Wilda

For a PDF version of this short story, click here: JM Flint – Avar Narn – Wilda.

Knox pushed the door behind him closed with his foot, his arms too full of preparatory knickknacks and gewgaws to allow the use of his hands. The latch to his humble apartment clicked in obeisance. Slowly, carefully, he let his acquisitions splay gently across the wooden floor, a clickerclack accompanying their dispersal. He turned back to the door, opened it, stuck his head out, peered in both directions of the street below, retreated, threw the bolt, and turned to close the shutters on the windows.

“Damn,” he said to himself as darkness engulfed the room. He pushed the nearest set of shutters back open just long enough to retrieve an old candle from the rickety nightstand near his straw-filled bed, the vermin within it scattering quickly as darkness fled from returning light. For a moment, his eyes lingered on the bed, the one they’d shared. It seemed to him that the bugs that made their home in his rough mattress had only come once she had gone, but he knew this to be untrue. He could remember their shared complaints come morning.

The candle lit, Knox again closed the last of the shutters, the darkness of the single room now pierced by faint, flickering glow, the candle defiant in its radiance. He had just enough illumination to find the other half-spent candles and to light them, leaving their new cousins arrayed on the floor where they had come to rest.

Satisfied with the room’s glow, Knox removed his work clothes: the worn leather belt that held his coin purse (now empty), the robe that marked him as a freelance thaumaturge, the heavy boots still caked with the dust of Asterfaen’s back streets and alleyways, the wooden rings enchanted to glitter as silver and gold in a display of his worldly success. Down to his shirt and small clothes, he folded his removed belongings and placed them on the room’s single table, pushed up against the far wall away enough from the bed to discourage the fleas from infesting his daily attire.

He moved again to the shutters, double-checking that he had latched and secured each of them, squinting to peer downward through the slats at the streets below. Finding nothing particularly suspicious—at least as far as he could see—he now turned himself to the work at hand.

Kneeling, he swept the scattered items into a small pile in the center of the room. From a roughspun satchel he retrieved a small carving knife. This he carried first to the wall to the left of the apartment’s door, selecting a spot between the shuttered windows. He drew the knife lightly over the plaster on the wall, careful to make only a faint outline of a design without punching into the wattle below. He bit his lip, holding the knife by its blade for extra dexterity, as he sketched out the design: an intricate geometry of shapes and stray lines, runic symbols punctuating the empty space between. When he had traced the last angle, he stepped back from the wall, fetched a candle and returned to examine his work in detail. Satisfied, he returned the candle and brought blade to plaster once again, this time deepening the design, but still cautious with the drawing’s depth.

The sigil complete, Knox pressed his hand up against it, furrowing his brow in concentration as he softly but speedily recited an incantation, summoning the Power and drawing it into the arcane geometries of the design he had carved. A working of obfuscation and occultation, a shield for his work against the prying eyes of the Vigil. Damn them and their overzealous monopoly on the determination of permissible and impermissible workings. The thought nearly broke his concentration, but he caught himself and focused on the incantation, the formalization of his will. He spoke the final words and reached out his arcane senses to ensure that the sigil now contained the product of his work. It did.

He now repeated the process on the opposite wall. Midway through his etching, there came a knock at his door. Briefly startled, Knox collected himself with a curse, and glanced about the room. Plaster dust had collected on the floor beneath his sigils. The use of candlelight in the daytime looked suspicious at best. But there was nothing for it; he had no time to tidy up before answering the knock.

Knox unbolted the door and swung it open just wide enough to stick his face through the gap. He squinted at the profundity of the daylight, taking a moment before the face of his neighbor Beatrice came into focus. A pretty woman—or she had been before years of hard living had taken their toll—Knox remembered that she plied her own trade during the night. He had even considered visiting her himself after Wilda had gone, but his sense of loyalty prevented him.

“How do you think I’m supposed’a sleep with you scratchin’ at me walls like some monster in the night? You gonna take care a’ me if I can’t work tonight? Got some spare cuts to pay my time?”

“Well, no—” Knox began before she cut him off with the wave of her hand, sweeping her long blonde hair from her neck to her back, as if removing an obstacle to her impending assault.

“An’ another thing, why’s it so dark in there? And why aintcha workin’ today?”

Knox scrunched his face in a sudden bout of frustration and disgust. Disgust for her incessant and childish questions. Disgust for her profession. Disgust for his own attraction to her. Without even thinking about it, his left hand began to twitch behind his back, forming shifting shapes as an aid to his thaumaturgy.

He looked Beatrice straight in her doe-like eyes, green as summer ponds filled with algae and fallen moss. “You are interfering with my work, girl,” he spat, malevolence filling his speech. “I have no time for the likes of foolish whores too stupid to understand the vagaries of thaumaturgy. Who are you to question me, one who has studied at the universities, has touched secrets you shall never comprehend, has power at his beck and call the likes of which you cannot imagine?”

She stepped away from him on instinct, her back to the rail of the third-story balcony that connected the apartments. But her resolve returned quickly, joined by a fire Knox had not expected. His working had failed—he had been too subtle with it—and only his words had frightened her. Damn, he thought to himself.

“Who are you to speak to me that way? Aye, you may’ve been to a university, but you failed there, dincha? You’re a common street thaumaturge, no magus, and not even a good one at that. You wouldn’t be living next to honest whores and other common folk if you could work the Practice with any skill, wouldcha? The only secrets you know are how to drive off a good woman.”

Now, fury welled within Knox—because he knew she spoke true, at least except for her last insult. He had performed poorly during his time as a student; he’d tried several universities before he realized that he’d never be a magus, that his life as a thaumaturgic drudge performing minor workings for those who could afford him had been long before preordained. By the time he had come to the realization, though, the debt he had accrued in his attempt at greatness had forced him into the poverty of the rickety apartment building in the slums of Asterfaen—more so that his creditors could not find him than to save the money to pay them. He had attempted to find employ with the Artificer Houses, where he would have lived a grand life even as an arcane cog in the machines of Artificial production, but the Houses sneered at his modest skill.

He found some employ within the city, using thaumaturgy to enhance the parties of wealthy merchants with illusory spectacles, or to assist some black-thumbed wife of a minor noble with her gardening. But he was the one they summoned when more proficient freelance thaumaturges had already found employment; he lived off the scraps of his arcane superiors. The jobs were few and far between, and he had learned to ration his modest earnings to tide him until his next employment.

Almost he had come to terms with all of this. With a silent resignation, he had slumped defeatedly into the details of his life and his work. Until he met Wilda. A barmaid, sure, but her pleasure in the simple joys of life had simultaneously made him forget the rest and desire to rise above. She had inspired him in all things, supported him in all things, become all things to him. But she was gone now, and Beatrice’s last words stung too deep to not respond.

Throwing the door wide open, he produced the carving knife and held it to Beatrice’s face as he pushed her against the balcony’s railing, lifting her heels so that she rested on the tips of her toes and struggled to maintain balance. Knox found that he enjoyed the fear in her eyes more than he would have enjoyed an apology for her harshness.

He reached behind her and pulled her golden locks taut between their faces, lingering for a moment before sawing at the hairs with the blade to remove a tattered keepsake.

“You know what a thaumaturge can do to you with a piece of your body, yes?” he whispered to her, the lowered volume more malicious than shouting could have been.

“Y-yes,” she said, nodding slowly.

“Good. Then go back into your squalid pen and trouble me no more.”

When he stepped back from her she clutched at her hair as if sorely wounded, sobbing and shuffling away to her adjacent apartment, slamming the door shut and bolting it hurriedly. Knox smiled to himself, at least until he spied in the street below an old washerwoman, stopped in the middle of pouring out a tub of brackish water to mix with all the other refuse and offal slowly wending its way downhill. She glowered at him until his own hard stare forced her to finish her task and skitter back to whence she came.

Nosy neighbors driven off, he returned to the darkness of his apartment, letting the seized hair scatter to the wind before he did. He’d never been a competent theurgist anyway; the ritual with which he now concerned himself would have been unthinkable were it not for his desperation.

The door latched and bolted once again, his eyes slowly adjusting to the flickering firelight, he continued to etch out the sigil in the plaster on the wall he shared with Beatrice. He could hear her sobs, barely suppressed, between the strokes of his blade. Like the first, he imbued this arcane symbol with the Power before making similar designs in the door and the one wall that remained.

He paused for a minute now, trying to recall the next step. Sifting the thoughts racing through his mind proved of no avail, so he stepped delicately over the paraphernalia he’d left haphazardly strewn across the floor as he made his way to his bed. This he pushed aside, exposing the wood floor beneath. With the tip of his carving knife, he pried away the loose board and stuck his hand inside the revealed space, pulling forth a crumpled stack of parchment like some illusionist’s trick.

Held up to the candlelight, he reordered the pages until he believed he had set them right again; his nervousness about being discovered with such contraband prevented him from careful organization the last time he had retrieved and studied them. He mumbled the words softly to himself as he worked through the text, seeking his place among the myriad preparatory steps.

Only at great cost had he copied these pages from Cadessia eld Caithra’s A Practical Guide to Deep Conjury, a book forbidden by the Vigil to all but the most renowned of magisters. He had posed as a student at the University to gain access to the library, though by now his ability to pass for the age of students admitted to the study of the Practices stretched credulity. The dark of night had helped. Upon entry to the repository of arcane texts, he had followed memory to the location of those texts preserved for the most trusted of practitioners—usually vigilants investigating reports for evidence of occult malefice—but barred to general study or reference.

These texts, like those who might employ them, were kept in a dungeon built below the library proper, deprived of both light and regular visitation, with only each other to keep company. Only students of the Practices could enter the section of the library where the scrolls and codices of arcana were kept. The stone archway dividing the library’s mundane and arcane sections had been, since well before Knox’s time there, affectionately referred to as the Gargoyle’s Gate, flanked as it was by two examples of the alchemical prowess of the Old Aenyr (which had long since been quieted of course, though students often complained that the eyes of those stone beasts tracked them as they passed). Gargoyle’s Gate always had at least one student being groomed for the Vigil at guard. This, however, had proved a minor obstacle, as the young men and women posted there typically had not yet overcome their anxiety over confronting those who might enter the restricted area. There were always gawkers, mundane students and the like, attempting to enter that much-whispered-about section of the library through bluster, diversion or sheer bravado.

The texts available in the general repository of the arcane, while useful to those with the Gift, were quite useless to those without the long training and innate capabilities necessary to make sense of—much less employ—the information within. Access to this area, which Knox had visited so many times as a student himself, had been no true hindrance.

But that sunken dungeon where the idolatrous, heretical and blasphemous texts lay under lock and key, magical ward, and active guard by full members of the Vigil, that constituted a barrier to Knox’s goal. To access this sanctum had taken all of his cunning. And not cunning alone; he had called in every favor owed to him, spent every coin he could save, stretched his own Gift to the breaking point (and likely beyond) in the acquisition of the pages he held now, carefully cut from the tome that had held them in the few moments he had managed within the treasure house of knowledge.

He had bribed several students to distract the vigilants while he made his foray into the forbidden section, had solicited the help of outlaw practitioners to assault the vault’s wards and protections (he shuddered to think at the favors they would require of him in recompense for such assistance), had learned from thieves and burglars the art and craft of picking a lock.

The cost paid, he held within his hands those yellowed pages that he had cut from eld Caithra’s tome. Ordered, or at least he hoped he had organized them properly, he paced absentmindedly back to the center of the room, his toe stubbing against the heavy sack of his ritual materials.

This he picked up a stick of blue chalk, the result of an ultramarine pigment that would have been far too expensive for him had he purchased it from reputable sources, from next to the sack. His poverty allowed him no such luxury as to question the provenance of such goods.

Glancing back and forth to the stolen pages of eld Caithra’s manual, Knox turned his attention to drawing on the apartment’s floor, a large circle of Power, far more complex and intricate than the minor sigils he had affixed to the walls and empowered through his Will. Complex geometries met with runes the likes of which Knox had never seen—not even during his time at the universities. He quickly abandoned any attempt to make sense of the design with the poor amount of thaumaturgical theory he had retained; he simply hoped that his trust in eld Caithra had not been misplaced.

His circle complete and unbroken, he stood up to compare it against the diagram on eld Caithra’s stolen pages. If any discrepancy existed, he did not see it. A pang of doubt twisted in his stomach, eating away at him slowly, subtly. This drove him back to the bag of essentials, where he fished out a small earthenware bottle. In a well-practiced motion, he removed the cork and brought the lip of the bottle to his own parched lips, drawing a long swig of hard brandy. He returned the cork to the bottle and set it on the table; by the time this was done Knox could feel the liquor dulling the edges of his consciousness ever so delightfully.

Next came the fresh candles. One by one, Knox lit each with a minor sorcery, found its intended location on eld Caithra’s diagrams, dripped a small amount of wax onto the floor and pushed the bottom of the candle in, forming a semi-stable base as the dripped wax cooled. Thirteen candles in all, most of them set at the odd intersections of the lines of the circle of Power, but a few in places unexpected in and around the drawn symbols.

The new candles added their own flickering light to the old, changing the forms of the dancing shadows that adorned the walls, turning them into a churning ocean of dark shapes flowing back and forth tumultuously. These caught Knox’s attention for some time; he discerned shapes within the shadows that instinct told him were wrong. He had no explanation for it, too poor an understanding of natural philosophy to dress the feeling in words, but subconscious experience told him that something had changed, that the shadows no longer behaved as they ought. Despite the brandy, fear—not doubt, this time—surged within him, particularly as he guessed at the meaning of the wayward shadows.

For this working, however, the shadows were no mere side-effect of the Power, nor an indication of a mistake made along the way. Quite the opposite; the menacing and seemingly-autonomous forms of darkness occupying the corners of the apartment proved that he had followed his instructions properly. His preparation had worn the Veil thin here.

Another swig of the brandy, this one shorter than the first. He needed to quiet his mind just enough that he would not run screaming from the room once he began the ritual proper, but needed to retain his wits enough for the precise and delicate work of mind and hands that success required. He waited after the drink for a moment, letting the effects sink in, practicing the handforms he used as aids to his thaumaturgical workings to test the dexterity left to him, shaking his head slightly to test his balance, reciting bawdy songs from the taverns he frequented to check the agility of his unsober thoughts.

From this point onward, there could be no haphazard approach; no period for desultory preparation remained to him. Considering the state of his mind, he took one more tiny sip from the bottle, recorked it, and placed it near where he would be sitting for the ritual. He expected hours in the doing of this thing and did not doubt that he would need to refresh his courage from time to time.

He peered through the slats in the shutters one more time, listened for Beatrice’s sobbing at his apartment wall. Neither movement in the street below nor sound from the adjacent hovel met his attention. From the bag he pulled the remaining instruments: a small but ornate wooden knife, its edge sanded fine and sharp, occult symbols painstakingly carved along both handle and blade; a small bronze bowl, plain and utilitarian; a thin clay jar filled with charcoal mixed with the crushed leaves of the elder tree, petals of the bitter nightshade, bits of the weeping greycap; a vial of clear river water; a wide, shallow bowl carved from a single piece of wood; a clay talisman that had been buried beneath the gallows before an execution.

Laying out the items, he sat before the circle of Power. The charcoal mix he poured into the bronze bowl, the river water into the wooden. He set the athame and the talisman directly before his folded legs. Everything readied, the ritual commenced in earnest.

Knox spoke the opening words softly and in a circle, beginning again once he had completed the incantation. At first he read the lines from the page he held before him, but soon he closed his eyes and recited from memory, hoping that his pronunciation would be acceptable to whatever spirits controlled the ritual’s success—it had been some time indeed since he had read anything in Old Aenyr, much less spoken the tongue aloud.

Seven times seven repetitions he made, just as eld Caithra instructed him. His closed eyes prevented him from seeing the frenetic swaying of the living shadows that surrounded him, but he could feel on his skin the candles’ flames flickering, leaning and dancing with greater intensity, reaching out to caress his skin. Several times he felt he had been burned, but he dared not open his eyes to check, lest he misspeak the words of Power, or forget the number of times he had said them.

The initial incantation complete, he opened his eyes to again reference the pages of Deep Conjury. He shuffled the pages several times, doing his best to ignore the unnatural movements of both light and shadow around him, before he found his place again.

The next part he had dreaded since first reading it. For a moment, he considered bullying Beatrice into joining him, using her blood to fulfill the ritual’s coming requirement. Shaking his head, he decided against it. She may have wounded him metaphorically, but he found himself unwilling to return the favor literally. Besides, he had committed many crimes simply to acquire the means to perform the ritual; he had to draw a line somewhere or risk losing himself completely.

He moved the bronze bowl into a smaller circle at the center of the ritual design he had created in chalk. Then he took the wooden knife in his right hand. With his left, he positioned the talisman in a convenient spot before him. With a deep breath, he opened his left hand and dragged the blade across his palm, leaving a crimson line that burned hot in its wake. Though Knox had prepared himself as best he could, he had doggedly remained a stranger to pain in his life, and this wound stung deep and sharp. He bit his lip to prevent a string of obscenities from spewing forth involuntarily.

He dropped the knife more than placed it on the floor, squeezing his cut palm against itself and letting the beads of blood that dripped from between his fingers fall onto the talisman. When the face of the talisman had become fully red, he tore a strip of cloth from the sack. This he wrapped tightly around his palm before taking another swig of the brandy, carefully gauging the amount—enough to dull the pain, not so much as to ruin the progress he’d made. Now, at least, he could blame the odd movements of flame and shadow on his own inebriation.

He delicately balanced the bloody talisman on top of the pile of charcoal and plant parts in the bronze bowl. Lifting the page containing the next incantation to his eyes, he began to chant again, this time slightly louder than before. Seven times seven repetitions of the words, spoken without ceasing, the pattern itself becoming a mesmerizing focus. Or perhaps that was simply the brandy catching up to him.

Knox did his best to silence his inner monologue, focusing on nothing but the recitation of the proper words. At this point, the ritual had become truly dangerous. Before, failure had simply meant failure: nothing, no discernable result. Now, though, a mistake carried the potential to call something across the Veil that should not be allowed across that threshold. For such a contingency, he knew he was unprepared. He had no margin for error.

As he chanted, he could feel hands drifting lightly across his back, fingers barely making contact with him in a way that chilled far more than any firmer touch. Without looking, he knew the source of the sensation; the shadows that had been waiting in the corners of the room reached for him, pushing through the Veil just enough to cause sensation, but not enough to truly manifest. Or so he hoped.

When he concluded this latest invocation of Power, the talisman cracked into two halves, somehow causing the bowl’s contents to ignite in a gout of blue flame accompanied by an acrid stench. The fire in the bowl, despite settling to a modest size, overpowered all other light in the room, bathing everything in its azure aura. The shadows’ touches came now with greater force behind them, as if poking and prodding at Knox to continue.

Continue he did. He moved the bowl of water in front of him, stared into it as he spoke the next words: “Alilvai, Wilda, tasnaqynar. Alilvai, Wilda, tasnqynar!” For some time he repeated the words to no effect. He began to wonder whether he had done something wrong, misspoken the words. This made him wonder whether, at any moment, some other spirit might pass through the thinness in the Veil he had created and destroy him. These thoughts together threatened to break all concentration. With a great effort of will, he pushed them aside. For now.

He had lost count of how many times he had repeated the phrase. Fortunately, this one stage in the ritual required persistence rather than precision. Finally, the water in the bowl began to ripple of its own accord, as if unseen droplets had fallen into the center of the pool and disturbed it. The wake of these invisible intrusions brought the water to the very lip of the bowl; for a brief instant, Knox wondered whether it would spill over.

When the water settled, a face appeared on its surface, as if it had become a mirror reflecting the visage of the one who looked into it. But it was not Knox’s face that appeared in the liquid.

Nevertheless, he recognized that face immediately; many times and in great detail had studied its lines, its movements, the freckles and creases, the ridge of the cheekbones and slightly crooked nose. Wilda stared back at him from within the bowl. But her face remained inanimate, unmoving, ignorant of his presence.

This was no mere séance, and Knox had begun with far more in mind than simply recalling her appearance to a bowl of water. This was a step along the way. A crucial step, after all the preparation he had done, but otherwise a relatively minor one. Even so, he could not stop his heart beating faster when he looked upon her face again. For a brief moment, he ignored the blue flame, the oddly moving shadow-forms, the scratching sound that incessantly scraped at the edge of his hearing. There was only Wilda, just as it had been when she had lived with him for that too-brief time.

Remembering his purpose, he took the bowl carefully in both hands and, attentive not to disturb the circle he had drawn in blue chalk, which, in the light of the flickering blue flame now seemed to emanate a light of its very own, he gently poured the water containing Wilda’s face into the fire.

A great gout of steam issued forth from the rapidly-evaporating water, though the fire remained unchanged in its form or intensity. Knox stepped back and stood watching as the steam resolved itself into a form, abstract at first but coalescing into an ever-denser structure until the shape of a human woman occupied the space that had been filled only with vapor. When the form became undeniably Wilda, Knox could not make out where the steam had gone, leaving only this person—fully colored though not entirely opaque—in the room with him. He gasped audibly.

Wilda looked around the room and then to Knox, her confusion plain on her face. “Why have you called me here?” she asked.

“Wilda, it’s me, Knox.”

She focused on him, her brow furrowing in concentration, as if she’d been farsighted and had forgotten to bring her spectacles. Recognition washed over her and her strain became a contented smile. “Knox, my dear. You should not have done this.” Her tone remained at once serious and yet tinged with playfulness. She had always been that way, able to call him out and keep him on the right path without scolding.

She brushed his cheek with the back of her hand; it felt as the slow rush of a heavy wind over his face. Intoxicating and yet ephemeral. “You’re sweet, my love,” she continued, “but you know you cannot keep me here. My time Between is nearing its end. I can feel it. Soon, I’ll be born into the Avar anew, to start a new life and continue on the Path.”

“I’ll find you.”

“Don’t be foolish, my love. Not even an archmagus of the Conclave could be sure of the past lives of any soul. And you are many things, many great things, my love. But you are not an archmagus.”

A tear ran down Knox’s face. “I can’t lose you.”

“Nothing is ever lost, my love. Not forever. We may not be together for some time, but in the end, when we have both walked out Paths to their conclusion, when we have ascended to the Promised Kingdom, we will be united. I know it.”

“I don’t know how I’ll make it that long,” Knox complained.

“But you will.”

He knew there was nothing more to say on the matter, nothing either of them could do. He changed the subject, if only in attempt to avoid collapsing further into despair. “What is it like Between?”

“How long have I been gone, my love?”

“About a year.”

“That long?”

“It took me that long to prepare for all of this,” he said.

“That’s not what I meant, dear. It feels like I’ve not been there long at all.”

“So it must be a pleasant place, then. Tell me about it.”

She opened her spectral mouth to speak, but a strange look crossed her face, as if the words simply would not come. “It is on the tip of my tongue, but I cannot describe it to you.” She paused for a moment, if feeling her way blindly through some force that barred free expression. “I can only say that I have been content there, but there is a growing sadness and fear in that place.”

Knox considered the words, let the existential angst of the revelation sink in. “Are you safe?”

She smiled. “As I said, I am leaving soon. You will see what it is like for yourself one day, as you have before and will many times again. But you will not remember everything until the end, when you are finally made whole. It is as we are taught—when in the Avar, it is hard to remember the Between; when Between, it is hard to remember the Avar.”

“Do you mean you’re leaving the Between soon or you’re leaving here soon?” he asked.

“Both, my love. I cannot stay forever. We are lucky that I could come at all. Perhaps it is a testament that we are meant to be together.”

“I—” he began, but a heavy crack against the apartment door stopped him cold. Both he and his paramour turned to look.

The door visibly buckled inward against the strain of the second strike and small cracks in the boards revealed themselves, but it did not break until the third strike. It splintered inward, shards striking Knox and scratching him, passing through Wilda’s phantom without resistance.

Immediately, two cloaked men stepped into the room, swords drawn. Night had long since fallen, but more men stood ready on the balcony, and in the wavering torchlight Knox thought he saw Beatrice, her jaw clenched in vengeful defiance.

A look of surprise briefly passed over the two men’s faces, but this quickly changed into hardened guardedness as they adopted fighting stances and divided their attention between Knox and the shadow-forms that seemed to have retreated into the darker corners of the room, still moving with an unnatural intelligence. Their swords had been engraved with runes that faintly glowed red, a response to the arcane Power that filled the space.

Under their cloaks the men wore a strange mix of gear. Breastplates over black brigandines protected their chests, with pistols tucked into the blue sashes over their waists. But the bandolier that ran over their breastplates held not charges for their firearms but small potion vials, miniature scrolls, and assorted talismans and arcane devices. Sheathed next to their sword scabbard they carried both wand and rod; the pouches on their sword belts were undoubtedly filled with other occult gewgaws. Knox knew them before they announced themselves, had half-expected their arrival despite his obfuscatory wards.

“In the name of the Vigil—” one began.

Before he could finish, Knox was already moving. Yelling, “I love you; I’m sorry,” he slid his foot back across the circle of Power, smearing chalk and breaking it. The shadows leapt from the corners of the room, unliving but animate, sufficiently manifested in the Avar to attack the vigilants physically.

Chaos broke out; the cloaked men attempted simultaneously to defend themselves with their blades—despite the small space in which to move—and to summon sorcerous power against the dark spirits that assaulted them. The vigilants outside on the balcony began incanting, preparing more powerful thaumaturgies of banishing to assist their brothers. Beatrice’s scream of terror pierced all other sounds.

In the pandemonium, Knox passed through the spirit form of his dead lover, again feeling the density of the air pass around him. He kicked the fiery bowl in the center of the circle hard, bouncing coals and container alike against the room’s back wall. Almost immediately, his bed caught fire, burning bright and blue.

He turned to look behind him and saw that Wilda had disappeared, likely as soon as the makeshift brazier moved from its ritual placement. The life-and-death struggle between the unclean spirits and the vigilants raged and, as Knox had hoped, he had created an opportunity. He moved to one of the windows in the apartment’s outer wall, threw open the shutters and began to scramble his way out of the hole. The crack of a pistol rang out and Knox could feel as much as hear the shotte zip past him and into the adjacent wall. He did not waste any time looking back.

Knox had not done much climbing since he was a child; even then he had not been as capable as the other boys, scrawny and somewhat sickly as he was in his youth. Worse, his head spun with brandy, clouding both judgment and sense of direction. But the adrenaline carried him far enough, and he scurried about halfway down the outside of the apartment building before he slipped and fell. His feet landed in the muddy de-facto gutter that ran alongside the street below, sliding out from under him and rocking him painfully onto his back.

But he hadn’t struck his head on a stone and his sliding across the mud had probably stopped him from breaking an ankle. He hurt, but not enough to stop him from picking himself up and clambering into the alleyways of the slums, into the darkness that surrounded him now like a comforting blanket.

As he walked briskly away, destination unknown, he could see the flames of his old apartment building rising into the night, excited yells and commands flying into the air like so many embers. It deserved to burn, he thought. Perhaps a whole world that would take his Wilda from him deserved to burn.

A Shameless Plug for my Fiction

It’s part of the name of the blog, so it should be easy to find, right? Recently, I’ve been working on some new short stories for my fantasy setting (Avar Narn), which will be posted to the site soon. I’m very excited about them, and I think you’ll enjoy them–particularly if you’re a fan of dark and gritty fantasy. I’ve also recently made some changes to the blog to make the existing Avar Narn fiction easier to find and read.

First, I’ve created a category on the blog that holds only Avar Narn fiction (with separate categories holding detail about the setting and notes on my experience writing fiction for Avar Narn). Second, I’ve added PDF copies of each of the short stories, so that you can download them for later and read them in (what I think, anyway) is a better format than the relatively-limited formatting of a blog post.

To make it even easier, especially if you’re coming to my blog for the first time, here are links to each of the currently-posted stories:

“Poetics of Parting”
“Collections”
“Kenning”
“The Siege of Uthcaire”
“Rites of Passage”

Rites of Passage

[The short story below has perhaps not been edited as thoroughly as it should be, but I’m anxious to get a real sample of my fiction on the site, so here it is. As is suggested by it’s location, this is a short story set in Avar Narn.]

(Read this short story in PDF by clicking: JM Flint – Avar Narn – Rites of Passage)

Emryn looked conspiratorially across the large and ancient table that dominated the center of the apprentices’ study, the candlelight shadowing her face in a way that struck Amaric as both erotic and sinister, like one of the Aenyr. “But don’t you think we could?”

“We could, maybe, but that doesn’t make it a good idea,” Amaric said, his quill scratching an idle doodle on the parchment where he had been taking notes from a mildew-scented copy of Délathë’s Thaumaturgical Theorems and Postulates.

“It’s simply a matter of doing it right. If we’re careful and we do the research, where’s the danger?” She closed the heavy tome before her as she spoke, a cloud of dust rising from between the pages.

“Remember what the archmagus says? ‘Fates worse than death.’ I like my soul in my body, thank you.”

“Amaric,” she began, looking to ensure that the door was closed before she reached across the table and grasped his hand, “you’re being over-dramatic. We could do this. We’ve been studying under Magus Albrith for two years and we’ve never seen a summoning! How are we going to learn conjury if he doesn’t teach us? I don’t think they let apprentices who don’t know their conjury into university.”

He wasn’t listening. When Emryn leaned over, Amaric found himself staring down the front of her dress now that her breasts had become suddenly more apparent. The smell of almonds wafted over him and his fingers warmed in the remembrance of her skin. At the edge of his vision, he noticed her looking down, her nose an arrow to the cleavage that had captured his imagination. As she looked back up, he followed the movement of her face until their eyes met. He blushed, first for gawking, then for blushing. A coy smile passed across Emryn’s lips as she returned herself to her chair, kindly removing the distraction.

After collecting himself, Amaric struggled to return to the conversation. Unable to recall what Emryn had just said, he started afresh. “This is going to be like our first attempts at evocation all over again,” he muttered.

“Psh. First, it was only a small fire. Second, that one was your idea. This is completely different.”

They both laughed at that. She twirled her auburn hair in her finger, a gesture that always managed to stir Amaric’s heart, though he never quite understood why.

“Well, we might learn something from a spirit that’s more useful than the nonsense in this book,” Amaric said, wiping the quill and his fingers with a vaguely damp and ink-stained cloth before returning the writing instrument to its rest. “But we’ve got to choose carefully. Something safe. Maybe one of the Ninvenai or the Qalenëdhai…”

“Or the Unëdhai,” Emryn said, her eyes twinkling with innuendo.

Despite himself, Amaric laughed softly. “Okay, we’ll see, but we’re not doing anything until we have more information about what all is involved.

“Deal.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll need to know about the theory and practice of conjury—I’ve got that covered,” she said, standing and walking into her adjoining room without a further word. Rather than questioning her, Amaric simply watched the crewel-work dolphins—her family’s symbol—on her dress swim back and forth with her hips as she walked. She returned with a small stack of books, some of them in terrible condition. “I’ve been collecting these for the past few weeks while in the library. Doesn’t seem that Magus Albrith thinks much of them, but they’re what I could find.”

“Busy girl,” Amaric said, his mouth a thin slit of tension between amusement at her resourcefulness and unease about how real the thought of performing a summoning had suddenly become. “So, do you have a formula for a specific spirit in any of that? We’ll need a true name to make sure that whatever we summon is really under our control.”

“Unfortunately, no. These are guidebooks to the Practice, but they either never had any lists of spirits or what they had has been lost to time and decay.”
“So, step two, find the true name and instructions for a particular spirit.”
“Right. After we make sure that we understand these,” she said, passing one of the books to Amaric.

“Studying, sure,” he said, making eyes at her.

“Yes, studying—for now, at least.” The corner of her mouth turned up with the hint of suggestion.

They had grown close over the past two years, whether by real attraction to one another or simply because there were no other adolescents to be found in Albrith’s manse neither knew. Learning the arcane necessarily meant their seclusion from broader society, and the manse occupied an isolated valley in the foothills of the Engmaic Amisnoth north of Asterfaen.

Emryn had always been kind to Amaric despite his low birth; she treated him as an equal. She had been plain when she arrived, and Amaric had first grown fond of her wit and unabashed playfulness. About a year ago, Emryn emerged from her rooms one morning recognizable but made beautiful; reshaped by some arcane working.

Amaric had heard rumors that all arcanists became beautiful like the Aenyr, but mostly the Temple priest had told the village children this as a warning against the corruption of thaumaturges. Later experience told Amaric both that this was not entirely true and that a working of that kind of permanency required sacrifice—symbolic or literal. What Emryn had sacrificed for her beauty he knew not and dared not ask.

Both apprentices steadily approached adulthood during their studies, and thus it was perhaps inevitable that their friendship might accrue some amount of the romantic and erotic in the midst of adolescence. Albrith either did not care or pretended not to notice the attraction between them—he revealed little in his demeanor.

The two apprentices spent weeks in furtive preparation, studying the tomes Emryn had collected in the late evenings between the work their master had assigned them and the trysts that often occupy young lovers. Finally, they felt ready to move forward and agreed one night that Amaric would make his way to the library to find the name of a suitable spirit while Emryn collected the sympathetic components necessary to the working.

*          *          *

The library lay within a broad and squat tower at the corner of Albrith’s manse, a base floor ringed with shelves full of books menacingly surrounding a few ornate desks, the shadows of light from the smokeless everlamps playing the dance macabre across the reading space while their smoky essence mingled with the smells of mold and material entropy. Three balconies of tomes, scrolls, stone tablets and other questionable pieces claiming to be writings looked down upon that central area, pronouncing the judgment of wisdom lost and the thoughts of long dead men upon those who stood below.

Throld, Magus Albrith’s librarian and scribe, perched upon a high stool before a scrivener’s desk near the first story’s wall, where he busied himself with the copying of a tome fully intent on crumbling to dust without notice, his seat creaking in protestation as his weight shifted back and forth in scratching out each line of text.

When the magus had first shown his new apprentices the library, Emryn had matter-of-factly informed her master that the printing press could make far more copies of his books in far less time, and without all the cramped hands. Albrith had turned her suddenly to face him, his cold eyes looking deep into hers; she had feared he would work a sorcery upon her in angry response. Instead, with a subtle smile and a voice stern but not unkind, Albrith had merely stated, “There are some books that ought to be difficult to share.”
As he entered, Amaric made no sound but nodded respectfully to his master’s servant, receiving a warm smile in return as Throld emerged for a brief respite before diving back into his work.

From a pouch at his belt Amaric drew a piece of folded parchment, stretching it open for review. Upon the skin he and Emryn had listed the names of known conjurers whose notes, journals or publications might contain a specific formula for the conjuration of a spirit. He searched, aimlessly at first, for texts written by someone on his list. Many of the works had no information on their spines or covers, forcing him to search book by book, pulling each delicately from its place, careful not to disturb is neighbors, blowing free the accumulated dust and slowly opening each in hope of success. Only the smell of old vellum and leather, sneezes and the brief excitement of opening old tomes that threatened to crumble in his hands rewarded him.

Amaric had often wondered why Albrith had not organized his library like those in Asterfaen; this search brought him understanding: the chaos provided a defense against something the master wished to remain occulted. No locks, no chains, only the more effective defense of drudgery protected the most important works. Unless some enchantment lay upon the library. Amaric dared not test this possibility—the magus had told them of protective ensorcelments that alerted their creator when prodded with the slightest amount of thaumaturgical Power.

After several hours of searching the shelves and cabinets, the deep, rich scent of hawthorn and wine indicated the presence of someone behind Amaric just before a hand fell upon his shoulder, firm but not aggressive. He turned to see Throld smiling at him. “On one of Albrith’s goose chases, eh? You’re not the first set of apprentices he’s condemned to such.”

“Yep,” Amaric replied, staring bashfully at his toes, his hand slightly outstretched and holding his list. “We’re to find anything by any of these people.”

Throld looked over the list, adjusting the hinged spectacles that clung to his broad nose. “Hmm. Yes, this one.” He pointed to a name on the list, one “Cadessia eld Caithra”. “I seem to remember copying something out of this one a few months ago, but—” he dropped off.

Amaric cocked his head to the side by way of response, the way a curious puppy might.

“Not a book for apprentices, I’m afraid.”

“What does that mean, Throld?”

“Young master Amaric—”

“Please don’t call me ‘master’, Throld.”

“Yes, sorry, Amaric. What I mean to say is that this particular tome is full of what the Magus would call ‘dangerous knowledge.’”

“Can you elaborate?”

“Suffice to say that Lady eld Caithra met an unfortunate end.”

“How unfortunate?”

“Fates worse than death.” It was a favorite of Albrith’s phrases when warning his students about the dangers of well-practiced thaumaturgy, much less careless sorcery or magic. Albrith never offered specific examples of fates worse than death, but the nature of their discussions of metaphysics gave Amaric much to imagine, none of it remotely pleasant.

“So you won’t help me find it?”

“No, my friend. I cannot. I would suffer a fate worse than death at the Magus’ hands if I did,” Throld said, no exaggeration in his voice, only the statement of fact.

“I understand, Throld. Thanks for the warning.”

Throld made a face that was as much a frown as a smile before returning to his copyist’s table—the kind of expression that desperately wanted to be one thing but could not help but be something entirely different.

Amaric smirked slyly at Throld’s back; he had just what he needed. Within the hour, he held in his hands a copy of Cadessia eld Caithra’s A Practical Guide to Deep Conjury, including detailed descriptions of many spirits. Not merely a casual and oblique reference to her conjury, a textbook.

Flipping through the pages made his head throb and spin. Complex diagrams and charts surrounded by tightly scribbled text danced before his vision as the pages spun from front to back. As they turned, they revealed unpleasant pictures of many things, things to which Albrith had alluded in his lessons or things about which Amaric had heard songs, legends and rumors back in his village.

He closed the book decisively, the thump of the pages slamming together echoing loudly through the library; Amaric cringed. He looked over the railing of the balcony toward the scrivener’s station and found Throld dutifully scribbling away. He held the book in one hand and began to make small gestures with the other, whispering words as he drew Power and formed the working. In a short moment, the book disappeared—in its place, a bundle of loose papers. So disguised, he walked nonchalantly past the scribe and through the door.

*          *          *

Amaric set the book down on the grand table. Within seconds, Emryn’s fingers were on both his shoulders, her cheek pressed against his, the wisps of her loose hairs tickling the back of his neck, her body swelling against his back with each breath, almond perfume in his nostrils.

“What’d you find?”

“Cadessia eld Caithra’s Practical Guide to Deep Conjury.”

“Oooh, how’d you find that?”

“Throld told me he’d made a copy not long back, so I just looked for books without so much dust on them. Came across it eventually. But, Emryn, this isn’t a good idea.”

“Explain.”

“There are true names and seals in here to be sure, but for nothing good. There’s nothing remotely safe in this book. Only beings from the Abyss.”

“Hmmm,” she said, to herself more than him. “Could we find something else, maybe?”

“I’m not sure there is anything else.”

“You don’t think the magus has more books with the names and seals of spirits? Surely he does.”

“I don’t doubt that, but I don’t think they’re in the library.”

“You think he has a secret library?”

“Seems fitting, I suppose. But, even if he does, there’s no way we’re getting into it. It’s gotta have wards and abjurations beyond anything we’ve seen so far.”

“True,” she frowned, conceding the point. “Mind if I spend some time looking in the library? Just in case there is something else?” She pecked his cheek as punctuation, an indication she meant no offense.

“I don’t mind. What did you end up with?”

“Salt, chalk, sage, athad dust, summerbride, beggar’s buttons.”

“All useful things for conjury. So, what’s the plan now?”

“I’ll check the library for alternatives; you study Lady eld Caithra’s book here to determine whether there is anything in there that we could reasonably summon. I know you’re concerned, so I’ll leave that judgment to you.”

*          *          *

Archmagus Albrith sat tentatively against one of the stone planters in the garden as he spoke softly and gracefully, his voice lilting as he expounded upon the arcane, the only indication of his passion and excitement for the subject emanating from his wizened and tired frame. A long wild beard masked the many creases and folds of the lower half of his face, drawing Amaric and Emryn to look him in the eyes as he spoke. Those eyes. They flashed with acuity, twinkled with delight in instruction, but also maintained a somberness that belied the serious demeanor with which Albrith always lectured.

“And so, today, my apprentices, we discuss the Law of the Soul and its pertinence to the magus. I trust you have finished chapter fourteen of Decambion’s Essence and Ephemera: A Book of the Law. Amaric, tell me, what is the Law of the Soul?”

“Yes, archmagus,” he said, the formality meant more to purchase time to formulate his answer than to show respect. “Um, the Law of the Soul postulates that no working can ultimately change the soul of any creature; that is, it’s True Self.”

“And from whence does the Law derive?”

“It’s a consequence of the Law of Essence, archmagus, which states that, though the existential aspects of a thing might be altered through an arcane working, the essence of that thing may not be.”

“Why, then, has your fellow apprentice Emryn proved able to change her appearance permanently, as I find you so often noticing?”

“I, uh—the appearance of her body is an existential aspect and not an essential aspect of her being.”

“Is it? Are her body and soul the same? The practice of conjury would prove otherwise, would it not?” An unfair question—Albrith had rarely mentioned conjury before, much less taught them anything of it.

“It would, archmagus.”

“Would it? Why?”

Emryn stepped in to assist. “Because the existence of disembodied spirits indicates that a material body and a spiritual self are not the same.”

Albrith’s eyes flashed as he turned his gaze to her. Not with anger, but with a kind of joy at the game they played. “Are you the same thing as a spirit or a demon, that what is true of them might be true also of you?”

“Not necessarily,” Amaric interjected. The two apprentices had become accustomed to working together to navigate Albrith’s mysteries, one buying time for the other. “But a working like Emryn performed required a sacrifice of sorts to maintain it. This requirement seems to indicate a need for maintenance of the effect, so the essence of her body is resisting the existential change to its appearance. If her body has an essence separate from her soul, then the two must logically be separate entities.”

The archmagus smiled. “Why does this matter?”

Neither spoke. They fumbled for the answer he sought amongst so many possible responses. While waiting, the archmage drew a pipe from a pouch at his belt, tamped a pinch of pipegrass within it, and snapped his fingers near the bowl of the pipe to produce the first wisp of smoke. A faint glow emanated from the pipe as he drew his first breath from it, allowing the silence to expand and fill the entire void around them.

Dressed in modest robes, Albrith could have easily been mistaken for a village cunning man rather than a full archmagus of the Thaumaturgical Conclave. Even the lower-ranked magi of the Conclave tended to dress in a fashion that made clear the importance of their position and profession. Neither Amaric nor Emryn understood the point of Albrith’s sartorial humility, though they often speculated.

“First,” Ablrith said finally, “it means that all the Art in the Avar will not change a person’s soul from what it is, not for long at least. You may fool a person with illusions of perception, you may force their body to act against their will, you may even influence their emotions for a time, but you will not change who they are. Only a soul can change its own essence in any permanent manner, and this without the Art. The theological implications of this may be discussed with the learned men of the Temple some time; it is not my concern.
“Second—since we’re discussing conjury—the disembodied spirit, for purposes of this discussion, at least, is the same as a soul when it comes to the Laws of Soul and Essence. You may capture a spirit, you may bind it to your service, but you will not change what it is. You can no more change an elemental of water into an elemental of fire than you can yourself become either. A demon is always a demon, and it will seek to ruin you even as it serves you. Note well that I say ‘ruin’ and not ‘destroy’ as the common folk would suggest. The Law of the Soul prevents a demon from truly destroying you just as it prevents you from destroying it. But there are many things a demon may do with a soul in its thrall that do not infringe upon the Law of Essence. This. This is why I tell you that there are fates worse than death.

“When you understand this, only then are you ready to become a magus.”

*          *          *

Another week passed before they broached the subject again; Emryn spending her evenings methodically sweeping the library and Amaric comparing Deep Conjury to the works Emryn had first collected for them. When together during that time, they focused either on the work Albrith had assigned them or on their more amorous passions.

Emryn began the long-awaited conference. “Well, Amaric, what’d you find?”

“You first, Em.”

“I found…nothing. A lot of nothing. I think you’re right; whatever else Albrith has that might be of use to us isn’t in the library. Which makes it important what you’ve decided.”

“Have you ever read the Conclave laws?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“They have some pretty specific things to say about the summoning of Abyssal spirits. As in ‘Don’t. Or else.’”

“No, I haven’t read them.”

“The penalties severe, to say the least. They’re severe to prevent exactly the kind of thing we’re thinking about doing.”

“Lot of good they’re doing, huh?” she smiled mischievously. “Besides, we’re not subject to Conclave law. As apprentices, we’re not full thaumaturges subject to the Conclave, but neither are we unlicensed practitioners—we’re under the tutelage of a magus. Albrith is the complete authority over us, and the Conclave stands behind him. Whatever he says goes for us. He’s spent two years training us already, you think he’d just give that up because we did some experimenting? Especially given some of the things we’ve heard about his youth?”

Amaric looked to his feet, but they had no guidance for him. She was right, of course, but after hearing what Throld had said he lacked Emryn’s confidence in Albrith’s leniency. He pressed a new argument: “The stuff in this book, it makes my head spin just to look at it. We know a bit of theory and some parlor tricks; this is way beyond us.”

“You remember when I…changed?”

Amaric’s face indicated the foolishness of asking the question at all. “Of course I do. Albrith made you clean and organize the alchemy laboratory for months after that, made you read the dullest books and write about them for pages, made you spend all of your free time tending the plants in the garden.”

“But he didn’t make me change back,” she said, triumphant. “He was proud, I think, to have so apt a pupil. Our lessons became more complex after that.”
“Yes, Em, but—”

“You’re welcome. Maybe we ought to think of this the same way. Maybe Archmagus Albrith is waiting for us to prove that we’re ready for more.”

She had a point. Albrith had proved a demanding master, one who expected his apprentices to prove themselves without his holding their hands. They saw him only a few hours each morning, when he lectured them or asked them questions until he found the point at which they could no longer make reasonable answer. Assignments for reading or for practice followed. This routine was punctuated by the days on which Albrith guided them through the performance of workings, demanding strict adherence to his teachings and perfection of form—on these days they worked from sun-up until exhaustion. There had been few of days of practical exercises in the last month, far fewer than they had become accustomed, and it did seem that Albrith was waiting for something. For what, exactly, Amaric had no idea.

“So?” Emryn asked, expectantly.

His nerves welled up within him. He had something to prove now, to Albrith, to Emryn. There was no turning back.

“Balsephon,” he said, shocked himself that the name had come from his lips.
“Who, now?” Emryn blurted.

“Balsephon. Eld Caithra puts him low in the Abyssal hierarchy, so we have as good a chance of binding him as we’re going to get.”

“A demon? Whatever happened to a lesser spirit, an Avaradh or something like that? Something that’s not dangerous.”

“There’s nothing in here about them, it’s all about Abyssal beings. It is the Deep Conjury after all.”

“And it’s why eld Caithra suffered a fate worse than death!”

“Emryn, you’re the one who wanted to do this in the first place!”

“But not a demon!”

“Did you find anything else we could try?”

“No. Apparently that’s the only grimoire in the whole library with information on specific spirits.”

“You said yourself you thought this was a test. That adds up, then.”

“You think Albrith wants us to conjure something from this book?”

Amaric paused. “I don’t know. It sounds crazy when you say it.”

“Well, what do you think?” Emryn said, resting her head on her hands as she leaned against the heavy table.

“What do you think?” Amaric repeated.

“I asked you first. Besides, this was supposed to be your decision, remember?”

“Let’s do it, then.”

“Really?”

“You don’t want to?”

“I didn’t say that. I just didn’t expect you to.”

*          *          *

Preparation began with the drawing of the ritual space, a set of circles within and around which were arranged arcane symbols of power and protection. Amaric had the steadier hand, so Emryn held the grimoire and guided his movements while he carefully applied chalk and vermillion to the stone floor in imitation of the patterns described by eld Caithra. On several occasions, Emryn caused him to stop, to erase what he had drawn and to start again, demanding an exact replication of the designs drawn by their guide.

When at last they completed the circle, they followed by preparing a ritual triangle in which to summon their spirit, proceeding in the same manner, inscribing the triangle with Balsephon’s sigil. Before they moved on, Amaric remembered a warding he had come across in their research; he had drawn the runes on scraps from the library and hung them on each wall and the study’s door, a final protection in case their working failed utterly—a protection not for the two of them, but for the rest of the world. They wanted to be responsible, at least. Amaric summoned and bound Power into the runes, leaving them dormant until they became necessary, which he hoped would not be the case at all.

The two added athad dust to the lamps, revealing the contours of the Veil without the use of the Sight, burnt sage in a brazier to dampen the spirit’s power, chewed summerbride to clear their minds. They sat for a time in silence with their eyes closed, holding hands, centering themselves. Or, trying at least, Amaric found himself distracted by the smell of her, the soft sound of her breathing, every ridge and valley of her hands. He thought of other nights when they had diverted themselves from study, of the fun they’d had together, when they’d talking about their lives before coming to Albrith’s manor or tangled themselves in the lustful passions of the young.

“Ready?” Emryn asked.

“Huh, um, yeah,” Amaric returned, shaking his head clear of its musings, feeling his center a little off-center.

She leaned forward and kissed him, a long kiss, meant to calm rather than to incite passion. Then she led him by the hand and they stepped into the circle delicately, taking great pains not to disturb any of the drawings. Together, they drew Power into the circle, slowly so as not to fumble their working with an excess of Flux from its very inception. When they could feel the comforting buzz of the protective circle, they set to the real task.

They moved about within the circle, incanting together the words of conjuration, feeling the air become heavy with Power, the room around them seeming to shift and bend, reluctantly flexing to make room for some foreign intrusion, the lamps flickering irregularly, as if the very air of the study had changed. They continued until memory threatened to fade, leaving one to misspeak a protective word or to forget a binding command. Time fled from all perception, or at least became irrelevant. Amaric began to wonder whether they had botched the whole thing.

Suddenly a noise echoed at the limits of consciousness, a sound like a curtain tearing. Within the triangle slowly rose an irregular mist, condensing into a fog before becoming a pillar of thick smoke, illuminated from within by sudden red flashes, as a storm cloud by lightning, revealing an obscured face in the midst of the plumes, malevolent and haughty; a demon.

Amaric thought he could make out shifting forms throughout the smog, miniature bodies twisting and writhing in agony as they flew tornado-like about the face within the smoke. The souls of those who had bargained with the thing or merely an illusion?

The demon did not speak. It waited, watching with unblinking eyes and a mouth that seemed to curl impossibly on both sides into a knowing and self-satisfied sneer. Amaric looked nervously to Emryn, hoping he had obfuscated his anxiety from the summoned spirit. Before either of them could say anything, a voice intruded upon Amaric’s mind, seeming to well up from within rather than spoken aloud. The voice whispered loudly, a sibilant and raspy sound that pulled at the nerves like a dull headache: Astavaten ghastoleem pertar. Saaberis tusumel.

“What?” Amaric asked in a voice too loud for the heavy silence within the room.

“I didn’t say anything,” Emryn responded.

“You don’t hear that?”

“What do you hear? Is it talking to you?”

“I think so.”

“What is it saying?”

“I don’t know, I can’t understand it.”

“Is it speaking Vessewar?”

“Probably.”

Pity, the whispering replied in Amaric’s head. I thought I might have been summoned by someone with real power to exchange for my services. Seems I’ve been called by too-clever children, hmm? Fortunately for you, I speak Ealthebad well enough.

Emryn’s face twitched, her eyes becoming large as she swung them back to the demon-smoke, pricking up her ears, her left hand tugging aimlessly at the braid in her dark hair. “It can’t hurt us while it’s in its space and we’re in ours,” she said in a whisper directed at no one.

The face in the smoke seemed to grin further, into absurdity, upon hearing her words.

“Normally,” it said, this time the voice coming from the manifestation before the apprentices and then echoing from within their minds, “I don’t like to be disturbed without getting something for my trouble. You’ve used the stick when you should have used the honey, hmm?”

After a pause to let the last syllable float in the air awhile, the demon continued. “I suppose I could make you decide between yourselves who I should take and who I should spare. That would be mildly entertaining, at least.” At this, the purgatorial spirits circulating the edges of the swirling cloud seemed to open their mouths at once, a cacophony of distant screams erupting from the multitude of orifices.

“You have no power over us,” Amaric said.

“No, young one? Would you care to wager on that?”

“You’re a liar.”

“Yes, I am. But not always. Do you think your drawings in the mud will protect you from the likes of me? You are my playthings; it cannot be the other way around, hmm?”

Emryn stepped forward within the circle, her face set in determination. “Balsephon, I bind you by the Name of the One, by Their servants the Eradhai, and by the Power of Creation. I call you by name and bind you to my service, that you may do no harm but only that which I command.”

The demon’s expression changed at the sound of the name. The cloud of red lightning condensed into the shape of a man, pale with dark hair, naked and handsome. The man’s face wore a mask of fear; he knelt within the triangle and clasped his hands together. “Please, no, mistress. Let me go back to my dwelling-place and I shall leave you in perfect peace. But do not bind me to service, do not make me your slave!”

A grin curled at the edge of Emryn’s mouth, her confidence complete. Amaric let out a sigh of relief and Emryn repeated the words of binding.

“Mistress, no! I can show you such wondrous secrets, give you such power, if you will but let me go!”

She spoke the binding a third time and there sounded a crack like thunder. The demon-man began to float in the air, arms and legs pulled back as if bound by invisible chains. He tried to cry out, but his voice was stopped by unseen force.

“Balsephon, I permit you to speak,” Emryn said.

“What shall I do for you, mistress?” the demon’s voice rasped. “Shall I show you the pleasures of the Beyond that are unknown in this world? Teach you thaumaturgies that have not been practiced in the Avar in centuries? Spy on your enemies?”

“No, Balsephon, you shall dance for me.”

Once she spoke the words, the spirit returned his feet to the floor, moving them with infernal speed in a jig of sorts, his face contorted with displeasure that made it clear he could do naught but obey. Emryn laughed. “You may stop,” she giggled. The spirit floated again, moored to the ground as a tethered airship.

“What shall we do next?” she asked Amaric.

“Let him go. We’ve done what set to do. Let’s not push our luck.”

“It’s perfectly fine, don’t you see.” She turned back to the demon. “If I let you go, do you promise that you will seek no revenge upon us, no matter the opportunity?”

“Yes,” the spirit let out in a long, soft groan.

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes.”

With that, Emryn stepped through the protective circle, its power collapsing in on itself and leaving only the thrum of the demon’s presence as a disturbance in the still air.

As she moved toward the demon, it returned again to her feet. She hesitated for a moment, and the pale man grinned at her. “But I have bound you by name!” she said, terror rising in her voice.

Amaric opened his mouth to yell a warning, but it was too late. The demon moved to Emryn with devastating speed, wrapping her in his arms and pressing his mouth to hers in a lascivious and obscene kiss. As their lips met, the demon’s form began to blur, and then to shift, to become smoky again; her mouth drew the foul smoke into her until she was left standing alone. But it was not her.
“Yes,” said the demon’s voice from within Emryn’s body, her eyes now ablaze and no longer her own. “Let’s do play the game I mentioned.”

“But you swore,” Amaric pleaded.

“I told you I am a liar,” the demon sighed, Emryn’s face twisting with delight.
“What game?”

“The one where the two of you decide who lives and who dies, hmm?” At this, arcs of red lightning began to crackle at Emryn’s fingertips and she rose from the ground, her legs hanging limply beneath her.

Though he would regret it for the rest of his life, Amaric did what all sense within him told him to do; he ran. Quick as he could, he turned for the door to the study, opened it just wide enough to squeeze his thin body through, and pulled it shut behind him, uttering the words to activate the dormant warding. The sound of sizzling lightning and thunder crashed against the ward just as it formed; a thumping at the door followed.

“Amaric? Amaric help me!” came Emryn’s voice from within. The young apprentice put his hand back to the door but resolved himself not to open it and break the ward he had created.

*          *          *

He ran, sprinted, through the cold hallways of the manor to Albrith’s apartments. He shouldered into the door without knocking, finding it unlocked and barely latched; the wooden door slammed into the wall with a crash.
Albrith sat in a chair facing the door, smoking his pipe. His expression lacked all surprise; his eyes brimmed with expectation.

“It has not gone well, I take it,” Albrith inquired as if asking about the weather. The old archmagus stroked his short grey beard as he spoke.
“Y-you knew?” Amaric mumbled.

“Of course I knew, boy. What kind of negligent master do you think me to be?” There was no anger in his voice; he spoke calmly and flatly. Amaric would have preferred yelling. The soft voice threw him off his guard and made him fumble for understanding. “Your ward is holding; that is good. A fortunate thing you are clever. But now, how do we go about resolving this tragedy?”

“A lesson?” Amaric began, his face scrunched up in bewilderment. He flashed with anger. A LESSON!”

“Calm yourself, boy, you have much work to do and not much time to do it in. That ward will not hold forever.”

Amaric felt a wave pass over him and his rage subsided. The magus had used a subtle sorcery to calm him. He wanted to be angry about it but could not muster the emotion.

“Tell me what happened. Every detail. Leave nothing out,” Albrith commanded.
The apprentice did as bidden.

“So what went wrong, Amaric?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do. Think.”

“We made a mistake in drawing the circle,” the apprentice chanced.

“But the demon did not make his move until Emryn stepped out of the circle.”

“Then the binding failed?”

“Good. Why? Speak the words Emryn used, exactly as she used them.”

Amaric tried to match the intonation and rhythm of Emryn’s words as he uttered them: “Balsephon, I bind you by the Name of the One, by Their servants the Eradhai, and by the Power of Creation. I call you by name and bind you to my service, that you may do no harm but only that which I command.”

“The words are good. What went wrong?”

“Something about the name.”

“Yes, Amaric. Good. What about the name?”

“She said it wrong. It’s not enough to simply say the spirit’s name, it must be pronounced true.”

“That is true. But the name was said well.”

Amaric thought for a moment, his nerves calmed but the evening’s events still racing distractingly through his mind. He searched for some clue. Finally, he spoke.

“It’s not Balsephon.”

Albrith smiled and puffed from his pipe. “Very good. There is some hope for you yet. How can we know this for sure?”

“I don’t know.”

“The spirit is trapped within the warding of your study, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And a manifested spirit cannot be two places at once, yes?”

“Yes.”

“So?”

Amaric said the words slowly, buying time as he tried to think on them before saying them. “We try to summon Balsephon somewhere else. If the demon in the ward is Balsephon, he will not appear when summoned. If it is not Balsephon, then he will appear when properly conjured.”

“Precisely, boy. And now it is time you witness a proper conjuration. Come.” Albrith rose from his chair.

“But what about Emryn?”

“We will discuss Emryn when we know who we’re dealing with. Be patient.”

*          *          *

Albrith’s ritual room connected to his apartments, a large space with high-vaulted ceilings and a large two-story window at the far end of the room, pointed East. There were no chalk drawings here; Albrith’s protective circle had been inlaid into the stone, made of gold, copper, silver and other metals Amaric could not readily identify. A private library of grimoires occupied the room’s southwest corner, while the northern wall held shelves of reagents, magical tools, and shallow stone slabs inlaid similarly to those on the floor. Amaric looked again to the protective circle and saw that the tiles were interchangeable—a sort of arcane moveable type. Albrith had already laid out the tiles to match the designs that Amaric had drawn by hand.

Near the ritual circle stood a small lectern on which on open book displayed the pages of eld Caithra’s notes on Balsephon in young ink, the pages and binding still fresh and new. Everything lay ready.

“Step into the circle, boy.” Albrith ordered. “You will do nothing; you will say nothing. You will watch. And learn.”

He did exactly that. Albrith never even looked at the grimoire; he had committed the entirety of the ritual to memory. His movements were precise and subtle, his words exquisitely formed, intoxicating in their rhythm and timbre. Again Amaric lost track of time, but this time Albrith’s mastery of technique and not his own exertion caused the effect.

A form appeared in the summoning triangle, as if raised to the stage from a lift below. Amaric shuddered to look upon the thing before him, a blasphemous contortion of bodies both human and animal in an amorphous conglomerate. Briefly, Amaric pitied the creature, but his fury at Emryn’s condition quickly pushed aside any sympathy. As if sensing the emotions, Albrith held his hand behind him as if to silence Amaric before he even began.

Albrith said the words of binding in quick succession—still beautiful in their performance but marked by a cold efficiency that flows from dispassionate determination. There was no melodrama this time, the demon simply cocked its head in response to the words.

With a wave of his hand, Albrith released the power of the summoning triangle, but Amaric could still feel the protective circle like a warm blanket on a cold night. The spirit did not move; it stood blinking at Albrith in motionless expectation.

“Speak your name true, demon,” Albrith admonished.

“I am called Balsephon, magus. But you already know that, for you have bound me by that name.”

“Indeed. Now begone from me.” The old magus waived his hand dismissively as a king or a rich man might do. The demon shrank into nothingness and the circle of protection dissipated as well. “As we suspected…”

“Now what, master?”

“Since we do not know the spirit’s name, we cannot bind it. We must instead banish it.”

“How do we do that?”

“A demon who has the power possesses a mortal to gain protection from banishment—while the spirit occupies Emryn’s body, we cannot remove him from the Avar.”

“And how do we get him out of Emryn’s body?”

“We destroy it.”

“What? No!”

Albrith grabbed his apprentice by the shoulder and stared into his eyes. “There is no other way, boy. Emryn is already gone; a demon such as this will not share flesh with another spirit. Look at me, Amaric! What is done is done. You have made a mistake and it has cost Emryn dearly. You must do what you can to make it right. Who else might suffer if the demon is allowed to roam free?”
“You do it, master. I cannot.”

“You can and you will. This shall be done by the two of us together or not at all.” With that, Albrith walked to the northern wall and pulled a long, thin blade from one of the shelves. He pushed it into his apprentice’s hand, delicately seizing the blade with three fingers and pulling Amaric’s arm forward into a thrust. “Through the heart, boy. You will make it quick.”

*          *          *

Amaric rushed into the study behind Albrith, who entered with staff readied, a shimmering sorcerous shield raised before them. Emryn floated several feet above the ground, slinging ruby lightning and laughing as master and apprentice barged in.

The apprentice cringed behind the shield with each burst of energy that cracked against it; he had never witnessed such raw sorcery before. He quickly decided that he would not mind if he never did again.

Albrith went to the offensive, sending a long gout of blue fire at the Emryn’s body. The lights flickered and died, leaving the flames to illuminate the darkened room. The demon seemed to push the flames away from itself as if by raw will, but the magus slammed his staff to the floor and the apprentice’s body fell to the ground with a thud. “Go,” Albrith whispered to his apprentice.
Feeling again the dulling of his emotions by Albrith’s sorceries, Amaric pressed forward, the fear welling within his stomach but confined to a bodily discomfort rather than a mind-crushing force. As he neared Emryn her body lifted into the air again, not high, her toes dragging the ground.

A dull halo surrounded her now, pink or red. Amaric pulled back the blade, but when he met her eyes he found not the raging flames he had seen before but the deep blue pools in which he had so often lost himself. “Please…no…Amaric,” came Emryn’s voice, her eyes beginning to water, a tear running down her beautiful cheek.

He hesitated. “Destroy it!” came Albrith’s command from behind him. He loosened and tightened his fingers on the blade, wondering why the demon had not attacked him.

Emryn continued to stare at him through the flickering light of Albrith’s sorceries. She was in there, somewhere. Albrith was wrong; Amaric knew it. He turned to look at Albrith. “I—”

“Now!”

When he turned back to his companion of these two past years, he saw her true. Not as the young woman who had crafted herself with the Power, but the lovely plainness she had arrived with. Tears streamed down her cheeks now, and he found that they ran down his face as well.

“Please!” she sobbed.

But Amaric opened his eyes with the Sight, and he could see only the demon within Emryn’s body. He screamed in pain and rage and fear, thrusting the blade into her chest. It slid in with a sickening ease, as if he were only sheathing it. Red blossomed across her dress as he pushed the blade to the hilt. Still yelling, he pushed the body off of the sword with his left hand, watching Emryn’s eyes go wide and flash with red flames before her body crumpled, the demon rising out of it.

“Get out of the way!” shouted Albrith behind him.

Amaric leapt to the side as the spirit slashed at him with long talons. He hit the stone floor hard, knocking the breath out of him. Rolling over, he looked back to the demon and his master, now locked in deadly combat.

Albrith kept the pale man at bay with his staff, all the while speaking the harsh words of Vessewar. The demon tried to keep pace, incanting black words of his own, but Albrith was too precise, too focused, too practiced. The pale man changed back into the flashing, malevolent face within the dark cloud, surrounded by the miniature spirit-bodies caught within the storm. Just before it disappeared altogether, Amaric thought he saw Emryn among those pour souls, screaming and writhing alongside them. He screamed again, feeling the pain of the sight throughout his whole being.

And then it was over. Albrith, sweating and fatigued, came to his apprentice and offered his hand, helping him up from the stones. “What have you learned?”
Amaric wiped the tears from his face, but they did not stop. He stared blankly at his master, incredulous. “But, Emryn—”

“We will speak of Emryn no more. You will not have time to mourn her. Tomorrow our work begins in earnest. What have you learned?”

“I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a thaumaturge anymore,” the apprentice gasped between sobs.

“Then you are ready to be one. Now you respect the Power and what it means to meddle in things you do not understand, I can safely teach you what wielding the Power truly means. I am sorry the cost has proved so dear.”

“Bastard!” Amaric spat.

“I am, but the Power is a harsher master than I; I will not have you wielding it unprepared. I will have Throld bring you something to help you sleep. Give him Lady eld Caithra’s book when he comes. We begin at sunrise, which is not far off.” With that, Albrith left unceremoniously.

As long as he lived, this night would weigh heavy upon him, the guilt of it a thorn over which the skin had already healed and that could not be pulled free. But Emryn, he feared, would suffer far worse. For both of them, a fate worse than death.