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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part Seven

Death Calls Again

Bryn slowly closed the journal, her mind reeling with new information and yet still puzzled by some aspects of the matter. There was no entry for July 21st, that day, because Rostoke apparently made his notes at the end of the day and he had been murdered before he'd had the chance.

Apparently the idol of Dark Force had released some kind of evil influence that had corrupted the spirit of some member of the household, at least according to Rostoke. Bryn wasn't entirely sure she believed it, but it did fit the known facts, and she knew well that many strange twists of magic were found in the Algo system. If an Esper's telementalism could touch another person's mind, then why couldn't some other form of magic?

She needed to show the journal to Wyreth and get his expert opinion. The Esper was given an alibi twice over by Rostoke's notes, once because he was an outsider and the second time because his name was mentioned so any thoughts that he might not be who he claimed were laid to rest. With his training in magic, Wyreth would be able to decipher the hints left in the journal without having to repeat Rostoke's research the way Bryn would.

The Esper had been going to the laboratory to search for magical traces, which Bryn supposed were something similar to what Rostoke had described in the journal. Apparently one of the benefits of being a full-fledged Esper was having magical senses sufficiently developed to detect these intangible essences without the aid of an Aero-Lens or similar device. Having a good sense of direction, Bryn was able to make her way back through the manor's twisting halls towards the spiral staircase leading up to the converted attic. Every step along the way made her shiver, as shadows danced on the walls when sudden drafts made candles flicker or the wind howled eerily and made the glass rattle. She was conscious of the power of evil in the house, the influence of this demonic Dark Force, and realized that this must have been what she'd sensed all along, why the killing of Duncan Rostoke had seemed somehow worse than simple murder.

She paused at the base of the staircase, one hand resting lightly on the carved wooden railing, all too conscious of the fact that she did not want to go up and be in the presence of the idol again. Bryn was a bit ashamed of her seeming cowardice.

It was odd, really, when she thought about it. She was an experienced traveler and familiar with combat using both weapons and techniques. Bryn had seen many of the far corners of Dezolis, facing both dangerous environments and living foes, beasts and persons alike. This she had always done with a certain elan, an adventurous spirit that sought out risk. In a way she supposed that she enjoyed danger; it gave Bryn the chance to prove herself against a variety of opposition and in a myriad of fields. She thrived on excitement. Indeed, she lived on it.

Yet now, here Bryn was in the very heart of danger, isolated by the elements in a house with a murderer and perhaps worse than that, and instead of rising to the situation, she was consumed by fear.

At last, she ascended the spiral staircase, but she did it slowly, her hand on her knife-hilt. The wooden treads creaked faintly under her weight, making the hair on the back of her neck prickle. Finally, she reached the laboratory.

Wyreth, it seemed, wasn't there; nor was anyone else. The room was deserted, though two lamps still burned, casting good light in the main areas of the room but leaving the corners of the attic in shadow. The body of Duncan Rostoke was gone, but splashes of dried blood remained to mark where he had died. Patches of it gleamed, as if they were still tacky. The idol of Dark Force cast its baleful gaze across the room from the main table. Bryn was about to head downstairs to continue her search for the Esper when her eye caught something that made her stop.

The idol had moved.

Unpleasant as the exercise was, Bryn tried as best she could to picture the death room as it had been. She was certain of it; the idol had made too strong of an impression on her mind to be forgotten. It had been sitting directly in the center of the worktable, above the corpse. Now it was in the left-hand corner of that same table, three feet away from where it had been.

An examination of the table revealed that it was not only the statue that had been disturbed. Someone had been at the chemical and alchemical supplies. Bryn's memory on these was not so plain, but she was sure that things had been orderly, ready for use. Now vials were set out, jars unstoppered or uncorked, and a beaker left out, the dregs of some purplish liquid in the bottom.

Only one conclusion fit the evidence. Someone had been engaged in some kind of alchemical experiment.

The obvious questions in Bryn's mind were, who had been using these supplies, and why? Wyreth was her first thought. Since he was an Esper and presumably familiar with the scientific approach to magic he would be likely to have the knowledge, where Hawthorne or, say, Mrs. Saul would not. He would also have come here initially, Bryn added mentally as she contemplated where a jar marked as dried, ground Laerma root had spilled nearly all of its contents, a fine greenish powder, onto the table and floor. She couldn't see Wyreth leaving things in such a state, though. He'd struck her as the orderly type, who would put away the reagents when he was finished with them unless he was engaged in some project of the utmost urgency where results had to be used at once.

That couldn't be so, though. If it had been, Bryn would have heard the ensuing hue and cry. Whatever the researcher had been doing, it had not resulted in a public commotion throughout the manor.

A second person could have come in after Wyreth had left, just as Bryn herself had done. They might have used the apparatus and reagents and, if inclined towards sloppiness, have left the worktable in its current state. Yet again, there had been no outcry. If this was the result of someone's research into the circumstances of the murder, then they were pursuing a private agenda, which did not always add up to a more generalized good. It might even have been the murderer, engaged in private business of his or her own, business that would keep the crime from being solved, perhaps.

The thought was an unpleasant one for Bryn; the occurrences at Rostoke Manor were already becoming too seasoned with the supernatural for her comfort, from Draycott's loss of memory to the telementalist trance to the fears and speculations disclosed by Rostoke's journal. She was not, she admitted to herself, willing to emphasize that particular aspect of things. Yet here was evidence of some alchemical experimentation having been conducted, hard evidence she could not ignore.

The truth was, the adventuress forced herself to admit, that she was not comfortable with magic in the way Wyreth was. Though Bryn was a technique user of some ability, she was at best a dabbler in magical knowledge. Even Duncan Rostoke, who could have been called a dilettante with some justification, was more learned than she was, and now he was dead.

Her gaze once again turned to the idol of Dark Force. For a moment it seemed as if the thing leered at her, its fanged maw open and vicious, the talons of indigo stone ready to rend and claw. Then the moment passed, and Bryn realized that it had been a trick of her imagination, driven by the sculptor's skill, the inherent evil of his subject matter, and her own knowledge. Nonetheless, she looked away.

This time her eyes fell upon a skin rug laid for warmth's sake on the attic floor. It had been bunched up near the foot of a large wooden cabinet, this one with two solid doors rather than glass ones, secured by a small hook. A pot of dried flowers sat near the base, and Bryn saw a scattering of petals on the floor. It was as if the pot had been knocked over or jostled, the fragile flowers dropping bits and pieces, and then the container righted again.

The combined implications were disquieting, leading the adventuress in a direction she would prefer not to go. Ignoring the creeping fear that had begun to settle in her belly like a hard, cold knot, Bryn walked over to the cabinet. From its size and construction, it could easily have been meant as a wardrobe. Perhaps it still was, containing aprons, smocks, gloves, and other protective gear.

She laid one hand on the handles and with the other drew back the hook. The weight took her by surprise; a steady pressure was being applied to the door as if someone or something inside was trying to force its way out. Bryn leapt backwards, drawing her silver knife to face the potential threat. The doors swung open, and the torn and blackened corpse of the Esper, Wyreth, tumbled out of the cabinet. It struck the fur rug with a soft, muffled thud that sounded almost wet.

Bryn was only able to stifle her cry of shock because she had been expecting something like this, and that knowledge gave her the will to examine the body after only a moment's hesitation. The eyes were wide and staring and Wyreth's face seemed frozen into a rictus of terror. These facts were only the window-dressing, however. The Esper's throat bore the evidence of the cause of his death, the plain outline of two hands that had choked the life out of him with such force that the clawlike nails had pierced the skin and drawn blood.

What did drive Bryn from the room in fear, though, was the way that outline had been made. It had not been the result of bruising, as one might have expected. Instead, the skin that bore the hand-pattern had been blistered and charred, as if the murderer had strangled Wyreth with hands of burning fire.

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