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,
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
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
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
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
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
“You refuse, then?”
“You’re not a man. Even with his likeness, you can’t slip into this
“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.”
“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?” 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
“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
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
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,
“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
“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
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.
© 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
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