Against a building sense of doom, can Voltaire keep his beloved from her mission?
Ghost white in the conjured light, Spellmaster Elisha smiled and tickled the piano keys.
Her students grabbed their quills and wands, vanished in sparks and puffs of smoke. Only four took the time to run past the gray-haired man as he ambled to the head of the class.
“Ah, Voltaire!” Elisha leaned forward to kiss her greeting. “Have you the dispensation?”
At the touch of her lips, Voltaire's lungs convulsed. To keep her close, he hugged her before nodding her answer. “Headmaster LaFey assured me he 'supports our plan.'"
Elisha nodded. "As an alumnus, Gian poses the same threat to the School's reputation that he poses to the people of Viseki town.”
Voltaire narrowed his eyes. "More to the point, Cain LaFey supports letting his enemies dive into the problem for him.”
Outside the window, a bird flew east from the direction of the headmaster's tower.
Had Spellmaster Cain warned the Corpsebound already? The headmaster would do anything to break Elisha's tenure–in life or in the academy. Voltaire nodded at the bird. "Gian will be expecting us."
She glanced out the window and smiled, tapping out a playful tune of battle and victory. "Would you have it any other way?"
"Absolutely." Like a pawn on the chessboard, Voltaire could only hope to advance or hold his ground. "I wouldn't go there with a hundred of us."
She tapped out a falling tune. "Neither would I. It's nearly impossible to coordinate with two spellmasters."
The law of two; and there she had Voltaire. He rarely bothered to argue with Elisha, even when she had no piano within reach–because she always has the right idea. Yet this time, her logic inexorably led to doom. "Gian has vicious power–"
She nodded. "And a tenuous hold on his life support."
Though corpsebound, Gian had much to do before he could secure his otherworldly life force. If he let Elisha close enough to strike while his bonds are slim, he would have no chance. But if Spellmaster Gian behaved like a rational man, Voltaire could very well lose Elisha–a fate worse than death. "Is there nothing I can say that will keep us out of this?"
"And rob you of sleep for the next decade?" She stroked his hair out of his eyes. "Besides, no rational man would ever be corpsebound."
The autumn air stank of corruption, of the rot of the leaves in the wind, the decay of the collection in the dumpster. Voltaire polished his fingernails and harrumphed, rejecting the obvious conclusion. Other magi got omens like that, but he had to rely on more academic sources. Synchronicity brought him the reminders of half truths prematurely considered.
No, the scent of creeping doom told him only this: he had already accepted defeat.
Headmaster Cain LaFey stopped short on the sidewalk. He looked Voltaire up and down and smirked. "What vole has been chewing your herb garden?"
The caustic energies burned in his throat as he sidestepped onto the grass. "Blisters," he said.
Wiping the curse away more easily than a nasty word, Cain Lefay continued on with a tip of his hat.
The momentary satisfaction turned to a taste of ash as Voltaire trained his mind on the road ahead. As he envisioned inscribing Elisha's grave marker, a chill ran up his spine. With a failed-apprentice's release of magical energy, he burned a hole in the grass beneath his toes as muttered an oath: "I would never let her go, not for all the world."
The Spellmaster's oath echoed to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, and the cosmic mind affirmed the dedication.
Books fell on the sidewalk. "Spellmaster Voltaire? Even you spelleak?" Acolyte Yadille had her hand on her mouth.
Abashed at the childish work, he swallowed his pride in order to uphold his standards as a professor. "Did I not say, even the best must hold to the drills?"
Acolyte Yadille nodded.
Voltaire picked up her books. "The passions get the better of any of us."
Yadille conjured a bag for her books. "It's about Spellmaster Elisha. She's okay, I hope?"
"Mind your business, young lady." He straightened her collar and winked. "Just a worrisome task ahead of us."
"Does it never end?"
"There is no end to responsibility. Though, many people abdicate."
"I would never want to be a dropout."
"One day you will. " He straightened his own muffler. "That is the day you will know Yadille and her measure."
"You've given me a lot to think about."
Voltaire gave her a long look, and waved her away.
* * *
The click of the cobblestones on the wooden wheels kept time for his incantations as he checked the wards for stealth and refreshed the fading runes. Voltaire held up his due diligence. Yet the greatest defense would be the walls of their great college, far from the diabolical mess that duty had them heading toward. The time to drop out drew nigh; if only the dear woman could see the looming disaster. "Elisha, do you not worry that we might be in the wrong?"
"Not since I set out on the road." Her wide blue eyes looked deep into Voltaire. "Tell me that you don't."
"Of course I do," he lied. "We have no right to be deciding the fates of other practitioners."
This alarmed her, and she snapped her fingers. "Voltaire: the truth."
He could have resisted the spell, should have resisted the spell. Yet, he had promised never to do so, and had not the will to deny her. "By overstepping as we do, we stand in the wrong, surely, yet on balance the world is made better."
"Quite right, my black-hat hero." She stared a moment, and nodded. A touch to the brim of my dark blue hat. "Speaking of overstep…"
The apology for the truth spell, as obligatory as the taking of attendance at the beginning of class. He nodded, and made the banishing gesture. She hit all the right notes; Voltaire almost forgot Gian's shadow looming over the world–almost. "Think of it as null."
* * *
As the mule pulled toward Viseki, the cart swayed to and fro. Voltaire couldn't shake how the sickly yellow wood of the rickety cart brought to mind the mouse traps made in the early years. The pale lines of the wood grain represented well Elisha's fate, enclosed circles running round to useless infinity. He wanted to run, to turn the cart around, or even abandon the path that had him shaking like a half-frozen mouse in the tangled wood.
Elisha cringed and stiffened.
He followed her gaze to the storm clouds above, scratched about in his pockets for the scrying glasses.
Her fingers desperately tapped out a tune on an unseen keyboard, playing the harmonics of a spell.
From the alarm on her face, Voltaire saw no time to interpolate the tune or guess the spell's nature. He put on the glasses to see a giant batlike monster spitting venom in their direction before a giant wave of clouds blew in to swallow it whole, venom and all.
"Does he have that kind of power already?" Voltaire asked, laying his hand on her shoulder. "Perhaps we should turn back."
"Not even." She smiled wryly. "Attracted, not summoned. The question, whether it sought to befriend or destroy the Corpsebound? I've no idea."
Voltaire harrumphed into his lap. "Good a theory as any, if you're bent on this mission."
She smiled and patted me on the shoulder as well. "And a terrible one if you're thorgabent."
Glassmakers, some people liked to call humans: Thorga–afraid our toys will break. Voltaire smirked at the dig. "Come by the huma bent honestly."
"But do we?" Elisha tilted her head in that way that made me feel like a prized tome in an ancient language. "You and I, we are so much more than these fragile human frames."
"Yet we depend upon them as much as any."
"But have we any right? Any loyalty to this flesh?"
Elisha's words evoked the image of her gravestone, the black, polished granitetower of honor and imprisonment a mage's burial demanded. He vowed to shatter that monument, if any dared erect it, thus to open wide the door that would bring her back to him. "You will not be kept from me."
"Seriously then. What are you worried about?"
That my oaths fade to lies. "Nothing of consequence."
She tried to smile but her left face frowned, evidently unwilling to accept Voltaire's logic as his personal truth. "Either path leads through a dark and dangerous wood."
He nodded. "I have no wish to sleep upon that bed of thorns."
"This is the shortest path through the darkness."
"Perhaps," Voltaire matched her foolish smile, "we should seek out the surest."
Her face flared with the same anger that boiled just below Voltaire's breastbone. "What fun that would be."
As Voltaire drove her further into Gian's grip, the twisted vines about them, like the sinews of a ravenous serpent, flexed in the wind.
As the rattling wagon rolled over the top of the last hill, the image of Gian, like a ghost over Elisha's funeral, cast its shadow on all the realms.
"You're seriously out of tune," Elisha said. "You're usually so euphonious. I've never heard such disharmony from a living mage."
"I told you. We should not be here."
"We shall be fine. Just be sure you channel that into Gian and not into yourself."
Her favorite lecture was 'Harmony and Health: the Deadly Power of Dissonance in Combat and Medicine.' "Refresh me on the principles?"
She laughed at his joke as they rolled to the bridge. "Best not to study too hard before a test, isn't it, Spellmaster?"
The green skinned, upturned nose of the gate guard thrust out of the shadow. "Halt, Thorga."
Voltaire pulled the mule to a stop. "Hail, Urgan Guard. I come in peace."
"How come thorga in peace when fail daughter Yadille?" The guard kicked the rickety guard-shack door in half.
Yadille was human, thoroughly; not a trace of urgan. The lessons would change for an urgan. How had she come to be adopted by an urgan woman? Unless Gian's dark magic had already warped the townsfolk.
"Madam," Elisha whispered. "Please understand that Yadille is a brilliant student and it is the…"
The guard raised her mace slowly over her shoulder, leaving Elisha plenty of time to raise a magic shield, and for Voltaire to ready the right words.
"Clean out your ears of glass, urgan filth," Voltaire grunted. The urgan ear found politeness both confusing and offensive. "Yadille got better grade than deserve. My dog could do better, and so can she."
"Ha." The urgan smiled at that, and tapped Elisha's auric shield with her mace-wielding fist. "Watch yourself, glassmaker." She pulled the gate lever and allowed us to enter.
Everywhere in this town, the light failed to reach. The eyes of the people, both frightened and twisted, peered from the shadows at the strange humans in the wagon.
"Granted I have asked that we abandon this mission." Voltaire grabbed the back of his neck. "Forgive me, but we cannot allow this to go any further. Gian's magic…."
Elisha nodded; nothing else to be said.
* * *
The corpsebound spellmaster, Gian, stood up behind his desk. He threw his quill and sneered, skin cracking and falling as he did. The flakes rolled cleanly off Gian's suit and swept themselves in a dustbin. "I see you come prepared, Spellmistress."
Voltaire crackled the scroll he carried. In a fit he hissed, "Spellmaster."
Elisha nodded, not acknowledging the twin insults. "I have the formula written half on my skin, half on Voltaire. Careful with the fire magic."
"The formula?" He laughed. "Do tell."
"Ah but, 'That would be telling.'" She took her turn to sneer, and shook her head. "Even a hint of what it does would be worth a spellmaster's ransom."
Gian shrugged in mock sadness. "Oh, and I went to all this trouble, fireproofing my manor for you."
"You don't mind losing out on the greatest secret of all time?"
"Even as an obvious lie, it's an excellent strategy." Gian flexed his hands, generating a sickly, purple-black glob of energy. He tossed a ball of power at both of them, and pointed proudly to a suit of men's funeral clothes. "It is a game I can play, as well."
The suit, too small and shabby for Gian, spoke to Voltaire of Elisha's funeral.
Gian's magic slid off both their shields. Elisha's chin dropped as she looked at Voltaire.
Gian could have done little crueller had he offered to carry Elisha's coffin. Voltaire dropped his shield and drew on everything he had for a wave of destruction aimed at Gian.
"Voltaire, don't play his riff!"
But Gian had already landed the attack, a thin thread of purple death around Voltaire's throat. "Now, spellmistress, if you destroy the Sacred Tome, you doom the pathetic little man as well."
"Do it!" Voltaire struggled to raise his shield through Gian's tendril. "Forget life support. "
"I dragged…" Elisha gasped as she ducked a ball of purple goo that splatted on the wall, "...you here. I'm not leaving without you."
"Touching." Gian pranced about the room. With a flourish he beckoned the blob to come toward Elisha. "As touching as it was predictable."
Voltaire rasped, "Don't you dare." He dropped his shield and directed his destructive magic on the charmed tome that kept his enemy alive.
Elisha yelled, "No, Voltaire. Always defend." She threw her own shield to protect the tome.
With the defenses dropped, the blood rushed to Voltaire's face. All the world darkened to purple. Bands of fear about his lungs only started to let go as he slid toward death.
"He will live long enough to see you die, of that I swear." Gian shrugged off the tendrils of Voltaire's curse and gentled his own attack on Voltaire. The light returned to Voltaire's eyes as the tendril faded to a string. "Or long enough for you to heal him. You have only to vanquish me without destroying the Book."
The book that kept Gian alive could do the same for Voltaire. But by the time she killed him directly she might be mortally wounded. "No, Elisha. That's only so he can slow you down." Voltaire dropped his defenses and sent them toward Elisha.
"I can do it." Elisha ducked the latest volley. "Destroy his silver cord and bring you back."
With a flick of the wrist, Gian deflected Voltaire's orb of pain onto Elisha, driving her to her knees.
By then, Gian vibrated from Elisha's harmonic. Her magic, coming from every direction. enveloped Gian and his useless shield.
Voltaire lobbed orb after orb to him, leaving no time to switch to a full circle ward.
Snarling, Gian dropped his shield and sent all the power he could muster into the harmonic.
Voltaire's orbs hit him again and again as the very floor buzzed against him. Elisha's spell rose to swallow Gian whole. The corpsebound spellmaster sizzled, then shattered, then melted. As the drops evaporated, the Book's binding released the foul spirit of Gian to the Mazes Below.
Gian's final strike rose from the ground and threw Elisha across the room, toward Voltaire.
He lurched forward to grab her lifeless form. "No, no, no." His arms shook as he dragged her to the healing table.
He reached the tome and in his frustration failed to find the answer. "Oh, bleeding…" He siphoned his life force into her.
Even as she came to life he felt his face turning red and his vision purple. He wandered away and took a seat at Gian's desk.
Elisha glared. "Voltaire, how could you?" She rushed to the book, flipping through it. Her fingers danced over unseen keys on the imaginary piano.
"Had to. Couldn't take you with me."
She smiled and took his hand.
"But we made it."
"Yes, we made it. Now get on the table and I'll make sure you pull through." She looked down on the book and slammed it closed. It looked like she mouthed the word, sacrifice?
"Yes, we made the sacrifice and won the day." Voltaire climbed on the table and laid back, scratching at the place where Gian's tendril met his throat.
Her hands shook as she hummed the spell that would preserve Voltaire's life. At the end she became dizzy and rushed for the desk chair.
"Are you all right?" Voltaire sat up, and a fierce ache arose in his body.
"Yes, my black hat hero." Elisha grabbed the desk to help her stand. "Just, rest."
"I really think I should…"
But she started the great harmonic lullaby.
Any other day Voltaire could resist a working like that. The slumbering power she sent only went half way. In the morass of pain and exhaustion, his resistance only went a third. He tried to fight and yet, in that state, could not remember.
* * *
When next he woke, a layer of dust thick as a sheet lay on his arms. He shook it off, dusted his lapel, even his face. He grunted and applied the cream Elisha had laid upon the table to the cracks at the edge of his lips and eyes.
The sizzling violet dust where Gian had been slain had paled but still remained. A green pile of dust sat at Gian's desk, beside a note in Elisha's runes.
"Dearest Voltaire, my love,
"It has been a privilege and an adventure. I apologize for not hearing your words, never knowing that you already had come under Gian's attack.
It is only an apparatus, this fleshy coil that I have sacrificed to preserve you, a tiny portion of my being.
For so long as your spirit walks the earth, if you listen, I shall ever be with you. Bound not by the power of this book but only by the force of love.
Your eternal attendant,
In the great room, a few doors down, a piano sang greetings to me as it gave voice to the magnificent ghost of my beloved.