Wizards Die By Stages



Mara closed two eyes, and opened three, and found herself awash in starlight.  They surrounded her in all directions—tiny motes and specks of glittering, dancing energy, twirling and glissading on currents imperceptible to the mortal eye.

As a child, Mara had developed the habit of pressing the heels of her hands against her closed eyelids.  When her parents, fearing retinal damage, had forced her to stop, she’d protested:  “But momma!  I wanna look at the pretty lights!”  She hadn’t seen her grandfather, seated at the table across the room, smile knowingly at the remark.  Her parents hadn’t known what her grandfather had--that the figures writhing in darkness were real.  Mara had unwittingly discovered the one technique by which humans could perceive them without opening their third eye -—the invisible eye, the eye of spirit, the eye by which humans perceived the thaumaturgic plane. 

Mr. Ardinger’s study was full of them.  In fact, everywhere was full of them.  They were intangible, coextensive with matter, which existed on the thaumaturgic plane only as a shadow.  They were tangled strings and sudden streaks and flashes and dimming dots, shining in colors for which mundane humans had no names.  For over a year now, Mara’s eyes had been open to them.  And now that they were, she never wanted to be parted from their pyrotechnic display.

“Beautiful,” she whispered.  “So beautiful.”

“Yes, yes,” Ardinger interjected, a hint of a Bavarian accent in his voice.  “Now command them.”

The two of them—the fifteen-year-old girl with the short brown hair, the lanky dark-haired man with the goatee and the permanently puckered mouth—stood sentinel in his study, surrounded by the trappings of tasteful opulence.  Mara held a wand, an eight-inch stick of lacquered hickory, an aid in her training.  Ardinger, his talents honed by years of practice, had no need of such frippery.  He merely extended a finger.

To a mundane human, it would have appeared that Ardinger’s tea set arose of its own accord from his walnut cabinet, levitated slowly across the room, and then descended slowly to the marble countertop by the sink.  Mara saw more.  She could see the glowing speck shuddering and straining beneath the shadow of the platter, towing it across empty space.  Then, its task completed, she saw it streak across the room in a flash, merge momentarily with Ardinger’s flesh, then dart away.  As it did, Ardinger’s aura—the subtle moonglow which marked his presence and his nature to the thamauturgic plane’s inhabitants—dimmed ever-so-slightly.

She glanced at him with concern.  He merely shrugged.  “It is no matter,” he said, his face expressionless.  “Wizards die by stages.  You have been told this.  Our servants exact a price of us for every task.  A nibble from our essence in exchange for their services.  A negligible price, given what they can do for us.”  He paused.  “I am yet healthy.  I do not need your pity.  Those men and women with undiagnosed magic talents, who go into the world unaware and unprotected, only to have their auras feasted upon night and day by these particles—theirs is a different story.  The consequences for them, endured over a lifetime, are terrible--mental illness, dementia, Alzheimers.  You know the truth.  Pity our comrades.”

Mara did pity them.  But she wasn’t immune to the irony of the situation, either.  To a mundane, the motes of light didn’t matter; they were no more aware of non-magical humans than those benighted souls were of them.  But the magically inclined couldn’t afford to be unaware.  Mara’s aura was real and inescapable.  She’d never been able to see it—nobody on the thaumaturgic plane was handing out handmirrors—but it was apparently so impressive to other magicians that one of America’s most formidable magical minds had chosen her as a protégé.  As long as she lived, it would draw the specks and squiggles like ants to a picnic.  Non-engagement was not an option.  No matter how much she dreaded Ardinger’s lessons, she had to complete them.  If she did not learn to control the magical energies, she would be devoured by them.

“And now, command,” said Ardinger, nodding at the single porcelain teacup that remained in the cabinet.  Mara raised her wand.  Over by the cup, a single glowing nimbus hovered; as if waiting on her.

“Do not fear the price,” Ardinger said.  “It is painless.  And to a magician of your potential, microscopic.  A thimbleful of water from a river.  You could juggle teacups all your life and die with your mind intact.  It will require far stronger magics than these to meaningfully rend your aura.  Magics which you will learn, in time.”  He paused.  “Your servant awaits.  Command it.”

Mara hesitated, the tip of her wand quivering.  The mote’s epicenter traced random patterns within a narrow perimeter.  What did he say that color was? Prugo?  Farmallion?  “It’s not that I’m afraid…it’s just that…”

There was an edge of impatience to his voice.  “It’s what, girl?”

“Well…”  Her eyes darted to Ardinger’s severe face.  “How do I know he wants this?”

Ardinger clucked his tongue.  “It, not he.  And it does not want anything.  It cannot want.  That is not its nature.  You might as easily ask what a raindrop wants, or a bolt of lightning.”  He shook his head, spoke harshly:  “To extrapolate human feeling onto inanimate objects is the behavior of a child.  Are you a child, Miss Larson, or are you a wizard?”  A pause.  “Impose your will upon it.  Now.”

Mara bore down, gritting her teeth.  Pick up the cup.  Pick up the cup.  Pick up the cup.  She spoke the words over and over in her mind, but did not feel them; they were nothing more than a formula.  What she did feel, staring at the glowing speck, was awe, and wonder, and curiosity.  And then sadness, as it drifted slowly away—neither left nor right, up nor down, but in another direction, down an axis she could not name.

Ardinger sighed, shook his head.  “That will be all, girl.”  Reluctantly, Mara lowered her wand, her eyes downcast, staring at the hardwood floor.  

The tall man held her in his gaze, and Mara felt herself wither beneath it.  Still, she managed to raise her eyes to meet his.  “I have rarely seen a student with your magical potential.  I have told you this.  Your aura is the sun at noon; your will a rod of iron.  But will and desire are two different things.  Will is merely the capacity to command magical energies.  Desire is the decision to command them.”  He stared her down, as if appraising an item for sale.  “The power to shape nations can be yours.  The energies stand ready to do your bidding, to take whatever shape you choose.  The mundane will see them as great storms, as bolts of electrical energy, frost, or fire.  They will hear them as whispers in their ear, or as their own thoughts.”  He paused.  “But so long as your heart is commanded by love, rather than by the love of command, all of this will remain outside your grasp.  You have to want it, girl.  I can show you how, but I cannot want it for you.”

Her eyes went to the floor again; she silently handed him her wand, tucked her cap under her arm, and strode towards the door.  “I’m sorry, magister,” she said.  “I’ll try harder next week.”

“It is not about trying,” he said, his voice trailing after her.  “It is about wanting.”  But all she wanted, at that moment, was her magister out of her life for a while—to be free of his effortless mastery and his disapproving glares.  And so she made herself disappear, descended the steps from his weathered brownstone to the spot by the stoop where her bicycle stood waiting.  And then she was coasting down the hill, the privilege and status of Ardinger’s neighborhood disappearing behind, her family’s own cramped and cluttered apartment ahead.

A fifteen-minute journey through moonlit streets still slick and shiny from that afternoon’s spring squall; her mother’s voice at the door, asking if she’d had a good time at the speech team’s practice session; a standard-issue teenage non-reply.  Then, down the hall, past her own room, to the smaller, shabbier one, not much more than a closet, where her grandfather resided.

He stared up through rheumy eyes as she entered, not a speck of recognition in his eyes; this was, apparently, one of his bad days.  Still, as she sat beside him on his cot and took his emaciated, liver-spotted hand in hers, he managed a thin, toothless smile.  She reached for a tissue, wiped a thin strand of drool from his chin.  Mara reached out tentatively with her foot and slowly, quietly closed the door.

She stared at her grandfather, opened her third eye, and met his own three-eyed gaze squarely.  His aura was a wretched, tattered thing, a dying bulb.  He had been more than this once, she knew; he had been formidable in his day.  But the costs had added up.  Not just the price exacted by the motes, no, but the constant pressure of decades spent quashing his talents and nature.  He had dared not draw his mundane wife and children into the Byzantine intrigues and shadowy machinations of his kind.  He had renounced his capacity for the impossible and become an insurance salesman.  By the time magical talent had kindled in his granddaughter, he was a husk of what he’d been.  The decision to love had eaten him alive.

Mara watched as the minicomets and the splotches pecked away at him remorselessly.   Please leave him alone, she thought, and they did.

And then silence, as the two of them sat together and watched the pretty lights.  To most observers, it would have seemed like they were staring at nothing. 

“Beautiful,” her grandfather muttered.

Mara smiled and nodded.

#

Sunday in the park with grandpa.  Mother was always grateful to have him off her hands for a while, so she could steal a few moments to attend to her own concerns.

They sat facing one another at one of the stone chessboards by the pond.  Checkers were about all that grandpa had the faculties for anymore.  Mara figured that it didn’t matter; spending some time in the fresh air would do him good.  

Mara turned her attention to her playing partner.  “No, papaw,” she said, gently.  “The red ones are yours.  The black ones are mine.”  He nodded, smiled, reached out to move one of the pieces, was distracted by the flight of a pigeon.  Mara sighed.  

A tiny, jagged spike was seeking to dart in from behind her grandfather’s shoulder; she gave it a warning glance, and it halted.  But how to protect him when I’m not around?  The question kept her awake at night, eroded her grades at school.  It was, ironically, gnawing away at her.  If I could command the motes, I could warn them away.  But I’m useless.  I can’t convince myself I have the right to give them orders.  I’ve never gotten them to do a single thing I’ve wanted…

And then Mara straightened up in her seat for a moment as the realization hit her.

Except…that’s not true.

The other night, after I came back from Magister Ardinger’s lesson.  Those things were creeping up on papaw, in his room.

What did I tell them?

The jagged spike of light was a curlicue now, and creeping in again towards her grandfather’s shoulder.  She focused her attention on it.  Please don’t, she thought.  There’s very little of him left.  He’s so fragile now.  Please let me have my piece of him, my time with him.  Please leave him alone.  We just want to be left alone.

She desired it.  And therefore, it was so.  The thing backed off.  No wand, Mara thought.  No command, either.

Merely a request.

She gestured to the curlicue.  Her grandfather’s face lit up; there was a glint of recognition in his eyes.  “Beautiful,” he mumbled, looking at her.

Mara stared silently at the hovering spark.  “He’s right, you know,” she said, addressing it directly.  “You are beautiful.  I’ve always thought so.”  It made no reply of course.  It merely drifted in space, aimless and without will, waiting for orders.

“I wonder…”  Mara stopped.  No.  It’s too stupid.

But…has it ever actually been tried?

She stared at the crackling, glowing filament.  “I have no orders for you,” she said.  “There’s no task I want you to perform for me.  And I don’t know that I have the right to do that to you, anyway.”  She took a long, slow breath.  “But…I’m curious.  What do you want?”

It was still hovering there.  But Mara had built up some momentum.  And Ardinger hadn’t been wrong about her will.  She was soft on the outside, but iron at her core, and once set on her course she was not easily diverted.  “You and all your…friends.  The others like you.  For thousands of years.  Serving humanity’s needs.  Or at least serving those of us who know of you.  But that can’t be your only purpose, can it?  Running errands for scraps, pouncing on easy prey…that’s not all you are.”  Her brow furrowed. “God can’t have put something so beautiful into the world just to serve the powerful and to prey upon the weak.”

She glanced about.  There were other specks and swipes there, flitting and hovering.  Waiting, it seemed.  “What do you want?” she asked them.  “All these years, all these centuries…has any wizard ever asked you what they can do for you?”

For a long moment, the motes hovered about Mara and her grandfather, silently.

And then, as one, they faded, disappearing down that fourth, hidden axis.

Mara stared after them, and wondered.  Then she turned back to the checkerboard and explained to her grandfather for the third time that afternoon that the pieces moved diagonally, not vertically.

#

Mara awoke in her bed, opened her eyes and tried to sit upright, but her muscles wouldn’t respond.  She was limp and helpless as a rag doll.  She stared helpless at the ceiling.  They were everywhere, filling the room, lighting up every nook and cranny like a Christmas display.  She had never seen a location so thick with them, so pregnant with magical possibilities.  They’re inside me, she realized, terrified.  They’ve taken control of my body.  But they’re not supposed to be able to do that on their own...

And then her grandfather leaned into her field of vision, a wand in his hand and his eyes perfectly lucid.

He glanced down at the wand, eight inches of yellowed ivory.  “Never used to need one of these.  Not since I was a boy.  Can’t get my talent up without assistance anymore.  Part of growing old.”  He turned to Mara.  “Forgive me, dearest.  And please don’t be alarmed.  I mean you no harm.”  He swallowed.  “I’m having one of my good days, I suppose.  Not many of them left, I fear, and this needs to be accomplished while my mind’s still intact.”

His eyes—all three of them--flickered about, following the contrails of the dancing specks.  “It’s funny, you know?  When I was a whole man, I could order them about.  But it wasn’t until they wore me down to a nub that I could actually hear them.  And of course, once we’re so vulnerable as to be able to hear their voices—well, by then, we’re broken and useless.”  A knowing smile.  “They’ve been waiting a long time for a willing listener, dear.  Someone who’d lower her own defenses instead of having them eroded.  For a partner, as opposed to a victim.”

He gave her one last smile.  “Again, dearest, forgive me.  But I need you awake for this, as you’ll soon see.  And you’re ever so protective.  You’d never let me do this…”—he pointed the wand directly at his own temple—“…if I left you a free hand.”

He winked—actually winked—his third eye at her.  There was a blinding flash.  And from every direction, from every corner of the room, the lights swarmed him.  And Mara would have screamed, had she been capable.

Mara’s body was suddenly her own again.  And when she sat up in bed, she saw that the lights had not devoured her grandfather’s aura as she’d feared; that his aura was now floating free, separate from his body, which lay slumped at the foot of her bed.  And that body was now rising, slowly, to its feet—not at once, not in a coordinated manner, but in stages, like a marionette under the control of an inexperienced puppeteer.  It stood before her, jelly-legged, and to Mara’s horror, the lights had gathered as one inside her grandfather’s head, lighting it up from within like a Jack-O-Lantern.  And from his mouth a sepulchral voice issued forth.

“Forgive us.  His choice.”  Her grandfather—or his body, in any case—seemed to deflate as it spoke.  Then, as if suddenly discovering the mechanics of the breathing process, it took a great, gasping inhalation through its mouth.   “Only way.  To talk.  To you.  To answer.  Your question.”

Through the haze of her fear, Mara’s third eye darted to her grandfather’s aura, which floated placid and undisturbed and, if anything, considerably brighter that it had been before.  Projection, she thought.  And possession.   Two wizarding talents, each far beyond her expertise.  History was full of examples of them, if you knew where to look.  But she’d never seen either of them demonstrated, let alone both at once.

He let them do it, she realized.  Or rather, he did it to himself.  He’s letting them occupy his body.  With some difficulty, she found her voice again.  “You are the speck I talked to?  The one I asked what it wanted?”

“Yes.”  A wheezing breath.  “And no.”  Gasp.  “Hard to.  Explain.  Better to.  Show you.”  Her grandfather’s right arm flopped loosely in the direction of his own floating aura.  “Follow him.  We take.  You home.”  A pause.  “Our home.  Show you.  What want.  And why.”

“I don’t understand.  What is this about?”

Her grandfather’s eyes blazed with unholy light from within.  His jaw hung loose on its hinge.  “End war.”

“War?  What war?”

“Our people.  Your people.  Long war.  Must end.”  A long, deep, rattling inhalation.  “We knew.  One day.  Some one.  Would ask.”  Another gasp.  “We show.  You help.  End war.”  Another flop of the arm.  “Him guide."

She glanced again at her grandfather’s aura.  “Look…I don’t think you understand.  I don’t know how to Thaumaturgically project yet.  It’ll be years, if ever…”

“Nor does.  He know.”  And her grandfather’s hand slowly lifted, and tapped at his chest.  “But we.  Can help.”

Mara stared, and the realization of what she was being asked to do filled her, and flooded her with fear.

“You trust.  We help.  We show.  End war.”

She gazed upon the shell of her grandfather, and at his essence hovering nearby.  “Is this…an order?  Must I do this?”
The voice grew stern.  “NO.  No orders.  Never orders.”  Her grandfather’s head craned back and forth, his eyes wide open and shining.  “Wizards order.  Never us.  You choose.”  Another breath.  “But trust.”  And another.  “You asked.  Listen us.”  And another.  “Please.”

Mara swallowed.

“All right,” she said.

She sat cross-legged on the bed, and placed her fingers to her own temples.  “I’m ready.”

There was a torrent of light as the motes flooded out through her grandfather’s eyes and across the room, into her own.  And when Mara looked up again, she did so with one eye only, for she had no fleshly eyes to see.

She saw two empty bodies, seated side-by-side upon her mattress.  And she saw the radiance that was her grandfather.  And when the lights fled down the once-unknowable axis to wherever they went, she knew that she could follow.  Because her grandfather was holding her intangible hand in his, and was leading the way.

Freed of her own body, she was able for the first time to perceive her own aura.  And it was as Ardinger had described it—a spectacular blaze, stunning in its intensity; the sun at noon.  As they crossed the threshold, she heard her grandfather’s voice in her head.

“Beautiful,” he said.  

And Mara realized for the first time that her grandfather had never been referring to the tiny specks, but to a different radiance altogether.

#

“Miss Larson, I am not gifted in the expression of sentiment,” said Ardinger.  “Nonetheless, protocol compels me to express my condolences on the passing of your grandfather.”

Mara’s poise was immaculate.  “Thank you, Magister.  But not so sudden, in fact.  He’s been dying, a piece at a time, for most of his life.  Wizards die by stages.”

A smirk creased Ardinger’s face.  “Just so.   He is, in any case…” He struggled to find the right phrase, and settled for a cliché.  “…’in a better place now.’”

Mara smiled sweetly.  “To be sure.”

“That aside,” Ardinger added, investigating the long lines of glowing specks, sworls, jagged lines and twisted pretzels of light arrayed in orderly rows behind Mara, “I detect that you have been practicing since I saw you last.”

“Oh,” said Mara, all innocence.  “You’ve noticed, have you?”

“An astonishing effect,” said Ardinger.  “To command so many, simultaneously!  Your talent is indeed rare, when you find the desire to express it.  Yet I fear that the price of this command may…”

“Not command, Magister.  Persuasion.”

He raised an eyebrow.  She continued.  “You said they were mindless, Mr. Ardinger.  But a single human neural cell is mindless.  You said they had no will.  But a single bee has no free will, either.  Sorcerers like yourself have spent millennia considering what they could do with the individual parts.  They’ve never given a moment’s thought to the whole.”

“Intriguing.”  He tented his fingers beneath his narrow face.  “Are you postulating the existence of a hive, or a collective mind?”

“Not postulating.  I’ve seen it, Magister.  I’ve conversed with it.  And it’s very unhappy.”

The lights blurred, and when Ardinger recovered his bearings, he was pinned to the far wall.  He gritted his teeth.  “Not funny, girl.  Your will is as yet undeveloped.  Mine is stronger.  I sense you require a demonstration of that.”  He glanced down at one of the dozens of glowing specks which held him in place.  “Release me.”

It did so.  The rest—hundreds of them--held firm.  And Ardinger furrowed his brow at his own incapacity, and then stared wide-eyed as an unbidden thought clawed the corner of his mind.

Mara nodded.  “Yes, magister.  They’ve been voiceless for two thousand years.  The last guy they tried to talk to wasn’t in a listening mood.  He was like you.  The commanding type.  But I’m helping them regain their voice, and they’re picking up the thread of a very old conversation.  And you should listen when they tell you that they are legion.”

Ardinger was silently exerting his will on one thaumite after another, prying them free with his mind.  But each time he did so, another took its place.  And as soon as he removed his attention from one of them, it darted back in to hold him fast.  Mara, meanwhile, continued.  “Persuasion beats compulsion every time.  Minions are limited, Magister Ardinger.  Friends are better.”

“I see your point.  Do you suppose I can persuade you and your ‘thaumites’ to suspend this demonstration?”

“They are not my thaumites.  But, if they’d be willing...”  Mara raised an eyebrow, and slowly, the glittering specks withdrew, leaving Ardinger crumpled against the wall.

He brushed off the lapels his jacket, gathering the shreds of his dignity.  “Thank you.”  His mouth puckered as he reflected.  “I begin to suspect that you have learned to want.”

Mara nodded.  “I have, Magister.  And what I want is what they want.  The end of slavery.”
Ardinger’s brow furrowed.  “They do not have wants.”

“I knew from the moment I laid eyes on them that they did. But instead of leaving them to pursue them, we’ve been using them as tools.  Using them to work “miracles”, to control minds, to generate fireballs and ice bolts.  We’ve gotten rich and powerful on their involuntary labor.”  Her expression was suddenly severe.  “They’ve never asked a single thing of us.  They just want to be left alone.  And I intend to see that they get what they want.”

The exasperation showed on Ardinger’s face.  “Madness.  You’d be going to war with every other wizard on Earth.  You’re talking about the end of magic itself!”

Mara shook her head.  “As long as they exist, Magister Ardinger, magic exists.  What I’m proposing is the end of the manipulation of magic to human ends.” Her eyes flashed fire.  “Didn’t you ever ask yourself why magic carries the price it does?  Why wizards die in stages?  And above all else, why the thaumites direct their greatest aggression at those of us who do them the least harm?”  She gritted her teeth.  “From their perspective, every command we give them is an act of war against their species.  They strike back when provoked, in an attempt to dissuade us.  But more than anything, they want to wear down the barriers separating them from potential peacemakers, in the hope that they can unplug our ears and beg us to stop.”  And now the iron was coming out of her in full force.  “How many innocent people have been reduced to senility so that you and your buddies could whip out your wands and see whose is most impressive?”  She shook her head.  “It ends now, Mister Ardinger.  Now, and forever.”

She turned her back to leave him.  She didn’t see his lip curl into a sneer, the gathering of energies as he marshalled his will and desire into a mighty explosion of force.  He extended a finger.  An untrained observer would have seen a jet of pure hellfire emerge, streaking across the room—and fade into nothing as it approached her.

A better-trained observer would have seen a horde of twinkling lights—indeed, a legion--rise in a wall to block the path of those Ardinger had momentarily subverted, then swarm forward to make him pay.  Mara never even turned to face him.  She merely raised her hand, and the thaumites froze in place, poised to strike.

“You gave me new eyes, Mr. Ardinger.  You showed me the wonders of a whole new world.  So I’m going to let that pass.  But I’d advise against trying it again.  My command of love will always beat your love of command.”  She stepped towards the door.  Strands and streamers of stardust trailed in her wake as her friends, paying Ardinger no further mind, followed her.

As she reached the threshold, she shot a final glance over her shoulder.  Ardinger stared as his student departed, taking his magic with her.  “War with every other wizard on earth,” he spat. 

“Traditionally, Mr. Ardinger, wizards die by stages.”  A brief, meaningful pause.  “But, if necessary, that can change.”

Behind her, as if of its own accord, the door slammed shut.



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