a novel of the Collegia Magica
The Daemon Prism - Excerpt
by Carol Berg
Note: If you haven't read The Soul Mirror be warned. This excerpt contains spoilers.
Surprisingly enough the days after Anne's departure passed rapidly. We had decided to fence in a paddock for the two horses Anne had acquired in the summer. Finn could have done it as well alone as with me. Sightless assistants with only one good hand are rarely invaluable. But I craved physical labor, and Finn insisted he would welcome my help. I used no power of mine to probe the truth of his words.
As a boy I would have scoffed at the idea that any but a king might hold a demesne so fine as Pradoverde. Yet the main house was actually only five rooms, the guesthouse two, and the rolling terrain comprised a mere fifteen hectares--cramped by the standards of royal holdings. We had pasture enough for Anne's horses, and a few sheep should we choose to have them. The previous owners had planted a decent kitchen garden and a small orchard of apple, pear, and cherry. To the west lay a fair expanse of open woodland and the once-disputed stream. Despite its contentious history, it was a good place. Healthy. Quiet. But for this bit of land...and Anne...I'd have been a raving lunatic. Worse than I was already.
Three days saw us almost done with the fence. While Finn mounted the gate hinges we'd made that day, I set some simple spells on the fence, ancient charms of ward and welcome to keep the horses in and thieves, moles, and whipsnakes out.
The weather was a confusion only a late autumn day could produce: hot sun, chill air, dry, dusty, and still. The silver mage collar that bound my neck itched with sweat and grime. By the time we had hung the gate, the angle of the sun signaled dusk, and I'd no thought for anything but the barrel of beer cooling in the cellar.
Finn sluiced his head at the courtyard font and bolted for the nearby village of Laurentine to pursue a budding rapport with the tavern keeper's daughter. I carried my beer to the steps of the main house, leaned against the porch rail, and inhaled the night. Tree crickets trilled. The collared dove perched in the stable eaves whimpered. The horses in the paddock whuffled. The cooling breeze rustled the dying vines and grasses, stirring up scents of dust, horse, mice, and drying mint. All that presented itself to my senses I tried to absorb. To remember. To see. Inevitably, my fingers drifted to my bracelet of thin copper.
"Oraste," I whispered, and fed power into my newest version of an enchantment I hoped might counter the damage to my eyes. Magic poured out of me until my flesh near caved in.
The night remained entirely black. Spitting curses, I launched my cup into the garden.
The device Gautier had used to punish my duplicity had been made hundreds of years in the past, when the knowledge and practice of sorcery had reached heights never recovered after a century of war. Even so, my skills and power should have been sufficient to design and effect a counterspell. Unfortunately, trapped in an underground vault and near out of my mind with pain, I had destroyed the cursed device. Devising a counter without access to the original enchantment would likely take me longer than I had left.
Terror of destroying my eyes altogether prevented anything but the most cautious experimentation. I had only just begun to experience any success--an occasional shadow landscape, where objects appeared as darker blotches in the dark. I'd not even told Anne as yet. Unfortunately, even so primitive a reversal required every scrap of power I could muster. And the spell failed the moment I stopped feeding it. Nights like this when I was physically and magically depleted, I could not even begin.
A sirening disturbance in the aether interrupted my hapless litany of invective. Muted hooves trod the lane from the village road. Though our boundary wards signaled but the one intruder, I stood and reached for my staff. I needed no eyes to draw on its enchantments, ever ready to release fiery destruction. Half the population of Merona and the entire Camarilla Magica would gleefully slit my throat if allowed the idea it was possible.
"Sorcerer?" The horseman's booming voice bounced firmly from the stone and brick. No telltales of magic accompanied him.
"Be ye the sorcerer called Dante?" No anger or hostility marred his query. Wariness, yes. If he knew aught of me, that spoke some rudimentary intelligence.
"Why should I yield my name to a stranger who refuses the same courtesy?"
Halted on the gravel, the horseman dismounted smoothly. He tethered his horse--no mountain pony or farm hack, but a large, spirited animal--to one of the oaks that shaded the lane. Firm, confident steps crossed the gravel yard. A heavy man with the slightest trace of a limp.
"Masson de Cuvier, Grenadier, First Legion of Sabria," he announced. "Honorably retired."
A tall man. I stood three steps above the yard, yet his voice was almost on a level with my face. He smelled of good horse, good leather, and no spirits.
"I'm Dante," I said. "What's your business?"
"Peace." His voice broke ever so slightly, a burden of desperation surely unaccustomed for such a strong, confident man. "A fellow in Bardeu told me ye can take a dream away. Is't true?"
"It's been more than six years since I left Bardeu." That's where Portier had found me and dragged me into his investigation of conspiracy and secrets.
"But they remember you. Around Bardeu, folk claimed ye were a healer of the mind, as well as sorcerer. One said ye'd kept a dream from killing him. So is't true or not?"
"Eradicating dreams is only possible if they're visited upon you by enchantment. Some are just the natural stuff of the mind--"
"I've heard all that. But this dream is not natural. 'Tis a plague and an abomination, and if I cannot be rid of it, I will die by my own hand before the new year breaks."
That, I understood.
"Well, then..." I stood aside and motioned him into the house.
"Dark as a tomb in here. Can't see a wretched thing!"
"A moment," I said. My staff raised a steady warmth from a lamp Anne kept on a stool beside the stair. Pivot. Three paces. I laid a hand on the back of Anne's chair.
"I heard ye don't see. It's true, is it?"
So he'd talked to someone of more recent knowledge than Bardeu. "Yes. But there's no need for you to sit in the dark. Sit where you like."
He plunked himself down in the large chair nearest the fire. I took Anne's chair and waited for him to begin. He didn't seem shy.
"Tell me, sorcerer, have ye sight in your dreams?"
I'd told no one of my dreams or of my daily horror upon waking. My frights were no one's business. But I answered Masson de Cuvier. The slight quaver of intense, very private emotion told me this was no idle question.
"Yes. Every night. And every morning on waking, I lose it all over again. It's like suffocation."
"Aye. Just so."
"Tell me of your dream."
"I got to tell ye some history first. I am a professional soldier, no conscript, no tenant summoned to service a king's liegeman. Nor am I a chevalier. I'm a common grenadier, and a cracking good one, too. My men don't love me, but what I drill into them keeps them alive, and they know it. I've no family save my cadre. I've served on every border and been honored by my commanders in every campaign for fifty-three years under three kings. A paragon, ye might say, and so I have been.
"There've been things that troubled over the years, of course. Men dyin' from a commander's foolishness. Enemies a man can't fight face-to-face with honorable weapons. And the people in these far places...some of them good people, but enemies nonetheless, some wicked folk we must treat as allies. I've seen things, too, oddments a man can't explain: some fair, some fearful. I've seen evil."
His practiced delivery suggested he'd told this story many times. Yet at the mention of evil, his voice shook. I waited for him to go on.
"Near twenty years ago, young King Philippe chased the witchlords from their stronghold in Kadr to a place called Carabangor, a deserted fortress city deep in the desert. We run 'em to ground like rabbits. That ruin was a labyrinth, made ten times larger by the witchlords' illusions. But the king's alchemists devised incendiaries that allowed us to sight the difference between their illusions and the true walls, and we soon took the gates. The night fell quiet, as if they were all dead.
"It was too dangerous to move men into the city to clean the last of 'em out. Their wicked enchantments seemed to feed on the night. But we dared not give them time to slip away or rebuild their magics. So I took a party into the city to spy out where they were hid. Five of us were on the scout, Des de Roux, Unai Focault, Benat Toussaint, a boy we knew only as Hawk, and me.
"We split up soon as we were under the walls. Des and Unai headed straight for the old citadel. Benat went off on his own to check out a barracks near the southern gate. Hawk and me combed the streets in front of the gates, working our way to meet up with Des and Unai.
"It was a terrible place, mostly rubble. Ye didn't know what ye was going to find around the next turn in the road or behind some ragged scrap of leather flapping in the wind. There was no moon, and ye didn't dare show a light. Ye crept along those twisty streets quiet as death, wishing ye'd left your boots behind so as to silence your steps the more. Ye'd think none but rats and fere-cats had walked there for a thousand years, save for piles of ash smoked here and there. Witchlords carried charms that burnt their bodies soon as they stopped breathing.
"We was a half-hour in when we heard the crying--a woman or child sobbing as if the world had ended. Hawk was of a mind to ignore it. He was a hard boy, no family, no close friends among the men. Fine tracker though. The best we had. But I'd never left woman or child crying that I could help, and said we had to look. It could've been a witchlord woman, after all.
"So Hawk and me tracked the sound to a grand place, more a temple than a house, with six great birds...eagles standing in the front of it. A deal of the roof had caved in, so we'd only starlight to navigate by. We followed that crying down and down a great curved stair, past more great birds and beasts, standing there in the dark, till we thought we must come to the heart of the earth itself."
The grenadier paused, clearing his throat as if preparing for a speech, then took up again.
"In the bowels of that temple we come to a lake, the water milk white, and a fog hanging over it. The stars shone so bright through that broken roof, the fog glowed like pearls. Stone paving, slick with mold, ran right up to the edge of the water, so that ye might call it a pool more than a lake, save it was so big. Some fifty metres from the bank lay an island, naught but a rock in the center of the pool. And there stood the comeliest woman I ever looked on.
"Like a willow withe she was, with ghost-pale hair, though her skin was the color of good earth and eyes black as ebony. Her hair and her white robes floated out from her in the white fog so ye couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. She called to us, begging us to set her free. Her weeping wrenched our souls.
"A shell boat lay moored by the bank, and Hawk moved to jump in, but I stopped him.
" 'Wait,' I told him. 'This be no ordinary maiden to be rescued. Consider if it be some phantom, planted here by the witchlords to lure us to our destruction--and mayhap our king and comrades with us.'
"Hawk glared at me in his cold way, and said I'd led us on this merry chase, instead of doing what we'd come to do, so how was I to have it both ways?
"Whilst I stood there, undecided, the woman held out her hand to show a green gem the size of a plum. 'Take it!' she says to me. Though her voice had dropped and she was so far away, it sounded as if she whispered right in my ear. ' 'Tis beyond price. Transport me across the lake and it's yours evermore. 'Twill bring you what you most desire.' "
"Hawk moved again to fetch her, but I said no. 'Twould take precious time and our duty was to king and comrades. But indeed, I feared that place more than any weapon I'd ever faced. Already the jewel plucked at my yearnings.
"Hawk shrugged it off and ran back up the stair. I called to the woman that we'd duties, but would come back for her quick as might be. She wailed till my blood curdled. When we came out of that temple, we found the dawn wind blowing, the whole night gone, though it seemed less than an hour.
"We worked our way quick to the citadel to meet Des, who reported Benat had found the sorcerers' lair in the old barracks. He and Unai had gone back two hours since to bring on the assault. They feared we'd been caught in a witchlord spelltrap, as I believed we had been.
"So came the final assault, and on that terrible morn King Philippe and his friend Ruggiere, the Great Traitor who's now redeemed, scoured the plague of Kadr from the earth."
The old man stopped, breathing hard as if he had come straightaway from that battlefield to tell his tale. Half the night could have passed, I was so caught up in it. "So did you go back?"
"Nay. Unai, Hawk, and I were dispatched right off to the occupation of Kadr. I told Des and Benat about it, quick before we marched out. Told them to have a care and take a mage if they could, to see if the woman was real or no. Years later when I saw them again, they said they'd gone no farther than the beast statues. Her wailing had spooked 'em, and they'd run away."
"Likely she was only a phantom," I said. "A Kadrian spelltrap after all."
"Ah, nay. For there's the dream, ye see. And the witchlords of Kadr be all dead and their stronghold burnt. I saw it all."
"Tell me about the dream."
"When the dream came in those first days, Hawk said 'twas our guilt at leaving the woman. Yet I didn't and don't feel guilty. I was right to choose as I did. But each time I see her face, she weeps and cries, and begs me come and save her. And in the dream, I row out there and fetch her away."
His growing terror near lifted me from my chair.
"As soon as we return to shore, I take the great emerald, green as moss...beyond price...and it shows me my desires fulfilled. But it has a foul heart. I look deep and see a doom unleashed upon the world that is evil beyond anything I can speak. The woman laughs, and her laugh is all wicked and all desire, and I cannot put things back right again."
"But you were strong," I said. "You didn't fall into the trap. What you dream never happened. Why is it so fearful?"
"Because I want it--that green jewel. I desire it the way a blind man craves his sight, and when I wake without it in my hand, 'tis like a suffocation."
"Twenty years on, she's escaped or dead," I said, chipping at his despair. "Assuming she existed at all."
"Oh, she's still there all right. When the dream wouldn't go away, I hunted up Des and Benat. She calls to them in their dreams, too. They never even saw her, just heard her wailing, but they can describe her and the lake to me in every aspect. They hunger for the emerald, though I never told them of it. But they were both crippled up and couldn't travel."
"All these years, I've searched for someone could silence her, but none could do aught. I've resisted thus far. But this year past, the dream comes every night, much stronger than before. If ye cannot take it from me, it'll drive me to Carabangor. I'll free her, then, and take her evil talisman and loose it on the world. That's why I daren't live with it longer."
There was no doubting his determination.
"What of Hawk?"
His finger tapped rapidly on solid flesh--his own hand, chin, or forehead. I waited, curious as to his hesitation.
The finger stopped. "Hawk was ready to go back. I couldn't allow it."
Needing time to assess a sensible course, I offered de Cuvier wine or beer. He refused. But I betook myself to the cellar to fill a new mug for myself.
In the years of my apprenticeship, my mentor had squeezed every spell, every book, and every scrap of magical knowledge from his far-flung web of friends and acquaintances--a granny here, a hedge wizard there, a tessila reader too poorly educated or too drunk to work in a temple. A few of them claimed to use Kadr magics. The Kadrites--the witchlords as they called themselves--had been a race of barbarian sorcerers who had settled in the desert country bordering Sabria and Aroth. Cruel and skilled in war, they had partnered with the mighty Arothian Empire to invade Sabria when the kingdom was weakened by the Blood Wars. From what I'd seen, the witchlords' spellwork reflected their lives--brutal and unsophisticated. Subtle work like prisoned maidens or compulsive dream sendings seemed entirely unlike them.
In my practice at Bardeu, I'd dealt with a number of compulsions caused by ill-wrought charms or potions, death curses, or the like. I'd seen naught so powerful as would drive a soldier like de Cuvier to murder one of his own. Yet experience testified to some small hope I could help him be rid of it. Certainly no Camarilla practitioner would attempt such a healing. The Camarilla believed magic a strictly physical discipline, producing results that could alter physical perceptions. They'd name de Cuvier a lunatic to imagine a dream compelled his actions.
"So, sorcerer. Can you help me?" The grenadier pounced as soon as I topped the cellar stair.
I shook my head. "Can't be sure. I'd need to be with you when the dream comes. Probe it to discover its nature. If I judge the task possible, we'll need a few days."
"No matter. Can't do naught but think of it, anyway. If I cannot be rid of it, I'll not live."
"We'd best give it a try, then."
"I'll pay whatever fee you set," he said, "sell my horse, my sword. And you'll have my undying grat--"
"Wait till I've done, and we'll settle. Stripping dreams...touching the mind. This is a dice game with many ways to lose that have naught to do with coin. So understand, I make no promises, save to take all good care and stop when I can do no more."
"Agreed." He didn't hesitate.
"Come back tomorrow evening, and we'll begin."
"What's wrong with tonight? To my mind, it can't be soon enough."
What was wrong with tonight? Only that it had been a long day already, and an all night vigil at de Cuvier's bedside would not improve on it. But the tale...the magic...was superlatively intriguing. No harm in looking, as long as I could stay awake.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2011