The Daemon Prism

A Novel of the Collegia Magica

Carol Berg - Author

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ISBN 9780451464347 | 496 pages | 03 Jan 2012 | Roc | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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Consumed with despair, the blind necromancer Dante seeks refuge in a magical puzzle-a puzzle that supposedly fulfills one's utmost desires. But its actually a seductive trap, threatening to unleash the very cataclysm he fears...


Chapter 1

30 Ocet, 883rd Year of the Sabrian Realm, sunset


“Stop right there!” I bellowed. My student’s resolute little inhalation signaled her ready to bind her first complex spell. I resisted the temptation to shatter or repair the well–structured but ill–conceived little charm. She had to learn.

Mercifully, she was well disciplined. Though her will tugged fiercely against mine, she obeyed.

“Concentrate. Look deeper. A hundred thousand streams in Sabria comprise water, rocks, willows, and trout. But to draw on this stream’s keirna—its essence—you must unearth the secrets that make it unique. You’re no child swatting a fly. Misjudgment could drown us . . . or bury us . . . or turn yon pasture into a swamp.” In this case, likely all of them and worse.

She knelt along the stream bank, not half a metre from my boots. Having spent most of every day for two years in her presence, I could sense her every muscle twitch, accurate signals for divining her level of confidence. It had taken her a very long time to prepare for this step, and she was very sure of herself. She hated mistakes.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” she said after a few moments’ contemplation. “Sealing the snag will just divert the water around the end of it, digging out the far bank a little more. I’m not blocking the water flow completely. There’s plenty of leeway.”

She readied herself again.

“No!” I drove the heel of my staff into the rocky streambed.

She jerked but held her ground, not yanking her hand from the water. It wasn’t so easy to startle her into attendance anymore. So I assaulted her weakness with words. “Have you learned nothing? There’s mud between the rocks. What color is it? What consistency? Does the sun reveal glints of metal in it? What would that tell you of the stream’s origins and use? You’re a woman of science. Where is its source? Has its course evolved as nature prescribes or has it been purposely altered? Your friend Simon provided you the Pradoverde land grants. If you’d studied them with half a mind, you’d know this land was once a disputed boundary between two blood families. Why?”

“None of those things has to do with a snag of twigs formed this past summer.” She was so sure. So calm.

“Wrong! If you’d studied the legends of the Fremoline outcrops, where our stream has its source, you’d know there were persistent tales of gold deposits—”

“There are no gold deposits anywhere in the demesne of Louvel.” I could imagine her rolling her eyes. “The rocks are almost entirely limestone. The rumors provide nothing useful to weave into the spellwork.”

Breaking her prim, scholarly ways of thinking had been my most difficult challenge. It was why I had chosen this particular exercise on this particular day.

I repeated my probe of the streambed. Again, and then again, moving upstream until the muffled jar of metal shivered my staff and the razored sting of long–bound enchantment flowed up my arm. The virulence of the spell threatened to dissolve the bone. But I held the staff in place and tapped it sharply with my forefinger, my signal that she should touch it, too. She had to feel the magnitude of her error.

Her discipline held. A gurgle out of place in the rhythmic bubbling of the stream told me she’d withdrawn her hand from the water. A quiet chink, a scuff of dirt, and the release of pent power said she’d kicked aside the length of slender chain she’d laid out for her spell enclosure. Determined steps and a brush of skirts brought her to my side.

“If you’d looked deeper,” I said, cooler now that I’d snared her full attention, “you’d have found a bronze casket buried here at the seventh metre past the dogleg bend—the corner of the disputed territory. This is how the one faction, intending to ensure that they alone could harvest these rumored riches, shifted the streambed to fit their desired boundary.”

I could not see her face any better than I could see anything else in this daemon–blasted world. Yet, even had I not smelled her soap–scented sweat or heard the tight hiss of her annoyance, I’d have known her the moment she laid her finger on the carved hornbeam of my ancille—the moment the spells bound into my staff became instantly more useful, more lethal, faster, sharper, swollen from the inborn power she brought to any working. One would have to plumb the tangled depths of a forest’s roots or the moldered residue of an ancient battleground to match Anne de Vernase’s potential for magic. That she possessed a mind and will fully capable of wielding such power made her reluctance to take hold of it inexcusable.

She snatched her hand away. “A spelled artifact buried in the streambed!” Her explosive astonishment was not feigned. Nor was her humiliation. “But that changes everything . . . risks conflicting spellwork . . . unending complications . . . flood, mudflows, cave–ins. . . .”

“Even so.”

“But the land grant said nothing of an altered streambed or buried caskets. How could you—anyone—possibly know of it?”

“Because I think. Because my expectations of devious human behavior are more accurate than those of a star–eyed aristo lady who grew up sheltered by a rich father. A blood family would never allow civil law to settle a boundary dispute, nor would they yield desired territory if their sorcery could possibly prevent it. Because when it comes to keirna, unfounded rumor can have greater significance than historical or scientific truth; thus I betook my commoner boots out of the library and into the hills and deigned to speak with a few crofters hereabouts. And because I don’t allow trivial concerns to intrude on building spellwork. Magic is not a study for dabblers.”

Before the words faded, I knew I’d gone too far. She whirled on me like a tornadic wind.

“My family is not trivial!”

I didn’t retreat, but I did raise a shielding spell. Her uncontrolled anger could peel the paint from a wall, crack its foundation, or flatten an unwary teacher against it—only a few of the possibilities we had uncovered as we’d explored the dangerous side of her blood heritage. But again her discipline held.

“And a dabbler? I’ve heeded your every word for two years, worked your tedious exercises, allowed you to lead me to the netherworld and back, not complaining about your insults or criticisms or your stubborn refusal to heed my wishes or speak with me on topics of my choosing. I agreed to your conditions. Indeed, I no longer fear I’m going to murder someone by accident, and you’ve given me an understanding of the world I never imagined. But this part of it . . . working spells . . . Clearly, I can’t get it right. And I was failing long before I decided to visit Montclaire.”

No possible response was going soothe her. So I spoke the truth, though it dripped brine into her wounds. “You fail because you refuse to commit yourself to the work.”

“But I can’t be like you, Dante. I can’t pretend I have no family, no life, no past, no future. I can’t wall off my heart. I can’t forget that my sister was murdered or ignore my conviction that we should be studying the lore of Ixtador and the eternal Veil and the horrors we witnessed on Mont Voilline instead of these ridiculous spells. I am not dead.” No one on this side of her flaying tongue would imagine that. “If you would just listen to me . . . talk with me . . .”

“Control and discipline are not enough,” I snapped. “If you cannot shape your own power, you might as well be dead.”

Anne was right that something was terribly wrong in between the living world and the realm of souls beyond death—the borderland pious folk named Ixtador Beyond the Veil. She believed she had heard her sister’s voice after the explosive end of the Gautier conspiracy at Mont Voilline. Dead only a month, Lianelle had begged Anne to find help for those beyond the Veil, claiming that the souls of the dead were being leached away. Our friend Portier’s experiences of that night had convinced him that Ixtador’s existence prevented the dead from moving on to whatever awaited humankind beyond mortal life—whether that be Heaven or the Souleater’s realm of ice and darkness or blessed oblivion. Yet, how could we possibly remedy such an aberration in the natural order?

Anne’s conviction made the problem of Ixtador real and urgent. But I had insisted she learn to control her power and develop the fundamentals of spellworking before we dealt with it. We weren’t going to make any headway on such mystery without her magically capable.

My gift for sorcery was extraordinary, all the more so in an age of the world when sorcerous practice was moribund. But as I had taught Anne . . . as I had been taught . . . one could not effectively or safely create spells while ignoring any evidence of intellect or senses. After two years blind, my memories of the visible world were becoming imprecise. Every day I failed to bind some construct correctly because I could not recall or learn a physical detail I needed.

Certainly, others could describe things to me. But temporary crutches would not solve my problem. The inevitable lay before me like a bottomless chasm. Sooner or later, I’d have to stop practicing sorcery. An assassin’s knife would be a mercy on that day.

Yet I refused to take a dead man’s year, enjoying careless pleasures or opening doors into rooms I could never enter. Germond de Gautier’s conspiracy to upend the laws of nature had consumed Anne, Portier, and me and spit us out broken. Though we had won the day at Mont Voilline, the full accounting for Gautier’s deeds had yet to be rendered. Someone with exceptional power and well–honed skills must be ready when payment came due. Portier was in seclusion a thousand kilometres away. It certainly wasn’t going to be me. That left Anne.

“Dante, wait. . . .”

“Sunset. The lesson is over.” I was already tramping across the pasture to the guesthouse, though poking with my staff like some witless beggar to find the cairns she’d used to mark the path precluded the kind of dramatic departure that might emphasize my point.

The days would be wretched with her gone.

Anne left early the next morning. As her maidservant Ella and Ella’s brother Finn loaded a borrowed donkey cart, I sat on the steps of Pradoverde’s main house, letting the weak autumn sun bathe my cold skin and soothe the void in my gut. Every morning it was the same—a panicked sickness when my eyes opened yet again to eternal nothing.

Anne was busily instructing Finn about the care of the house, the horses, the pantry, and her herb garden. She didn’t mention how to tend an irascible blind spellcaster. Not this time. She’d been instructing Finn on how to put up with me since he’d joined our household the previous year.

Ella was accompanying Anne to Montclaire; thus Finn and I would be left alone at Pradoverde. Finn was a steady, honest lad with useful skills when it came to carpentry and mechanics, but he scuttered about the place like a nervous weasel. I had learned the uncomfortable limits of my sightless state in those first months after the cursed rite at Mont Voilline, else I would have thrown him into the cart with the women.

Anne dashed past me and into the house. Her steps, ever light, raced up the stair. Doors slammed. More quick steps, as she returned.

“Almost forgot the book of poems for Ambrose,” she said, as she crunched across the gravel to the cart. She was excited to go. It was her first time back to her childhood home since she’d been forced to leave it two years before, an event that roused her dormant talent for magic to the benefit of the world—and her own dismay.

I didn’t plead with her to stay. She knew my arguments.

Ten years previous, a natural philosopher named Arronge had formulated a theory that the energies of objects in motion are invariant, transferred from one to another as the objects interact in the physical world. The concept translated well into the sphere of enchantments. Magical energies, the stuff of life, thought, dream, and enchantment, every bit as observable to those who had the sense for it, could not simply evaporate either. Drained from one place, they must end up somewhere else.

If Anne and Portier were right about their experiences at Mont Voilline, then our mystery was far greater than Ixtador. The energies created by stripping the essence from human souls must be inconceivably huge, and we had not the least idea where those drained from Ixtador had gone. The universe was unhealthy, very like the shell of a diseased hen’s egg, thin, brittle, and ready to shatter. Profound magic would be needed to solve the problem.

“Will you not bid me a safe journey?”

I jumped, grazing an elbow on the brick pillar behind me. Gnarled worries must have left me deaf. Unlike Finn and Ella, Anne was always careful to let me know she was near.

“Naturally. Yes.”

She waited for more. But words ever eluded me. I hated her leaving. She knew that already.

Threads of her unruly hair itched my cheek. “I’ll come back,” she said softly. “As I told you on the day I walked into this house, we are irrevocably bound. I know you. I value—”

I jumped up and slammed my stick against the front–door lintel so as to get through the opening without crashing my face into the wall. Anne was naive and sentimental, forever inviting me into places no uncouth, ill–tempered necromancer belonged.

I cannot ignore my family’s need. Her declaration, bound with apology, followed me indoors, voiced not in audible speech, but in the unspoken diction of the mind, a gift Anne and I shared. Dante, I will return.

Devilish perversity made me slam the door behind me. Moments later the cart clattered away, leaving me alone in the everlasting dark.

Words spoken in the aether testified clearly to the speaker’s truth or lies. But Anne’s present belief didn’t matter. She had acquired what she most needed from our arrangement. She wasn’t coming back.

Never had I imagined any person like Anne de Vernase, much less met one. Unbelievably disciplined, yet so . . . replete . . . with exuberant life. An exceptional mind. Determined as an avalanche. Her courage in the face of true horrors would put the king’s chevaliers to shame.

I had come to know her in the aether, the medium of souls, where the passions of the living are expressed in an unceasing torrent of “voices” only a few in the world can hear. From earliest childhood I had been gifted—cursed—with the ability to perceive them. But until encountering Anne, I’d never found anyone in that mad, noisy maelstrom who could hear my own directed speech, much less speak back to me in kind.

To discover that this exceptional person was the daughter of the man I believed a traitorous mastermind near overthrew me. Yet even that profound astonishment had been overmatched on the day Anne walked into this house and announced she intended to live with me, so I could teach her how to control the fearful power in her blood. Her mind raddled by an ordeal that would crush weaker spirits, she’d spoken a great deal of sentimental twaddle that day. But I had believed her serious about her magic.

Now King Philippe was engaged on Sabria’s northeastern borders with a gritty enemy whose longships threatened the kingdom’s precious shipping lanes, and he had summoned his demesne lords to bring reinforcements. Anne’s father, the king’s good friend and brother–in–arms, had survived his five–year ordeal as Gautier’s prisoner, but his bones were like honeycomb and his mind fragile. He’d never again be fit enough to fight at his liege’s side. By law, the heir to his demesne, Anne’s brother, Ambrose, must go in his stead. Ambrose could likely have won royal exemption, but he had suffered his own torments during Gautier’s conspiracy and had been chafing to kill someone ever since. I didn’t blame him, and I preferred the victim not be me—which had ever been in his mind. I had hoped Anne might persuade Ambrose to make other arrangements for minders at Montclaire. But she had made her choice.

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