Ever wished you could work magic? Be careful what you wish for! On her 18th birthday a demon tells Darla she's a sorcerer, but nothing comes without a price.
Long ago, the Council of Mages declared sorcerers were too powerful and hunted them almost to extinction. Darla's family pleads with her to renounce her power, but can she give up what she has sought for so long?
Faced with a choice between death and giving up the only thing she ever wanted, Darla desperately searches for a third option. Perhaps, with the help of a good demon, she can change her fate.
Nervous, I peeked into the break room. It was vacant. I realized I had been holding my breath and exhaled. Hands shaking, I set out my spelling regents, lit incense, purified the area, grounded and then readied myself to cast the spell. It would work this time. It had to work. If it didn't ... I shuddered. I couldn't think about that, it could jinx the spell.
I cast a circle of power, starting in the north then working my way through east, south, west and then back to north. Feeling the circle close I called the guardians of air, fire, water and earth. As the last guardian was invoked I felt a stirring of power, like a light electric charge, infuse the incense laden air.
It was an encouraging beginning but I'd come this far before only to have the spell fall flat as a soufflé on an artillery testing range.
Shaking myself -- no negative thoughts! -- I began the main spellwork. Since all spellwork is fueled by magical energy I needed to raise some. There are as many ways of raising energy as there are magical practitioners. Certain ways are faster than others but almost any repetitive activity will work if you stay focused and keep at it long enough. I love to sing and dance and so used my body and voice to shape the rising currents. This was another reason I wanted privacy.
When the hum of building energy plateaued I began to weave the spell. The idea was that at some point the energy would peek and, at just that point, the last part of the spell would be spoken and the energy raised would be directed into it to fuel the working. If there wasn't enough energy, or if the timing was off, the spell wouldn't have a power source and would be as useful as a cell phone with a dead battery.
This last bit was the tricky part, the part I had never been able to pull off. People were beginning to whisper that I was a mundane -- a person not able to bind energy into a spell. Sure, I could invoke spells someone else had bound to an energy source and stored in an object, a wand for instance, but even a mundane could do that.
As I sang and danced around the break room I could feel the tingle of magical energy glide over my skin. The energy was building. I smiled. It was close. So close.
Keeping my awareness on the magical currents, I uttered the last words of the spell and gave the push of will that would drive the two together, sending the spell to feed off the energy raised and release itself into the world. Only a little more ... There! As I uttered the last syllable of the spell I felt something begin to swirl around me like a breeze. It was working!
And then .... nothing.
At the last moment a wash of cold radiated from my solar plexus, driving the hot airy currents of energy down, grounding them. For a moment I felt the spell reaching for the hot energy, hungering for it, but then it began to unravel.
I fell down on my butt, tears in my eyes. Why! Why did this always happen? I had been so close that time. So close. But close is never good enough, is it?
Noises outside the door, garbled words. Eli's voice. Crap! I lunged toward my spelling supplies and tried to extinguish the burning incense. I wasn't supposed to be spelling in the break room. It had been banned last year after a neophyte practicing an implosion spell had destroyed half the school.
The door opened. My supervisor, Eli, was talking with someone in the other room. "... means we don't have much time, call in Wallace and ...," It took Eli a couple of seconds to notice what I'd been doing in the break room. "What the hell? Waters you know neophytes are banned from spelling in here and, besides, aren't you supposed to be working? Being part of the work-study program is a perk, I can take it away. Is any part of that unclear to you?"
I cringed. To say that Eli was not my biggest fan was the understatement of the century, perhaps the millennia. "I know, I know, it's just that everyone was out and I thought I'd practice."
Oliver, a third year neophyte like myself, pushed into the break room after Eli, fixed me with a malicious eye and grinned. Oliver was the kind of person who lived to create discord. "Don't worry boss, we all know she's a mundane, ain't nothin' going to happen."
My blood froze. Mundane. I felt blood rush to my cheeks.
"Shut up Oliver, when I want your opinion I'll let you know," Eli said.
"Yea Oliver, eat shit and die," I said.
"That's not what he said." Oliver's eyes were an icy blue that became lost in the doughy whiteness of his face. When he became upset, which was often, angry red blotches mottled his skin making it look almost scaly.
"Sure it was, you just weren't listening," I said, grinning at him like I didn't care about him or what he had said. That was false of course. It was stupid, but I did. I knew he was saying what people were thinking, that I was one of the pitied few who would never develop the ability to bind a spell.
Mundanes were social outcasts. Of course there were justifications for treating them as less than. Mundanes, by definition, couldn't bind a spell so certain professions were automatically beyond their reach. Obviously a mundane couldn't become a mage, but that was just the tip of the discrimination iceberg. Any profession that used magic in any significant way -- and most did -- was closed to them.
I'm a runner, a regent runner. Or at least I will be when -- make that if -- I graduate from The Runners Institute in six months. I go out and get magic workers what they need for their spells, no matter how exotic or ... let's just say 'unconventional' and leave it at that. Runners go wherever the regents are so we routinely end up in hostile conditions, whether that is near the mouth of an active volcano in Ecuador harvesting new lava or gathering hairs from a lion's tail at midnight on the new moon. We need to be able to protect ourselves from extreme conditions and extreme predators, not to mention poachers: those people from rival agencies who want to sabotage us by stealing our regents and our customers. For all those reasons and more, we need to be able to use magic.
If it turned out I was a mundane and not just a late bloomer ... well, it was bye, bye career and hello McDonalds.
Just as Oliver was about to come back with what he thought of as a brilliant retort -- probably something along the lines of 'suck it Waters' -- the emergency siren went off. That was bad. The only time the siren went off was if a nuclear bomb was about to explode or a demon servant was on the loose.
Eli walked over to the intercom and pushed a button. "Wallace, come in." He waited. Oliver and I stood where we were and looked at him, unsure what to do. Eli nodded at something someone, presumably Wallace, had said. "Meet me in the communication center." Eli paused a moment longer and then barked, "Now!" I jumped.
Without waiting for a reply Eli clicked a button ending the conversation, then he punched the big red button on the wall, the one that would project his voice over every speaker in the school. "Listen up! There's a demon servant out there carving up our city. Just like the drills people. We hang back to let the police and first responders in and then we back them up, giving them whatever support they need. No one panic and we're all coming home." Eli closed his eyes and I saw his lips move in a silent prayer, then he swiveled on his heel and walked toward the door.
Cleaning the break room of my ritual apparatus went from being a very high priority to completely forgotten. "Eli, who's my partner, I didn't get an assignment." My partner had dropped out of the program months ago and Eli had been dragging his heels assigning another one to me; if I didn't have one I wouldn't be allowed to participate. Partners watched each other's backs, kept each other safe. No one without one would be allowed out on this operation.
Eli was almost out the door before he reluctantly stopped and turned back. He smiled at me but the smile was no more than the corners of his lips curling up, it didn't reach his eyes. It was a mask, a mask I'd seen him wear dozens of times before telling someone something they didn't want to hear. "We've got this covered but, if you want to help, we're going to need all the Brimstone charms we can get so we'll need grave dirt and it better be old. Go to Jamison's Cemetery on 5th ...,"
I felt my pulse spike and I clenched my hands into fists. "Please don't keep me out of this Eli! This is the first demon servant to run amuck since I've been in the program, I want to at least observe runners in action. I won't interfere, I promise. I need the experience!" Truth was, I just wanted to be treated like everyone else. What with my powers coming in a bit late -- okay, really late -- I wanted some reassurance that I was still on track, still part of the team.
Eli scowled at me. "We need people who can do magic, and that's not you." He turned to leave. "Radio the dispatcher when you have the grave dirt," Eli said. As he spoke Eli walked out of the break room and into the hall, his gait oozing with purpose.
Oliver was staring at me, his too-blue eyes boring into me. His smirk was back.
Oh no he doesn't! I ran to the door. " You're keeping me out of the action because you think Oliver was right, you think I'm a mundane. Okay, maybe my magical powers have been a bit slow in coming ...," Oliver snorted and looked at the ceiling, "... but I can handle myself! And, besides, even if I was a mundane ... which I'm not! ... I have a gun and know how to use it and I have pre-invoked amulets and talismans that even a mundane could use. Not that I am one. I get the job done and I should be treated the same as every other recruit!"
Eli stopped walking down the hall, turned on his heel, and glared at me as he ran his hand through his graying brown hair. People like me had put the gray there. "Waters, you really don't want to get into it with me. Not now. I don't have time for this."
"Maybe it's your loyalties he's not sure of," Oliver said, his mouth turned up in a cruel smile. "After all, most demon servants are mundanes. Eli doesn't want your help because he can't trust you not to have sympathy for the poor misunderstood demon servant and screw up when you're needed." He looked at me, studying me, relishing the effect the information was having.
I felt as though my face had been slapped. "Is that true?" I asked, turning to Eli. "You all think I might side with the Demon Servant?"
I felt my heart pounding, felt the blood in my cheeks.
Oliver smirked. "Why not? Don't tell me you've never thought of making a deal with a demon for some magical juice, even just enough to appear normal?"
Oliver was a dickhead, this much was not news, but I had never, ever, thought even he would accuse me of contemplating making a deal with a demon, for any reason. In order to draw on one's own life-energy the demon had to change you, transform you to be more like it, and that tended to drive humans insane. You had to be stupid, or desperate, to sell your soul for a death sentence and I was neither.
A dangerous cast had crept into Eli's gaze. "Waters, you want to be treated the same as every other recruit?"
"Yes," I said, but I wasn't sure anymore. Eli's voice had a feel of barely repressed rage that made me think I'd gone too far.
"Good. That's it Waters, you're outta the program. I don't know why I put up with your shit as long as I have, I need to have my head examined ...,"
"... but ... No. Hold on Eli, I didn't mean ... Don't do something you'll regret."
Eli laughed and it was laughter that I can only describe as bitter. "Oh, I don't see myself regretting this. Waters, it's true that no one wanted to partner with you. That sucks for you and I'm sorry but sooner or later you've got to face the fact that you can't do magic. That's okay, it doesn't make you less as a person but to work here, to be a runner, you need to be able to bind energy into a spell and cast it. Eli shook his head and shrugged. "Yes, okay. Yes. If you really want to know the truth, no one wants to work with you and I can't say I blame them."
Tears stung my eyes.
Eli paused and took a deep breath. I may not be precognitive but I knew I didn't want to hear what he was going to say next. "That's why, as of now, you're out of the program."
It felt like someone had just slugged me beside the head with a baseball bat. I swallowed but my throat wasn't working right. I staggered forward, going nowhere, my eyes seeing shapes but not understanding their significance. I reached out as though to steady myself. Dizziness. The world was turning white. I crouched so as not to fall. I would not give either of them the satisfaction. A moment later I realized Eli was still talking.
"... seen it coming, but we still need grave dirt for the brimstone charms. Since you're no longer in the program I'll pay you what I would pay a real runner for the job, which is a 25% cut of what The Runners Institute makes. Consider it your severance package, just be sure to deliver it before sunrise. I mean it Waters. If we don't receive the grave dirt by sunrise, don't bother," Eli turned on his heel and strode down the hall.
I wanted to yell at him, to scream obscenities, but I was frozen. Cold. Mundane. I ran the word around my mouth and tasted bitterness. Was that what I was? Who I was?
I didn't remember getting into my car, I was just suddenly sitting behind the wheel holding my keys in my hand staring off into space. I considered blowing off the job and going home.
Pam, my adoptive sister, was getting a Ph.D. in Magical Studies next week and her academic supervisor expected her to land a mage's apprentice job soon after. It was a great honor, only the most powerful magicians were considered for those positions. If she was chosen she would work closely with a mage. Sure, she would be an unpaid laborer and general lackey for years until the mage judged she was ready for her initiation trials but, if she passed, she would become the first female mage in history. I was glad one of us was making something of herself.
I sighed, started the car, and headed toward Jamison Cemetery to gather some very old grave dirt.
* * * *
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