Of friends and fiends
I have never seen a place with so many wards placed around it. Luckily, I am good at detecting them, having helped my Master place many as an apprentice wizard, and good at bypassing them because of my experience as a thief.
“If these wards are the extent of the Wizards’ Bain challenge,” Karack, my demon companion, said, “my opinion of wizards is going to fall lower than it already has.”
“They are pretty simple,” I agreed. “I think they are here to hide the place and keep out the uninvited.”
“I suppose I am one of the uninvited.”
“You suppose? When I ate that wizard’s brain and absorbed his memories I did not find a single thought about inviting you to this challenge. I admit thoughts are different from memories, so I might have missed it. Most of his immediate concerns focused on the fact that I was a demon, and the realization that his binding spell had not worked.”
“Your point is taken. I am one of the uninvited, but I have been trained to magic, so I consider myself as one of the invited no matter how my knowledge of the Bain was gained.” We bypassed a simple befuddling spell meant to turn a person around and point them back the way they had come with no knowledge of what had changed. It was well done, but easy to bypass. All we had to do was initiate a sound dampening spell—one of the few uses for that spell considering the ringing in your ears that accompanies its use.
We beat the next ward with an invisibility spell, and the one after that with a glamour spell that made us look like animals. I was a faun and Karack was a bear. Glamour spells are simpler when you don’t have to deal with hiding extra mass, but Karack did his, so I didn’t have to worry about his bulk. The next spell was anything but simple.
“What was that?” Karack said. We both stopped walking.
“I felt something, but I don’t know what it was,” I said. “Back up some.” When I tried to step backwards, I ran into a solid barrier. “I can’t go back.”
“Neither can I,” Karack added.
“I guess when an apprentice gets this far, backing out is no longer an option.”
“That is one possibility.” I looked at him. He was looking towards the sky. “I wonder how high this thing goes,” he mused as his wings unfurled. He rose ungracefully into the sky. Demon fly with a frump, frump movement where they drop a little between each beat of their wings. Flying cows would be more graceful. Karack was back on the ground in moments.
“There is no way over it which adds to the mystery.”
“What are you talking about?”
He looked at me with an expression that said dumb human. An expression he used too often in my opinion.
“If the barrier is meant to keep an apprentice from backing out as you have suggested, why is it keeping me in as well?”
“I see what you mean. A barrier that will stop a demon is different from one that is meant to stop an apprentice wizard unless demons use this place for testing as well.” He gave me that, dumb human, look again.
“Demons don’t get tested like this.”
“Are there any clues in the memories you acquired?”
“I will check. In the meantime we should continue on.”
I readied a couple of blasting spells, an invisibility spell, and a climbing spell, in case I needed to get up into a tree. The forest we traversed was made up of tall evergreens which had few if any branches low enough for me to reach without aid. Karack had taught me the blasting spells. I already knew the invisibility spell and the climbing spell. I am a thief after all. I also knew one blaster spell, but it was one that all apprentice wizards are taught for protection, simple and not as deadly as Karack’s were.
That was one of the things I had noticed about Karack’s magic. It is used to cause harm. Human wizards use magic for many purposes. Attack and defense spells are a small part of their repertoire. Demon magic is darker, more sinister. They are adept at drawing energy from items like lamps and creatures like will-o’-the-wisps. Karack snacked on a few of those as we made our way here, sucked the ghost fire right out of them.
We made our way carefully through the woods until we came to a cleared area around a walled city. At first the deserted state of the place wasn’t readily apparent. The walls and the open gate we could see as we approached looked solid, but up close we saw that the place was covered in cobwebs. Even the flag that drooped lifelessly above the gate was covered in webs. Only one of the two gates was open, and the opening it left was full of webs.
“We should look for a different gate,” I said.
“Look at the webs. No one has been through that gateway in ages. My old Master told me that one or two apprentices come here every year. They must enter somewhere else.”
“Unless they climb the wall,” Karack suggested.
“It looks like a difficult climb. Nice stone work with flush seams makes for hard climbing.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Karack said. “I would just fly to the top.”
“Why don’t you fly up there and take a look around?”
Karack unfolded his wings, shook them out, and beat his way into the sky. He looks so ungainly when he flies, so I expected him to head straight for the top of the wall and perch there, but he surprised me. He flew above the wall and disappeared from sight, returning to view a few moments later before landing back beside me.
“It looks like a deserted city. Nothing is moving about. No smoke from chimneys. No sounds.” He waited for me to say something, but not for long.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked.
“I don’t like the webs. They don’t make sense. How could other apprentices have entered without breaking them? Was there anything in the wizard’s memories that said what to do when we got here?”
“I want to climb the wall.”
“You will be climbing in the dark if you wait much longer.”
Karack was right. Shadows were beginning to lengthen. I pulled up my climbing spell and tweaked it for a wall instead of a tree. I walked to the wall, activated the spell, and climbed. I heard Karack’s wings pushing air but didn’t look. When I reached the top, he was standing on a walkway that ran along the inside of the wall just below the crenulation. I joined him.
There was a small building perched above the gates, The entrance to it was full of cobwebs, but luckily the stairway to the courtyard was located before the entrance to the building. We descended. The silence of the place made our footsteps sound loud to my ears. Reaching the ground, we moved away from the wall until we were closer to the centre of the courtyard.
“What now?” Karack asked.
“I have no idea,” I admitted. “I remember my old Master saying that an apprentice must enter the city, but not spend the night there. I think we should look around. Maybe there’s a wall or a scroll I have to write my name on. Or I could look for something I can take that proves I was here. This domed building looks important. Let’s look there.”
We made our way to the stairs that led up to the doors. I am reluctant to call it a palace although some aspects were clearly meant to impress a visitor. Immense gold columns held up a roof that jutted out from the wall offering shelter when someone stood at the doorway. The columns were painted instead of covered in gold leaf as I had hoped. The double doors stood slightly ajar, and the opening they created was clear of webs. A feature Karack pointed out to me while I was studying the carvings on the doors.
“It supports your idea of people climbing the walls to get in instead of using the gates. What do you make of the relief on the doors?” I had my opinion, but I wanted his take on them as well.
“The central figure could be a high priest. The sphere he is holding up is probably a gem or a magical orb. Everything else looks to be animals and people. I don’t like the style of the sculpture. It makes everything except the main man look skinny and close to death.”
“What about all the other orbs on the surrounding floor?”
“Maybe they symbolize wealth or prosperity that he is offering to the others. Like he’s saying take an orb and be like me.”
“I get the same impression. It suggests to me that an apprentice is supposed to come here, find an orb, and take it away.”
“So we should go in and look for a pile of orbs?”
I made a light and floated it above my head. We walked to the opening, and I sent the light through. It cast a circle of illumination on the floor. Nothing happened, so we entered. Evening was coming on quickly outside, but it was already dark within. I motioned my light back to my hand and then tossed it up into the air. At the same time I spoke the words to increase the glow.
It was a large domed room with a raised altar in the centre on which the body of a man rested. Possibly the same one depicted on the doors. A clear glass orb rested on his chest. On the floor around the platform were other orbs. We crept forward.
“Is that a carving or a body?” I asked when we were close.
“I detect no life force,” Karack replied. “But the details are amazing if it was carved. I would suggest some type of preservation spell coming from the orb. There is plenty of power contained in it.”
I knelt down and examined the other orbs. They were clear like the one in the bowl, but I could not detect any power coming from them. Every wizard I have ever met owns a crystal ball, but I have never seen one for sale. I stood and looked around. The room was empty except for the orbs, the altar, and the figure.
“I’m taking an orb,” I told Karack.
“Good idea. I believe that is what the relief on the doors suggests you do.”
I knelt down and pulled the sleeve of my shirt over my hand before giving one of the orbs a tentative touch. Nothing happened, so I opened my pouch, positioned it as close as possible and flipped an orb into it.
“Let’s go,” I said. We retraced our steps to the doorway. I retracted my light, and we left. In a short while we were back on top of the wall. Descending took longer than climbing up. Climbing spells are meant for going up. I had to be careful and move slowly as I went down. Karack used his flying cow routine to descend. I was thinking it would be nice to have wings when he must have become impatient with my snail pace descent. I was only about a third of the way down when he flew up and pulled me off the wall. We went down so fast I figured I was going to look like a cow flop when I landed. He landed with a thump and then lowered me to ground.
“Thanks,” I managed to say, “but warn me next time.” He just laughed.
“Next time use a float spell,” he advised.
“I don’t know a spell that allows me to float.” He gave me that dumb human look.
“Listen carefully. I don’t like to teach spells twice or three or four times as you seem to require.” That hurt my feelings, but I listened carefully as we walked away from the city.
We made our way back to the woods without incident. The afternoon light was almost gone when we reached the barrier. I walked through it without realizing it was there, but it stopped Karack like it had stopped both of us before. When I tried to walk back to him it stopped me.
“It has to be the orb,” I said, after considering the situation. “It can pass out but not in. Well not when someone is holding it. Let me try to throw it to you.”
“Nice try,” Karack said when the orb failed to pass. “I think I have to go back and get one if I want to leave.”
“It will be dark by the time you get there, and my Master said not to spend the night there.”
“Your Master said apprentice wizards should not spend the night there. I am a demon. I see in the dark. I’ll be back before moon rise.”
“I’ll build a fire,” I called to him as he headed back towards the city. “So you can find me when you get back.”
I built a fire. The moon rose. Karack failed to return.
I walked up to the barrier and marked the location with a stick in the ground. A question had occurred to me as I waited. Could I pass back through it if I wasn’t carrying the orb? I placed the orb back by my fire and walked carefully up to the barrier. When I reached out with one arm, it passed the stick with nothing but a slight tingle. I went back and picked up the orb and tried to reach past the barrier again. My arm stopped. I wrestled with my dilemma.
How long should I wait? Should I leave? If I left the orb and crossed the barrier, it meant I had to return to the city to get another one. I might be risking my life for Karack. Did I want to do that? He is a demon after all. Sure, we have been together for some time now, but how much do I really owe him. Just because he saved me in the dungeon does that mean I’m in his debt? I saved him in the dungeon as well, so I think we are even on that count. But he had stayed with me since the dungeon even after we got our revenge. Why? Did Karack consider me a friend? Did I consider Karack a friend? I dowsed my fire, buried the orb in the ashes, and headed for Wizards’ Bain.
The moon was well up when I reached the walls. I went to the gates and as I suspected the webs were gone. Karack must have walked through the webs. I was about to follow his example when I noticed the spiders busy rebuilding. Besides being big they stopped as I approached and glared at me, showing their fangs. I went to the wall and activated my climbing spell. From the top everything looked the same except for the light coming from the domed building. When I reached the building, I saw that the doors were open enough to allow a demon to pass, and I could see inside because of the light within.
The figure was still on the altar only now it was standing with the orb held high. Lines of light streamed out from it going in every direction. The strongest went straight up and passed through an opening in the apex of the dome. That was the one I had seen from the top of the wall. Another went straight to Karack who was spread eagle on the ground in front of the altar. Thin stick-like creatures were dancing around him. They might have been men at one time, but their faces were contorted into fiendish features now. Their eyes were sunken deep into gaunt faces, and their teeth protruded like fangs. As they danced, the circle around Karack grew tighter.
If I went in there to help Karack, I was going to end up a meal as well. I had to stop the man on the altar without encountering his minions. All the spells I knew were useless in this situation and trying to fight my way in meant certain death. Could I blast the man or the orb? No. They were too far away for the accuracy required. My eyes were drawn to the streams of light emanating from the orb and then up to the opening in the apex of the dome.
Moving away from the doors I readied my climbing spell and made my way up the outside of the dome. I worked my way around in a circle as I climbed; stopping to place drops of my exploding oil where I figured it would work best. I keyed every drop to the word, up. I readied all three of the blasting spells Karack had taught me and the one I already knew. When I had everything ready, I set the floating spell Karack had just taught me. You would think that having just learned it I would feel confident about using it, but my heart was beating wildly as I stepped from the roof into the hole at the top of the dome.
The spell worked. I floated lower barely a hands span from the light beam. Karack’s eyes were open, but I was too far away to see if he was aware of me. I held my arms straight down pointing between my feet at the orb and the man on the altar. I had a random thought as I descended that I would probably blast my feet off, but I pushed it aside. Luckily the dancing fiends were all concentrating on Karack. No one noticed me. I lined up my blasting spells in my mind and let them rip, one, two, the orb exploded, three, and the man’s head disintegrated. I shifted aim and blasted into the fiends just as I landed. Springing from the altar I saw Karack jump up with a roar and tear into the closest fiends. Destroying the man and the orb had released him as I had hoped. I grabbed two orbs from the floor.
“Karack, head towards the door, I screamed.” He barged into the dancers between us and our escape knocking them out of the way. I followed closely behind him. Within jumping distance of the door I screamed the word, up, and the spells I had rigged on the roof exploded starting the whole dome crashing down. Karack and I didn’t stop running until we reached the top of the stairs that gave access to the top of the wall. A few of the fiends were chasing us, but Karack blasted them as I activated my floating spell and leapt. Karack passed me on the way down and was waiting for me when I landed. We ran. I looked back when we reached the woods, but nothing was following us.
“Hold onto this,” I said as I passed him one of the orbs.
“You came back for me,” he said.
“That’s what friends do.”