Author’s note: When I was younger I used to write high fantasy. Haven’t done it for a while, but I am inspired. Hope fantasy fans enjoy.
Yeah, I was greedy. I admit it. The King offered me a bag of silver for this errand. A sorcerer’s workshop is expensive. I hire help in my lab. There’s upkeep. There’s protection money to the local knights. I didn’t want to share my silver.
And yeah, it was stupid to bring a bunch of what are essentially kids with me on the mission. The one with the long-sword, Zach, I think his name is, he’s not even shaving yet. And the girl, Erin, she came off really tough when I first met her. But I’m sure the fights she’s been in risk nought worse than a black eye. And the heavy one. Bull the others call him and I don’t know his real name, well let’s just say the trip here might already have taken all he has to give.
Bags of silver are hard to come by, and I wasn’t going to turn The King down, even if he asked something outrageous. And he did. Lead an expedition into the Ancient Palace of Centermarch.
It was right in the middle of the Sarksbury hills, rugged terrain useless for farming, and therefore abandoned since before the Dark Years. We’d have to bushwhack for days through thicket and dense woods to get there.
That wasn’t the problem.
It wasn’t even clear the legendary castle lived up to its billing. It had been the seat of the old empire, stretching all the way to the sea in the west and beyond the mountains to the east. Tales of the massive structure abound, and I devoured them as a child. The line of kings ruled a prosperous land for more than forty generations before being laid low by famine, disease, and most of all, insurrection. Those tales were no doubt embellished through the dark years until few remnants of the truth remain. For all I know, they were all inventions of the modern era, where newer, less lavish kingdoms ruled in Centermarch’s place.
That wasn’t the problem either.
Our King, perhaps enchanted by those very tales of grandeur wanted a more opulent seat without having to build it (or he would no doubt never live to see it complete). The younger brother of a childless predecessor who fell in valiant battle, he possesses neither his brother’s strength, courage, nor popularity. Procuring a palace suitable for the ancients would do a lot to raise his esteem among his countrymen. So he sent a dozen of his finest knights into the Sarksbury wilds to find and claim it. Only three came back. They were the lookout, while their comrades in arms had entered the palace. They had not returned at the appointed hour, nor the next day, nor the day after. Nine knights lost.
That was the problem.
It was a matter of pride for The King now. He had given nine knights to the cause; he was not going to give up. This time, however, he would rather part with silver than his prize fighting men, and he realized that someone with knowledge of magic and enchantments would be needed.
I knew there might be hazards, but it’s not wise to disobey your king. And despite what you may have read, there aren’t a lot of missions for wizards and those that will draw a bag of silver tend to be on the risky side. Really, what’s the purpose of studying arcane and mighty spells if you never get to use them? I bargained The King up to more silver than he originally wanted to give, but when I went to hire henchmen, the ones who could be trusted not to bolt wanted too big a chunk of the loot. There were some ruffians who would work for less but I was concerned I might wake up with half the equipment missing and no henchmen, if I indeed woke up at all.
Thus I settled for a handful of teenagers.
They were eager and energetic, at least at the start. But after the better part of a week spent trudging through underbrush carrying heavy packs, their enthusiasm had waned. The palace was exactly where The King’s knights had said it was, a spooky, forbidding structure with jutting parapets choked with vines. Some glass remained in some of the upper windows, a few cracked shards clinging to their frames, but for the most part they gaped empty, revealing a dark mysterious interior. Two huge iron portals hung loosely on their hinges, but they lay on the far side of a moat many yards wide. In better times a bridge no doubt spanned the distance between, but it had long since rotted away, leaving a sheer drop dozens of feet into brackish, fetid water.
Luckily, a walk around the palace’s massive exterior revealed several postern entrances, one whose door had completely rotted through. A single, jagged, mossy timber still clung to rusty hinges, but we were easily able to gain entry.
By the light of our lantern, we explored the dank interior. We found ourselves within a maze of what was probably servants quarters and storage rooms below the main level. There was trash strewn about, some seemly new, the rest clearly having lain for years. Tattered rags, gnawed bones, shattered pottery, and even a rusty weapon or two, useless broken scimitar blades. Far from lying empty, these rooms no doubt became the home of whatever wild creature (or human) that could find their way inside.
We heard them before they heard us. We were being cautious, while they saw no need for stealth. It was distant at first, raucous conversation of deep male voices. As quietly as we could while still hefting our equipment, we crept in their direction. They were not as far as they seemed. We came to a heavy wooden door – obviously a recent addition – with an iron latch. It was not closed firmly, and flickering firelight could be seen through the crack. Whomever had made this their base of operations had no doubt built it, possibly with pilfered parts, to secure their space from creepy and crawly things that might invade at night.
What to do? We put ourselves in danger if we proceeded further, but we were being paid to find out what inhabited the old palace. We would be shirking our duty if we fled.
The decision was made for me, because Bull and Zach, assuming there was nothing that could withstand their combined prowess, swung the door open revealing a circle of large men gathered around a fireplace. Before their attention turned our way, I caught a glimpse of a carcass of some large bird, still steaming from the fire, that was being dismembered for victuals.
Unfortunately the door let out an echoing creak, and soon a half dozen faces were turned our way. They didn’t stop to ask what we were doing there. They scurried about gathering weapons, crooked cudgels with protruding metal spikes, and began advancing threateningly toward the doorway.
Zach and Bull stood brandishing their weapons, Zach inexpertly pointing his long sword outward and Bull angling his axe like he was about to fell a tree. Only Erin seemed to hold her half-length spear competently, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from the conclusion that I’d taken up with a bunch of half-wits. There were twice as many of our adversaries as there were of us.
It was time for me to shine. I conjured up a connection to the demon Don Miguel Del Fuego. I’ve done it many times in practice, and a few times in anger, so it was something I could do without intense thought.
OK, confession time again. I’m not all that good at controlling Don Miguel’s spells. He’s a notoriously bad-tempered demon, and it always feels like he’s trying to find an opening to make the spell go awry. When you’re communing with a fire demon, one bad spell can leave you scarred and disfigured for life, so that’s not a small thing to be afraid of. Yes, I was tutored by the great wizard Carlos Victorioso, but Carlos never had any trouble with any spell ever. He could produce terrifying firestorms with a flick of the hand, and you could tell he knew how to handle Don Miguel.
Me? Not as well.
I never got comfortable with fire magic. It’s the most powerful and effective in a combat situation, so if you’re studying wizardry, you learn it if you can, especially if Carlos Victorioso is your mentor. But how he was always so confident that he could make the spell do what he wanted, I could never figure out.
OK, that was a lie. Yes, I do know. All I had to do was study. Carlos had all the ancient scrolls, the lore of how to please, channel, and invoke Don Miguel to greatest effect. I could have spent the past thirty years studying them, as Carlos no doubt had, and I might be as good as he was.
But did I? No.
Why? To tell you, I need to let you in on my secret, the reason I wanted to be a wizard.
I needed to become a woman.
Yes, a woman. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been born with the desire, the need, to be a woman. Yes, I know men shouldn’t want to be women. Some say it ought to work the other way around. But I can only report what I know. I’ve always wanted to be a woman.
That’s why, as soon as my indenture to Carlos was over, I didn’t spend hours poring over scrolls on how to wield Don Miguel Del Fuego’s powers. Instead, I roamed the countryside searching for artifacts and lore on the demoness Ariel the Changeling. For I knew that she could confer the power to change shape, and were I to study her spells, there would be one that could make me a woman.
It was stupid. I wasted my most active years learning how to contact Ariel and trying her spells, rather than studying stuff that would actually be useful. No one would teach a male acolyte how to contact a female demoness, so I had to figure it out on my own.
None of it worked. Ariel would not deign to respond no matter how hard I tried. It was because she knew I was a male. I tried to soften my invocations, to feminize my incantations, but I wasn’t going to fool a demoness. I kept trying. I memorized spells, I practiced them, I learned whatever I could about Ariel. I’m probably the world’s foremost expert on Ariel and her dwimmercraft, but I couldn’t channel her power, whatever I did.
Which is all to explain how I’m standing with three cocksure teenagers against a band of angry brigands about to pummel us into sauce, having dubious offensive magical skills at best. I could see the ruffians eyeing our packs. Whatever lay inside would be treasure to them.
I finished my invocation, just as the first of the brigands charged through the doorway.
Flames leaped up at the leader’s feet. Startled, he checked his charged. I pointed my finger and spoke the command again. Again flames leaped up sending the brigand in the lead pitching backward against his comrade who also stumbled back. By the time he had recovered, I had spoken the command a third time, and flames again erupted in the open doorway. The retreat was more orderly now, as they took two steps back into the room they came from.
I pointed a fourth time and again the command word brought forth flames, but the element of surprise was lost. I could see the leader eyeing the flames, wondering what would happen if he just charged through. No doubt he was realizing that the worst he would face would be a few blisters, if that, and I fully expected a counter charge any minute.
“Close the door you idiots!” I yelled to Bull and Zach. Not very respectful, I know, but sometimes one needs to jar fools from their folly.
Bull threw himself against the door and it slammed shut with a thunderous bang. He leaned against it, but it started opening. A couple of the bandits were likely shoving their weight against it from the other side. Showing uncharacteristic ingenuity, Bull backed up and threw himself against the door again momentarily restoring it to a shut position.
I pointed toward the latch and concentrated the strongest spell I knew. For once I wasn’t afraid my spell would go awry. My fear and sense of urgency brooked no recalcitrance from Don Miguel. I could feel the raw power fly from my fingertip and inundate the latch with needle-like precision. The strength of my spell shocked me. The metal glowed red hot, so much so that the wood around it blackened and smoked. Bull hastily backed away from the door, but the latch was now melted shut, and would not yield.
That solution was temporary at best. I could tell that the men behind the door where throwing their weight against it, and it would not hold forever. We picked up our packs, and started back the way we came, but we heard footfalls coming from ahead of us. There was some back corridor that led to the network of rooms we had come from, and it seems some of the brigands and opted to come around that way and cut us off.
There was only one other exit from the room, a narrow hall leading from a doorway where vacant hinges once held a heavy door. We moved down the hallway as fast as our packs would let us. With no such encumbrance, the brigands were coming fast behind us. A crash from the room we’d just vacated alerted us that the door I had melted shut had been forced open. We had no choice but to head forward, hoping for some better situation before the brigands caught up. After a few dozen feet, the corridor ended, turning a corner to reveal a staircase up. Two at a time, we took the stairs, knowing no reason why our pursuers wouldn’t be able to follow as fast as we would. At the top step another hallway lead through an opening into a large room.
Large doesn’t begin to describe it.
A row of pillars supported huge arches what seemed like hundreds of feet above our heads. Stone reliefs of interlocking diamond shapes adorned the massive pillars. On the far end of the room, almost too distant to see clearly, was an arch with two huge doors hanging open. These were still faithfully hinged, and a wide corridor, almost as tall as the room we were in led off into the gloom.
The midmorning sun streamed in from wide windows on the left side of the room, no doubt some of the high openings we’d seen from the outside of the structure. Flaking murals adorned the lower part of the walls. From what could be made out, they looked to be battle scenes . The floor itself was tiled by an intricate pattern that drew your eye toward what I imagine to be the north end of the room. That end was taken up by a raised dais on which stood a large stone chair.
I took in an unconscious breath. This was the famous Granite Throne, from which generations of monarchs ruled Centermarch. This very room, the throne room of Centermarch, was steeped in legend. Tales told of the magical powers that the throne held, some say from when it was built, others from the generations of royalty that inhabited it. No way right now to tell whether they were true. If The King claimed this for his own, and set up rule here, undoubtedly his court magicians would sort out the riddle for him.
It was only after gaping for a few moments at this storied seat that I realized there were three things wrong.
First, the brigands had not pursued us. There were no doors to the left or the right. The only way down the passage through which we had fled was the very way we came, so there is no way they could have lost us. They should easily have overtaken us in this room, but they were gone. I looked around to verify this reality, leading me to discover the second thing that was wrong. In contrast with the lower level that had been strewn with garbage and marked with all manner of destruction and decay, this room was nearly pristine. If there were appreciable damage or debris, they were not evident. There was no time to puzzle these developments, because the third thing I noticed was that Zach and Erin were gathering around Bull, looking at his arm.
My stomach turned at the site of Bull’s scorched skin. He had been pushing against the door when my last spell had hit, and apparently the heat of it had charred his flesh. It had started to smell and Bull was unable to move it.
This needed to be fixed now. I knew enough about woundcraft, that if left for another day, his arm would be forfeit.
But was I willing to do what had to be done to fix it?
You see, I only told you part of the story. Yes, I wandered the earth for decades unsuccessfully trying to invoke the demoness Ariel the Changeling. But I finally despaired and realized I’d have to spend the rest of my days in a male body. I hit upon a new idea. Could I heal this need to be a woman? I had picked up, in my travels, a good deal of lore about Serena of the Waters, and I took up study of incantations that could invoke her healing power. I wasn’t any more successful than I was with Ariel. I could contact her, but she refused invocation from any member of the male sex. This time I didn’t spend decades on the endeavor, giving up after only a few years. But I had happened upon a priestess of Serena and I spent a few more years gathering enough silver for her to cast a healing spell upon me.
It didn’t work. She explained that I couldn’t be healed because I already was whole. The female I wanted to be was a part of me and couldn’t be exorcised by even the most powerful charms. I needed to learn to live with her.
“How?” I asked.
She shrugged. Healing was her thing, not acceptance. “Sophia only knows,” she answered. But therein was her answer. The demoness Sophia the Wise.
I had accumulated piles of scrolls, tomes and artifacts from Sophia. They were easy to find, as no one else wanted them. She was the gutter rat of the wizarding world. She couldn’t call lightning against your foes like Barak Stormking. She couldn’t summon an ice storm against invading armies like Boris of the North. She brought knowledge and wisdom, and only in miserly quantities, so those who could call her forth drew no respect. Her magic was likely to produce an answer more cryptic than the question itself, leaving the whole effort something of a waste.
But I had nothing to lose. I used incantations to invoke Sophia the Wise. I was successful within a couple days. She easily recognized the woman inside me, and dealt with me exactly as she did her devotees who were completely female. She liked me, I think, to whatever extent a demon can like a human who insists upon drawing on her power, and went out of her way to light my path. She taught me how to reach and awaken the female living within me, how to bring her to the surface so that she shone brightly to the world. With that, I once more tried to invoke Ariel the Changeling, and lo and behold, contact came right away. I found myself easily able to shift from male to female and back whenever I wanted. I could go out as a woman into the world, fulfilling my wildest dreams. I still have to spend most of my time as a man (no one would pay a penny to hire a female wizard), but I finally was able to do what I had set out to.
I even learned how to invoke Serena of the Waters, but I could only do it in female form. And that’s what I needed to do right now to save Bull’s arm.
I did what I had to. Unlike Miguel, I have no problems invoking Ariel the Changeling. Before the astonished eyes of my three teen charges, I became my female self. I took out a vial of the salve I had prepared with Serena’s essence and cleansed Bull’s wound with it. While I did that, I sang in my soft feminine voice to summon the cool soothing charms of Serena’s love, so my ministrations didn’t inflame the wound. He sat quietly. I then took out a jar of protective ointment and smoothed it over the area, before wrapping it with a bandage anointed by water carrying Serena’s charms. It would take weeks to heal, but it would heal. Serena’s loving purity would make sure no evil would befall it.
Once Bull’s damage was out of sight, I looked around. Seeing Erin and Zach staring in astonishment. I stared back. “You knew I was a wizard, right?”
Zach looked away sheepishly. Erin’s face held a nervous expression. She voiced one of my misgivings.
“What happened to those guys who were chasing us?”
“Me and Bull must’ve scared them away,” replied Zach. Leave it to him to omit Erin from the equation.
“They’re afraid, all right, but not of us.” I didn’t realize this until the moment I said it. There was something else living up here, something the brigands knew not to approach. Something so terrifying, so beyond them as an enemy, that they didn’t dare take it on. Nine of The King’s finest knights met their doom in this building. A band of brigands didn’t kill them.
I looked around the room warily. The throne still sat stalwart and unmoving, and I detected no signs of life among the pillars or frescoes. But given this new realization, the decorations on the stonework now took on sinister connotations. I almost convinced myself the whole room was alive, but the moment passed and I saw only inert rock.
Divination is a dangerous spell. Anyone who has developed the ability to reach into the demonic world and is anywhere nearby becomes aware of me. The more I learn about them, the more they’ll know about me. Divination opens an ethereal information conduit, but information can flow both ways.
Normally, I wouldn’t have done it, but I had three others to protect, whose lives were endangered because I led them on what I now saw to be reckless errand. I invoked Sophia the Wise and incanted a divination spell.
Immediately I felt its presence. It had entered the wide corridor leading to the arch at the other side of the throne room. It was still at the far end of the corridor, strolling in our direction. It was not moving quickly, and I could tell why. The power of its evil was so strong that it could easily have have destroyed any living creature that entered the area it haunted. Nine of The King’s best knights, or even ninety, wouldn’t have stood a chance against it. It was some type of malevolent spirit, the result of a powerful wizard, maybe centuries earlier, conjuring a being he could not control. It was coming for us, to annihilate us from the earth, but it saw no urgency. We posed no threat to it, other than the way our mere existence, indeed the existence of any living, breathing, feeling thing offended it.
No magic I have could come close to affecting it in any way. No protection that Serena offered, nothing Ariel the Changeling could have changed me into, and certainly nothing I could have gotten Miguel Del Fuego to produce for me had any chance of stopping it.
It was about halfway down the corridor now, and my mind was racing, trying to find a defense. I reached into my bag. A stupid move really. What did I expect to find, the Mighty Protective Talisman of Lisson the Bold? Oh, yeah, I always carry one of those. Doesn’t everyone? I found a crystal, imbued with Serena’s protective aura. Piercing that would be like bursting a soap bubble to this thing. A wand. What spell had I loaded onto it? One of Ariel’s wind charms? The thing would have laughed at that too. I found a box of sulphurous flash powder. Bright light to blind an opponent. Wouldn’t have done a thing against this. Finally in desperation, I found my blade and drew it out, holding it defensively in front of me, as if to ward off the horror now nearly in the room. It couldn’t realistically be called a sword. A little too short and irregularly shaped, but it was the best I had. Maybe a blade in my hand could give me some kind of courage that would magnify my magic a thousandfold. (I know it doesn’t work that way, but I was desperate).
It did give me a certain confidence, enough momentarily to remove my focus from the force bearing down on us. Through the divination, I sensed my teenage charges, nervously looking amongst themselves. I sensed the brigands, still on the level below us, wondering whether we’d been devoured yet. Myriad other creatures, some tiny, others substantial, crawled through the alleys and passageways of the massive palace.
My attention was dragged back to the archway, as I sensed it entering the room. I squinted my eyes, wondering what visual manifestation it would take. At first I saw nothing. But when I focused on where I knew it to be, I saw a shimmering, shifting of the stonework behind it, it’s invisible form only discerned by looking at the shapes behind it. As it approached, I could make out more clearly a menacing pattern of shadows and light, half seen, half felt, in the space the entity occupied.
I held the blade out ineffectually as it advanced. Instinctively Zach, Erin, and Bull retreated to the wall behind me, knowing that I was the only one of us with a prayer of surviving. They were wrong. I didn’t have a prayer either.
I did the only thing that made sense. I began stepping back. It continued to advance menacingly, the intensity of its malevolence now abundantly clear through the divination. Equally clear was its full awareness of me and its knowledge that there was nothing in my paltry arsenal that it needed to fear. I continued retreating, up the steps of the tiled dais until I came into contact with something hard and could back up no further.
I always hoped I would face my death with no regrets, but my thoughts then were lousy with them. So many times in my travels, I’d attempted some bold but foolhardy quest, figuring my loss to the world would have been inconsequential. This was especially true after I’d given up on invoking Ariel. I felt I had nothing to live for.
But now I could be my female self whenever I wanted to, and life had become precious. How was I willing to throw it away for a useless bag of silver? And not just my life, the lives of three others who trusted me to keep them safe.
I reached behind me and realized that I had backed against the Granite Throne itself. My hand contacted the hard cold stone of its solid armrest. At that moment I became aware of the throne’s magic. If I hadn’t felt in danger, I probably would have felt it sooner — the divination made it plain as day. Now, with my hand making contact, the spell showed me the full extent of the throne’s power. It was easily the mightiest enchantment I’d ever encountered. It was buttressed by the solidity of hundreds of years of kings, the combined rule of the dynasties of Centermarch, all interwoven. It’s force stretched out in every direction, at once drawing from and flowing out to the lands for hundreds of leagues. It was an inert force, long dormant, rooted to this spot. It could not be wielded like a wand or harnessed like a protective aura. But its strength was undeniable.
And there, with the malevolent spirit gathering to provide the final blow to our life force, I understood that it would be possible to join with the power of the Throne. I opened myself up to it and felt its energy flowing into me, filling me up, spreading out into my blade held before me. With this new power rushing through my body, I fixed my attention back onto the spirit now directly upon me. I felt it waver. For the first time, my divination spell sensed uncertainty in our foe. Not fear. Entities from whence this came do not feel fear. But there was a question in its consciousness now as to whether it could defeat us. With that notion, it unleashed the full wrath of its power against me. I felt, or perhaps imagined, my blade vibrating from the force of the onslaught. The attack could not overcome the protective strength of the Throne. Yes the creature distilled generations of hate of souls woven in the depths of underworld abysses. But the combined will of the of the kings of Centermarch was more powerful still, many times more, perhaps. With that knowledge, I sliced my blade into the being before me.
In a flash it was gone. The force of the throne’s magic had sliced into it, banishing it from within the borders of its vast domain. The divination spell left me with a vague impression of its flight, out of this room, out of the palace, over the roads, fields, forests, hills, mountains, so far away that even a creature this deadly no longer left any impression. It was gone for good, of that I was certain.
My life has changed a great deal since that moment. I now have all the silver I could ever want. Knowing it was safe to enter, the King reoccupied his castle, but his wizards, never having bothered with the craft of Sophia, could not figure out how to use the throne as anything other than a rock-hard seat. I was hired to use my knowledge to allow the King to connect with its powers. My fee was suitably hefty.
Alas, all was not to be well. Although Erin and Zach went into the soldiery when they came of age, Bull’s injury left him with little taste for battle. He became a minstrel, entertaining at gatherings and festivals with tales of heroism. Not least among his songs was our encounter with the evil spirit in the throneroom of Centermarch. He was to find that crowds were more fascinated with my transformation into a female and my healing abilities in that form. People began to seek me out to cure them of maladies both serious and bothersome, which I did not at all mind. But there also came others, who told me stories that were all too familiar. They couldn’t stand the body they were born into. Some born men wanted me to transform them into women. Some born women wanted me to transform them into men. Assuming myself to be alone, I never imagined there were so many like me.
This was painful, for although I understand only too well exactly what drove them, Ariel’s magic only allows me to transform myself. The demons who give wizards power to transform others are so twisted that only the most reprobate and nefarious wizards would dare take up with them. It troubled me exceedingly to send them away, but I had nothing to help them.
Among their number was the Earl of Stonefort who showed up at my workshop, insisting that I teach him how I did it or he’d be back with a guard of twenty horsemen and “hack off both my arms and both my legs and beat me to death with them.” There was no way I could explain to the impatient noble that it took a lifetime of study.
I did not wait for his return.
I’m in hiding now, as a local nurse among the broken shacks in the most downtrodden section of Brackenport. I’m in the area by the smelly part of the bay adjacent to the docks, where the garbage tossed off merchant ships washes up.
There, I use the power of Serena of the Waters to cure impoverished locals of their ailments in exchange for whatever tidbit they have to spare – a cracked egg or a rusty farthing. Ironically, I have all the money I’d ever want. The King knows where I am and periodically fetches me to advise him on some matter of magic beyond the reach of his wizards. I transform back into my original self for a few brief days and am paid handsomely for my services. I give away as much to the beggars and paupers as I can without attracting attention. I could afford a lavish workshop and attract the best of apprentices, but instead I live in a rundown house amid the stench of squalor.
But I’ve never been happier. I’m finally myself.