They advanced on Hector’s master, the sorceress. They looked like men, but Hector knew they were not. The spell his master had cast upon his eyes would not last forever, but while it did, he could see their true nature. The spell revealed the “men” for the wretched creatures they truly were. Monstrosities, their rotting flesh torn and seeping with sickly gray effusion as they were forced through the gates of their underworld prison. Demons. The sorceress held a most precious treasure, which the demons’ master desired. She had it in her arms, even as they surrounded her on the high hill behind her home. She spotted Hector. She held aloft the tome.
“Swallow it!” she cried, and as she tossed the book to him, it shrank until it was the size of his thumbnail.
Hector obeyed. He caught and immediately swallowed the book. A few of the demons turned toward him and he prepared himself to fight.
The sorceress had amassed much mystical energy preparing for the battle that was now upon them. She had tried to teach Hector as much as she could before the day came, but it still came too soon. He was to watch for her signal. To flee if she told him to, for he was to carry on the lineage. Magic was not passed on through blood or family names. Magic was passed down from master to apprentice. When the apprentice became master, then the new master would take a new apprentice.
Hector gaped at the demons now moving down the hill toward him. His own master turned her gaze not towards the demons, but toward him. He felt a wave of energy wash over and past him. He planted his feet and braced himself to fight past the demons who were coming for him. They would surely tear him to pieces, tear them both to pieces, but his master had not yet given the signal. That meant they still had a chance to win the fight.
But Hector found that he could not move. His vision grew hazy. The demons, the hill, and his master, all faded from his sight. Just as he realized what was happening, he heard the laughter of a woman.
Triumphant laughter. His master’s laughter.
For it wasn’t the scene that was fading, it was him.
His master had struck him with a spell of transport. He would not be helping her fight the demons.
He opened his mouth to cry out, but his voice had vanished.
So too did he vanish.
The lineage that Hector had joined was sprung from the Guild of All Ways. They were travelers, wanderers. Hector’s particular lineage was called the House of Bulbs for the way their insignia was shaped like a flower bulb. The book that was now settling into his stomach was the book of his lineage. It was started several generations past by a great magic-maker who crafted the book of spells, wisdom, pictures, maps, and stories. He then passed it down to his apprentice, who added to it and passed it down again until it came to Hector’s master. It was not yet meant to come to Hector.
But it had.
Hector could not move until the spell of transport was complete. He appeared within a copse of elms. He listened for a moment. Then he heard the distinctive reedy whistling of a bird whose name he did not recall, but whose territory he did. He was still in the southern province, but leagues away from where he had been.
He felt an intense heat just below his throat where he hung his apprentice totem. He pulled the cord over his head and held up the totem, which was just a copper-colored polished pebble. The pebble was crackling with copper light. He touched the pebble with his finger. A tiny jolt went through his finger and he heard his master’s voice.
She told him that she had sent him to safety with the book. As an apprentice, he had not been working with magical energies long enough to be marked by them. Yet his training had made him strong enough to withstand the effects of swallowing the book for a time. His body would shield the book from the demons until he could reach safety. The region where the sorceress had sent Hector was close to a trusted ally. This ally would separate the book from Hector and take possession of it.
If the sorceress did not appear within one moon, it meant she had not survived her battle with the demons and Hector was to find another master. Her ally would will take care of the book, and absorb it into his teachings. The House of Bulbs would end.
Those within a magical lineage were not linked by blood or by name, so they marked themselves as one in another way. All apprentices received a mystical mark, much like a tattoo, made not with ink and needle, but with ink and sorcery. Hector touched his right shoulder, where the mark of his lineage lay beneath his coat. The mark would fade once he relinquished the book and sought another master.
Hector made his way through the forest and found a path. He disguised himself as a pilgrim as he made his way to the ally who would relieve him of the burden he carried. He would then wait for his master. He would wait longer than a moon, and go to search for her if need be. As he traveled on, Hector decided that he would not abandon his master for another, not unless he had proof that she had been killed by the demons.
In the darker recesses of his heart, Hector feared his master was already gone. Yet as he reached the house of her ally, he hesitated. He suffered a moment of doubt about giving up the book. He was still an apprentice. So his master was the last of her line. He did not want to be the one who ended that line, the line that he had longed to join for so many years. But he couldn’t just keep it going on his own. He was no master.
Hector ducked behind a wall and took a moment to grieve. He felt an ache pressing upon the back of his head. A page from the swallowed book appeared in his mind’s eye, a story. A story about a friendship between a cow and a mouse. Hector frowned as the ache deepened. The book was full of history, myth, spells, potions, ideas, musings, wisdom, and jests. He had only begun to learn from its pages over the past several moons. The pain intensified until Hector slid to the ground, with his back propped against the brick wall he’d been leaning on.
He heard raised voices and he turned and saw something troubling.
A strange man had appeared at the doorway of the ally to whom the sorceress had sent Hector. The spell on Hector’s eyes had mostly faded, but there was enough of it left for him to be certain that the strange man was a demon.
Hector winced as he watched the strange man argue with his master’s ally. Something made him utter the words.
“The cow lived in the fields and the mouse lived in the farmhouse. Both remained unknown to each other until the day the baron came to the farm…”
As he spoke, the pain in Hector’s head subsided greatly.
Hector understood at once what was happening, though he did not recognize the tale, nor had his master mentioned any such tale in her teachings. The story was from the book.
When he stopped speaking, the pain returned. He muttered the story under his breath until it was done. Then he turned and watched from behind the wall as the strange man reached out his hand and the sorceress’s ally shook it.
“A deal with a demon,” Hector said to himself. He frowned. Perhaps the sorceress’s ally was playing along so the demon would go away. Perhaps he was still trustworthy. But after what Hector had witnessed, the risk was too great. Rather the book be lost or destroyed than to fall into the hands of enemies.
Hector did not know why. He did not know what spell, potion, or knowledge contained within the Book of Bulbs was sought by his enemy. He only knew that he had decided he would not give it up.
Until he traveled to the sorceress’s province to become her apprentice, Hector had lived in one village all his life and had traveled only so far as the two nearest towns. Now, true to the guild of his apprenticeship, he traveled all ways to keep from being caught by the demons whom he knew were still hunting him, and to keep safe the book to which he was bound.
The bouts of pain struck him sometimes. His master had told him that his body would be able to contain the book for a time, but it was never meant to do so for so long. As the book attempted to emerge from him, page by page, it caused him great discomfort, sometimes pain, sometimes intense itching. Sometimes he was struck by a panic. Sometimes a great rage. He kept pen and parchment with him always. When compelled, he wrote without knowing the sense of what he wrote until it was written.
At first, Hector believed that the pages were pushing into the forefront of his mind then receding back into the book. But the discomfort, most often pain, that he felt made him fear that he wasn’t reading the pages so much as tearing them out of the book unwittingly, and once gone, the pages were gone for good. He could not be sure, but he feared it was so. He feared that once he had relieved his discomfort, by reciting or writing whatever was surfacing, that part of the book was forever lost. The story of the cow and the mouse was gone, for Hector had not written it down. He tried to a few days after it came to him, but he could not remember all the details.
Each time, Hector studied what he wrote or drew. It was coming out at random. He hid the transcribed pages by enchanting them with a weak locking spell he knew. He feared the book could not be copied in the way he was doing, not entirely, for some pages were specially made and enchanted. He would have to find a way to separate the book from himself. But he would also have to find a way to protect it. The only way Hector could think of to do so was to find a new master, one he could trust not to betray him to the demons.
Hector wandered for a year and a moon. First, he wandered through the southern province. Then he wandered to the frigid northern lands. He trekked through the deserts of the west. Still he found no master. In that time, he transcribed more and more of the book. The ornate bulb-shaped mark of his magic house was still upon shoulder where his master had first placed it. Hector did not think that signified his master was still alive. He believed it was because the book was still within him.
Hector knew he was losing knowledge, for sometimes when he slept, he would be jolted awake by a sudden gash in his flesh. As the blood seeped out, the wound healed and the pain faded. Hector felt the loss of more than his life’s blood. The book was growing ever more insistent. If it did not flow out through Hector’s ink, it would bleed out through Hector’s blood.
He tried to learn spells to keep himself awake, or to wake him if a page was emerging. But after wandering so long, after struggling with the book, and staying past the reach of the demons, he was weary beyond weary. He could not always wake, even when his body suffered.
One night he dreamt he was in agony. He dreamt that he cast a spell and the agony subsided. When he woke, he woke in a field of poppies where the night before there had been only grass. He realized that his mind had found a way to protect itself from the harm that containing the book was causing him. As he slept, his voice began to speak the book when there were words to be spoken. But images and maps still bled through from cuts and gashes if he was not awake to capture them. The knowledge spoken in his sleep was forever lost. That which bled through was forever lost.
Hector was almost entirely sapped of the strength he needed to keep fighting the despair that crept after him. At times, he longed for a demon to find him and kill him, if only to free him from his burden.
When such times arose, he grasped the copper-colored pebble that was his apprentice’s totem, and he remembered his master, and the family he left and could never return to. He thought of how vital his quest was, to keep the book of his lineage safe, to learn from it as he was doing, even haphazardly.
Many in the world had reason to despair, but he was not one of them. So he told himself again and again.
One morning, drained of life and spirit even after a night of sleep, Hector woke to find an old woman sitting beside him, stirring a pot of something steaming and spicy.
“You spoke in your sleep,” she said. “I wrote down the words.” She pulled the wooden spoon out of her metal pot, tapped it on the rim, and gestured with it behind herself.
Hector glanced to where the spoon pointed and saw that his parchment and quill were out.
Written on the parchment was a type of spell that could only be used once by each speaker. It did not require much mystical energy. Hector had cast the spell by speaking it in his sleep. He could see the result sitting between himself and the old woman. Three large sacks of gold coins.
Hector did not speak for a long time as he gathered his thoughts. The old woman poured some of the stew she was making into a wooden cup and handed it to him. He glanced at the bags of coins, at the spell on the parchment. He sniffed the stew. It smelled of chicken roasted and steeped in herbs. He took a salty sip and it filled him at once with a familiar feeling. Contentment. He asked the old woman, who must have seen the spell work, why she hadn’t taken the coins and run away.
The old woman chuckled, slyly but also kindly. “I am in need of coin, young wizard, but I am more in need of company. Interesting company.”
“How did you gauge that I would be interesting company?”
She glanced at the coins and then at the spell parchment and that was her answer.
Hector thought for a moment. He wondered if she were a demon sent to trick him instead of attack him. He was certain that the spell book had a way for him to find out, for the sorceress who was once his master had cast such a spell. But that knowledge had not yet emerged. He decided he would be cautious. She did not mean to kill him or she would have done so already. If she were a demon, perhaps she feared killing him would destroy the book. The rare demon did have enough cleverness to think such thoughts.
He took another sip of stew and wondered if it disguised a potion. Perhaps the demons’ master had found a spell to separate the book from Hector. Perhaps the potion was that spell.
There were many possibilities, but for the moment, Hector was glad for the company of another. He had done without such for a year and a moon.
He gave her his name and she gave him hers. It was Alice, and her mother too was Alice, and her mother before her. She was of a lineage of Alices, even as Hector was of a lineage of magic-makers. But she was the last, she said, for she had no children, and there would be no more Alices, not from her lineage.
Hector did not tell Alice his entire tale. He only told her that was an apprentice in search of a new master, and so he had to travel always, for he wanted to find the best master he could find.
“Are you the best apprentice, that you should deserve the best master?” she ribbed.
“Is this how it will be with us, Alice?” Hector threw back. Demon or not, she too would be interesting company. A sharp pain pierced the center of his mind. He cried out and reached for his parchment. But his hands sprung back to his head as if he could contain the pain, squeeze it out.
“Speak!” Alice cried. Her voice sounded faraway and faint.
But Hector could not speak, for it was not a spell, not wisdom, not a story that had surfaced from the pages of the swallowed book. It was an image, a drawing of a map.
Hector pulled one hand away from his head and reached for his quill. Alice dipped it in ink and handed it to him, laying down a fresh page of parchment over the smooth wooden board that he used as his writing surface.
As he drew, Alice blotted the parchment and brought the inkwell near. If she had not been present, the map would have been drawn, but it would have been a smudge of wasted ink by the time he was finished.
He could sense that she had been watching him while he drew, but he was far too compelled by pain and the need to drain it away through the ink on the page to think much of it until much later.
Alice started giving Hector twigs to chew upon from her own bag of possessions. She told him they would keep his teeth clean and strong.
She did not tell him what else the twigs could do. The next time he suffered a bout, the pain was greatly lessened though the page was dense with script. He could bear it well enough to write clearly and blot and sand and sweep his own page.
Alice thought his bouts were caused by visions, which served as both gift and curse, for they brought him knowledge of magic.
Indeed, Hector studied the pages that he transcribed and began to truly learn magic again. He had tried before and succeeded in learning much, but the bouts of pain and illness, the weariness, the necessary seclusion from others, dampened and disrupted his natural passion and talent for magic. Now, he learned how better to harness the hidden energies that spun around everyone and everything, and he learned how to direct and shape those energies to cast spells and make potions.
He realized when he learned the spell of transport how much energy his master had used just to send him to safety. Had she saved it for herself, she might have survived all the demons. But the more energy he amassed, the more it drew the attention of his enemies. They still hunted the book, and drawing too much energy into himself was like lighting up a candle the size of a mountain. The more he learned, the more skilled he became, and the more he and his traveling companion had to fear from the demons who had all but lost their scent for Hector in that first desperate year of his flight.
Hector trusted Alice to keep watch as he slept, even as he kept watch she slept, and both needed only a small portion of the day or night to rest. When he spoke in his sleep, she would write what he said, unless he seemed to be reciting a spell, then she would wake him right away. He would shut his mouth and write the spell without accidentally casting it. Some spells could not be cast if he had not drawn in enough energy, but others took so little energy that he could unknowingly cast it, as he had cast the spell to grow the field of poppies.
Hector taught Alice a few spells to defend herself after they were almost waylaid by some bandits. She surprised him by teaching him a few tricks she knew, beyond the twigs that relieved pain. She had been a healer in her village until she decided to go out into the world. She had longed to do so when she was young, but had also longed to settle down in the village she loved and be a healer.
One day, the spell emerged that Hector had been waiting for. The spell of sight that would let him see if Alice was a demon. At last, he told her his true tale. Told her he wished to trust her, but had to make sure she was no demon. He feared that Alice would be hurt and might abandon him, but knew he must risk it.
When he told her, she burst out in cackling laughter. She could not fathom that he had thought she might be a demon for all the time they had been traveling together.
“Seven moons have waxed and waned and you still don’t know?” she asked, then cackled again. “A demon wouldn’t be able to stand not killing you for this long, would it?”
“I suppose you’re right,” Hector said. From his few dealings with demons, it would seem that she was right.
But then Alice gestured toward herself and said, “Come on then. You should do it.”
Hector offered to cast the spell on her as well, so she could see that he was no demon. She refused with another cackle. She said she knew he was no such thing. The spell would take much energy and would likely mark where they were for their enemies to find. So they would have to be ready to leave right away.
Hector cast the spell. He saw Alice. And only Alice. She was no demon. He knew as much. Yet it still gave him much relief to have proof that she was not, for a notion had been stirring in his mind. He wanted to teach Alice even more of what he learned. He believed that his master would have approved of one such as Alice learning the ways of the wanderers’ guild and the wayfarer’s house.
Hector did not just study the magic from the emerging book. He studied the maps. A few had emerged during his first year. Many more emerged after Alice joined him. He showed them to her, for they were familiar–maps of the world’s many regions–and yet there seemed a deeper meaning to them. There were marks on the maps that seemed stray. But when the maps were gathered together, some of the stray marks seemed to align.
“There is a puzzle here,” Alice said.
Hector had begun to suspect from the emergence of the very first map that the maps were the reason his enemy sought the book. Maps were the specialty of his lineage. So if anyone in the world were to have a rare map, one that led to something the demons’ master desire–eternal life, riches, power, dominion over the mortal realm–it would be the Guild of All Ways.
He might never know for certain if learning the secret of the maps or merely guarding them was the charge of his long-lost master. The book might not even have all the maps needed to solve the puzzle. Other lineages in the guild might have other maps. Perhaps they too were hunted by demons. Hector did not know, for he had not tried to find out. He had not trusted anyone after seeing his master’s ally shake hands with a demon.
But he knew that he if was to finish the work his master started, he would have stop wandering for a while.
Falling water was the easiest means of disguising the gathering of hidden energies. Demons weren’t too fond of water either, for all their traipsing about a world that was full of it. So Hector found a cavern behind a secluded falls in the mountains of the east. Using both enchantment and the work of his hands, he built a home in that cavern, a study, sleeping quarters, a kitchen, a hearth, and several hiding spots for the many pages of the still-emerging book. There were holes in the mountain where sunlight peaked through, and Hector used glass to bounce the light throughout the cavern.
Alice was skeptical about the damp conditions. She did not want to fall ill and be a “sick old woman.” But Hector designed their hideaway so that their quarters were dry and comfortable. More than anything else, that impressed her.
“I think you are a master now, Hector.”
Hector laughed. “Not yet. I have so much more to learn than I did before.” Hector placed a hand on her shoulder. “Join my lineage, Alice. Two apprentices without a master. We can learn together.”
Alice frowned. “I don’t want to be tattooed.”
“Then I’ll make you a necklace of our symbol.”
“And what is it we will learn?”
“Whatever we can before we reach the end of our days.”
“And what will we do with what we learn?”
“What all true magic-makers must do…guard, serve, and advance our fellows.”
Alice stood in the sunny kitchen before her stew pot. She folded her arms. “And what of my traveling days? Are they over now?”
Hector pulled out a sheet of parchment. On it was a drawing of a map that he had made just the night before. Another piece of the puzzle that they would strive to protect from enemies and to solve, perhaps with the help of future friends.
“Not at all,” Hector said. “We have not yet traveled all the roads we can travel.”
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel