art by Seamus Heffernan, short story by Jad Ziade
Suriya tapped on the door and quickly entered the chamber. Inside, the old man slept, struggling with every breath in the thick, hot air. She lit the lamp beside the alchemical array, giving life to the debris that floated above him, and he lifted himself from his pillow, wheezing, rubbing his eyes. “Master?” she said.
“I am awake,” he whispered.
She lifted the leather sack. “I brought everything. Mandrake root, ginseng, burning ichor, all of it.”
He nodded. “Wrap the reagents in wool and hide them beneath the altar.”
“Now? What if I’m found?”
“Handle it,” he said, and turned to his side. She pulled the hood over her head and returned to the hallway. There, she quickly spoke the spell of invisibility and a shroud of sparkling light shimmered over her head and shoulders. It glowed brighter and brighter until hallway was gone. Then, she and the light were gone and the hallway returned, empty.
She padded toward the stairway as quickly as she dared, mindful of the creaking wood, with her hand over her mouth. The corridor beneath theirs was empty, and the corridor beneath that one, too. She grew confident and ran, passing the grand hall where the sorcerers held council and the foyer beyond, where the twin dragons made of stone sat in silence waiting to come alive and protect those who dwelled above them. She jumped past the beasts.
She had never seen the stone behemoths shift from their stations, yet she had tasted sorcery and ruminated on its mysteries, and there were those who spoke of the dragons’ mighty power. The rich spoke loudest, when they brought their second sons to study magic while their first sons declared edicts in the cities—the new endeavor of humankind, vast, pillared with stone, with grand armies that rumbled the earth for miles. Suriya had never seen that either. The dragons did not wake.
The doors of the keep slid silent at her utterance and she hurried out, and spoke the word to close them. The wind was calm and the rain had stopped some time ago but the earth was still damp. She ran across the courtyard, the wet grass whipping her legs, and climbed the gate, staring at the four gargoyles whom she knew never came to life. Each one clutched a torch that burned forever and threw shadows into all their faces, twisting their leering smiles. Ten feet from the gate the light was gone. Suriya spoke another word and her eyes glowed red, and all that gave heat was known to her. She ran forward, sure of foot, leaping down the hill and climbing the next, after which she saw the old ruins that surrounded the ancient altar and the obelisk built by the ancient founders of the keep. Long ago, she asked the master who they had been and he chided her. He said their very names were invocation.
She ducked under a fallen branch and hurried up toward the altar. Then, someone screamed. She jumped, recognizing the voice. It was one of the boys. She saw him huddling with two others behind the crumbling ruins. Their bodies were like small fires beside the cold rock. The frightened one pointed at her eyes, and the one on his left pulled him down. Then, he peeked, and when she bent forward he stifled a scream. She cursed. The spell of invisibility made her unseen, but the spell of sight made her eyes fiery red. Her pupils must have appeared as twin chir batti floating angry out of the forest. But there was no time to waste with the foolish fears of children.
She mumbled the words of a sounding spell and growled, at first low—like a hungry bear or wolf, then roared as she jumped and kicked rocks toward the broken wall where the boys hid. One of them choked, grabbing at his friend’s sleeve, which made the other scream, and when an owl rushed overhead they all bolted, pushing against each other and leaping over the ancient rubble back toward the keep.
Suriya sighed. If the master were here he would have killed them. He would not have thought what trouble that would bring, but if he saw her now he would reprimand her for her mercy. She hurried to the altar and knelt beneath the thick stone slab, reciting the sorcery he taught her. The earth parted, grumbled deeper than she had, and she placed the reagents, wrapped in wool, in the middle of the small hole. She spoke the sorcery again and the earth swallowed the loot.
When she sneaked back into the master’s chamber he was in a deep sleep. She pulled her bedroll from beneath his bed, and lay beside him. It will happen tomorrow, she told herself, or the next day.
She woke as the master stumbled over her, and she climbed to the foot of the bed where she sat rubbing her eyes.
“Trouble last night?” he said.
He grunted and handed her a clay mug. “Today?” she asked.
“Today,” he said simply, and the thrill filled her, but she subdued herself and took a long pull from the mug.
“What if they stop us?”
“They won’t,” he said, trifling with the alchemical array, stoppering potions and stuffing them into his belt. “I’ll live this last day as I would any other, and you’ll hide here. When the sun sets we depart the keep and invoke the ancient power.”
“You will be free to do what you want. I’m old, but I keep my word.”
“Of course,” she said, bowing her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” he said. “When you wake next you’ll never have to apologize again.” He pulled his robe over his shoulders and clutched the door handle. “Stay.”
She nodded and when he left she ate the bread and cheese left for her. She passed the time recounting spells he had taught her—the first a fixing spell, the second a minor enchantment for rodents and other meddlesome critters. Long ago, when he had caught her melding the enchantment with another to drive a cloud of wasps at the rats that crawled in the old forest he laughed and taught her more. She kept pace with his lessons and he brought her books to study in private. He told her the boys he taught in the great chambers of the keep were envious of his power, but she, a junior to most of them and already wielding double their skill, showed a true aptitude for magic. But shortly afterward she had grown bored, and after her third attempt at escape, he taught her the invisibility spell and gave her allowance to explore the halls and the wood beyond the keep—but always unseen, for the other mages would kill her if they found her.
It was then that the two began their travels together to the old forest. Him, to gather reagents, and her cloaked in sorcery beside him. They often saw students gathering herbs, moss, and small creatures for the other wizened masters of the keep, but her master never accepted the aid of his apprentices. It wasn’t until much later when he told her why, but she only had to wait until their third outing to see him snuff the life of a lad she had seen in the courtyard of the keep twice before. His name was Arturos and he had stumbled across them as the master was pulling free a piece of crud—a root, half rotten—useless for anything but the old invocation. The boy had to be killed, the master explained. She told him the boy had no idea what the master sought. Afterward, she asked him if he intended on killing her. He laughed and pointed toward the keep. “You know no one, child. And should the invocation fail, my wisdom must live on through you.” Many days passed and he did not kill in front of her again.
She paced, then sat back down on the bed. When the sun set he returned, found her sleeping and gently nudged her awake. He held the Staff of the Founders which had been kept hidden from all the masters—even him—in the highest sanctum of the keep, in the chamber of the Ancient One. “Come,” he bid her, holding the wooden staff proudly, but she did not come.
“What did you do?” she said. He rapped her calf with the butt of the staff.
“Come and see.”
She stood, crooked her fingers in symmetry to speak the words of invisibility.
“There is no need,” he said, and shook her hands, spoiling the spell.
“What of the others?” she said.
He raised the staff. “The others will not dare confront us.”
She followed him down the hall to the stairs she had rushed down the night before and when they were halfway down and the master’s step still had not slowed the thrill of their daring filled her. As if sensing it he smiled and took her hand, pointing with the staff to the foot of the spiraling stairs where two dead bodies waited. He stepped over the first, and when she hesitated, he pulled her. “I don’t want to kill,” she said.
“You won’t have to,” he answered.
There were no bodies in the corridor beyond, nor in the corridor beneath them, and the two hurried until they reached the grand hall where the sorcerers held council. There, a gathering awaited them and the master laughed bitterly.
“You hold the Staff of the Founders,” said one of the mages, who was in front of the others.
“And a girl with you!” said another, who hid behind the first speaker.
The master pushed Suriya behind him and raised the Founders’ Staff, causing a light to pulse from the ruby fastened to its end. “You don’t dare!” said one of the mages, and the master smashed the butt of the staff against the stone floor. A fiery beam shot from the ruby and engulfed the one who dared speak first, igniting his heavy robe in flame and blasting him past the other wizards until he tumbled onto the floor, screaming horribly. The master roared with laughter.
Half of the gathering fled. The others raised their hands, spun symbols in the air, shouted the words that would call fire, ice, lightning, and all the other powers of the earth to destroy the master. Suriya trembled, held tightly to the back of his robe, and buried her head just as the air crackled and a chill wind blew through her tunic. Then, the wind was gone and a colossal heat fell on them, but was gone, too, just before she was sure her flesh would blister. The master held the staff before him, casting from it a translucent shield that surrounded them. Beyond the shield the elements raged. An inferno burned in the midst of a blizzard and the floor cracked as bolts of lightning crashed into the master’s shield, loosening his grip on the staff. The wizards spread around them, hurling death again and again. One of them smiled, then laughed wickedly when the master lurched forward. Suriya bellowed for mercy.
The master scowled at her. “Enough!” he yelled, and called a vile sorcery down upon the foe closest to them. Mist rose from the cracked floor and encircled the man, tightening around him, contorting his limbs in bonds stronger than steel and thinner than air. The mist sucked blood from his pores until his skin dried and stretched. He cried once and fell, desiccated, and the mist, carrying with it the man’s blood, disappeared back into the cracked floor as a red flush rose in the master’s cheeks and his grip on the staff returned. The others shrieked in horror, called on the Anunaki for protection and fled as fast as they could.
The master pulled Suriya toward the door of the keep, where two looming shadows covered the threshold of the foyer. She heard stone crack and crumble, and the dragons came alive and cried in anger. One climbed the rafters and the other bore down on the old man and the girl. The beast clawed the magic shield, bit at its sides, but broke nothing. The other swooped down, its jaws open, spitting gouts of flame onto the two. Suriya watched in amazement as the dragon-fire slid like curled silk off the side of the translucent shield, melting the tiles and catching fire to the old tapestries. But the shield held and the dragon shrieked furiously and flew up, disappearing into the shadows. Its twin stood its ground, raking its claws against the impenetrable magic, ignoring the fire beneath its scaled feet. It hurled its girth against them again and again, but the master stood immovable. Then its twin returned, plummeting recklessly onto the magical barrier, its talons at first finding no purchase until the barrier cracked under the weight of the beast. The master cried. “The staff is impregnable!” Suriya screamed at him to get down as the shield shattered into burning shards that flew at the dragon and seared its side.
Enraged, the beast sank its jaws into the master’s chest, and the master flung Suriya away with unnatural power, sending her flying between the lumbering beasts to skid against the doorway of the keep. He cried again as the second dragon seized his arm between its maw and clasped its talons over his scalp. Blood gushed over the old man’s eyes and he flung the staff after Suriya before he was buried beneath the beasts that mauled him.
The girl covered her mouth to drown a scream. When she rose she aimed the staff at the dragons and held still, unable to conjure the power to destroy them. She turned and uttered the invisibility spell as quickly as she could. The shimmering cloak dropped on her head, took her from danger, and she watched hidden as the beasts tore the old man apart. When they were done they sniffed the air, memory of the girl tickling their feeble minds, but their dragon-scent could not find her.
She inched forward, waiting for the fire to subside, willing herself not to cough or heave for breath, until the dragons loomed before her. One licked the other where the master’s shield had shattered and seared the beast’s hide. Suriya knelt between them, her head turned away from the master’s shredded body, searching with one hand for his satchel. When her fingers closed around the leather strap she heard the dragon above her growl, and froze.
“No,” she whispered, and stood, defiant. The dragons protested, sniffing the air and clawing the stone, but she was gone, slipping away from the keep and running toward the old wood. The master’s wisdom would live on through her and she would speak the old invocation as he intended, and never again live in the shadow of man nor beast.
She waited a week in the deep of the forest well away from the dark hollows where the boys sought reagents for their masters. It did not trouble her; she knew how to live in the wild, but she missed the old man and twice she thought she heard him snoring but woke to find only shade and the chirp of crickets. When the moon was full she sneaked through the wild growths to the edge of the wood where she could spy the altar and the obelisk at the foot of the small hill beside the big hill near the keep in the clearing the founders had cut centuries ago. The sorcerers and apprentices now filled the space, waiting for something, holding torches high. The moon floated above them, orange and giant. The master had taught her that on such nights magic was whispered by the wind and the earth answered in kind. She had studied the master’s book well while she hid, and read everything else in the satchel. Now she knew the dread invocation by heart. She spoke the first words softly, “In life there is no life. In death there is life everlasting.” Those who filled the clearing with their torchlight could not yet hear her.
She thought to count their number, but did not; with the staff in hand and the master’s knowledge in mind and the vengeance of youth beating in her heart they would stand no chance. She pulled the cowl back from her brow and strode forward.
A small boy saw her first. He pulled his master’s elbow, pointing toward her, his eyes big and full of fear. His master squinted, unsure of what he saw until it was too late. Suriya cast a necromancy at the mage and the light that pulsed from the Staff of the Founders smashed whatever wards he had placed on his body. His ribcage burst open, spraying those nearby with blood while entrails crawled up out of the hole and wrapped themselves around his throat. He pulled, then choked, and a new life took his limbs and straightened him and he reached for the boy who still held his elbow, moaning with hunger and trapping the boy’s skull between his palms. This was a spell the master had never taught Suriya. She found it in his book, toward the end, detailed from the period when he traveled to Uruk, then north to Kish, before returning to the keep. Its power was absolute, and those in the gathering screamed.
She waved the staff to the east, toward those farthest from the horror, those who ran away, and before them the grass burst into fire twice the height of a man in a long line that caught them from end to end. Most of them stumbled back, but a few fell forward and burned. The wall of fire raged and crept forward. She summoned the same fire to the west and herded her foes until the crowd pushed against itself and from the center emerged a master wielding a crooked wand made of cedar wood. He ran toward Suriya and screamed a curse and aimed the wand at her face. She turned away just as acid shot from the wand’s end and splashed her raised hand and forearm, burning through the wool. She screamed, dropped the staff, and pulled against the tunic to free herself from the pain.
But the mage was on top of her, kicking her and smashing his heel down on the staff when she grabbed for it again. He cast a spell that shot dazzling colors from his fingers, blinding her, and he beat her on the head and back. She cried, begged him to stop, and he cursed her again. But Suriya had learned other tricks from the old man’s book. She waited until he struck her close to the brow and grabbed his wrist to pull herself up. He stumbled back, but she grabbed his collar and spat the same spell the old man had used in the keep. Again, the mist swam up from the earth and her opponent’s cheeks hollowed and his eyes rolled back. He tried to scream but his throat shriveled, and he shook until the withering skin across his brow split in a long, brown line.
Suriya dropped the dried corpse as the flesh on her arm knitted itself. She dispelled his blinding magic with ease and picked up her staff to point it down at the gathering. Waves of bedlam swam over the crowd. The fires roasted those who could not push inward and the dead man strangled by his own intestines had murdered several more. Some of them rose like him to attack their brethren. One of them stared at her with his dead eyes and Suriya gasped, so struck with horror that she almost turned back and ran to the woods, but instead raised her staff and commanded it to send shocks of lightning into the crowd, dealing death more quickly than the fires and the walking corpses. When it was done, she sat to cry, and afterward walked over the dead to revoke the spell of hiding protecting the reagents she had brought to the altar a week before.
They were all there, wrapped in wool. Mandrake root, ginseng, burning ichor, and the others. She laid them on the altar in the order indicated in the old man’s book, then melted fat from the bodies of the dead and poured the brew over half the reagents, and lit others in clay bowls. She could hear what the master had told her—the whispers of sorcery in the wind and the earth that answered. The moon whispered as well, no longer dim and orange, having cast away the pale clouds and hung bloated in deep red.
Suriya bowed her head and recited the first words of the invocation. The wind rose and the dead behind her groaned from where they lay, singing her praise. She recited again, louder, until the fat on the altar boiled and stank, and the roots and bones and seeds she burned in the clay bowls smoked a swirl of gray up at her, filling her mouth and nostrils and ears. She choked, then breathed as deeply as she could, speaking the words again, even louder, as the wind howled to outdo her. “In life there is no life!” she cried. “In death there is life everlasting!”
The smoke puffed out all at once, choked her and she coughed, doubling over onto the altar. The bubbling fat burned her arm, but she could not feel it. Her heart stopped, and a curtain was thrown over the world until light pierced through it again and when she opened her eyes the night air smelled sweet and the leaves on the trees were as clear as grass in the bright morning. The altar had rumbled, shook her off to the ground, and cracked down the middle. One half of the slab had fallen and crushed the head of a corpse beside her, but the living dead stood, one-by-one, and lifted her to her feet, waiting, hungry. She raised her hand where the skin was burned and glistened with melted fat, but there was no pain, and though the wind blew so angrily that her companions swayed from side-to-side, she felt no cold. The staff became heavy in her hand, its mysteries coming alive in her mind, but she could not dwell on them for sadness filled her. The invocation was true. She wished the old man was alive to taste it, and to see her in victory. But she knew he was dead, and she was not.