Magus Young, Magus Old
The couch, the couch, the couch, my God… thank God for it. The Magus sunk back in its softness but found little comfort in her collapse, for she felt monumentally sick to her stomach. The confusion between the worlds she thought she would walk with the golem and the Eidolon and that of the reality of Wormwood was extraordinarily exhausting and wholly unexpected.
The dark energies of the earth and the bright energies of the sky-sprites she had swallowed whirred round her holding her in place; the relationship should have been a harmonious one: balanced, one against the other, nullifying the pressures of the real universe and allowing her to go about her business uninhibited and unmolested. But that seemed not to be the case–she was tied. My God, even the comfort of the couch had no comfort at all! The string had led her true. The man, exnzpat–the string had found him. But of the woman and the dog, she had no idea. Their placement on the string, as far as the golem and girl’s Eidolon were concerned, should have posed no danger, but they had. What their nature and relationship to exnzpat was, the Magus had no idea. The dog, with its twinkling black and white pulse was an astonishingly fantastic thing, demonic surely. If that was the missing dog the police had searched for after the murders but did not find, then there was little wonder, for such a creature could surely pass through walls unnoticed. And the woman…? The Magus shook her head in wonder.
The Magus unbuttoned the right side of her nurse’s apron, and when loose enough, she pulled at its hem to wipe her brow. She rubbed away at the sweat pooling on her face and neck. She was burning up. The whole of her physical and mental state seemed to be one of unrestrained panic. The girl was almost dead and so there was little time left for discovery with exnzpat and the dragon world in which he lived. What that world really was and how it could possibly exist at all she might never understand. Better to let it go than to worry on it. Exnzpat and his relationship with the lawyer, executionerofthewill, and her Ben were of more importance anyway. Besides, she thought, looking at the pale figure barely breathing under the thin hospital sheets, there was almost no time left, best to extract what information she could while the girl lived.
Something heavy squeezed at her chest. She bent forward dropping her apron and clasped at her bosom and, pressing down on her heart with her hands, hoped to quell the pain building there. She gasped. And as she pushed down with her hands, a new and rapid flux of heat burst across the whole of her body. Sweat soaked her clothing, she felt them sticky and confining, and it was with only great willpower she stopped herself from tearing them from her body.
Her limbs ached and just then, amid this incredible discomfort, she heard, or rather felt the calm voice of her tutor-past come to her. He, the Pretender Barrett, had always driven himself to extremes in the pursuit of his science. He needed to the Magus knew, for there was more curiosity of magic in him than anything real about his magic to begin with, but his voice, strong, earnest, and kind had always alleviated the pressures welling in the child Mia growing to womanhood, living and studying in his household as an apprentice.
“As an adept, my dear, you are always challenged. If you find yourself unchallenged then you are simply not delving deeply enough into your God-given capabilities…
“Begin again. Begin at the beginning. Understand where you have been, and then look at where you are. Discover the patterns that brought you to that place and, in knowing them, you will find your way forward.”
The Magus began to hyperventilate. She coughed amidst the tumult, almost choking to death. She caught herself, cupped her hands about her mouth and made a forcible, conscious effort to slow her breathing. After a minute, she succeeded, and the pressing pain in her chest began to subside and her sharp breathing began to ease and return to normal. But her mind still raced: the pressure of the fast dying girl, the golem, the dog, the nude woman, and the man in the snow; these things she caught as if in a bag and, tying them neatly with a bow, managed to hold them distant but still near. And the other, that earthly thing that had been pushing on her so greatly, she managed to keep it at bay. Whatever it was, she thought each time she returned to the couch, to be so mightier distraction she would lose the string world of the dragon altogether if she let it in. Keep it out. Keep it out for now…. And thinking and collating and marginalizing, she began to calm; her heart slowed; her breathing slowed; she began to drift… drift to the beginning of things… searching, searching and looking for patterns.
* * *
Barrett was never fond of astrology, too many discrepancies between it and scripture, he had once told her. One or the other had to be wrong, he always said and, without hesitation or consent to a higher authority, he decided the thing that must be wrong was astrology. Denying the mystics and sages of all the ages in favor of the Bible seemed, for such a learned man as Francis Barrett, an amazing thing to Mia, and she told him so. Barrett patiently explained the world and the universe were all Natural things and all these things began with the Loving Will of God and no other. To understand the connection between the inert, the living, and the dead one can discover opportunities, trapdoors, and pathways that skirt the obvious, pedantic corridors life presents us.
Francis Barrett was, surprisingly, a young man when she first met him. His youth surprised Mia because of the great impression her dead Master had imprinted upon her on during their overland trek from Georgia to Charleston Town. Master had said Barrett was a great man and a man of knowledge and wisdom, and yet, upon receiving the three bedraggled, water-weary American’s in London Town, he seemed no older than Little John. And coming up to Abigail, taking her hand and bowing as if she were an equal, seemed a remarkable social blunder for one so highly appraised, but indicative of youth, and so, Mia, on that first impression, wondered at the man’s actual social status in this new old city.
And Abigail, for once in her life, was speechless. She dithered and muttered shyly like a small girl when Barrett took her hand into hers and held it with genuine affection. Mia and Little John simply stared in amazement, perplexed by both their matron’s strange behavior and the handsome Londoner who had come to collect them, and when Abigail did not look up from the wooden planking of the ship, Little John pushed passed her and introduced himself.
“And your father? Where is he? Still below decks?” enquired the man politely, shaking John’s hand.
“My father is dead,” John relied gravely. “Murdered by thieves before we shipped.”
The man stepped back, dropping John’s hand and holding his other to his mouth in shock.
“My Dear Lord, how you must have suffered! I am truly sorry for your loss.” The distress in his voice was real. And his soft eyes surveyed the three travelers with real concern.
“For many years your father and I kept a most wonderful correspondence… He was… he was a man of great knowledge and acumen in my line of work. He was a confidant and an asset to me.”
“It’s all right, sir,” John said. “Mia fixed the murderers up good. Fixed them up good forever.”
“I see…” Barrett said, cocking his head to one side with interest.
“And this is Mia?” he asked of John, looking behind Abigail to the skinny teen hiding behind her voluminous skirts.
“Yes, this is she.
“Mia, come and say hello. This is Master Barrett. He will be taking care of us whilst in London.”
Mia sidled round Abigail’s bulk, and not sure what was expected of her, took up the submissive, hunched obedience of the slave she was and stood quietly before the man with her head bowed.
Barrett reached for her hand and took it warmly into his. She did not look up. “Mia, at last. I’ve heard so much about you. And please John, it is Mister Barrett here.” Mia blushed but did not look up.
“There’s no need to be shy. I won’t bite,” he said and laughed.
His laughter was bright but carried a tinge of sadness from the recent knowledge of his friend’s death. After a long moment of observation he said, looking to the others, “Come then. Let us make haste and get you to my home… to safety and comfort.
The man did not release Mia’s hand. He tugged at it lightly causing her to look up and see his face. Mia saw his eyes were turquoise and hooded by heavy, dark brows. They sparkled, and in them, she saw tiny flecks of gold. His hair was long, tousled, and fell carelessly about his cloaked shoulders. Such a flamboyant style was unknown in the Americas. His lips were full and rich. Delicate laugh lines curved about his mouth when he smiled. Mia looked away quickly; not daring to look again, for what she saw was beautiful.
Within minutes, Barrett organized some men to load their baggage. And after a quick negotiation, the men quickly and skillfully began to bundle their packages and boxes atop a handsome cab waiting beside the ship. Barrett led the trio down the wooden planking that connected sea to land and together the four stood in silence watching the men work.
Mia rocked. The weird sensation of standing on firm land after a month at sea was surreal, and she looked to John for an explanation. John, as always, seemed nonplussed by any new situation. Mia had always envied his state of mind, for she could see into it, and saw it sometimes confused but accepting of new things without fear. Like his father, John was not a dandy. And even though he was only a few years older than Mia, Little John acted and believed himself to be so much older, and it was that she really envied in him: his confidence. During the voyage, Little John had made it very clear to the other passengers and the cadre of rough men who crewed the ship who was responsible for her and Abigail. The men had laughed at him but Mia saw in their heads that they too admired the spunky little chap from the colonies, as they thought him. And by keeping her and Abigail safe he had kept the crew and their fellow traveler’s safe from her, for Mia saw many strange perversions and pleasures in their heads when they stared at her.
Mia saw immediately that the port of London was very different from the port of Charleston. The buildings here, warehouses and officers, were taller and made of stout red brick and steel frame. These structures sat far back from the cobbled dock. They were so large and so high they gave Mia the impression of a stern boss-man staring down hard upon her. And it must have been the same for Abigail too, for Abigail stared wide-eyed at these edifices lining the landward horizon in a long unbroken line of unclimbable fence with honest fear in her eyes.
Abigail went to help the men with the baggage. Their new Master, Mister Barrett, caught her arm as she went forward and together they almost tripped across a thick, coiled rope that hung down from the ship. Barrett, with good humor, laughed, “There is no need, Abigail. Let the men do for us. Your things will be safe.” It was a strange thing to say, Mia thought, because of course their baggage was safe, Abigail only wanted to do what was expected.
Looking about, Mia suddenly realized the real oddity of London town. She saw no black skins here. There were white men doing black men’s work only, and there were hundreds of men on the dock, all of them doing something, and not one of them mulatto or colored in any way. It was very strange.
These white Men shouted down from the ships and the long boats that had tied along the port wall with vulgar gusto. Gulls cawed, wheeling above, screaming at each other and at the men below. Pulleys and ropes creaked, straining at their loads. Sails cracked like cannon-fire overhead and, the cool blue-sky, with its scudding, cotton ball clouds whipping smartly above the noise and toil below, Mia felt something fresh and new here. Everything was sky; Mia began to feel the excitement of these new things take hold of her. Even the smell of the stagnant river’s port water contained a salty scent to it that was neither stale nor unpleasant. All of it careened about her like wild horses as she stood and looked on, taking it all in. And there was much more too: the unseen footsteps of the ancients had once stood in this very same spot. The Romans, the Danes, the Celts, the Beakers, the Normans. Kings, Queens, and Knights too had been here. Mia felt the rumble of ancient London in her feet swelling up and billow into her chest. She saw legends untellable because all but a few were known. She saw colorful flags flying and steel swords and polished lances shining in a yellow sky round her. Pastels and whites shimmered and shone in her eyes: they were the ghosts of old.
And in this state she knew this was the right land for her. The feeling was queer because she felt she had come home. England, her mother… and her Father, not dead and hanging upon the cruel horns of George the mad bull of Georgia, but breathing and living in the soul of Merlin; He, Lailoken of old, He, the father of the strange crafts and burning jaspers that roiled and swelled deep inside of her. All of it tangible and yet indistinct too, and all of it the color of jet.
John touched her shoulder, “Mia,” he said. “Are you ill? You look as if you have just seen a ghost.”
She looked at him and smiled, for maybe she had.
The feeling, as swiftly as it had come, passed. A man came by her carrying a long pole with a metal hook on its end and, by accident, bumped into her. He stopped, bowed slightly and said, “Pardon me, Miss,” in a soft, lilting accent. His voice sounded as if he were about to burst into song. He went on ahead without looking back, but already, Mia knew that this London may be new to her, but it was her home, for like the man, her heart was singing its greetings.
“Come, friends!” It was Mister Barrett. He had opened the door to the cab. John was already inside and Mister Barrett was ushering her and Abigail to join him.
Mia looked to Abigail with raised eyebrows. What was this? Did the man not expect them to ride atop with the loaded baggage?
“Come ladies,” Barrett said again. Ladies? “We have far to go, and I live outside the city. It is several hours journey and we must make haste, for the day will be hot.”
Cautiously Abigail moved forward, but to the rear of the cab to climb up, lest she misunderstood Mister Barrett’s words. He caught her again and steered her into the cab. Abigail, perplexed and worried gave in to him. And Mia, amused by Abigail’s confusion, followed.
The sky grew suddenly overcast and grey. It seemed a storm had come. It was something. Some thing! It was not hot at all, nor did it appear it was going to be so, despite Mister Barrett’s words.
* * *
My kite streamers of blue, red, yellow, green and their million assorted counterparts gave way to pasty, yellow wax walls as we followed Maxwell down into the catacombs of the mound. There were no other Chora here. The walls, ceilings, and floor seemed made of a plaster of thick, curled wax. The path we followed was circuitous and steep. There was no railing to hold and so I put my hand on Lilith’s shoulder to steady myself. Within the path, short steps had been cut and, shorter than my foot, these steps were treacherous but perfect for the clawed, club-like foot of the Chora. Maxwell moved swiftly ahead of us and if not for Lilith’s superhuman strength, I doubt I would have managed to keep up without tumbling.
When we came to the bottom of the stair the space before us opened up into a long, cavernous yellow hall, its ceiling, easily twenty feet high. Maxwell stopped and waited for us descend.
We came up to her and she reached out with her long boney arms and stroked us both along our backs.
“Your friend is here, but first I have something to show you.”
She went ahead. I noticed that the walls of the hall were not exactly smooth, for every ten feet or so, I saw pale, ovoid impressions indented into the wall space. All was yellow and the walls appeared wet. I touched the nearest one and brought my hand away quickly. It glistened with light oil that stung the tips of my fingers. I looked at my fingers and saw a fine curl of smoke smoldering there. It was acid, not strong, but strong enough to burn. I rubbed my fingers across my pants to rid them of the liquid. Holes formed where I touched the fabric, but otherwise no other harm was done. I moved into the center of the hall and kept a wary eye on the yellow, weeping walls.
Lilith rolled her eyes in my direction. It was another of those human, female expressions I’d come to know from many years of marriage, and seeing it, I laughed aloud. The sound of my laugh in the hall was dull and hollow, muffled by the thick, oozing walls. But its effect on Maxwell was remarkable. She spun about and came up to me. One long arm caught me about the neck and another reached up and gently touched at my lips.
“How is it you can do that,” she stroked.
“Laugh? Speak?” I returned, stroking at her nearest arm.
“Is that what that is? It hurts me to feel it.” And stroking at my arm, two long antennae uncurled from off the top of her head and came down and pried open my mouth. I let her do this, for I trusted her completely.
Maxwell was gentle. She lowered her enormous, elongated head; her round, luminous eyes looked into my mouth. She, like a dentist, inspected my mouth. An antenna carefully lifted my tongue while the other probed at my inner cheeks searching for the mechanisms of sound.
After a moment she pulled away satisfied, and stroked, “Ah, I see now. We have lost this function; it has no intimacy, I suppose. Your vibrations are poor conductors for the art of child-making.”
Maxwell opened her mouth to show me hers. Lined with tiny, needle like teeth she had no tongue. There was only a thick, flat plate lined with little spines where her tongue should be. Closed, her mouth looked human, but inside, it looked more like the inside of a fish’s mouth or that of a bird.
“Please don’t make that sound again, exnzpat, unless you must. Even our prisoners respect this rule and it is their presence only that disturbs the ascetics of my kingdom.”
“I am sorry Maxwell, I’ll be careful, but when we meet with our friend, you must keep back as it is the only form of communication she knows.”
Maxwell retracted her antennae and looked at me gravely.
“Very well. Let me open the first cell but do not mouth with the creature there. It is dangerous.”
Lilith reached out and rubbed at Maxwell’s arm, “It is well queen; we shall be as quiet as we can be. Show us her now.”
“Very well, but I must show you this other thing first.” Maxwell let her arms fall and her antennae curled back atop her head and sat there like a crown of coiled snakes. She turned and we followed her down the long hallway.
After a short distance, Maxwell stopped at an indentation in the wall and turning to it, from the top down, began to scratch at its surface. The material came away like thread and she pulled it and wrapped it about her waist in long strands, wearing it like a belt of taffy. She worked quickly and soon the indented wall was at her chest height–the height of my head. She touched me softly and motioned me forward. “This one is dangerous and I dare not undo this door any further.
I looked through the opening, expecting to see Becky, but instead I saw a large man squatting on the floor. He lifted his head and when he saw me, returned my stare with dark, hate-filled eyes. His eyes were as sharp as obsidian: black, narrow, and cruel, he glowered back at me. His nose was flat, and framed by shallow, blunt cheeks he looked pressed, as if his face had been shaped by blows with a heavy hammer. Unshaven, his beard was a tangle of the blackest and vilest hair I had ever seen. The hair atop his head was as shaggy and as rough as his beard, but it was short. He wore it like a helmet.
And beneath this brim of hair his forehead protruded, and despite Maxwell’s warning about sound, I let an involuntary hiss rattle between my teeth. The lump on the man’s forehead was unmistakable: the mark of the Magus. His hatred for me, and the giant queen standing silently beside me was palatable, dark… horrible.
It was a very long moment before I finally broke our stare and another long moment before the man moved. He rose like a crane lifting a heavy load and, when fully erect, I saw he was easily seven foot tall. He did not speak, only, he barred his teeth like an angry dog and like an angry dog, he growled. It was an ugly, dangerous sound and I felt Maxwell shift uncomfortably behind me. Without taking his eyes from me, the big man reached down to the floor of his cell and lifted an enormous, thick, black coat that he had been sitting on and wrapped it about his shoulders and then stood expectantly, waiting for me to speak, but I dared not while Maxwell remained close. Transfixed, we two remained staring at each other. I could not take my eyes away from his hideous personage. Neanderthal meets Cro-Magnon, I thought, but I knew it was not true. He, I felt, much like Maxwell behind me, was what mankind would someday become and like Maxwell, this thing (as Maxwell referred to him) was so far advanced, genealogically speaking, I was the Neanderthal here.
Lilith pushed up beside me and, on tiptoes, looked at the man through the gap Maxwell had made. In the man’s eyes, on seeing a woman, I expected to see surprise, or lust, or at least some softening to his demeanor. Instead, it was none of those things. His eyes grew a deeper darker purple and hostility bristled visibly upon his dark face and beard. He growled once again, and the sound of it echoed about his tiny cell like a peel of distant thunder.
Maxwell pulled the two of us back, and in an unhurried manner, laced the gap closed.
When she was done, she touched at us, “This creature is of the tower clan. He is dangerous to us. If I give you your woman, all I ask in return is that you take this thing back to its rightful place. We have no desire to keep it here.”
“How is it he is here to begin with?” Lilith stroked.
“From time to time these things come and seek us out and take our heads for the glory of their camp. This one we captured in battle and so we have kept it here for many suns. We cherish life. We have no desire to extinguish it, even in something as vile as it.”
I looked up at Maxwell and stroked at her waist, “But surely he will try to kill us the moment he is set free.”
“We will provide you with strong bindings that his spells and strength cannot break.
* * *
The sights, smells, and bustle of London were greater, stronger, and faster than Mia had ever witnessed during her short time in the only other city she knew, Charleston. Also, she found it difficult to gauge the size of London. All of it seemed brick upon brick and brick upon stone and steel. She felt the tremble of its age in her feet again and knew that its very antiquity carried weight. Visually too, she saw that it seemed to have no end, for even after an hour, the promised countryside seemed no nearer. And no matter how hard she looked, Mia saw no colored skins anywhere.
Men and women dressed differently here. The women in long, thick dresses some, carrying dainty parasols that seemed useless against the darkening sky, while the men beside them wore long, dark or grey suits with wide, flowing capes. Upon their heads, they wore felt hats clamped tight to their heads with one fist against the raising wind. If there was status in dress here, Mia could not discern it. For everyone hurrying in the street from the threatening sky above seemed rich to her.
Even the cabmen wore natty, dark suits with tall hats upon their heads. Such wealth was unknown to her. The streets too were wider and the variety of cabs and trains and the dressed horses in their polished leathers enthralled her. But no matter how hard she searched she saw nothing bright. The only colors here were olive, gray, brown, and black. Every now and then, she spotted a red or yellow scarf draped carelessly about a woman’s neck, but that was all. Despite the lack of color, the people she saw looked happy.
There was so much to see and Mia could barely pull her little face from the cab’s window to see it all. She gawked and pulled at Abigail and John to see to, and together the three gasped at every new thing; not John so much because he did not want Mister Barrett to think him a rube, nor Abigail so much because she was tired and old and didn’t particularly care too much for new things.
Eventually, the cobbled carriageways gave way to gravel and dirt roads and the tall buildings to lesser abodes. Men and women walked alongside the road with them, sometimes arm in arm, and sometimes in single file, depending upon the number of horses, ox carts, and carriages in the street. To Mia, everything about country seemed more intoxicating than the city had been. And finally, leaving the buildings behind them, she saw tiny, painted cottages and wide, newly tilled fields, not of corn or cotton, but of little heads of grasses that Mister Barrett said was barley. In other fields of thick, green grass, mottled, black and white cows chewed at their cuds as they looked longingly over their fences at the lushes of tall grasses that lined Mia’s side of the fence. Mia wanted to jump from the cab and pull up the grass to their precious faces to feed them. There were strange gnarled trees too, with enormous, thick, brown trunks that paraded their branches high above the road and filled the sky above with a canopy of heavy greenery. Their wide splayed leaves blocked the scudding clouds and, when it began to rain, Mia hardly noticed it had begun because of their generous, protective embrace.
The rain was light and when it ended the sun returned with a smile upon the dripping, deep greenness of the land, drying the sparkling wetness of it all in a wash of yellow sunshine. And for Mia it was enough; this England was all the magic she thought she would ever need.
* * *
We followed Maxwell to another indentation close to the big man’s cell. Maxwell lifted her thin arms up and began to unweave the door, the whole of it this time, until her waist was pregnant with thread. Lilith touched me and stroking my back, said, “It will be unwelcome to tarry here. The man will be a burden and he will be persuasive, you must not give into him.” I looked at her in amazement and returned, “Why in God’s name would you say that? He’s clearly a monster. One of Scudamour’s henchmen; I doubt I will even speak with him let alone listen to what he has to say.”
Lilith dropped her hand and looked at me sadly. And, the whole time Maxwell undid the door, we stood in silence staring at one another. I had no idea what was going through her mind, for she would not let me see.
* * *
The cab turned off the road into a narrow corps of green oaks and wild aspens. After a short moment, they came to a tall iron gate bounded by thick, stone pillars adorned with a single giant orb atop each. The cabbie dismounted, stretched his aching back and went to the gate and pushed each gate open enough to let them in and, once returned to the cab, drove them inside. As the cab hobbled along the quiet drive, Mia thought it strange that the cabman had not closed the gate behind them. Was Mister Barrett expecting company? A party perhaps? Put to work before they had even had time to rest! Oh, well, she thought, it was a pity, but then, after this wonderful drive, Mister Barrett could, she decided, do no wrong, for he had already given her a taste of something she could not define. She did not know that taste, for it was but a shadow of life. It was freedom. And to hold something like that in your hands and keep it close each and every day would be a remarkable thing; impossible even. Mia sighed and sat back against the soft, thick-leathered seat and smiled and, closing her eyes, was asleep before they reached the house. The pattern of everyday life spun about her, but she was to woven into the memory of it to notice.
* * *
With the threaded door down I saw Becky huddled on the floor, her feet to her chin and her dark hair falling forward across her knees. She was in disarray and did not look up as I entered.
“Becky?” I whispered, lest I agitate Maxwell who, as soon as I stepped into the cell, loped away down the hall to wait at the bottom of the stair.
Becky did not move. She had my jacket wrapped about my shoulders and she appeared to be asleep or in a daze, which one I could not tell.
“Becky,” I repeated, and again she did not move.
Slowly she lifted her head from her knees. I gasped involuntarily, stepping away from her. It was as if a violent wind had taken her face, it was as wild as the big man’s in the other cell had been. Her dark hair, lank and greasy, appeared to whirl round her head in the imagined wind. And in that wind I saw a bulge as big as a walnut grow from out of her forehead. Her eyes began to focus. She saw me standing there and, just as suddenly as it had come, the blowing imperfection smoothed away to nothing, leaving only a furrowed and worried brow. An inarticulate sound came from out of her mouth. I stepped forward and catching her hand, lifted it. She caught my hand too and grasped it tightly, as if desperate for solid ground. “Becky,” I repeated. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”