Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2011: Demonfire Ash

Demonfire Ash
Helen E. Davis

What happened to my garden? Eyes still closed, Geoff Bowman shifted his head. Pain like an iron spike speared him from temple to temple. Sunlight burned through his still-closed lids; sounds hammered his ears. It was one hell of a hangover, but why would he have been drinking? Strong wine was not allowed to Journeyman Wizards, and he, despite his years, was the newest of Journeyman.The bed beneath him was soft. Much too soft to be a straw-stuffed sack on a wooden plank. Why was he in the wrong bed? And who was in the room with him?Forcing his eyes open, he saw bed curtains hanging by his head. Grey spiderwebs, rent and drooping, formed a secondary curtain. Beyond them he could see scattered furniture, and a young woman pawing through a trunk.This was the Hallmaster’s bedroom, not his tiny cell. Why was a woman here? Who was she? Geoff fought to place her heart-shaped face and long black curls, but failed. He tried to call out, but coughed instead. Dust billowed up from the bedclothes, choking him further.

The woman looked up, scowling in an all too familiar way. “So you’re alive, are you? I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t bother to undress you.”

Why should strange women be undressing him, and in the Hall Master’s bedroom, no less. But why was it so dirty? Why did he hurt? What had happened? Frederick. Frederick had done something. What?

“Finally.” She pulled the Hallmaster’s demon-killing knife from the trunk. Protective wards shone brightly down the length of the silver blade. The Hallmaster loved to show it to the apprentices, polishing the blade while explaining that it was worth far more than the treasury of the Wizard Hall. No demon could escape the poison of its silver, not with the spells forged into the blade itself.

The woman wiped spiderwebs off the tarnished hilt, then rolled it into her apron. Looking back at Geoff, she said, “As far as I’m concerned, you can stay here and rot.”

Then she left.

Strange. He’d have to find out about her. He pulled himself to a sitting position, then felt the room spin around him. I’d better get some food before I attempt the garden.

Carefully he swung his legs over the side of the bed and placed them on the floor, scuffing a chalk line. Magical symbols, sketched in an unfamiliar hand, followed the line around the end of the bed. He stared it for a long moment, before his sluggish mind realized that it was a circle of protection, sealed by wards. Who had drawn it, and against what? What threat dared to come inside the Wizard Hall?

His wiped his hands against his clothes, and realized that they were also wrong.  Instead of his robe, he wore trousers and a jacket.  Not slippers, but heavy boots. There was so much wrongness here. Nothing made sense.

That, at least, was a familiar sensation to Geoff.

Dodging spiders and beetles, he lurched to the door. Another set of wards had been drawn there, further protection against the unknown threat. He stepped over them, and stumbled down the Hall Master’s private stairway to the common room. At the bottom he saw a third set of wards, these sealed in wax. Strong protection against a strong danger.

Gingerly he opened the door and looked at room beyond.

Very, very wrong.

Soldiers–burly men in leather armor–sat at the tables. Silver-tipped spears and polished shields leaned haphazardly against the wall. Women carried trays of food and beer, and one giggled as she was pulled into a man’s lap. This looked more like an inn than a meeting room for scholars and artists.

A woman gasped and dropped her tray. She pointed at Geoff, and the room fell silent as others turned to follow her gesture. He found himself staring at more than a score of shocked faces, among them the dark-haired girl he had seen in the room.

Then her face turned hard.

Geoff quickly looked behind himself, but saw nothing. Movement caught his eye: an old man’s face reflected in a shield. His own, he realized with horror. His sandy hair was more white than not, and what there was lay thin over his speckled scalp. Wrinkles lined his face; faded scars marked both cheeks. His grey eyes were faded, almost transparent. What had happened?

Frederick had… A fresh stab of headache sent the thought reeling.

Stumbling to an empty seat, he said, “I’d like something to eat, please.”

“How about some gruel?” An matronly woman slapped her hands on her apron. “It’s good enough for the likes of you.”

Geoff had never been picky. “Yes, please.”

She slapped a tarnished silver bowl on the table, then dropped a silver spoon beside it.  The Hall’s good dinnerware, now dark with age and neglect. But the food within looked hot, if lumpy. He took a bite, then gulped the rest. Slowly his dizziness settled and his headache receded into a pounding ache.

“Did you like that?” the woman asked, incredulous, as he scraped out the dregs.

“I’d like more, if I could.”

Snorting, she picked up the bowl and carried it off.

He looked around at all the strange, staring faces. Where were the other wizards, and what had Frederick done?

The front door slammed open, revealing a middle-aged woman in a green velvet riding dress. Her dark hair was tied back with a matching ribbon; a heavy silver seal of authority hung about her neck.  Gazing across the room, she slapped her riding crop into the palm of her hand.

Soldiers and servants scrambled to rise and bow.

Lady Aberje, Geoff realized dully, if she had aged as many years as he apparently had.  Her husband was overlord of the Eastern coast, and she was said to match him in both strength and determination. Not even the birth of two children slowed her. He had never seen her so close, or so angry, and wasted no time knocking his own knees on the floor.

Her gaze was on him, expectant.

His voice croaked. “My lady. How may I serve you?”

Without a word Lady Aberje snatched the demon-killing knife from the dark-haired girl. She threw off the scabbard and raised the blade.

A teenaged boy with light hair threw himself in front of Geoff. “I ransom him!”

“What?” snapped the Lady Aberje. “Why?”

“There is something I must know,” the young man said.

“He’s dangerous.”  She growled like a rottweiler losing its prey.

“Not today. The demon is quiet,” the young man insisted. “I ransom him and I guarantee his behavior with my life. This is my right.”

Lady Aberje paused, then thrust the knife at the boy. “If he even thinks about calling the demon, then you slit his throat.”

Call the demon? What fool would do that?

Frederick stood before his chalk-drawn circle, a candle flickering at each of the nine points of power. A sulfuric stench, laced with fear, hung in the air. “By flame and blood, I call thee here…”

Staring at the scuffed floor beneath his knees, Geoff realized that things were much worse than he had imagined.

His garden…

Geoff stared at the carnage. His refuge, now shattered, twisted, and burnt beyond recognition. The wall he had built to hide from the taunts of the quicker apprentices was tumbled, the bricks broken. The paved walks, so much easier to master than the skills that other students secured with ease, were plowed under. And his plants, which he had spent years collecting, plants he had named and counted his personal companions – were masses of blackened refuse. Demonfire Ash, some dull with age but some glistening fresh, oozed over the remains.

A demon had been here.

Bits of memory flashed by: A shouted word, a flash of Demonfire, the metallic stench of an angry demon. But nothing coherent.

What had happened? And where was the demon now? Who did it ride? Geoff looked at the men and women who had followed him out of the hall. Each wore a silver earring or a silver necklace – no demon could abide that. The air smelled fresh, unburdened by demonic stench So it was no longer here – but where was it? And the battle had been – when? Some of the ash was new, but some was old – years old.  Years had passed, evaporated like the morning dew. Where had they gone?

The years weren’t the only thing missing. “Where are the other wizards?”

“Dead,” replied the fair-haired boy, who stood close behind him. Even the boy wore a silver neck ring, thick and shaped into a viper.

“What? When?”

The boy shrugged, but his eyes didn’t leave Geoff’s face. “Before I was born.”

He was an older teenager, eighteen or nineteen. “That many years?”

The boy nodded.

“But – why?” he stammered.

Again the boy shrugged. “Lord Fajelle didn’t like wizards.”

“I bind you with the name, Fajelle!” Frederick shouted into the stinking, iridescent flare. A face formed by empty gaps sneered back.

The name had taken, but the binding had not. Geoff swallowed hard, then asked the question he would have preferred not to. “Is this Lord Fajelle still alive?”

The boy looked aside at the glistening ash. “It appears so.”

Geoff closed his eyes. If he was the last of the Wizards, then it fell to him to find and destroy Frederick’s demon.

There were many ways to kill a demon, but only one that Geoff could work: a triple poison compounded from three magical plants. Those three plants had grown together in his garden, in a spot now covered by an odious gob of dark-grey ash, but they also grew in the wild. He could find them, cultivate them, and be prepared for the return of the demon, be it in a day or a month. “I’m going out,” he announced to the boy – and whoever else might be listening.

The boy turned to a soldier.  “Get the horses.”

Horses? Wizards, as a rule, were never rich enough to keep horses, and Geoff did not know how to ride. He started to protest when a young man with curling dark hair grabbed the boy’s arm. “What are you doing, fool? I thought we had an agreement.  Now I see him walking around, and I hear you’ve ransomed him from mother!”

Mother. Then this young man and the young woman were Lady Aberje’s two small children, Hans and Hilde. Not so small, anymore.

The boy shrugged within Hans’ grip. “This is my chance to learn his secrets.”

“You fool! He’s dangerous!”

“His teeth are pulled,” said the boy. “And I have the knife.”

“See that you use it,” Hans grumbled.

The soldier returned with a bay and a spirited black charger. Geoff prayed that the calmer mount was for him, but the boy took it. The black beast, prancing with impatience, was brought before Geoff. Swinging its massive head around, it snorted in his face.

You can smell the fear on me, can’t you?

“Is something wrong, my Lord?” chided the soldier holding the reins.

“I don’t know what to do.” Geoff stared at the wall of muscle in front of his nose.

“You can’t mount your own horse?” the soldier mocked. “Perhaps you’d like me to set you on it?”

“Wetzler!” the boy snapped. “Be careful. Help him up.”

“Put your foot there,” the soldier said gruffly, his sport ruined. He grabbed Geoff’s shoulders and shoved him into the saddle. Only the boy’s quick grab kept Geoff from falling down the other side.

“You needn’t act so,” the boy hissed.

“Act?” Geoff said as the soldier handed him the reins.

The black horse reared and bolted. Geoff dropped the reins and grabbed the pommel. He clutched it tightly as the horse charged down the drive and through the gate.

This wasn’t helping his headache.

The boy galloped alongside him and caught the reins. He dragged the stallion to a stop. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I don’t know. The beast ran.”

“And you couldn’t stop him?” His face reddened.

“How do I do that? The thing is bigger than I am.”

“Pull up on the reins,” the boy said slowly, as if he could not understand how Geoff couldn’t handle a horse.

Geoff scowled back. Frederick was like that, always looking down on those who failed learn the arts as quickly as he did. He had a special scorn for Geoff, who was years older and falling further behind. So arrogant, he thought he could control a demon

Demon. The one Geoff had to kill. The reason he was on this uncooperative beast, accompanied by this scornful child. With a mental sigh he looked down at the horse’s massive neck. “It’s stopped. How do I make it go?”

“Flick the reins,” the boy sighed. “And squeeze your calves together.”

Geoff tried. The beast stood still.

“Come, Firebrand,” the boy said as he reached over and tugged on its halter. He urged his own bay forward, and the black beast followed politely.

I should learn to do that, Geoff thought.

For more than an hour they walked the dusty road, the black horse moving only when the boy held his reins. So much was familiar, yet changed. Buildings stood where none had been, while weeds covered once fine houses. A field stood fallow, cows grazing where wheat had grown. A grove of saplings had become a proper forest; blackened stumps marked an orchard. Yet the streams and hills stood steadfast, and they skirted a familiar village.

Eventually they paused beside a field where workers harvested grain. The boy looked at Geoff. “Are you ready to return?”

“I’m going to the high meadow beyond the river.”

“Of course you want to go there,” the boy muttered.

“I could walk,” Geoff offered. “You can take the horses back.”

“And leave you unguarded? Hah.”

Among the workers a woman looked up. Geoff’s heart jumped. Talia! She of the graceful touch and quick smile. She’d kissed him once, beneath a shining full moon, and he’d dreamed of that kiss for weeks.

Grey streaked her hair, and wrinkles framed her eyes. But she was still pretty, and her eyes sparkled as she smiled. Then her lips formed his name.

The boy urged the horses forward.

“Stop,” Geoff called.

“Leave the miller’s wife alone.”

“The miller’s wife.” Those words cut. “She’s married.”

“Of course, she’s married. She’s been married for years. Don’t you see her children?” Anger flashed in his grey eyes.

“I knew her, before.” He had wanted to say before yesterday, but his yesterday was different from the boy’s yesterday. “It’s just as well that she married him. I couldn’t have married her until I became a Master, and as slow as I am, that would never have happened in time to give her a family.”

“Master?” The boy frowned as he pulled the horses closer together.

“I’ve only made Journeyman, and that was just before…” Before what? The great gap of nothingness bothered him. “There was a magical battle yesterday, wasn’t there?”

“Yes. Oh, yes.” The boy touched the hilt of the demon-killing knife.

“I seem to have lost some of my memory in it.”

The boy stared. “How much?”

“Years. Talia wasn’t married. Lady Aberje’s children were small, hardly more than toddlers. The Wizard Hall was in perfect repair.” And I had a garden.

The boy blinked. “So, you were here before….” He waved his hand.

“I was a Journeyman Wizard in the Hall. That’s where I learned what I would have used to fight the demon yesterday.”

“You! You fought the demon yesterday?” The boy sneered.

Geoff shrugged. “It must have been me, if all the other wizards are dead.”

“I don’t think you…” Again the boy’s voice faded. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

A towering pillar of iridescent flame, a roar beyond sound, Frederick smiling as he swung out his arm, then stumbling forward…

“Frederick summoning a demon. Summoning Fajelle.”

“You saw him summon Lord Fajelle? Why didn’t you stop him?”

“We ran in just as he finished the spell. I was behind the others. As usual.” Geoff bowed his head.

They continued in silence until the road crested a hill, and Aberje’s manor came into view. Or rather, the remains of Aberje’s manor. A pair of giant hands had picked up the house and wrung it dry. Twisted timber and skewed walls thrust out at odd angles; stones littered the lawn like broken teeth. On one side the ground had been ripped open, and on the other ancient trees were splintered. Old Demonfire Ash hung like spittle on the ruins.

“Lord Aberje!” he gasped.

“Lord Fajelle was not pleased with him,” the boy said quietly.

“And where is my Lord Aberje? He must have made it to safety with the rest of his family!”

The boy shook his head. “Dead, of course. Anyone who displeased Lord Fajelle died, and not quickly.”

“But – my Lady. She escaped, with Hans and Hilde.”

The boy snorted. “Mother was forced to marry the monster.”

“Your mother, then, is the Lady Aberje?”

“I suppose, before she became the Lady Fajelle.”

The wife of a demon. Wizards had summoned that demon, and he was a wizard. No wonder she had wanted him dead.

The demon-killing potion required three plants, all noxious to demons. They might survive an encounter with one, or perhaps two, but a combination of the three assured death. Not an instantaneous death, unfortunately, but a relatively fast one. If the host could be contained for an hour or so after the potion was slipped into his food or drink, then the demon would be dead and the mindless husk of the host could be slaughtered. The first step, then, was to find the plants. Demonwort grew in the open fields, Lizardclaw thrived only in the swamp, and Hellsbane cowered in the crevices of the mountain rock.

As Geoff pondered this, the road ended at a creek, low with late summer drought. Beyond it rose a hillock, its slope covered with waist-high grasses. They rode to the top and looked down into a meadow, one that Geoff knew was filled with bright flowers and many of his favorite magical plants. It was a place he loved to visit when he could no longer face the demands of the Wizardhall.

It was draped in swaths of Demonfire Ash.

What? He tried to jump forward in alarm, but only fell off his horse.

The boy climbed down and grabbed his arm. “Are you trying to get away?”

“A stupid way to do that.” Geoff sat up and looked at his sleeve. It had brushed the Demonfire Ash, and was now blackened. It crumbled at his touch.

“Have you seen what you wanted?”

“I want Demonwort. It’s a small plant, close to the ground, with tiny yellow flowers. It grows in clusters.” Desperate to believe that some still grew, he searched the ground.

“It displeased Lord Fajelle.”

“Of course.” Geoff sighed. “Do you think there is any left?”

“My sister –” The boy stopped short.

“Does she have some?”

“No. She told me once that it grows in other lands.” His face was set, guarded.

So there was hope. “We should send for some. Now, may we go down to Ires Swamp?”

“And look at the lake of, this stuff?” The boy swept his hand over the field.

“The swamp, too?”

“Every swamp for miles around.”

There would be swamps in other lands, Geoff told himself. “What of the rocky hillsides?”

“The same,” the boy nodded.

Fajelle had been thorough. “We will find some. For now, I can clean this up.”

“Clean it up? Nothing can touch that slime!” The boy spat onto the ash; his spittle smoked.

“With magic,” Geoff said firmly. He gestured toward the ash, extending power from his palms to scoop up a handful without touching it. Suspended so, he rolled it in the air, pressing harder and harder until it compressed into a glassy marble. Now it was safe to touch. He let the dark grey orb fall into his hand.

The small bit of ground he had uncovered was pale and dry. Soon, though, with rain and seed, it would return to life. Every inch he restored would be a victory against the demon.

The boy was more interested in the marble. He rolled it across his own palm. “I want to do this.”

“You would have to be a wizard.”

“What does it take to be a wizard?”

“Talent. It runs in families.” As far as Geoff knew, neither Lord Aberje or his wife had talented relatives. “Then you would study hard to control your talent. Once you are accepted by the master wizards…” He trailed off as he remembered that there were no other wizards. Turning, he scooped up another handful of ash.

“I have talent,” the boy insisted.

“I’m not qualified to judge that. I only know about plants, and demons.” Geoff pressed hard on the ash.

“You know about demons,” the boy stated. “Is it hard to summon demons?”

Geoff shrugged. “I don’t care to know. I prefer to know how to ward against them. I also know spells for repairing the damage they do, and spells for killing them –”

“How would you kill them?” The boy crouched beside Geoff.

“The three-plant poison,” Geoff answered, shifting away from the boy’s eagerness. He lay his finished marble aside and reached again to the ash – then stopped as a single yellow blossom caught his eye. Brushing aside the grass, he saw it. Barely more than a seedling, but it was Demonwort.

“What about beheading him with a silver knife? Isn’t that better? More reliable?”

Geoff chuckled darkly. “A silver-poisoned demon still takes time to die, and in that time, the demon-ridden corpse will still try to kill you. May I use your knife?”

“This one?” The boy touched the hilt of the silver knife. “Why?”

“I won’t hurt it,” Geoff said, reaching over to slide the knife from its scabbard.

The boy stared at his hand, and the knife. “How long does it take a silver-poisoned demon to die?”

“A long time. Fauntalis – his books are in the library – tells of a demon-ridden man who was chained in silver rings and stabbed with a demon-killing knife. He tore himself to pieces to escape the silver, and then his corpse continued to twitch for more than an hour.” Geoff pushed the knife into the dark soil and dug around the seedling.

“Demon-ridden? What do you mean by that?”

Geoff chuckled darkly. “Did you think that demons have true bodies? No, they grab a handy victim, shred his mind, and move in. That’s why I prefer the three-plant poison. Even if the demon moves, he’s still poisoned, and will die in the new host. And once the demon is dead, he is gone from his victim’s body.”

“So there’s no need to kill the man he was in, is there?”

“If you don’t mind keeping a mindless, violent beast alive. You’d have to lock him away, or chain him up – best to do both. His death would be the better kindness.” Geoff cradled his precious Demonwort as he dug around its roots. It still grew, despite Fajelle’s efforts, so perhaps there was also Lizardclaw and Hellsbane. Tomorrow, Geoff decided, he would search the swamps and the mountainsides.

The boy persisted. “But what if the man isn’t mindless?”

“Then you should worry that you have not killed the demon. Press silver against his skin – does he scream, and his skin blacken? Sprinkle Demonwort on his bed – does he scratch until his skin bleeds? Search his hands for traces of Demonfire. If he passes these tests, then he was never Demon-ridden to begin with, and the Demon hides in another. If he fails, then you see the Demon pretending to be a man.” Geoff cleaned the knife blade on his pants leg, then wrapped up the tiny plant in his handkerchief. “Did you know that if you drink an infusion of Demonwort before fighting a Demon, you’ll be safe from possession?”

“No,” the boy said. He touched his neck ring. “I thought wearing silver would be enough.”

“Not if the Demon manages to tear it off. It’s safer to drink the tea. This little plant will be a favorite of yours before the year is out.” He held up the bundle and peered at the beautiful flower. “I’ll name you Gavin. Yes, that’s a good name for a little plant.”

“That’s my name,” the boy protested.

“Then you have a namesake.” Geoff said with a smile. “Let’s go. Do I have to get back on this creature? Or may I walk?”

They walked back. The boy, Gavin, led the horses while Geoff carried his plant and mulled over the three-plant poison. Did he have all the ingredients? Was his formula correct?  It had always seemed simple, when he read it, but self-doubt nagged at him. He always forgot something – what was it this time? Finally he shook his head, knowing that he would have to look it up in a spell book and follow it carefully.

They had reached the Wizard Hall. Gavin took the horses while Geoff found an old pot for Little Gavin.  He watered it and dusted its leaves. “You’re the hope of the future,” he whispered to it, as he carried the seedling indoors. The library, with its wide windows, would be a good place for it to grow.

Light footsteps followed: the boy, always on guard.

The library lay beyond the workroom. There were other ways to reach it, such as from the Hall Master’s bedroom, but through the workroom was his accustomed path. He found the door resisted him, its hinges stiff with rust, but he managed to push it open – then stopped in horror.

Old bones were scattered among clothing stained black and brown. A crushed skull lay in a puddle of wax; shattered glass and splintered wood were strewn about. Dusty cobwebs, like lace curtains, draped themselves over the carnage.

Candles flickered on the floor, and the stench of burnt herbs and sulfur gagged Geoff. A roar deafened him. Demonfire, contain by the circle of powers, boiled around the demon. The masters gasped; the apprentices whimpered. Geoff pressed his back against the shut door.

“I bind thee with the name, Fajelle!” Frederick shouted, turning to face the pillar of fury with a smile. And then stumbled.

Geoff looked down and saw that the chalk circle beneath the dust was scuffed open.

“What do you want here?” the boy asked.

“I need the library.” Geoff forced himself to walk forward, past the remains of his companions. Wrenching open the door on the far side, he stepped into the orderly calm of the library. Nothing here was ruined; nothing was out of place –

– Except for every book in the Demonology section. That shelf was bare.

“The books! Where are the books?” Geoff screamed. Pushing past the boy, he ran back to the stairs, then down to the common room. None of these soldiers could use such books, but any one of them might think they were a fine thing to plunder and sell. Geoff needed them, and he needed them now! “Who took my books? Answer me!”

An old man ran forward and threw himself on the ground. “My Lord Fajelle, no one has touched your books.”

“My books are gone!” Geoff shouted.

“I took them,” the boy stated from behind. He held the silver knife at Geoff’s throat. “I hid them.”

“But – why?”

“To learn how to kill a demon.” The boy touched the base of Geoff’s throat with the silver tip. “I studied them, right underneath your gaze, and you never suspected a thing. My sister sent for the magical plants, pretending to write to the suitors you found for her, and my brother collected the other things.  I made the three-plant poison, and I put it in your dinner.”

“Me? Why me? I’m not a demon, I’m Geoff Bowman. I…”

The pillar of fire swept through bodies and screams. Geoff watched it, then stared into the eyes of the Demon. Their emptiness flooded up, drowning him. He turned and ran to his garden, where he cowered. He was safe among his plants. No demon could touch him there.

Yet the door had been shut, and Geoff’s body had not moved.

He stood frozen as the boy stepped up and laid the blade across his neck. Sharp and cold, it pressed into his skin, promising death.

“Do you see?” Gavin shouted to the watched soldiers and servants. “Silver against his flesh! I tell you, Lord Fajelle is dead, and this is just what was left behind.”

The boy withdrew the knife. Wide-eyed and faint, Geoff touched his unbroken skin – then turned and bolted for his Journeyman’s cell.

Geoff stared through the tiny window, as filthy with neglect as the rest of the room, and watched the setting sun paint the sky with a crimson light. Across the landscape, pools of Demonfire Ash caught that light and shone blood red. His hands, too, seemed marked by blood where the Demonfire stained his nails and the deep creases of his palms.

For twenty years he had not been Geoff Bowman, incompetent Journeyman, but the cruel Lord Fajelle. Now he had woken into the nightmare the other had left. What should he do? What could he do?

For hours he had pondered that question, and was no closer to an answer.

A foot stamped behind him. “My Lord,” Lady Aberje said, her tone a mix of condescension and anger.

He turned quickly and dropped to his knees. “I’m Geoff Bowman. Fajelle is dead.”

She stood in the doorway, slapping her riding crop into the palm of her hand. “Oddly, the miller’s wife came to me with the same news. ‘Lord Fajelle is dead and Journeyman Geoff lives,’ she said. Did you send her to me?”

“We rode past her,” Gavin said, speaking from a comfortable seat by the door. “We did not stop to speak with her.”

Geoff flushed. He thought he had been alone all these hours, but the boy had been spying on him. “She knew me, when we were young. Before the demon attacked me.”

“The demon you summoned – ”

“It was Frederick who summoned it, and Frederick who released it. Another wizard.”  He thought of the bones on the floor. “The rest of us were caught by his madness.”

“Is this your way of pleading for your life?”

He held out his hands, stained by Demonfire and murder. “I think I would prefer death to knowing what these hands have done.”

“Is that, then, your wish?” Sunset shone like blood on her eager face.

So tempting to say yes and be done with it. The people would have their freedom and justice. But then, who would clean up the Demonfire Ash? And who would train Gavin? The boy was capable of learning from books, he had shown that. But did books offer guidance?

Or would he, with the same arrogance that Frederick had shown while calling Fajelle, become an even greater danger than the Demon Lord had been?

“My Lady,” Geoff heard himself say. “I cannot ask for death. This child must be properly trained, and the land should be cleansed of Fajelle’s blight.”

“I should let you live, so that he can learn to summon demons?”

“He could learn that on his own, my Lady. I need to teach him not to do such things.”

Lady Aberje snorted, and turned to Gavin. “And you believe that?”

Gavin stood and looked her in the eye. “Father has changed. He is now interested in killing Demons, not summoning or controlling them.”

His father? Geoff wondered. But hadn’t the conversation been about himself?

Oh. He leaned on the floor for support. How much slower could he be? If Fajelle had been Lady Aberje’s second husband, then he was the father of her youngest child. Fajelle had used Geoff’s body, so the child was of his seed. Thus he had inherited Geoff’s talent and Lady Aberje’s intelligence. Like Frederick, Fajelle had created his own destruction.

“How do I know that he will change not his mind again?”

Gavin gave her a small shrug. “How does he know you won’t behead him in his sleep?”

Wards, Geoff thought. He should surround his bed with wards.

Though if they were married, his bed would be her bed, too.

“But he does know how to clean up the foul waste.” Gavin pulled the marbles from his pocket and held them out to her. “He made these from it, and uncovered the ground. Could you not let him live as long as he does that, and teaches me properly?”

“As long as he is needed, perhaps.” Her tone implied that Geoff’s life could be measured in handfuls of ash. Then she turned to Geoff, her arms crossed defensively. “But is that all you would want? Or is there more you would desire.”

“I would like a garden,” he replied.

“A garden?” There was surprise in her voice. “Why?”

“For my plants.” He pushed little Gavin forward. “I like to grow things.”

And I want a place to hide.

There was a long pause, and then she said, “Fajelle did not like to see things grow.”

That was far too evident. Geoff stared at the floor.

“You are different,” she said at last. “You may have your garden. Come now, to your home and dinner.”

Without waiting for his response, she swept out of the room. Geoff scrambled to his feet and hurried after, clutching Little Gavin to his chest. He would have a new garden soon, a place to cultivate the seedlings he found among the Demon Lord’s destruction. Despite whatever else Geoff lacked, he could grow plants and build walls.

Behind him, the boy walked lightly. His son, another type of seedling concealed within the ruins. To Geoff also fell his cultivation. The Wizard Hall might be repaired, and might thrive again. The seedlings would grow.

Holding that thought like a shield against the past, Geoff stepped into his future.

______________

Helen E Davis lives in Dayton, OH, with her husband, two daughters, and two cats.  Her fiction has appeared in Sword and Sorceress 24, Sword and Sorceress 25, and Adventures in Sword and Sorcery, but she writes Science Fiction as well.  Her web site is at www.sff.net/people/dragonwriter

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