Hello, everybody! I have returned after my long hiatus. I do tend to go on a lot of hiatuses, and for that I apologize. To kick things off again I will be sharing another one of my old stories. This one is titled “The Return,” and unlike most of my fiction it is fantasy, though it does have a dark twist. Enjoy! I will post a sample here and link the rest at the bottom.
It was hard for the wizard Kalina to make room for the upcoming ritual. A trove of books, talismans, and assorted curiosities filled her underground study, and while her apprentice Ezekiel had spent a whole afternoon clearing them out, much remained to make the place feel crowded: here she saw a tome bound in dragon-skin, there a skull with glyphs carved into it, and all her things were tucked into their little twilit alcoves, or lined up on shelves of knotted wood, or suspended from the ceiling on ghostly filaments shining purple in the darkness.
“Light the candles, Ezekiel,” she said, striding into the middle of the cave. To one side lay her desk, the texts strewn across it proudly displaying the culmination of years’ work, and to the other stood a spiral staircase, tightly wound steps leading up to the loft where she had labored for so long on so many projects. On the floor between them was a circle drawn in powdered bone, within which she would soon make history.
Ezekiel got the candles started without comment or complaint. There were three of them, arranged asymmetrically around the edge of the circle to match the currents of energy that had, many years ago, brought Kalina’s former master to this little grotto. Thinner lines of bone followed those currents to the circle’s center, where she stood garbed in the brilliant purple robes of her profession. A stretched-out scroll levitated in front of her, suspended in place by a trivial charm, and in each hand she held a beaker filled with a hot, bubbling liquid—a very particular alchemical creation, the acquisition of which had required too many sacrifices for her comfort.
“All right, Ezekiel, we will begin the ritual proper. Say the invocation, and release the incense.”
Her apprentice nodded. This was a part of the process that she could not complete herself, which was why he had been given the task, inexperienced though he was. But even at the age of thirteen he had potential—one day he would be a wizard much like her.
“By the powers of air and fire, and of all the firmament of the heavens, bless this ritual,” Ezekiel said. He crouched low and removed the lid of a small censer, sending clouds of sweet-smelling smoke flying upwards. “May every element yield to my master’s will.”
Kalina read aloud the first sentence on the scroll. It was an odd tongue, hard for a human to render in speech, but it was the closest thing there was to a cosmic language, a symbolic shadow of the music of the spheres. When she finished, the flickering candlelight dimmed, and heat rode upon the air.
Her predictions, it seemed, were accurate so far. She grinned as she moved to the next line of glyphs. Only a handful had ever made it this far—was it possible that she would be the first to go further still? After all, Kalina was only twenty-eight, and since her mentor Elius had passed she had accomplished more than some wizards five times her age. To break into the astral plane would cement her legend forever.
She shook with anticipation, the hot wind catching in her robes, the flasks burning against her hands, and gave Ezekiel his last order for the day.
“It’s time. Light me up.”
Her apprentice removed from his robes a meal tin filled with a shimmering, finely granulated material—ground seeing stones, mined by Dwarves in the northern mountains—which he tossed into the air, scattering them all over the study. Quickly the grains caught the three currents of magic and followed them towards Kalina. After a few moments they stopped in place, suspended above the lines, flashes of purple and blue emerging wherever they clumped together.
It really was time. Now she would tear reality asunder, and soar into the gulfs beyond. The culmination of decades of work, hers and her mentor’s before her, would see the final veil broken, the secrets of the heavens revealed to answer a thousand ancient questions.
She poured the contents of both flasks onto the floor. The concoctions hissed as they bit at the cold stone beneath, releasing colors indescribable in their reaction.
Finally Kalina took a deep breath, steadied the scroll before her, and read the final line. This was the crucial moment. The currents of magic blazed with purple light as bright as the sun, and she shut her eyes.
Then, not long afterwards, she opened them. Nothing had happened.
She should have traveled beyond the veil, wherever that was. It appeared, however, that she was still in her study, surrounded by her artifacts, with wide-eyed Ezekiel staring at her. The candles had resumed their normal burning, and the levitating crystals had fallen to the floor. Her scroll joined them once she let it go.
Feebly she repeated the final line of the incantation, but that did nothing.
“No, no, no…” she said, glancing around, searching for evidence that something had happened. But the magic was gone from the room; the elixir she had dumped at her feet now sat inert, cooled to a sticky paste. “No, this isn’t possible!”
“Will we try again?” asked Ezekiel.
“Try again? Do you have any idea how long it took to get those seeing stones, or make the elixir?” She clenched her fists, directing her anger not at her well-meaning apprentice, or at herself, but at the soaring currents of magic that had cheated her out of the Crossing. “It just isn’t that simple, Ezekiel.”
Kalina walked out of the circle. Just after she passed the perimeter, however, she was struck by a dreadful headache, sharp dagger-points behind the eyes that swiftly diffused into a rolling curtain of pain, as if something terrible had crawled into her skull. She bent over and pinched the bridge of her nose, grimacing.
For a few unpleasant moments she stood there, weathering the pain, until finally it faded to a scattered tingling. She went on, “Get to work cleaning all of this up. See if any of the elixir or seeing stones didn’t react—if so, we might be able to use them in the future.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Figure out what the hell went wrong.”
She made for her desk and sat in the nearby chair, an heirloom from her late mentor. Or, more accurately, the chair was an heirloom made from her mentor, as his bones, along with those from six sorcerers of distant antiquity, were fused together to form it. His skull looked over the back of her head, his femurs made the armrests, his ribs prodded irritatingly at her back. She hoped that some of the old wizards’ power would seep from those bones and help her now.
The burning question was whether she had made a mistake in the execution of the ritual, or in the years of research, meditation, and theory that had gone into deriving it. After all, the spell was not helpfully recorded in scrolls, or taught alongside the standard bevy of cantrips—a wizard had to discover it herself, using her own craftsmanship and the few fragmentary sources, many thousands of years old, that spoke obliquely of passage between the planes.
Kalina tried to find her very first notes. Some she located stacked underneath parchments on a shelf, but the rest were unaccounted for, lost in the depths of her study. At the start of the project she had paid little attention to organizing them, thinking that she would never need them again. Now she chastised herself for her arrogance.
She studied her texts through the afternoon, then the evening, remaining at her desk long after Ezekiel had finished cleaning up the ritual’s leftovers and headed home. What else was there to do but absorb herself in more work, when her greatest achievement had fizzled so shamefully?
The passing hours brought no answers with them. She checked and rechecked the alchemical formulae, the maps of ley lines, the tables containing hundreds upon hundreds of universal constants, and as far as she could tell the numbers added up just as well as they had in the beginning. The flaw must have been either buried in her lost pages or hidden in plain sight.
Sometime around midnight, she began to grow drowsy. Her pace fell from around four pages per hour to less than one, and then, even as she cursed the approaching fatigue, cursed more broadly all the human weaknesses that held her back, she dozed off at her desk. Her head lay cradled in her arms, black hair splayed anarchically in all directions. Ghostly images flickered in the air as her dreams—the colorful, powerful dreams of a wizard—leaked out into reality.
Tonight they were twisted and hellish.
I hope you enjoyed this sample! You can read the rest for free on FictionPress.com, here.