A Matter of Honor
The conference room in the offices of Majius Magical Services was unusually quiet. This was not surprising, as there were only two people present instead of the sometimes rowdy quartet of MMS officers -- and only one of them was breathing.
As a gesture of respect for someone who was practically royalty, Al Majius, President and CEO of MMS, and provisional Level 7 Wizard, had agreed to meet the Countess Lamia of Wallachia in private. MMS had done work for the ageless vampire ruler before, and she had proven to be a good friend as well.
“Well, Countess, we’re alone,” Al said. “And nobody’s listening in, electronically or magically. So – what did you want to discuss?”
The Countess Lamia, direct descendant of Vlad Tepes, sighed. This made her perfectly-sculpted bosom move in ways that Al found very distracting. It would have been even more distracting if Al had not been aware that Lamia had been dead – well, undead – for several centuries.
“Once again, I need your help,” she said softly.
Al couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I know I helped you before, Countess – and Githros and I owe you our gratitude for pulling us out of that Baldie dungeon. But I can’t imagine what help I could be to you now.”
“I have been challenged for leadership of the Wallachian people,” Lamia said. “I – or my Champion – must meet the challenger in ritual combat, to the Final Death.”
Al frowned. “To the Final Death? That’s nasty. But you’re one of the most powerful Wallachians in existence. What challenger would stand a chance against you?”
“Someone who was not of my people,” Lamia said. “Someone who was brought across the divide between life and undeath only after he had gained great magical skill.”
Al felt his chest tighten. “Not Morgenstern. Please say it isn’t Morgenstern. I – I’m not ready to take him on. I don’t know if anyone is.”
Lamia laughed, but the sound was harsh, more like the cawing of crows than the coloratura trill that Al had heard before.
“I would not ask that of you,” she said. “I know that you and your – family – suffered and almost died at the Morningstar’s hands not long ago. In time, you will be strong enough, I think – but not yet.”
Lamia lowered her eyes. “Who hates me – hates all Wallachians, and all lycanthropes as well? Who slaughtered children and tried to blame the Wallachians, to shatter the truce between the living and the undead?”
“Baldies?” Al said. “But they’re just a bunch of second-rate magicians. They’ve been sending assassins after Billy – you remember him, Janine’s cousin, werewolf at law – for months, and Janine and Billy have been clobbering them and sending them to prison. We took down one of their leaders, the one behind the child-killing plot, and even he wasn’t much of a wizard. How could one of them be a threat to you?”
"Layers within layers, rings within rings,” Lamia said. “We have dealt with underlings, pawns, and perhaps even a knight or bishop or two. But the innermost circle of those you call Baldies, their true leaders, were much more formidable than either of us ever imagined.”
“Okay,” Al said slowly, “So one of the top Baldies – maybe even the top guy – managed to get himself ‘brought across’ by a Wallachian. He gained some nifty Wallachian powers – strength, speed, hypnotism – added to the magical power and knowledge he already has. But he can’t have picked up enough Wallachian magic to be a threat to you.”
“It is not his strength or his novice’s knowledge of Wallachian magic that I fear,” Lamia said.
Al felt dizzy. That Lamia would ever use the word ‘fear’ amazed him; even the prospect of open warfare with humans and their wizards had not evoked so strong a response from her.
“You’re – afraid?”
Lamia nodded. “As you were a master of one school of magic when we first met – the Kabbalistic forms you learned from the Morgenstern grimoires – I was, and still am, a master of Wallachian spells alone. The two are equally formidable at the highest levels, but different. Each has different weaknesses and strengths; each provides greater control over different aspects of the Four Elements.”
“So your challenger is a master of another form – Kabbalistic, Hermetic, whatever – and he has at least the rudiments of Wallachian magic as well,” Al said. “Enough to at least understand how you might attack.”
“And to understand how to attack me,” Lamia said. “Only someone whose knowledge encompasses more than one school of magic might be able to stand against this man.”
“Meaning me,” Al said. “I’ll do it, of course. Your spells and your help have kept me and mine alive and mostly well in spite of some major threats, so I owe you that much and more. Besides, the thought of the guys who murdered children in the hopes of grabbing a bigger share of The Wild ruling the Wallachians makes me want to hide in a garlic patch. Chain mail made out of crucifixes would be nice, too …”
The Countess had provided Al with ceremonial garb for the duel. Designed for ease of movement, it was form-fitting in some areas, and just plain absent in others. At least the color scheme was dignified – everything was in shades of black. Matte black tunic and loincloth; shiny black boots, belt, and wrist-braces; really shiny black harness to hold specialized wands and weapons.
As he struggled into the costume, Al became more and more certain that he had to be the shortest and roundest biped to ever don the trappings of a Wallachian Champion. It was difficult to breathe with the various straps and harnesses cinched tight – but Wallachians didn’t need to breathe, unless they wanted to talk, so this didn’t surprise him. He just wished that the loincloth would stop creeping up between his butt cheeks every time he flexed his knees...
“That’s what you’re wearing?” Janine Majius blurted out as Al emerged from the bedroom of their temporary quarters at the Conlegium Magistris.
Al sighed, and stood still while his wife walked slowly around him, obviously trying not to laugh.
“It’s the traditional garb of a Champion,” he said. “Lamia insisted that I wear it.”
Janine turned her head and sneezed – but Al was sure that sneezes did not normally include snickering noises at the end.
“It’ll definitely give you the upper hand in the duel,” Janine said, deadpan. “You should be able to work through your entire combat magic repertoire while your opponent is still, uh – still – hee hee hee herm – sorry, dear.”
“Thank you for being so supportive,” Al said.
“Speaking of supportive, you really should wear a jockstrap under that thing,” Githros na E’dran said. The demon had strolled into the room during Janine’s inspection of Al’s ensemble. His scaly grey spike-festooned face twisted into a nightmarish shape that Al recognized as a smile. (It had to be a smile – a smirk wouldn’t expose that many teeth.)
“Suddenly, I’m in the mood for chicken,” Billy Taylor said, entering behind Githros. “I mean, those legs, Al – with the goose bumps they look just like drumsticks.”
Al drew his wand from its patent-leather holster. “You’re Janine’s favorite cousin, and our lawyer to boot, but I just can’t let that one go.”
Billy laughed, but started to back out of the room. “Hey, I already have the werewolf curse, Al – short of killing me, what could you do?”
Al grinned. “Let’s see now – there’s fleas, mange, severe nasal congestion – I’ve seen how much it bugs you when your wolfen nose is out of commission --”
“You better leave Billy alone,” Janine said. “If he sues, who’ll handle your side of the case?”
Al rolled his eyes. “Fine. But a little respect would be nice.”
Githros patted Al on the back with one catcher’s-mitt sized hand. “Al, I can honestly say that you look – er – ”
“Ridiculous?” Al suggested.
Githros shuffled his feet, his foot-talons carving gouges in the carpet, and whistled a few notes of an old demon pop song. A bird flying by the open window burst into flames and crash-landed on the pavement outside.
“It doesn’t matter how you look,” Billy said. “Everybody knows that you’re about the most dangerous wizard around, aside from Morgenstern himself. And that means that your opponent will respect you. Of course, if he doesn’t, that just makes things easier for you.”
The Wallachian arena was a huge underground space carved from the limestone caves below an ancient castle. Light was provided by a mixture of candles, torches, captive fire elementals, and the occasional enchanted mirror, with the result that it felt like everything was in constant motion, including the stone walls and intricately-worked pillars. The risk of suffering a sunburn there was about the same as the risk of being struck by lightning – assuming, of course, that neither combatant conjured magical lightning during the duel.
“Nice place,” Githros said. “Reminds me of the Grand Hall in Pandemonium, but without the screaming torture victims.”
Janine nodded, fingering the necklace of blessed crucifixes she wore over her garlic-scented turtleneck sweater. “There sure are a lot of vamp – er, Wallachians here.” She had tried counting the pale, pale faces when they had arrived, but had lost count of the number of tiers in the amphitheater, let alone the number of individuals.
“Well, this is a big event,” Billy said. “A duel to decide who will rule thousands of Wallachians, fought between a mortal wizard
and a Wallachian – even if he’s a fresh-out-of-the-coffin Wallachian. Probably the most interesting thing to happen in centuries for some of this crowd. But not to worry, cousin J. You’re under Lamia’s protection, and if that’s not enough, any vampire with the munchies will have
to get through me and Githros first.”
“Yeah, but there sure are a lot of –”
“It’s starting,” Githros said.
Four robed and hooded figures emerged from a shadow that was slightly too dark to be natural and walked slowly to the center of the arena floor. Two were tall and slender – Janine guessed that they were Countess Lamia and the Wallachian Elder who was officiating over the challenge. That meant that the others must be Al – and the Baldie Who Would Be King of the Wallachians.
Each of the four threw back his or her hood, revealing the familiar and unfamiliar faces Janine had expected. Lamia was as coolly regal as ever, her too-perfect beauty making Janine feel as awkward as she had before the summer her complexion had cleared up and her figure had ceased to resemble a tongue depressor with arms and legs.
The Wallachian Elder was the first vampire Janine had ever seen who actually looked old. Whether he had become a vampire late in his mortal life, or had deliberately allowed himself to age, the effect was to provide him with an air of wisdom and dignity. Janine noticed that Lamia and Al both bowed their heads slightly to acknowledge the Elder’s authority. The fourth figure – the challenger to Lamia’s throne – did not.
Al had provided translation charms, so they heard the Elder’s pronouncements – some in Rumanian, some in older tongues – in modern English.
“Children of Dracul! Lamia, first among equals, has been challenged to a trial by combat to test her worthiness to rule. As required by
ancient tradition, she has accepted – and as allowed by those same traditions, she has chosen a Champion to fight in her place.”
Somewhere in the crowd, a voice howled “A mortal! Lamia has chosen a mortal to fight for her!”
“I protest,” the challenger said. “How can a mortal wizard be the Champion of the ruler of all Wallachians?”
“SILENCE!” the Elder roared.
In spite of his apparent age, Janine felt the power of the Elder’s voice rock her back in her seat. Somehow, Al, Lamia, and the still-nameless challenger managed to maintain their composure, although Janine was sure that they must have been stunned.
“Your protests have already been heard by the Council – and rejected,” the Elder said. “Lamia’s Champion is mortal, true – but he has proven his knowledge of our ways, and more – he has done a great service for the Wallachian people –”
“For which he was amply compensated,” the challenger said. “Hardly a noble act –”
This time the Elder did not speak. Instead, he made a complicated gesture with one gnarled, skeletal hand, and the challenger fell silent.
The challenger’s mouth continued to move for a few seconds until he realized that his voice had been stilled. Then his face twisted into a
scowl, and his hand slid toward his holstered wand.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Al whispered. “Not unless you want to take on a whole arena full of outraged Wallachians.”
Quivering with rage, the challenger let his hand fall back to his side.
The Elder smiled slightly, revealing canine teeth that looked as though they would puncture his lower lip every time he closed his mouth.
“The rules are simple,” the Elder said. “This is a duel of both physical and magical prowess. The combatants may attack or defend using only their wands, their magical skills, and their bodies. No other charms, potions, or weapons will be tolerated.
“The duel will end when one combatant has met the Final Death.”
Lamia and the Elder turned and walked back into the shadows, leaving Al and the challenger alone.
“So – were you the Baldie-in-Chief, the Grand Imperial Chrome-Dome, or what?” Al asked.
“I will teach you respect, little wizard,” the challenger hissed. “I am Magnus Alucard, and I have powers beyond your imagining.”
Al snickered. “Two things. First, Aaron Morgenstern calls me ‘little wizard’. You’re no Morgenstern, so it just ain’t the same coming from you. And second – ‘Alucard’? ‘Dracula’ spelled backwards? What’s your real name – Schlockmeister?”
Alucard – or whatever his name was – launched himself at Al like a pouncing tiger, razor-clawed hands sweeping down to slash and tear.
“Mibtsar,” Al said, and his Fortress spell wrapped him in a shell of magical energy that could withstand high explosives.
Alucard’s claws skidded off the shimmering translucent barrier just before he collided with it literally head-on. The thud was clearly audible throughout the arena.
“Great acoustics in here,” Billy said.
Alucard shook himself and scrambled back to his feet, expecting Al to counterattack. But Al did nothing; he stood inside his Fortress, smiling.
Alucard launched a series of curses and powerful spells, lashing at the Fortress with lightning, fire, and clouds of insects. The physical threats splashed against the Fortress and dissipated harmlessly; the curses Al countered with whispered words and gestures.
“Fight me, coward,” Alucard roared. “Come out of your shell and fight me!”
Al responded instantly. “Shamat! Ruwach 'Esh!”
Alucard was forced back, frantically raising a shield of his own as Al dissolved his Fortress spell and launched a stream of fire that curved and danced and followed Alucard’s attempts to evade it. By the time Alucard managed to quench the flames with a water spell, Al had vanished.
Shaking with rage and fighting panic – Wallachians are exceptionally flammable – Alucard laughed, or tried to. “Have you no honor? Have you fled, forfeiting the contest? That can’t save your life – you accepted the challenge as Lamia’s Champion. Fleeing only guarantees that
you will both suffer the Final Death.”
“I haven’t gone anywhere, Magnuts,” Al’s voice said. It sounded odd, as if it were being produced by fingers rubbing the strings of a cello
rather than by air moving over vibrating vocal cords, but Alucard could sense that Al was indeed still in the arena, and still within arm’s reach.
“A cloaking spell, then,” Alucard said. “Clever – but not clever enough. Cerc moarte!”
The Wallachians filling the amphitheater gasped and muttered. To use such a spell in single combat was a craven act. The Circle of Death would rend the flesh of any opponent within several meters around its caster, and was the ultimate defense when surrounded in battle. But it also left its caster momentarily drained of mana...
Alucard seemed oblivious to the mood of the crowd; instead, he spun quickly in place, expecting to see the arena floor spattered with Al’s blood.
The expanding ring of lethal magic passed through Al’s mist form without damaging more than a tiny fraction of his swirling particles, but it still hurt.
“Enough!” Al said. “Shamat!”
Alucard recoiled as Al coalesced into solid form mere inches away, but recovered quickly. Still unable to use magic, he drew back his arm, preparing to slash Al’s throat with a superhumanly fast swipe of his claws. But before he could move, something slammed into his chest and he felt numbing cold spreading through his body.
He had just enough time to look down to see Al’s wand protruding from his chest before the Final Death took him and his body began to decompose. “Cheated – you – cheated...”
Al shook his head. “Wands were allowed as weapons. They never said you had to use them to cast spells.”
The reaction of the crowd was – mixed. Many were outraged that a human wizard had defeated a Wallachian – even a Wallachian who had only been Undead for a short time. Others were pleased that such a craven challenger to Lamia’s long and prosperous reign had been soundly defeated. But all fell silent when Lamia and the Elder reappeared and walked out to stand at Al’s side.
“The challenge is ended!” the Elder declared. “Lamia’s Champion has triumphed, and her rule has been confirmed.”
The assembled Wallachians began to disperse, some walking towards the exits, others turning to mist-form and spiraling up toward the surface, a few conjuring shadow-gates and stepping through them. Looking up, Al could just make out Janine, Billy, and Githros, waving and applauding. Githros, with his oversized hands, looked like he was giving Al a ‘thumbs up’ – at least Al thought it was his thumb...
“You fought well, as I knew you would,” Lamia said. “Your Magister Blackstone told me that your combat magic skills had become quite formidable, and he was correct.”
Al shrugged. “Alucard, or whatever his real name was, wasn’t that great a wizard. I don’t think any of the Baldies, or their inner circle, or its inner circle, are. They like shortcuts – learning the big fancy spells, like that Circle of Death thing, without picking up the basics first. That’s why they were trying to grab a bigger share of the magic of The Wild by destroying Wallachians and werewolves instead of just studying and practicing. You could have taken him yourself, no problem.”
“Perhaps,” Lamia said. “That he did not realize that you had assumed mist form says much about his lack of knowledge. But you used both
Wallachian and Kabbalistic spells in your battle. And, of course, your killing blow – it would not have occurred to me to use a wand as a stake. Wallachians are – squeamish – about such things.”
“Yeah,” Al said. “I could hear some of the audience complaining about that. Guess they would have preferred to see him blown to bloody bits instead of staked through the heart.”
“In any case, I am again in your debt,” Lamia said. “No payment was asked, and none will be given – but when your need is greatest, I and mine will be there to help.”
“You mean – Morgenstern?”
Lamia nodded. “To defeat him, it may take the combined efforts of many – wizards, Wallachians, and even demons and werewolves. All whose lives are touched by magic have a common foe in Morgenstern, for he views all such as subject to his whims.”
Al nodded. “I don’t know when it will happen, but Morgenstern isn’t going to stay quiet for long. And when he surfaces again, I have a feeling that it will be for the last time. Either he wins, and the world is his – or he loses, and whatever’s left of him goes back in the family crypt.”
“I heard that he destroyed his crypt when he was resurrected,” Lamia said. “Has it been rebuilt?”
Al sighed. “I don’t know, really. What I do know is that I want to get out of this outfit as soon as possible.”
“The loincloth? I have heard that it –”
“Such is the hero’s burden,” Lamia said, and laughed. And her laugh was once again like an aria sung by a coloratura soprano.
© 2006 by Robert Moriyama
Bio: Robert Moriyama has been the Aphelion Short Story Editor for ONE WHOLE YEAR. Most of his recent stories have appeared in Aphelion, including the Al Majius series, and a number of entries in the Nightwatch series. Visit the Materia Magica webpage for synopses of and links to earlier Al Majius stories.
E-mail: Robert Moriyama
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.