DargonZine 30, Issue 3

A Tale Of Dark Magic

Nober 15, 965 - Yuli 1, 1019


Standing in the hallway outside of his study, Sandore watched a group of thieves looting his home. The leader of the thieves was his granddaughter, Leashea. She directed the thieves to ransack the second and third floors of his castle and gather his most prized belongings. Once they had everything they could move, Leashea shattered all the mirrors he used to travel to other places except for one. They took the stolen items with them when they left through the remaining mirror, leaving Sandore alone in the castle.

An inner rage filled Sandore and he screamed silently in frustration. He was unable to stop them. Nothing he could do would affect them. He was powerless, and that was something he did not understand. He wanted to follow them but could not; Leashea had shattered the mirror on the other side after leaving the castle.

Since his magic failed him, Sandore felt his only protection was his castle. If he went outside, his many enemies who wished him dead would know, and he would be vulnerable. For the first time since he was a child, he was afraid. How could his granddaughter do this to him? All he wanted was to bring his wife back to him from the grave and to do that he tried to exchange the life of Leashea for that of his wife. What could be wrong with that?

Spring became summer. Summer became fall. Fall became winter. Winter became spring in their never-ending cycle as the years passed. Small saplings grew to mighty oaks, spreading their wide shoulders to shelter those who enjoyed the shade. Later in the grand cycle of nature, the trees fell becoming food for lichens, burrowing beetles, and home for curious creatures.

All the while, Sandore walked through the many halls of his home in a fugue. He did not notice the days passing nor the moons making their cycles through the sky. Aurus the mistweaver, Pyrale the torch and Valonus the oak, each crossed the sky with the passing of the night, yet Sandore did not care. Neither did he notice the dust as it collected on every surface in his home until it was as thick as the bark of the ancient oak tree that grew in his courtyard.

Inside the castle, there was only one place Sandore could not go. A single door stood in his way. He would find himself standing in front of it, each time engulfed by terror and filled with soul shaking fear. Something behind that door caused him to turn away, the fear changing to anger.

Early one winter morning, Sandore stood in the cap-house of the highest turret in his castle looking over the snow-covered forest surrounding it when he sensed a change come over his home. Someone was here. His thoughts turned to the intruder and an instant later Sandore stood behind him.

“Who are you?” Sandore screamed in rage, but the intruder did not notice. “Why are you here?”

The intruder was average height and well-muscled. The man’s head appeared just to grow out of his shoulders as if he did not have a neck. He wore a well-worn hard-boiled leather breastplate, soft leather pants, tall riding boots, and a sword strapped to his side. His short black hair was cut in the style of the Beinison military. Running along his chin to the base of his ear was a dark red scar. Many small scars covered the back of his hands. Sandore saw a brand on the man’s left forearm that he knew meant the intruder had been at one time a military prisoner of war of the Beinison Empire.

As the man walked along the hallway, he left footprints in the dust. Sandore moved with him, trying with all his might to curse the man. “Die!” Sandore screamed. Nothing happened.

“This place needs a good dusting,” the man said as he sneezed. “Could use a few lamps scattered around here and there too.”

The man stopped at every intersecting hallway to check a map as he moved along the twisting maze-like passages that made up the castle. Sandore wondered how he could have a map. As soon it dawned on him what his destination was, Sandore stopped following. The man was heading for the door.

Sandore stood frozen as the man walked out of sight. He could not move. The anger he was feeling changed into fear. Finally, his mind went blank and he was no longer there. He faded from view like a puff of smoke in the wind. He had ceased to be.

When consciousness returned, Sandore stood at the door through which he could not pass. The fear intensified in him when he saw the man standing on the other side of the open door looking at something lying on the floor that Sandore could not see. The man bent down to examine it and shook his head.

“That’s so sad, I mean, at least there should be someone to bury the old fool.” The man stood up and then shouted, “Hello! Anybody here? No? I don’t think you’ll mind me looking around a bit then.”

As the man moved deeper into the room, Sandore’s memories returned. This room was his study. How could he have forgotten? He had spent many nights in there reading dusty tomes and searching for powerful magic. He had reached far into the dark arts and even into the forbidden art of necromancy.

Across the room from the door was a large red oak desk covered with scrolls. A large mirror covered the wall directly behind the desk, its reflection was not of this room but another room somewhere else. Paintings hung on the walls to either side of the mirror. The one to the left was a glorious rampant golden dragon with wings extended upon a mountaintop. The one to the right was Sandore’s wife, a beautiful older woman filled with an inner radiance. Bookcases filled with books and scrolls covered the rest of the walls.

After a moment, the object on the floor became clear to Sandore. It was his body. He was dead, and that made the fear he was feeling turn once again into anger. There was nothing he could do about it and that made him even more enraged. Frustration surged through his ghostly form, causing it to flicker in and out of reality. Even though the intruder had nothing to do with his death, Sandore wanted to rip his heart from his chest, to tear his arms and legs from their sockets. He wanted to hold the man’s head in his hands as he watched the life drain from his eyes.

But all he could do was watch helplessly as the man searched through the knowledge he had collected over his lifetime.

“Sandore,” a voice whispered. “Why do you rage at fate?”

“Who’s there?” Sandore looked around. No one was near him except the thief.

“Sandore,” the voice said a few breaths later, “I can help you.”

“Leave me alone spirit,” said Sandore. “There is nothing you can do for me.”

“Are you so sure of yourself?” The voice asked. “That you know the answer to everything?”

The rage and frustration in Sandore continued to grow until it became as real as Sandore himself.

“Can you feel it growing inside of you?” The voice asked. “The anger. The power. I can show you how to focus it, to use your hatred. Not only could you get your revenge on those who killed you, but you can reclaim your place in the world.”

The man took a folded piece of parchment from inside his vest. One by one, he checked books and scrolls against a list of names on the parchment. When he found a match, he placed that book or scroll into a large sack. The others he just tossed upon the floor. Most of the items on the list were magical references while a few were historical records. When he finished collecting the items, he began gathering other things of value from the castle.

On the second and third floors, the man found nothing of value. Someone had already looted those. On the first floor, he found some items of interest. When he was through searching, he had several full large leather sacks. He loaded them onto a horse-drawn wagon waiting outside.

“Sandore, listen,” the voice said. “If you want to leave this place you must act quickly. Follow the man. If you concentrate on him, you can go wherever he goes.”

“What do I know about you? You are a voice calling from the darkness. Why should I listen? You could be the voice of one of my enemies, leading me into a trap.”

“Alas, I could be nothing more than your thoughts speaking to you. You have been here alone for so long you may have reached the place of madness. My name could be Sandore and you are talking to yourself. But I also might be someone who can help you. You have a choice. Remain trapped here in your prison or listen to me and gain freedom.”

Sandore appeared next to the man as he stood at the door to make another trip to the wagon.

“Touch him,” the voice said. “Focus your mind on him, concentrate. You know how to do it. It should be easy for you. Aren’t you a powerful wizard?”

Sandore stepped forward and put his hand on the thief’s shoulder just as the thief stepped through the doorway. A brief, intense cold washed over Sandore, followed by soul-wrenching pain.

“This cannot hold you for long,” the voice said. “It will let you escape from your internment and once you are free, we will seek out someone who can hold you.”

“I have someone in mind,” Sandore said. “If she is still alive.”

“What was that?” Sandore heard a voice ask. The new voice sounded different. This one was closer and louder. “Is someone there?”

Sandore was moving, yet not. He was walking away from his home toward the horse drawn wagon, yet he was taking no action. Then he realized he was the man. The voice he was hearing was the man’s thoughts.

The man finished loading the wagon, then he turned to look at the main doors. “I hope Vanshans will be happy, I got all the books he wanted.”

“Cletus, you ready to go?” The man asked his horse after he climbed aboard the wagon.

“I am,” Sandore thought.

 

***

 

Mid Janis, 1016

Banewood did not consider himself a wizard. Instead of dusty tomes and pointed hats, he used magically brewed elixirs and herbal concoctions to perform his magic. He knew a few spells he learned from real wizards, but not very many. One of the potions he used, called Ur-Baal, allowed him to slip out of his physical body and move unnoticed by others. No one, other than maybe a wizard or a spirit, could see him when he was free of his body. This also gave him the ability to slip into and control animals and even some weak-willed humans. The Master Wizard Ostap was teaching him to control his abilities.

Banewood sat in front of his thatched hut with a small fire burning nearby. The darkness of night was giving way to the light of day in the twilight of the pre-dawn morning. The mid Janis air was bitterly cold, and freshly fallen snow covered the frozen ground. Neither cold nor snow bothered Banewood. Mentally he was a few miles away riding inside the body of a raven. From his vantage point, Banewood saw the ground swirling below as the bird flew over the empty village of Gorod. Snow covered the streets and roofs in a blanket of white.

Banewood grew bored with the village. He flew the raven to the crossroads leading to Greenmont and Hartim, hoping someone was camping there. He would do anything to break the monotony of day-to-day life and loneliness of living in a small village. The only person who visited him was the village idiot. Banewood discussed going on the road, or even traveling with Ostap, but Ostap told him he needed to spend time learning to live off the land.

The raven landed in a tree at the crossroad. In the clearing were a small tent, a canvas-covered wagon, and a horse picketed nearby. A thick blanket covered the horse to protect it from the cold. The horse was asleep standing next to the wagon. Just outside of the tent entrance was a stone fire circle with a few brunt logs in it.

Banewood had the raven fly to the back of the wagon. He wanted to see what was under the canvas. The bird sat on the edge of the tailgate for a moment, looking around to make sure no one had seen it. It pulled at the drawstring holding the canvas shut, pecking and tugging at it until the knot gave way. Then the bird climbed into the wagon.

Under the canvas were several large sacks. The bird hopped over to the closest bag and picked at the string until it opened. In the bag on top of other items were a small golden chalice and a silver bracelet with rubies and sapphires set in it. The bracelet alone was worth enough to keep Banewood in luxury for at least a year or more, if not for the rest of his life. Unless Ostap found out about it, then he would take it from him. While he was an apprentice, Banewood had to give everything to his master.

Banewood asked himself, how could he get it? Why was it there? Who was in the tent? It had to be a thief. No respectable merchant would be wandering the roads with this much treasure in their possession without an armed escort. If the items belonged to a thief, then it would not matter if he stole them from him, would it? Banewood could find the legitimate owner and give the items back to them. Well, the thought ran through his mind, but not for long. Banewood wanted the treasure for himself.

“What’s this?” A man asked.

The raven squawked, leaping out of the wagon and up into the air. Banewood tried to regain control before the startled bird flew away and was just able to get it to land on a tree branch overhead.

“There’s nothing in there for you to eat,” the man said. “If you want a piece of bread I’ll see if I can’t find one. Listen to me. I must be going mad. I’m talking to the birds now. I seem to be doing that a lot lately. I’ve been talking to myself, talking to the horse, talking to my coffee cup. I’ve even been hearing voices inside of my head.”

The speaker was average height, wearing a leather breastplate, deerskin pants, cloak, and a pair of hard leather riding boots. He had short black hair, and a dark red scar ran along his chin. The treasure was very tempting, but something was wrong. Something about the man set Banewood’s nerves all a-skitter.

The man went into the tent, all the while talking to himself. When he stepped back out, he had a piece of flatbread in his hand. He held the food out to the raven, and the raven took flight, flying towards him.

Banewood commanded raven to stop, but the bird was no longer under his control. It landed on the man’s outstretched arm and as soon as its talons touched, Banewood felt another presence in the mind of the raven. For a breath or two Banewood and the presence fought for control of the raven. Banewood tried, but could not resist the presence. It was more powerful than anyone Banewood had ever met.

“This one will work for a time, but I still need another who is more suitable for me,” a voice said.

“Sandore, you just have to wait until the barrier between the worlds is thin. Then you can cross over.”

“Yes, then I can get my revenge on my granddaughter.”

The voices were the last thing Banewood remembered before his resistance crumbled and the new entity flooded into his mind.

 

***

 

Vanshans looked and acted like a proper wizard. He was tall, at least half a head taller than an average person. He was gaunt. His chin, ears, and nose came to a point as if there might be some Eelail in his ancestry. His long black hair cascaded over his shoulders with silver streaks running its length. His robes were dark purple and blue with arcane symbols embroidered on them. Vanshans lived in a tower he had built using magic in the southern Darst Mountains. The tower was tall and narrow too.

Haden Ley was Vanshans’ personal assistant and bodyguard. Haden thought the job was easy. Who in his right mind, other than another wizard, would try to attack a wizard? Everyone knows wizards are infamous for their propensity to sling curses, cause people to get boils on their butts, and just generally be a source of chaos and mayhem. Haden’s job was to protect Vanshans long enough from anyone attacking him until the wizard could do what wizards do. Hayden had a sharp sword and knew how to use it.

On the first of Vibril, a young wizard named Banewood issued a challenge to Vanshans. Vanshans told Haden to pack their bags, they were going on an expedition.

Haden knew Vanshans’ magical knowledge did not include transportation from place to place without traveling the distance between, so they would have to make the trip overland on horseback.

“Normally the younger wizard who makes the challenge is the one who makes the journey,” Haden said. “So why are we going to him?”

“I have another reason why we must go,” Vanshans said. “The wizard’s challenge is nothing but a distraction. He can’t win.”

“How do you know he can’t win?” Haden asked.

“I know his master,” Vanshans said. “Ostap would never let an apprentice make such a stupid and deadly challenge. He must be doing it on his own.”

“What’s the other reason?” Haden asked.

“I need to pick up some books along the way,” Vanshans said. “We are to meet my man in Gorod.”

“Isn’t that in the Duchy of Dargon near the border with Narragan?” Hayden asked.

“Yes,” Vanshans said. “We will leave when you are ready.”

It was a ten-day trip to Gorod. After packing their saddle bags, Hayden prepared two horses for them to ride and a mule to carry the provisions. The mule was named Rufus and was all that was left of one of Vanshans’ early wizardly confrontations. He was old and ornery, but Rufus could be relied on most of the time.

On the fifth of Vibril, they began their journey. The wind blew from the north, carrying the icy touch of winter.

“Do we need to be out in this weather?” Haden asked. “Why can’t it wait until spring or maybe mid-summer?”

Vanshans did not answer. He just sat on the horse staring straight ahead, lost somewhere in his thoughts as usual.

The first part of their journey passed uneventfully.

 

***

 

It was mid-day when Vanshans and Haden arrived at the small village of Gorod. Vanshans kept to himself while he let Haden do all the interacting with the locals. After Hayden got a room, Vanshans went straight to the inn and stayed there.

Haden walked around the village looking at the shops. It only took him a few menes to cover the entire village. It was empty. At first, Haden thought there was no one there at all. He walked into the smithy and found it abandoned. Then he stopped at the temple to Cahleyna. He left a few Bits at the altar, even though there was no attending priest.

As he walked past the stonemasons’ yard, the sound of hammer and chisel rang out. He stood in the gates and watched a single artisan work on a statue for a mene before moving on.

The next morning the sky was clear and the temperature had dropped to near frigid during the night. Haden put blankets on the horses to keep them warm in the icy air. Rufus tried to bite Haden when he put a blanket on him.

“Would you rather be cold or let me put the blanket on you?” Haden asked.

Rufus stood still and let Haden put the blanket on him. As soon as they left the warmth of the stable Rufus brayed, complaining about the cold.

Clouds of ice vapor drifted in their wake, formed from the breath of the animals and men. Haden wrapped himself in every blanket not used on the animals. He looked like a mound of cloth as he rode along on the horse.

It did not take very long to reach the challenger’s home. The wizard lived in a small thatched shack on the edge of a frozen lake.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Haden asked.

“Yes, this is the place,” Vanshans said. “He is here. I can feel him, but he’s not what I expected. He is more powerful than he should be but he has less control than I expected. I sense a separate presence.”

Haden dismounted. He removed most of the blankets wrapped around him and then approached the shack. He stood at the makeshift door and knocked. “Wizard, Vanshans is here to accept your challenge.”

A moment later, the door opened and a young man stepped out. Haden was so surprised he could not contain himself. He burst out laughing right in the younger wizard’s face. “You can’t be a wizard. You’re what, twenty-five?”

The wizard’s eyes flashed red and he waved his hand toward Haden. An invisible force picked Hayden up and threw him bodily toward the lake. Haden crashed through the frozen surface and vanished beneath the ice.

The bitter bite of the cold water started draining Haden’s strength as he sank to the bottom of the lake. The water soaked into his clothes and the remaining blankets, adding to his weight. He struggled to rise and finally managed to stand so he could reach the edge of the hole he fell through.

Haden pulled himself out of the water and onto the ice. He was coughing up water and gasping for air. He looked over to where the two wizards were doing battle and heard Vanshans say, “This is real magic.”

Vanshans lifted both hands and made a pushing gesture toward the wizard. A wave of rippling, translucent energy pulsed outward from Vanshans, washing over the wizard and the shack behind him. The wave pushed the wizard backward and flattened the building in its wake. The wizard stayed upright for a few breaths and then fell forward on his face.

“Haden, pack up the horses,” Vanshans said.

“Give me a mene or two,” Haden said as he stood there coughing up water.

“Don’t you think it’s a wee bit cold to go for a swim?” Vanshans asked.

“I wasn’t taking a swim,” Haden said. “Didn’t you see the other wizard knock me into the lake?”

“Check on the wizard,” Vanshans said. “Make sure he’s not dead. Just don’t touch him.”

“Whatever you say,” Haden said between breaths as he coughed up the last of the water in his lungs. Haden checked on Banewood’s condition while Vanshans remounted his horse.

“He’s not hurt, much. A few cracked ribs. I think he’s just unconscious,” Haden said. “He may be out for a while.”

“Just leave him there.” Vanshans turned his horse and headed back to the village.

“You’re not going to turn him into a sheep or something?” Haden asked.

“No,” Vanshans said. “There’s something out of place about this one.”

“It’s cold, and I’m soaking wet,” Hayden said. “Can’t you do some magic to dry me off?”

Vanshans did not answer.

 

***

 

The weather continued to be bitterly cold as Haden and Vanshans made their way back toward the tower. They passed through the foothills of the Darst mountain range following the same path they had taken on the first trip. Five days later, Vanshans and Haden Ley found themselves in the middle of a forest neither remembered traveling through on their way to Gorod. It was about midday, and although the sun was shining, the forest was so dense it was as dark as night. Snow covered the trees with a blanket of white.

“Vanshans, are we lost?” Haden knew they were. He was just asking to be asking.

“No,” Vanshans said. “I know exactly where we are.”

Knowing it’s best not to argue with a wizard, Haden let it go.

After about a bell of riding, Haden asked, “Can’t you use a spell or something to make it a bit warmer?”

There was no response from Vanshans.

Later, they stopped at a small bridge over a frozen stream to let the animals drink. Haden led the animals to an area where the ice was thin and then broke a large hole in the surface. Rufus pushed the horses out of the way so he could drink first. Vanshans stood in the road looking back the way they had come as if expecting someone or something.

“Something wrong?” Haden asked.

“I think someone may be following us,” Vanshans said.

“I haven’t seen anything,” Haden said.

“I don’t expect you would have,” Vanshans said. “Whoever it is, they are about half a day back.”

“Half a day back,” Haden said. “How can you know someone is half a day back?”

Vanshans did not answer. He just turned his head and looked at Haden as if he were an idiot.

When the horses had drunk their fill of water, Haden fed each animal a handful of grain and a dried apple from his saddle bags. Then they mounted up and continued their way toward the tower. Later in the afternoon, the weather warmed, so it was just above freezing.

About a bell before sundown, a horrendous storm hit the area. The wind picked up until it was strong enough to blow the riders from the backs of their horses. Lightning flashed across the sky striking the tallest of trees in an array of fiery sparks. Hail, the size of dragon fruit and raindrops the size of acorns fell. The horses tried to bolt while Rufus moved to take cover beneath the trees alongside the road.

Haden and Vanshans followed Rufus.

“Do you think this storm is part of the curse or a magic spell?” The wind and thunder were so loud Haden had to shout.

“Don’t be stupid,” Vanshans shouted. “There is nothing wrong. We are not cursed. Do you think I am an inept adept who can’t spell his way out of a beginner’s trap?”

“No!” Haden shouted. Then at a much lower volume level, “I think you’re an eccentric egomaniacal self-centered wizard whose only concern is himself.”

Vanshans did not respond.

“As far as I can tell,” Haden said, “There is no town or settlement anywhere nearby, and we are going to need to find shelter soon.”

After the first blast of the storm had burnt itself out the winds lessened, and the hail eased up, allowing them to continue riding. As dusk was fading into night, the trail through the forest opened into a clearing. Right in the middle was an old building. The building’s walls had gaps in them, yet the roof appeared patched and in good shape. The entire thing looked like it needed a lot of repair work, but it was still functional. Near the building was a barn for the horses and Rufus. Since it was the only shelter they had seen for leagues, they stopped there to get out of the storm.

“I have never seen such a storm!” Water dripped from Vanshans’ hat while he shook his cloak and robes. He stood just inside the inn’s door waiting while Haden arranged rooms for the night. Scattered around the inn’s common room were a few locals who all looked up when Vanshans and Haden entered. Vanshans did not notice.

Once Haden had a room, Vanshans went upstairs. He laid his hat on the small table sitting next to the single bed and then undressed. He tossed his wet garments onto the floor and used a towel to dry himself.

Haden removed his clothes and dug into their pack for a robe for Vanshans. After making sure the wizard was warm, he looked for clothes for himself. He hung their wet clothing to dry.

“Are you sure the storm doesn’t have anything to do with the duel?”

Vanshans stared at Haden as if he had three heads. “You know nothing of wizardry, do you?”

“No,” Haden said. “I only know what I know from watching you.”

“Good, keep it that way,” Vanshans said. “I don’t pay you to learn. I pay you to keep idiots at bay.”

“Whatever you say,” Haden said.

Haden dressed in his driest clothes. He was going to head downstairs to get something to eat. Just before Haden opened the door to leave, Vanshans said, “Why don’t you go downstairs and get me something to eat.”

“Straight.” Haden closed the door behind him.

The wind howling outside blew through the gaps in the walls and caused the room to be very airy and cold. Vanshans removed a small brazier from the pack, placed it on the table, and filled it with charcoal. Then he added some incense and herbs to it and lit the brazier. The scent of the smoke slowly filled the room. Vanshans mumbled an incantation of evocation over the brazier and its warmth and aroma spread to fill the room, keeping out the cold outside air.

Haden returned a few menes later holding two bowls of soup, a loaf of bread and two mugs of ale. He set a bowl, mug, and half of the loaf of bread on the table. Then he got out his sleeping roll and spread it on the floor near the door to sit on while eating.

After the storm passed the wind died down, but it was still raining hard. When Vanshans finished eating, Haden gathered up the bowls and mugs to take them back downstairs.

“Will we see you downstairs soon?” Haden asked as he opened the door.

“And why would I wish to associate with the simple folk?”

“Why, because it’s the Night of Souls, sir,” Haden said. “It’s time to light the green wood and tell stories ’til dawn.”

“That is tonight?” Vanshans asked quietly. “I seem to have forgotten.”

“Come on down when you’re ready,” Haden said. “The more, the merrier.”

Vanshans just shook his head and said, “No, I think not. I’ve got something else to do.”

After Haden left the room, Vanshans sat on the bed and began to meditate. As his mind turned inward, his senses expanded outward. He sensed something out there in the darkness. He could almost hear it calling to him. Something old and evil. And there was something wrong with the storm. He had not been able to sense it earlier, but he could now.

Vanshans made his way downstairs. He did not stop in the common room, but headed straight to the door. Hayden started to rise, but Vanshans motioned for him to stay seated.

The heavy rain soaked Vanshans to the skin as soon as he stepped out of the inn. As he walked around the building toward the clearing behind it, a bolt of lightning crashed across the sky brightly illuminating followed by thunder so loud it shook the building.

Vanshans stood in the center of the clearing. In his left hand, he held a black handled athame. Its hilt and blade marked with mystic runes. In his right hand, was a chalice made of crystal which also had runes carved into it. Each time the lightning flashed, the runes caught the light and kept an afterglow for a breath or two in the intense darkness.

Ignoring the rain, Vanshans traced a large circle in the clearing. The ground sparkled with an eerie red light as he cut a fine line in the earth with the tip of the athame, leaving behind a glowing circle. When he finished the circle, he stood in its center. He cut the palm of his hand with the blade and then held his hand over the chalice to catch the blood.

Vanshans turned to face north. He dipped the point of the athame into the blood in the cup and pointed the blade toward the north. At the northern edge of the circle, the red line started to change from red to a dark purple, so deep it was hard to see. The color change slowly advanced around the circle from the north toward the east.

Vanshans turned to face east, repeated dipping the blade in the blood and pointed to the east. The color changed continued through the eastern point toward the southern point. Vanshans faced south, repeated dipping and pointing. The change continued through the southern point, heading toward the west.

Vanshans faced west and one last time dipped the blade into the chalice and pointed. The change continued through the west point and completed the circle.

Vanshans was worried. If he did not get the circle ready in time, he could be in grave danger. From the base of the purple circle, a dome spread upwards from the ground until it reached two feet above Vanshans head. The dome was semi-transparent and blocked the rain from falling into the circle. Vanshans could see through the dome, but everything outside appeared to be shadows, tinted purple.

The dome was complete, Vanshans sat in the center holding the athame and chalice.

From somewhere nearby the sound of a bell tolling cut through the rain and darkness, echoing across the clearing and around the inn. The tolling continued and when the sound of the final bell died away, it was midnight. Midnight of the Night of Souls. The time when the veil between worlds became thin, making it was possible for spirits to cross from one world to another. When the echo of the last bell faded away, the wind suddenly picked up, howling around the dome. In the wind, Vanshans heard voices. He could not hear what they were whispering, and he was sure he did not want to know.

Shadows danced outside of the dome, lurid images of things not meant to be. Some would come together in obscene postures, and then fade away. Some appeared almost human, others monstrous. Vanshans tried to clear his mind, to stay calm. He was uncertain why he was here. He never ventured out on the Night of Souls. Why had he done so now? Had some force clouded his mind to make him forget the danger? All he had to do was resist the spirits until sunrise. It was going to be a long night.

From the darkness, the figure of a man appeared reflected upon the dome. Standing behind the man was another form that was blacker than the darkness of the night. Vanshans could only see enough detail in the reflection to tell the figure of the man was tall and thin. He could not make out any facial features. Something about the figure made Vanshans feel a chill run along his spine and goosebumps to appear on his arms.

“Be gone spirit, you cannot enter here,” Vanshans said. He stood and put the point of the athame into the cup. He then traced a mystic sigil in the air using the blade’s tip. A faint glowing tracery lingered in the air for a just a breath. “Return to the realm you came from.”

The figure stepped away from the dome for a breath and then returned. It touched the dome with a single finger, and where it touched it, the dome flared with pulses of red. The figure drew its hand away from the dome and the flaring stopped.

An Instant later the figure placed the flat of his hand against the dome and pushed. The dome bulged inward, again flaring with red light and this time with intense heat. The shadow did not withdraw its hand; instead, it put both hands on the dome and pushed harder. The dome pulsed and shimmered as waves of energy cascaded in ripples on its surface, but it did not give way. The dome emitted a bright flash of white light that repulsed the dark shadows.

Vanshans could not move. Fear held him in place. Whatever the thing was, it should not have had the ability to press into the dome. It was as powerful as Vanshans was, if not more so. Vanshans pointed the athame at the area where the shadow had pressed in on the dome, waiting for the next assault.

It was not long before the figure reappeared at the dome’s edge.

The next assault was as forceful as the last one but lasted much longer. Whatever was attacking the dome was growing in strength, not weakening. Vanshans did not know how much longer the dome would hold. Vanshans drew a second circle, this one around himself, and energized it with his magic. A secondary ring of power flared around Vanshans just as the figure pressed through the outer dome.

The shadow image of an older man with long dark hair and goatee stood within the outer circle. Its hair had silver streaks and it wore a ground length black robe. The shadow was taller than Vanshans and just as thin. Vanshans felt the power radiating from the thing, even though he knew it was dead.

“Be gone,” Vanshans said. “You have no place here. Go to the darkness that waits for you.”

Vanshans focused all the power he could summon and brought it to bear upon the spirit. A stream of red energy that looked like a fountainhead of water sprang from Vanshans and washed over the shadow. The spirit shimmered, flaring brightly as the magic passed over it. Pulsing blackness surged from it, and the shadow almost faded from view. Vanshans collapsed to the ground as the last of his energy drained from him. The spirit was still there.

With an effort, Vanshans stood. He held both of his hands extended toward the spirit as fire encompassed his hands. Vanshans hurled the fire at the spirit, but the spirit turned the fire aside.

“You have failed,” the spirit said.

“What do you want?” Vanshans asked. “You have no right to be here.”

“Who are you to speak to me of rights?” The spirit asked. “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” Vanshans said. “I have no idea who you are. Should I?”

“I am Sandore,” the dead wizard said. “There was a time when other wizards respected me, paid homage to me, but most of all they feared me.”

Vanshans had heard of Sandore. Many years ago, Sandore had been a very powerful wizard, much stronger than Vanshans. Then one day, Sandore had just vanished.

“What do you want with me?” Vanshans asked

“Since my release from the prison my granddaughter left me in,” Sandore said, “I have been looking for a wizard with the right skills. Someone who can serve me in the tasks that I require.”

“What tasks?” Vanshans heart ran cold. He had an idea what Sandore wanted.

“You deal with spirits,” Sandore said. “You have the skills needed to open a portal between the real world and the spirit plane. You deal with them on a regular basis.”

“Yes,” Vanshans said.

“I need you to open a portal for me to return.”

“No,” Vanshans said. “I will not do it.”

“You have no choice,” Sandore said. “You can do what I want, or I will use you as a tool to get what I want and then discard your used corpse.”

“You’re talking about necromancy. That is a forbidden art. I cannot be a part of it.”

“It took many years for me to realize it, but I’m dead. Stuck on the plane of spirits and I cannot cross over until you make certain preparations for me.” Sandore’s form was slowly growing more substantial the longer he spoke. It was drawing substance from Vanshans, using his magic to sustain his ghostly form. “Do you think that inept wizard challenged you on his own? He was nothing but a tool. Was it by accident that you got lost on your way back to your tower?”

A bolt of lightning struck the dome over Vanshans head. The light inside the circle flared, and Sandore faded from view for just an instant.

“No,” Sandore said. “You sealed your fate when you sent that thief to steal my books. I learned your name from him, and nothing has happened by itself since then. I put the idea into the fool’s head to challenge you, to get you away from your protections on this night.”

“Wait! Stop!” Vanshans screamed as he fell to the ground. He knew he had lost the battle, but if he could prevent Sandore from possessing him, he might be able to fight back later. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. “Ok, what do I get if I agree and do not fight against you?”

“Now you see,” Sandore said. “You cannot resist me, but if you serve me, I will reward you.”

“What do you want me to do?” Vanshans tried to climb to his knees.

“There is another that I desire more than you,” Sandore said. “You will be my servant while she will be my host.”

“I understand,” Vanshans said.

“Once I have taken my rightful place, I shall have my revenge. For now, wait. I will inform you when I am ready.”

Vanshans kneeled before Sandore.

 

***

 

Later in the night, the bells sounded again ringing loud and clear over the wind. As the echoes of the last peal died so too did the wind, taking the voices with it.

The villagers looked at each other for a while. Someone suggested that someone else should go outside to see what had happened. No one volunteered. The rest sat there and, after a brief pause, continued telling stories.

The rest of the night was quiet. When the bells took away the wind, the rain went with it. All that was left was the crackle of the fire and the sound of the villagers’ voices. Some fell asleep, but not many. Not only did no one leave the room, no one left the circle. When the day finally dawned, Haden was one of the many still awake. With the light beginning to stream in through the cracks in the window shutters, he felt normal again.

Haden realized Vanshans had never come back inside during the night. Since Haden was Vanshans bodyguard, he got up, stretched his aching muscles, and went to the door.

The door opened without a problem. The front of the inn was undamaged. The road was muddy and covered with small branches blown on it by the wind. Haden walked out boldly and headed around the building looking for Vanshans. That was when he noticed the large clearing behind the inn.

The clearing was completely bare. Not a tree, leaf, bush, or blade of grass grew. In the very center of the clearing, was a patch of green where Vanshans lay motionless. Rufus stood nearby, sniffing at the ground looking for something to eat.

As Haden crossed over the outer ring to get to Vanshans, the hair on his head stood on end. The area inside the circle was completely dry. Haden looked down at the wizard and thought he saw some runes dug into the ground at the edge of the green patch.

“Is he alive?” someone called out. A few of the villagers had followed Haden outside. They stood at the edge of the circle and did not cross the barren patch.

Haden knelt and felt Vanshans’ chest. Vanshans was alive, just unconscious.

“Would someone put the mule back in the stable?” Haden asked. Rufus snorted and walked toward the stable by himself.

Haden picked Vanshans up and carried him back to their room and laid him on the bed.

Vanshans stayed unconscious the rest of that day and several more days after that. Haden waited close by while Vanshans recovered. While he slept, Vanshans spoke not a word. Whatever happened that night had drained him.

 

***

 

When Vanshans woke, he was lying in bed. The room was cold, and sunlight shone through large cracks in the walls.

“Where am I?” Vanshans asked.

“You’re awake,” Haden said. “Finally, I thought you were going to sleep forever.”

“What are you talking about?” Vanshans asked.

“You’ve been sleeping for days,” Haden said. “We are still at the inn.”

Vanshans closed his eyes.

“What happened on the Night of Souls?” Haden asked.

“Haden, I deal with otherworldly creatures as part of my magic all the time,” Vanshans said. “When the barriers between worlds grow thin, as they do on the Night of Souls, such creatures are drawn to me. Usually, I spend the Night of Souls in a special room where they cannot find me. But when you reminded me that it was the Night of Souls, I realized I was at the inn and needed to get away from people for their protection.”

“But what happened out there,” Haden asked. “The ground is scorched.”

“You are to never ask about that again,” Vanshans said. “Never.”

 

***

 

It took five days for Vanshans and Haden to return to the tower.

For a while, life continued as normal. With the passing of time, Vanshans began to think the events on the Night of Souls had been a dream. He had not sensed the spirit’s presence or felt any other ill effects.

Yet, Vanshans was afraid to look at his reflection in a mirror. Afraid of what, or who, he might see looking back at him.

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