On the world of Seodan, Tormo, a self-taught magicaster, struggles to save his selfish brother on the Isle of Fish–the last unlikely place in the realms where magic survives.
Seodan (Isle of Fish encircled)
THE UNDOING OF UISDEAN
Story & Illustrations by M F Alfrey
Scrutinising eyes, wary eyes. Tormo could feel the old man reading him like a well-thumbed tome. Leafing through an imagined past whilst Tormo fretted beneath his smiling exterior at just how precise the farmer’s imaginings would be. It was the sort of penetrating glower that had the power to convince even the most innocent they were guilty of something.
A roving finger explored the man’s cavernous nostrils with such autonomy, Tormo considered if the digit indeed possessed more intelligence than its owner. He seemed unaware of its mining for treasure in his left nostril. The nose picking lent a certain uninhibited barbarity to the rough man’s glare.
Tormo was all too aware how odd it was for city folk such as his rambling party to be so far abroad. It had taken all his charm and careful storytelling to bring the nosepicker around. On this particular fine summer’s eve on the island of Fish, charm took the form of a pig leg.
A conjured meat.
Tormo wouldn’t be letting on as to the origin of it though. His fingers deftly fluttering unseen within his tatty old leather shoulder bag. As far as castings went, this one was top notch. It was clear to him the frightful anxiety of being in such close proximity to Creeping Woods kept his mental summoning sharp. It was all about motivation, magic, he had learnt that much.
Holding his breath, he drew the joint forth as if he were unsheathing a mighty sword and presented it to the nose picker. There were only two ways situations such as this usually played out. It went the first way, which, luckily for Tormo and his party, was the way he fancied.
The stout man snatched the joint in his shovel hands with not so much as question about how such a beastly cut of meat could be drawn from such a modest bag.
‘In the barn. With the donkey,’ he barked, with the intonation of a rather boorish dog.
Hairy forearms crisscrossed a barrel chest like two oak beams barring a door. The scowl renewed itself across his brow. One eye twitched mistrust, whilst the other, seemingly unbridled in its motions, lazily meandered from Uisdean, to Tormo, to the cloaked figure just a few paces behind, then to Uisdean and finally coming to rest upon Tormo again.
Grinding pig muck into the dirt with a nervous foot, eager for the rough man to settle and be gone, Tormo stared at his own feet like his life depended on it until the nose-picker snorted like an ill-tempered bull and said, ‘Up track. Bear left. Barn’s there. Disturb donkey and I’ll feed you to pigs.’
Tormo nodded with absolute solemnity and hoped the nod communicated just how sincere he was and he started off that way. He noticed, to his dismay, his giant brute of a brother, Uisdean, was motionless along with the cloaked figure lingering behind. The rough man had noticed too.
Nervousness seized Tormo by the guts with bony fingers. He dreaded these moments more than any other. The locals on Fish were a superstitious bunch. It was pitchforks and burning torches before you could say midite fodder.
Short and sharp like swatting a gnat. Uisdean, without utterance, obediently yawed round like an oak door on stiff hinges swung by a sudden gust and stumbled towards Tormo as if unaccustomed to walking. His head lolled, arms swung limp, flopping about like wet rope. The raven-cloaked figure glided dutifully after him.
‘What’s up with that’un?’ barked the farmer, rubbing his bristly red moustache with a grimy index finger which seemed now to be released of its digging duties. For a moment, Tormo could only think about germs, as that grubby finger ground who-knows-what into the bristles above the man’s lips. Germs, his mother had told him as a child, were everywhere.
But the sensation crawling up Tormo’s back like a centipede was not a dismal fear of germs but a creeping dread that the façade he had so fastidiously composed was about to come crashing down.
‘Oh. Him?’ Tormo laughed out the words, perhaps a little too affectedly. ‘He’s terrible on long journeys. Gets fatigued. Never a peep and is as dozy as they come. Been like it since childhood.’
‘Not that oaf,’ grunted the farmer. ‘Him. That’un there. How’s he movin’ like that?’
Tormo regarded the bleak apparition that appeared to be shadowing his brother with no notable effort nor motion. A form so melancholy it was as if night had become weary of its dark watches and took to travelling the world in the form of some gloomy tourist.
‘Oh, him. He’s incredibly light footed. A better traveller, but just as taciturn.’ The old man raised an eyebrow at that last word. ‘Not a natural conversationalist,’ Tormo finally shouted back. But the nose picking farmer had already lost interest in Tormo and regained interest in the leg of pork.
Tormo, his brother and the gloomy tourist trailed the wagon-rutted track trimmed with the lush growth of summer all the way to their shelter for the night. And Tormo was thankful for it–Creeping Woods was not the kind of a place folk dwelt near without shelter or fire–or both.
The barn wasn’t much to look at. Neglected and tumble-down would have been two kind words too many. It looked as though it had been built by a blind Usk (a race not known for their building prowess) then sat on by Gorgospalt, the mythical giant Midite of beginning times who, legend had it, had flattened out hills and mountains into deserts and plains with his immense backside.
Tormo could smell the donkey even with the barn doors closed. Heaving them open, a disharmony of alarmed wood pigeons flapped out dragging with them tangles of yellow straw. Flies too, lots of them. Waving his hands about his head as if in some long forgotten mad dance, Tormo span round to his brother expecting the worst.
Uisdean was as lacking in motion as a forgotten slab of meat on a butcher’s hook, crawling with flies. Rolling his eyes, Tormo groaned and ensured no one was around before he clapped his hands and rubbed heat into them.
Holding them palms out, a gnat’s breadth from Uisdean’s ashen skin, he summoned a dispel which took effect instantly, to Tormo’s astonishment, dispersing the pesky blow flies into the grass-scented summer air to join the other insects enjoying the dry evening. Last thing he needs is maggots, thought Tormo, examining his brother once more to be absolutely positive none persisted.
Uisdean’s indifference endured.
No expression, no comment, no contention. He was dead after all, and Tormo had to admit, much easier to get along with. But he was his brother, and brothers looked after each other, so Tormo had attempted, somewhat haphazardly, to change his fate. He peeked around his brother’s oxen bulk at the cloaked figure lingering there like a cloud of flatulence he just couldn’t waft away.
‘You can just give up you know,’ he said, waggling a finger. The figure wouldn’t answer, couldn’t answer. ‘I’ll bring him back properly and you’ll have wasted your time,’ continued Tormo, flapping away a few of the more determined flies.
Focused on the figure and not what he was doing, Tormo wandered carelessly into the barn. The creak of old wood, the slink of a metal blade and Tormo threw himself down, arms outstretched.
Hinderspel was an instantaneous reflex leaping from his mind to catch the scythe which had been hanging above the barn door. It had slipped its wooden pegs and nearly deprived Tormo’s body of its head.
Lying there, breathing grateful breaths, Tormo considered what mind would hang a scythe over an entrance. It was just plain asking for trouble. That sort of thing wouldn’t happen in the city. Not with the Inspectors of Common Sense keeping a few eyes on things.
‘You!’ said Tormo, still lying in mucky and straw. ‘It won’t do you any good either. I know you’re there.’ He coaxed the hinderspel to levitate the scythe down into his waiting hands so he could place it sensibly out of the way.
Dusting himself down, Tormo inspected the barn for other budding perils. The donkey in the far corner began to bray, bucking and kicking, lips curling back over addled teeth as it pitched itself around its stall. Plumes of dust leapt into the stagnant air exposing beams of light stealing in through notches and slits.
Tormo smiled and snorted. ‘Nice try. I know it’s you Fate. Give up and leave us be already.’ He waved as if shooing a troublesome cat then clapped to encourage Uisdean along. His brother trudged into the barn, the cloaked figure trailing behind, forever his shadow.
Prodding the straw with a investigating foot for sharp and potentially lethal farming implements, Tormo found only soft summer straw. He threw himself down to rest his sore feet and aching legs. Despite being off them, the sensation of walking remained. Uisdean and Death, for that was who the gloomy tourist was, hung over him like lugubrious family members mourning the recently deceased.
Tormo folded his hands behind his head linking his fingers and closed his eyes, ignoring the both of them.
It had been one uncomfortably long day in an equally unpleasant week. They had left Drakesmouth shortly after his brother died. The thoughtless buffoon had choked to death.
Tormo was always cleaning up after his older brother. There was the time Uisdean had stolen a sizable fish from a monger’s basket on Gullet harbour. A veilspel saved their bacon that day or the pursuing men would have seen them both, instead, they mistakenly thought they had charged into the wrong tavern.
Another time, Uisdean had broken his leg whilst scrumping apples. Tormo took his time luring the bindspel that day to fix the break, hopeful it would teach his wayward brother a lesson. It didn’t. But it did draw puzzlement from city folk who had seen Uisdean limping around in the afternoon like a lame dog one day only to be walking around with a skip in his step the very next.
After some very quick talk with a few of the more prying folk he threatened to transmute his brother into a marsh frog. This was not his genuine intention, nor was it possible–but Uisdean hadn’t known that. What Uisdean did know was that Tormo was a magicaster.
And if he were ever caught…
Magic was banned across the mainland of Seodan and its surrounding isles. The isle of Fish being no exception. An unappealing and forgettable place, Fish was a tiny fisherfolk’s island which made a living off the glut of fish riding the warm currents of the Solnark Sea.
The people of Fish were mostly uninterested in mainlander ways and thinking, which was why Tormo had worked like a dog for a year to buy passage for him and his brother. Though casting was also forbidden on Fish, folk seemed to care a little less–especially if it helped out a bit. But you could never be certain who to trust. Seodan’s emperor had Overseers everywhere.
So, there they had been, on Fish, in Drakesmouth working in a sleepy tavern to make ends meet. And what ragged ends they were… Tormo practised casting on the side when nobody was looking. He wanted to come out, to yell to the world that he had found magic and didn’t care what others thought of him but knew he would lose his head if he were ever caught, so remained firmly in the magic closet.
Casting, spell weaving, enchantments… Every kind of magic was slowly but forcibly being purged from the land. Reviving the dead, even if they were still warm, was possibly the worst casting that could be done–even in the world of magicasters.
It had been a rush job, but with the strong motivation not to lose his brother. Luckily, the casting he had summoned came to him and even luckier still, no one had witnessed the most forbidden of forbiddens.
On the day his bother would die, the tavern had finally emptied of patrons, mostly fisherfolk, and Tormo had been left to close up. Shortly after he had shooed away the last malingerer, Uisdean came tumbling through the back door into the kitchen sending iron pots skittering loudly around the place, blue in the face, grasping at his throat.
Uisdean died on the kitchen floor before Tormo could figure out he was choking. He performed a revivespel incantation with poor pronunciation and intonation summoning a weaker casting. What he needed was the shed skin of a festris. Such skin was said to increase a caster’s ability to summon and ensnare superior magic. But the festris was and elusive creature and ferocious too. Far too mighty a quarry for somebody of his slight size and jumpy disposition.
They left the very night his brother joined the rare ranks of the undead, along with Death, who had shown up after the spell had been cast. But since Uisdean was undead, the raven-cloaked ferryman had been deprived of his charge and had been trailing them like a carrion crow ever since.
Impossible to shake was Death, and unnerving company he made too. On several occasions Tormo had forgotten his presence, he had the cold sweat scared right out of him coming back from bathroom business in the woods at night.
Yet it was Fate, not Death, who had set the scythe to slip and who had wound the donkey into a rage. He wished he could see her like he could see Death. So many had seen Death at some point in their life that his form had become known to all. So, all it took to see him was superstition and a good imagination.
Conjuring a few more possibilities of Fate’s likeness in his mind, Tormo drifted to sleep there on the hay. Uisdean and Death remained his useless sentinels as the cloudless night sky stole the summer heat away.
Embers fluttered like flaming moths from the wonky chimney of the nose picker’s cottage high into the gem spotted sky like stars themselves as the rough man roasted the joint Tormo had given him. All but a stray ember.
That lonesome burning jewel guided by Fate herself, whirling on a freak gust. Dancing, sailing, spiralling down. And, as Fate would have it, miraculously through a gap in the wooden slats of the barn to finally come to rest on a nice dry thatch of straw.
The Isle of Fish
Dreams of an open fire, roast pork and mead swam around Tormo’s dozing mind. Ah, the taste of it, so succulent! And the smell of wood smoke tumbling from the fire. Ah, that smouldering campfire. Fire.
‘Fire!’ yelled Tormo leaping up from the hay as if it were the only word he had ever known. The barn spat and crackled around them. The donkey brayed in earnest, kicking and leaping. Uisdean and Death remained unresponsive to the furnace flame surging around them. ‘Fire!’ yelled Tormo again until his face burned with the effort and his mouth ached.
It was all he could do as the blaze consumed every spell as they slipped out his ears and fled into the night leaving him without. He scowled and cursed Fate aloud.
‘You! You did this. You good for nothing… You won’t win I tell you!’
It certainly looked like Fate had won from where he was hopping up and down, stamping out baby flames before they could mature. Uisdean’s tunic caught and Tormo tried in desperation to stifle blazes where they leapt up scorching his fingers.
‘Oh my… My donkey!’ Came hooting and hollering from beyond the barn doors. They swung open, embers chasing the hot air out, and through increasing flame and curtains of heat, Tormo watched in miserable frustration as the rough man cowered backwards and ran off shouting and cursing.
The blaze grew around them like blades of yellow grasses quivering in a summer storm. Tormo squeezed his head, unable to cast anything. The remaining spells cowering within him were either of no use or too slippery for him to grab. He looked at Uisdean, passive and dumb, then Death, fire in his eyes, teeth flickering flames.
‘Not on your bony white noggin! You’re not taking us both,’ vowed Tormo. He closed his eyes, picturing the farmer as he ran panicked and hopeless. Scrunching his eyes tight beyond comfort, he found the spell he was looking for, grabbed it by the tail, yanked it into his mind and cast it with a whisper.
In a fire flash of a moment a volley of thoughts bombarded his mind; ‘Fire, my donkey, stupid youngster, I’ve left that leg of pork roasting.’ Tormo thought for the old man. ‘Water…’
The old fellow came bumbling back with a bucket of well water a moment later and hurled the contents at the raging barn fire. Tormo spoke the casting, flinging another spell forth and a torrent of water, more than any bucket could contain, came driving out dowsing the barn.
Tormo, Uisdean, Death and the donkey stood drenched to the bones as cooling wooden beams hissed and blackened hay steamed. Glancing from bucket to barn and back again, the farmer was too mystified by his bucket to notice Tormo.
His head now in place with the spells safely flown back to roost, Tormo swept a hand through the air and set free another casting. The rough man’s jaw slackened, his body became limp, his eyes widened. Tormo knelt to grab his bag and clapped so that Uisdean and Death followed as they started off.
Awfully sorry, thought Tormo, as they walked on by wishing he could fix the barn without attracting undue attention. He also wished he had mastered some kind of forgetting incantation, but they were tricky and if performed badly, downright dangerous, and his intention wasn’t to harm anyone.
With this niggling at his conscience, he vanished up the track towards the river Nathar heading northwest for the foothills of the infamous Diraghoni Mountains, braving Creeping Wood at night.
Definitely Usk, though Tormo as he rubbed the awful night’s sleep from his tired eyes. Awakened by the smell of cooking, he thought his luck had changed but soon realised it was a band of nomadic Usk. The stink Usk cooking kicked up was unmistakable. He had contemplated sneaking around, but the morning was as clear as spring water and scrawny shrubs and scraggy trees lining this section of the Nathar river providing little cover.
The fearsome looking Usk, tusk lipped and skin the colour and texture of hardened moss, often camped along the Nathar, fishing and fouling its waters. They were no threat and had not been for an age but be spotted by an Usk at breakfast time and that was that. According to nomad custom they had to invite a fellow traveller to join them. Only Usks survived an Usk breakfast
Dying of food poisoning wasn’t how Trmo imagined their plight ending, so he backtracked a little and turned in the direction of Iomair’s forest. Not a place Tormo had any great ambition to venture into, but he would rather risk an encounter with a changeling than Usk cuisine. So long as there is daylight, we will be fine, he promised himself. Iomair was a mangy old bear by night but only an old man by day. Old men could be reasoned with.
Casting a backward glance, Tormo peered out across the sparkling Nathar to the lands beyond; golden seas of wheat and barley undulating in a gentle breeze. In the distance a green ignion soared on wide reaching wings swooping over crops. First low, then arcing wildly upwards onto the next field dusting the crops with neem oil from great barrels clasped in its mighty arms.
Ignions could also be found in taverns on occasion, in human form. Bound by law to declare themselves upon entry into any city and every establishment since the treaty. But not all did as they should, sometimes even hiding the talismans identifying them as ignions, onrakes or lairgvrns. Not that anyone had seen a lairgvrn for centuries, most assumed them to be extinct. Tormo turned his back on the fields, the river Nathar and his travel companions and struck up the trail into Iomair’s forest, hoping Fate would not interfere this morning.
The day trudged on, as did they, through thick, tangled forest. The path severely overgrown in places, trees strangling out the dwindling light of day, leaning in over them. Just when Tormo felt like giving in and curling up in the pine needles, the path opened up into a clearing. Ahead, in the dusky light, he could just make out a cabin, so he headed towards it cautiously.
The cabin lay nestled by the yawning mouth of a cave, wood smoke, trailing from a crooked stone chimney, hung low in the encroaching pines. Roasting lamb and the homely aroma of freshly baked bread hooked Tormo’s nostrils and enticed his stomach along. His food conjuring was impressive to behold yet completely tasteless; the only person it appeased was his greedy brother.
The cabin door opened with a creak and an old lady, a guimple covering most of her head, stepped out into the tree dappled light of her porch, an ornate wooden pipe hanging from her mouth. She took a couple draws on it, puffed smoke from her nostrils and squinted at Tormo with gleaming suspicion.
‘Who are you and what do you want?’ she croaked and took another puff on her pipe.
‘Tormo and his brother Uisdean of Faroéss,’ said Tormo in the heartiest, warmest, most inconspicuous voice he could muster.
‘Faroéss? Mainlander hey? What you doing all the way up in Iomair’s place I ask?’ She stood square in the doorway now, hands on barrel hips, sucking the life out of her pipe, spouting smoke.
‘We live on Fish. Have done for some years. My brother and I are on a… hiking trip.’
‘Ha. A hiking trip you say? Well, I says you’re lost. You’ve missed Raven Dagger Fells by about five mile.’ She scrutinised them a few moments longer. ‘What’s the matter with him? Sprite got his tongue?’ She nodded towards Uisdean. ‘Never mind, who’s the other..? Is that? No, it can’t be… Why would…?’
The old lady suddenly grabbed at her chest, breathing deep. She danced around vigorously, checked her pulse and said, ‘Well, she’s not here for me…’
‘She?’ said Tormo, baffled.
‘Yeah. The bony old gal behind you. She ain’t here for me…’
Tormo ruffled his brow in thought. He had, like many, assumed Death to be a he, not a she. Though, in his defence, she was all bones, so it was kind of hard to tell. Besides, how did this old lady know–
‘When, warlock, exactly did your brother die and how?’ she asked, rather to the point. Tormo felt faint, stammering for words, he considered running but Uisdean would never keep up. He looked the old lady up and down, then slumped.
‘Please. We mean no harm. I am no warlock, honest. Just a self-taught caster. All I know of casting is from rumour and ragged old books that reek of fish and ale. Please…’
‘Calm down boy,’ said the old lady. ‘Magicasters are welcome here. Come in, it’s getting on and Old Iomair won’t have a warlock and a zombie in his forest.’
‘I’m not a warlock and he’s not a zombie, he’s just…’ Tormo thought about it and knowing exactly how stupid he sounded said, ‘He’s just undead is all. It’s temporary. He doesn’t bite and he’s quite good around people.’
‘He’s not a biter then, so what? Iomair won’t care none. He’s impossible to talk to when he’s that big old flea bag,’ she said and disappeared into her cabin. ‘You like lamb?’ she shouted out to him. ‘There’s enough for two. I assume your brother’s appetite has waned somewhat since his doings and I know she hasn’t even got an appetite, ‘cept for souls.’
Tormo perked up a little and began towards the cabin. Before entering, he looked around with a piercing gaze but had no clue as to Luck’s appearance, but was sure he or she must be around somewhere.
‘Diraghoni Mountains hey?’ said the old lady, who had given her name as Eunice before dishing up a hunk of lamb the size of two human heads for her and a petite steak for Tormo. Uisdean and Death watched on vacantly. Tormo imagined his brother’s craving and frustration, imprisoned in flesh, unable to command his own body, all he could do was drool.
‘Only one reason a magicaster and his undead brother would be risking everlasting death in those mountains… You’re off to the Cave of Undoing, aren’t you?’ said Eunice as she eased herself onto her stool, pipe still hanging from her lip.
Tormo raised an eyebrow as he swallowed a dry hunk of meat wishing for sauce. He could conjure some but didn’t want to appear rude–it would have tasted awful anyhow.
‘You know of the cave?’ he said, somewhat half-choking.
Eunice nodded, took a final pull on her pipe and then smothered it, placing it on the well-worn table top. She placed her hands either side of the huge hunk of lamb, pressing it firmly into the wooden board it rested upon, and bent head first into it tearing strips off. After hardly even chewing a great chunk, she gulped it down and wiped the grease from her lips with the sleeve of her pelice.
‘Yuuesss,’ she said, belching. ‘Of course, I’ve heard of it. Lived here a very long time, heard the stories. You know, plenty die up there. Those who have gone don’t usually return. Even old Iomair sticks to this forest. He don’t want no trouble with mountain midites, or worse things…’ The last comment a trailing mutter.
‘Midites are extinct, aren’t they?’ A sudden flush of panic stole Tormo’s appetite. Like all children, he had heard gruesome tales of midites. After the Treaty of Kinds had been drawn up, all races but the midites had accepted it. They insisted in continuing their people-eating ways and had been hunted to extinction as a result–at least on the mainland anyway.
‘Ha,’ she snorted, choking on her present mouthful of meat. Tormo didn’t know whether to close his eyes and clamp his ears with his hands against the dreadful sight and sound or give her a firm clout on the back. In a few seconds, Tormo’s concerns for his host were allayed as she brought up the offending chunk and greedily took a swig of ale from the wooden goblet beside her.
‘Midites,’ she continued, between spluttering slurps, ‘are not extinct. At least, not on this island. But they are particular to their climes. They likes the mountains and the caves in ‘em.’
‘Even the Cave of Undoing?’ Tormo now felt queasy for a different reason; having to clear a cave infested with midites was a task he would rather not imagine.
‘Perhaps… though they’re sensitive to magic. You might be lucky. You’ve never been up there I take it?’
Tormo shook his head.
‘Well,’ she said, tearing a hunk of meat free with her bare hands, ‘I suppose I could be your guide.’
Why would you do that? Tormo thought. Nothing was free anywhere in Seodan. Especially guides for the Diraghoni Mountains. He decided to be forthright and asked what she wanted in return. Eunice laughed as if it were obvious. ‘To be young again.’
Tormo cast a dismissive wave into the air. ‘I told you. I’m no warlock, mage or wizard. I just about managed to keep my brother undead, and still have to keep topping up the magic. It was a mere fluke.’
‘Ha! Rubbish. You just lack confidence. Trust me, I know a warlock when I see one. This is the way it is young man; you need to get to the cave to undo your brother’s death properly and I need a warlock to undo my years. The cave alone won’t work. A magicaster of some sort is what’s needed.’
‘There’s one other thing,’ said Tormo rather hesitantly.
‘I need the shed skin of a festris.’
Eunice choked again and scowled. Tormo was apprehensive, perhaps he had said something to offend her somehow. She merely smiled in a polite manner and said, ‘I know where to find some.’
‘You do?’ he replied, rather surprised.
She laughed. Wouldn’t be much of a guide if I didn’t, would I?’
Tormo smiled back and thought. His guts were telling him Eunice had no malevolent intentions, or maybe it was all that dry lamb he had just consumed. He looked to Uisdean who stood loyal by his side, dribbling. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘But I can’t promise anything.’
Eunice simply smiled and swallowed another hunk of lamb without chewing.
The leather-bound book landed with a slam on the table rattling Tormo’s empty breakfast plate. Breakfast had been lamb, just like the evening meal the previous day. It was all Eunice seemed to have about the place.
‘You’ll be needing that,’ she said, turning to open the door allowing crisp morning air to chase away the hum of wood smoke and lamb grease. Tormo regarded the casting book. It was ancient, but in excellent condition.
He ran his palm over the nobly cover, mirror black, shining like obsidian. ‘Is this–’
‘Lairgvrn skin,’ said Eunice flatly. Her eyes drifted to where the cave would be if there were no cabin walls hindering the view.
Tormo began to leaf through the yellowed pages, the aroma of aged parchment–cinnamon and wood smoke–filled his nostrils. Though the pages were ancient, the beautiful renderings were as vivid as the day they had been etched. ‘It’s beautiful. How did you come by it?’
‘Oh, long ago,’ said Eunice, who was now trussed up in a fur-lined chape despite the summer heat that was sure to follow such a crisp morning as this. ‘I’m off out to the next farm to scare up some food for our journey.’
‘Sure,’ said Tormo, too absorbed in script etched out thousands of years gone, by some mysterious enchanted hand to really notice her leaving.
‘Twenty pages in. That’s the one you want to be memorising,’ said Eunice as she left, leaving the door ajar affording Tormo some reading light by which to examine the hefty tome.
Counting twenty in, he spread the book open, smoothing out the pages gently as if they were the finest, most expensive silk. Illustrated at the top of the left-hand page was the cycle of life, except it was in reverse, starting with death. Tormo read down.
It was the same spell more or less. Similar to the one he had used to reanimate his brother. Without the power of the cave’s crystals, though, his attempts to permanently attract the spell and get it to behave would always be a pale imitation of an accomplished warlock.
The left-hand page detailed the basic incantation and on the right were additional verses depending on the particulars of the subject’s condition–injury, old age or death. Tormo practised it all avidly, again and again while Uisdean and Death stood idly by, until Eunice finally returned just as crimson dusk bled into the sky.
Lamb, of course, was for supper, but Tormo hardly noticed it, his head stuck in the casting book, careful not to blot the pages with grease. He had already copied the spell onto some parchment he had been saving for something special like this. He had taught himself to write as a child. Copying anything he could get his hands on until one day he understood what he had been writing. It was then he noticed that the spells were written in the Old Tongue of Draíochtaria, the realm now known as Salosnaref, famous for its human magicasters in the old days.
Fortunately for him, he had kept his word-learning secret out of fear of teasing from Uisdean. Tormo eventually became very astute at finding out old papers, scrolls and texts with a magical history. Most had been burned, but some of the more sympathetic city scholars had long ago hidden such writings in the vaults under Faroéss Athenaeum mixed in amongst less thrilling reading like financial records and city archives.
That night, in the stuffy meat stinking cabin, he could barely sleep–it was partially heat, partly indigestion and mostly panic. Marching into the Diraghoni Mountains with an ancient lady he had met the day before, an undead sibling and Death herself didn’t bode well.
Which got him to thinking, there, sweating beneath fleeces Eunice had insisted upon burying him under. He was wondering, what had happened to Fate. He had seen no trace of her at all. There had been ample chances for some mischief since he had met Eunice, yet none were taken. It seemed odd that Fate would miss an opportunity to give Death what she was so patiently waiting for.
The Diraghoni Mountains of the Isle of Fish
The first day of travel seemed to speed by at a pace which appeared not to tire Tormo of which he was glad. A place to camp was selected, the fire set and their first meal out as a group a pleasant one. But now, in air so frigid and so high up with yet higher to climb, the previous day seemed nothing more than a hazy dream.
They had struck camp as soon as the dawn sun came up over the distant peak of the great Basbuaic Mountain. Up with the morning mist leaving Creeping Crags and the foothills one day behind them. Now, on the afternoon of the second day, Tormo waited patiently by a lichen rich runestone marker for Eunice to make the bend in the rocky trail and finally waddle into sight.
They had made good headway along the Smairsmouth Path, up onto Three Peak Ridge, where he now stood atop the first peak looking north at the lavender hue of the distant but still massive Basbuaic, the largest mountain in the Diraghoni range.
Sighing, he pulled back his gaze to the mist shrouded blue mountains in the near distance. Most would have seen beauty in that view but all he saw was pain. Ankle twisting, back aching, knee knocking pain. Eunice had insisted she was taking them the quickest way she knew, but that way seemed to not take the ups and downs into account.
They had scaled Creeping Crags only to discover a path at the top trailing back down a gentle slope they could have come up. They had just happened across the Smairsmouth Path taking a sharp ascent up to his present position. A route which would have been fine if they were flying as carrion crows did.
A terrible wheezing caught his ear, and the familiar aroma of sweet pipe smoke drifted along on a slight breeze. Tormo turned his attention back to the rocky trail to see Eunice, swaddled in so much sheepskin, chewing on her pipe, cheeks red like a slapped backside, drawing herself along with a gnarled oaken staff protesting with each unsteady step.
‘Stupid. Stupid way to bloomin’ travel. Walking. Ha. Ridiculous!’
‘How would you propose we travelled then?’ called Tormo from above. She waved away his comment and gave no answer.
‘Your brother is lagging again young warlock,’ said Eunice, thumbing behind her. ‘Needs a top up too, I’d say.’
Tormo sighed, shoving himself up from the rune marker. ‘Yeah. I’ll go and get him,’ he said, shambling past Eunice with no enthusiasm at all. Uisdean sure would owe him this time. ‘Stop calling me warlock,’ called Tormo as he disappeared round the rocky bend. ‘It’s inaccurate and could get me killed.’
Grumbling to himself as he wandered back down the trail he had just toiled up, Tormo considered whether he really did need a guide or not. Sure, it was nice of her to loan him that book, the spell in there was complete and had a few verses the scrappy version he had originally used didn’t have, but was it really worth having to listen to all the moaning?
From the moment they had left the forest right up until now, Eunice griped about this pain, languished about that pain and frequently had to take breaks. She seemed to be taking them on the most up and down route she could imagine too. Tormo was convinced they had walked in a line as straight as an arrow would fly.
Tumbling rocks stole attention from his thoughts and he sighed. He must have finally come across Uisdean. Probably stuck trying to get over a steep rock or something, thought Tormo as he rounded a jagged outcrop.
His heart leapt and he flung himself back around the crag out of sight. After a few draughts of crisp mountain air, he peeked round the jutting rocks. The stench arrested his nostrils then; the mountain midites were close.
Tormo tried to force his trembling body to relax. He could feel the castings leaking out of his ears, floating away again. The midites were wild, no trappings of men–boots, belts or daggers–a wild mountain clan probably.
All were gathered around Uisdean, poking and prodding him, pushing and shoving each other. He probably confused them. He looked like a man, kind of moved like one but likely smelt odd.
There was nothing for it but to wait it out and see what happened. Tormo couldn’t take the clan alone. He wouldd get off one casting and be snapped in half by the rest, his flesh stripped from bone, bones ground to meal… That was how the legends went anyhow.
One of the hairier ones ceased its pushing and shoving, instead sniffing the air trying to catch a scent. Tormo wet his finger and stuck it in the air. Upwind. Good. There was little danger of them scenting him and definitely not spotting him. Mountain midites were said to be terribly near-sighted, relying mostly on sniffing out any human foolish enough to wander by–like Uisdean.
Frozen, part of the rock face himself, Tormo noticed something else. A feeling he hadn’t had since he met Eunice. It was the sinking feeling that Fate was about to take charge. He cringed as the wind changed, possibly the worst thing that could happen. Then a feeling of spectral hands yanking at his right foot, the one bearing all his weight. It slipped out from under him sending rocks crashing down the trail towards the clan.
Tormo never looked back after Uisdean, not once. Something he would feel terribly ashamed of later. He leapt into the air instead, like a startled marsh frog and bounded up the trail screaming out to Eunice, hoping she would get enough warning. Tormo could hear the midites in pursuit, uncertain as to how many were after him, it certainly sounded like the whole bunch.
Striding along, a stone struck Tormo on the ankle, he crumpled slightly, nearly fell but somehow managed to transform the stumble into a magnificent leap clearing a jutting rock. Another stone, bigger this time, struck him in between the shoulders and Tormo’s world span as he tumbled forward.
Lying there, knees grazed and bleeding through his woollen brais, he wiped his sore, bleeding hands on his tunic and shook the dizziness from his head. Vision blurring in and out of focus for a few seconds, the stony trail eventually snapped into clarity.
Everything snapped into clarity. The pain, the aches, the fetid stink of midite and that awful clogged nose noise they made, like someone breathing through mucus.
They were close.
He heaved himself up throwing his gaze along the trail to the rune marker. No Eunice. Good, she got away. Tormo ran up the sharp climbing path towards the marker, hoping there would be somewhere to hide beyond it; a hole to crawl into, a convenient overhang to cower under–anything. With the scent of human blood to madden them, the midites were furious in pace and nimble of foot. More than accustomed to mountain tracks. All were almost on top of him when he eventually collapsed at the rune.
The vilest and greatest of the bunch came at him, hirsute hands reaching, ready to throttle. Tormo flung his own less hairy hands up in defence expecting to lose a few fingers but instead felt a downdraught of fresh air, the warm spattering of blood and the flapping of great wings.
Upon opening his eyes, Tormo pressed his aching body into the stone floor, overtaken by the urge to dissolve into the grit and grime. The biggest ignion, no, lairgvrn he had ever seen hovered above him on updrafts of warm air, the midite in its talons. It swooped over the ridge, pitching the midite into open air. Already scattering back down the trail, the others leapt and bounded screeching and yelping.
The glorious lairgvrn banked and swooped low over Tormo beating up dust and dirt with its broad bat-like wings. It was a black lairgvrn, an old one. Grey spines and silver scales spotted its obsidian black skin like stars. Tormo continued to watch on, astounded as it chased the midites down the mountain out of sight. He collapsed backwards into a grateful heap lying there for a wild moment admiring the clear sky until a thought set him bolt upright–Uisdean.
Springing to his feet, ignoring the pain, he glided back down the trail not noticing his feet touching the ground. His journey was brief, the lairgvrn was winging its way toward him. He fought the instinct to run and hide, reminding himself of the pact diraghoni kind had made so long ago.
It did nothing to rid his body of the shakes though. There was nothing quite so terrifying as the sight of a black lairgvrn soaring towards you, eyes glinting like emeralds. It had something grasped in its talons. At first, he thought it to be a midite but as it grew closer he caught sight of the ever-malingering shadow of Death gliding along and surmised that within the lairgvrn’s grasp was Uisdean. Why would a lairgvrn…
‘No, it can’t be…’ said Tormo as the lairgvrn hovered over him, gently setting Uisdean down. It backed up slightly to set itself down, stretching its neck, straightening to let out a sonorous howl, wings stretching so much they creaked like the overburdened sails of a ship in high winds. The call ended in abrupt coughing, evolving into hacking and spluttering. The beast folded in two, clutching its back with one winged claw.
‘Are you all right?’ said Tormo stepping towards the beast in great concern, imagining how one would go about saving a choking lairgvrn.
The two-legged sky serpent held its other wing out in a ‘hold on a moment’ gesture until it finished wheezing and hacking. Once the cacophony ceased, it folded in on itself in a whirl of dark motions, shrinking, shrinking until all that remained was the little old lady Tormo knew as Eunice.
‘You’re welcome,’ she said waddling past him, still clutching her back. ‘Now where’s my staff?’ she muttered, searching around the rune marker.
‘You’re a black lairgvrn, a fire breather.’ said Tormo as he checked Uisdean over.
‘Yup. Last of my kind,’ she said, now perched on a rock, rescuing breaths from the air. ‘Do you have any water? No matter how much I spit I can’t be rid of the taste of midiute,’ she said smacking her wrinkled lips together.
‘You’re a lairgvrn,’ said Tormo again as he turned from Uisdean to pass her his waterskin. ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’
‘What about?’ said Eunice as she took a slug of water.
‘You’re a lairgvrn! You’re supposed to inform humans about that sort of thing. And why don’t you wear a talisman?’
Eunice laughed. ‘I know the rules very well thank you. But that’s the Ignion Pact. As you quite rightly say, I’m a lairgvrn. Not an ignion.’
Tormo rolled his eyes. ‘Ignion, lairgvrn, onrake, festril… what’s it matter?’
‘It matters to me!’ she snapped. ‘And I certainly ain’t no festril.’ She spat.
‘Sorry, I–’ began Tormo. Eunice sighed and waved his apology away.
‘Ah, forget it. You’re young and ignorant. It was ignorance that pretty much killed us all off. It were ignions who was eating princesses and maidens.’ She shook her head. ‘A crime for which we were all doomed to bear the consequences. All because of ignorance.’
Embarrassed at his own ignorance, Tormo considered things a moment in silence; her remote cabin nestled in the forest by that cave which must have been her lair of course. But why a cabin? He asked her that question and plenty more after they left the rune marker, along the ragged Three Peak Ridge, up and over Hollow Hill, which was certainly not a hill.
‘So why do you want to be young again?’ said Tormo, regretting the silly question as soon as it had left his lips.
‘Ha,’ Eunice laughed, ‘Like most beings that are old Tormo, I miss movement without aches and pain. But most of all, I miss flying… I mean real flying. Alls I can manage is the odd bout now and then.’
She finished filling her pipe, closed one nostril off with a finger and with a sharp farmer’s blow spouted flame. She puffed a few times to get it going then trotted off with a little more lustre than usual. ‘Keep up. It’s this way, another day or so.’
Tormo looked behind at Uisdean, his left arm outstretched, twine around his wrist trailing through the air to Tormo. He gave it a yank and Uisdean started off again, Death right behind. Tormo wasn’t chancing anything now. They were too close to the Cave of Undoing to risk any more silly situations like the midite incident. It occurred to him then that even dead, his brother still managed to make trouble.
Flames reached into night, amber fingers curling and wavering as they ate the air. Crackling pine scattering glowing ember jewels, the scent of needless filling the air around their little camp.
Not long after the midite incident they had passed a copse of pine. Perpetually thinking of her ravenous appetite, Eunice, had suggested Tormo might want to bundle some firewood to keep mountain wolves and wild midites at bay, she had mentioned something about a treat for their evening meal too. The thought of a treat intrigued Tormo. It would certainly beat the tasteless stuff he had conjured up for lunch after his castings had fluttered back into his head.
That was the trouble with castings. You could memorise them, right down to perfecting their pronunciation and rhythm, which was the key to attracting the magic, to coax it from its hiding place out in the world and convince it to remain with you. They were like wild animals, castings. It took time, building up trust. One good fright and they scattered into the world again.
Tormo sighed as he thought and his stomach sighed along with him. Eunice unfolded her legs and stood.
‘Sounds like you’re ready for something to eat,’ she said, rubbing her hands together. ‘How about some roast lamb? Mmm, on an open fire.’
Tormo looked around and saw no lamb. ‘You’re going to hunt?’
Eunice laughed ‘At night? At my age? Ha! No. That wouldn’t be wise.
‘I can’t do lamb,’ said Tormo. ‘Uisdean was fonder of pork.’ He regarded his brother in the firelight, drooling. He could hear then, probably see everything to. Good. Maybe this whole fiasco would teach him a good lesson.
‘No conjuring necessary,’ said Eunice tapping her nose. ‘Don’t have to do this in secret now the spriggan’s out of the bag,’ she said, and whirled into her mighty lairgvrn form. Tormo fought the natural instinct to flee and marvelled, instead, at how daunting Eunice looked in firelight.
She hacked, and hocked and hacked. Tormo winced as Eunice hacked some more and brought up a whole lamb. It slapped wetly on the ground and Tormo nearly threw up. ‘What about that?’ said Eunice in the growls of a lairgvrn.
‘You want me to eat that?’ Tormo made no effort to hide his disgust, a hand over his mouth.
‘What?’ said Eunice incredulous.
‘Where did you even have that? In fact, I’d rather not know. I appreciate the effort, but I’m not eating it,’ said Tormo.
‘Why ever not?’ replied Eunice, sounding as hurt as a lairgvrn could.
Eunice laughed, inhaled deeply and spouted flame roasting the lamb in an instant. ‘No germs,’ said Eunice, folding her wings across her chest as if she were in her human form. It was a day of firsts for Tormo; his first lairgvrn and then his first smug lairgvrn. She whirled in on herself and took human form again. ‘Right then. That’s settled, so stop being a big old frilly blouse about it and eat.’
Fate let them be that night, leaving the fire unmolested. It was still smouldering when Tormo awoke and rose to untether his brother. The morning evaporated after that and he felt like they had never stopped or even slept. The trail went on and on. Higher and higher along the sweeping curve of Zorgarn’s Saddle. The wind would pick up and they would have to slow their pace. It was an arduous and clunky ascent with Uisdean in tow.
It was almost midday when they spotted the figures on the horizon. At first Tormo was concerned to see people so deep in the mountains, but that concern transformed into curiosity as the figures made no discernible movement nor motion, even as their party walked along at a crawling pace towards them.
‘What happened to them?’ said Tormo wrapping one of the figures on the head. It rang like solid stone. A traveller of sorts, but why out here? He looked along the shale slope down into the basin, dozens of figures stood against the mountain breeze, silent watchers.
‘They came for the cave, like you,’ said Eunice, scouring the immediate slope with care, sniffing the air. ‘Something very old lives here.’
‘What did this?’ said Tormo, examining another statue. This time a mountain midite which had strayed too far from its cave perhaps.
‘A petrifier,’ said Eunice. ‘Anguir probably.’
‘You know him?’
‘Her. And yes, I know her.’ Eunice seemed saddened, searching the land until she spotted what she was looking for and shuffled down the scree slope.
‘Where are you going?’ called Tormo, distress in his voice, looking wildly around for this Anguir the Petrifier. Was she crazy? He certainly didn’t want to be turned to stone. Eunice seemed unperturbed and determined to get wherever she was headed. He followed, winding down the slope, sliding in the scree until they came to a stop and Tormo figured it out.
Eunice stood, weeping softly, one time-knotted hand resting on the stone leg of a lairgvrn. The lairgvrn frozen, forever taking to the sky. Tormo laid a hand on her right shoulder hoping she would accept his gesture. ‘Your child?’
‘Yes,’ replied Eunice, wiping a tear from one eye. She sniffed. ‘Anguir. She did this. We had settled here to rest our wings, my daughter and I. I had wanted to show her these mountains, Diraghoni means ignion kind you know–in the old tongue. I wanted her to see these mountains.’ She turned into Tormo’s chest. He stretched his arm around her. ‘I’ve never forgiven myself.’
Tormo felt struck dumb not knowing what to say, so thought it best to remain silent. He craned his neck up to regard Eunice’s daughter. She was a beautiful example of a young black lairgvrn.
Her majestic sail ran from the top of her head tapering down to her spear tipped tail. Her wings were held right back as if she were just about to give one mighty push and be off. Lichen dappled her grey body and the details of scales and spines had all but been chipped and worn away by mountain weather.
Eunice straightened and looked past her daughter. ‘Come on,’ she said, swallowing her sorrow and guilt. ‘The cave is just down this slope.’
Tormo nodded, tugged on his twine and Uisdean lurched along after them, unsteady on the scree. It was hard going. Every step they took they sank, small stones working their way into his sheep hide shoes rubbing his ankles sore. By the time they had caught sight of the cave entrance in the near distance, Tormo was in agony vowing his next casting to learn would be for a better pair of shoes.
‘There,’ said Eunice, pointing at the sheer face ahead of them. ‘Can you see the markers?’
Squinting the blue distant cliffs into clarity, Tormo could just make out the entrance. Though at this distance it didn’t look much bigger than a mousehole. He stepped forward, fired up with a renewing energy but Eunice held him gently back.
‘Careful. You want to end up like them?’ she nodded in the direction of the statues. ‘She’s under the loose scree somewhere, waiting.’
‘Maybe she’s dead,’ said Tormo with hope.
Eunice laughed. ‘Ha! Not her. Not a festris, they live long lives. Magic guards magic Tormo–and viciously so.’ She set off trailing the rocky fringe that encircled Anguir’s fold. ‘Stay on solid rock where you can and don’t make a fuss with your feet.’
Tormo glanced at his cumbersome brother and winced. This is going to be fun, he thought sardonically. But there, staring deep into his brother’s eyes, Tormo saw something. A change, a sadness.
‘Don’t worry brother,’ said Tormo, directly to Uisdean for the first time since he had postponed his death, ‘we’ll get there. We’ll take it slow.’ He tugged gently on the tether and set off after Eunice. Death smiled on, as she always did, waiting for the inevitable.
She was here, somewhere, Anguir slumbered beneath the loose covering of shale. Each step along the sloping edge brought more and more signs that she was there. Great rents in the crags and boulders bore the scrawling of her claws. Flakes of skin caught in the rough stone, dry and crisp. Tormo gathered as much as he could, shivering at thoughts of germs.
It was only when Uisdean slipped down to the shale floor that Tormo felt the cold presence of Death bearing down upon all of them. She grinned as they all winced. While easing Uisdean back onto the ledge from which he had slipped as quietly as he could, something about the shale caught Tormo’s eye. He knelt and took a piece to examine.
‘This rock is wearing a ring,’ he whispered up to Eunice. She nodded grimly.
‘All this, all you see, Tormo, Anguir bathes eternal in the remains of her enemies.’
He returned the petrified finger gingerly and stepped up from the shale, features set grim, jaw rigid with anxiety. He pulled on the tether so Uisdean would follow, but it seemed that Fate was furious that her efforts had been thwarted, snipping the tether with unseen fingers. Tormo fell forward without the bulk of his brother as resistance against his tug. He stumbled, slipped and scrambled for stability, eventually leaning into the steep slope, steadying himself. But it was too late. His feet had already sent an avalanche of stone skipping and scattering to the basin floor.
A vent of shale burst into the air, showering them all with fine grit and rock. Tormo froze to the spot, Uisdean lumbered on, stumbling downwards and then fell and rolled to the shale floor. Another blast of rock like a geyser, closer this time. The ground rippled with the motions of something obscenely large. Tormo felt his castings leave him, fleeing like rats from a doomed vessel.
‘She’s grown,’ said Eunice in a dismal tone. She looked at Tormo, for the first time with alarm in her eyes. Hope ebbed from him in the most terrible way leaving behind a hollow emptiness to be filled with dread.
‘Whatever happens,’ said Eunice, ‘you get to the cave.’ Another vent of rock and the ground began to sink in on itself, filling the void left behind by the great festril which rose from beneath. Before Eunice could say anymore the light was blotted out and a shadow so terrible painted itself over them all.
Anguir stood poised on her forelimbs (the only limbs she possessed), half her serpentine form looming high above, the rest slinking back into the shale.
Expanding outwards, growing and growing, Eunice took her lairgvrn form and Tormo felt as heavy as stone for a second or two. Dumbfounded but with no incantation or stony breath of a festril. No match in stature to Anguir, Eunice nevertheless, spread her wings making herself seem so big the festril seemed hesitant at first. Eunice bellowed such a thunderous roar Tormo thought her a thousand years younger.
Anguir reared, hissing, then she inhaled ready to strike. Eunice let flame immediately, with such ferocity and volume the serpent’s entire upper body was engulfed in a huge blossoming fiery rose. She screeched, leaping forth from the shale like a great sea fish and dove into the stony cold depths throwing up a shower of stone as she disappeared.
Folding her wings around her, Eunice held back the shale storm then took to the air in unsteady flight casting flame downwards as Anguir resurfaced right beneath her casting a fog like breath upwards. Anguir’s attempts to petrify Eunice were simply blown in her snarling face.
Sanity took hold of Tormo as he witnessed the two magical beasts face off. Why am I still here? he thought, and grabbed Uisdean by the wrist, cold and dead, and took them off over the shale.
Anguir turned her attention to them. Tormo could feel his legs solidify, his heart turn to stone as the paralysis of impending death took him. The great festril coiled back like a loaded spring, tucking in her forearms and plunged beneath. The ground bore evidence to her movements, tracing a rippling line along, directly towards Tormo.
‘Go!’ bellowed Eunice as she came down heavily, tiredness and age getting the better of her, her lairgvrn voice carrying in rolling waves of thunder in what seemed like the stillest day.
Tormo snapped out of his daze and began to run as fast as Uisdean would allow. The ground shook with Anguir’s efforts and the stagnant air came alive with the buffeting motions of Eunice above, revived and back on the wing.
A shadow cast over Tormo, but he dared not glance back, tempting Fate to trip him. He ploughed ahead, instead, intent on his goal and hoped the shadow was not the festril. The ground shook beneath him, Anguir’s tremoring motions unsettling his feet, his steps becoming erratic.
A shower of stone and he knew she had broken the surface again, but instead of the cold breath of stone he expected, Tormo felt a gusting heat on the back of his neck and the smell of singed hair filled his nostrils.
Daring a glance back, looking beyond Uisdean at first, to the diraghoni locked in thrashing movements tackling each other’s magical attacks.
Anguir seemed impervious, yet slightly fearful of fire, dodging and lashing about as Eunice relentlessly ensured the creature lived in a world of flame. Anguir fought for an opening to cast her petrifying breath, but Eunice would not allow it forcing the lindworm to resort to primitive claw slashing and tail whipping.
Glancing back round, Tormo was relieved to see the cave entrance closer. Hope returned with energy to lunge forwards. With all his breath and all his might, his legs burned and his outstretched arm ached, hand clutching his brother’s wrist, Death hovering effortlessly above. She seemed larger than normal, darker too. Tormo worried what that might mean but for a few more minutes until he left the cold light of day and passed into the Cave of Undoing, leaving the diraghoni to battle.
At a softer pace they wandered along a rune adorned tunnel, the dwindling daylight casting silver the etchings in gleaming stone. Crystal specks shimmered like stars until they were too deep within the mountain for light to venture. Placing his hand within his bag, Tormo drew forth a torch and concentrating as hard as he could, he tried to ignite it. His head ached, his mouth became parched, the skin of his hands became dry to the touch and the torch ignited.
Flickering orange light illuminated the tunnel and he continued down until it opened up into a resplendent crystal chamber. It was like standing inside an Amethyst geode, purple light rippled in fluid waves dappling the chamber.
Central to all this was an altar hewn from stone. Taking his brother, Tormo placed him in the centre telling him to stay. He stepped back and knelt, retrieving the festril skin and momentarily his thoughts went to Eunice. Taking the skin, he ground it into a fine powder in his palm and took his waterskin, carefully shaking the powder in. Thumb over the bladder, he shook it then drank some of the mixture.
Death looked upon him now, her eyes gleaming purple light, mouth open in a dry, soundless laugh. Tormo frowned, but paid no mind. Instead he looked inward searching for a change but felt non. He closed his eyes hoping the rumoured properties of such an elixir were true.
Taking the parchment from his bag, he unrolled the scroll and checked the spell he had copied down once more, pushing away the doubt he had copied it wrong, reassuring himself he was meticulous in such matters.
Taking a deep breath, he stood, leaving the parchment by his bag and focused on his brother. Death focused along with him, shadowing his steps as he moved in closer to Uisdean. Tormo’s lips pressed out every plosive, curled around each vowel and breathed out fricatives in intuitive fluidity. His heart flourished in the warmth of magical power, his veins alight with the energy of the chamber.
He repeated the verses again and again, the intensity of the power within him increasing each time until he felt the magic dwelling in the cavern come to him. As soon as he had it in his grasp he cast it out in a great sphere of energy.
A sudden drain of life took him by surprise and he fell to his knees, not feeling the pain of impact. Opening his eyes, he saw Uisdean shudder with life, his skin blushed pink, his muscles tensed with the fire of life–Tormo’s own life.
Collapsing on the floor, Tormo stared up at the Amethyst encrusted ceiling until Death obscured his view. She chuckled silently and he knew right then it had been him she had trailed all this way. She had known the price he would have to pay and in ignorance and haste to save his brother, Tormo had not.
Death faded from view leaving behind his brother’s face looking down on him. He was saying something, but Tormo couldn’t hear. He tried to reply, but his body was no longer his. Neither was his life force, which now resided within Uisdean. Tormo’s mind smiled at his own undoing as he drifted along in the wake of Death’s flowing cloak.
Uisdean held one arm up against the light of day as he stumbled out of the Cave of Undoing with Tormo slung over one broad shoulder. The life force he felt was beyond that which he had ever known before. A power passed along with his brother’s life force that he had so readily given to him. Awoken was how he felt. Truly awoken.
As his eyes adjusted and the confusion of being alive again left him, he scanned the shale basin for Eunice, the lairgvrn that had saved him from the midites. He wanted to thank her, though he feared she had met her match.
Gradually the light of day lost its blinding harshness and brought into focus the towering form of the black lairgvrn stood atop the fallen festril, he sighed and made his way over to the victorious creature.
She was eating of Anguir when he arrived, her muzzle glistened with the blood. She turned instinctively, swallowed and smiled. ‘You made it then,’ she said. Then cast her eyes to his shoulder. ‘Mmm, I figured as much.’
Uisdean frowned. ‘You knew this would happen?’ An anger rose within him.
The lairgvrn nodded. ‘I had my suspicions. Your brother was no accomplished warlock. Ignorant of the cost of such forbidden castings. They’re forbidden for a reason you know.’
Uisdean snarled. ‘You, you knew…’
‘Oh, don’t get all saintly now, you selfish pig. It’s your fault, your guilt. Not mine.’ She hopped down from Anguir’s body and stretched her wings.
‘The casting took. How do you feel? Magical I hope.’
Uisdean felt puzzled by the oddly placed question, as if she had not even noticed he was angry. Then it came to him like some terrible dawn. He dropped his brother’s body and began to step backwards. ‘The casting book, you–’
‘Ate the warlock that had owned it, yes. Bought me several thousand years more that morsel did. He was a powerful one. Much more powerful than your brother. But I shan’t complain.’ She grinned, bloody and terrible, stepping towards him. She swooped low, encircling Uisdean, enclosing him in a dreadful curtain of wings. He fell backwards.
‘You see, with the ban on magic and my increasing years, it’s been tough finding any magic folk these days. And blow me down if one didn’t just stroll into my lair.’
She opened her wings to reveal Tormo’s lifeless body and craned her head close to it. ‘I’ll eat him first, just to be certain.’ Emerald eyes flashed a malicious arrogance. ‘But I’m confident his magic passed along to you. Ah, you, my dear dessert.’
Scooping up Tormo in her mouth she knocked back her head so he slid down her throat. Uisdean grimaced but fury grew within him, a rage he had not felt before as he watched that dark demon consume the one person who had cared for him, who had sacrificed his life for him, such a pointless human being. Always causing trouble, only looking out for himself.
Eunice turned to Uisdean and in an instant scooped him up swallowing him whole. As Luck would have it, teamed with Fate, Uisdean became lodged, not in the lairgvrn’s throat, but its windpipe. The first spasm was a crushing wet embrace as the lairgvrn gagged.
Another and another, increasing in strength and rapidity until he could only assume that his great bulk was choking the beast. Uisdean spread himself as wide as he could, fighting against her body’s efforts to dislodge him, staying solidly put.
She choked and choked.
He felt her hammering at her chest to no avail, the strength leaving her weak old lairgvrn body. His world fell askew and he smiled, soaked in saliva, stinking.
She had choked to death.
Uisdean began to claw his way out. It was slippery going and he thought he would suffocate, but rage pulled him along, that and a thought…
He acted fast after he had crawled out of the lairgvrn’s mouth. Finding the sharpest slate he could, locating a gap in her tough scales to make the incision, emptying her stomach of its contents. The stink was awful, but he didn’t care, a small price to pay to retrieve his brother.
But he would have to hurry.
Uncertain as to how long the magic would remain in his own body. He dragged Tormo out onto the shale and began to drag him back to the cave, his mind made up.
His lips began to motion the words he had heard his brother practicing so earnestly to save his life. He didn’t need the parchment to remember. But the festril elixir wouldn’t go amiss. Uisdean just hoped his pronunciation was as good as his brother’s.
He stepped into the cave thinking about what he had learned–the earnest love of a brother and that you should always chew your food. Pausing, he looked back at the world one more time and made a promise to Fate.
He would accept his own undoing.
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