Panofus spoke the last words of the spell and flicked his raised fingers in the proper precise configurations. As he did, another sudden quake struck the tower. And the room filled with gasps and cries of fear.
One of the children in the group of unpracticed mages standing before Panofus pulled away from the old woman who was holding him.
“What about you?” the child asked just as he began to fade from view.
The rest of the group of a dozen or so people also turned invisible. Panofus could only tell they were still standing before him by the subtle flickering of the air, as if he were viewing part of the room through a lens.
The child knew—as Panofus himself knew—that Panofus had not yet reached the highest level of study, the level at which he would be adept at casting spells upon himself.
Study and practice were not quite enough. In the same way that one did not hear one’s voice as others heard it, one did not naturally have a sense of one’s self in the way that was necessary to properly cast spells upon one’s self. Knowledge of the self was, for most, the most difficult step in attaining the final mastery of magic. It was simple and yet many did not reach that level of mastery.
Panofus had sworn to himself that would reach the highest level. But he would never be able to keep his oath to himself if he did not escape the fortress that day.
“I have a plan,” he said. “You must go.” He pointed to the entrance leading into the secret tunnels. The demons might have already infiltrated those tunnels. But even if they had, so long as the people remained quiet, they could move past the demons.
Panofus and the group he had just sent off to safety (so he hoped) had gotten cut off from the mages who were meant to help them evacuate. The attack on the fortress had been that sudden. The damage to the towers and the halls had been that severe.
Of course Panofus knew the procedures and had run many drills, but he had never expected to use that particular part of his training. He should have paid more attention to the rumblings and rumors of demonic invasion.
He had a plan for escape. A simple plan. If he could see his whole self in a mirror and reverse the image in his mind, he would be able to cast the spell of invisibility upon himself and escape. A mirror was one of the training crutches that were used to help mages learn to cast spells upon themselves. But only in times of safety. Mirrors were portals, after all.
For those who used them lawfully, only specific mirrors could be used to enter and exit a place, mirrors for which permissions had been asked and granted. But any mirror might serve as an entry point for those who used them unlawfully. A mirror typically broke if a portal spell was cast upon it without the proper permissions and preparations. But they did not always break.
So the proper procedure during any kind of magical attack was to destroy all mirrors.
As the tower rocked from another quake, Panofus ran to the room where he had been training for the past few months. The room was arrayed with mirrors. He shattered them.
All but one.
He would use it to help himself focus on his spellcasting. Once he was invisible, he would shatter that mirror too and join his fellow mages in fleeing from the tower that was their home no longer.
Panofus saw the warping of the mirror’s surface even as he fiercely whispered the words of the invisibility spell, even as he flicked his fingers as fast as he could.
What first came through, piercing the surface of the mirror as if it were a bubble, was the sharp edge of a great axe. The rest of the axe followed, and then the bearer. The demon was too broad to walk through. He crouched and sidled through the mirror. But he moved through smoothly, and rose to a height almost double that of Panofus.
Though he could no longer see himself in the mirror, Panofus continued casting the spell.
The demon reached out and seized Panofus by the neck, and raised him off his feet.
More demons swarmed beyond the threshold of the mirror. They were coming.
Even if Panofus could finish the invisibility spell, it would not help him now. The enemy already had him. But he did know of another spell that might save him. He’d practiced the spell once or twice. He knew it. And he still had the image of himself in his mind. He didn’t need the mirror.
Panofus felt the sensation of something being pulled out of his chest and through his throat. The demon was draining him of his life.
Panofus raised a hand and sent forth a blast to shatter the mirror.
The demon was draining him, but not choking him. Panofus uttered the words of his spell as quietly as he could. He began the spell as another quake struck the tower, and as the demon holding him sneered and blinked and peered at him with bloody soulless eyes. Panofus faltered. He stopped chanting.
As the life was being drained from him, a memory came to Panofus, unbidden and bittersweet. When Panofus was young, his grandmother died of a grave illness, and by some childish logic that brushed upon the truth (for the illness was heritable), Panofus feared that his mother too would be claimed by death. He feared it so much that even though he knew his mother was grieving, and even though he had been warned by his father not to trouble her, he went to her and told her his fears. His mother did not assure him that she would live a long and healthy life. Perhaps she would have if she were not mired in the sadness of losing her own mother. So Panofus said he would learn magic and stave off death, not just from her, but from his father, his brother, his cousins, and aunts, and uncles, and remaining grandparents, and any friends he made in his life. And this at last made his mother smile, and she told him that he would need to cast that spell many, many times, for each person was not chased by the same death, but by a death that was unique to that person, a death that would wait and claim that person when the time came, and then would follow that person into the next realm.
Is this demon my death? Panofus thought. And though he knew that the demon was a bringer of death and not death itself, Panofus could not bear even the thought of that demon being his companion in the next realm.
He resumed his chanting and finished the spell of transformation, picturing himself as a little bird, who could easily shrink out of the demon’s grasp and dart away before the demon even realized what had happened.
Panofus felt a tremendous pain deep within himself. Metamorphosis was painful, he was told. All the moreso when it was near instantaneous. He could not cry out. He was paralyzed. He suddenly feared he had made a grave mistake. He should have tried to continue the spell of invisibility…but the demon already had him in its grasp. This was the only way.
Panofus was a sparrow. He gasped with relief and before he could stop himself, he cheeped.
But whether the demon heard him or not, Panofus the sparrow did not wait to find out. He flapped his wings, dizzied by how terrifyingly light his body was.
Up, he thought.
And he flew up and up, as far up as he could, rising above the dust and rubble of tumbling towers and the choking smoke of demon fires.
He darted away and into the forest in the direction that the rest of his people would have fled.
When he was far enough away, Panofus found a place to rest. He refreshed himself with water from a rain puddle, not trusting the water from the stream that ran through the fortress. It would surely be tainted with ash and dust, and maybe—though he did not want to think of it—blood.
When he had flown close enough to the nearest town to walk the rest of the distance, and had rested and regained his energies, he tried to cast the spell of transformation again, and found that he could not. But this did not surprise him. Rare was the mage who could cast even the simplest of spells without speaking a chant or using their hands and fingers to direct the energies that were summoned by the chanting. As he had suspected, he would have to find a mage to help him.
So he sprung off the branch where he was sitting and began to fly toward the town.
He was struck so suddenly that he did not at first understand what had happened.
He realized he was plummeting. He cried out in pain. Something had pierced his neck and his chest. A shadow had fallen over him. He turned his eyes up to see, and he saw.
A sparrowhawk had caught him.
Panofus tried again to silently recite the words of the transformation spell. But he could not.
He struggled, but he was caught fast, and he was still falling. The hawk’s talon had pierced his heart. He could not feel it beating any longer.
Panofus struck out silently with the same spell that he had used to shatter the mirror.
Suddenly he felt a jerk and the sparrowhawk released him.
But Panofus could not move. He was still falling.
There was a river below. He saw the water glinting in the soft sunlight. He felt himself growing faint, but he tried and tried to cast the spell of transformation. And he thought of transforming into something big, big enough maybe to survive the wound from the hawk’s talon.
He struck the river.
Panofus pushed his head above the water. He flicked his ears and he began to swim. Even with the water supporting his weight, he felt the heft and girth of his new body.
He was a hippo.
He was grateful to be alive, but surprised. He shouldn’t have survived. The spell of transformation should not have worked.
He tried to think, to reason. But he was exhausted. The fall, the transformation, the fear and panic of the hawk’s sudden attack. Now that he was safe, or seemed to be so, he wanted only to rest. He felt his eyelids slipping down, and he felt his body sinking down below the water’s surface.
When Panofus woke, he was underwater, and it was dark. He surfaced and found that night had fallen. Still somewhat groggy, he swam to shore and emerged from the water. He was hungry. He went in search of food, guided by the instincts of his form. He stumbled a bit when he first began to walk, until he adapted to his new form. He grazed on patches of grass. The sensation was strange. Though his body was a hippopotamus, his self was still Panofus. His human mind translated the taste of the grass. Sweet. Fresh. Satisfying.
After he had eaten his fill, having walked a few miles through the forest, Panofus knew he should settle into the water and think through all that had happened. He had to figure out how to seek help for himself and how to offer help to those of his people who might still be in danger. He looked up at the stars and if he was reading them correctly, he had veered away from his destination.
But looking up at the stars did not just give him his direction. It gave him comfort and a small measure of peace. Panofus allowed himself this peace and comfort, for sleep and food alone would not rejuvenate him completely.
Till that moment, he had also worried that he would not be recognized in his animal forms. When he was a sparrow, he had tried to think of ways he might chirp or hop around to signal to whomever was paying close attention that he was no ordinary sparrow. And he had not imagined that anyone would want to be approached by him at all in his hippo form.
But now he let the burden of this worry slip off as he slipped back into the water.
The next morning, Panofus swam until he found a herd of hippos. He approached them, hoping that he would know their language by instinct, and be able to ask them if they knew of any humans who were friendly to their kind. If they did, then he could start by approaching those humans and hoping they would recognize the universal symbol for “mage,” which he planned on forming by marking the earth with his foot. (Though, he had tried a few times and had managed only a clumsy approximation.)
Panofus approached the hippos. He opened his mouth and uttered sounds he did not understand. He flicked his ears in patterns that he hoped conveyed some friendly message. But the other hippos seemed to be ignoring him. He wondered if they could sense that he was different.
For some time he swam about near them. The river was wide and the waters rushed by. He was farther from where he meant to go, but it would do him no good to walk into any town in his current form.
He tried, every now and then, to call out to the hippos. And still they paid him no mind.
Until one of them looked his way at last. Panofus braced himself and began to approach the hippo, but the hippo submerged. Panofus too dove underwater, and to his surprise, the other hippo was barreling toward him.
The hippo struck him. Panofus swam up to the surface, meaning to swim to shore, but when he surfaced, he found that he was now surrounded.
The hippos around him opened their mouths wide and snapped them shut. They called out to him in cries whose meaning he did not understand but whose intent was clear.
Another hippo struck him. Panofus began to swim away from them all. They swirled around him and they began to lunge forward and snap at him. One of them managed to bite him as others lunged at him.
Panofus recognized the panic he felt. It had only been a day or so since he’d felt it last. As a sparrow. As a man.
Panofus dove underwater. He swam as fast he could, downstream using the rushing waters to propel him. But his pursuers would have those same waters to help their speed as well. He did not look back. He kept swimming.
By the time he realized that he was no longer being pursued, it was too late.
Panofus was caught in rapids, and try though he might, he could not swim to shore before he reached the edge of a cliff.
The waters flung him over. And once again, Panofus plummeted.
He struck the water, and a familiar pain seized his entire body.
And then, a sudden relief.
His eyes were open. He wasn’t sure he could have closed them if he tried. He was swimming, but he did not feel legs.
I’m a fish, he thought.
The spell of transformation had worked again. This time, without any casting.
Panofus swam onward, nervous at any movement near the water’s surface. He had almost died three times now in as many days. And all three times, he had been saved by a spell that he should not have been able to cast, a spell that he had not cast at all this last time.
He darted through the water, his movements erratic. He expected that at any moment, something might happen. Some large fish might somehow appear out of nowhere and gobble him up. Or some beast on shore hunting for food might claw him.
He had not wanted to transform into a fish. He had decided on what form he would take if he could transform again. He would become an animal that most people would find charming and harmless, an animal with fingers almost as dexterous as a human’s. He would become a monkey.
But if he had transformed into a monkey this last time, he would have died when he struck the water from such a great height.
Panofus the fish did have to wait too long before meeting his doom. He was caught in a net along with a few others. He was dragged aboard the deck of a fishing boat.
Surely, death is chasing me, he thought.
His body flopped, as if trying to swim in an element that was hostile to it. He could not breathe. Panic froze his blood. He stopped moving. A familiar pain seized his entire body.
And Panofus transformed into a monkey.
The fisherman turned around, having pulled up another haul. He spotted Panofus, who was gesturing wildly at the shore.
“Get away from my fish, you little thief!” the fisherman said. His yelling caught the attention of another, who emerged from the boat’s little cabin.
The boat passed a low-hanging branch. Panofus escaped by leaping onto that branch and scrambling toward the trunk.
I have to be careful, Panofus told himself. I have to stay alive now.
Panofus was fearful and wary of being attacked by other monkeys or some other beast before he could reach the closest town or village. He searched for and found a path, knowing that a path would eventually lead to people.
He leapt and swung through the trees. He watched many people along the path, assessing each traveler. He could not approach anyone who might react as the fisherman had reacted.
A child would be best, he decided. But not one who was too young, for they would be pulled away from the curious monkey by protective grown folk.
He caught the attention of a girl who was riding alongside her mother and few others. Panofus tumbled through the trees, taking true delight in his agility. The girl chuckled at his antics.
When the party stopped for rest, Panofus dared to come closer. He noted that the girl’s mother was watching, but the woman did not seem concerned.
The girl was as afraid of chasing Panofus away as he was of chasing her away. She too approached him with caution. She pulled something from her bag, a few slices of orange. She offered them to Panofus. He realized that he was hungry. He took the orange slices and ate them so quickly the girl laughed. She reached into her bag for more, but Panofus was afraid that her mother would call her away.
He began to mark the dirt. With his nimble fingers, he was able to draw the universal symbol for “mage” far more adeptly than he had managed with his hippo leg.
Panofus gestured to the girl, pointing to himself and then to the symbol in the dirt.
The girl peered down at the symbol. Her eyes widened, and she stared at Panofus as she called to her mother. When her mother came, the girl pointed to the symbol in the dirt.
“Did you draw that?” the woman asked her daughter.
The girl shook her head. She pointed at Panofus. “He did.”
Panofus drew it again, so that the woman would not think that her daughter had drawn the symbol as a trick. He pointed to the symbol, and then he pointed to himself, again.
The woman knelt down until her gaze was almost level with Panofus. “You are a mage?”
Panofus nodded. He was prepared to draw more symbols to ask for help, but he had no need.
“You’re in need of aid?” the woman asked.
Again, Panofus nodded.
“Then we will aid you!” the girl said, grinning and rocking on her feet.
“We will do our best,” her mother said. And she introduced herself.
She was Moon and her daughter was Nari.
Moon was a merchant now, but she had once been a healer, and healers were wont to know the ways of mages. She invited Panofus to come with them, for they were returning home.
Along the way, Panofus told Moon and Nari his story, using marks in the dirt, and marks in Moon’s travel book. He found it easier to draw in the dirt. His fingers were small, and he was growing more comfortable with them, but they were still not as precise as his human fingers had been.
That evening they stopped for a last rest before arriving in their town.
“Death is indeed chasing you, my little friend,” Moon said.
Moon had been writing all she learned from Panofus in her travel-book. Panofus could not read it. She wrote in the language of the healers. She was reviewing her notes now.
“I am no mage,” she said, “and I don’t know of the spells you cast. But I do know of the natural cycles in the world. You seem to be caught in some kind of cycle. A cycle of death and rebirth, only when you are ‘reborn’ so to speak, you are cast into a new body by the transformation spell. And death—your death—loses sight of you and has to find you all over again. And when they do, and when they get close enough, you die. Perhaps the closeness of death triggers events that lead to your death.” Moon frowned. “I’m not certain I understand all the workings of this cycle. But what do you think?” She turned to Panofus.
Panofus heaved a sigh.
He drew a symbol in the dirt.
The symbol for “demon.”
Moon’s expression grew serious and tender at the same time. She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“I’m afraid so,” she said. “The demon killed you. In that moment, the spell of transformation transformed you. Death could not find you. That is when the cycle began.”
“Mother, why do you both look so sad?” Nari asked. But Panofus could see in her eyes that she was beginning to understand.
If he found some way to break the cycle, to return to his native form, death would claim him once and for all. For he had already died. But if they did nothing, then Panofus was doomed to repeat the cycle of death and transformation. For how long? Moon did not know. Panofus did not know.
Thus far, Panofus was able to forget the pain of transformation and the panic and horror of all his deaths. As he transformed into different animals, his memories of his past form became memories of events only, not of emotion. But over time, he would surely grow weary. Perhaps he would even go mad and start transforming into rabid beasts.
“But why can’t you just stay a monkey until you die of old age?” Nari asked.
Moon closed her book. “Because death will find him.”
“What if he could use magic to hide from death?”
Moon brushed a finger across her daughter’s cheek. It was only then that Panofus saw the tear that had fallen. Nari was weeping for him.
“If such a magic existed,” Moon said, “many would use it to live forever.”
Nari reached out to Panofus and wrapped her hand tightly around his. “I’ll hold onto you,” she said, her voice steady with resolve. “I won’t let death take you.”
“I wonder,” Moon said, peering into the distance. She dropped her gaze and locked eyes with Panofus. “What if Nari is right? What if there is a third way?” She knelt down. “What if you meet your death face to face?”
Panofus frowned. He wrote in the dirt.
Go with death?
Moon shook her head. “No, that might not work anyway. You would just transform. I mean to say that maybe your death can be reasoned with.”
Panofus peered at the words he had written. He tilted his head and gazed up at the stars.
Panofus paced nervously back and forth in the clearing. He glanced over at his companions as they all waited. Neither he nor Moon had wanted Nari to be there when he summoned death. But Nari had reminded them that his death was his death and could not harm either Moon or Nari.
When his death appeared, their black robes glittering as in a reflection of the night sky, Panofus stopped pacing. He leapt between his death and his companions.
“What is it?” Moon asked.
Panofus did not answer.
They cannot see me, death said.
The voice sounded calm. Panofus had expected his death to be angry for being foiled so many times.
“May I speak?” Panofus asked. He was startled by the sound of his voice, only its pitch was higher. He turned around to look at Moon and Nari. Moon’s eyes were furrowed, and they narrowed slightly as if she were trying to understand what was happening. Nari just looked scared. She was twining her fingers together. She had wanted to hold Panofus’s hand, just as she had said. But neither Panofus nor Moon would allow it.
He turned back around.
They cannot understand you, death said.
“Do I sound like a screaming monkey to them?”
It is so.
“I must explain to you what has happened to me since the moment I…since the moment of my death.”
You may speak.
Panofus explained everything from the moment of the attack on his fortress, to his attempt at escape, to Moon’s theory on how the cycle had formed, and Nari’s hope of staving off death until Panofus grew old.
So you have summoned me here to make a bargain?
“I want to live,” Panofus said. “But I want to live a natural life, not an immortal life.”
I am your death. I do not have the power to grant life, only to claim it.
His death’s face was hidden in shadow, but Panofus thought he sensed a smile—a friendly one, not a sinister one—within those shadows.
I am only fulfilling my purpose, but I do not want you to die a sudden and violent death. I am sorry that is what you have experienced. If I am able to see you, if you stand still, I can make your passing bearable, even gentle, even if you do not wish to die.
Though he was weary of death and transformation, Panofus hoped that the spell would activate even if he allowed death to claim him.
“I’m not certain this will work,” he said.
We shall see.
His death reached out and Panofus felt the life draining from him, just as it had when the demon attacked him. But it was different now. He was not panicked, so the feeling only tired him. And he felt the spell of transformation activate, for his body seized. He braced himself for the familiar pain. But he felt only a tremendous itching that passed as quickly as it came. This time, the sensation of dying dulled the pain of transforming. He had his choice of form ready.
Panofus transformed into a dog, a retriever with black fur.
He had chosen an animal whose company people would welcome, for if death failed to claim him, he would need the help of people, specifically his fellow mages.
Panofus heard a gasp from behind himself, and thought that Moon was responding to his transformation. But he found her suddenly beside him, facing his death.
“I can see them,” Moon said.
Panofus looked at his death, whose smooth face was now visible in the starlight. His death had pale purple skin and black eyes, and was now standing on the ground instead of floating above it.
His death appeared solid too, as if they were tangible as well as visible. As if Panofus had shared some of his mortality with his death.
“This has been happening,” his death said, “on occasion, along with many unpleasant sensations.”
Moon and Nari could now hear his death too. Upon describing the sensations they were feeling, it sounded as if his death had been burned and cut, had a headache one time, and had felt hunger and thirst.
“Of course,” Moon said. “You are both caught in this cycle.”
Moon asked his death if they had tried eating or drinking, or finding some warm clothing. But his death had no context for such mortal things, and so had not tried eating or drinking or finding shelter.
In a strange and unexpected turn of events, Moon invited the death of Panofus into her home. She fed his death and spoke to his death. They discovered that his death was able to serve as Panofus’s translator.
Nari, who had been delighted that Panofus had transformed into a form even more beloved to her, pointed to her cheek. “Kiss!”
Panofus hardly thought that was appropriate. He merely bumped his nose against her cheek, puzzled when she giggled and ruffled his ears.
His death watched these ordinary moments with what seemed a calm fascination.
But after a few hours, his death began to fade, and their mortal sensations began to fade.
“We can travel together,” Panofus suggested as his death began to float. “I know mages who can help us. And I can tell them of my fate. They can break this cycle and we both can move on into the afterworld.”
Agreed, his death said.
The next morning, Panofus said his goodbyes to Moon and Nari. He could not promise to return. He only said that he would let his people know what great friends the merchant and her daughter had been, and how they had saved him and his death.
To his relief, Nari did not weep for him again, but only bravely kissed the top of his head and waved.
Panofus and his death went on their way.
“I will relish being in this form,” Panofus said, “knowing you aren’t going to strike me down at any moment.”
All death should be gentle. Many of my kind are awakened before their time by those who are like the demon you describe. I am sorry to have come to claim you so soon.
“Well, maybe if we encounter any such demons on our way, you can try to claim me, and I can transform into…a bear! A particularly giant bear. And I could stop the demon.”
Without killing him and summoning his own death?
At last he turned his head up to the figure floating at his side, his death.
“I’m glad you are my death,” Panofus said, and he padded along, feeling the strange sensation at his backside that he realized was the wagging of his tail.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel