by Jim Bonner
“At this height,” the sorceress warned, “she won’t need alchemy to end us.”
“You’re right,”, her partner, Nilson, answered, walking across the threshold, away from the spiraling staircase. “Once we find a passage to the aerary, we should mind our footing as much as hers.”
Nilson Gabinius’ brogans methodically prodded around while the sorceress silently watched. Its somber, ancient stone confines and rasping wooden floor gave space to a laboratory of glass and copper instruments; tables overflowing with herbs, bottled oils, and the lifeless bodies of small creatures. He brushed a gloved hand against leather-bound books while his glowering gaze scowled and scoured, finding its way back to Avolyn, the sorceress who still stood, watching.
Nilson looked in her eyes, then to the left-hand wall, and to space on the right beside her. He walked over to it, reaching out and feeling for something. “It has to be here. We both saw it jutting out the top of the tower.”
“I can sense her too.” Avolyn began shivering as she detected raw, mystic energy. “She’s doing some sort of weak alchemy nearby.”
“We need to hurry then, and find a way to the aerary before the airships arrive. If she knows we’re coming and ready to fight, the damage she could do would be beyond measure.”
Avolyn closed her eyes, breathing deliberately to concentrate. Forms began taking shape from the shifting darkness and she sought out the seemingly invisible door. Peering into the room further than sight ever could, distant memories of the Universe were uncovered. Faint, ethereal, traces of the fragmented past found their figure: of the alchemist working her craft alone – transmuting flesh, metals, and other elements into new compounds of her design; twisting reality to her will. And from the phantasms of Avolyn’s dark sight came a sudden, flashing face that screamed, silently. Just as suddenly afterwards came a barrage of laughing, crying, emotionless, and hateful faces all in union. Avolyn inhaled, shivering back to consciousness, almost spraining her eyes to open them, hurried and harried.
“There’s another one,” she divulged. “There’s someone else with her.”
“What do you mean,” Nilson asked, turning away from the wall to his associate. “Did you open yourself to some evil?”
“Not evil, just hallucinations weaving in with the past.”
Nilson thought, looking to the details of the room –to the sound and sensation of his hands moving inside the gloves. “Do you think she’s with a distortionist?”
Avolyn stared at the floor and nodded. “Yes, I do.”
Nilson Gabinius walked to the middle of the room; his haversack and belted scabbard bumping against a table, knocking some roots onto the wooden floor. Their sight returned his mind to the local forest of his boyhood village, where he once gathered the same roots. Returning with pride to the well near his family’s thatched home, he witnessed two distortion wizards and an alchemist approaching the square on horseback. By the end of the day, they had created a homunculus monster from the bodies of the townsfolk. And through the magic of the wizards, the monster’s latent psychic energy was honed into a weapon that put the survivors in an unbroken, year-long illusion. An illusion that had the village provide for their conquerors as slaves. An illusion that fooled his family into paranoid fratricide.
Internally, Nilson reminded himself: “This is why I was assumed by the Frith Guild. This is why I trained for three decades.”
“Wait – something’s happening,” Avolyn shouted. “Nilson, look out!”
All at once, Nilson was standing on a crumbled causeway outside the tower, leaning over the stone edge, looking a quarter-mile down to the forest below. Behind him was the alchemical chamber, and in the distance were the Penwev Mountains, behind the lake. Breathing heavy into full awareness, Nilson fell backwards, onto the causeway.
Avolyn reached out, shouted above the wind, affirming her grip was stable. Nilson scuttled inside, falling into the window and slouching against the wall, panting curses. On the other side of the room was an open door, and beyond that, a short causeway to the turret-like aerary.
“It is distortion magic,” Avolyn said. “I don’t think I can combat it.”
Nilson caught his breath. “You overestimate his power.” He stood. “If you can control your mind, he has no power over you – his weapon extends only as far as your fear.” Nilson drew his sword, Yongsguard, from its scabbard, holding it with both hands as he took cautious steps forward to the causeway. “Focus on the details – they have difficulty replicating them without things repeating. It takes too much energy to do more than the general picture.” Fire glistened in Nilson’s eyes, and so too did his sword catch an orange-blue flame. They waved and bent in the open, rushing air, but never wavered, still burning as he stepped outside. Avolyn followed, muttering a chant to herself and preparing for the worst, which risked more than their comparatively petty dispute.
They both understood that within one space, immoderated magic use risked potentializing an all-too-real ‘psychic density’ concentration, which could implode that same space into anything – any vast and unimaginable array of material and metaphysical abominations, which the Universe cast into the world as an systematized counter to mortals tampering with its structure. But they made that wager for their immediate threat, just behind the door across the causeway.
With an unexpected energy, the door flung open, and the alchemist emerged: blonde hair blowing in the air, fear swept across her face.
“Stop – don’t move,” Nilson and Avolyn ordered; the former raising his sword, the latter, her hands, clutching some invisible, arcane force.
“Please, leave us alone,” the alchemist yelled back.
“You and whoever’s with you are to be brought under the jurisdiction of the Frith Guild! We are representatives tasked with bringing you in for a hearing, where you might answer for your crimes!”
The alchemist answered, “That wasn’t us! My brother hexed those people, not me!”
Avolyn spoke up, “Come with us and you can tell the tribunal that you—”
But the alchemist had thrown down a vial onto the causeway, causing the point of impact to melt, and shuttering the whole bridge structure. Nilson lunged forward across the faltering gap, hurtling himself into the closing door. Avolyn was forced back into the alchemist’s nest as the causeway broke and fell the distance. She looked behind her, back to the causeway, and the aerary was levitating motionless in the sky, detached from the tower.
Nilson fell onto a rug, sliding him across the polished marble floor a few feet. The alchemist shut the door as she spun in shock to see Nilson lying in the tower’s most sacred, secret chamber. He rolled into a crouched stance, from which he stood and pointed the still-burning sword in her face, singeing her right eyebrow.
“Don’t move,” Nilson told her, glaring in her eyes. Then, cautiously, he scanned over his shoulder for the distortionist.
Books were strewn everywhere, as if the bookcases surrounding the walls had shed and regrown them for years. Chairs and blankets, unlit candles, and a chessboard were all he saw in glimpses around the dimly lit room, given light only by a small window opposite the door.
“Where is he,” Nilson demanded, drawing his sword back slightly from the alchemist’s face.
A shadow emerged on the wall beside her, and her gaze drifted away from Nilson.
He turned around to see the distortion wizard smiling; his green-trimmed, white robes dragging across the marble. Wary of his precarious position between them, Nilson stepped to the side so both were visible.
“You aren’t of mystic birth, are you, Nilson Gabinius, son of Anzo Gabinus IV?” he asked with a calculative voice.
“You both are under arrest.” Nilson answered, pulling two heavy, metal handcuffs from his haversack. “Put these on.” They were thrown to the feet of the alchemist and the wizard. Neither moved:
“Science is your primary field, is it not?”
“Put the cuffs on, now!”
“Your field treats magic supernaturally, as an anomaly. Like a miracle. But you understand it as absolutely natural. How else could you enchant Yongsguard?”
The distortion wizard snapped his fingers. Nilson’s sword was extinguished, the flame disappeared, and the lighting it provided was sapped.
“You see? Cause and effect. Natural.”
Nilson turned the blade to the wizard, “This sword can still rend you. Now I order you to cuff yourselves, or you’ll learn how useful this steel still is!”
The distortion wizard snapped again. The sword melted onto the floor in a dirty, silver puddle. Immediately and instinctually, Nilson reached for the dagger in his belt, but didn’t feel a thing. He recognized the perception-altering technique of the distortion wizard and began breathing meditatively to focus and undo its effect. Gingerly reaching out past the hilt of his sword, his fingers moved to see if it all was real.
For a third time, the wizard snapped. The sword was back to its original, whole, burning composure. Nilson’s reaching hand was cut and cauterized.
“Cause and effect, however, is worthless to the imagination of the mind.” The distortionist took slow steps forward. “My colleague, here,” he began, gesturing to the unsure alchemist, “and I disagree about that. But tell me – is not the mind the most powerful, natural force in the Universe? Is not the Universe itself a mind?”
The alchemist looked over to the wizard with dread, and Nilson looked to the alchemist. He noticed her ears had very subtle points to them . . . Just like the wizard’s.
“Your colleague? . . . She isn’t your relative then?”
The wizard took an unnaturally short step that broke the rhythm of his walk.
Nilson pushed further. “Your sister.”
“Clever”, the distortionist conceded. “This proves my previous point, though.”
“Magic is forbidden by your people,” Nilson commented.
“Our libraries are too rich with the secrets of the Universe, and our lineage too acclimated to the esoteric arts for us to forgo this force. Just like your mind is exceptionally able to forgo the reasoning of your Guild.”
“You won’t trick me. You can’t harm me. I determine how I act.”
“Yes, of course,” the wizard affirmed. “However, you’ve done nothing but react thus far.”
“Your linguistics and manipulation are parasitic and vile.”
“Please, don’t incite him,” the alchemist begged their potential captor. She faced the distortionist. “Brother, please. Let’s cooperate. We can tell them of Einret’s hexing – the truth. How he framed this, the situation we’re all in. Everything.”
Her brother’s advance on Nilson ceased, and the distance between them stayed constant. “As if a tribunal will ever believe the words of adistortionist,. Though they manipulate minds with their codices, it’s my manipulation, my style that’s wrong!”
“Who’s this Einret?” Nilson asked.
The alchemist looked to the distortionist before muttering an answer. “He’s tricked you all into hunting us – into thinking they died by my hand . . . But to say any more would risk both our existences.”
“You must explain what’s happening if you're truly innocent.”
There was no response from either.
“I promise,” Nilson said, “if you come with me and go through the trial, presenting your evidence without magic detected, you can be free, through with it forever. That is if you cooperate.”
The three of them paused quietly for a moment as a flock of geese passed by the window, sending an eerie series of cacophonic shadows across the room. When the shadows subsided and visibility restored, Nilson saw that the distortionist’s face was sunk into another deep grin.
But just before he could snap, the door exploded, sending in a rush of air and a rushing team of crossbow-wielding men. Mystical energy and arrows flew from both sides. The alchemist and the wizard were detained after a brief and casualty-less fight. The two air-balloons left the broken tower down to moor on ground.
The detained were brought to trial, their case presented, and tears fell at the verdict. The distortion wizard was to be executed, and the alchemist was to become Nilson Gabinius’s property. At the dungeon gallows, the final words from the wizard were, “Reality is a painting. It is greater than the colors and strokes and I am a counterfeit artist. But you’ll never poke through the canvas and see the gallery wall.” And his last picture hung as his body swung. And the alchemist followed Nilson.
A war arose in the Eastlands, and Nilson Gibinius fought. Callous combat flowing with esoteric energy permeated the Penwev States. There were craters across the countryside from psychic density concentrations. Not only did each side contend with each other, but with the monstrosities spawned amidst the battlefield. They lost the war. But after living only a short time in its harsh aftermath, they helped form the Balkonik Insurgency, which, after more brutal years, restored the realm to self-governance. Nilson Gibinius and his alchemist wife, now elderly heroes, lived the remainder of their lives promoting order throughout—
“Nilson, look out,” Avolyn screamed from the airship.
He shook his head, eyes still humming with the tune of another life; his mind fluttering like a rainbow butterfly. As he regained vision, he realized he was walking off the aereary’s broken causeway. And then he fell, plunging toward the forest canopy.
Avolyn jumped from the balloon’s hull, catching him mid-air, bruising the impact points but having them fall together, then stop, jerked by the rope connecting her with the airship. The craft buckled from the jolt and Avolyn began losing her grip. She quickly muttered an incantation and they fell upwards, until they were above the tower, the balloon, and the floating aereary. From there, they fell again, naturally toward the ground, and onto the broken causeway where Nilson had initially fallen. Nilson fell on his side and Avolyn’s knees buckled from the impact, causing her incantation to be mispronounced from the wrong mindset. Again, they were both flung around; this time backwards, into the aereary, snapping the rope that attached them to the airship’s hull, forcing them across the marble floor into a stack of books. The crossbowmen inside reacted and ran over to their slumped bodies.
Nilson lay there, almost in tears. “What happened? What – Where . . . Where’s the wizard?” He stood up, looking for a weapon and someone to plunge it into.
One of the men answered, “He and the alchemist escaped through a portal.”
“The alchemist . . . But how do you know?” Nilson audibly wondered. “What if he only made you think they escaped, but they’re still in this room?”
Avolyn calmly stated, “I can’t sense them anymore. They went.”
“But, but” Nilson stuttered, “but can’t he fabricate your sensory faculties too? Couldn’t he sway your humors? . . . We’ve got to act on the initiative, now!”
Nilson picked up Yongsguard and began swinging it berserk. The crossbowmen watched, none stepping to stop him, only stepping aside. Avolyn sat on the books, giving a sunken and melancholic sigh. She could sense the delusion would remain for the rest of Nilson’s life. That he would always have one foot in the unreal, and that this man, so religiously devoted to understanding and protecting the real, would be scorned by his fellow guildsmen.
“He’s in the room,” Nilson shouted, flailing his sword. “He couldn’t have made it out, there’s no way out!”
And then the sword met with invisible flesh. It struck the distortionist wizard, and his head came lopping out of the darkness with a tail of blood following. The alchemist appeared from the empty air, shrieking. Everyone stopped and watched Nilson turn around, his sword aflame again. A streak of dripping blood mingling with tears across his face, and the—
“Nilson, we’re free,” his mother told him.
Anzo Gabinius IV knelt beside his wife. “Son, I’m so proud of your strength. You survived such a horrible thing. But it's over now. Look, we’re all here.”
“What happened”, the young Nilson asked. “Where’s the distortion wizard, where’s the tower?” His mother and father looked at one another. The sounds of his home village were wafting through the pastoral air.
Anzo spoke up. “I think you, I, your mother, and brothers and sisters have . . . many stories to tell. We have much to be caught up on.”
“But now things can be normal again,” Nilson’s mother said, near tears. “The Frith Guildstopped Einret’s outlaws and their monster! We’re through with it!”
Nilson stared through them, still pursuing the alchemist.