I do not consider myself a selfish man. I would like to think that those that know me would not consider me selfish either. Tonight, however, I want to be selfish. I want to lock my chamber doors and indulge myself in a bottle of rum or two. I would seek the company of my loves, Gwyn and Val, but that seems not to be an option tonight. Neither, frankly, is the rum, tempting though it might be. Such are the burdens of my position. The immediate danger might be past, but I cannot yet lay down my responsibilities. I know this, I’ve always known this, but sometimes, it would be nice if I could.
The ritual is done. The taint, the corruption cast by the Morning Star is gone, leaving only faint echoes, like the last vestiges of a bruise. There may be some residual damage, but the corruption is gone. That much gladdens my heart, that I have done my duty to the people of Mysthaven, yet, my gladness is overshadowed by sadness. Vedis, whichever version of her it was that walked these lands, is also gone. I should, perhaps, have realised that was a possibility in advance, but I did not think to explore the ramifications of cleansing the taint fully. She was also corrupted, she was also tainted. The corruption that affected the castle came from the same source as the curse that was placed on her. So, when the taint was cleansed… And now, she is gone. To where, I do not know. I want to believe that she has just gone somewhere else, and will yet live, but I do not know for certain. From those years I have known Vedis, nothing is certain until it is. Sadly, what is certain is that Hadley was there to witness this end, and I do not know what I can do to help her overcome that.
Dyisi is also gone. She cast away her life as part of the sacrifice required for the ritual. I know this from what she said, and from the echoes I can read from the castle, echoes that tell of a body immolated, of blood spilled and of life-force cast out to drive away the taint. She told me beforehand that a sacrifice was required and that she did so gladly. I have to believe that in her case, this is not a permanent sacrifice. I have to believe that, or else, I have to face that I have yet again lost a friend. I had not known her as long as Vedis, but I had come to trust her, to enjoy her company, and to value her wisdom and counsel. She often spoke of other threads, other strands, as though there were other stories being told, other realities in which she also lived. Perhaps she still does, and is gone only from this strand, and who knows, maybe she will some day find her way back to this one.
Outside of the town, I do not know what is passing in Faerie. I know that Horace went out there, to speak with Ardan. I know that he got into an argument with Gwrgi, but I do not know what that was about – perhaps it was to do with the music, or perhaps something else. I only know that he went chasing after the cŵn in a rage, and after that, I heard nothing, as I needed all my forces here in the town, and as yet, I have not had the chance to investigate. I do not know when I will have that chance.
The evening started with a visitation, from Galyanna’s apprentice, Kitori, no less. She apparently came from somewhere outside the village and presented herself at the border, whereupon the guards brought her to the castle to see me.
Unlike Galyanna, this one went without a mask, at least for this meeting, but like Galyanna, she was pleasing to the eye, albeit in a somewhat pale fashion. I did not pay this much heed, as my experience of demons has been that they mostly present a pleasing appearance, at least for their human aspect. I greeted her by name and invited her to sit. She looked at me as she took the seat, commenting that while I knew her name, she had not the pleasure of mine. She also remarked that perhaps the lord was busy with Lucifer’s fun gift.
I smiled and told her my name, that I was steward to Lord Maric and in charge while he was busy. It was my job to know things, I said, and recited what little I did know of her – that she was Galyanna’s apprentice, that she had been playing the role of Asmodeus’ Talon and fooling us all. To lighten the mood a touch, I added that I had heard that she had been impertinent to the Morning Star, for which I expressed my admiration, and that she was therefore likely not welcome downstairs.
Before she could answer, I felt Maric through the link. He was clearly struggling with a lot of things, and all he could convey to me was that I should get Dyisi to do the ritual, whatever the cost. I summoned one of the guards and sent him to find Dyisi, and to tell her to go ahead as soon as possible. She would know what I meant.
Kitori agreed that I knew the superficial bits at least, and the reason she was here. She warned me that her second in command might be following her, so I should be on the lookout, for a large person that did not speak much. She wanted to know what my part in all this was.
I summoned another guard and told him to put the word out about this second in command. I was not sure what to make of Kitori’s remark about the superficial things, so I said that if I had not given her the credit due, I apologised. Obviously, I could only rely on what information I had from Galyanna, and given that she had not been able to reveal her undercover role, that, of necessity, was not flattering. I explained to her that my main concern was always the well-being of the village. I was currently removing all our supplies from the castle to prevent them being affected by Lucifer’s gift. In Maric’s absence, I was in charge, including defence, though there I had to rely heavily on the experience of the guards. For the moment, I said, Maric was trying to counter, or at least contain, Lucifer’s gift, and that I had sent for Dyisi so that she could carry out the ritual intended to dispel the gift. In the meanwhile, I had been researching spells of my own that might help. I asked if she had anything that could help.
She accepted my comment in good grace, as the compliment that was meant, saying that if I knew more, then things might not be so pleasant. I assured her that this was not so – she was what she was and I would not hold her nature against her, any more than I would hold it against Galyanna. She and I had fought too many times alongside each other and I trusted her with my life. She told me that her power was that of destruction, but she would do what she could. Her inclination would be to destroy the mirror, and then deal with the leftovers. This, at least, I could agree with.
We were interrupted again by the guards. They told me that they had found Dyisi, who was already hurrying back to the castle and to the vaults to carry out the ritual. Vedis was already in the vaults, they told me and Hadley had been seen trying to get to talk to Vedis. They also told me that Horace had been at Ardan, and was now engaging with Gwrgi, possibly violently. I immediately sent him to sound a stage two alert in the village, to get the guards on the borders and to get everybody indoors. As a secondary precaution, I ordered the evacuation of the castle, sending the staff across to the tavern in the case of any side-effects of Dyisi’s ritual on the castle itself.
I told Kitori that I did not know her, but that I would have to take Galyanna’s word and trust her. We would go to the vaults, I said, and if there was anything she could do, or could help Vedis do, so much the better.
I led the way outside, round through the orchards to the vaults entrance and opened it. Inside, I found Vedis sitting on the floor and told her that I had brought a Talon to see if she could help. It was then that I realised that Hadley was there in the room. Vedis, or at least, the most recent version of Vedis, the fleshy vessel that Maric created for her memories, was explaining to her that Connor, whoever that was, wanted Vedis dead. I tried to persuade Hadley to leave, as I did not regard this as a safe place to be at the moment. The memory of Vedis was telling Hadley that Vedis had loved her and that so did she. Hadley tried to tell me that she had only wanted to talk to Vedis and hadn’t touched her or anything. She was trying to tell Vedis that she loved her too when everything went crazy.
Pain ripped through the castle, and I fell to the ground screaming. I felt the pain of Dyisi, slashing at her own innards, spilling her guts, her blood, her life onto the castle stones. I felt the power of her sacrifice streaming through the stones, driving the corruption, the taint away, hitting my senses like a thousand tooth extractions. I felt the pain as the power of the ritual ripped at the memory of Vedis, crushing her bones, her flesh, her blood, dragging her through the stones of the castle floor towards the circle, the vortex that had been created by the ritual, realising only too late what the ritual would do to Vedis and that part of her that was corrupted. I knew that Maric too felt the same pains, even more so than I, for the castle was so much more part of him. I felt him adding his powers to that of the ritual power, tearing the corruption, the taint away, from the castle, almost as though he were tearing away his own flesh. The screams, of Vedis, of Dyisi, of Maric, tore through my ears, through my mind, along with the sound of Hadley screaming NO! And then, it was gone. All sense of Dyisi was snuffed out, that of Vedis dwindled into the far distance, yet at the same time close at hand until there was but a faint echo, and the sense of Maric falling, both bodily and mentally into the black void of unconsciousness. All else was silence, save for my own laboured breathing and the sobbing of Hadley.
I struggled to my knees, my dulled and beleaguered senses reaching out gingerly, and realising the corruption was gone, save for the shadows it cast, like the ache of a bruise. I gathered Hadley to me, holding her, trying to stem her sobs, saying over and over again, I was sorry. She was crying and asking if they had killed her and where she had gone. I had no answer for her and told her that I did not know. I wished I did know, but I did not. I could only tell her that I had known Vedis for a long time, and that it took a lot to kill her permanently. She had always come back before, I said, so I hoped that she would again. I could not tell her for certain, but I hoped that she would. She tried to pull away, still sobbing and saying she wanted to go home. All I could do was to take her back outside and give her into the care of the guards outside. I asked her to go back to the tavern, or to Dorina’s cottage, wherever she felt safe, and preferably where Wren was, and instructed the guard to stay with her until she was with Wren or Dorina. She went then, still crying, but she went just the same.
I wanted so much to curl up myself and block out the echoes of the pain I still felt, but I could not. With Maric out of things, the village was my responsibility. I ordered the guards to stand down the alert, and get the people back to their homes, and the staff back to the castle, at least, the minimal complement needed to keep things running. It was then, with a heavy heart, that I took myself down to the deeper levels of the vaults, to the laboratory, to where the ritual had happened.
It was dark, and without even thinking, I lit some candles, purely by the blood magic Maric had taught me. The stench of blood hit me as I came down the stairs, but all there was to see was Maric’s inert form, collapsed on the floor in his most monstrous form, and the pool of blood in the centre of the floor. The mirror was a dark, brooding presence, almost malignant, in the corner of the lab. Of Dyisi, her body, her belongings, there was no sign.
There was little I could do. I carefully moved Maric’s body away from the pool of blood and improvised a pillow and blanket for him. He was deeply unconscious and I could not reach him through the link. I felt around the locality, gingerly, to confirm that the taint was gone, but did not dare probe too deeply. The pain of the change was all too fresh in my mind. I closed up the lab and returned to the vaults entrance, telling the guards to prevent anybody from going in or out without my express consent. There was still the matter of whatever it was that Horace was up to out in Faerie, and I had no means of telling that. I set the guard on high alert on the borders with instructions to alert me the moment anything happened outside the borders. I sent one of them to go round the village and make sure that everybody was accounted for, especially the kids.
I returned then to my chambers, giving everybody instructions to alert me if anything happened. I allowed myself the luxury of a large glass of rum, but only the one, in case I was needed, and slumped into my armchair. The castle, and the village, was safe for now, but the cost was high. Dyisi was gone from the strand, having cast away her life for us. If she ever returns, I do not know how we could repay her. Vedis is gone, to where I do not know, and I have a traumatised child who should not have seen what she saw. These and many things I would have to deal with. It was going to be a long night.