Matters of State
By Robert Moriyama
(AUTHORíS NOTE: Materia Magica contains a quick recap of the previous adventures in this series.)
Al Majius surveyed the jumbled mess that filled the aisles of Feldspar Sporting Goods. He spotted the splintered remains of baseball bats and hockey sticks, tennis, racquetball, and badminton racquets, skates (in-line and ice), golf clubs twisted into pretzel shapes or tied into knots, and scraps from exploded soccer balls, basketballs, and volleyballs; there were other bits and pieces that he couldnít identify.
"I think itís a poltergeist," Edward Feldspar said. "The actual Ďnoisy ghostí kind, not the Ďpubescent kid with telekinesisí kind."
"It does look a lot worse than anything human vandals could do," Al said. "At least not without a wood chipper, a machine shop, and a lot of time."
"All this damage was done in less than ten minutes," Feldspar said. "The video cameras caught most of it -- until they were destroyed."
Edward Feldspar had reported "the worst case of vandalism Iíve ever heard of" to the local police. They had called in the Fire Marshal, figuring that some kind of bomb had been used. The Fire Marshal had run tests and found no traces of any conventional explosives ... which left magic as the only possible cause. Feldspar had called the College of Masters to ask for the name of a wizard who could investigate -- and the College had sent him to Majius Magical Services.
As jobs went, Al thought this one would be a nice break from the dire conspiracies and apocalyptic threats looming over his head. As a plus, Feldspar had offered a nice bonus for a quick resolution to the situation ...
"Let me take a look at that video," Al said. "I wonít be able to magic any extra information out of it, but even seeing exactly how this happened will help me to identify the cause."
They adjourned to Feldsparís office, which fortunately had been spared by whatever had turned the interior of the store into a recycling bin. Feldspar typed a few commands into his computer, then turned the monitor so Al could see the video playback.
As Feldspar had said, incredible amounts of damage had been done in minutes. The video showed the contents of shelves and bins surging into the air and being torn to shreds as if they had been tossed into a giant blender, with the shelves themselves doing likewise a few moments later. It was like watching a Category Five tornado at work in a confined space.
"Anyone in the store when this happened would have been killed," Al said. "I guess itís lucky -- relatively speaking -- that it happened in the middle of the night."
Feldspar gasped. "I hadnít even thought of that. I was worried about what this will do to my insurance rates -- and the time it will take to replace all my stock. But youíre right -- my God, if this had happened when the store was open --"
"It didnít," Al said. "And I suspect that it wonít, even if we canít figure out what cause the mess. This looks -- playful, not hostile."
"I donít think I want to see what Ďhostileí looks like, then," Feldspar said.
"You might as well go home," Al said. "Unless you have some work that needs to be done here in the office?"
Feldspar shook his head. "All the paperwork for the insurance claim and the calls to my suppliers have been handled already. For obvious reasons, the insurance adjuster doesnít want to authorize the settlement until I can provide assurances that it wonít just happen again."
"Well, weíll do our best to take care of that end," Al said.
"One of my associates will be assisting me," Al said.
"Iíd like to meet him," Feldspar said.
No, you wouldnít, Al thought. "He prefers to keep a low profile -- he does a lot of undercover surveillance work," he said.
"Oh, well -- I understand," Feldspar said. He turned to leave, then paused. "Youíll call me as soon as you have any news?"
"I have your crystal code right here," Al said. "With luck, you should be back in business in no time."
Al waited until he saw Feldspar leave the building, then said, "All clear, Githros."
Githros swan-dived from Alís left earlobe, executing a neat somersault as he grew from three millimeters to two meters in height.
"Undercover work? Only if the hair in your ears counts as cover."
"Keeps you warm at night, doesnít it?" Al retorted.
"Warm -- and waxy," Githros said.
Al sighed. "We could keep this up all day, but itís costing our client money. You saw the video?"
Githros nodded. "I was watching from the balcony -- your ear, that is. It wasnít any kind of demon Iím familiar with -- unless it was a whole pack of íem working together."
"And demons arenít know for working and playing well with others," Al said.
"Except for that ĎLegioní bunch," Githros said. "Anyway, I think it was either a ghost, or an air elemental. You noticed the way things were swirling around?"
"Like a tornado," Al said. "In either case, the question is, why here, and why now?"
"Thatís two questions," Githros said. "Let me take a closer look in the trash heap out there to see if I can pick anything up."
"No looting intact items," Al said. "Even if you shrink it down with you, I do not want anything with cleats in my ear."
"What, I have to amputate my feet? Claws arenít cleats, but theyíre just as pointy."
"Just go. Iím going to poke around in the files here in the office, see if I can find any reasons why a ghost or elemental might be trashing the place."
It took only a few minutes for Alís magic-aided search to find something that might be relevant. Feldspar was a history buff, and had done some research on the background of the neighborhood and his property in particular. Alís spell brought up a document that Feldspar had been writing on his office computer regarding the history of 149 Slater Street.
From 1897 to 1903, the building which stood on this land was home to the Murchison Home for Orphans. As many as fifty orphaned children, many of whose parents perished in the fire that destroyed the nearby cannery, resided there. These unfortunates were joined by others who had been abandoned by parents unable to care for them.
Life in this orphanage was grim. There was little money even for the basic necessities -- clothing, food, coal for heat; for toys and games to keep the children amused while they waited, often in vain, to be adopted, there was none.
In December of 1903, a second fire struck this neighborhood, destroying the orphanage and killing many of the children ...
"Itís not an elemental, or elementals, Al," Githros said. "But thereís traces of ectoplasm all over the place."
"Gah!" Alís legs spasmed and the wheeled chair scooted out from under him. His tailbone struck the floor with a jolt that brought his teeth together with an enamel-jarring crack.
"Gee, Al, should I have knocked or something?" Githros asked.
Al picked himself up from the floor and lowered himself carefully back into the office chair. "Thank you so much for checking my arteries for weak spots," he gasped. "Since I didnít die from a massive stroke just now, they must be fine."
"Hey, I didnít exactly sneak up on you," Githros said. "The floors in this place creak like anything when I move around at this size. Whatís that youíre reading?"
Al moved aside to let Githros see the screen.
"Kid ghosts," Githros said. "A bunch of kid ghosts. And ones that didnít get to play a lot of sports and games."
"Looks like they died almost exactly a hundred years ago," Al said. "So they woke up -- donít know exactly why, maybe just because of the date -- and found themselves with the biggest collection of sporting goods in town to play with."
"Youíd think theyíd play a little more carefully, then," Githros said. "Being anxious to hang onto the first bats and balls theyíve ever gotten their -- hands? -- on."
Al nodded thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Maybe they wouldnít," he said. "Objects and buildings can retain impressions of spirits -- but suppose they have spirits of their own."
"News to me if they do," Githros said. "But maybe itís something only a ghost can sense."
"Iíll ask next time I Summon one," Al said. "But anyway, it may be that the ghosts of the children now have the ghosts of all Feldsparís inventory to play with."
"Huh. That would be sorta nice, in a gooey sentimental kind of way. A little hard on the inventory, though."
"We should make sure," Al said. "If itís true, the ghosts will have no reason to do any more damage, and Feldspar can restock his store."
Githros grinned. "After you. Unless youíre afraid Iíll sneak up on you again?"
At the edge of the debris field, Al extended his hands, palm up, then pulled them toward his chest. "I Summon the spirits of the children who perished here, one hundred years ago. I Summon you to learn what awoke you from your long sleep --"
"Al, stop! Cancel the spell!"
"Huh? Why? What harm can it do --"
Suddenly it was painfully obvious what harm it could do. Bits of mangled wood, metal and plastic were already rising into the air and spinning around the room at frightening speeds; with each passing instant, more debris joined the chaotic dance.
"Get close to me, Githros!" Al shouted. There was no wind, in spite of the tornado-like maelstrom of junk, but the junk itself was making a lot of noise as its component parts collided with each other and the walls. He felt a constellation of stabbing pains in his back as Githrosís spiny skin pressed against him, then a jolt as a large chunk of metal caromed off the demonís shoulder -- a weight from a set of barbells?
"Mibtsar!" Al said, and a shimmering dome of magical force closed over them. The impacts of thousands of scraps and splinters on the fortress spell bathed them in a continuous glare of blue-white light, but nothing penetrated.
"Theyíre playing, Al," Githros said. "I donít think they even understand that what theyíre doing could hurt us."
"The youngest ones were the most likely to have died in the fire," Al said, "the ones too young to find their way out on their own. Thatís what weíre dealing with -- hyperactive toddler ghosts!"
"Thatís so cute," Githros said, "I could just die."
"If we donít get out of here, we might both die," Al said. "The fortress spell can take a lot of punishment, but this is insane, and it isnít stopping."
"If you drop the spell, we get pulped," Githros said. "But you canít apport us out of here with the spell in place."
After a moment, Al said, "I have an idea. Shrink down and get into my ear."
Githros said, "Thatís really noble, Al, but if you get julienned while Iím in there, itís gonna kill me, too."
"Shut up and do it," Al said. "I can feel the fortress spell weakening."
Al felt the pressure on his back vanish, then the tickling that told him that Githros was making his way over Alís clothes and back into Alís left ear.
He had only one rabbit left in his hat: a spell that only vampires had ever been known to use. The Countess Lamia had assured him that it should be safe, but she could not make any guarantees -- Walachian-diplomatic for it could be fatal. The question was, if the spell killed him, would it hurt more or less than getting pureed in the debris storm?
A splinter of plastic struck the fortress spell and clung instead of glancing off. It wiggled its way through a sparkling tunnel of blue-white light like a worm boring through the bark of a tree, then accelerated and buried itself in Alís shoulder.
"Asmodeus on toast!" Al hissed. "Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. Githros, hang on to your molecules!"
"Al, youíre not gonna try that change-of-state spell, are you?" Githros said. "Iím no djinn -- Iím a solid kind of demon!"
"Shut up, Githros, and deveni fuma," Al said.
Turning into mist felt very strange. Al felt himself spreading out to fill the space inside the fortress spellís boundaries, then spreading further as the shield collapsed under the relentless assault of the shredded sporting goods. Githros, he knew, had also been "mistified", and was floating with him, his "eentsy bits" mingled with Alís.
And they were floating, unaffected by the driving force of the ghost childrenís will. The bullet-fast bits of wood, metal, and plastic passed through and between their scattered atoms without damaging them.
Now the problem was finding a way to tell the ghost children that playtime was over. In solid form, he could speak and make them hear him; as mist, he was voiceless -- or was he?
Al let his component particles spread out further until they pressed against the walls and windows (unbreakable glass, thanks to the threat of theft and vandalism). Then he concentrated on moving against the glass in a very particular and controlled way ...
The voice was nothing like Alís own, or the voice of anything even vaguely human, but it was clear and loud enough to carry over the roar of the swirling debris.
"Hush! Playtime is over!"
At first, Al thought that the ghost children would ignore his commands, that they would not consider him to have any authority over them. But they had seen that he was a Grown-up, and they knew somehow that this strange voice belonged to him.
The maelstrom faltered. The heavier scraps began to sift down to the floor as the force driving them dissipated; then solid fragments of wood and metal rained down; and finally, even the feather-light bits of cloth and cellophane settled.
Abroga, Al thought.
It took almost a minute for his body to reform. For a moment, he was afraid that Githros had been right, and he would wind up with the demonís miniaturized body blended with his own, or would come out with pieces of assorted football jerseys protruding from his eyeballs, but as Lamia had assured him, the spell "knew" which particles belonged and which did not.
"Al, are you in one piece? And are all your parts in the right places?"
"Yeah, I seem to be fine, aside from the puncture wounds on my back," Al said. "How about you?"
"Iíd swear thereís some wax and ear hair mixed in with my skin -- but thatís probably just me being paranoid," Githros said.
"I could say that any change in your skin would be an improvement, but Iím above that sort of thing," Al said. "Anyway, letís see if I can make our little ectoplasmic rug-rats understand the problem here."
"Children -- I understand that you have been asleep for a long time, and you want to play," Al said. "But this is not the place for it, and the way you are playing can hurt other people."
Al felt something odd in the air. It felt like regret and sadness and confusion -- exactly the reaction he would expect from a small child who has accidentally hurt another.
"You donít need to stay here anymore," Al said. "There is a better place for you to go, where you can play as much as you want --"
"I donít think they understand, Al," Githros said. "Or if they do, they donít know how to get to Heaven, or whatever it is youíre talking about."
Al frowned. "I think youíre right. Some of them, maybe all, were so young that they never understood the concept of an afterlife, let alone learned anything about what it might be like."
"What you need is someone just a little older ..." Githros said.
Al grimaced. There was only one spirit he knew that would fit Githrosís description, but he was reluctant to call on her. She had suffered more than enough already.
Still, these ghost children had suffered too, and their pain had been worse. And little girls tended to love smaller children ...
"Jenica Comaneanu, I Summon you from your rest," Al said. "There are little ones here who need your help."
A cloud of silver light formed a meter or so in front of them and flowed into the shape of a small girl. Al muttered his reverse-Babel spell to handle translation duties, extending it to cover the entire room.
"I remember you," Jenica said. "You talked to me before, when I was lost."
Al nodded. "But you found your way to where you belonged, didnít you?"
The girl-spirit nodded in return. "Yes. Itís nice there, but I miss Mommy and Daddy."
"Jenica, do you see the children here? Theyíre lost, too, and have been for a long time."
The girl-spirit turned. She could see what Al and Githros could not, and what she saw delighted her.
"Oh! Theyíre so little! And they have so many toys, balls and bats and everything."
"They donít know where theyíre supposed to go," Al said. "Could you lead them there?"
"I guess so," Jenica said. "Itís a grown-up job, but I think I can do it."
The silvery girl-shape walked toward the center of the room, her hands seeming to mime patting the head of a smaller child, taking the hand of another.
"Letís go," Jenica said. "Follow me!"
The debris on the floor shifted, and for a moment Al was afraid that he would have to use the fortress spell again. But this time, it moved only slightly, as if dozens of small feet were shuffling through it toward the one spirit-form he could see.
"Here we go," Jenica said. Then she faded from sight. The room felt -- empty.
Githros emerged from Alís ear. "If I had tear-ducts, Iíd cry," he said.
"Shut up, Githros. Why donít you clean up those holes you poked in my back, while I call Feldspar and give him the All Clear?"
Githros smacked his lips (or lip-like horny ridges), amazingly making an audible noise in spite of his tiny size. "Ah, chowing down on your blood," he said. "Thatís one thing you donít have to order me to do -- not that you can order me to do anything anymore --"
"Yeah, yeah, youíre my partner, not my bound servant, you donít need to remind me," Al said. "Go, eat, heal me, and let me make the call."
Feldspar Sporting Goods had a Grand Re-Opening ten days later. Al dropped by and was given a half-dozen custom-screened T-shirts with "Majius Magical Services" and a stylized lightning bolt on the front, and numbers from "01" to "06" on the back.
"For your team," Edward Feldspar said, "in appreciation for your work here. You never said how many employees you had -- is a half-dozen shirts enough?"
"With a couple to spare," Al said. "The gang will love them, although theyíll probably refuse to wear them in public -- being associated with me isnít nearly as popular as you might think!"
"Did you see the plaque I put up?" Feldspar asked. "The Historical Society paid for it, after the story of what happened came out."
Al nodded. "I did. It seems appropriate." He read the inscription aloud.
"On this site, on December 12th, 1903, forty-three orphaned children perished in the tragic fire that destroyed the Murchison Home for Orphans. This year, one hundred years later, their spirits finally found the peace and happiness denied them in life. May they never know sadness or pain again."
"Amen," Feldspar said.
"Amen," Al said.
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, Titan, and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearances were A Matter of Time and A Matter of Taste. His story "Prufrockís Problem" recently sold to Planet Relish webzine (the check is in the mail).
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