“What’s special about this one?” Tim asked his employer. The seller had spun a story about it having belonged to a musketeer. Tim didn’t know and didn’t need to know whether that was true or not to do his job.
Tim’s employer set his cane down on the table and carefully folded open the paper packaging. He gazed down at the long coat. He was wearing gloves as usual despite the mild, if overcast, weather. He slipped the glove off his right hand and reached out to touch the coat’s dusty faded lapel.
Tim had been instructed only to acquire and deliver, whatever the state of the items might be. He was never to clean or repair or change the items in any way. Over the course of almost a decade, he had acquired many a coat for his employer, the very private Mr. Galner. Tim had never been told why or to what end, but it was obvious that Mr. Galner was looking for a particular coat, one he desired so keenly that he had spent fortunes hunting it down.
And now, it seemed, Tim had finally found the right one.
He knew because for the first time in almost a decade, Mr. Galner spoke. And instead of the usual “Thank you, Tim,” or “Keep searching, please,” he began to tell a story.
“In Norse mythology,” Mr. Galner said, “there was a race of beings called dwarves, who were so clever they could build anything. They once forged a chain so strong that it was the only thing that could bind a fearsome destructive beast that even the gods could not control. They once constructed a ship so huge it could hold legions of warriors, but so cleverly crafted it could be folded up and tucked away in a pocket.
“Such things were possible in those ancient times. The world was full to brimming with forces that have faded since then. By my measure and to my knowledge, there have been few other things built and made in this world that could rival such wonders.” He glanced at Tim and his one glass eye gleamed in the lamplight. “Out of necessity. Out of desperation. Out of…hubris. A man once took hold of forces that were not his to hold. He spun the extraordinary into the ordinary. He made a coat…”
In those days, the tales were simple. They were known to all. The wizard-king, upon whom the rebellion relied, had been captured by the tyrant who ruled the middle lands. This tyrant was no puppet, though he let his advisors believe it were so. He was brilliant, though not powerful in the ways of sorcery as most rulers were in those days. As such, he could not rule, until he found a way to sway the heart and mind of a supreme warlock. After that, this tyrant began his conquest with villages, then small counties, regions, and soon the whole of the middle lands. Even the realms beyond the churning storm-struck seas began to fear the might of this tyrant.
Many rebels were tasked with rescuing their leader, the wizard-king, for he held the key to their ultimate victory. No other could do what he could do. Whatever that was has been lost to legend. But the tyrant knew. He hunted the wizard-king for many years and failed. As with many of the tales about the tyrant, it was not known how he finally succeeded in capturing the wizard-king. Such tales were not known, because those who knew them were soon eliminated.
The wizard-king was being held in a fortress protected by enchantments, stone, fire, warriors, and beasts. The traps were ever-changing. The skills of the warriors and the times of the shifts were ever-changing. There was no pattern. And there were so many levels between the outside of the fortress and the chamber in which the wizard-king was being kept that even if something were to get through a crack in one level, or even several levels, that something would eventually be stopped.
Some of the rebels tasked to rescue the wizard-king worked as a team. Some worked alone. The rebel leaders considered the plans of any and all who volunteered their skills and talents. One volunteer gathered an army of a hundred and thirteen, the number of levels that the fortress was said to contain. The army attacked. They succeeded in breaching the fortress wall, and they moved farther and farther in, meeting no losses as they fought their way through one level after the next. Their sorcerers battled the spells. Their warriors slaughtered the guards. Their thieves found secret tunnels. And then they came upon something they could not fight. One and only one escaped, or was allowed to escape, to tell the tale. He was out of his mind. He spoke of a field of pink flowers, pretty though not spectacularly so. They were fragrant. He could remember nothing more.
Many more who were worthy and willing had already failed and died or been taken prisoner by the time a sorcerer of middle age and middling talent came to volunteer for the task. He told the rebel leaders that the wizard-king had saved his village and his family from the tyrant some years back. He had sworn at that time that if ever the wizard-king needed help, he would answer the call. This sorcerer’s name was Galliun.
Galliun seemed an unlikely sorcerer for such a vital quest. He was schooled in everyday sorcery. But the solution seemed obvious to him and he did not know why it had not been tried. Spells that could bend perceptions were not as difficult as those that could bend the will. Both kinds of spells were forbidden, but the rebels had used cloaks of invisibility in their attempts to reach the wizard-king. And it was rumored that the warlock who brought the tyrant to power could bend wills. Such powers, aside from being forbidden by the code of morals, also exerted a dear cost to the wielder. It was said the power to bend wills was siphoned from one’s own immortal soul.
Galliun judged that such a price was fair to pay to retrieve the wizard-king, the one person who could help the rebels and the people put an end to tyranny. So Galliun began to craft a spell that could do what others spells could not. A spell that might require the essence of his soul. A spell that would make one invisible, but not just invisible. Intangible. Inaudible. He tethered the spell not to a cloak, as many invisibility spells were tethered, but to his finest coat. It was made of sturdy gray wool, the buttons of polished stone, the threads that bound it together were spun by the best weaver in the village. Into this coat, he spun his spell. He worked for many years, crafting and weaving. And during all those years, many other rebels tried and failed to rescue their leader.
At last it was done, and Galliun wanted to take his creation to the rebel leaders, show them, and go at once to the unbreakable fortress, so that he might pass through it, retrieve the wizard-king, wrap him in the coat, and send him back. Galliun would stay behind, for the coat could only cover one person. Lest he be tortured as punishment for the rescue and for his knowledge of the coat, he would tuck away under his tongue a glass capsule full of poisons.
The making of the coat had taken its toll on him. Half his hairs were gray. Creases had appeared on his face, drawn there by age and effort. But the making of the coat had also strengthened him, strengthened his skill in sorcery, his patience, and his resolve. Worn and weary as he already was, he knew he must test the coat and if the test failed, he must fix the spell, or even begin anew.
Galliun went into the forest outside his village. In the middle of a clearing, there was a ruined shrine built to a god that was no longer worshipped in the middle lands. He stood a set distance from the shrine. Between his path and the shrine, he placed obstacles that he should have been able to pass through with the coat on. Within the shrine sat his best companion, the dog he had rescued as a pup. If the dog heard Galliun call his name, he would come dashing toward the sorceror.
His heart beating for fear of failure, his heart beating for fear of success, Galliun gave the coat a mild shake, and then he slipped it on.
He gasped as the world suddenly vanished. There was no sky above, no ground below. No trees, no shrine, no dog. There was nothing. He saw nothing but a gray haze disrupted with tiny sparks of something like light. He took an uneasy breath. He raised his arms before him. He called out to his dog. He blinked. He rubbed his eyes. He grasped the lapel of the coat, but hesitated. He had remained frozen in place. He felt…unanchored. He took a step and tumbled forward. He cried out in surprise. But he didn’t fall. There was no ground to fall upon. He was floating, as if in water. But in water, one could feel the weight of the water and force of moving through it. Galliun reached his arms forward and then swept them back, but he didn’t move. For many moments, he flailed and kicked, trying to swim or paddle. But nothing worked and he remained floating in one place.
At last, discouraged, but no longer afraid, he pulled off the coat.
He fell three feet onto his backside. Galliun laughed and was still laughing as he felt the anxious and happy licks of his dog on his face.
Galliun had crafted a coat that could make a person vanish, not just from sight, but from existence. He would indeed be invisible, untouchable, and silent to his enemies. The danger in wearing the coat, however, was that he too would be blind, unable to hear, or feel.
For many months he studied and he practiced with the coat. He found a way to move, to propel himself forward, not as a creature would through water, but through air. He built paper wings. He practiced moving and gauging how far he had moved. He found that if he made a map of the area where he was moving, he could follow it and reappear almost exactly where he wanted to. So he would need such a map of the unbreakable fortress. After so many years, the rebellion’s leaders had a fairly good one. For someone who would have no need to know what enchanted traps lay on which level or how to face and battle the beasts and guards that lurked around corners and in shadows, a simple map of the many levels was sufficient.
Galliun made his demonstration to the rebellion’s leaders. They were concerned about how the wizard-king, weakened by years of imprisonment, would find his way out, even with Galliun’s guidance. But even more so they were also troubled by Galliun’s invention and about sending such a powerful thing straight into the hands of their enemies.
The rebellion had been without their best leader for many years. They needed him. They had lost much ground and were losing more every day. But if the supreme warlock and the tyrant who ruled the middle lands got hold of Galliun’s coat, then all were doomed. And even if they did not get hold of it, even in Galliun’s hands, even in their trusted leader’s hands, the coat was too much power for one person. There were many among the rebel leaders who questioned Galliun on how he could have constructed such a thing in the first place. They feared it was like the warlock’s power of mind-bending. They feared that Galliun had corrupted his soul in making the coat, and if that were true, then he was no longer on the side of the righteous.
Galliun’s arguments that he had done no harm in all the months he had had the coat, learning how to use it, fell on deaf ears. He had given his coat to the rebel leaders to keep and study while they deliberated on his plan for rescue. They decided not to return it to him.
He was angry at first, miserable, distraught. But Galliun understood how powerful the coat was. He had not let himself think on it too deeply. Even after all those years, he longed to repay the kindness and heroism of the wizard-king. He had wondered as he made the coat, why no one had made such a thing already. It was the only way to breach the fortress. But as he calmed himself, he realized that the rebel leaders were right. He realized that he should ask them to destroy the coat before it did fall into the wrong hands, be it the tyrant, the warlock, or even a common brigand or thief.
On his way to see the rebel leaders, Galliun was waylaid by just such a band of brigands. He was no fighter. And though he had forged that coat that could hide a man from sight, sound, and touch, he still had no skill in battle magic. He was blindfolded, gagged, and carried off somewhere in a wagon. He struggled at first. But after all that had happened, he soon stopped and let fate carry him where it may.
Fate carried him where he could not have imagined. When he was dropped onto a chair, his gag and blindfold removed, he found himself sitting before one of the rebel leaders, a well-to-do baron. A servant set a tray of refreshments before Galliun, and another stood beside the baron, holding a fine coat made of gray wool.
The baron smiled at Galliun. He believed all plans would fail, except Galliun’s. He offered the coat, a map of the unbreakable fortress, his apologies for the rough handling, and his well wishes for Galliun’s fatal quest. He put his hands on Galliun’s shoulders and asked him to send their leader back to them.
For one who was more ghostly than a ghost, the unbreakable and unbreachable fortress was as puff of cloud. He could not see, but Galliun trusted to the map and to his paper wings and his training. If he removed the coat in the wrong place, he might be struck by a spell or stung by a venomous creature. Or he might simply appear inside of a stone wall and be smothered.
But he had practiced well. And the map was true. He could not gauge the passing of time, but it seemed many hours that he flew and glided through the grayness until he found the right chamber. Galliun oriented himself so his feet would face the ground. Then something happened that he did not expect. He saw a figure. He frowned and blinked. He peered, but moved no closer, for he had never seen anything with the coat on, save the grayness and the pinprick sparks.
The figure was small and thin, not just thin, but bone-thin. It looked like the corpse of a person who had died long ago. There was no muscle, no fat. It was gray, but a brighter gray than the grayness. It was pocked with dark holes that went not just skin-deep, but all the way through the figure. The edges of the holes were rough and ragged. It was as if it huge worms had chewed through the figure. Something like smoke seeped out of each hole and floated up and dispersed.
Galliun gasped as the creature shifted. He saw no restraints, but it moved as if it were constrained. His heart sunk as he watched the creature.
Was this the wizard-king? Had he been imprisoned so long, been so long without light and hope and sustenance for his body and his soul that he had become this sad and repulsive creature? And how was it that Galliun could see the figure with the coat on?
Galliun had planned on rushing forward, explaining all he needed to, and wrapping the wizard-king in the coat. The wizard-king would become intangible to the shackles, even if they were forged with the strongest enchantments. He would flee. Galliun would stay. That is what Galliun had planned. But something was amiss. Something was troubling about the figure that Galliun could see when he should not have been able to see anything. Perhaps the warlock had cast a trap, a spell, on the wizard-king himself. Perhaps it would break when Galliun placed the coat upon the wizard-king.
Galliun cautiously removed the coat and he dropped, a mere finger’s breadth, to the ground of the very chamber that held the wizard-king. But he lost his balance somehow and fell backward.
Now he could see everything. The figure several feet before him was indeed the wizard-king. With Galliun’s own eyes, he did not see a chewed-up creature, but a tall man with a long white beard, long gray hair. The man was thin and dirty. He was chained so he could not sit or lie down. His feet were stained with blood. He glanced up at Galliun and Galliun saw that there was still life and sense in those eyes.
Galliun tried to rise and when he moved his legs, he saw and felt why he had tripped. He grasped his right leg just above the knees. His boot lay on the ground. His trousers drooped below the knee. There was nothing to give them shape. Galliun’s knee was still there, but below it, there was nothing. A shard of panic pierced his gut. He wanted to put the coat back on. He had lost his leg in that abyss he entered when he put the coat on. But then he looked at the wizard-king. Then he remembered that he had come to lay down his very life. His leg did not matter now.
He rose up and balanced on his left leg. Galliun had never met the wizard-king, only seen him from afar, and in sketches and paintings. He peered at the figure whom he should have been rushing forth to save. But after all, now that he was faced with the moment he must hand the coat to the wizard-king, he wanted to be sure that the leader was worthy of such a power.
He could not stop wondering why he could see the wizard-king with his coat on, when he had not been able to see anything else when he moved through one hundred and thirteen levels to reach the prison chamber. He needed a second look. He began to don the coat.
Suddenly, the shackles shattered and the chains dropped to the floor. The wizard-king changed before Galliun’s eyes. His hair remained white, but grew shorter. His beard vanished and a smooth, ageless face with a calm and ruthless expression appeared beneath. The man strode toward Galliun. Galliun knew without a doubt that it was the warlock.
“Your dear leader died a year ago,” the warlock said. “I took his place in this dungeon. I suffered the lashings that should have been his. I ate, slept, and abided like a prisoner, never knowing when the true rescue would come, waiting for someone like you to do what no other has had the skill and the fortitude to do, including myself. There was only one way to reach this chamber. Only one spell. But I can no longer cast such a spell. To gain one power means to give up another. I knew someone was close. I felt the pull of creation in the threads of power that course through the world.”
The shock of the news about the wizard-king froze Galliun in place as the warlock stepped closer to him.
“The coat will not work for me,” the warlock said. “But you will.” He raised a hand.
Galliun hopped back and fell again. Lying on the floor, he shoved one arm into the coat and wriggled to slide the coat underneath himself. The warlock was bending his will. He felt it. He wanted to take off the coat. Galliun thrust his hand into the other arm of the coat. The world turned gray. And his will was once again his own. But he still saw the figure before him. Not the white-haired warlock. But the chewed-up figure that leaked not smoke, but spirit. Galliun was looking at a fallen soul. And he couldn’t just see the figure. He could hear it.
“Where are you?” the warlock said, the voice was shrill and deep at the same time.
“Nowhere,” Galliun replied. But the warlock did not hear him.
In that nowhere that he now was, Galliun didn’t need his legs. He shook free the paper wings that were folded into the sleeves of the coat and he flew. He flew up and away from the wretched creature in the chamber.
Galliun knew that the rebel leaders would not believe him. They would believe he had stolen the coat. Perhaps they would even believe that he was responsible for the wizard-king’s death. He was right. When he returned to his home, he found that there were rebels there, searching for him. They were afraid. They were angry. And they had right to be.
But Galliun was afraid too. He hadn’t learned all he should about what he had created. He had not known the cost of using the coat. If he kept using it, he was sure to fade from existence, one part at a time. But he had created the coat for good purpose. He had created it to assure that the rebellion would succeed in ousting the tyrant and the warlock.
There was only one way he knew to do that now that the wizard-king was gone. He became the greatest spy of the rebellion. A spy so secret that no one knew where the information he found was coming from. They merely called him a ghost. Some even believed it was the ghost of the wizard-king, crossing the borders of death to return to help his followers and his people. With the ghost’s help, the rebellion was able to prevent much bloodshed. In time, the rebellion won. The tyrant was imprisoned. The warlock vanished, never to be seen again in the middle lands. Leaders came to power who ruled not by right of succession, but by the choice of the people.
And the ghost disappeared.
Tim was dazzled by the tale. He’d been entranced by the sound of his employer’s voice, and it was only the ceasing of that sound that brought him back to his senses, back to the present. He heard a steady drumming on the roof and noted that the room, his office, was darker. It had started raining.
“Do you suppose it’s real? Did it ever work?” Tim asked. He gazed at the dusty gray wool coat in the packaging.
Mr. Galner gave a small smile. He tipped his head to the left and glanced behind Tim, where he had placed a briefcase full of cash. “Thank you, Tim.”
Tim understood that there would be no further answers, at least not on that day. He nodded and turned to retrieve the briefcase. “I’ll walk you out, sir.”
When Tim turned back around, his employer was gone. The coat too was gone. Tim glanced around his office. He saw no one. He heard nothing. Felt nothing. Beside the paper wrapping was Mr. Galner’s cane.
Copyright © 2016 by Nila L. Patel.