The stranger’s back is turned to me when I enter The Cactus Tap. Lost in his whisky glass, he does not spare an old lady like me a glance. Once black hair spills across his once black clothes, draped dusty and bedraggled over his tall and angular frame. A mercenary, I guess, a Near Kingdom veteran in exile and down on his luck. The town sees a lot of the type and they invariably mean trouble—always keen to fence in its pocket of residual magic and auction it off to the highest bidder. Just the sort of newcomer Harkin wants rid of.
Motioning to the young barmaid Teja, I slide into a shadowed corner of the bar. She weaves between the tables, holding aloft a fresh pitcher of dreamwine. “What’s up with the new fella?” I ask.
Teja shakes her head as she sloshes a good measure into my tumbler. “Forget him, Seren. He’s busy drowning his sorrows. If he keeps drinking the way he has been, he’ll drown alongside them.”
I hook the half-full pitcher from her hand and set it on the table. “Sorrows need drowning.”
Teja snorts. “Don’t you follow him, Seren. Town needs you.” She leans down by my ear. “He’s been staring at me all evening. Keeps asking my name, where I come from, how long I’ve been here.” She gives an exaggerated shudder. “Gives me the creeps, he does.”
“You keep an eye on him,” I say. “Lace his whisky with snake venom if he starts getting too familiar.”
Teja laughs as she returns to the bar. I smile after her. Harkin’s step-daughter is slim, dark-haired, a little wild. She is like a younger, carefree sister to me—much to Harkin’s irritation.
I sip the dreamwine and continue to study the stranger’s broad back. Glittering serpents coil along the collar and sleeves of his tattered jacket, details I hadn’t noticed at first. A battlefield trophy perhaps, or stolen from one of his victims. Perhaps he was one of the old king’s dragonriders, homeless and unemployed after the fall of Proximus and the death of his magic-sustained charge.
Something about him seems familiar though. Had we met before? Perhaps he has waited in my queue, looking for some spell. Or maybe we have passed on the way into or out of Pangarang. The road is busy nowadays, what with the growing interest in the Whorl and its ghosts.
By the time I’ve drained my pitcher the evening crowd has filled the Tap. Old Hoots and Madeline Crow strike up a tune. I forget about the dragonrider and surrender myself to the sound of the violin and tambourine. Numb with dreamwine, I dance upon the sawdust-strewn boards, clapping my hands and swinging my skirts. The crowd whistle and stamp and for a while I am as thoughtless as the day I first wandered out of the desert. I almost don’t notice when the stranger comes right up to me and tries to grab hold of my arm.
“You’re real,” he says, staring right at me with piercing green eyes.
My good mood instantly evaporates. I back away from him. “Of course I am.”
“What’s your name?”
“Seren Whitehair. What of it?”
His face darkens. “Liar.”
I admit it. I, who am known to knock sense into brawling drunkards, who has the town urchins in mortal fear of her, the sheriff in the palm of her hand, am unsettled by the stranger’s ferocity. But I’ll be damned before I show it. “What do you want?”
“I said, you’re a liar.” He steps closer. I can feel his heat. “Are you a demon? A ghost? One of them? Did you steal her likeness before you tore out her soul?”
For once I am struck speechless. My heart thuds inside my chest. The others around me have stopped dancing and are looking at the stranger, but I can only focus on his green eyes.
“Well? Which are you? Demon or witch?”
“Hey, is he bothering you?”
One of Harkin’s deputies steps between us with a look of concern on his face. He is new, barely more than a boy, off-duty, and I don’t even know his name. The stranger does not look at him, just pushes him away.
“Demon or witch?” he demands.
The young deputy grabs the stranger’s shoulder. “Hey,” he says, before the stranger’s fist crashes into his chin and sends him tumbling. Old Hoots’ fiddle screeches to a halt.
I return to my senses. How dare this oaf knock the lad down like that?
The stranger is oblivious to the thick silence around him. “What say you? Demon or witch?”
This time I have my answer ready.
I cast my well-practiced spell. The Source may have fled and the Near Kingdom may have crumbled, but—if you are skilled and determined enough to use it—there really is a little magic left.
The stranger drops. He rolls on the sawdust, clutching between his legs.
I am suddenly surrounded by people trying to check that I am unhurt. The punched deputy is already standing, rubbing his jaw, a fearsome look on his face. I almost miss it over the angry voices, but as the stranger is dragged outside by the deputy and the others, mixed in amongst his groans of pain and protest, I think I hear the sound of him laughing.
Sometimes I look out at the stunted yuccas and the orange sands rippling in the afternoon heat and I dream of the ocean. Of rolling waves the color of slate and ice as far as the eye can see. Gulls that wheel and keen. The hiss of the surf as it draws in its breath. The booming crash when it lets it out.
As far as I know I’ve never been near the sea. Pangarang has been my home since I stumbled lost and bewildered out of the desert all those years ago, white haired and empty minded, and Anstel took me in.
Anstel. My heart still stumbles whenever I think of him. My one love. My true love. Silent and strong and not caring about my spell-blasted mind. He took me in and looked after me, never once questioning my lack of a past. He may not have been able to read, and he knew nothing of incantations and spells, but his hands were warm and strong. The way he used the hammer and tongs and flame and water to meld and shape the metal in his smithy was a kind of magic in itself. I would spend hours on the little stool he set in a corner for me watching his muscular frame tilt and swing in the stark light of the furnace, enveloped one moment in billowing steam as he quenched a glowing horseshoe or plough blade, the next glistening orange in the flames. And when those green eyes under those thick dark brows shot me a glance, I felt a flame of sorts kindle within me. Yes, even his memory stirs it still.
After the Source itself was quenched, by whatever means and for whatever reason, we huddled together and promised each other we would survive even if Proximus fell and the Far Kingdom barbarians came to enslave us. But in the end it was a common winter fever that felled my great oak of a man. Before the magic leached from the land a simple healing spell would have saved him; but the healer stood by helpless, her incantations impotent as she reverted to honeyed unctions and herb infusions and eventually to bloodletting—all useless against the sickness that raged through his once powerful frame.
Six winters have passed since my Anstel passed away and I have taken no other man since. Sheriff Harkin knows this, I think, but he still harbours hopes. Sometimes it suits my purposes to keep a man like the sheriff on my side, and to be fair, he has never once been rough or too unkind to me. But he will never replace my Anstel. In the years since the blacksmith’s death, I set about learning all there was to know about the power of the Source in hopes to eke out some effect from its last, dying gasp. Turns out I have quite some talent. Or maybe I’m just more determined than those who learned magic when its use was easy. If I had only known what I do now at the time Anstel grew ill, perhaps I could have saved him. The thought fills me with anger, so I try not to dwell on it. Mostly, I succeed.
I look out at the golden, shifting sand dunes beyond the great sandstone butte known as the Whorl, at the fiery sunsets of the wide desert sky. And they are gray to me. Gray as slate, gray as heaving iron seas.
Despite all the abilities now available to me, I know this to be true. All magic has fled from the world.
It is still dark outside when Harkin’s great clunking footsteps stir me from my drowse. I roll from beneath the tangled covers and hastily tie my gown around me. The sheriff stands in the bedroom doorway.
With my head throbbing from too much dreamwine and too little sleep, I’d much rather stay abed but I bite back my protests and spread the flame from the sentinel candle to its waiting brethren. The smithy’s lone bedroom fills with warm, dancing light.
Harkin ducks inside. He reeks of tobacco, beer, and sweat. He slumps onto a stool and I help tug off his dusty overcoat and boots. I am expecting him to ask about the stranger, to check that I am all right, but instead he is silent. He stretches his neck and repeatedly crushes a rag cloth he has brought with him between his dusty hands.
I knead the knotted muscle in his back. His shoulders are as stiff as two sandstone lintels. He must have been busy all night, on patrol or dealing with some problem in town. He obviously hasn’t yet heard about the commotion at the Tap or he would have mentioned it, stoked full of anger. A part of me relaxes. I don’t want to talk about it right now, don’t want to deal with his desire to protect me or his becoming indignant on my behalf. I just need him to stick to the familiar, comfortable routine.
Often in the night or late evenings he comes round to sit and talk. To complain about the newcomers, those seeking magic in the Whorl. About his lazy deputies. He talks about his dead wife, and about Teja and her wilfulness, about whether he had been right to accept her as his own daughter. All the talk, masking a shyness at his core, shows he trusts me. I listen, or pretend to. And never let him stay.
He bows his head, twists the rag in his hands, and says, “The sandwraiths fed again tonight.”
“There’s no such thing as sandwraiths,” I say. “Haven’t you heard? All magic has gone from the world.”
“Then someone should tell the wraiths. And their victims.”
My fingers probe hard into his flesh. “I thought they were just a story.”
He grunts, hangs his head lower. “We heard screams, Seren. Calls for help from the Whorl. So we went to investigate. Just children playing around, we thought. But we found them in the tunnels.” Under my slowing fingers I feel him shudder. “They’d been sucked dry, Seren. An old man and a young girl. Like the others before. Even dead they looked terrified.”
I look again at the cloth he keeps squeezing between his fingers—a rag doll, taken from the dead girl. My hand stills as Harkin wrings the doll, over and over. As if he can use it to rub every last mote of canyon dust from his hands.
The lowering sun casts long shadows across the parched earth as the stranger approaches. He walks slowly, with no sign of his earlier fury. The bruises the deputy and the others inflicted after they dragged him out of the Tap are still vivid, but not as extensive as I feared.
I did not open my stall that day and put up a sign saying I was indisposed until further notice. People had gathered, grumbled, moved on. Instead, I withdrew to the patch of ground at the rear of the old smithy and tended to the few twisted figs and flowering cacti that dare survive the arid conditions. I like to think of the patch as my garden, but the truth is most of what sets root here can manage just as well without me. One of Anstel’s anvils marks his grave.
The stranger halts a few yards away. He seems pensive, almost fearful.
Straightening up, hoe in hand, I review my well-practiced defensive spells. Harkin has always told me I should employ a guard, that someone might become upset with me, want to claim their money back, or worse. As a lone woman, he said, didn’t I feel vulnerable?
I am confident of my magic.
I ask, “Will I ever learn your name?”
“If you care to believe it, my name is Mevlish. The Once Mighty.”
I peer closer at him. A dragonrider, I thought. But Mevlish the Mighty? The King’s own Dragonmaster? Even I, with my mind half-blasted, have heard the stories about the High Wizard of Proximus. How he kept the free magic rebels of the Far Kingdoms in check using dark magic and dragonfire. How he fought with his mad witch-wife, Kaffryn of Admar, over custody of their daughter Farima. How, most importantly, he had failed as Protector of the Source.
“Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
His laugh is bitter. “As are you, dear Kaffryn.”
My answer is automatic as my mind tries to take in his words. “My name is Seren.”
He flicks his graying hair from his face. A scar from some old but deep wound gleams above his right temple. “You must excuse me for my earlier behavior. I had heard that Pangarang and the Whorl were haunted but I had not expected to see a real ghost.”
His manner is charming, ingratiating even, but I feel a growing chill. Does he really believe he is the greatest wizard ever known? That I am his runaway wife? He is quite mad.
“The sheriff will be here soon.” I regret the words as soon as I speak them. They make me appear frightened. Vulnerable.
He takes a step towards me, holds up his hands. “Please. Just let me explain.”
“Then explain. But don’t get any closer.”
Hands still raised, he looks away, frowns. “I was there when the Source died, Kaffryn. I caused it.” He pauses, perhaps thinking I might interrupt, voice some expression of disbelief or shock. But I say nothing. I don’t know what to say. I think only of how best to disable him if I have to.
“There was a spell,” he continues. “A secret spell. It cancelled all magic around the caster. I used it to breach the Wizard’s Wall, to approach the Source. To extinguish it.”
I can’t help but listen. His voice is full of passion. If what he says is true, then he is the cause of uncountable deaths and misery—the fall of the Near Kingdom. The end of easy magic. The failure of the healer’s spells.
I say softly, “Why?”
“I was following you, Kaffryn. To the Source, where you had hoped to escape me.”
“My name is Seren.”
He takes another step closer. “I knew it was you. As soon as I saw you. Oh, you look different. Older. Your hair. But it’s you, Kaffryn. I know it’s you.” His face twists with sudden emotion. “I understand why you left me, you and Farima, but I’ve changed. Just as the world has changed.”
“I don’t know who you are. I’m not Kaffryn.”
His scarred face darkens. “The Source was never a generator of magic, Kat, did you know that? It was an exit. A hole. All the magic in the world, perhaps beyond, rushing down like water in a funnel, concentrating around it. But the magic had to go somewhere, don’t you see? Emerging elsewhere. If you and Farima escaped through the Source, you had to re-appear somewhere. Changed, damaged. But somewhere.”
I take a step back. His manner has grown too intense for comfort.
“There have always been strange hotspots of magic, even when the Source was strong. Ishmer, Fangard, Iliyer, others. Pangarang, with its mysterious Whorl. All of them insignificant in comparison to the Source, but once it was gone—now they are all that’s left, slowly winking out. What if the Source spread the power it sucked out of the world into many different places? What if you and Farima washed up at one or another of those exits?”
I shake my head. “I don’t…”
“It’s how you came to be in this Godforsaken place, Kaffryn. You and Farima escaped through the Source and you emerged out of the Whorl.”
White light. Heat. Pain and thirst and confusion. Rock beneath my toes. Those were my first memories. The daubed walls of Pangarang’s buildings, shimmering like a mirage on the horizon. Or perhaps solid, and me wavering like an illusion.
“And if what you say is true?” My words stumble out as I try to make sense of what he has said, of what I am feeling. “What of it? I don’t remember you. I don’t think I ever will. You’re wasting your time, Mevlish. Or whoever you are.”
I decide then that too much about him is wild. Damaged. He is a stranger to me. It will be better if it stays that way. Even if what he says is true and not some crazed imagining, we could never be reconciled. Kaffryn and her daughter must have run for a reason. For them to risk approaching the toxic strength of the Source at its peak just to escape him… No. This man was dangerous.
Slowly, darkly he says, “Do you know where Farima is? She went through the Source, just like you. And she emerged, somewhere. Some when. Just like you.”
“I don’t have a daughter. No children at all,” I say and begin to choose which spell I will cast against him.
Mevlish steps forward. His boot crushes one of my flowerbeds. “Don’t lie to me, Kat. I always know when you lie to me.”
I open my mouth to cast my ward, but mistress of magic or no, I am too slow, too off balance. He beats me. Mevlish the Mighty, High Wizard of Proximus, his incantation is flawless. If the Source had still been with us, his spell would have rent the earth, caused the ground to swallow me whole. As it is, in our world almost bereft of power, it is enough.
I am cast into darkness.
Magic flows around me, through me. A warm, gentle stream. Although the ground upon which I lie is rough and hard, the swirling field fills me with a pleasurable tingling sensation, somehow familiar.
And then memory returns. And so does fear.
I open my eyes and try to sit up. A blue glow fills the otherwise dark tunnel. Mevlish squats a few yards away, weaving magic with a gentle murmur, the spell unfamiliar. My hands are tied by the remnants of a torn black shirt. My feet too. A gag stretches tight against my lips.
All these years, and I have never been so close to the Whorl as this. Never inside its twisting, field-formed passages and ravines. The sandstone rock curves, worn smooth, the grain shaped by the force of magic. Somewhere at the Whorl’s heart, fading over time perhaps, but stronger here than most everywhere else, magic still emerges.
It makes no difference what curse I decide to unleash. Although I can moan and groan, with the gag in place I cannot form words to speak or cast any spell.
Mevlish stops his incantation. His eyes refocus and he looks down at me, the determined expression on his face softening. “You know, I never really enjoyed being around magic or casting spells.”
His tone is garrulous, conversational. As if he is sitting across the bar from me in The Cactus Tap and we are sharing a friendly drink. Only the faint sheen of sweat on his face betrays any tension. “Oh, I was brought up to be a wizard by my father, like his father before him. I was dutiful enough in my role and responsibilities but the field always pressed on me. Always there, oppressive. But once I woke and the Source was gone—I surely missed it. Like a part of me, taken forever.”
I don’t think he hears or understands my garbled curses in reply. I strain against my makeshift bonds but they remain tight.
“This? Here? This is nothing.” He pats the rock beside him. “A fraction of the power that used to be available even at the far edge of the Near Kingdom. But compared to what we have now…?” He hunches his shoulders, breathes in the dusty air. Shudders. “It feels different, this field. Wilder. A different type of magic entirely.” He smiles at me and I feel a chill down to my core. “With the right spell perhaps I can create a new Source. One where the magic will allow us to be a family again. Re-united.”
I try to kick out with my tied feet, but he edges away easily. He says, “I’m glad we met again, Kaffryn.”
And then he closes his eyes and restarts his chant. Louder. More urgent. It does not take long, then, for the ghosts to emerge.
Slowly at first.
Pale dragons, breathing pale flames. Before them gathers a vast army of grotesque creatures, rising from the ground. A gray city by a gray sea, somehow familiar. A young woman standing on a high balcony. Me, or some version of me. Dark haired and beautiful. And then a lonely gray tower guarding a narrow pass, tumbled rocks and mountains behind, a ridge, and a pulsating, churning blue light beyond.
There is a small girl. Braided hair. Perhaps eight or nine years of age. Mevlish sits beside her bed, reading a child’s spellbook. She climbs the narrow pass with him. She is calling beside the intense blue light. I look at her pale face and dark hair. I know who she is now. A pulse of light blinds me and when it fades, Mevlish is alone in a flattened landscape of ash and devastation. He is hunched over. He is crying.
He is howling.
At first I think I imagine it. A twisted shadow rises above him like greasy smoke. The flow of magic stronger. Darker. Polluted.
Harkin’s voice comes echoing from somewhere within the labyrinth of tunnels. Nearby. My heart leaps with relief. Hope. I turn, struggling awkwardly to my knees. I try to shout, but only an animal mewl escapes the thick gag, drowned out by the growing roar of the field. My name is called again. I moan as loudly as I can, fight against my bonds. I kneel up, somehow stagger to my feet, the rock wall supporting me.
Mevlish takes no notice. He is enraptured by his visions made real. Dark energy fills him, funnels through him. His whole body glows—but he seems thinner, less substantial. His eyes are rolled back. He is blind.
Harkin barrels out of the dark tunnel. Behind him is his young deputy, the one who had tried to protect me in the Tap, his face drawn in terror. The sheriff crushes me in a brief but fierce hug before tearing off my gag. I try to cry out a warning, but it’s too late. Mevlish’s shadow dragon descends before he has time to react. He throws up his arm to protect me from the black flames, and we both fall, tumbling into a deep runnel beside the ledge where Mevlish stands. I hear the deputy screaming, high-pitched, but Harkin’s body on top of mine blocks him from view.
We disentangle from each other and I lurch onto my knees. My ankles and hands are still bound, but with the gag loosened I am at last free to cast magic. The field here is stronger than any place or time I can remember. It swirls around and through me, its potential intoxicating. But even as I open my mouth to speak, my words stall. What spell can I possibly cast?
Whichever I choose, its effect will be devastating. I can crack the Whorl asunder, make the desert bloom, sweep Pangarang off the map.
Raise Anstel from his dusty grave.
For a moment, the temptation is so strong… to turn back time, to undo what should not be undone, to see my green-eyed love again. Our future reshaped, a daughter of our own… what bad consequence could possibly arise?
A rag doll crushed in Harkin’s hands.
Mevlish’s wild laughter penetrates through the roaring in my ears, and suddenly, for the first time ever, I am scared of the power, of using magic.
Scared of the magic using me.
I close my mouth—and open my eyes. I had not realized I had shut them.
The deputy lies motionless on the ledge beside Mevlish, smoke wreathing his body. Mevlish himself appears oblivious to our presence. He continues to speak at a furious pace, his mouth moving with unnatural speed, uttering gibberish as far as I can tell. He rocks backward and forward, hands flailing, fingers stretching. They elongate, twist, follow the lines of magic. His hair whips around and dances as if alive, thousands of tiny, wispy serpents. He is… dissolving.
Harkin grabs me. A knife glitters in his hands. He slashes down, freeing my hands, then my feet. I stand, unsteady. Harkin turns, face grim, the knife raised in his hand, ready to throw it at the wizard.
“No!” I pull his arm, shout into his ear. “Help your deputy.”
Harkin grimaces but he puts the knife away. We scramble back onto the ledge and grab the young man. He groans and tries to bat us away as we lift him. Together we manage to heave him upright, stagger away from the growing maelstrom, round a turn. Mevlish is no longer visible, but his strange, rapid speech and the fierce blue glow intensify.
We stumble on, fall. Pick ourselves up. Run. Above us, the rock ceiling eventually opens to reveal stars and a stark crescent moon.
Behind us, a roaring, a building pressure. A rising scream, of terror, or perhaps of joy. A pulse of blue light.
And then silence.
Madeline and Old Hoots are in full flow, the Tap raucous tonight. Teja waltzes between the tables, a grin on her face, balancing pitchers and trays of glasses with practiced ease.
Harkin spots me walk in and his sombre face lightens. I smile and nod but instead of joining him I divert to my own table. He half stands, but Teja presses a fresh-filled tumbler into her step-father’s hand and whispers in his ear. He shrugs and sits down, raising the glass in wry salute before turning to watch the dancing. I see his boot tap in time to the music.
Perhaps there is some hope for him. If he is patient and wise enough.
For a while I just sit and watch, soaking in the atmosphere. Little has changed in the days I’ve been away. Newcomers still roll into town, seeking easy magic from the Whorl. Harkin still turns them back whenever he can.
Yet so much has changed, too.
It has been weeks since the man who claimed to be Mevlish the Mighty disappeared into the Whorl, leaving no trace, not even a withered corpse. Not even a ghost. There has been no sign of a new Source, or even the old one re-kindled. If anything, talk of ghosts has faded. There have been no deaths or reports of strange sightings since. Whatever Mevlish had hoped to accomplish, I’m pretty sure he failed.
I quietly acknowledge the gradual procession of subtle nods, meeting of glances, touches on my shoulder. This is my first visit to the Tap since the dragonrider’s disappearance. Various folk who think I have helped them, cured their minor ailments or those of their livestock, people whose babes I have blessed or who just wanted to know tomorrow’s weather (which I have never managed to predict with any accuracy, truth be known). Sometimes I have been nothing more than someone they feel they can talk to. Yet here they are, almost queuing up, wishing me well in their own little ways. It is almost too much, and I consider standing and leaving, but suddenly Teja is there, pushing people away, filling my tumbler to overflowing.
“Glad to see you back, old witch,” she says, breezy as ever.
I stare at her pale face, so like my younger self, suddenly unable to speak. I have asked around. Nobody knows who her real father is. Nobody can remember her mother giving birth to her, only that she came back one day with a grown child daughter. They assume there was some scandal, the father a philandering noble or rootless desert trader who tired of his charge. Teja herself never talks about her childhood.
“We’ve missed you, Seren,” she says.
Before she can move away I catch hold of her hand. “Did I ever tell you how pretty you are, Teja?”
“Yes. All the time.”
“We should talk. You and me.”
She gives me a bemused smile. “Any time. You know where I am.”
Before I can say more she is away, dancing with Harkin’s young deputy to the sound of Old Hoots’ furious sawing. I really must find out his name.
I rub my eyes, sip my dreamwine and watch the couple dancing. How wrong I have been all along.
There is still a little magic left in the world.
If you know where to look.
© 2014 by Henry Szabranski
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