"He's gone beyond that, if you ask me. He's actually trying to get in my way. I'm certain that if I wanted to do some act of magic to stop the monster, he'd fight me, literally fight me."
The priest sipped at his drink before speaking.
"I am not surprised at it all. You must admit, Miss Blan, that you are in essence the witch-finder's greatest horror given flesh: a powerful magician, one with magic like the Archmage's, that can shrug off almost any amount of merely natural force." He paused for a moment, as if he too was troubled by the fact. "Beyond that, you have the approval of society for your magic—not just tolerance and forbearance, but approval because of it. It has brought you a Court position, the favor of the Crown. Perhaps worse, you also carry the favor of the Church. To Gervase you should stand condemned as the worst of heretics, and instead the Archbishop has turned to you for aid! His world has been set on its head; nothing makes sense to him any more, and you are the nemesis that has done this to him." Father Dubbel shook his head sadly. "It is a hard lesson to learn, and not one that I think he will accept easily."
The old man tapped his fork on his plate a couple of times before he continued.
"Do you think that he will pose a problem for you?"
Lillet's eyes flicked towards the dining room door.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't want to have to deal with a mob of villagers out for my blood while I'm trying to defeat some monster. That would be a recipe for disaster that would end up getting a lot of innocent people hurt." She scowled momentarily. "Though I have to admit, after scenes like yesterday's trial, I have my doubts about how innocent they are."
"Please do not judge them too harshly, Miss Blan."
Her eyebrows rose.
"I think that Pyotr Maudite would find the people here quite harsh."
Father Dubbel shook his head.
"I don't deny that there are extremists, and obviously the influence of zealots can cause great harm. But by and large the ordinary people of the town are just that, ordinary people who are terrified. Bloody death has come out of the night three times now, without warning or any hint of a purpose. They cling to anything that can give them hope in this dark hour, and unpleasantly it sometimes is the Devil who speaks loudest during those times when men most have need of comfort. Anything that lets them continue their lives, lets them go to sleep without fearing that they will never wake, they will fasten on to it even if it is but a plausible lie. The people believe Gervase not because he truly reflects the nature of their faith, but because he gives them an illusion of security where nothing else will."
Lillet had a sudden flash of memory, of the sheriff looking at her in horror. Nothing? You're saying that there's no way to stop this thing? How different was that from Gervase's absurd notion that it was seeking people out for their sins, or rather that the sinful lacked sufficient faith for God's grace to turn it away?
People wanted answers. They wanted guidance in a time of fear, and many of them would follow anyone who offered it, simply so that they would have a path to tread in place of aimlessly waiting. It didn't matter if that path was obscure or even if they could see how wrong it was. It was something, and those who offered something could always win more adherents than those who could not.
So the townsfolk would pray harder, and cleave more closely to the witch-finder's strict interpretation of what was sinful and what was not, not because it could save them from the Demon, but because it could save them from the fear. Could Lillet say that in their place, were she a cobbler, a farmer, a greengrocer, an innkeeper instead of a Grand Witch with power greater than any mage since Calvaros, that she would still have the courage to do the right thing?
She hoped that she would, but she couldn't be sure.
"Maybe," she admitted aloud. "People can be weak, and fear makes for a strong spur. But I wish..."
Lillet looked him squarely in the eyes.
"I wish that in these times that try our souls, that once in a while it should turn out that we aren't found wanting."
There was no easy response to that, and Father Dubbel bent his head gravely.
"It is painful to hear, but I cannot deny it. I can only ask that you not think too badly of us, that my flock and I have not acted from malice but out of fear and desperation."
The pain he felt was obvious in his voice, and shame besides—on behalf of the town? For his own failing to speak up and challenge Gervase more boldly when he'd had the chance? Or was it, perhaps, that he felt that he had failed the villagers by not doing a good enough job as their spiritual leader?
Regardless of what it was, Lillet genuinely felt sorry for the priest. He, at least, had tried to do the right thing: to fight not the fear but its source, to recognize that Gervase had neither the knowledge nor the mindset to do that.
"Just so long as you don't expect me to have the same tolerance for the genuine zealots," Lillet allowed more out of sympathy for the man than the villagers. "People like Gervase—and Magistrate Cavit as well, since she eagerly let him start his witch-hunt and gave him lawful authority before any deaths occurred—aren't reacting to something big that affects everyone like the killings. They carry their own hate, their own fear, and the rest of us suffer, particularly when they're in positions of power. It's because of them that everyone else's weaknesses are inflated into full-blown prejudices."
"I can sympathize, Miss Blan, but if you harden your heart you make the same mistake as they do."
She gave him a long, searching look.
"I'm not God, who can see into our minds and souls and knows when we truly repent, but I'll try to keep that in mind if any of them ever asks for my forgiveness. Until then, it's kind of an academic question."
"On the contrary, it is perhaps those who do not seek our forgiveness that it is most important to forgive."
"You genuinely expect me to let Gervase do what he wants for the sake of my soul?"
He shook his head.
"There is a difference between stopping evil from taking place and letting yourself succumb to hatred," he pressed earnestly. "You just talked about how their prejudices, their unreasoning hatred make others suffer due to their positions of power. How much more harm could you do, having both more temporal authority due to your position at Court, as well as the extreme power you possess yourself through your magic? With a word, you could erase this village and everyone in it from the face of the earth. Does that not seem like good reason to keep from giving way to hatred?"
"I would never—" Lillet gasped, shocked, then sighed. "No, I see your point. By all accounts Calvaros, too, was a good man and a wise teacher before he changed and became the Archmage. Whatever the forces and influences acting on us, we all make our own choices and take our own actions." She paused again, then added, "Of course, the same truth applies to Sterling Gervase."
"Unfortunately, that it does, and ultimately he must face the same judge as do we all. But you cannot answer for him, nor can you stand in judgment over his soul. Oppose him when he seeks to do evil in his ignorance, absolutely, but remember always that it is not the man that is your enemy but his actions."
She arched an eyebrow at him.
"You give an impressive sermon, Father Dubbel."
"It is only impressive if it reaches home," he responded with a hint of a twinkle in his eye. "Master Gervase has ignored this message and preached his own. I hope that I will have better luck with you."
"It would be a little ironic if a witch was more receptive to your preaching than a man of God."
"Particularly under the circumstances, yes."
"Still, Father, I will try my best to keep my head clear. And after all, anger does cloud judgment. I can't let the witch-finder stop me from putting an end to the killings. I don't know that I can promise to do what you hope, but...you've given me a lot to think about, and I will try my best."
He sat back in his chair, a gentle smile replacing the intensity that he'd previously shown.
"Thank you, Miss Blan. That is, ultimately, all that I could ask."
The door opened, then, and Ommegang wheeled the tea-cart into the room, only this time it held cups of steaming black coffee together with the milk pitcher and sugar bowl. Lillet did not pause in speaking as he served them.
"The good news is, between my researches here last night, what I found this morning, and the evidence from the scene of Ms. Graves' death, I think that I'm now in position to take a final step to end the ongoing situation." She couldn't help but suppress a wince at the slightly tortured phrasing, but it was important to say precisely what she wanted and no more.
"Tonight?" Father Dubbel asked.
"Yes. The books that you showed me about the Venerable Jacob's history proved to be very important."
"Do you take sugar or milk, Your Excellency?" Ommegang interjected.
"Neither, thank you."
He placed the cup before her, then added both milk and sugar to the other cup, no doubt knowing the priest's preferences well enough from experience.
"Anyway, as I was saying, it seems that the Gallows Tree, where the Venerable Jacob fought in the past will be the key to it all. Thanks to Gervase, I wasn't able to finish my research there this morning, but I learned enough that I'll be able to go straight to the final act. Tonight at midnight I intend to end this affair of the Beast of Jacob's Creek once and for all."
~X X X~
The art of the wizard and the art of the stage magician really weren't all that different, Lillet thought as she waited in the dark. Certainly, the true magician had raw power with which to accomplish her feats, but that was the equivalent of the stage performer's marked cards, trunks with false bottoms, and other apparatus: the materials that made an effect possible. It was the performance art, though, the stage patter, the misdirection, the whole gamut of techniques that turned those tools into an effective and entertaining show. And while sometimes Lillet had solved magical problems just by throwing raw power at them, more often than not that power had to be combined with the proper stage dressing to achieve the needed effect.
Grimlet could testify to that, were he not bound to Hell for the next three millennia or so. So could Artos Benedictine, or Lady Anheuser, or any number of others from the political arena that thought Lillet was all about power and nothing else.
So Lillet waited, knowing the way things had to play out to obtain the effect she wanted,
She'd put the pieces together that afternoon, while out of town. She'd hiked far enough out of town that she'd outranged the magic-draining effect, then proceeded to ruthlessly strip-mine every crystal she could send ghosts to, until she was restored to nearly the full capacity of mana her spirit could hold. She would need it, since even if the mana drain was cancelled, there still would be very little of it available, and certainly not that she could tap in the heat of battle.
It had taken time, though, for her familiars to fetch back that much mana, and while they did, she'd turned her attention to the Rune on the Gallows Tree. She hadn't been able to copy it all, but her knowledge of Glamour allowed her to examine what she'd been able to get down. The symbolism was familiar to her, echoing fundamental principles of Rune design so that it was all but proven that the Rune did what she thought it had been made for. The specifics of the design were extremely complex, though, and in some ways completely original to her.
Truth be told, Lillet would have liked nothing more than to dig in to the design, to study and analyze the Rune's exact function and how its construction empowered that. Frankly, it was a brilliant piece of work that Blackstone had done, and while she understood the underlying principles it would take her months of work to reconstruct it even with the partial Rune as a starting point. As a scholar of magic she was fascinated, and it annoyed her that she couldn't just vanish into a lab and delve into the work. That was one thing that being Mage Consul had cost her generally: she had too many administrative and political duties to allow her to as much time for experimentation and research as she'd like.
Lillet renewed her resolve that, should everything work out here, she would initiate a search for Blackstone's grimoires once she got back to the capital. Beringer might be able to help if the Church had claimed them after Blackstone's death; he'd certainly owe her after this favor! If not, one advantage to the man's religious status was that his life had been more-or-less public and his heirs would be easier to trace. His work definitely deserved to be remembered for the future.
Nonetheless, this was not a research project, and Lillet knew well that she could not afford to worry about academic matters when the real-world consequences were so significant.
She checked her pocket-watch; with the sky as clear as it had been since the rain passed there was plenty of moonlight to see by. It was ten minutes until midnight. Gervase, it seemed, had an eye for the theatrical, which came as no surprise. She'd hurried to the Gallows Tree as soon as she had left the priest's table, just in case the witch-finder had wanted to lay an ambush for her, but he and his had not interrupted her,
Time to set the stage, she thought, and she rose from her place of concealment and approached the great twisted tree. Steadily, she sketched out the Hecate Rune once more, and set it alight with mana, drawing upon its power again to reveal the shining green marks of the unique Rune placed on the tree.
Given a second look at the Rune, Lillet couldn't help herself from staring at it again, the lustrous green light shining boldly into the dark night. Her eye kept following each line, each symbol and comparing them to everything that she could call up from her knowledge of magic, testing and retesting her theory. Lillet was confident in her conclusions, but the stakes were high and more importantly there would be no second chances, no turning back of time if anything went wrong. So her eyes desperately followed each part of the Rune, seeking any hint that her conclusions had been wrong, and that she'd need to start changing her plan.
She found none.
Watching the Rune, though, did take Lillet's attention off of her surroundings, so that even though she'd been expecting it, she had no need to feign being startled when Gervase's voice rang out.
"Witch! Cease your foul magics immediately or you will face your judgment all the sooner!"
Lillet smiled as she caught herself. Whatever manifold flaws the witch-hunter possessed, he at least had the virtue of answering his cue.
~X X X~
A/N: Another pleasant result from research, turning up that pocket watches, also, are not anachronistic for the c. 1650s time period that I tend to associate with this series.