One piece of good news raised Lillet's spirits not long after she reached the road. Just outside the edge of the village was a signpost with a board reading "Jacob's Creek" and its date of establishment. So whatever that was, it only cost me a few minutes of travel time, rather than days.
The town looked to be rather typical of its sort. The houses were neat and wooden, with shingled roofs. Farther along the hard-packed dirt street were shops, their colorful signs advertising their products, including one which showed a human-like figure draped in moss and greenery. In the center of the village was a cross-street, one way of which led to a large building, probably the town meetinghouse, which would have also served as the courthouse. That impression was confirmed by the sight of the punishment stocks out front, where a person would be locked for minor offenses...and a hanging-post, for offenses that were not so minor.
The other arm of the cross-street led to the church. Its construction was little different than the other buildings in town but for the steeple. The core of the Low Church movement was the belief that the pomp and circumstance of religion, the archaic ritual, the ornamentation, the wealth and show, all secured as a barrier that kept the people from an understanding of God. They followed a simpler, more "pure" model whereby the priest was as much a servant of their congregation as he was to lead them.
Lillet herself didn't entirely disagree with the movement's adherents. Ostentation and wealth seemed out of place in a church, and the power and money associated with church rank had caused more than one abbot or bishop to give way to worldly concerns. But where the High Church was vulnerable to corruption, the Low Church tended towards fanaticism, where "pure" started to become "absolute." To much zealotry over anything—a nation, a religion, a political theory, a subject of study, even something as innocent as a hobby or a love interest—was a recipe for disaster. "Moderation in all things" was not a concept the Low Church adherents of Caithshire embraced easily, particularly the sect referred to as the Dissenters, whose puritanism and anti-clerical streak flirted with the line between theological debate and heresy—and went well over the line of religious extremism.
The church had two doors, the main one at the front and another, smaller door at the side near the back. Assuming that the priest's residence was probably part of the church building, much as most shopkeepers lived above their shops, she approached the side door and knocked. After nearly a minute, the door was opened by a handsome young man in his early twenties, built broadly through the shoulders with curling blond hair that brushed his collar. His coat and breeches were dark-colored, bearing a sober formality as did his almost disapproving expression.
"Good evening," he said, not quite suspiciously but with a certain hesitation. Lillet wasn't surprised; she was a stranger and her clothing doubly marked her as an outsider. That would have raised eyebrows in a village like Jacob's Creek even before its recent troubles.
"Good evening," she said, offering a friendly smile. "My name is Lillet Blan; I'd like to speak with Father Dubbel, if I may."
"I'll see if he's available."
He closed the door, retreating inside while leaving Lillet on the step. In a little under two minutes, he returned.
"Father Dubbel will see you," he said. "Please come in."
He stepped back to allow Lillet to enter. She ducked her head to avoid bumping her steeple hat on the low doorframe and stepped into the narrow, plain hall. The only ornament was a plain wooden cross on one wall, which didn't encourage Lillet in the slightest. The passionate faith of the Low Church movement was the kind that strongly disapproved of magic; the lack of ornamentation often went hand in hand with a lack of tolerance.
Simon, I hope you haven't sent me into something I'm going to regret.
The blond young man took her down the hall to a side door opposite the one leading to the church sanctuary. That was one open, and Lillet could see bare white walls and serried ranks of hard wooden pews.
"Father Dubbel, this is Miss Blan."
"Do come in, miss."
Lillet entered the room, which proved to be a pleasant study, with two bookcases stuffed full, a solid writing desk that from the pens and papers clearly saw regular use, and two hardwood chairs before the fireplace. A silver-haired man of around sixty was rising from one of the chairs. He set a cloth-bound book down on an occasional table by his right hand.
"Go on and set that heavy bag down," he invited, "and tell me what I can do for you. May I offer you some refreshment? A cup of tea, perhaps?"
"A cup of tea would be very nice, thank you."
"Excellent. Do see to it, Thomas, and one for me as well."
"Mr. Ommegang makes a fine cup of tea," the priest said, even as he showed Lillet to a chair and took the one opposite. "It's not often that you find a young person with the knack of it, but he seems to be a natural talent. But of course you must have pressing business much more important than listening to an old man babble on."
"Actually, Archbishop Beringer asked me to come in response to your letter."
"Indeed? You must have traveled very fast."
Lillet passed him an embossed visiting-card. He glanced at it and his eyebrows rose.
"My, His Grace is taking my request most seriously indeed!"
"There are political considerations. He hopes that my rank might encourage a spirit of cooperation in the local authorities." She didn't see much point in mentioning the more cynical factors.
"Ah, I see. But whatever the reason, I am very glad to see you. We of this village are sorely beset, and I fear that magic will be needed to see us through."
"My poor flock has had two horrors visited upon them in turn, and I fear greatly for them. They are at heart good, hard-working, God-fearing folk, but what has occurred here corrodes the spirit. The Devil has come among us to put our faith to the test and I fear he may find us wanting."
Lillet did not reply at once. She probably shouldn't have been surprised that the priest was more concerned with the spiritual aspects of the matter than the physical, but she was.
"I'd have thought that you'd be more concerned with finding and stopping this monster before it kills again."
"Oh, that is most certainly important. But poor Mr. Jackson and Miss Duvel are safely in the hands of God now. It is the living that I concern myself with, and while their bodies—their lives—should certainly be protected, how much more important is the state of their souls?"
"I honestly never expected you to ask me, of all people, that question."
"Because you traffic with devils?" He allowed himself a faint smile. "I can certainly understand why you might expect that reaction. Magic is a dangerous and frightening art, one that tampers with forces beyond human ken. I do not like these new policies of the Crown, that wish to reduce it to the level of a mere craft such as a bookbinder or leatherworker, for unlike common trades, which can lead to evil in their results, the true risk of magic is in its practice. That does not mean, however, that all magicians are damned nor all magic damnable. To merely deny it leaves it solely the tool of evil."
"I see." It was far more than she'd expected from any Caithshire priest, particularly one whose care had been the target of monstrous attacks.
Yes, attacks. She hadn't missed what Father Dubbel had said about two horrors, naming two victims. The Archbishop had called the first one "he," so presumably Miss Duvel was the second person slain.
The priest didn't seem to want to move on to those details yet, but instead was warming to his point.
"The true danger from acts of fearful violence, particularly involving black magic, is not to those attacked. The deaths are a tragedy, of course, lives cut short and horrors inflicted that no one should have to endure. But mortal life is limited regardless, while the soul is eternal. And it is the survivors of the attacks, their souls, who are the true victims."
"How do you mean, Father?"
"That most corrosive of human emotions, Miss Blan: fear. It creeps into people's hearts, and they try to find ways to manage that fear. So they seek to cast blame, while what they really do is to convince themselves that they will be safe."
"I see. The way, for example, if a murderer kills a young woman, people will say things like, 'it was her own fault for being out at night.' By blaming the victim they create an illusion of safety for themselves. I don't act like that, so I'll be safe. And, of course, it's generally the things they already disapprove of that they fasten on as the reason. Or if they turn their eyes outward, looking for a culprit, it will be the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner, the one who does not 'know their place' whom the mob fastens upon."
Father Dubbel let out his breath in a long sigh.
"Then you do understand."
"It's hard for a magician not to. Those are exactly the principles on which so many witchcraft trials are founded."
"I regret that I cannot deny—"
He was interrupted by Ommegang's return with the tea-tray, which he set down on the occasional table. Fragrant steam rose from the pot, and Father Dubbel poured.
"It's quite plain black tea, I'm afraid, not at all what you're used to in the capital."
"That's quite all right; I'm not a tea fancier." which was true, though Amoretta did in fact enjoy trying out different blends. Lillet added sugar and sipped her tea. It reminded her of her mother's, which she used to serve in the evenings after supper. The memory made her smile softly, despite the circumstances.
"In any event," she said while Father Dubbel was pouring milk into his own cup, "the plain fact is that regardless of our different concerns for this matter, we both share the same goal for accomplishing it: to identify and stop whatever it is that has killed two people in the village. Identifying it not only helps us figure out how to stop it from killing, but it also goes a long way towards fighting the fear that you were talking about."
"I quite agree." He sipped from his own cup. "Putting a name, a definition to something eases fear by letting us draw borders around it in our minds."
"Not really any different than prejudice, actually, except that it has the virtue of truth so it's useful for getting real results instead of just giving an illusion of doing something." She took another drink of tea. "Are there any local legends about a monster in Jacob's Creek, recurring stories, that kind of thing?"
He shook his head.
"Not that I am aware. The Venerable Jacob Blackstone, of course, defeated a devil when Jacob's Creek was still called Danvers lumber-camp, but that was over two hundred years ago."
"The Archmage's defeat was nearly forty-five years ago, and yet he returned briefly. Time is not always such a barrier when it comes to magic."
"I see." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Then perhaps I should show you the spot where the Venerable Jacob expelled the curse. There may be some significance to it, and at the least I certainly know of no other stories which might be relevant to your investigation."
"Thank you, I appreciate that."
The evening was coming on fast this time of year; the study was growing steadily dimmer and through the windows Lillet could see the sky turning violet and blood-red.
"I hadn't realized that it was this late," she said. "I hope I'm not going to inconvenience you."
"Miss Blan, you've come a great distance to help solve our problems. The least I can do is to put up with a minor delay in my supper. Although I suppose it might make some trouble for you if you did not arrange for your lodgings soon. I presume you have not yet done so?" His gaze flicked to her traveling bag.
"No, I haven't. I hoped that you'd be able to recommend a place."
"Ah, I see. Well, obviously Jacob's Creek hasn't anything suitable for a Court minister. The Green Man is both inn and tavern for the village. There are a couple of local goodwives who regularly take in boarders and would provide better-kept lodgings and food, but..."
He hesitated, as if not sure how to phrase what he had to say. It wasn't hard for Lillet to deduce what that was.
"But you doubt that they'd be willing to allow a witch to rent a room in their homes?"
Father Dubbel looked embarrassed.
"My flock is not made of bad people, Miss Blan, but these killings on top of everything else..."
"'Everything else' in this case being the Bishop's man, the witch-finder?"
The priest nodded.
"I hope you are not insulted."
Lillet shook her head.
"I am a witch, Father. The term is an accurate one for a female magician. The connotation that a witch is an evil spellcaster in league with devils is offensive, but you're not the one who used it that way. Besides, phrases like witch-hunter and witch-finder are accurate in a way; while the persecution of magicians tends to be neutral as to gender, the innocent people punished by such overzealous hunters are largely female."
She sipped more tea while Father Dubbel shifted uncomfortably.
"That isn't your fault," she told him.
"The existence of such persons shames the Church and the faithful. It is wise to be wary of the temptations of magic, and perhaps better in the end to simply leave it alone. But it is naught but the Devil's work to stir up senseless bigotry, to sink a population into fear and hatred."
Lillet again shook her head.
"I won't argue with you, but I don't see that you have anything to feel bad about. The whole reason I'm here now is because you had the desire to actually help the people here instead of going along with the witch-hunter."
She finished the last of her tea.
"I'm sure we disagree on a number of things about magic, Father Dubbel, but at least we can agree that there's room for disagreement and debate in this world. That's something I think more magicians and priests alike need to acknowledge."
He rose as well.
Lillet shouldered her bag.
"Perhaps you have already made up your mind one way or the other, but if I may, I would advise that you be free with your title, Miss Blan. The villagers' respect for the Crown, and the comforting effect that an official mandate brings, may go a long way towards preventing trouble."
"Thank you; that was the Archbishop's thought as well. Since I don't think holding back will inspire any trust, it's probably better that I go all the way in relying on the full weight of the law."
Father Dubbel looked relieved at that. Doubtless he was worried that the locals might do something foolish and find themselves facing charges that they might avoid if they knew whom she was.
"Once you have had a chance to arrange your lodgings and settle in, please come back and I can tell you a little more about the actual events here. We didn't have much time to deal with those."
"I'd like that. After supper, then?"
"Why not dine with me?"
"I couldn't force myself on your hospitality like that..."
"Nonsense, Miss Blan. It would save you time in learning the facts, and I can assure you that Mr. Ommegang's cooking will be far more palatable than anything you could get at the Green Man."
"All right, then I gladly accept your offer."
He showed her to the door.
"Do you know where the Green Man is?"
"I saw the sign on my way into the village."
"Good, then. I shall see you in an hour or so, then, Miss Blan."
The velvet blue sky was nearly black and stars twinkled between the scudding clouds as Lillet made her way back down the lane to the crossroads. The moon, just past its first quarter, shone down with a strong tint of yellow in its light, not high enough in the sky to show silver. Lights shone here and there from behind windows, but everything seemed quiet.
It was that most of all which set a place like Jacob's Creek apart from the capital, Lillet thought. In the country, like on her parents' farm, activity was governed much more strongly by the sun. In the city, such a large gathering of people spread their activities out around the clock, from businesses staying open late to entertainments such as the opera or the parties and gatherings of the well-to-do, so that one could hardly tell night from day by the people.
Here, though, things were already dying down, and a hush fallen over the streets so that Lillet could hear the echo of her boots on the hard-packed dirt. Even as she approached the inn, from which a blaze of light showed in the ground-floor windows, there was little noise to be heard, the bustle of clinking glasses and loud talk significant by its absence. Then again, she supposed that most gatherings at the Green Man happened after the supper-hour, once people had dined in their own homes. That was another difference between the country and the city, she thought.
The inn door creaked slightly on its hinges when she opened it and its occupants all looked up: a sandy-haired, bearded man behind the bar, a young woman acting as serving-maid who was probably his daughter, dressed more modestly than the average bad girl, plus a couple of old gaffers with full beards but no moustache. All regarded Lillet with a mix of suspicion and apprehension.
"And who be ye, traveler?" the innkeeper said sullenly.
"My name is Lillet Blan," she said. "I am Her Majesty's Mage Consul, sent to investigate the recent deaths in this village. Father Dubbel said that I'd be able to find a room here."
It wasn't likely that the villagers actually knew what a Mage Consul even was, but the general idea, at least, seemed to come through clearly. The innkeeper scowled at her.
"Ain't got no more rooms for witches, even if ye are allowed to be one."
Father Dubbel, it seemed, had been correct. She met the man's glare flatly.
"I'm a member of the Grand Council, on official business. I'm offering to pay as a courtesy only, but you're required to give me board and lodging. Be glad I didn't come with an escort." Frankly, Lillet hated the quartering laws, but the point was to establish her authority and it served her purpose, particularly given that she wanted the villagers thinking of her as a Crown official first and a magician second, if that were possible.
The innkeeper glowered at her, clearly trying to think up a way to refuse her command. At last, though, respect for—or fear of—authority took over. He flung the rag he'd been using to polish glasses down on the bar and fished around underneath. Eventually he came up with the big, leather-bound guest register, pen, and ink.
"Molly, go make up a room for our guest," he said to the girl.
Lillet signed the register, filling in her title, name, and place of residence, and the innkeeper gave her the key. She followed the girl out of the common room and up the stairs to a short hall with four doors.
"It's this one here, milady," Molly said nervously. Lillet didn't bother to correct her on proper forms of address, but went inside after the girl opened the door for her. The room was relatively plain, with a narrow bedstead, one chair, a nightstand, washbasin, and pitcher. The only amenities were a plain mirror on the wall and a chamberpot under the bed. There was a little dust but the room was basically clean and nothing came scurrying out when Lillet dropped her satchel on the bed.
"Thank you, Molly," Lillet said.
"Um...milady," the girl began, biting her lip, "are you really here to stop the Demon?"
"Is that what they're calling it?"
"Master Gervase says it is a sorcerous monster conjured up by a witch because he knows he'll be caught."
"Who is Master Gervase?"
"Why, the bishop's man, milady, the witch-hunter."
"Well, it isn't impossible that he's right. I'll know more when I start to investigate. But yes, that's why I'm here, to stop whatever it is from hurting anyone else."
A look of relief washed over the girl's face.
"Is this Master Gervase staying here at the inn?"
She shook her head.
"No, milady, at the magistrate's home."
"Shall I bring you up some water, milady?"
"Yes, thank you very much."
The girl took the pitcher and left the room. Lillet settled in to the business of unpacking. Her traveling grimoire, obviously, she was not going to let out of her sight; it reminded her vaguely of her student days at the Magic Academy when she was always running to and fro with one book or another in hand. A grimoire had virtually been part of her wardrobe then, as ubiquitous as her hat, and it looked as if the same thing was going to be true now.
The importance of not leaving the grimoire lying around made her think more generally about the need for privacy, and she wondered if she would be wise to put some kind of ward on the inn-room. There was, after all, something very dangerous and probably magical in the village, and if it was also intelligent (or as in the case of a summoned familiar, directed by an outside mind), it might make some move against Lillet. Indeed, that might even be an effective technique for running it to ground. If it came to her, it would save her the trouble of hunting for it.
The plain truth was that Lillet was not at all confident in her ability to bring the creature to bay. She was an exceptional magician, and while she could not see herself as particularly talented or some kind of prodigy as others did due to the unique advantage her centuries of falling through time at the Silver Star Tower had given her, she did not deny that the net result was to make her arguably the greatest magician living, certainly in the kingdom. What she was not, was an investigator.
I proved that well enough with the Theater District killings, didn't I? she thought ruefully, thinking of an incident a few years back. She'd been drawn into investigating a series of murders in the capital that involved sorcery, but rather than hunt down the killer Lillet had been captured by him, only escaping becoming a devil's sacrifice because Amoretta had led a rescue party to save her. Once rescued, Lillet had then resolved the problem by bringing her magical knowledge and power to bear, but that just emphasized the point. Her specialty was in resolving known problems, not in identifying those problems.
But, she was what this village had, and so she needed to do her best. It might just be her own prejudice towards witch-hunters, but she had a feeling that this Gervase wasn't going to be of any use in doing so.
Lillet decided against warding the room just then, deciding to save it for before she went to sleep. It wouldn't do her any good with the villagers if the maid or the innkeeper blundered into it, even if the ward was only a barrier and alarm rather than the kind that hurt. She proceeded with the rest of her unpacking, until her peace and quiet was shattered by a disturbance from the floor below.
"Where is she? Where is this Devil's harlot who comes boldly among us?"
There was a loud squeal, a crash of shattering crockery, and a disgusted or outraged yelp. Lillet darted out of her room, but mastered her immediate reaction and descended the stairs with a show of outward calm.
"Master Gervase, the witch-finder, I presume?"
~X X X~
A/N: My dating of the Archmage's initial defeat by Professor Gammel is entirely speculative. On NIS America's official GrimGrimoire website, in "The History of Wizards" in the Setting section, it is recited that the "king" ordered Gammel to try to find the Philosopher's Stone. Since during the game proper the kingdom has a ruling queen, there's evidently been a change in ruler since the death of Calvaros. It's possible that the queen is the king's widow, but generally royal power vests in one heir with their spouse being a consort—and since Hiram is identified as a third prince, it's more likely than not that there is an heir who is of age to inherit already, so it's unlikely that Her Majesty is a regent. So I assume that the current queen is the daughter of the king in Calvaros's time. I default to assuming Hiram is 18 at the time of the game (he seems older than Lillet), and in my internal chronology we're now seven years past that at the time of this story, so 45 years seemed like a functional compromise.