(AUTHORíS NOTE: Materia Magica contains a list of major characters and a recap of the previous adventures in this series, which (they tell me) may be needed to understand everything in this story.)
The air in the boardroom of Majius Magical Services carried a bit more of the scent of brimstone than it had for some time. Githros, Director of Research and Development and occasional one-demon goon squad, had returned from his convalescence in Pandemonium.
While Al Majius, Janine Taylor Majius, and Billy Taylor were all happy to see their friend, Billy couldn't keep his nose from twitching. Even in human form, his werewolf sense of smell was so acute that it could be distracting.
"Hey, Githros, glad to see you back to your scaly self again," Al said. He gave his demon partner a careful once-over, noting that most, if not all, of the horns, spikes, and ridges had grown back, and that Githros had returned to his normal grey-green coloration. A few weeks earlier, Githros had dwindled to the size of a human infant -- with (to him) disgustingly smooth, pink skin at that -- after accidental exposure to unshielded mana sinks. It had taken quite a while for the demon to regain his strength, even with the aid of dozens of vials of mana-charged blood contributed by Magisters of the Conlegium Magistris -- the College of Masters.
Githros leaned in, bringing one black-clawed hand to within a few centimeters of Al Majius's outstretched hand, then froze. "Janine told me you got splinters from a mana sink ground into your skin," he said. "You got 'em all out, right?"
"Actually, Githros, we were hoping you could confirm that," Al said. "The Magisters can't detect any left-over bits, but we figured that you would be more sensitive than their tests."
Githros scowled. "I'm touched. My Mom -- if I had a Mom -- would be proud to have a lab rat for a son." But he leaned a bit closer to Al, prepared to throw himself clear at the first hint of any unpleasantness. After a few seconds, he shrugged, shook Al's hand, and sat down in his magically-reinforced boardroom chair.
"Near as I can tell, Al, you're clean. If there's any bits of mana sink still ground into your soft pink hide, they're so small that I can't feel any energy drain from them."
Al sighed. "Finally. I've lost count of how many times I've scrubbed and soaked my hands --"
"To say nothing of the hours I've had to spend with a magnifying glass and tweezers," Janine Majius said. "I'm grateful you showed up when you did, Al -- Morgenstern was about to barbecue us -- but I wish you'd just thrown the mana thingies instead of grinding them in with your bare hands."
"Does this mean that you'll get your full strength back?" Billy Taylor asked. Janine's cousin and Majius Magical Services' werewolf-at-law had recovered from his own injuries in a matter of hours -- Changing back and forth between human and lupine forms a couple of times had healed bruises and even broken bones with no ill effects except a lingering need to eat a lot of very rare steak. "You've been complaining that spells seem to take more effort since -- you know."
"Since the Big M busted into our house and nearly killed you and Janine? Since I played naked kamikaze to smash a couple mana sinks into his face?"
Billy winced. "I've been trying to forget about that 'naked' part, but yeah, since then."
Al shook his head. "My hands still feel strange -- a little numb. If it was just nerve damage from having my palms cut up, the healing potions and charms should have fixed it."
Githros grunted. "On the bright side, if you're still screwed up, think how Morgenstern must feel. He doesn't know what you did to him, and he doesn't have a Janine to spend hours picking eentsy bits of whatever out of his face. And he sure as Baal's family jewels won't be able to magic the stuff out."
"That may be why nobody's heard much from him," Billy said. "He may be having a few doubts about his 'godhood' after a 'little wizard' like you put a major hurt on him."
"He was weakened by the mana sinks, that's for sure," Al said. "But 'weak' for him is still probably ten times stronger than any other wizard."
"Optimistic as always, Albert," Magister Sciavone said.
Al flinched, then turned to face his mentor, who had apported directly into the boardroom from the College.
"Master Sciavone, what a pleasant surprise," Janine said. "Githros, here, just confirmed that Al's hands are finally mana-sink free."
"That is excellent news," the old wizard said. "Particularly in light of some disturbing discoveries regarding the nature of the mana sinks and their effects."
Al turned his head and looked at Githros. "Apparently, pal, you're not the only lab rat in the building." To Sciavone, he said, "I thought the Masters understood the mana sinks already -- they soak up ambient magical energy because they come from a mana-deficient realm."
Sciavone shook his head. "We have done more testing over the past few weeks, and that theory has become untenable. Some very small objects have been bombarded with powerful magic for days on end, and they have not lost any of their potency."
"You'd think that they'd -- fill up, get saturated with mana, and then behave like any other bit of glass or wood or metal," Al said.
"Indeed," Sciavone said. "But that would only be true if they were actually absorbing mana."
Al groaned. "If they're not absorbing mana, then where does the magical energy go when it hits a mana sink?"
Janine and Billy exchanged blank looks. Magic was a part of their lives -- in Janine's case, because she used magically-charged objects, in Billy's, because he suffered from the F.A.C.T. curse -- lycanthropy -- but neither had studied the theory of magic. Githros, on the other hand, was enthralled by the discussion -- as a demon, he was largely composed of magical energy, and intimately familiar with its characteristics.
"Perhaps we should discard the term 'mana sink' entirely," Sciavone said. "'Mana drain' might be more appropriate --"
"Sink, drain, it's all plumbing," Al said. "What's the difference?"
Sciavone rolled his eyes. "Albert, Albert, Albert. You know as well as I that the term 'mana sink' was coined as an analog of 'heat sink' -- not as a reference to the basin in which you wash dishes."
Janine snorted. "Al -- wash dishes? Uh, sorry to interrupt."
"So? A mana sink absorbs mana -- although you're telling me that it turns out that it doesn't -- a heat sink absorbs heat."
"And what happens to the heat energy after it has been absorbed?" Sciavone prompted.
Al frowned. "It -- gets radiated away. Computers and stuff like that have fans to help disperse the air that gets heated."
"Precisely," Sciavone said. "But mana that enters a mana drain never emerges in any form -- at least not in our realm."
"I get it -- it's more of a portal than a drain," Githros said. "A doorway back to its own realm, carrying mana from this universe, where magic works, to what's-his-name's -- Prufrock's -- where it doesn't."
"That would be bad enough," Sciavone said. "Over time, even a single, tiny mana drain -- portal -- whatever -- could effectively halve the total magical energy of our realm. The collection we Masters conjured from Prufrock's realm could accomplish this much faster -- although we have calculated that it might take thousands of years to complete the process."
"If 'that would be bad enough', then you're saying things are worse than that," Al said. "Worse how?"
Sciavone sighed. "I'm afraid I need to sit down, Albert. The centuries have weighed more heavily on me since our encounter with Prufrock nearly drained the life from this old carcass."
"By all means, Master, please, sit," Janine said. She ushered the old man to one of the vacant leather chairs around the boardroom table. To Janine's eyes, Sciavone looked like a moderately healthy nonagenarian, so his reference to centuries was a little disturbing. Did that mean that Al would outlive her by many decades as well?
Sciavone settled into the chair, wriggling a bit in what Al considered to be an unMasterlike way to find the most comfortable position. "A fine chair," he muttered. "Much better than the ones back at the College --"
The old wizard looked up and seemed to remember that he was in the middle of Grave Revelations. His grayish complexion turned faintly pink, as if blood was flowing into capillaries that got only occasional traffic.
"Ahem. Worse how, you asked. Have you noticed any lingering effects from your extremely close exposure to mana drains?"
Al nodded. "My hands feel a little numb," he said. "And I have to concentrate harder to make spells work -- even easy stuff that I've been doing for years."
"Are you familiar with the astrophysical term -- black hole?"
"An old star, used to be big, ran out of fuel and fell into itself -- and just kept falling," Al said. "Gravity so strong that it pulls anything within reach -- even light -- into it, on a strictly one-way trip. Not what you'd call a fun place to visit."
"Very good," Sciavone said. "And how have such objects been detected, if they pull light inward instead of radiating it outward?"
"Um, radiation, wasn't it? As stuff falls in, you get x-rays, gamma rays, squirting out. We -- astronomers, anyway -- see the doughnut, and guess the presence of the hole in the middle."
"This is really interesting, Master S, but what does it have to do with the mana drains?" Githros asked.
"Wait," Al said. "I think -- are you saying that when mana falls into -- or through -- a mana drain, something like radiation comes out?"
Sciavone lowered his eyes. "We don't know what to call it. But it acts like a poison to whomever and whatever it touches. All the Masters who have been working with the mana drains, all the artisans who fabricated the glass spheres -- have been affected."
Janine gasped and reached for Al's hand. "Affected how? Master Sciavone, is Al dying? Are you --?"
"The effect seems to interfere with the interaction between life, matter, and mana," Sciavone said. "That is why Al feels that it is more difficult to cast spells now. That is why I, and some of the other Masters, feel the weight of Time in spite of the magic we have used to extend our lives."
"What about the artisans you mentioned?" Al asked. "They weren't Talented, or working with the mana drains would have practically knocked them out."
Sciavone's eyes closed. Al thought he saw the beginnings of tears through the screen of silver lashes.
"Two are dead," Sciavone said. "Even for the unTalented, mana seems to be vital for survival. Perhaps people from Prufrock's realm have adapted to living without it, but here, where mana infuses everything ..."
Al slammed his hands -- his half-numb hands -- down on the table, hard enough to make the scattering of pens and coffee mugs jump.
"My fault! This is my fault for not finding a way to clean up the mess I made when I woke up Morgenstern!"
"Albert, no -- "
"He was weaker when he was first resurrected -- even freshly-infused with the souls of his acolytes, he hadn't had time to absorb and accumulate mana. If I'd fought him then --"
"You would have died," Sciavone said. "You have said that he called you 'little wizard' -- at that time, you were small in power and skill."
"Then I should have come to you, to the Masters, told them what had happened. Surely you could have --"
"We knew, Albert. The spell Morgenstern had woven was very old and very powerful. When it was triggered, the Masters felt it like a rumbling in the earth. But we did not think that he would be such a threat to you, and to anyone in his way."
"And when you did see him as a threat, you screwed up! First Prufrock, then the mana sinks -- drains -- and people have died! The things you Masters have done to try to curb Morgenstern have done more damage than Morgenstern himself."
Sciavone shook his head. "Sadly, Albert, that is not true. Morgenstern has caused many deaths since his resurrection. They have been attributed to other things, but those other things have been the results of his lashing out, testing his powers."
Al felt suddenly dizzy, as weak as he had been in the presence of Prufrock's Unbelief. "That earthquake a few weeks after Morgenstern woke up -- I remember, they said it was unusual for that area. The storm that leveled Mill Creek in Kansas -- 'unseasonable' ... You never told me," he said.
"There was nothing that you could do about it. Nothing that we could do, except encourage you to grow in power in skill," Sciavone said.
"Will the mana drain fragments kill him? They're stuck in his face, and like Githros said, there's no way he can magic them out. And they must be absorbing torrents of mana, and radiating that lethal whatever-it-is, poisoning him."
"That, we do not know," Sciavone said. "He was dead, but preserved by magic, and then resurrected with the strength of forty-nine Talented acolytes. His power, his ability to draw mana from his surroundings, may be equal to the task of balancing the effects of the mana drains. However, his absence from the scene suggests that he has been weakened, and seriously so."
"Let me get this straight," Billy said. "Morgenstern is less of a threat than he was -- aside from being kind of radioactive now -- but mana sinks, er, drains, are dangerous."
"That is correct," Sciavone said.
Billy smiled weakly. "Guess I'd better stop using one to keep from getting furry when the full moon comes around, huh?"
"Why are you here?" Al asked. "Did you just come to shower us with bad news? I suppose I should be grateful that you didn't summon me to the College to receive your clinical-depression-inducing speech."
"We need your help, of course," Sciavone said. "We must dispose of the mana drains, send them back to Prufrock's realm before they can do any more harm."
Githros sighed, releasing scents that made Billy's eyes cross. "I hate to do this, but ..." He produced a pocket crystal from somewhere on his person -- since he was naked as usual, Al preferred not to speculate -- and placed it on the boardroom table. "Al, if you're going to be mucking around with those things -- I've gotta get out of here. I'll be in Pandemonium when you're done." He shrank to flea-size, something he rarely did since his power and status had grown along with Al's, and dived headfirst into the crystal.
"Fine," Al said. "Wonderful. So -- how can I help, when any magic we throw at those things just gets passed through to another realm, and we get sprayed with poisonous rays in return?"
After nearly an hour of sweating, straining, and twisting, Al had managed to climb into the suit of armor that the Masters had devised to provide maximum protection from the effects of the mana drains. In effect, he was now wearing dozens of overlapping water-filled glass tanks, each formed from pairs of glass plates that had been bent into shapes roughly designed to fit around the body and limbs of a man Al's size. Very roughly.
"This thing must weigh a ton. And if it does what it's supposed to, I don't know how I can cast spells while I'm wearing it! I mean, if it really does block the flow of mana --"
Magister Sciavone sighed. "I realize that the suit is heavy and uncomfortable. That is one of the reasons that you were chosen to wear it -- no other wizard has both the physical strength for the task and the high mana potential required to cast the spells we have formulated. As for casting spells while wearing the suit --you will note that there is a small aperture in the right -- er, glove. It is intended to accommodate a specially-prepared wand that has been imbued with the most powerful apportation and banishing spells known to the College."
The 'glove' was an ovoid glass blob (inside another ovoid glass blob, with water in between). By wiggling his fingers and torquing his wrist, Al was able to grasp the wand that Sciavone now pushed through the opening.
"Can't see the wand, but I can feel lumps on the hilt," Al said. "Are those amplifier gems?"
"Yes. It took considerable effort to conjure Prufrock from his realm to ours, and even more to capture the objects we used as mana sinks. You will need every advantage possible to send the objects back."
Walking to the chamber in which all the mana drains (with the exception of the fragments that were still probably stuck in Aaron Morgenstern's face) had been gathered took some time. With every step he took, Al felt his legs and back twitch into knots and then stretch until he was sure that something had to tear, or pop, or whatever it was that overstressed muscles and connective tissue did. He was sweating so much that there was as much liquid inside the inner glass surfaces as there was between the glass plates.
"You couldn't just apport me there, huh? Or are sweat and probably blood supposed to enhance the spells?"
Sciavone shook his head. "You remember how hard it was to work magic near Prufrock. With all the objects from Prufrock's realm gathered together, the effect is much the same."
Al grunted as he took another step. Just ahead, the cool glow of the light spells that illuminated the halls of the College was replaced by the flickering yellow light of torches. The air was thick with the smell of burning resin, making Al's eyes itch and burn inside the glass-and-water helmet.
"What, battery powered lights wouldn't work?"
Suddenly Al realized that Magister Sciavone was no longer at his side. He turned, and felt his heart spasm in his chest as he saw his mentor slumped against the wall.
"Master Sciavone! Are you all right?"
Sciavone nodded slowly. "I will -- live. But I'm afraid I can't go any further. Even at this distance, the mana drains are affecting the spells that sustain my life. Go on, Albert -- you know what to do."
"I'll do what has to be done," Al said. "You'll be fine ..."
Al resumed his torturous walk down the corridor. "It occurs to me that you could have provided an electric golf cart or something so I wouldn't have to kill myself just to get where I'm going," he said.
"What, Albert? I couldn't quite hear you --"
"Nothing, Master. Just giving myself a little pep talk."
And then he was there, literally on the threshold of a room filled with objects that could steal the power that he had worked all his life to achieve. The door was heavy -- water-filled glass tanks covered it, inside and out -- and as he pushed it open, Al saw that the walls, the floor, and the ceiling were also lined with similar tanks. A few torches provided what little direct light there was in the room, but the water and glass painted every surface with oddly shifting reflections.
Al stepped into the room, almost losing his balance when the glass tanks covering the floor collapsed under his weight with a loud crack followed by the hissing of water as it spurted through the cracked glass.
Swaying, struggling to compensate for the slippery, tilting surface, Al muttered, "The all-wise Masters forgot to allow for hundred-kilo glass armor when they calculated how strong the glass had to be. If I fall, Janine will be picking glass out of my butt for the next ten years."
Finally, he felt steady enough to go on. By sliding his feet forward, barely lifting them, he was able to distribute his weight evenly enough to avoid breaking any more of the glass tanks on the floor. At the center of the room, a large aquarium mounted on a glass-block base held dozens, perhaps hundreds of the small odds and ends conjured from the universe that the Unbeliever called home. They had been stripped of their individual glass enclosures; their own properties would make it difficult enough to cast a spell on them without any additional barriers to the flow of mana.
"This next part is gonna hurt," Al said. "The College had better have a really nice plaque or scroll or something for me -- assuming I'm still alive ..."
Al pressed down on a lever protruding from the base of the aquarium. The water inside drained away, exposing the mana drains to the air, and even through his armor, Al felt his stores of mana evaporating. But there was one more step before he could attempt the spells Sciavone had given him.
Al took a deep breath, centering himself and focusing on the task at hand. This scrap-heap has to go home, before it can hurt anyone else. Even if it's the last thing I ever do ...
Al pushed the lever further, and the glass sides of the aquarium fell away, shattering as they struck the tanks covering the floor and sending more water in torrents around Al's glass-booted feet. The mana drains were completely exposed now, and despite the weight, Al wished that his armor was thicker, with more glass and more water, because it felt as though his mind and soul and strength were being sucked out through his navel.
His knees buckled and he had to lean on the glass-block base of the aquarium to stay on his feet. They're gonna find nothing but a skeleton in a stupid glass suit when they come looking for me.
But he raised his right arm, holding the wand over the center of the pile of mana-stealing debris, and screamed (or tried to scream -- what came out sounded more like a hoarse whisper): "Mitteo te ad origo! Ad origo! AD ORIGO!"
The wand pulsated in his hand, the gems flaring and raising blisters on his fingers and palm. The flames of the torches bent inward toward the collection of mana sinks as the air in the room was drawn toward -- what? Al had conjured and banished people, demons, and inanimate objects many times, but he had never seen anything like the thing growing at the tip of his wand.
A hole. A hole in the universe, in reality. It was impossibly dark, but paradoxically seemed blindingly bright. It was convex and concave, straight and curved, infinitesimal and large enough to swallow the whole College. Figures they wouldn't have warned me about this.
The thing enveloped the heaped bits of metal and plastic and wood and glass from Prufrock's world, then seemed to turn inside out, leaving nothing behind. The glass blocks of the aquarium base now had a bowl-shaped depression on top where glass and water had vanished.
I did it! Pretty Powerful Man still has it. Then Al found himself sitting on the floor, with glass splinters piercing his buttocks and water seeping in. If he'd had the strength, he supposed he might want to move, or at least say 'ouch', but he just couldn't manage it.
"And I thought tweezing splinters out of your hands was bad," Janine said. "I have to say, Al, that staring at your butt is not high on my list of favorite activities at the best of times. Staring at your butt through a magnifying glass under strong light --"
Face down on the carpet of his office, Al winced as Janine yanked what felt like a broken gallon jug from his lacerated buttocks. "Ow! Okay, I get it! Look, will it make you feel better if I promise to de-splinter your butt if you ever sit down on broken glass?"
Janine laughed. "Not really. I have it on good authority that staring at my butt is not a hardship."
"It is almost as nice as the day I first saw it," Al said, leering.
"Ow! You're supposed to be taking splinters out, not driving tweezers in. It's perfect! It's always been perfect! It always will be perfect!"
"Gah! Not again!" Billy Taylor covered his eyes and backpedaled out of Al's office.
"Hi, Billy!" Janine said. "Don't mind Al -- he's just lying down on the job, as usual. Any news on that exorcism contract we bid on?"
"I think I'm blind," Billy said from the corridor. "You should post warning signs when you're going to drop trou in the office, Al."
"Good thing I keep saving the day," Al grumbled. "Otherwise, I probably wouldn't get any respect around here."
The air suddenly smelled of brimstone. "Damn it, Al, if I'd known you were bleeding, I would have come back from Pandemonium sooner!" Githros picked one of the blood-slick shards of glass from the wastebasket and licked it clean. "Still a little light on the mana, Al. But tasty nonetheless."
Billy made retching sounds. "I'm a werewolf. I like blood, too, at least around the full moon. But that was disgusting."
"Hey, Al -- once Janine finishes de-fragging your southern exposure, I'll do my best sycophant routine."
Janine looked up at the demon and said, "Please don't tell me you're offering to kiss his ass."
Githros shrugged. "As long as he's bleeding, you betcha. It's about the only way Al will be able to sit down without screaming, too."
"Is that my phone ringing? It must be my phone. I'd better answer it," Billy said, running away.
"I think this is the last bit," Janine said, dropping a small sliver into the wastebasket. "Which means I think my phone is ringing, too. Or I left the oven on. Whatever. Have fun, guys." She stood and exited the room at a rapid but marginally dignified pace.
Al groaned. "Githros, if you see or sense anybody using any kind of spy spell or recording device, kill me immediately. I'll be dying of humiliation anyway."
"Ah, knock it off, Al. Think of me as a doctor, tending to your injuries."
"No doctor of mine ever used his tongue to -- eeewwww, that feels gross."
"Ow. I fink Janine mithd a thplinter or two. Quit thquirming."
"What has he done to me? What has the little wizard -- no, not so little, not anymore -- done?"
Aaron Morgenstern, now called the Morningstar by any who spoke to him and wished to live, stared into the great mirror he had conjured into place months ago, after his resurrection and ascension to godhood. His stronghold, well hidden in a self-contained realm unreachable by any who did not know its secrets, contained treasures he had coveted during his previous life but had never been able to obtain. Now, of course, there was nothing he could not own if he wished it; paintings and sculpture from the world's greatest museums and palaces, this mirror, its frame carved from solid gold by the finest artisans in all the many worlds ... nothing except an end to his current suffering, and revenge on the one who had caused it.
"These wounds do not heal. They pain me, they make me feel weak -- say weaker, rather, for my strength is still far beyond any who would oppose me. But this should not be. How could the little -- how could Majius harm me?"
Morgenstern stretched out on the huge bed, not to sleep -- he needed no sleep -- but to think, to remember. Somewhere in the vast stores of knowledge he had accumulated before his death, there must be an answer, and a cure. Until then -- let Majius think himself safe. There would be a reckoning. Majius would pay. Majius, his foolish allies in the Collegium Magistris, his family, his friends, all would suffer.
Al awoke suddenly, his hands raised as if to ward off an attack. In the darkened room, glowing wisps of magical energy twisted and swirled, weaving themselves into a dome-like shield.
"What is it, Al?" Janine asked. The faint, golden light of the magical shield turned her face into a softly-glowing mask framed by a tousled cloud of auburn hair.
"A dream -- I think -- I saw Morgenstern in -- in -- a castle, or what looked like one," Al said.
"And -- what was he doing?"
"Not much. Looking into a mirror. Being pissed off."
"At me. At me, and everyone I care about."
"You'll find a way to protect us -- better than the ones the Masters have tried."
Al smiled. "Keep believing, Janine. Faith counts in this business."
"Keep saving the day, Al. But for now, go back to sleep."
Al closed his eyes, but it took a long time for the image of Morgenstern's face, once perfected and idealized by magic, now scarred, to fade.
© 2005 by Robert Moriyama
Robert Moriyama is an Aphelion regular, with various stories and umpteen entries in the "Materia Magica" series featuring Al Majius, Githros and company, appearing in this 'zine over the past few years, most recently "A Matter of Urgency" (August, 2004). He is also participating in Jeff Williams's Nightwatch project, with the first tale, "Nightwatch: Dragon's Egg", in the June 2004 edition, and has taken over the post of Short Story Editor from the retiring (but not shy) Cary Semar.
E-mail: Robert Moriyama
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