Parallax of Curses
There is power in words. They are the medium by which we visit the past. Vaush’s words here conjure only a piece of the horror that was visited upon him and those few that he named as friends. Considering the accuracy with which he has thus far reported within the folios, I can only believe what he has said.
~G.M. Frasier, Professor Emeritus, Queen’s University of Cadris
It is most disturbing when you discover in the very bloom of your youth that nightmares find the roots of their existence in the shadows of our own perceived reality. It is not enough to realize that shadows conceal as well as threaten. In those dark days of our youth we discovered just this. The crux of all great revelations; their significance so often exceeds the frame of our comprehension. We understand only after; always after. Not simply when it is too late, but precisely because it is to late.
I have no doubt that even then, Sarah was the most intelligent and perhaps the wisest of us all. This was the burden that she bore. Her wisdom was neither a curse nor a blessing; but rather an aspect that made her who she was. I found in her a grace that had been discovered in no others. She did not judge, even though she was the first to suspect my particular flavor of insanity. The others I doubt could put a name to it.
The burden that I name as Sarah’s, she carries even today. It has been some years since we have spoken. Like the Lord Rush I am not welcome in Covenhale. I find comfort though; knowing that in those haunted hills Sarah has found a kind of peace that Miranda never could. I wish they had met before the end. I think that Miranda would have found solace in Sarah and her stalwart protector. Corvis and his Dire Hunt now roam those hills in search of I know not what. Any who search out that place unbidden deserves their gruesome fate at the edge of Zephyr’s now black blade. He calls them dogs, but from which of Hell’s kennels they whelped I care not.
We were all special though; in our own ways. At this time I knew of Sarah. She was brilliant and beautiful. In Sarah’s own way; she eclipsed even Veronica. Where Sarah’s grace came from within, Veronica’s was practiced and always with a purposed motive. That stole from her and I don’t think she ever realized it. That or it mattered little to her. In later years, as I learned the truth I think my opinions of Veronica were harsh; not unwarranted, but perhaps unjustified; that or I am getting soft headed in my elder years. Who can tell?
Simon I knew even then could lead muck-rats against the Temple Gates and they would follow. They would follow and they would die for him; falling like reaping wheat. Fools they were, each one. Men would follow him even after or maybe because they discovered the truth of him. He was and still is honest to a fault. In those last days it was as much Simon Locke and his Frochbane, as it was Aiden Harnstall who led us from the brink. At such a cost though.
There are so many stories to tell. Stratum and his curse, Amber and Brand and the doom that awaited them at Keld, Perseus and the hounds; these and others are all worthy tales. Though I have held many professions; I have never been a bard or a minstrel. So those other tales will have to be sought out from other sources.
After being locked in Robert’s panic room for what seemed like days, but was actually mere hours; Sarah and I did our best to return to what could be labeled as normal within the Rush Estates. The lord of the manor had gone to Hell to play at mischief for the expense of his betters. I wonder if the agent summons the door or if the aperture opens the portal.
Brand had gone missing. In a flash , near the dock something pulled him out and Brand was gone. Brannigan was at a loss. Befuddled, the wizard was soft in the head for too long. Stratum and Simon returned to the castle with the news.
Even as they returned, the boy had appeared at the gates of Hartwich castle to the detriment of two soldiers. They had approached the boy and been slaughtered for their efforts. Simon had warned them; Brand had gone bad. Something rotten had taken up residence. Within, Brand had been pushed aside and something else had poured in, filling the space in between the soul and the skin. The boy dwelled in nothing; tightly chained to the firmament but separated from his own existence. How else can you describe a personal Hell?
At the thought, my blood had quickened. The previous evening’s killings had given me a taste and I wanted more. Brand was as good a sample of meat as I could consider. Those that I had killed before were tough, but dim witted. They were easily slain if caution was practiced. I knew that Sara could find people. She played that bauble about her neck and we had traveled without moving. She found things. Sarah had traveled the aether and found Quail whom we now name Corvis. I asked. Could she perform the same feat with Brand? Could she reach out, piercing the veils and locate the boy who had gone wrong? We would need to make for the castle. It was a scent she needed. Sarah had met Brand but once and now she was to find him. It would be like searching The Empire for Logan’s lost petal.
With Robert’s blessing, such as it was, we took one of Lord Rush’s more tawdry carriages. Sarah fidgeted with her flute. This time we were no seeking friends or lost loved ones. I had asked her to the hunt. When we arrived we found the front of the castle to be in disarray. The portcullis and bailey were mangled. Debris remained; piled in testament to the battle we had witnessed within the aether and was finished in no small part due to Sarah’s lyrical intervention. The story had been passed about that the earth had shook causing the castle front to collapse. It was just that; a story. Hoof prints were beat into the stone. A quaking earth needs no horses to plow a wall under. This was the work of something else entirely. Our world was growing darker by the day. A single knight on a nightmare steed had rendered through a castle’s defenses. I was not sure if the story was for those that asked or for those that resided in the castle.
It was then that we learned of the full extent of the damage. The casualties and the wounded; among which was Ruby. I found my heart unusually still.
I cared for Ruby, as much as anyone else, but I could not muster the emotion required for the moment. No tears fell and I remained impatient to be on with the hunt for Brand. It was only through my pantomime of expression that I passed among the others as something other than the monster that I am. A person incapable of such things is to be feared. Like the feral hound, it is never clear when they will turn.
In the Round Bailey, we tracked Brand’s path. Over the wall he went, some fifty feet straight up. There were marks in the gray stone that were suspicious; made by fingers perhaps? The strength required? These walls were ancient from the Second Age. Legend said that they were deep, like Castle Locke, to the bones of the earth.
Ruby’s condition had not improved. She rested, sleeping in the tattered ruin of her own body. When the possessed knight and his nightmare steed had exploded the woman had been peppered with the shards of corrupted bone. Now they festered, spoiling the living flesh. These were scars she would bear for life. Her husband was beside himself. Never had I seen the giant so wracked by emotion. I think that if Ruby had perished that day, he would have soon followed. Again I passed among them, playing at sanity as another child might at Knights and Maidens.
The old woman, Neriah nursed Ruby back to a semblance of health. It was time for her to return to her abode. I looked to the deep walls of the castle. Brand had fled this place after sending to grown men to their graves. The boy, Brand had been underestimated. Not something I intended. If given my druthers he would be peeled like a rotten grape; very messy. I did not believe that Brand had fled from anything. In truth he hunted of his own accord I think. My daggers itched in their sleeves, eager to perform their sanguine tricks.
We returned the old woman to her shambling abode. The day was fading with night stalking the purple sky. White clouds were fading to a tempered gray, smudging out the stars. Her housed smelled of loam and thistle; of herbs, leaves and rich smoke. As the carriage came to a stop she peered about, no unlike her bird. It would be best if we all went inside she told us. The guards that had navigated here were disinclined. They had heard the stories of the old witch of the wood. As Simon had so emphatically been told; Neriah was no witch. They were given tea and soon set about besotting themselves. It really good tea; though I mistrust the stuff myself. It stretches sense and dulls contemplation. A man can be murdered in such a state; and be thankful for it.
Sarah and Simon were escorted into the back room. The rambling hut was much more then realized at first glance. It appeared to be larger inside than out. It was a notion that was given credence when I peered through the windows. Her house was at the glade’s edge of the forest. The windows however peered into the gloomy heart of an ancient wood where shadows mewed with eldritch power. Something was out there. It watched; its own patience only barely in check. Shrouded in leafy shadow, it was smaller than a man but larger than I. Brand had come to roost and something more than simple murder was his intent.
From the room, Sarah’s music began. The delicate tones of her flute were comforting in their familiarity. Slowly we all felt the building of power intertwined in the complex harmonies. Notes wrapped around themselves, plucking at the primal strings of the forest. Energy enveloped us, casting a protective veil about the house. Rook crooned a rough note of his own, flapping dark wings. Even the bird knew that something was wrong.
Amber, with bow nocked and shaft ready, joined me at the window. Moonlight strayed across evergreen boughs and broad oak leaves. Birsh and ash stood in mute witness; the air was charged with violent purpose. Brand became visible. He was not right.
It was Brand in all manners except the outward signs that mattered. He wore the red sash and had the golden handled knife. The broad should and narrow hips, well muscled arms and legs with skin the color of old pitch, the highbrow with the odd cloth head dress all spoke to the boy’s identity. But there was nothing of Brand in the stance. He stood as if a puppeteer were unsure of the strings that attached his flesh. It wore Brand like an ill-jointed suit. The boy had become a caricature of something else. This may have been Brand’s body, but whatever inhabited it was not natural. Unlike the others, there was no fear in me. Rather it was a simple realization that I could not win this fight with blade alone. My daggers ceased their twitch and thoughts of my sanguinary work fell away. At that moment I urged Amber to let fly her arrow. Again and again I pleaded with her; told her of the mercy that it would be. The Brand-thing would only wait so long. In its face I could see its urgency. It meant to devour.
Either unwilling or unable, Amber refused to let lose her arrow. She cared for the boy. It was in the lines of anguish and the quivering muscles. Love is lust made meaningful; hope is hunger made human. Even at this moment she loved and hoped that Brand could be saved. Amber’s eyes filled with salty tears, finally she lowered her bow. Despite the mercy and even in the face of the Brand-thing’s ill meaning intent; Brand’s death was beyond her ability. For the briefest moment I considered picking up the bow. I was no master as Amber was, but the range was not so great. An arrow in the leg or chest may slow it; give us a chance for the old woman or Sarah to conjure some other defense.
It began there. The smallest twist of the gut in the changing of the music and I knew that Sarah’s flute had purposed a new strategy. It built, pulling at the back and the inside at the same time. Notes folded over themselves as the complexity began to bend to it new intent. I had heard this before; it was variations on a theme. There was nothing subtle here. The predatory sense that I only had the vaguest inkling of sounded its warning. I pulled at Amber’s elbow. The odd window with its far reaching view was not the place to be.
The Brand-thing made a lurching step as if, new to its body, it did not understand knee, ankle and foot. A scream boiled out of the boy’s mouth in a pitch that no child should utter. It drew the golden dagger. Intent made evident, Sarah let loose and the world burned.
The shielding magic erupted as the force of Sarah’s eldritch craft consumed. It was white light wrapped in purple static. It was all things made force. The depth of stone heated by the fires of passion, the typhoon’s gale awash in the waters of the world, wrapped in the force of an indomitable will. The forest shook and Brand disappeared. Trees snapped and the world howled. In anguish or relief I could not say. After the torrent, the silence seemed rage about us.
I once watched a man fling himself from the high granite cliffs of Cadris. The body was a ruin on the rocks below. Somewhere in the detritus of the forest; that is how I imagined Brand’s body. A smashed ruin eviscerated of life.
Next to me, Amber fell to the floor. She sobbed in wrenching gasps; her sorrow overtaking her. The Brand-thing was no longer a threat and I was too tired to try playing at being what these called normal. Sarah, in the next room would be exhausted. When I entered Simon had lifted her up and was walking from the room.
There was little conversation. Neriah told us that it would be safe to return to our homes. Simon and Amber to the castle, while Sarah and I returned to the Rush Estates. As we entered carriage something moved at the edge of Simon’s vision; a face in the branches as unnatural as anything we had thus far seen. I heard him mumble that Brand was not gone. Sarah confirmed this as we returned. Twice she had faced monsters of this ilk. Each time it had taken two crafting; even if this last was more powerful than she had previously managed; it was not enough. As the forest receded we knew it would come again.
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Next folio is pending translation by Edgar Brimwald
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