This week’s random rejection is brought to you by the “Know Your Market” department:
This is probably a better rejection letter than I deserved, given that I sent them something pretty far outside their target genre. They did publish some fantasy, but not very much. I’m pretty sure I picked up at least one copy of “Amazing Stories” but that’s not really enough to get a solid feel for what the editors are looking for. (On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure I have a rejection from “F&SF” for this story, too, and they have “fantasy” right in their name. Oh well.)
I did take one piece of Sue’s advice, and changed the story from a flashback with framing device to a straight past-tense narrative. Unfortunately, that didn’t help me sell it, but it probably made it a better story.
And what is the magician’s finger, exactly? Well, it’s not just a trick where a miniature guillotine passes unharmed through a performer’s unsuspecting digit, I can tell you that much.
The Magician’s Finger
Zech stood at the edge of the unplowed area, looking balefully at the roughly diamond-shaped patch of grass where his father’s horse refused to tread. It had been a tremendous job, cutting down the six massive trees which had grown here, and after it had been done and the plowing had been started the damn horse had balked at entering the area between the stumps. Garl’s coaxing had been in vain, as had threats and the application of a switch to the horse’s hide. Finally, Garl had given up, and had passed the job of turning this patch of earth to Zech and the hand plow.
Zech hated the hand plow.
He had been standing there for at least ten minutes, staring at the ground as if he could make furrows through it by the force of his gaze. So far it wasn’t working. He held the plow in his hands, with the point buried several inches deep in the dirt at his feet, thinking about what a back-breaking job this would be. The area he had to turn was at least forty feet long, and probably half that across. With the horse pulling the plow, the job would be over quickly; pushing the plow by hand, it—
“Zech!” Zech turned and saw the figure of his father leading the horse, off across the field. “Get that patch plowed, damn it!”
“Yes sir.” Zech somehow managed to shout and mumble the words simultaneously. He turned and stepped forward, straining to break the ground, the plow turning up the dirt like the prow of a ship cutting through the water. He had gone only a few feet when the plow brought up something that glinted in the light. Zech paused, then let go of the plow and knelt down for a closer look at what he had found. It was a flask of some kind, apparently made of silver, and although it was dirty and tarnished from being underground it still caught enough of the sun to gleam here and there. Next to the flask was a small bone. The dirt clung to it like a skin. Zech picked up both objects; he had slaughtered many pigs and chickens in his time and bones held no terror for him. He absently stuffed the bone in the pocket of his shirt and turned the flask over and over, looking at every side but finding no hint of ownership: no initials, no engraving, just smooth silver on every surface.
“What’ve you got there, boy?” His father’s voice at his shoulder made Zech jump. He held the flask out for inspection.
“The plow turned this up,” he explained as his father took the flask.
“Huh.” Garl put the top under his nose and sniffed. “It’s empty.”
“I think it’s made of silver.”
“Oh, you do, do you? You’re a silversmith now, is that it?” Garl looked dubiously at the flask, then at his son. “You think maybe it’s worth something?”
Zech shrugged. “Maybe.”
“I’ll take it in to town and see if I can sell it,” Garl said, stroking his short beard. “You go take over on the plowing.”
“What about this patch here?”
“We’ll take care of it later. Go on, boy, get to work!”
“Yes sir.” Zech walked slowly toward the horse, which stood still and silent a hundred yards away.
Sighing, Garl turned and headed toward the cottage.
By nightfall, Garl had not returned; Zech figured he must have gotten a bit of money for the flask and gone to spend it in the tavern.
Zech had heated some beans in the fireplace and eaten them in silence by the flickering light of a greasy white candle; now he was preparing for bed. His muscles ached: his legs from walking, his arms from hoeing, his back from both. He looked forward to the release of sleep. As he pulled off his shirt, the bone he had found tumbled out of its pocket and clattered to the floor. Zech paused with the shirt over his head, then pulled it off and tossed it onto the bed. The bone lay on the floor at his feet, a dirty white plaything. He picked it up, took it over to the ill-made table that served as his nightstand, and opened his box of treasures. Inside were rocks that had taken his fancy, shells from the creek bed, the skull of a field mouse; little things he had found and, for whatever reason, had taken. He dropped the bone in, closed the lid, and crawled into bed.
He awakened to darkness and a gentle tap-tap that sounded insistently and repeatedly, like the distant drumming of a woodpecker. “Father?” he called, at first thinking that it was Garl tapping on a shutter seeking admittance; but then he realized that the sound came from the table beside his bed. Zech turned and looked at the box. The lid was bumping up and then falling, as if something were trapped inside but didn’t quite have the strength to force its way out. The first tap came when the lid jumped, the second when it fell back down.
Zech pulled the rough covers up to his neck and stared at the box. Tap-tap went the lid, and up went the covers over Zech’s head. Had his box become haunted? Was it the ghost of the bone he had found? He waited, his fingers clutching the folds of the covers, but the sound did not come again and finally he dared to peek out from under the rough blanket. Standing beside his bed was the vague outline of a man, a shimmering patch of gossamer, moonlight playing on cobwebs. It appeared to be contemplating the box and, Zech was relieved to note, ignoring him completely.
The ghost stretched out a wispy arm toward the box. Tap-tap went the lid. Zech noticed that the ghost’s hand hosted only four digits; the index finger was missing.
The ghost paused before touching the box, and turned to look down at the bed. Zech felt his muscles tighten, felt a strange ball in his groin, felt frozen in his bed. The spirit’s huge eyes were dark, blank pits, its mouth a black oval. “Scella?” it whispered, in a voice like shifting sand.
When he awakened, it was morning. Sunlight was filtering through the cracks in the shutter, falling in lines across his bed. Zech rolled over onto his side, wondered why his bed was damp, and realized that he had vacated his bladder during the night. Disgusted, he clambered out of bed and threw open the shutters, letting the sun flood the room. He recalled that he’d had a strange dream, a nightmare of being visited by a ghost, and stood in the window for a few minutes as the sun chased away the vestiges of his night terror. When he was feeling warm and secure in the daylight, he turned back to face his room. That was when he noticed that his treasure box was open.
For a second he thought he would faint again, and clutched the windowsill for support. When he felt steady he went to the box. There was the bone, sitting on top of the pile of treasures. He quickly closed the lid and sat down on the edge of the bed, staring at the box. He had left it closed, he was certain of that; but maybe he had opened it during his dream.
He shook his head. He knew he hadn’t opened the box.
What to do? He could throw the bone away, but that might anger the spirit. He needed an explanation, needed advice, but from who? Certainly his father would be no help. He thought of the old woman, Jokalau, who lived in a rundown shack down by the river. Village gossip credited her with strange powers and mystic insight; it also credited her with a vile disposition. He had never met her himself. Perhaps she could help him, but if so, she would probably exact payment of some kind.
He stood. He would get himself cleaned up, then go to see Jokalau and learn her price for advice. The worst she could do would be to chase him off her property.
That decided, he went to fetch water from the well. The brisk walk through the cold morning air seemed to clear his mind a bit, and when he returned to the house he felt more confident about his upcoming visit with Jokalau. She was probably a perfectly nice old woman, he thought, rendered horrid by the wagging tongues of the villagers. People who were a little different were always suspect, and Jokalau had been around so long the suspicion had become certainty.
When he re-entered the house, he found his father sprawled out in front of the hearth. Garl looked up at him with bleary, drink-reddened eyes. “Stop making so damn much noise,” he growled weakly.
“Yes sir,” Zech said. Garl’s breath stank of ale. Here they were, Zech thought, scraping by to earn a living from a few acres, and his father had spent an unexpected windfall on cheap drink and cheaper conversation!
Garl rubbed his mouth. “Is that water?”
“Bring it here.”
Zech took the bucket to his father’s side and had barely put it down when Garl plunged his hands into it and splashed cold water on his face. This seemed to relieve him somewhat, and he sat up grinning. “Old Findler gave me ten silver pieces for the flask,” he said. “He said it was fine workmanship. He would’ve given me more, he said, but you nicked it with the plow.”
“You spent all the money at the tavern?” The words spilled out before Zech could check himself. If his father had been feeling well, this comment would have earned Zech a slap; but in Garl’s present condition all it elicited was, surprisingly, an answer.
“Of course not.” Garl fumbled in his pocket, then took out a medallion on a thin gold chain. The pendant was made of polished stone and was engraved with an “H.”
“Mother’s charm,” Zech said after a moment.
“That’s right,” Garl said, a little possessively. “Hyleen’s necklace. I bought it back from Izzick.” He stowed it back in his pocket. “I still got two silver pieces left, too.”
Zech said nothing.
“Help me up, boy,” Garl said, holding out an arm. “I need some rest.”
Zech pulled his father to his feet. Garl was extremely unsteady and leaned heavily on his son’s shoulders as Zech guided him to his cot by the fireplace. Garl fell into bed, and was snoring even as Zech pulled the covers up over him.
Zech tossed a few more logs on the fire and then set about cleaning himself up. That finished, he collected his box of treasures and headed out the door of the cottage.
Outside her hut, Zech paused to collect himself. What would he say to her? How would he approach her? To hear the villagers tell it, Jokalau would be as likely to club him over the head as to speak with him.
His dilemma was abruptly solved when he heard a shrill voice cry from the direction of the river, “You, boy!” He turned and saw a four-foot bundle of rags waddling his way, leaning heavily on a thick staff taller than it was.
Jokalau, moving with surprising speed, reached the hut quickly. He watched her in bemusement until she jabbed him in the stomach with the knotty end of her walking stick. “What’re you doing here, boy?” she demanded. “Come to break more of my windows, have you?”
“Break your windows? No, I—”
“Don’t lie to me boy!” she snapped, bringing the bottom of her cane down on his foot.
“What’s in the box, huh? Bunch of rocks no doubt, rocks to throw through my windows! Do you know how expensive glass is?”
“I just wanted to talk to you!” Zech said, holding the box in front of himself like a shield.
“You want to talk to me?” she said, almost wonderingly. Then she pointed her stick at his head. “You’re a rotten liar! Nobody talks to me!”
“They talk about me, sure they do, but their big mouths just clamp shut when I come along, and then it’s not even a good day or a howdy-do.”
“So go on, boy, get out of here, before I lose my temper and crack your skull with my cane!”
“I need your advice,” Zech said. “Ow! Hey, stop it!”
“My advice! My advice?” She stopped jabbing him and looked at him thoughtfully. “Who are you, boy?”
“Zech. Garl’s son,” he said, rubbing his shoulder where she had landed a solid blow with her stick. He looked not at her, but at her knob-headed cane.
“Garl’s son, eh?” She stood silent for a second, her eyes—sharp and blue as winter ice—locked with his. Then she dropped her gaze and pointed at Zech’s box with her cane. “What’ve you got in there, Garl’s son?”
“My treasures,” he said, clutching it to him.
“Your treasures, eh?” She grinned, showing a missing tooth, then closed her eyes. After a few seconds, she said in a low voice, “Rocks. Shells. The skull of a female field mouse. And—” She broke off and looked at him shrewdly. He gawked at her, mouth open.
“Oh, dear me,” she said. “You’d better come inside.”
“… and then I fainted. When I woke up, the box was open.” Zech waited for her to comment, but she said nothing. Instead, she kept sifting through the contents of the box. He could hear the stones clacking against the shells, the bones clicking together like cicadas. Finally, he could stand it no longer. “So, what do you think?”
She looked up at him, her eyes glimmering in the dim light of the small fire. “Spells will come and spells will go, but a wizard is magic head to toe. That’s part of a rhyme my mother used to tell me when I was small.” She looked thoughtful. “Can’t remember the rest of it. Doggerel, anyway.”
“What’s that got to do with the ghost?”
“This bone—” She held up the small fragment he had found in the field. “—is the forefinger of a magician. His restless spirit is tied to it.”
“What was it doing out in our field?” Zech said. He tried not to grimace as Jokalau absently scratched her neck with the magician’s finger.
“Most likely the magician died out there.”
“Why would a magician be dying in our field?”
“Well it wasn’t always your field, was it?” She put the bone back in the box. “Before all the trees were cut down, it was a forest, and the part where you found this bone was a clearing.”
“What did you say the spirit said?”
“Scella. Hm.” She rubbed her chin. “That name is familiar.” Suddenly she snapped her fingers. “Of course! Scella was Delion’s wife. Good old Delion. Nice man. Liked his nip a bit too much, but …” She shrugged.
“So that’s Delion’s finger?”
“I would guess so. He vanished, oh, must be fifty years if it’s been a day. Always wondered what happened to him.”
“So what should I do?”
“Take it back out in the field and bury it again,” she suggested.
“That’s all you can say? Take it out in the field and bury it again? I could’ve thought of that.”
She leaned back in her chair, spat a wad of something at a dozing black cat, and said: “So why didn’t you?”
Zech muttered all the way back to his field. He’d walked five miles to the river, endured a taunting and nearly a beating, and all he’d gotten to show for it was the suggestion that he should re-bury the damn bone. Well, he would; he’d bury it so deep it would never surface again. Let Delion go digging in the dirt for his missing finger; Zech wanted no part of it.
He took a shovel from the shed and headed out to the clearing. The hand plow was where he had left it the night before. He spit at it, but missed.
Zech selected a spot near the middle of the six trees, where he figured the root cover would be least thick, and plunged the wooden blade of the shovel into the dirt. It went down an inch and then stopped with such conviction that a vibration passed up the handle and split it down the middle. Zech, his hands stinging, released the shovel and took a step back, feeling a strange tingle as he did so. Then his foot on a root hidden in the grass, and he fell heavily on his backside. He didn’t feel it; he was staring at the broken shovel, which had somehow stayed upright even though its blade was only an inch deep.
The dirt was moving.
At first it was gradual, a trick of the light perhaps, or the grass waving in the wind; but as seconds sloughed away the movement increased. It started as a ring of earth five feet across and perhaps an inch thick; the grass there uprooted itself, turned itself over, became part of a stream of broken dirt that flowed and churned in a circle. As Zech watched, the interior of the ring caught the motion of the perimeter. It spread in from the edges until there was a circle of roiling earth spinning faster and faster, carrying the shovel around with it. Zech crawled to the edge of the clearing and attempted without success to hide himself behind a stump.
The dirt erupted into the air, the shovel shattering into a thousand fragments. Debris rained down as Zech buried his head beneath his arms to shield it from clods of dirt and bits of wood.
When the sky had stopped falling and he found the courage to look up, there had been a change.
Jokalau’s nap was disturbed by an insistent pounding on her door. Mumbling, she rose and shambled over to it. “Go away,” she bellowed. “I’m not interested.”
“It’s Zech!” was the breathless reply.
“Zech! Garl’s son? Remember?”
“Oh. Oh, yes. The bone boy.” She sighed and pulled open the door. “Good lord, child, you’re filthy! Come in, come in. Did you bury the bone?”
Zech shook his head furiously.
It all spilled forth in a babble. Jokalau’s eyes widened as the story progressed. When he had finished, she said softly, “So that’s what Delion was about out there. The fool.” She cast about the room, finally finding a rack full of canes hidden away behind a pile of moldering furs, atop which slept the black cat.
“What are you looking for?” Zech said.
She looked at him seriously.
“I’ll need my thick cane for this one,” she said.
Garl awoke with a shudder. He shivered despite the closeness of the hearth; it felt as if a wagon had run over his head. No, a whole caravan.
“Never again,” he moaned, eyes closed, knowing himself for a liar even as he said it.
He opened his eyes. The cold seemed colder now, but his head seemed clearer. What was that voice?
“Garl … come to me.”
He sat up, the covers falling away from his large frame. Ale stained the front of his shirt.
He knew that voice.
“Garl.” The voice sounded urgent, pleading. “Please help me.”
“Hyleen?” The name caught in his throat, but he spit it out.
“Garl, I need you!”
“I’m coming, Hyleen!” Garl shouted, as he stumbled to his feet and staggered out the door.
“What you’ve got there,” the old woman said, as they hurried along the path, “is an Y’Kraen demon. A shapeshifter. Cunning. Telepathic. A complete liar. It’ll promise you anything, but if it can possibly twist the meaning of the words, it will. Extremely—and I mean extremely—dangerous. Delion was a fool to try to summon it. I can’t imagine what he was thinking.” Pause. “Yes I can. He was going to send it to the netherworld to fetch back his wife.”
“But what’s it doing in our field?” Zech said, struggling for breath. He was moving as fast as he could, and he was barely keeping up with her. “That’s not the netherworld!”
“Obviously, that’s where Delion attempted the summoning. Equally obviously, he screwed it up. Now I’ve got to send the cursed thing back where it belongs.”
“Stop blathering, boy, you’ve got barely enough breath as it is. Just be quiet, and run!”
Garl could see her across the furrows, a small figure standing in the clearing where Zech had found the flask. There was a glow about her, it seemed, highlighting her body, her outstretched arms. “Garl,” she said, her voice carrying over the field like music.
“Come to me, Garl.”
“I’m coming!” he cried, tripping over a rock and falling down. He scrambled back to his feet, ignoring the pain in his head, and continued his stumbling progress across the field.
They heard the demon’s voice as they neared the meadow. “Come to me, Garl,” it said.
Zech froze. “Is that the Y’Kraen?”
“Yes,” Jokalau said, pausing. She was breathing only slightly harder than normal.
“It’s calling my father!” Zech said.
“Come on, boy. Come on. Run, boy, run!” Jokalau sprinted off down the narrow path. Zech stayed a moment longer, gulping air, then followed. He caught up with her as they emerged from the forest at the edge of the field. Off in the distance was Zech’s cottage; between it and them was the clearing, and in the clearing was a woman.
“Mother?” Zech said.
“Don’t you believe it, boy.”
He took a step forward. Jokalau grabbed him roughly and spun him around to face her. “Don’t you believe it!” she commanded. Zech looked at her, then at the clearing. His father had nearly reached it, his progress slowed by frequent stumbles. Zech looked back at Jokalau, who shook him vigorously. “It’s a trick, boy,” she said. “A dirty demonic trick, the Y’Kraen’s stock in trade. That’s how it killed Delion, and that’s how it will kill you. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?”
He looked at the demon. “Yes.”
“Good.” She released him. “Come on.”
Garl reached the edge of the clearing and paused at the stumps, his eyes taking in Hyleen. She was beautiful, her eyes kind and clear, her skin glowing. There was no sign of the accident which had taken her life, no mark on her face where the horse’s hoof had struck.
Oh, how he had missed her!
“Garl,” she said.
“I’m here, Hyleen. I … I brought you something.” He reached into his pocket and drew out her charm. “See? Your necklace. I got your necklace back.”
“Bring it to me, Garl,” she said.
He moved forward as if hypnotized, his arm outstretched, the gold chain of the medallion dangling from his fist. Hyleen reached out for it, her fingers splayed wide, her eyes shining.
Then something struck him hard across the knees. He fell heavily in the grass.
“Don’t move,” said a strange, rough voice. He looked up and saw the old woman, Jokalau, and beside her his son Zech. Zech was staring at Hyleen.
“That’s not your dead wife,” Jokalau said as she disentangled her cane from his legs. “That’s an Y’Kraen demon. Touch it and you’ll die.”
Garl shook his head. “It’s Hyleen.”
“It’s not Hyleen. Hyleen is dead.”
“Garl. It’s me, Hyleen. Remember the day before we were married, when we crept into the hayrack in my father’s barn?”
“I remember,” Garl said.
“Remember our first cottage, how the roof leaked right onto our bed?”
“Don’t listen to it,” Jokalau said.
“I remember,” Garl said. Zech could see tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
“It’s a trick, father,” Zech said.
“Zech.” The demon turned to him. “Don’t you know me? Don’t you remember how your father would send you to bed without your supper and I would bring you something to eat after he went to sleep?”
He stared at her, wanting to believe, but hearing Jokalau’s warning in his ears. He didn’t even realize he had taken a step toward the circle until Jokalau appeared in front of him. With one arm she held him back, and with the other she raised her cane and shook it at the Y’Kraen. “This nonsense has gone on long enough!” she bellowed. “You’re not wanted here. You don’t belong here!” She pushed Zech back and he tumbled over his father and sprawled on the soft grass. He heard Garl weeping softly.
“Let me out,” the demon said, pleading, still using Hyleen’s face and voice. “Please, Garl, make her let me out.”
“They know what you are,” Jokalau said. The knob of her cane had begun to glow. “Power of the earth that flows through my staff bind thee!”
“Come to me, Zech.” The voice seemed whispered to him alone, carried on strange winds directly to his ears. His mother was calling him. Zech’s limbs began shuffling, seemingly of their own accord, carrying him on his belly like a snake toward the pentagram.
“That’s right.” Jokalau, her staff raised, was focused on the demon. “Just stop your tricks. Power of the fire that flows through my staff consume thee!”
Zech reached the edge of the circle and reached into it, his hand outstretched. His mother, smiling, beatific, knelt down and clasped his hand and wrist. Her skin was soft and warm, her fingernails cool; it was her, it really was, and not some shape-changing monster.
Then she pulled him into the pentagram.
“Ah, ha ha ha,” chuckled the demon.
“What are you laughing at, Y’Kraen?” Jokalau demanded. “Power of the air that flows through my staff command thee! Show us your true form!” Her cane glowed brilliantly along its entire length, sparking here, crackling there; little dots of supernatural brightness drifted up and down it like miniature stars. Garl shielded his eyes from the light, moaning softly.
Hyleen dissolved into the swirling winds and drifting putrescence of the demon’s true form. Then the winds parted and a severed head appeared, floating in the midst of the cyclone. Both of its eyes were gone, and its flesh had been flayed from the bone in strips, but Jokalau recognized it anyway.
“I’m not impressed,” she said. “I already knew you’d killed Delion.”
Now the head receded, vanishing back into the corruption, and something else came up to take its place. This was the figure of a boy, and he kicked and struggled against the winds.
“Zech!” Jokalau looked around, hoping it was a trick; but it wasn’t. Zech was gone from the outside, so he must be in. Slowly she lowered her staff. Light dribbled from it like liquid, pattering to the grass like rain.
“Son?” Garl, his eyes bleary, stared weepily at the demon.
“Do I make myself clear?” the demon said, in an amused voice.
“No,” Jokalau said.
“Release me from this prison or I will flay the boy as you watch.”
“Then I won’t watch,” Jokalau said, turning her back.
“No!” Garl cried. “You can’t!”
“I certainly can. What I can’t do is turn this monster loose on the world.”
Zech wailed, and Jokalau felt a few drops of blood spatter on her neck. Garl bellowed something incoherent.
“Hell and fire!” Her bluff called, Jokalau whirled. “Release him and then I will release you.” A strip of skin had been peeled back from the boy’s forearm and was flapping in the demon’s infernal maelstrom.
“Release me and then I will release him.”
“I know how good a demon’s word is,” she growled.
“And I know how good is a wizard’s.” A tiny strip of skin peeled back from Zech’s cheek. The blood that trickled out was lifted off his skin by the demon’s swirling winds, and Zech’s scream was carried along behind it.
“Blast, blast, blast,” Jokalau muttered. Then, louder: “I swear I will set you free if you release the boy. But you must release him first!”
A strip of flesh lifted off Zech’s nose. This time he gritted his teeth and did not scream. Blood flashed in the sun and vanished.
“Curse you!” Jokalau shouted. “What oath will satisfy you?”
“Swear on your soul.”
“Say the words.”
“I swear on my soul that if you release the boy, I will set you free.”
Zech was ejected from the pentagram. He stumbled to the grass at Jokalau’s feet. As she helped him up, the demon said in a voice like a swarm of bees, “Set me free.”
“You’re not going to do it, are you?” Zech asked.
“I swore on my soul. I must.”
“It’ll kill us all!”
“That might have occurred to you before you went crawling into the pentagram with it,” she said, stepping toward the demon, holding her staff in both hands. “I must enter the circle, and break it from within,” she told it. The demon parted so she could safely enter, though of course it would kill her as soon as it was free.
She looked over her shoulder at Zech and Garl. “You two might want to remove yourselves from the vicinity.”
Zech and Garl, staring, did not budge.
Jokalau didn’t waste movement on a shrug. She simply turned and entered the pentagram. As she did, she said softly, “Power of the sea that flows through my staff ensnare thee.” Her cane crackled as if with lightning.
“Set me free,” the demon said.
She broke the staff over her knee.
Light exploded from the shattered cane, bringing a rumble like all the thunderstorms in the world gathered into a circle five feet across. The earth erupted from below and the sky fell in from above and for a moment there was a pillar of fire and water, earth and air, where the pentagram had been. Zech half-dragged his father away, out beyond the stumps, as the earth rose up behind them like a swelling boil. When the final eruption came, it was a blast of heat and light and dirt that sent them sprawling in the furrows. Then all was quiet, except for the gentle patter of falling earth which soon subsided.
“Father?” Zech looked at Garl’s blank expression. “Father?”
“No.” Zech shook Garl. “No, she was never here.”
Garl looked at his son, then looked away. He covered his head with his arms as shudders shook his body. Zech knelt by him awkwardly for a few minutes before rising and walking over to the edge of what had been the clearing. Now all six stumps were gone, and all that was left was a deep crater that leaked foul-smelling smoke into the sky. “Jokalau?” he said; but of course there was no answer. Whatever power she had unleashed to destroy the demon had taken her with it. I swear I will set you free, she’d said, and she had done just that. The demon, the master trickster, had been tricked; the twister of words, out-twisted.
But Jokalau was dead, and it was his fault.
Zech turned away from the hole. The smoke had stopped, but the smell remained: burning meat, rotting meat, meat swelling in the sun. The field would stink of it, he thought, forever.
“I suppose we’ll have to fill in this crater,” Garl said from beside him. His eyes, though red-rimmed, were steely-hard now.
“I doubt anything will ever grow here again anyway.”
“You know all about magic now, son?”
“No. I don’t.” Zech looked thoughtfully at the pit.
“Well, I’m going into town to see if I can buy some soil. No need to plow today, Zech. We’ll start again tomorrow.”
“Yes sir,” Zech said. He heard his father walk off across the field. When he was out of earshot, Zech added: “But I’d like to learn.”
He walked toward the house without looking back.
At the bottom of the pit, only a white shadow in the darkness, the magician’s finger pointed accusingly at the sky.
A mournful voice whispered, “Scella?”
NOTE: The astute reader who also happens to be a Dungeons & Dragons nerd (as I am, or at least, used to be) may recognize Jokalau’s final gambit against the demon as a retributive strike, such as can be performed with a Staff of the Magi, or, if you’re a Ghostbuster, by crossing the streams.
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