By Edward Ahern
Those who dared to meet the Old One waited in a glade below his hut until I escorted them up the hill. On this summer morning there was only one person standing in the glade, a wizened, elderly woman. I recognized her as I approached, and fear flickered through me.
The woman discerned my worry. “Calm yourself, servant. I am come to parlay with the Old One.”
“It is a wonder to encounter you, venerable Horflog. Please, let me escort you to him.”
She nodded, saying nothing. She hobbled and used a staff, but set a hard pace, and I had to lengthen my stride to keep up. As we walked, I forced myself to ask, “Charlong and our daughter, they are alive?”
“They live unscarred. You and the slut bred well, Malame. Charlong has talent, and the child has more. Perhaps I should arrange another coupling.”
It was not a question. “May I ask the child’s name?”
“You may ask, I may not tell.”
The Old One had divined her approach and was waiting outside his hut. They bowed in silence to each other, ozone faintly crackling around them as their protective spells shifted. They conversed without speaking aloud for several hundred heartbeats, then both looked at me and began saying words I could hear.
“Listen closely, Malame. Horflog has told me of a visitor who will come to us in two or three days. She asks…”
The woman’s aura sputtered, casting blue light over the gullies of her wrinkled skin.
“That is, advises—that we must either decline the request or turn it to our advantage. She believes that honoring the request will jeopardize our existence.”
“What is to be done, venerable one?”
“A great deal, so try not to lose my words.”
The Old One described for me, in the time it takes to eat a meal, what I would do on their behalf. When he finished, Horflog and the Old One bowed to each other, the unseen waves of their spells pushing into each other and forming a dirty rainbow.
There were no audible goodbyes between the two adepts, and I escorted the old woman back down the hill. I stepped to one side in the clearing so she could continue. The look in my eyes betrayed me. She studied me briefly.
“Saccul. The whelp’s name is Saccul. If she does not die or disobey me she will attain great malevolence.”
When I returned to the Old One’s hut he was still standing outside it, his thoughts bending the air around him. I waited, saying nothing.
He roused after perhaps a hundred breaths and glanced at me. “She is a grasping hag, but not wrong. I have things she shall not know of for you to accomplish during your absence.”
“I assumed as much, Master. Will you not be leading me on this task?”
“No. You have sufficient goetic competence to be put to the test on your own. But sympathy and corporeal urges could still betray you. Come into the hut.”
Once inside we sat cross-legged on the dirt floor facing each other, our knees almost touching. The Old One grabbed a blanket of dragon scale from off of his cot and threw it over both our heads. Dragon skin is as useless as iron in holding in warmth, but shields words and thoughts from outer presences.
He spoke without preface—not the hidden language he had used with Horflog, but an almost extinct dialect we used between ourselves. His plan had mysteries within lies, making success more difficult. I listened some while without responding but at one point interjected. “We will kill him, Master?”
“Almost so. Do not fail. I am able to torment you beyond death.”
I resisted the urge to smile. As I had progressed the Old One used increasingly painful threats and punishments to hone my skills. He did not love anyone, including me, but he gave me what I craved more, grudging respect for my abilities. He was viewed by most as evil, but I knew him to be driven by unknowable, amoral purpose.
I nodded. “I shall make every effort to avoid an accursed afterlife.”
The Old One’s thoughts turned inward, where I could not follow. Then: “I send you to encounter a sorcerer stronger and perhaps craftier than you. It is probable you will be spiritually disemboweled. Prove this wrong.”
The emissary, a rotund courtier names Cortanus, arrived two days later and requested that the Old One visit his master, Aldrag the Benevolent, who a few months earlier had slaughtered several hundred villagers suspected of underpaying their tithes. Aldrag, a man with considerable ambition, wished the Old One’s assistance in becoming a god-king.
Once Cortanus had rambled to a close and the Old One had agreed to a visit, I escorted him off the hill and returned to the Old One.
“Listen carefully, Malame. Aldrag is protected by a necromancer, a skilled adept. You must survive on cunning rather than magic.”
I paused a heartbeat. “And if I succeed we will extract rich marrow from the bones of Aldrag’s hubris.”
The Old One’s snorted. “Just so. Prepare yourself. I must train you in a ritual and it would be annoying if you were to die while learning it.”
Aldrag’s capital was called Surpleice, and it required ten horse-abusing days for me to reach it. I anticipated that I’d arrived at least two days before Cortanus, who would have treated himself more gently. Once the horse was stabled I went to the central souk. While I was being offered food, wine and assorted vices I queried the merchants about their lord.
Aldrag’s forced theocracy was not popular, nor was Aldrag himself, but the city was without war or pestilence, and the locals paid lip service and tithes to Aldrag in return for his keeping their lives somnolent.
The next morning I sponge bathed and put on a clean robe I had bought the day before. Then I walked to the palace and presented myself. Sentries, interior guards, and Aldrag’s personal guard all inspected and groped me before passing me along for the audience.
Aldrag was in a side chamber of the reception hall, speaking with advisors when I arrived. After flowery introductions, Aldrag waved away all but a tall woman and four mute guards.
The woman was Synolcar, the necromancer. Her body swelled her robe in arching curves. Her alert expression overlay an air of assurance, and her stance hinted at physical agility. The market gossip was that she jilted lovers by killing them.
Aldrag began a blunt questioning. “You travel alone?”
“I have no need of guards.”
“Where is Istfrig?”
“Most august Lord, he does not wish that name used. The Old One has made me plenipotentiary in this matter. Once you have described your wishes to me I anticipate fulfilling them without incident.”
“And if you can’t, Malame?”
Synolcar interjected before I answered. Her ability to do so said much about her influence with Aldrag. “My Lord, despite his callow appearance, Malame is reportedly an accomplished adept. We should perhaps convey your desires to him. If his efforts are legless we could insist that Ist- ah, the Old One come.”
Aldrag remained irritated. I wondered at giving a petulant man control of uncountable minds and lives. Then I wondered at Synolcar’s support of me.
“We shall sit.”
Aldrag was a man of short and round proportion whose richly brocaded robe further swelled him. As did sitting.
He began without preface. I nodded slightly to Synolcar, aware of the spells against intrusion she had laid. She nodded back. Professional courtesy.
“We have learned that a generation before my birthing your master wrested the incantation for the creation of belief from a sorcerer he then killed. Dread and now dead.”
Aldrag smiled at his blotchy effort at witticism. “My wizardess can control the dead, but I wish to control the minds of the living. Many, many minds. Unless you are in command of this magic you are of no use to me. Less than no use, I might have to dispose of you to ensure your silence.”
I smiled to myself. Spoken threats are empty. Tacit threats give birth to the dread he mentioned. “I am trained in this arcana. What is it you offer?”
“Istfrig and you are presumably immune to this conjure and need not fear us. You will be given vassalage of your adjoining lands, bound to me by tithe and tax. I will graciously make an earnest promise of a horse weight of gold when you start, which shall commit your effort. The gold is forfeit on your failure.”
Synolcar made no motion or expression at this, but I sensed she was annoyed by the uncouth bullying of her owner. “A generous offer O mighty ruler.” I let my words and not my tone convey the sarcasm. “But the gift you ask for is an empire without boundary. Surely the reward for such a gift should be regal.”
Aldrag frowned. “What would you ask?”
“Two horse weights of gold shall be dispatched to my master as a nonreturnable token of your trust in our efforts. Once I receive confirmation that the gold has reached our crag my efforts shall commence.
“Yes, but first you should know that this goetic of imposing faith is bound with my life. If I die so does your ability to convince your people.”
“Understood. But what other reward would you expect for success?”
“We already have villages full of peasants, we need no more subjects arguing about crop-eating goats. The Old One wishes knowledge, in this case of necromancy. The esteemed Synolcar holds this knowledge in secret. Once I have founded your godhood our reward will be her initiating me as a necromancer so I can better serve my master.”
Synolcar jumped up in protest and Aldrag stared at her. “Synolcar?”
“This power cannot be released to a backwater wizard. It is sacred to our order and forbidden to others.”
He stared back at me. “Ask for something else.”
“I cannot. If we are not in agreement I will take my leave and thank you for the audience. But is it not more than fair exchange? Your greater magic for her lesser one?”
Synolcar blurted out “Do not be fooled by sophistry…”
Aldrag had waved her silent. He sat in silence for several breaths, his face an angry pout. “Synolcar, would providing these secrets harm you?”
“Only somewhat, but sharing such knowledge dilutes its power and…”
“Fine. Malame, I agree to your demand. If you are able to provide me with this power Synolcar will train you in her art…”
She gestured, but Aldrag again waved her into silence.
“I will dispatch the gold to your mountain tomorrow. My men will confirm its receipt on their return. Meanwhile, Synolcar will arrange for you to receive whatever potions and instruments are needed for the incantation.”
I smiled thinly. “No need for your confirmation. I commune with the Old One when the night is darkest. He will verify its arrival. We should be able to start after sixteen or seventeen more days.”
What I said was almost true. Words cannot traverse long distances between the Old One’s mind and mine, but images can. This night I would picture the departure of the gold and the Old One would eventually envision its receipt. Emotion too can bridge these distances, but I had never known the Old One to display hate or joy, and I had been harshly trained to remove any passion from my goetic thoughts.
Aldrag’s smile was strained. “Then we are agreed. Synolcar will provide accommodation in her apartments. Relay any requests through her.”
I bowed, smiling. I was being put under house arrest, to be guarded more by Syolcar’s spells than by the palace troops. As the Old One had predicted.
Synolcar and I walked from the side chamber to her suite of rooms, saying almost nothing. Once there she ordered food and water for me and watched while I ate.
Her smile was pro forma but attractive. “You are larger and burlier than the usual gaunt sorcerer. Are you sure you’ve taken up the right calling?”
“The Old One asks the same question.”
“The dead tell me to fear the Old One, but that you can be manipulated. Are they right?”
“I suspect you’ll find out.”
Synolcar shifted her focus. “When shall we begin fasting, Malame?”
“Seven nights from this one. I will provide a scroll of needed items tomorrow. None of them are unusual- blood from you and Aldrag, a poultice of ground, engorged tick, that sort of thing.”
“Easily done. Have you need of grimoires?”
My mouth curled. “No. I must travel light, so the shelves in my head hold my library. The ritual requires that we couple. Presumably this is not an issue?”
“Of course not. Just we two or a coven?”
“Under six eyes.”
“How refreshingly intimate. Will you require aphrodesia?
I glanced at her. “I think not.”
I remembered the guarded exchange just days ago between Horflog and the Old One, and knew that I was in more danger than he had been. Synolcar could do Aldrag no harm and was bound to his bidding, which could well include my death.
“Tomorrow, Synolcar, we must perform a Magi’s covenant forswearing harm to each other except as specified.”
She leaned toward me. “Surely an accomplished sorcerer like you already has protections in place.”
“Not nearly enough for an accomplished sorcerer like you. I shall cut myself later and write a sanguine agreement for you to also sign in blood during the ritual. Otherwise we cannot proceed.”
She smiled again, not pleasantly. “You’re not quite as stupid as you appear, are you. Very well. I will show you your room.”
The next morning Synolcar grudgingly signed an oath agreeing to not destroy me except for failing to provide Aldrag his believers. We both knew that Aldrag could still have someone else try and kill me, but that was a reasonable risk.
I provided the list of needed items, surprisingly few and simple considering the power Aldrag would be granted. We spent several hours a day together for the next few days, taking meals together and talking on a superficial level about spells and other magicians. Synolcar had apparently ordered my food laced with a mild narcotic, which was anticipated. I had addicted myself before departing, and a dosage strong enough to affect my thinking would have rendered me unconscious before revealing anything. On my return to the Old One I would be vomitous and incontinent through the drug withdrawal, but of no matter.
There was a faintly corrupt sense about Synolcar that I realized was the corpse-like aspect of her that allowed for her necromancy. And I knew that for me to attain mastery a similar part of me had to become necrosial.
My room, where I spent most of my days and all of my nights, was a richly furnished cell. There were obvious peep holes on all walls where watchers monitored my actions. Intricate iron latticework covered the windows, so tightly interlaced that a hand could not pass through the openings.
After two days with the drug having no effect it was removed from my food. I awaited Synolcar’s next move. On the fourth evening she unlocked my bedroom door and entered without speaking. She was nude, so a late-night discussion was unlikely.
Synolcar sat on the edge of my bed, pulled down the sheet, and stroked the inside of my thigh with the backs of her fingernails. Her coarse brown hair hung loose, half concealing her breasts. “Do you need words?”
“No,” I replied. We began to touch each other, gently at first, using fingertips and mouths to awaken each other’s pleasure points. There are degrees of intimacy when adepts couple, escalating as the pair uncovers each layer of the persona. Pleasure and danger increase greatly but so too does understanding.
As we mated we explored each other’s emotions; she felt my repressed need from long celibacy, then my wonderment at the black, dead part of her. I tasted the bitterness of her servitude and the harshness of her self-control. As we finished the intimate levels collapsed, and we were just two sweaty bodies lying next to each other.
Synolcar scratched her sharp nails across my belly in annoyance. “You’re not talented enough to have kept so much hidden from me.”
“Perhaps not. The Old One trains me like a dog, I respond only on command.”
Anger swelled her face. “You’re on a fool’s errand, and will suffer a fool’s fate.”
“Perhaps. But I have a fool’s chances.”
She subsided, and we talked guardedly about our situations, and the outcomes of our efforts. Synolcar saw no result which did not leave her beholden to Aldrag, a man I now knew she despised.
The Old One’s images four nights later were kaleidoscopic, the arrival of the gold, possible entrapments, necromantic ceremonies, and, at the end, a mandala which opened my mind to a secret he had not wanted me to reveal too soon. Synolcar could never know of our plans because the Old One kept them hidden within me until it was time to take the next step.
The following morning I announced to Aldrag and Synolcar that the gold had arrived and we could proceed.
Aldrag bounced with anticipation. “How soon can you execute the spell?”
“We require three days of fasting, so three nights from now during the darkest hour. The results will be discernable six days after that.”
“Why so long?”
“Belief is not like the dropping of a sword but the rising of the tide, inexorable, but not noticed from moment to moment. I will need to instruct you in your talks with your people.”
“Once you have seen results.”
Synolcar and I returned each evening to her quarters to rehearse the ritual, which included stylized coupling. We did this for three nights, and were a facile couple by the night of the ceremony. She continued to probe during the intercourse, and berated me each night for my ignorance of the next days events.
Aldrag was the third person at our ceremony, but being without goetic vision he saw only a stuffy temple observance. Except of course for the mating, which was vigorous. What Synolcar and I witnessed however, was a knotted swirl of phantasms jostling each other to participate in our spell, and the blackening fire of Aldrag’s emergent godhood. There are no human words for this thing, only fearful elation at our success.
For the next two days I did not sleep or eat, for Aldrag, now a god, might attempt my murder. I set traps and curses and waited on the floor of my room each night, legs crossed, until dawn let shards of light through the latticework.
On the third day, I went to Aldrag and insisted that he needed to accompany me into the city. “A god must perform miracles to ignite belief, venerated Aldrag, and you are about to perform several of them over the next two weeks. You may bring guards of course, but not Synolcar, for your people will assume that it is she and not you who performs the miracles. I will be, in dress and behavior, merely a personal slave.”
Synolcar bristled, but had to agree, she was much too feared and well known. That same afternoon Aldrag and I went into the produce market and found an appropriately hideous leper. I anointed Aldrag’s hands with what I assured him was protective oil and insisted he lay hands on the kneeling leper’s scabrous head. The leper jumped up yelling “I’m cleansed! I’m cleansed!”
And to the hundreds of people around us he did appear clear skinned and without lesions. The illusion I had created would wear off in a week or so, but the rumor of the miracle would have become widespread fact. We then walked on until we found a blind beggar.
“Spit on your fingertips,” I whispered, “and rub the spit into his eyes.”
Aldrag recoiled, but after some hissed warnings, did as I had asked. The beggar used fingers on both hands to pry open his crusted eyelids, then blinked and dropped to his knees. “Thank you, my king and my god. I can see you as I praise you!”
My shills took up the cry, and many in the crowd began moaning chants of adoration.
“That’s enough for now, o noble king,” I whispered, and we returned to the palace. We did this again for two more days, drawing ever larger crowds.
“It seems to be working, Malame, will this devotion increase?”
“Immensely. As Synolcar teaches me her rite, I must also teach you your governance of this power. It is something to be done only under four eyes.”
Aldrag’s eyes narrowed. “Why cannot Synolcar attend us?”
“I know you have complete faith in her, but you are on a path without time, and people do change over long years. This knowledge is best kept secret.”
On the third day after his divine anointment, members of several city guilds approached Aldrag suggesting that they begin to offer sacrifice to him as their godlike benefactor, and large crowds began prostrating themselves crying “Ave Aldrag” as he passed.
Synolcar’s preparations for my necromantic ascension began that same day. The Old One had carefully instructed me in necromantic principles and spells, so all that was lacking was the ceremony. In two days time she and I gathered under four living eyes and two dead.
Necromantic spells would be considered hideous to an outsider. No narcotic incense, no couplings, no gongs or bells. It begins by summoning a perpetually rotting corpse able to kill a portion of my spirit and in return give me access to the dead.
But Synolcar had other plans. She had spoken only a few phrases of the first step when I held up my hand and stopped her. “Please don’t continue with the wrong ritual. We bribed one of your fellows to tell us exactly the steps involved in installing a necromancer. I must ask you to make an oath to me to follow the correct ritual.”
She snarled, but made the oath, then removed the implements on the altar and replaced them with others.
Several minutes into the ritual the sweet-sour acrid stench of death filled the room. The necrotic presence was with us. I was then cut open in feet, hands and torso and the ever-rotting corpse inserted his finger into each wound while incanting. The wounds turned gangrenous and then scabbed over with dried pus. A part of my being I did not know I had was torn away and eaten.
And then, without words, the corpse departed and the ritual was over. Synolcar dropped to her knees, panting and ashen, and I knew that she too had paid a toll. “Sister?” I asked gently.
She keened, her tone ripping into my ears. “I have lost too much. Even the dead would not welcome me.”
“Then you must remain living. Your sacrifice will be rewarded.”
“Get out, you soul thief!”
I donned my robe and weaved my way back to my chamber. I could feel the knuckles of the dead softly knocking on the new gateway to my mind. But I had an urgent errand, and as soon as I had rested and eaten I sought audience with Aldrag.
Aldrag was reclining on a divan, listening to some embroidery of Cortanus. He looked at me, saw my expression, and nodded. “Leave us Cortanus.”
“But sire, I have not yet…”
Aldrag’s stare was enough to shoo Cortanus out the door. “So Synolcar has fulfilled her part. Odd that she is not here.”
“The ceremony was especially disagreeable for her and she is recovering. And now I must fulfill mine and instruct you. Please ask the guards to leave. One call from you and they can immediately return.”
He hesitated, narrowing his eyes, then nodded to the guardsmen. I stepped over and knelt next to him. “Please sire, place your left hand in mine and incline your ear so I may whisper.”
When he did so I began my own spell, in the hidden words the Old One had opened up for me the night before. Aldrag’s look was quizzical but he did not pull away. After fifty heartbeats the incantation was concluded. Three veins inside his skull shriveled and blackened, and Aldrag lost all contact with himself.
He sighed and dropped to the floor. I turned and waited, quite close to complete death. A few heartbeats later, Synolcar burst through the doorway, raising her hands for a curse.
“Stop! I have released you.”
She hurled liquid fire, which I dodged, singing my hands. “He is locked inside himself and is your vassal.”
She heard nothing in her anger and launched a spray of salt acid at me. I dropped behind Aldrag’s smoldering robe and yelled again. “You can control him!”
She paused, shuddering in wrath, “He is dead and you will scream for it.”
I took two steps toward Synolcar, my arms outstretched, palms facing her so she could see I was not concocting a spell. “You are free.”
Her muscles knotted and bunched as she gave herself demonic strength. She monkey jumped on top of me, her legs squeezing around my torso, her hands around my neck. I could not breathe, and I felt my neck bones knuckle together.
Synolcar lashed my body with a restraint spell and slightly loosened her hands. “Say something else clever before I consign you to anguish.”
“No, listen. He half-lives, but is trapped within his mind. You could not harm him, and I was sworn not to kill him. You, the necromancer, can animate him and rule through his pronouncements. With the spell of belief you have an empire beyond limits. Reach into him, see that what I say is true.”
Synolcar kept one eye on me while she knelt next to Aldrag, touching his head and murmuring a goetic. The Aldrag body sat up, eyes clouded. Aldrag and Sinolcar muttered in unison, “I am Synolcar and I have governance of this one. I will rule.”
She turned her head to stare at me. “Why do this?”
“We would rather that one of us have control of this power, rather than a megalomaniac. I am not alone in this.”
Synolcar rose, silently ordering Aldrag to rise with her.
“You did not try to curse me because of this faltering hope? Truly a fool’s plan. Although you’re not advanced enough to best me in combat.”
“Probably true. Do you accept our gift?”
Her face, already red, darkened to purple. “Wizards do not give gifts. What is your demand for this not-dead present? “
I glanced at my body and Synolcar undid the restraint spell. “Well?” she asked.
“Only what you yourself have longed for. We ask that you keep Aldrag’s body alive and in good health. Show restraint in expanding the belief to other kingdoms.”
“There is a lie I cannot yet see in all this. But I will. You surely need more than a wizard’s promise.”
“We do. An oath on the bones of your oracle that you will do these two things. If you swear, you can unshackle yourself as sorcerer and woman.”
I stood, and after several hundred more heartbeats of talk, I prepared the ceremony and Synolcar took her oath. We, who had been so often intertwined, did not touch again before my departure.
On my return I found the old one sipping from the blood of a sacrificed goat while reading its entrails. Lamb’s blood tastes better, but the entrails do not give as prescient a forecast. I had imaged my results days before, so there was relatively little more to explain.
The Old One nodded to me, as much praise as he ever bestowed. “When will Synolcar become aware that the spell of belief will dissipate?”
“Probably already, for she will have thought through the covenants and realize that when a part of me died the spell was voided. But like the ebbing of the tide, the waning of belief will occur over the next month.”
“A fattening vegetable. He should live another twenty years before his body joins his mind.”
“And you believe she will not seek vengeance?”
“Only if an opportunity presents itself. Aldrag’s empire even without being a god is vast. She will enjoy the power. A question, Master. You are already a necromancer. Why did you wish that she initiate me?”
His lips curled upward without smiling. “We will have further use of Synolcar. What she gave of herself to install you is now yours to use against her.”
He waved a gaunt arm. “Your instructions were adequately followed. We have a local commission. Prepare a death potion of mandrake seasoned with anise. It will be administered in wine, so do not let it taste like vinegar.”
As I turned toward the herbal shed, the Old One waved me motionless. “Horflog commands your presence next week. Apparently, you are a better breeder than sorcerer. Do not let her twist your weak joints. You will not enjoy my remedy.”
I nodded, fear and elation competing within me, then I cast both aside. “Will Horflog kill me afterwards?”
About Edward Ahern
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred stories and poems published so far, and five books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of four review editors.