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My one experience with real, tangible magic—the mystical, dangerous kind and not the poetical stuff that has to do with love and other metaphors—came during my youth. It was my first deer hunt, and to be honest, I was scared spitless, my mouth so dry I could hardly swallow. I’d seen several of the other foresters kill deer, I’d helped butcher the carcasses for our larder, and I’d drunk the still-steaming blood along with the others, so it wasn’t the blood itself that bothered me. No, it was the fact that I would be taking a life. I’m not sure why that concerned me, for there were many people, my real parents among them, who I was quite convinced I could destroy without a moment’s hesitation. And aren’t we humans somehow more important than animals, though we live and die the same way they do? Looking back, I’m no longer sure what it was that weighed upon my thoughts, other than perhaps the fact my companions would expect me to cause great pain to a poor, dumb beast that had never done me any harm nor was ever likely to, and to deprive said beast of the only thing it owned in all the wide woods.
My foster father, sensing as always what I was thinking, was sympathetic but firm: if I were going to live here with the other men, I was going to be blooded. And blooded I was. The older men surrounded me, laughing as they did, and from a flask of half-congealed blood, painted my face in vivid patterns, muttering half-heard phrases under their breath. The blood stank, and made my skin itch, but they assured me it was part of the ritual. Much of what happened afterward is a blur, save for two things. The first was the snap! of my crossbow and the moment of frozen time as the bolt sped across the clearing and sank into the deer’s chest, those long legs buckling beneath it before its panicky start could carry it more than a body length farther. A perfect shot—something magical in the mundane sense.
The second thing—the literally magical one—was what happened as we stood over the corpse. As in the past, one of the men sliced open the big artery in the beast’s neck and let the blood flow into a small cup that would be passed from man to man to celebrate my victory. This time, though, as slayer, I was to be the first to drink. As I raised the cup to my lips, trembling with relief that this rite was nearly over and that there would never again be a first time, my father’s hand fell upon my arm and restrained me.
“Wait, Morley. For a first time, there must be something special.”
The men linked arms to form a circle around me, then closed their eyes and began chanting something. I learned the words much later, but I shall not repeat them, for they are older than our time here in these new lands and reserved for the ears of those who hunt together in the King’s service. The chant paused for a moment, thick with the tension of hesitation, and my father nodded. I took a deep sip from the cup, the salty, metallic tang of the blood making me gag as it had always done. But as I lowered the cup, the chant resumed, and this time, I felt a burning in my throat. My first thought was that someone had slipped strong liquor into the cup as a joke, knowing my inability to withstand alcohol, but this was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. The fire spread from my throat to my chest, and thence to every smallest part of my body, as if I’d fallen into a campfire and could not rise. Yet despite that great warmth, there was no pain, just a tremendous sense of energy coursing through me. Gradually, that sensation died down, and when my gaze turned to the men who surrounded me, all trace of mirth was gone; now, all that remained were smiles of acceptance—some even gentle.
“Welcome to our brotherhood, Morley. You are now part of this forest as we are, and as much a part of its cycle of life and death. Some of the strength that courses in the blood and sap of all the living things that surround us now lives in you, and you will return that strength to the forest the day you die.”
Never since then, in all my years, have I encountered anything that I could truly call magic. Today, I was chilled by the realization that I would soon participate in a second magical rite, and one such as had been unknown to my kind since the time of the Exodus. The dampness of the air this far below the earth accentuated that feeling, and in the torchlit darkness of the crypt, the cold sought gaps in my clothing like a thing alive and wrapped its fingers about my skin. My nose itched from the dust deposited in that chamber by as many lifetimes’ use as I had fingers on one hand, and raised again by our footsteps. The torch smoke that eddied along the ceiling before beginning its gradual descent to the floor didn’t help. I shivered in anticipation, certain now that this whole thing was somehow wrong and hating myself for wanting it too much to do the wise thing and flee.
Orgrim was intent on his own preparations and oblivious to my struggle. The learnèd kindness on his face was gone now, and the iron concentration that had replaced it contained elements of a harshness that had been absent before—or that I had failed to note because of my preoccupation with his promises. Seen askance, sidelit by the torches, that face seemed less and less human with every passing moment, though there was naught but human he could be. The mage knelt, using a long ivory wand to trace a circle in the dust and hedge the drawing with contorted symbols and glyphs that writhed beneath my gaze if I concentrated on them too long. That done, he arose and turned an appraising eye on me.
The cold objectivity in that appraisal, like a vivisectionist teaching a class of surgeons over the squirming body of some malefactor, made the chamber’s chill seem warm by comparison. I stepped back a pace, turning to flee, but those eyes seized me and transfixed me, held me to that spot as if I’d sunk to my knees in clay. I watched, helpless as a beetle trapped in amber, while he turned once more to the circle; with a sweep of one hand and a flash of ruby light from his wand, the dust within the circle was swept away as if it had never existed, leaving a clean-traced outline in the center of the floor. Once again, those eyes turned to me.
“Come.” The flatness of his tone contrasted with the sharpness of my response. Involuntarily, my hindmost foot traced an arc through the dust and turned me towards the circle. Terror rose in me, trembling in my hands and heart, but I moved on helplessly until my other foot stepped into the center of the cleared space. Marshaling what strength of will remained, I turned to face my captor—for such he now was—with what defiance I could muster. In the amber glow of the torchlight, the blade of the obsidian dagger that had appeared in one hand took on a lurid gleam, and I felt my eyes drawn to the blade.
“Calm yourself,” he intoned, and a drugged calm fell across my heart, easing my fear somewhat. But it was an imposed peace, and lay uneasily upon me.
“The dagger?” I managed to gasp, voice small and unrecognizable in my ears.
Orgrim laughed, an unpleasant, sharp bark. “Blood,” he replied, voice and gaze steady. “For all life magics, the sorcerer needs something of life to work with. You won’t miss what little I shall need.” He stepped forward, careful to remain outside the cleared circle, and I felt panic rise and struggle against the bonds he had laid on my mind. The bonds won. “Your hand,” he demanded.
I raised my hand and with a firm grip, he took it in his own. I had time to note the strength of his grip before the razor-sharp blade sliced into the palm of my hand. I tried to draw away, but his grip was too strong, and the imposed calm dulled the pain; the wound should have been agonizing, but it felt no worse than removing an old, blood-encrusted bandage. Blood sprang up in the wake of the blade’s passage, and he nodded, satisfied. A wave of dizziness assaulted me, though I’d sustained many worse wounds with no ill effect. From out of nowhere, Orgrim conjured a small crystal flask into which he squeezed perhaps an ounce of my blood. Then, releasing my arm, he slashed the dagger across his own palm. Before I could begin to wonder at that, he clasped his hand to mine and pronounced words that echoed in the beat of my heart even as they rang in my ears. Though I’d steeled myself to make no more unbidden comments, I found myself speaking words I half recognized. There was a cold burning in my hand, and a roseate glow sprang up, visible through the skin and bone and gristle, and when he released me, the wound was gone, leaving a fading scar.
From within his robes, Orgrim produced a small, fine-tipped brush and knelt once more by the edge of the circle. With sure, quick strokes, he began an intricate tracing of the circle’s boundary and the several runes by its side, using my blood for paint. He finished by adding a five-pointed star that walled in my feet, and began tracing yet another series of odd symbols where each point of the star met the line that marked the circle. As the brush lifted from each figure, he spoke a word with a strange sibilance to it and the figure twined upon itself and vanished. The design now complete, Orgrim finished by encircling the star once again before flinging the flask and the last of the blood into the air. There was no sound from their fall, but my attention had been caught up by the small pouch that replaced them in his hands. From this he dusted small amounts of a glittering powder onto the circle, scattering pinches symmetrically in four directions around its perimeter to complete the process. There was a sharp metallic tang to the air as he flung the pouch after the earlier implements.
“Prepare yourself,” he said, voice deep and resonant with the same sense of gathering power that precedes a thunderstorm.
I needed to hear my own voice for what courage that would lend me. “For what?” My lips were dry, my voice drier.
“For what is to come. There will be pain, but it will not last.” Again panic clawed at the bonds on my mind, but a lassitude growing within me defeated it. The mage’s eyes closed and he relaxed into the placidity I had come to associate with the old man. Under the circumstances, that illusion of normality did a better job of scaring me than anything that had come before. But as I watched, things grew worse.
The calm, patient face of the old sage had scarcely reappeared when it began to change. The wrinkles smoothed and vanished like clay being polished flat by the hands of a master potter, and the grey washed from his hair like a fresh painting caught in the rain. Glossy black, the tight curls of his full beard grew dark as night itself. Paler and paler became the tone of his skin until it was somewhere between alabaster and the dull belly of a fish. Straighter and straighter he stood until the last traces of his stoop had vanished.
The change complete, his eyes snapped open once more and though a new man stood in the room, there was no mistaking whose eyes blazed at me. Slowly—excruciatingly so—he spread his arms wide, as if struggling against some mighty weight, the wand lifting to the left, the bone ring to the right. A sharp word escaped his taut lips, though for all I recognized of it, it might well have been a grunt of exertion or an exclamation of pain. The torches flickered and died, and in their place sprang up a somber red glow, the color of fresh blood, licking around my feet from its origin in the geometrical figure encircling me.
Orgrim stood silhouetted by the glow, his face limned by the sullen light at my feet, and as I watched, his arms clenched inexorably towards the center of his body, as if he were bending an iron bar between them. The glow brightened in response until a bright orange tinged with cherry red, like new-forged iron, seethed at our feet. An answering glow came from the ring and wand.
“When it comes, open yourself to it, make it welcome. Do you understand?” I tried to speak a denial, but that part of me which was bound nodded its acceptance. Without another word, he turned the power of those eyes inward. As if of its own volition, his mouth opened and began forming tortuously pronounced words that fell upon my ears like shadows upon my eyes. Slowly at first, then in an ever-increasing rush, the words beat at my mind, at the walls around me, at the very world itself. I bit my lip to hold back a scream of terror, for the drugged calm now abandoned me, and blood from my bitten lip began to trickle down my chin, noticed only much later when I gazed at myself in a mirror. There was a seething within me, the panic beating against the clenching of my jaw, until at last it grew too much and I released it in a cathartic scream. That scream masked, but failed to hide, a ripping sensation, half-heard, half-felt, in the air around me.
I reeled forward a half step in the sudden silence, bringing up against an invisible barrier that stung the hands I’d flung out to stop my fall.
I turned my head numbly towards Orgrim, my mind empty of all emotion in that anticlimactic moment. But even as my heartbeat slowed somewhat from its crazed pace, the mage’s intent gaze told me this peace was to be fleeting. A bead of sweat rolled across his forehead, down his nose, and off into space, but his eyes were for me alone. It was then, as a rabbit cowering beneath the stoop of a hawk, that I felt another presence in the room.
Walk some night, late and after a few drinks, into a darkened room. In the envelope of lightlessness, your eyes are of no use, so you extend your hands before you to protect your face from an unseen obstacle. Imagine how your whole world contracts to but two points, your foot sliding across the floor to seek out any obstacle that might trip you, your groping fingers outstretched at chest level. Feel the palpable resistance of the dark, teasing at your fingers with half-real hints of what lies ahead. Then feel a strand of cobweb, downy, immaterial, but heavier than lead as it misses your outstretched arm and brushes your face, avoiding your questing fingertips...
Something touched me then, something nauseating that settled upon my exquisitely sensitive flesh, caressed my body in a grip soft as moonlight yet firm as a hangman’s noose. The sense that we were no longer alone grew, became a haze before my eyes, shot with a light that I cannot describe even though it recurs in the rare dreams—the nightmares—that I remember. My skin flinched away from that contact, hairs erecting across my whole body, and my muscles tensed as a warmth began to permeate me again. With that warmth, offensively intimate, came the sense of a sickening hunger that made me turn and try to run, gibbering with fear like a child fleeing unseen bogeymen, held captive by twisted sheets and the bonds of sleep. There was laughter, there was pursuit, and in the end, there was capture.
Backed into a corner of my mind, unable to flee any farther, I hid from what approached, unable to confront my stalker. There came a gentle touch at that symbolic arm covering my eyes, a touch that became a prying, firm and demanding. I screamed, flailing out with the hand, echoes of my scream rebounding from the walls of my skull to torment my ears and feeding back into more screams.
“Open!” cracked the voice of the mage, penetrating through all the other signals vying for my attention.
“Yes, open,” echoed another voice, sinister with promise.
My last defense was to draw into a ball, fetal, the child brought to bay and hiding in a garderobe, unable to face what lurks just outside the opening door, knowing it is nothing so innocent as the arms of a parent—not even the one who beat you senseless more nights than not. Those final walls crumbled and were as naught. Surrounded in my own mind, I recoiled and found myself unable to retreat further. A gentle hand caught my jaw, lifted my face upwards, held my eyes to meet those of my assailant. And the face that looked down on me was my own, distorted with that unclean hunger.
The pain began then, as that face faded away and I felt the walls of my body melting, yielding to an intense pressure. It was as I imagined being broken on the rack must feel, though the stretching came from within, not without. An all-consuming wave of pain contorted me, the agony mounting higher and higher while the child still crouched in the ruins of the garderobe, shrieking in fear.
Then something snapped, and I soared free into welcoming darkness.
There were voices, those of Orgrim and another whose voice was familiar but whose identity I could not ascertain. As my eyes opened, both voices ceased, leaving me in silence.
I lay on my side in a tiny room, supported above a bare stone floor by a rough, sturdy bed that was far too small for me. I was buried deep beneath a layer of blankets, knees half drawn up to my chest and enveloped as in swaddling clothes. Every inch of my body ached as if I’d been overexerting myself for days, but the pain was comforting because it meant I was no longer dreaming. My vision cleared, revealing I was alone save for the grey-haired sage who had become the dark wizard of my nightmare, for such it had obviously been; as I’ve mentioned, the only dreams I remember are my nightmares. My mind followed my vision, clearing rapidly, and panic rose in my breast once more as the elements of the nightmare returned.
A firm hand pushed me back against the pillows, and I realized I’d tried to sit up. Orgrim appraised me for a moment, guardedly, then relaxed and let that familiar warmth return to his face. “Welcome back, Morley. You’ll be glad to know that the transformation worked.”
“Worked?” My voice sounded odd, somehow fuller and deeper than I remembered.
“Yes. You are a man as normal as any other, as you desired.” Stiffly, the old man rose from the stool he’d occupied and limped across the room to where a mirror leaned, face to the wall. Holding the frame close against his body, fingers clasping its carved edges, Orgrim returned to sit by my side, then turned the mirror towards me. “See?”
Someone calm but weary stared back, handsome, intelligent, but wearing a shocked look and dark bruises beneath his eyes. It was a stranger, familiar only in the eyes that greeted me every other time I’d looked in a mirror. My mirror, though somehow smaller than it had been before! In wonder, I lifted a hand to “my” face, wincing at the pain such a simple motion evoked, seeing the stranger wince in time with the pain that surged in my abused muscles and bones. Long, graceful fingers stroked that face, even as I felt their caress. Awestricken, I lifted my gaze to Orgrim.
“Is this real? Is it forever?”
“Aye, it is both.” The kindly face creased in a grin as tears sprang up in my eyes, tears of joy and gratitude. Even though a part of me struggled to reconcile the gentle smile with the masterful stranger of my nightmare, I felt elation surge in my breast and used that energy to clamp down on my tears. Tears, as I’ve already mentioned, can be dangerous for one such as I, for they wash away the self-discipline that protects me. I dabbed at my eyes, hurting myself momentarily before my new hands responded to my urging and applied proper pressure. I looked once more at the mirror, just as my benefactor moved to take it away. The mirror tilted away from me, and I caught a glimpse of something disturbing before Orgrim’s words recaptured my attention.
“... of course you’ll be weak for several days yet. What we did to your body was not gentle. Sleep now, and when you have recovered enough, we shall discuss what I will require of you.”
There was something in his voice that compelled, some part of me that answered, and I felt a wave of weariness sweep over me. I sank back into the sheets, wondering as I did whether I’d imagined that Orgrim’s reflection had been absent from the mirror.
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