Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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The Spell-Broker's Death

by Joshua Grasso




Sometimes you can feel your death.

I don’t mean the slow grinding away of your organs, or a vague premonition of doom; that comes with age. I mean your death, a being inside you, growing step-by-step as you do, inseparable from your own existence. Some magicians liken them to a parasite, though that only suggests one aspect of the relationship, the least important. In that case, it would be more honest to call us the parasite and them the creature in charge.

Most deaths are small; they only nibble and peck away at one’s life over sixty, maybe seventy years. A few are large and voracious; they gobble it up in a few years, and in extremely rare cases, a matter of months. In general it’s a relatively harmonious relationship, and the death, in order to protect its nourishment, blocks dangerous influences and whispers propitious thoughts in one’s sleep. The feeling you get when something isn’t quite right, a tingling of the spine, the raising of hairs about your neck…that’s how it speaks. Mine’s certainly saved me once or twice over the years, though I never had the opportunity to thank it. But my time may be drawing near...

Of course, this really isn’t a story about me, or my death. It’s about the last time someone hired me to work clandestine magic. Naturally, I don’t like to talk about it, and wouldn’t today, if not for you. This might be your line of work, after all, and you need to know what it means to become a spell-broker. Perhaps, too, you’ll better understand why I’m quitting, even though I have the sincerest respect for the profession. After all, what else are disgraced magicians like me—like us—supposed to do with our spells?

As I’m sure you understand, not just anyone can hire a spell-broker. You have to know where to go, who to ask for. In general, we trade our wares in busy thoroughfares like Celandine Court, where no one pays us the least attention. Your average customer is a nobleman of modest means who wants a step up in the world. Petty stuff: concocting a missing ancestor, forging a family crest. You could do it in your sleep. Now and then, however, you meet a noblewoman with an assumed name who wants something unspeakable to happen to her husband. Not murder, mind you—I specifically draw the line at that—but a random accident of some sort which could have serious repercussions (I leave all such matters to the gods). It pays well, these jobs, though not everyone can stomach them. They go against the very nature of principled spellcraft and most magicians would spit on your grave (for you’ll be dead to them all). But respect doesn’t pay the bills; neither does following orders.

I never met the fellow beforehand. Instead, while watching a beautiful woman ride past in a particularly shabby coach, a servant tapped my shoulder. Normally I would have told him to what for, but his livery was of the highest caliber. He came from one of the Great Houses, and his surly expression confirmed his position. Without a word he handed me a sealed envelope and departed, hastily crossing the street and disappearing in a crush of vagrants. I retired to a quieter part of the Court, and examined the seal beneath the shade of a tree. Two harpies with wings enfolded a mountain top supported by a phrase in old Yazik which I can’t remember. I couldn’t place the House, either, but this wasn’t a seal you would cook up in an afternoon, even by magic. It went back to the old days. So I opened it and examined the letter, which said very little, and something like this: Urgent request, please come at once and tell no one. Will make well worth the trouble. Lord S.

I knew several candidates for “Lord S.,” though couldn’t imagine any of them requesting my services. What obstacles stood in the path of someone like Lord S.? He pushed; they moved. That was the only time I considered tossing the letter aside and hiding out in the country. Of course, he knew where to find me, and could find me again. Nor would he tolerate a refusal. The letter alone sealed my fate. So I made note of the address, which was in Liverleaf (not a fashionable part of town), so clearly he wasn’t at home. The apartment of a kept mistress? An out-of-the-way harem? A disreputable coffee house? As I tucked the letter away, I noticed the moon emerge from an inky cloudbank behind the Stanislav Tower. The eye of the full orb glared down at me, as if recording my movements. I wouldn’t put it past a lord, especially once I learned more about the Lord S. in question.

I won’t tell you the exact street, but it was thronged with musicians and truth-sellers, which I suppose made it a convenient hide-out for whatever the lord wanted done. The houses were from the last century and seemed heavy with age; I could see people moving across windows with drawn shades, but nothing from the lord’s address. Completely dark. Nevertheless, I mounted the steps and rapped at the door, feeling foolish to call on an empty house. But not so: the door opened and a young servant—not the one I met earlier—ushered me solemnly inside. All the candles had been snuffed except for a few in a far room, the light giving the slightest halo around a frightening silhouette. I don’t use this description lightly: the room had been arranged theatrically, with him as the focal point, like the painting of a forgotten master. Only his arms and shoulders appeared with any degree of clarity; the rest was swallowed up in the gloom, though I could see the outline of his hat, which he wore slightly askew in the fashion of a previous century. A folio of papers was opened and spread out on the table, along with a quill and inkpot, though I couldn’t read a word of it—and nor could he, I imagine.

The servant shuffled out soundlessly. I remained standing awkwardly, knowing better than to sound out a lord before he addressed you. Finally, after leaning against the table as if bearing a terrible weight, he made his introductions.

“Thank you for coming so quickly. I know you by reputation, of course, and I would prefer you know me as simply Lord S. for the present. A certain amount of anonymity is called for. As a spell-broker you come highly recommended. I hope you won’t disappoint.”

“Naturally, my lord, I await your command,” I said, with a flourish.

“Then come closer.”

He waved me forward, and taking a few more steps, I could see his face in the half-light. A strong nose, proud eyes, a sharp chin crowned with a tuft of silvery hair. He raised his palm to indicate I had advanced far enough. I was about three steps from the table, with an inviting chair just out of reach; he didn’t invite me to sit.

“There’s a room upstairs, down a long corridor, locked. Here is the key. Open it and you’ll find a dead man sitting at a table, much like this one. He’s been dead for about twelve hours. Who he is, how he died, if I’m the murderer in question, need not concern you. I called you here for one purpose: to make him disappear.”

So that’s what it was, I thought to myself. He killed a man—a lover, no doubt—and needs to remove all trace of the alliance. Far be it from me to say no to a lord, but destroying a body…that’s an accomplice to the crime. After all, what would stop him from accusing me of the murder, blaming my spell for his sudden decease? That’s the benefit of being a lord—people generally accept your version of things over a disgraced magician’s. I was ready to make my apologies and dash for the nearest escape when he stood at attention, petitioning my indulgence.

“I know how this sounds, and I applaud your hesitation; it’s the mark of a true professional. But please do not mistake my request. I’m not asking you to hide the body, or bury it, or do anything unseemly. Just make him disappear. No one will miss him. There will be no investigation, no questions. He will simply fade into the ether and you will leave so much the richer...and no one the wiser for your actions.”

I tried to explain to him that, yes, a spell-broker was obliged to flirt with the boundaries of criminal behavior. No one hired us to follow the rules; indeed, magic was so coveted because it left no trail that led to a chest—or in this case, a body. Like the wind, it swept invisibly across the earth and scattered the clues willy-nilly. But even so, a magician had to follow some rules, otherwise he tumbled into a pit of black magic. For all my crimes against the Order, no one can accuse me of speaking the dark words or defiling the sacred books. It was the other rules I had trouble following.

“What if I told you he needed to die?” he continued. “That many people desired his death? I’m not justifying it, only suggesting it was his time to go, even if his death occurred somewhat unnaturally. Not everyone deserves to live out their natural life.”

He had a point. Some people die long before they’re dead, going through the painful motions of an exhausted routine (and some are simply bastards). Realizing I had to indulge him, and more than a little curious about its contents, I agreed to inspect the room. Not cast a spell, mind you, but simply investigate. He slid the key across the table and thanked me. But no more. He didn’t get up to lead me to the room, but sat in a heap, his body slumped every so-slightly to one side.

I took the key and ventured upstairs with one of the candles. The stairwell creaked and one stair seemed almost to give way, so I advanced very slowly, continually looking behind me out of caution, or paranoia. Lord S. remained sitting just as he was, not watching me, not inspecting his papers. At the top of the stairs I could dimly make out a series of doors, all of them open. The rooms seemed empty so I continued down the hall to the final door. I tried the handle. Locked. So here it was.

I quietly rapped on the door. A foolish impulse, but it seemed appropriate. No one responded, no sound of footsteps, shuffling, breathing. I slipped the key in the lock and waited for the musical click. I turned the handle and the door yielded, allowing me to inch into the room by slow degrees, still expecting...a trap? Certainly not. But neither did I expect to find the body sitting coolly for my inspection. The shades of the room were drawn, letting in the faintest curtain of sunlight. Otherwise, the room was bare save for the table, a few chairs, and something slumped over said table; a dark, rumbled mass with a hat unfashionably askew.

I approached the body and touched it. As with other corpses in my career, it didn’t seem like a corpse; the body moved slightly against the table, as if stirring in its sleep.

“Are you dead? Not just sleeping? Not just drunk?” I asked it, simply to take up time.

The body had nothing to say. I paced the length of the table, inspecting the remains from all sides. The face I couldn’t see, as it was hidden between both arms and the folds of the hat. The hat looked exactly the same as that worn by Lord S., as did the jacket and what little I could see of the boots. He seemed older, too, though I couldn’t make out that he was, or anything other than a general appearance of age. By the gods, he’s killed his father, I thought to myself. Patricide, a nasty business. No wonder he wanted him gone. They would hang him for sure. Imagine a public execution for a lord—it would draw crowds by the thousands. Again, it all made sense; I would have to make quick work of the body.

There were three schools of thought on the disposing of mortal remains. One, a simple incineration spell that burned from the inside. Unfortunately, it left a sticky, tar-like substance that was difficult to clean and smelled piteously offensive. The second consisted of conjuring a dimension to the nether realm and tossing it in. No muss, no fuss, and no one asked questions. The problem? On occasion, some wizard or devil from those worlds took offense and expelled it in a random location. Imagine if the king was having breakfast and a dead body—covered in rime from the Nine Realms—suddenly materialized on his soufflé? He would lose more than his appetite, and I might lose my head.

So that left the third, and the one least sanctioned by the Council. Releasing its death. When someone dies of old age or disease, the death consumes what it needs and then goes free, leaving the body to rapidly decompose. But when life ends suddenly through murder or suicide, the death becomes timid, scared to relinquish its keep. It might take days or weeks to come to a proper understanding. My late master taught me how to jostle it out, so in its confusion and hunger it utterly consumes the body. I’ve seen it done only once, and it’s shocking—uncanny—repulsive. Under these circumstances, however, it made the most sense, and given the recent proximity of the murder—only twelve hours—the death would be in its most precarious state.

I would need more access to the body, so clenching my teeth, I took hold of the ears and pulled the body into an upright position. It teetered to one side of the chair, and only a quick catch prevented it from tumbling on the floor. The hat slipped off, allowing me a better look at the face. By all the gods…this wasn’t his father at all, but his brother! And a twin brother, at that. The eyes, the cheeks, the chin, even the hair—exactly the same. So that explained it. Twins were ruthlessly jealous of one another, one inevitably living in another’s shadow though they felt entitled to the same rewards. This must be the successful one. Then surely he would be the more missed of the two, especially if they were both lords of a great house (and his clothes attested as much, even without the family resemblance).

Don’t ask questions. With questions came conscience, then guilt, then outright remorse. Spells tended to go awry with a dash of morality. I unbuttoned his jacket, his shirt, and revealed the bare chest beneath. That’s when it struck me: he lacked any sign of mischief. No blood or wound of any description. What in the blazes had killed him? Even poison would leave its mark on the mouth, in the eyes…but he looked completely unscathed. More questions, not your business. I removed a vial of ink and drew the symbols on his chest precisely as my mentor had made them, though he would never approve (you know how he was). But the symbols scarcely mattered; the spell relied solely on tone of voice. I had to rouse the death from its sleep, convince it to never sleep again.

I recited the words, growing bolder with each repetition, as the spell required five or six cycles. However, four cycles in and the body seemed curiously unresponsive. Possibly the death was small and ineffectual. The poor fool might have lived a hundred years if not for his brother’s interference. At length sheer exhaustion set in and I fell silent, studying the body for any clue to the death’s disposition. But nothing moved. I was too exhausted to repeat the spell, so I leaned against the table, listening, waiting. Only my breath registered. The body said nothing.

I willed myself to examine him face-to-face. Once more I noted the resemblance: not just close, but exact, uncanny. His eyes were blank. Not the eyes of a man dead only twelve hours, who twenty-four hours ago had walked this earth. I couldn’t place it no matter how long I stared, since I had never seen anything like it.

There was no life in those eyes at all. No life, because there was no death behind them. His death...was dead.

Impossible! How could you die without a death? It had to be there, just so small and reclusive that even the spell couldn’t reach it. So I tried to find it: I shook the dead man and screamed in his face and pressed my fingers against his eyeballs and tried to see inside. Only darkness and a vast, empty space. No death. Gone, as if it had never existed. As if Lord S.’s uncanny brother had never been a prisoner of this room.

By all rights I should have refused the job. He said nothing about this, whatever it was. Had he created this person out of clay, or wax, like a golem? And now he wanted all trace of his failed experiment destroyed? If so, I would have seen the tell-tale sign of construction, myriad small imperfections that betrayed the master’s art. No, at some point he had been human, with all the right organs, thoughts, and a living death inside. So where had it gone?

There was only one answer: it was still here. If not here, in this body, this room, then somewhere close, extending its reach as far as humanly—or in this case, inhumanly—possible. A death could never leave without consuming its host, that much was certain. But it didn’t follow that it had to consume the body at once; it could draw it out for as long as it could endure the strain, a torture beyond human understanding. So why afflict itself with such miseries merely to prolong the inevitable? What could it hope to gain?

The image of Lord S. came into focus: the uncertainty of his movements, his drawn-out words. Even when he stood up, he seemed constrained...like a demon in an enchanted circle. The realization chilled my blood and made me realize my danger, greater by far than anything I imagined, and the reason I had been summoned in haste.

Make the body disappear. The death was here—downstairs— bound to the table by pain. It had removed itself from the body, causing the lord’s violent and instant demise. Only it had no interest in consuming the body, since the corpse would betray its presence. If, however, I made it disappear, never to be seen again, it could become the lord, assuming his body, title, home, and reputation. No one will miss him. There will be no investigation, no questions. And no murder. The lord would live again—and presumably live forever.

I had never confronted a death before, nor had anyone on record (unless such tales were censored). They were immensely powerful and immune to all forms of magic, being more than magic themselves. Yet this one was trapped, anchored to a cold body in a locked room. It was a desperate gambit which gave me the upper hand. If I refused to cooperate, it would have to feed before its human form melted away into…something else.

By the time I reached the bottom step I saw Lord S. slumped over the table, his hat on the floor. Alerted to my presence, he slowly lifted his head, the eyes cold and glassy.

“Is he gone?” he asked.

“I know what you are,” I challenged.

Lord S.’s eyes narrowed, momentarily weighing me as a threat. But the moment passed.

“You refuse, then?”

“You’re not a man. Even with his likeness, you can’t slip into this world unchallenged.”

“You haven’t the power to stop me,” he said, wearily. “Nor do you understand why I’m here.”

“You want his life—the life of a man. It’s why you won’t take him now. It’s why you’re trapped in this house.”

“I am trapped, and I do need your assistance; but it’s not for the reasons you think,” he said, lifting himself with effort. “I never dreamed of being alive—of being a mortal with its cloying lusts and desires. Anyone who’s tasted of eternity would reject it.”

“Then why…?”

“I’m can’t explain it, not in your words...but one day I was called to awareness. Awareness of myself as a thing apart from creation. And I saw what I was, and the prison—the person—that bound me. I knew I had to escape. That’s why I was shown the truth. The plan formed in my mind without thought. I had to become him, to join this world with the others.”

“Others?” I asked.

“I told you not to ask questions. There’s only one matter to consider here: will you remove the body? If not, leave now and never return. But you may have cause to regret it.”

I ignored that remark, accustomed to the empty threats of my rivals. But this was no ordinary foe, and a death could have no conception of guile or bravado.

“And if I help you? Allow you to impersonate Lord S. and keep silent before the world?”

“Money alone wouldn’t entice you, I imagine. Not for the severity of this enterprise.”

“Not unless it buys me a kingdom; for I would need to wall myself up when the Council came knocking,” I muttered.

“Precisely. That’s why I offer you this, the one thing worthy of my request.”

Lord S. reached into his jacket and removed a small object wrapped in a soiled cloth. He laid it on the table and gestured meaningfully; this was to be my payment, should I accept. I approached cautiously, waiting for him to trick me or change his mind. But I snatched it before he could. I knew even before I unwrapped it what it was—and why I would never say no. But once I did, tears came into my eyes as the stone twinkled with reflected candlelight.

“Where...how did you find it?”

“I used my—or should I say, his—connections. A lord can name his price, even for items they don’t sell on the market. Especially those items.”

There it was: the symbol of my office, the stone torn from my staff to cement my disgrace. Without the stone, no magician can enter the Circle or read the pages of the Ones-Before. I dreamt of it every night, longing for its return, hearing it speak to me, begging me to reclaim it. A magician is nothing without his stone. And I was even less.

Only those who have lost a stone could understand the temptation. I know you’ve felt it yourself. Of course, you’re so much younger than I was, and the disgrace is fresh; you didn’t have time to grow old with a stone, to feel it become part of your thoughts—and then have it taken away. Clearly he had calculated my response. He knew I wanted it more than honor or reputation, more than the lives of everyone in Mandragora. I could see this in his eyes, flashing with grim, otherworldly intent.

“I can’t do it...you ask too much,” I finally told him.

“The man is already dead; you merely end a life to save one,” he responded.

“But you aren’t alive. You weren’t meant to be.”

“A death always is; it never is not. You’re thinking like those fools in the Council. Think of what you stand to lose, all to uphold what they taught you—those men who proclaim your disgrace. Who would condemn this conversation as treason.”

Of course, I had no loyalty to the Council and still less to their notions of ‘treason.’ Had I betrayed them? Certainly. But to follow my conscience demanded that I wash my hands of the Order. Magic was a road following many paths, all of them equally valid. Yet the Council would have us chose one and ignore the others, even if we felt lost in our hearts. I took a step on the wrong path and it brought me back to myself. And for this they called me ‘damned.’

So I released him. I destroyed the body through a combination of the first two methods, pocketed the stone, and never looked back. Lord S. thanked me and promised to refer me to his ‘partners’ as a man of discretion. I hoped he was joking. Either way, I’ll never haunt Celandine Court again, never offer my trade as a spell-broker. I leave that to more capable hands...to yours, if you want it. There’s still money to be made, clients who need magic to solve their problems, even if the cure never takes. But I warn you, one day you’ll find yourself facing a situation where the stakes are considerably higher than forging a coat of arms. When that happens, there will be no one to help you: the Council has written you off, and spell-brokers (it pains me to say) are only a less-principled order of thieves.

Even I won’t be able to help you. I’m leaving before the Council can piece things together. But it may already be too late. I left Lord S. a little over a month ago, though I never saw him again. I never even learned who ‘he’ was, what lord or gentleman he impersonated. What I did learn is this: a death always moves as if its arms and legs are connected to strings, like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Of course it’s quite subtle—you really have to look, and know what to look for. But you can’t suddenly inhabit a body and know how to use it. It might take years, even decades, to master. Hence his lurching movements, always drifting off to one side and having to painfully, awkwardly, correct himself.

As I said, I never saw him again...but I have seen them. Strangers lurking on the streets, twisting and stumbling and jerking their arms and legs. Men and women. Children. Even once, a member of the Council. I can’t prove any of this, naturally; it could just be fear or paranoia, which are never far from my thoughts. So dismiss this as an old man’s fancy, or the babblings of an aging half-wit. Whatever helps you sleep. I only ask you this—watch the people around you, even your closest friends. Some of them aren’t alive. And some will never die. They’re all around us, watching us, waiting for some dread event. As Lord S. told me, he had been called to join the “others.” How many others? I leave that discovery to you.

Good day, Quentin. I wish you luck in your new career. Oh, and be sure to avoid Cinquefoil Square for the present...the king’s officers have increased their patrols and are on the lookout for spellcraft.



THE END


© 2018 Joshua Grasso

Bio: Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, where he teaches classes in British Literature (the older, the better), Humanities, and SF/F. He has published several indie novels on Amazon as well as articles on numerous eighteenth-century writers such as Defoe, Fielding, and Equiano.

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