Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Painted Faces

Mary Kiorpes Hayden


Ledra stood before the magician's table. She had to know if Desmond spoke the truth. He said the old man's ways were of Black Magic -- the Demon Spirits. In her mind, this couldn't be. It was against the law.

She scanned the messy tabletop, reaching to caress the pieces of wonder that she had come to admire: a crystal flask, holding the essence of spirits' past; the glimmering hourglass, containing the particles of ages; pots and urns that retained secrets yet untold to her. And -- the books. The books that spoke the ancient runes; words only Master Yusif could hear.

Her brother wouldn't lie, but Desmond tended to over protect. Ledra thought of the plea within his eyes, and the desperation of his words. "He's evil -- that one. Run away."

No. It couldn't be. But Yusif's powers were greater than any sorcerers' in the land. What was its origin? These were dangerous questions that she shouldn't be asking.

Yusif had been gone too long, on another of his trips to places she did not understand. "To find the feathers of the dove," he told her, before wrapping his green cape about his wide girth, and vanishing with a chant of the runes. The remaining wisps of the magical symbols quickly retreated back to their places within the books. Once more, the magician departed before he was faced with her queries; only a lingering chant left behind.

Ledra leaned over the carefully organized pile of texts, tucking a stray strand of brown hair behind her ear. The volumes were encased in mystic seals, and their auras glowed with warning. How could she release the bonds and receive the rune-speak? She was only a disciple, and this was the Master's domain.

She straightened, shaking free the doubts that Desmond had planted. Ledra wiped the wrinkles from her long skirt, and moved across the dingy chamber. It was eerie here. A constant brown hue hung in the room like a ghostly veil. Shadows flickered across the smooth stone walls, given life by the many candles and sconces. Massive columns rose into a domed ceiling covered with a collage of painted faces. She stared at their expressions, examining them for the first time. A hint of fear twisted their false smiles. "My mind plays tricks," she mumbled.

"No, Ledra," interrupted her brother. "They are alive. You can feel them here, can't you? And somehow, they're familiar."

"Desmond," Ledra snapped. "How dare you scare me so?"

"He is wicked, little sister. Why won't you listen?"

"Go home, Desmond. There is no corruption here, only your delusions."

"If you distrust my delusions so, then why were you reaching for the books?"

"You spy on me?"

"No, I watch over you."

Ledra felt her expression turn into one of frustration. She went to her brother, placed her arms about his waist, and said, "Desmond, please. I'm within an honored place. Few women have been chosen to work beside Yusif."

"Have you noticed, that all who have been the subjects of this honored choosing, have never returned to their villages? Their families still await them. Where have they gone, Ledra? Will I be waiting forever for you, as well?"

"Hush. You must leave. The Master will soon return." Ledra turned away, and walked briskly to her study area.

Desmond said, quietly, "I will keep vigil. I swear this, on my life."

Ledra said nothing, for she could think of nothing to say. She listened as the heavy wooden door slammed shut after her brother, and suddenly felt very alone.

####

Ledra kept staring at the books. She tried to concentrate on her chores, but the tug of curiosity was becoming too strong. Where were the spells for undoing the seals? Maybe the Scrolls of Order whispered them. But would they whisper to her? Ledra worried that their murmurs of knowledge might change to screams of alarm. She knew only what was allowed her. All else was Yusif's.

But she had touched them before..."Though not with thoughts of malice."

Ledra had to have the concoction table ready for Yusif's arrival. He seemed eager to begin his newest project. The sorcerer had not told her his purpose, only his needs. Ledra pondered how he never told her much of anything. She had learned little magic thus far -- and after twelve moons?

Suddenly, a shower of runes fell over the stone hall, signaling the wizard's return.

"Yusif comes. He used the magic of the Tenth Volume." Ledra was shocked as she watched the runes slide back within its pages. That book uttered the most serious of spells, and had its own seal. She felt the warnings of her brother slither up her spine.

As the magical mist cleared, the magician stood grasping a stitched leather pouch.

"Master," Ledra stammered. "You are...back."

"And why should that surprise you, woman?" he boomed. "I sense something amiss."

"Amiss?"

She watched nervously as Yusif glanced about his chamber, listening intently to voices only he could hear.

"You've had a visitor. You know the rules."

"Yes, Sir. My brother..."

"I know who has walked my floors and touched my walls. Why was he here this time?" Yusif threw a piercing stare that Ledra felt within her bones. He looked angry. She had never seen him behave so.

She met his stare. "He bade me to come home for a visit. I am missed."

"And so you shall continue to be. I am not done with you."

Startled at the magician's outburst, Ledra took an abrupt step backwards. His words carried an ominous tone.

"Master," she asked, boldly, "when will I learn the ways of the books?"

Yusif leaned over his table, arranging his new possessions, none of which looked like feathers. He turned, and smiled at his aide; his scraggly, white beard parting with his motions."Soon," was his only reply.

####

Ledra continued to observe Yusif as he reached for the Tenth Volume. He drew his fingers into a curl, pulling away the enchanted symbols that locked its pages. The runes disappeared into his wrinkled palm, leaving traces of smoke trailing from his fist. Yusif shook open his hand, flinging the residue of the spell into the air. He pulled the book closer to him and caressed the leather edges, then turned to face Ledra.

"What are you looking at, woman?" he scowled.

"I...I was awaiting your instructions, sir. The table is set for your experiment. Do you need me further?"

He rubbed his beard. "Yes, yes. Go to the potions. Prepare me an oil vat. The cauldron must simmer, not boil."

Ledra pivoted, anxious to place distance between her and the old man. Something was different. He'd always been aloof, but never so tyrannical.

She tightened the tie in her hair as she moved back to the rear of the great room, and then cautiously glanced over her shoulder at Yusif. Was that a piece of her ribbon he held? The magician rubbed it between his fingers, while he dipped his other hand into a shallow dish of ash. What was he up to?

Ledra went to the wooden shelves that held the vials of elixirs she needed to start the oil brew. She carefully took down the containers, and meticulously poured the contents into the kettle. She called the runes from the recipe parchment, and kindled the low fire in the large hearth with their magic sparks. As she stirred the mixture, she kept watch on the old man. He was absorbed in his magic; dancing runes swirled about him. Occasionally, he reached out and grabbed a smattering of characters from the air, tossing them into the bowl that contained the ash. They vented streams of colored smoke, trailing around Yusif, mingling with the floating runes.

Ledra suddenly saw her face on the surface of the concoction in the cauldron. Then, the ancient signs that hovered by the magician began tracing their way through the room to merge with the fumes that rose from Ledra's kettle. One-by-one, they dropped into the pot, sputtering and seething as they touched its contents.

Ledra released the wooden spoon, and jumped back.

Yusif barked, "Stir, woman. The oils need to be worked for the spells to take."

"Y...yes, Master." Ledra approached the cauldron, once more concerned that all was not as it seemed. As she continued to agitate the brew, she felt woozy. The runes were gliding about her face, sliding through her nostrils, their scent making her weak.

"No," came a voice from the entrance. She heard Desmond. He was here. "Let her go, demon-wizard."

Yusif slowly stood. His green robes falling from thick folds to drag across the floor. He smiled chillingly. "Ah, the protective brother. Desmond? Is it not?"

"Yes, Desmond -- of Ostia."

Yusif froze. The wrinkled skin of his eyes smoothed with the look of shock that bathed his face.

"Desmond? It can't be. I slew you over four-hundred moons past."

"Slew? No Yusif. You only detained me. I swore that I'd be back. Did I not?"

Ledra watched this skewed scene through syrupy vision. What was this nonsense that her brother spoke? Confusion from the roaming runes addled her thoughts. She was losing perspective; the room was disintegrating, dots of space disappearing with each blink of her eyes.

She fell to the floor. "Desmond?"

"Ledra," he answered, "Stand, Sister. Fight to find a hold on your senses. Yusif works the spells to steal your soul."

Ledra saw the two men face each other in a defensive stance. She pulled herself to her knees, her head slumping between her legs. Ledra fought the web of chaos that the runes spun within her mind. She must listen to Desmond. She clutched onto a nearby shelf, and hauled herself upright.

"Ledra," Desmond yelled, "get away from the kettle."

"Yes, Desmond...the kettle..."

As Ledra dragged herself away from the evil runes, her thoughts began to find a clearer path, and she suddenly realized the meaning of her brother's words. Four hundred moons?

She listened. It was all she could do.

"You felt it within her, didn't you, devil?" Desmond demanded. "You felt her power. The sibling of he whose powers you once coveted; whose powers you've been striving to recreate through the theft of a thousand souls. Then -- you found Ledra. I saw you pass the gates into the Other Realm. I knew that you searched for the black runes. I knew you were ready to consume her soul."

With the return of her reason, Ledra was becoming frantic. She wrapped her arms about herself, warding off the chill of the words being uttered. This was absurd.

Yusif scowled at Desmond, and Ledra shuddered.

"I killed you once, Prince. I shall simply do it again."

"I told you, Yusif. I was never dead. I've been watching you."

"No." The sorcerer thrust his arms at Desmond. The books flew open; a spray of ebony runes filled the space between them, forming a swarm of deadly insects. They instantly enveloped Desmond. He spun and crouched, first trying to ward them off with his cloak, then with his magic. Ledra saw her brother whisper to the winds. Abruptly, tremendous gusts of golden runes burst through the glass window panes, spraying the room with shards, and smashing into the dark clouds of vermin.

Yusif called to the Tenth Volume; it flew into his arms. He held it high above his head, the pages open. He moved closer to the vat that Ledra had been simmering. The runes raced from the paper, encircling Desmond, then to the cauldron.

"I shall have your power, bastard son of goodness. I shall turn it, spoil it, and then devour it. And your sister as well."

Ledra's eyes went wide as Desmond seemed caught in the spells. The wizard was laughing.

Now -- she had to do it now.

####

Desmond said she had the power. She looked within her soul, searching for the voice that spoke to the magic.

"Just speak, Ledra," Desmond cried. "Speak, the voice is your own."

Ledra called to the sinister book in Yusif's hands. It tugged toward the sounds of her utterance, as if being wrenched from Yusif's hold. She called again. It flew to the floor. Desmond fell from the grip of the black runes. They flew wildly now, without a single voice to follow. Three beings shouted their signals, and they were baffled as to whom to answer.

Ledra watched in terror as the runes began to blanket the room in billows of misery. She could hear the voices clearly now -- people's voices. Desmond was right.

Her fury rose beyond the scope of what was happening. She failed to notice that her brother was being pulled toward the oil vat. She only saw the old man, caught in his own spell. She bade the runes to speak to her. "Tell me...." she pleaded.

So many cries spilled into her mind that she held her head between her hands to steady herself. She pictured Yusif imprisoned within his own dungeon. She commanded the magic symbols to suck him up and carry away his soul.

"Ledra!" Desmond yelled. "Do it!"

Ledra stretched her arms before her, bringing the magic into her being. She spat it at Yusif, who was already entangled in his own snare.

He screamed, and Ledra watched as Yusif split into two, his spirit being twisted and molded into the shape of a rune. The old man's arms and legs contorted into gnarled positions. His flesh melted away, bit-by-bit. His moans of pain sang sweetly in Ledra's ears. His twin, the physical capsule of his soul, was yanked toward the ceiling, blending into the collage of tormented faces. All that remained of him was a painted face with a false smile.

Ledra collapsed as she released the runes. They fled madly back into the pages of the books.

"Desmond," she mumbled. "Desmond. It's done. He's gone. Desmond?"

Ledra turned to where she last saw her brother; all that remained was his scarlet cape. Suddenly, a wave of horror crashed against her heart. She looked up to the ceiling.

Desmond's eyes stared down at his sister with sadness, but his smile was true.

THE END


© 2008 Mary Kiorpes Hayden

Bio: Mary Kiorpes Hayden lives in Germantown, Maryland, and works in peer-reviewed, scientific journal publications. She has taken up fiction writing, now working on two novels, and looking forward to making the weaving of many tall tales her next career.

E-mail: Mary Kiorpes Hayden

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