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Cold Moonlight Fire

Part Nine


Silver and Snow

It was fortunate that the spector did not know what the reagents for the Powder of Gharazi were, or else it could have destroyed them just as it had spoiled several of Rostoke's experiments. It had not, though, and Bryn was able to collect them all from the lab table. Her senses were entirely on edge, honed to razor sharpness as she began to prepare the powder according to the formula she'd copied from the Menobe Writings. Every creak of the old house, every howl of the wind that was slightly louder than usual, every rattle of the windowpane had her all but jumping out of her skin. If there was any way to close off the spiral staircase to the laboratory she would have used it, but there was no trapdoor to bar, no way to defend herself.

It took less than a quarter of an hour to prepare the powder, and Bryn could truthfully say that she had never had a worse fifteen minutes in her life. Every second she expected death to burst in upon her, and it was a minor miracle that she never ruined the formula by spilling one reagent or another when some sound startled her. Despite the chill, perspiration matted her hair.

Through the fear, though, she managed to complete her work, and at the end she had a cupful of glittering emerald dust.

Bryn got out of the laboratory as quickly as possible, then went back to the weapons hall and retrieved the research journal from the skull. It made the perfect excuse to bring everyone back together. This was one thing that had to be done in front of the entire group. In the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that had settled over Rostoke Manor, proof was needed to clear the air.

Presuming, of course, that it didn't get them all killed.

* * * * *

"You found it!" Draycott exclaimed.

Bryn nodded.

"As it turned out, the clue you gave in the telementalist trance was entirely correct." She told the others how she had discovered the journal in the skull beneath the firedog's paw, omitting only to mention the precise timing of her discovery.

"Was...was there anything in it of use?" Laura asked hesitantly, her beautiful face tense in the firelight.

"There was."

Bryn turned to Draycott. The merchant looked even more nervous than his sister, and he had good reason for it. Not only was he caught in the same situation as the rest of them, but there was also the shadow of his involvement in the first murder to consider. No matter that Wyreth had said he was innocent; he had been found with the body and had no memory of how he had gotten there."

"While we were in the study together," Bryn said to him, "you told me that Rostoke had been moody and out of sorts for much of the past week, unnaturally suspicious, is that right?"

"Yes. It was obvious that something was bothering him, but he wouldn't tell us. He always denied that anything was wrong."

Bryn tapped the journal's cool leather cover with her fingertips.

"According to this, he had good reason to be. Someone in this house was interfering with his experiments, destroying some of his alchemical equipment, even going so far as to read these notes. That was why he hid this journal, although he continued to make entries in it."

"So it was someone from here, one of the household," Hawthorne said, his gaze sweeping across the four residents of the manor. "Do you think that person is the killer?"

"Undoubtedly," Bryn agreed, "the one who was ruining Rostoke's investigations into the idol is the same one who murdered both him and Wyreth. The only thing is, I doubt that the killer is a person, not one of us."

She turned to Mrs. Saul.

"You were right to fear the idol," she told the housekeeper. "It was the resting place for a malevolent spirit, a spirit that emerged when Rostoke began his experiments. That spirit has been biding its time, making its plans while striving to keep from being discovered, until tonight."

Josiah Saul drew his wife tightly against him, as if to keep her safe.

"Why tonight?" he asked gruffly.

"I think," Bryn answered, "that it was our arrival that triggered the next step. With Wyreth, Hawthorne, and I being here at Rostoke Manor, the spirit's goals changed. It murdered Rostoke, who was the only one who had an inkling of its presence and true nature. Then it killed the Esper, whose magic was the greatest threat to it."

Hawthorne's big hand dropped almost reflexively to his axe.

"This is all very interesting," he said, "but we'd guessed most of it ourselves. What I want to know is, does the journal tell what this spirit is or how to stop it?"

Bryn set the book down on an end table and slipped her hands into her vest pockets.

"I'm afraid not."

"So in truth," Cole sighed, "all we really have is Duncan's speculation about what was occurring."

"More than just guesswork," Hawthorne said, "if I know Rostoke." His eyes flicked to Bryn, searching for confirmation.

"Yes," she agreed, "it was more than that. I think you should all take a look for yourselves, just so we're all on the same footing."

"So where is this spirit now?" Saul asked.

"The odds are," Bryn said, "that it is here in this room, watching and listening. So far it has proven very cunning in isolating its victims, striking and escaping without trace."

"Damn it!" cursed Hawthorne loudly, smacking his fist against the chair's carved wooden arm. "If we can't even see it when it's right in front of us, then how are we supposed to fight it?"

Bryn's hands slid from her pockets.

"You're right," she said. "So long as we can't even see it, we can't fight back."

She took two steps forward, spun, and opened her hand. Before anyone could react, a puff of breath sent a cloud of the Powder of Gharazi blowing into Trent Hawthorne's face. The mercenary sneezed, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed into his chair.

Bryn jumped back and drew her silver knife. While gasps and exclamations of surprise came from the others, she waited, praying that she had done everything right and that the powder would have its hoped-for effect.

It did.

An unearthly moaning, somehow deep and high-pitched at once, filled the room. The wind howled in counterpoint as Hawthorne was wreathed in an aura of blue flame, an aura that slowly tore itself away from him until it rose alone in the center of the room.

Looking at the spector, it was obvious to Bryn why Duncan had seen the blue flame through the Aero-Lens. Its body appeared to be roughly Parmanian in shape, with a head, shoulders, arms, and clawlike hands distinguishable from the tapering column of fire. The incarnated spirit cast no heat; instead it seemed to radiate an aura of cold, as if it was absorbing the warmth from all around it to feed its own fires.

Before it could act, Bryn focused her will, leveled her left hand at the creature, and commanded, "Gifoi!" Three explosions of flame detonated against the monster's body. Bryn's technique was a powerful one which had served her well in many fights against the creatures of Dezolis, but it had no noticeable effect at all.

"StuPiD LittLe huMaN," it keened. "yOU wiLl paY FoR tHis."

Stupid is right, Bryn realized. She'd used a fire technique against a creature with a body made of fire, a body, moreover, that seemed to absorb heat. She should know better, but instead of thinking she had just panicked and let fly with her most powerful attack.

The creature's eyes glowed evilly, and a concussive flash of energy burst against Bryn's chest, knocking her back against a table and taking herself, the table, and a fancy cut-glass lamp crashing to the floor. It rose up over her, hands outstretched to take her life, ignoring the rest of the room's occupants.

That proved to be its mistake, because Josiah Saul raised a bow gun--Bryn's own weapon, she realized--and fired a bolt that took the creature in the back. The bolt plunged through the spector and out its chest, impaling itself in the paneled wall, but despite inflicting no noticeable damage it made the spirit howl.

The spector turned, raising its arms as if to counterattack, and Bryn forced herself to sit up and slash at the thing's lower body with her knife. The silver blade ripped through the flame, and as it did Bryn could feel a resistance, as if she was cutting through liquid instead of fire. Another squeal of pain from the undead monster convinced her that it possessed some measure of physical reality, some kind of cohesive force that could be affected by weapons. How much damage this force could absorb and if it had any vital areas, though, were still unknown.

Dodging a second bolt, the spector spun and headed for the window. Another forceflash smashed open the glass, and it turned back to the room. Draycott was coming at it with a belt knife; its eyes glowed again and he collapsed into unconsciousness like a puppet with its strings cut. Before Bryn could close or Saul reload, it raised its arms again and moaned bitterly. A wave of energy seemed to flow out from it, a rush of air that stank of death and decay. Weakness flowed over Bryn, sapping her strength. She dropped to her knees, noting with astonishment how a wooden table in the wave's path seemed to crack and sag, and the blade of her knife took on a noticeable tarnish, as if weeks or months of age and entropy were corroding their bodies and the inanimate objects alike in a single instant.

"TriFle wiTh DarKnesS aT YouR pEril, FoOls!" the monster cackled, then flung itself through the window and into the storm outside.

Bryn had no idea what might happen if the spector got away. Its magic was far stronger than anything she or the others possessed; it might come back to get its revenge for denying it Hawthorne's body, or it might simply slink off to some other place where it could spread more evil, preying on those who were unaware of it. It was an effort to get back to her feet, but she made herself run lurchingly to the window. Supporting herself on the windowframe, she saw the blue flame flowing along the house. There was no time to get the bow gun, and the only attacking techniques she knew were the useless fire series, no wind or cold to snuff it out.

The idea was on her in an instant and Bryn acted without stopping to think, gut instinct telling her that there was no time to think. She focused her will past the pain, and used the Foi technique, but not against the spector. Instead, her target was the roof above it.

The explosion of heat and force acted just as the adventuress had hoped. It jarred loose the inches of snow that had built up on the steep gable. A massive section, at least ten feet wide and six high, came cascading off the roof, crashing into the fleeing spector beneath, bearing the monster down into the snow and covering it. Then, all was still. She watched the spot for a long time, conscious of Laura coming up to stand beside her, the widow equally shaky from the spector's magic, but there was no sign of movement, no flicker of azure fire. The cold and impact had quenched the spirit.

This time, Bryn hoped it stayed dead.

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