Cold Moonlight Fire
Bryn stared at the body of the magician and scholar for long minutes, the significance of her discovery slowly sinking into her mind. The first death, for all the trappings of fear and horror it was surrounded with, could have been simple murder. This, obviously, was not. The burning hands that had seared their mark into Wyreth's throat were not those of any normal person, nor had they been produced by technique.
There were only two explanations. The marks might have been the product of some warrior's skill, a specially trained process many experienced fighters developed to draw upon the same power that fueled techniques in magic-like attacks. It was not outside the realm of possibility that someone might develop such a skill to surround their hands with an aura of flame to enhance combat prowess.
The other explanation was that the killer was not a human of any of Algo's races at all, but a monster of some type, a supernatural creature. That the Esper had been struck down without any signs of a struggle lent weight to this theory. Wyreth had powerful magic and techniques to defend himself with, and besides which Bryn knew that all Espers received basic training in physical combat and could give a good account of themselves though it was not their forte.
Instead, Wyreth's assailant had been able to murder the Esper without leaving any visible signs that a battle had taken place. The few traces that had been left likely had come from the attempt to hide the body. The windows were too narrow to force a corpse through, so the cabinet had made as good a place of concealment as the laboratory offered.
"So why hide the body at all?" Bryn murmured aloud. "Rostoke's wasn't hidden. There had to be a reason." Perhaps it had been an attempt to frame Wyreth, to make it seem as if he was the murderer, who had turned to lurking and hiding while he stalked his next victim.
If that was the reason then it cut against the supernatural theory, as a monster wouldn't have a need to frame anyone. A creature wasn't one of the suspects. Too, there were Rostoke's suspicions to consider. He'd clearly believed that one of his household had been plotting against him. The fact that he had been murdered suggested that he was correct, but then again, it is often the danger one does not expect which is the worst threat.
Bryn glanced again at the idol of Dark Force and shivered. She was thinking in circles, logic getting her nowhere. She needed to tell someone about Wyreth, and then she would have to confront another fear and do what Rostoke's journal suggested. She would have to consult the Menobe Writings.
* * * * *
"This is intolerable!" Trent Hawthorne roared, crashing his fist against the mantel. "Two murders, and not a single clue."
Bryn appreciated how the warrior felt. She had not revealed that he had found Rostoke's journal, for fear that it would make her the next victim, and to avoid warning the killer that he or she--or it should destroy the Menobe Writings. It left the others in the dark, unfortunately.
The adventuress glanced at Draycott; his handsome face looked sullen and downcast. Bryn wondered if it was simply a reaction to the new killing, or if he had yet realized that with Wyreth's death, the only witness who could testify to his innocence was gone.
"Does it look to you like the storm is letting up?" she asked of no one in particular.
"Should be gone by morning," Saul agreed.
Laura let out a sigh of relief.
"Good. Then we'll be able to bring in an investigator from Tyler."
"We might need an Esper," Bryn commented, "or a Dezolian priest. Those burnt handmarks..."
Mrs. Saul shuddered. The gesture might have seemed theatrical under other circumstances, but given the present conditions, no one took it that way.
"It wasn't natural," she said. "It was almost as if the idol came to life and strangled that poor boy."
Draycott snapped his fingers, the sound echoing throughout the library. His sister flinched at the sharp, unexpected noise.
"You may be right at that, Mrs. Saul."
"A statue coming to life, and growing so that it would be the right size?" he said scornfully.
"Well, yes," Draycott admitted," that does sound somewhat unlikely, but what I meant was the shape of the marks."
Bryn nodded, understanding what he was driving at.
"The hands were claws, not truly Parmanian in shape." Or Dezolian, if it came to that. "Whatever killed Wyreth, it wasn't something...normal."
She should have noticed that herself, she realized. Bryn had thought she was investigating calmly, keeping a cool head, but evidently she had been more shaken by the murder than she had realized. Aware of it now, she had to drop her theory of a warrior's skill.
"Then there is some kind of monster," Laura whispered.
Hawthorne rubbed his chin, scowling.
"You're right. We can't get around it anymore. That makes it all the more important to find those research notes. Maybe Rostoke had some idea what it was."
"Wyreth might have, too," Bryn noted. "That could be why he was killed."
The fighter nodded.
"Give me something I can take on face-to-face, not a monster that hides in the shadows. I know how to handle a fight, but this..." He shook his head. "And none of us saw any trace of it while we were searching the house?"
"None of us," said Josiah Saul, "except for Wyreth."
That silenced everyone for a time.
Hawthorne had a point, thought Bryn. Judging from the research journal, the monster's powers were primarily mental. This evening's events, though, had proven that it had a physical reality, but one which had somehow gone undetected despite the efforts of seven people to find it. How did you fight something like that, which you couldn't see, but which killed seemingly at will?
How did you fight something that could kill an Esper, a magician skilled in the ways of the supernatural, without even leaving signs of a struggle? Bryn hoped the Menobe Writings held the key.
"We've got to find those notes," Draycott echoed the fighter's earlier sentiments. "Now, we need to look twice as hard. There may be secret drawers, hidden panels, or maybe it's just out in plain sight."
Josiah Saul nodded slowly. He might have been a servant, used to minding his own business, but when his life and that of his wife here at stake, he overcame his taciturn nature and spoke up.
"I'm not going through here alone," he said flatly, "and I don't want Marybeth to, either. It's too dangerous."
His wife clung to his arm, nodding agreement.
"Josiah is right," Laura said. "I don't want to be alone any more."
Bryn could not suppress a mental wince. The last thing she wanted was to have someone with her. She needed to check the Writings, and explaining why she wanted to would mean confessing that she had found Rostoke's journal. Given the hints in that journal that one of the family was plotting something against the dead explorer...
The adventuress had to admit it to herself. She was scared to be alone with anyone. At the same time, she didn't want to go off alone while everyone else was going together. That would focus suspicion directly on her, not something Bryn wanted to risk.
Unknowingly, Hawthorne came to her rescue.
"Look, we can't go around in one crowd. It'll take forever to get through the manor that way. And...well, let's get it out in the open: I'm used to taking care of myself, not covering for a noncombatant, not when I'm fighting some monster I can't even understand."
Bryn wondered if he, too, was distrustful of the others, if some fighter's sixth sense was warning him. No, more likely it was simple deduction and the fact that Rostoke hadn't been killed by monstrous claws. That meant a blade wielded by a Parmanian hand, and a murderer who liked to strike from behind.
Were there two killers, a monster and a person? Or the monster and a living pawn?
Stop guessing, Bryn, she told herself. Check the book and learn the truth.
"In that case," Bryn suggested, "here's an idea. Saul and his wife can search together, while Draycott can go with Laura. You and I are the best able to take care of ourselves, so we can go alone. That way, we'll have four groups of searchers and those who aren't used to fighting can stay together."
"It's a good idea," he agreed. He looked at the others. "Is it all right with you?"
"I'd feel much safer with Cole," Laura agreed.
"Yeah," Josiah grunted, "it's okay."
"In that case," the mercenary said grimly, "let's get started. I'll bet that thing, whatever it is, is stuck here just like we are, but when the snow clears, who knows? If we can stop it, I don't want to risk letting it loose on the world."
* * * * *
It took Bryn only a couple of minutes to return to Rostoke's study and get the Menobe Writings from the bookcase. Without any better idea, she flipped open the book to the page marked by the ribbon. Luckily, Rostoke had left the bookmark in the place where he had been reading, or Bryn might never have been able to locate the truth in the ancient work.
There was no difficulty, though. It was laid out for her on the printed page, in the ornate typeface the private printer had used to emphasize the forbidden nature of the book, exactly as Duncan Rostoke had found it the night before:
In order to work the will of our master, it is often necessary to deal with the common followers of the world. Unfortunately, our service sets us apart from the herd, and we cannot pass among them with ease. Sometimes, it is possible to use fear or the promise of power to manipulate them. Other times, this is not feasible.
Under such circumstances, the sorcerer may wish to turn to the malefic spirits of the dead. Through a simple spell, the unquiet ghosts that linger on the fringes of life can be incarnated in living flame. While they can be useful minions in battle, the most powerful of these spectors have a greater ability. Through their Evil Eye, they may reduce the living mind to sleep, and should that mind be weak enough, the spector may inhabit it, possessing the body utterly. From its new home of flesh, the spector can call upon the memories of the slumbering mind, as well as employing its own abilities, even traveling from one sleeping will to another by touch, and may therefore go among those not in service to our master and remain undetected.
Should the spirit prove reluctant to do your will once it has obtained a body, it may be driven forth by the use of the Powder of Gharazi. This remedy will expel the spector and destroy its power of possession for a year and a day, during which time it may be dealt with in a fitting manner for its insolence.
The entry was followed by the specific spells and rituals required to contact the dead, bring them to Algo, bind their fire-forms to service, to seal or imprison them, and in conclusion, for the creation of the Powder of Gharazi.
This explains everything, Bryn realized. It had come from the idol, been sealed inside and emerged for whatever reason--to wreak revenge on the living, to take a new body, or something else only its own undead mind could perceive.
The murders, too, were easily explained. Rostoke had read what Bryn just had, and had no doubt gone to the laboratory to prepare the alchemical powder. Perhaps Wyreth had done the same. He had been working on something, and as an Esper he would know much about the supernatural.
Now Bryn knew the truth, and if the monster learned it, she would no doubt be marked for death. The killer was likely keeping and eye on the approach to the laboratory, ready to remove any threat to it. For that matter, she realized, it might be going to kill her already. Hawthorne didn't have her knowledge of the esoteric or her skill with techniques; Bryn was the worst danger it still faced in the manor.
She did have one advantage that Rostoke and Wyreth lacked, though.
Bryn knew who the spector was.