A Matter of Degrees

By Robert Moriyama




"I thought we agreed you wouldnít make golems in the house, Al," Jeanine Majius said. "Also no salamanders, undines, afrits, zombies, or nameless abominations."

"Uh Ė thatís right, Jeanine, we did," Al Majius said. "What Ė er Ė why do you think Iíve been doing anything like that?"

Jeanine Majius strode through the door from the kitchen with the style and grace that had made her Homecoming Queen three years in a row. The expression on her face, however, was not one that had ever appeared on a campaign poster for anything.

"Footprints, Al. Muddy footprints. About size twenty-three, from the looks of it. All over the new floors we put in not six months ago."

"Busted!" chortled Githros. Al jammed his left pinky into his ear and gave it a good twist; the flea-sized demon yelped in surprise and delivered a kick to the eardrum that sounded (inside Alís head, anyway) like a sonic boom.

Al raised his hands in surrender. "In my defense, Jeanine, I didnít make Shem in the house. I made him in the garage. He just sort of Ė got away from me."

"If youíd follow the book, Githros says you wouldnít have so many problems," Jeanine said. "The golem would obey you, or even if it didnít, it wouldnít be so Ė so mucky."

Al frowned, wondering when and how Githros was passing information to Jeanine. The little snitch had to be sneaking out of Alís ear while Al slept Ė but even then, to be clearly audible, he would have to climb into Jeanineís ear, and "nice Catholic girls" were not known to be sanguine about having demons (no matter how small) crawling through their coiffures.

"I do follow the book," Al said. "Even the painful parts."

"You keep skipping a lot of the purification rituals," Githros said.

"What about the purification rituals?" Jeanine said.

Alís frown deepened. "Have you two set up some kind of communications system? If you have, Iíd kinda like to know how it works! I mean, if itís magical, Iíd like to think Iíd feel it, and if itís technological Ė well, Iíd like to think that Iíd feel an itty-bitty walkie-talkie in my ear, too."

"You didnít say anything when I brought in that nixielounger," Githros said.

"Great. Other people have hair and wax in their ears. I have teeny-tiny furniture."

"You got lots of hair and wax in here too, Al," Githros said.

"Quit changing the subject, Al," Jeanine said. "Why wonít you do the purification rituals?"

Alís face turned red. "There are certain parts of my anatomy that Iím not willing to Ė modify Ė at this stage of my life," he said. Shaving down there is one thing, but I am not having a bris done at the age of thirty-four. And it would have to be a bris, performed by a rabbi, with no anesthetic."

Jeanineís face turned several shades redder than Alís. She turned and walked back into the kitchen, closing the door behind her.

Al allowed himself to smile in relief. "That wasnít so bad," he said. "I guess she realizes that it just isnít reasonable to expect me to go through that just so one spell will work a little better."

"Wait for it," Githros said.

"Huh? Wait for what?"

Jeanine screamed. For a moment, Al panicked, wondering if the golem had reanimated itself, and was rampaging through the kitchen like a certain oversized lizard playing tourist in Tokyo.

Then the scream modulated itself into a series of whooping and braying sounds that brought to mind an argument between a flock of geese and a donkey.

"Sheís laughing at me, Githros," Al said. "She thinks itís funny."

"Me, too," said Githros. "Lucky for you, Iím more the silent snickering type."

Al was about to tell Githros to feed himself to the nearest spider when Jeanine reemerged from the kitchen, wiping tears from her face and holding her sides.

"All right, Al," she said carefully, "You can keep your Ė your Ė overcoat. But youíll have to clean up any messes you make." She pressed her lips together so tightly that Al could see them turning white, but couldnít keep her body from shaking.

"Itís not that funny," Al protested. "And Ė overcoat?"

"Bwaaaahahahahahahaha! Overcoat! Heeheeheeeeee!"

Al sighed. "Iíll be in the garage."

*****

The examination room of the College of Masters Ė the Conlegium Magistris Ė was vast, or at least it seemed so. Al stood at the center of a circle of sourceless light ten meters in diameter, with impenetrable darkness all around. He heard no echoes when he cleared his throat, so either the walls were far beyond the five meters he could see, or they were magically deadened to sound.

A figure appeared at the edge of the illuminated circle and stepped forward until Al could see the robes of a senior Magister. He was relieved to see that he had drawn Alberto Sciavone as his examiner; Sciavone was known to be somewhat forgiving of the kinds of minor problems that still plagued Alís magical workings. In fact, Al had heard that it was Sciavone that had fought to get Al his Level Four Certification, in spite of Alís lack of formal training.

"Welcome, Mr. Majius," Magister Sciavone said. "I understand that you intend to demonstrate new skills and knowledge you have acquired, thanks to a certain bequest from a formerly-deceased Conlegium practitioner."

Al bowed slightly, although he had only intended to nod politely. There was something about the shimmering grey robes of a Master that commanded respect. Well, the robes, and the knowledge that he or she could transform you into something the cat would refuse to drag in Ö

"You may begin."

Al pulled a thin wand of rosewood from his belt and traced a circle on the sand-covered floor around his feet, then stepped out of the circle. He replaced the wand in his belt; it was more symbolic than actually necessary. With his right hand, he formed a series of symbols in the air; the symbols flared and faded in brief bursts of violet light and the circle on the floor slowly brightened until it shone with an intense green radiance that cast odd-colored shadows in all directions.

"The symbols usually used to give a circle its power donít actually need to be inscribed in or around the circle itself," Al commented. "It is possible to draw them on the fabric of reality itself, where they canít be easily erased."

"I will now demonstrate the summoning of elementals of fire, air and water, using techniques described in the Morgenstern Grimoires and Kabbalistic texts."

Al walked slowly around the glowing green circle, chanting in a mixture of ancient Hebrew and Arabic. With each step, he traced a different symbol in the air, his fingers leaving ghostly contrails of emerald light as they moved, so that each symbol floated in the air for a few seconds before fading into the glow of the circle.

Sciavone nodded in approval as he recognized symbols from an alphabet older than hieroglyphics. "I havenít seen that language used in half a century," he said. "For all the power it carries, few have the patience or skill to learn it."

"It wasnít easy," Al admitted. "And Iíve only mastered a little of it. But that little allows me to do this." He formed one last symbol with his right hand, and said, "Fire".

At the center of the green circle, a ball of flame appeared. But the ball elongated and seemed to sprout limbs until its flickering outlines suggested a small four-legged creature, not quite like the amphibian that shared the name salamander, but enough so that it was clear how the name for one or the other had been derived. Al gestured and spoke in a low voice, and the fire elemental moved obediently through a series of graceful aerial maneuvers. After a few minutes, Al gestured again, and the flame vanished.

Sciavone was silent. Al wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing; the lack of criticism presumably meant that the summoning and dismissal had gone well enough, but the lack of praise might mean that well enough wasnít good enough to earn a promotion in rank.

"Hang in there, Al," Githros whispered. "Thereís a lot of earning power riding on this."

Al grimaced and stifled the urge to send the little demon somewhere unpleasant. He walked around the circle again, writing letters of cold fire on the air, and then said, "Water."

A stream of water fell from a point several feet above Alís head and splashed on the floor at the center of the circle. None of the drops crossed the glowing green line; instead, the water seemed to lap against a wall of impossibly delicate green glass before it receded to form a single circular pool.

Al spoke several burbling syllables and raised his hands. The pool of water rose from the sand and took the form of a sphere; the water on the surface of the sphere seemed to be in constant motion, streaming from its peak to its bottom before rising again along its axis.

More commands from Al caused the sphere to extend pseudopods from its surface until it took on a rough semblance of human form. The water elemental then mimed walking across the circle, although its "feet" remained several centimeters above the floor.

Al spoke one final command and made a gesture of dismissal, and the water man saluted and poured upward to vanish into the same hole in the air from which it had first emerged.

Again, Al walked the circle, writing on the air. "Air," he said.

The sand at the center of the green circle started to spin in place. After a moment, thin plumes of sand rose from the floor and formed a shimmering inverted cone Ė a particularly well-behaved dust devil. Al directed the afrit in a series of maneuvers that traced the coat of arms of the Conlegium in the thin layer of sand that remained on the floor, then dismissed it with a hissing word of command. This time, the afrit manipulated the sand that made it visible so that it momentarily formed a recognizable face in the air before it dissipated and the sand fell back to the floor.

"You stole that from a movie," Githros said. "No points for originality on that one."

Finally, Al gestured and made a part of the green circle fade until it was barely visible. He produced a bucket of earth from the air Ė the kind of simple apportation spell that had frequently given him trouble in the past Ė and emptied it at the center of the circle.

Kneeling, Al formed the moist earth into a roughly human shape, with the emphasis on "rough". He had always been a lousy sculptor, and all the magical training and knowledge he had gained had done nothing to change that fact. Fortunately, the shape of the thing was not that important to the spell Ė only the activating word was. Al tucked a slip of paper with the Hebrew word for "life" into what was supposed to be the mouth of his creation, and then stood up.

Brushing the remaining soil form his hands so that it settled on the doll-sized and doll-shaped pile of dirt, Al stepped back out of the circle and restored the green glow to the section he had deactivated.

"Earth," he said. The miniature golem Ė for that was what it was supposed to be Ė remained inert.

"Itís just a little skin, Al," Githros said. "It would only have hurt for a few days, and thereís no rules against taking a big whack of painkillers until you can put on pants without screaming."

"Shut up, Githros," Al muttered. He made the required gestures, and said again, louder, "Earth!"

This time the golem moved. It sat up, turned until it was facing Magister Sciavone, and made as rude a gesture as it could manage without having clearly-defined fingers.

Horrified, Al clapped his hands and spoke the words that negated the spell. The golem crumbled into a pile of muck that somehow contained far more moisture than the soil from which it had been made.

"Thatís Life," Githros remarked. "Always messy."

"That wasnít me," Al croaked. "I would never do anything to disrespect the Conlegium or any of the Magisters. The golem Ė Iíve had some problems controlling my golems, something to do with not meeting all the purification requirements Ė ". He glanced involuntarily at his groin, then quickly raised his eyes again.

"You have done well, Mr. Majius," Sciavone said, laughing. "Donít worry about the little problem at the end Ė much worse things have been done and said by conjured creatures in this place. Your knowledge and skills have increased tenfold since your Level 4 Certification exam."

"Thank you, Master Sciavone," Al said. "Iíve been studying hard ever since I Ė er Ė acquired that collection of books from the old Morgenstern collection."

Sciavone frowned. "Yes, the Morgenstern matter. The Conlegium Magistris is growing concerned about the actions and motives of the Morgenstern revenant. He is very powerful, and seems to regard himself as above the Laws that bind all practitioners of the Art."

"Heís a wacko, Al," Githros said. "Morgenstern, I mean."

Al swallowed the wad of calming herbs he had tucked into his cheek before beginning his demonstration of skills. "Youíre not going to hold that against me, are you?"

Sciavone blinked as if he had been deep in thought, or communicating with another Master. "What? Oh, no, of course not. Aside from some slight problems with the control and Ė consistency Ė of your golem, you have demonstrated quite impressive mastery of several key aspects of Kabbalistic and elemental magic."

"Iíll clean up the mud," Al said. "Iíve had lots of practice Ė "

"The undines will wash it away after hours," Sciavone said. "They are used to cleaning up much worse things than mud in this examination room."

"Like wizard guts," Githros hissed. "Losing control of a golem is one thing, but some of the demons you have to command for the Level 9 exam are nasty."

"So Ė does this mean that I finally qualify for a degree?" Al asked. "I kinda missed a lot of the basic training, learned things on my own, so Iíve been stuck with a Wizardry Equivalency Diploma instead of some letters to put after my name for quite a while."

Sciavone smiled. "Indeed you do. It has been decided that your practical experience, combined with your recent improvement in skills and knowledge, qualify you for your Baccalaureate and Ė provisionally Ė as a candidate for First-Level Magister."

"I Ė Iím honored," Al said. "This means that my Certification level goes all the way from a Four to Ė to Ė ?"

"Seven," Sciavone said. "A provisional Seven, that is. But you can immediately act as a fully-qualified Level Six in Necromancy and Elemental Magic. That should help you in your business dealings, I imagine."

"Ka-ching!" Githros said. "Soon as weíre out of here, Iíll hit the crystal circuit and spread the word. Jumping two or three levels at once should get some attention."

As Al prepared an apportation spell to carry him back to the parking lot, Sciavone said, "We will be contacting you to discuss the Morgenstern matter, Magister Elect Majius. The Magisters feel that you may have a special role to play in any dealings we have with Morgenstern Reborn, or the Morningstar, as he calls himself."

Al tried to keep his face from showing the stark terror that the words "special role" injected into his veins. "Special role" would probably turn out to mean "cannon fodder", with his luck. And trying to stand up to a more-than-slightly insane reanimated wizard with the power of a demi-god could easily make standing in front of a cannon seem safe by comparison.

He was so rattled that his apportation spell misfired.

"This is not the parking lot, Githros," Al said. "Where are we, anyway?"

"How would I know, Al?" Githros said. "I donít exactly have a great view from in here. What were you thinking about when you triggered the spell?"

"He was thinking about Me."

Alís heart spasmed in his chest as he recognized the inhumanly deep, echoing voice.

"Morgenstern," Githros hissed. "You brought us to Morgenstern!"

Al turned slowly, trying to focus on anything but the stark terror that was taking his knees way beyond al dente to the consistency of nail soup.

"Your Ė um Ė majesty," he said. "Iím sorry to have intruded. Iíll just apport myself out of your way, now Ė "

"Hush, little wizard," Morgenstern said.

Alís mouth closed and his hands fell to his sides, paralyzed. Unable to speak or gesture, he could do nothing Ė not that his "provisional Level Seven" could protect him from Morgensternís power.

Morgensternís gaze swept over Al like a wave of acid and icewater, burning and freezing at the same time.

"You have grown, little wizard," Morgenstern said. "The gifts I gave you in return for your small part in my ascension have made you stronger. And I see that the College has recognized your growth."

Al felt the paralysis fading from his throat and mouth. "Yes, your greatness," he said, "They have granted me Ė "

"Silence!" Morgenstern said. "I did not give you leave to speak!"

Al blinked in confusion. If Morgenstern had not released him, then how had he regained the ability to talk?

"The College believes that it can dictate to Me," Morgenstern said. "They are fools. They are even greater fools to think that you may influence Me. Any debt I owed to you has been paid, and more than paid."

Al wiggled his fingers. The paralysis was fading, and it was not Morgensternís doing. If he was careful, he might be able to do an apportation spell and escape, for the moment at least. Not that escaping would help if Morgenstern really wanted him Ö

"I think I will use you to send a message to the so-called Masters," Morgenstern said. "Let them see the consequences of thinking of Me as merely their equal."

Al felt the tickling sensation that meant that Githros was making a quick exit from his ear. Abandoning a sinking wizard, he guessed.

Suddenly, his view of Morgenstern was eclipsed by something very large and very dark and very familiar.

"Githros?"

"I canít let you hurt Al, your Impressiveness," Githros said. "He ainít much, but heís getting better, and heís mine, or Iím his, or something."

The demon familiar that lived in Alís left ear was now three meters tall and massed as much as a compact car. The shape and color was the same, but the very features that seemed most ridiculous at three millimeters in height were downright scary when magnified by a thousand.

"You cannot protect your master from me, demon," Morgenstern said. "You cannot even protect yourself."

The green glow that had surrounded Morgenstern from the first moment that Al had seen him rising from the shattered remains of his mausoleum flared to blinding brightness. Al shut his eyes as tightly as he could and spat out an apportation spell to take him and Githros away, anywhere that the terrible light was not burning its way through his brain.

Through the pain and terror, Al heard voices screaming. One voice he recognized as his own Ė he had heard it often enough to make it very familiar. The other voice belonged to Githros.

Al had never heard Githros scream before, especially at this size, and he prayed that he would never hear it again. The demonís cry somehow blended a roar worthy of a dragon with the heart-piercing tones of a lost and frightened child; it was terrifying and piteous at the same time. Desperately, Al choked out the final words of the spell, certain that it would fail, certain that he and Githros would be incinerated by Morgensternís power.

Al fell, grunting in pain as his left arm struck something hard and his wrist snapped.

And then Ė and then, the light was gone.

Al rolled to a sitting position, cradling his broken arm. "Githros! Are you here? Are you all right?"

He blinked repeatedly, trying to chase the afterimages from his vision. For a few minutes, he was afraid that his eyesight would never recover, but finally, he was able to make out the scorched and smoking shape of his familiar.

"Githros!"

"That was really painful, Al," Githros said. "You gotta work on the speed thing so the next time we have to make a quick getaway, I donít lose so much skin."

Al managed to stand and stagger closer to Githrosís charred form.

"You look like Ė hell," Al said.

"Iíll heal," Githros said. "Itíll take a while, but Iíll heal. Morgensternís tough, but the Big Boss in Pandemonium taught us to take a lot of punishment. By punishing us, of course."

"You grew," Al said. "I didnít know you could do that on your own."

Githros snickered. "Great wizard you are. A demonís form is pretty much arbitrary. With enough power, I can be any size and shape I want. And my power increases along with yours."

"You never changed size before," Al said. "When I made you big enough to help with painting the living room, you were stuck until I shrank you again."

"You changed me, so you had to change me back."

"Oh," Al said. "Damn, this arm hurts."

He pulled on his hand until he was sure that the fractured bones were aligned, then muttered a healing spell. After a few seconds of intense pain, he was able to move his fingers normally.

Then he turned his attention back to his injured familiar. As Githros had said, the worst of the burns already seemed to be fading, but it would be some time before the demon was himself again.

Al tried to adapt a healing spell to help things along, but Githros yelped, "Thatís not helping, Al!"

"Sorry," Al said. "You got hurt trying to protect me. I want to help you get better."

"Some blood would help a lot more than that little magical improv act you just tried," Githros said.

Al laughed nervously. "I donít think thereís enough blood in my whole body to fill you up at that size!"

"A drop will do," Githros said. "Itís the symbolism that counts."

Al pulled a Swiss Coven knife from his pocket and jabbed the folding athame blade into his left palm. He let a trickle of blood fall from the wound into Githrosís waiting mouth, then used another healing charm.

Instead of healing faster, Githros shrank so quickly that Alís ears popped from the sudden change in air pressure. When he was back to what Al had believed to be his normal size, the demon scrambled back up Alís leg, across the wizardís body and into his left ear.

"A lot less work healing at this size," Githros said. "Plus you can give me enough blood to satisfy me without, you know, dying or anything."

"Iíll try to cut myself shaving when we get home," Al said. "I owe you a few good meals. And thanks for undoing Morgensternís paralysis whammy."

"Huh? That wasnít me, Al," Githros said. "I thought you had some kind of amulet or something that got you moving again."

Al worked the apportation spell again, being careful this time to visualize his car as he said the triggering words. But he wondered: was the College right? Had the part he had played in jump-starting Morgensternís stalled spell given him an edge in dealing with the mad demi-god?

All he knew was that the College had plans for him, and with his luck, they were likely to involve a lot of unpleasantness.

For practice, he cast a more powerful apportation spell and magicked the car home instead of driving. The spell worked perfectly, depositing the car neatly in the driveway, and Al allowed himself a moment of pride.

"Al!" Janine shrieked. "You just parked on Mrs. Biltmoreís Pomeranian!"

"And we all know how painful that can be," Githros said.

"Thatís one less blood meal youíre gonna get," Al said.

"Shut up Githros," Githros grumbled.

"I might be able to revive the dog," Al said brightly. "I mean, that cat turned out all right."

Janine shook her head and went into the house.

Al climbed out of the car, walked around it until he found the canine in question, and winced. "Okay," he said. "Maybe reviving this particular dog would be a bad idea Ö"

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Moriyama

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Torontoís main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearance was The Acheron Inquiry in March, 2003.

E-mail: mailto:bmoriyam@pathcom.com

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