The evening before his departure, Ishtal the Old One provided last instructions. They knelt on the dirt floor within touch of each other, under Ishtal’s lizard skin covering, and spoke in a dead tribal dialect.
“You clutch at feelings for Hastet’s chattel and the urchin you two produced. The bitch sorceress will use that against you.”
Malame held silent. The Old One spoke truth. He still harbored feelings for Charlong and the child he had never met. And knew that Hastet, a woman magus as remorseless as his own master, would use those emotions against him.
“The sag-dugged sow will violate our agreement if there is the slightest discrepancy in what you provide from the unnamed beast. Observe all its terms. The beast has destroyed and consumed every mage and adept who has gone against it. I have advanced you as best I know, but I fear that in the end you will have to use your aberrant wits.
“As to your procreation, as the shrew and I agreed, she has kept the girl child. Do not fumble the spells which will ensure a boy, for that will be mine.”
The Old One stared at nothing for several seconds. “You have begun to inhale the winds of existence beyond our world, do not choke yourself on the fumes of this one.”
Malame nodded. He’d renounced comfort and the company of both women and men to start to achieve this. He didn’t rue his choice despite the deprivations that came with it.
As the Old One continued, Malame wondered about the rumors that his master and Hastet had, a century before, also been lovers. And knew enough to keep the question to himself.
Malame set out set out with the sunrise the next morning. Ishtal did not see him off. He rode for four days through wilderness and abandoned villages.
In the false dawn of the fifth day, as he was breaking camp, four warriors accosted him. Malame backed away and began conjure. The two women and two men were lightly armored and quick moving.
As they circled him, Malame’s spell took hold, and they turned against each other. The smaller woman had snake-strike quickness and was the last left standing. But not unharmed. She bled vigorously from cuts on her spear arm and thigh. Malame decided against exerting another spell and waited outside of thrusting range while she bled out. Once she began to stagger, he stepped in and cut her throat.
He left them as they lay, saddled up, and rode off. Two days later he came to Hastet’s compound. She remained as he remembered, sinewy, thin of body and hair, with rheumy eyes that seemed always to glare. She was dressed in an undyed wool shift whose thick, coarse fibers would give comfortable home to insects.
She faced him in the doorway of her stone on stone manse, studied him for several seconds, and gestured him inside. Malame noticed several alcoves with their own hearths. He and his magus were not used to such amenities. Both lived in a thatched hut and slept in leather strap cots perched on the tamped earth floor. Warmth and cooking provided by a fire in the middle of the hut.
“Tell me of your journey, whelp. In detail.”
He suppressed a smile. She was as deliberately unpleasant as the Old One.
Malame described his encounter. “I debated taking their heads as bona fides for you, but presumed that you’d be aware of their fate. They fought well, I suggest recompensing their families.”
The skin tautened over her already gaunt face. “Do not presume, whoreson. They failed in your testing.”
Hastet slightly closed her eyes. “The Old One appears to have adequately trained you. Cleanse yourself, you stink of ungroomed horse. Then we will eat.” She waved at an iron-collared woman who escorted Malame toward an alcove.
The evening meal was grilled squirrel and roasted beets. Only Hastet was at the table with him. Malame briefly considered asking after Charlong and their child, Saccul, but knew Hastet relished keeping him in suspense.
She and Malame ate the rodents with their fingers, occasionally crunching up and swallowing a bone. She wasted no time on small talk.
“You have somehow survived your testing, so the Old One was not so senile as to mistrain you. However, you are not as talented as you presume, and my expectation is that you will die during your major tasking. Therefore, you will remain here for three days while you perform your other mission.”
Malame tilted his head in silent question.
“You will deliver seed to Charlong for the next three nights, during her estrus.”
“Ah, most puissant sorceress, Charlong’s last words to me were of hatred and my death, perhaps instead…”
Hastet’s stern expression hardened into scorn. ”Your offspring is proving capable, more spawn are beneficial. Surely the vermin-ridden Old One has told you this.”
“He did, and the task is not onerous, but I would first like to convince Charlong not to knife me after coitus.”
Hastet’s eyes sliced into him. “She will do as I bid her. Her hatred is not pertinent, the only prerequisite is a modicum of lust on your part.”
“Have you also instructed her not to curse me?”
“Ah, well. She does have some discretion in these matters. Wash your hands. No one likes to be fondled with greasy fingers.”
After eating with Hastet, Malame walked over to Charlong’s quarters, a two-lobed hut made of logs and wattle. As Malame entered she and their daughter Saccul were kneeling, the heels of their feet touching their buttocks. They faced each other, animated faces showing understanding without passing words back and forth. Malame wondered if he would be able to do the same with a son, and immediately threw the thought aside as distracting. He assumed the same position two body lengths away and held silent until he was addressed.
Charlong turned her head toward him. “You betrayed me, Malame.”
“And took me from a home I can never go back to.”
Young Saccul, whose hair was the color of banana flesh, glared at Malame with a look of either fear or anger. He didn’t blame her.
“And sold me into slavery to this witch.”
“Barter rather than sale, but true enough.”
Malame had been absorbing every detail of Charlong. Her slender prettiness had filled out to a strong-featured beauty. The goetic presence that had been little more than a hint was full formed. The hut roiled with their psychic cross currents. The child sensed it and withdrew her own fledgling abilities under a veil. As he’d opened up his senses, Malame also realized that Hastet had been correct, Charlong was in estrus.
“I see you know the spell of sharing.”
Charlong waved a dismissive hand. “Of course.”
“Anything I say aloud you’ll consider lie or deception. So I’ll open up all my memories about you. Some of my thoughts will be ugly, some selfish. But all involved keeping you and our daughter alive. I cannot offer better bona fides.”
“I’d rather you just mount me and leave, saying nothing.”
“Please. Even as you continue to hate me, you’ll have the details for every aspect of that hate.”
Charlong stood, pushing herself up using only the tops of her feet. She walked over to Malame and stared at him. Then she knelt back down, their knees a finger-width from touching. “Open your mind.”
Malame didn’t hesitate. Charlong would only be able to experience his memories of her, but if she were angry enough she could deface them. “Very well.”
He sub-audibly incanted and nodded to her that he was ready. Charlong entered immediately, riffling through the weeks of their encounter, pausing, not at their moments of intimacy, but at Malame’s manipulations of her. Her exploration lasted the life of a short candle and just prior to removing herself she went to the moment of her bondage to Hastet and poured psychic acid onto it, leaving a welt of her hatred.
Malame shook himself as she exited. “That wasn’t necessary. I already have abiding memory of your hate.”
“What I am now understands why you forsook me. But my memories know only your abandonment.”
“May I reach out to our child?”
Charlong nodded. Saccul seemed shocked that her mother had agreed. She’d been unable to follow their thoughts, but had felt their regret and anger. She showed – not fear – resentment perhaps.
”He won’t harm you. Go ahead.”
Saccul nodded agreement.
Malame rose and went over to his child. “Saccul, I’m well pleased in how adept you are. I offer you a choice of gift, either gold or a spell you may use against someone who torments you.”
The child looked toward her mother, who nodded. Her eyes crinkled in concentration. “Gold I can find. The spell is gone unless I take it.”
Malame allowed himself a smile. He looked toward Charlong, who again nodded. “Use the spell of sharing, child, and I’ll give you the wordings.”
She shifted slightly, her lips moving in the incantation of opening, then looked up and nodded at Malame. He gently laid the spell like a jeweled egg in her consciousness, and withdrew.
Saccul studied the spell for a moment in silence, then looked at Malame. “Can I change them into yet another animal?”
“Sadly no, only one change is possible, but they will no longer annoy you.”
A smile creased across her face as she considered the possibilities, then it disappeared. “Will you fornicate with mamma now?”
“I believe so.”
Their pairing was competent and callus. Twice he thought he’d felt embers of emotion from Charlong, which she immediately tamped down. He resigned himself to a loveless whoring, a procreative calisthenic.
After the brief encounter, Malame returned to his room, took off his shift, and lay on the cot in a fetal position. He lowered himself into his inner well, descending into darkness until reaching the orange fires of his being. He bathed himself in their searing flames, the lies and deceits of his day charring into ash that flaked away. His un-filmed vision reached further and more clearly than any other time, and he venerated the beauty of the revealed truths. He fell asleep.
Breakfast at dawn was gruel and fat back, attended by all three women. Malame shifted his gaze from one to the other – the three ages of witchery. The intercourse the night before was not brought up, and Malame assumed that Hastet had held secret witness.
Malame spent his days with Hastet and his evenings with Charlong. After their third time together, while still lying in bed, Malame leaned toward Charlong. “Thanks for not killing me.”
Her smile was pursed. “Hastet forbade my doing so. At least until after you’ve completed your tasking. Or have failed, in which case you’d already be dead.”
Malame’s smile was tentative. “You’ve looked inside me. There’s no lie in my emotions. What you do with that knowledge is for you to decide.”
“And you to be concerned about.”
That next morning, while sopping up the gruel with a crust of black bread, Hastet glanced at Malame. “Repack for travel. Your horse is being made ready for your excursion into Blackthorn forest.”
He’d been looking at Charlong when Hastet said it, and watched quicksilver fear cross her face. These woods were baneful. He nodded to Charlong, who gave an almost imperceptible nod back.
Hastet and Malame left the stone cottage and he had to quicken his pace to keep up with the cane-stumping old woman. He held his horse while she addressed him.
“I cannot emend the Old One’s orders and spells without putting your task at risk. But hear me, randy sniveler. Better to fail and be damned than to double deal me. If you do not uphold his oath to me, you and the Old One will undergo torments you barely conceive of.”
“My oath holds true, venerable Hastet. You’ll either receive what has been agreed or I won’t be alive to be reproached. I hope for your guidance as well.”
The old woman snorted, a small snot clot dropping to the ground. “It does not abide in our world, nor think as we do. It acts like a summer storm, capricious in its course. Its great powers are largely unknown, even to Itself. It is the madman in the temple, the berserker warmed to his carnage. When It does not ignore us, It rends us. Powerful sorcerers have cast their spells at It and died. I have no spell to give you that has not already failed. You must use that abnormal mind of yours and find the twisted path to slaying It and bringing back some of Its powers. The male you have just conceived will go to the Old One, and will replace you if you fail.” She leered. “It may replace you in any case.”
Malame nodded, bowed slightly to Hastet, and left. He picked his way through virgin forest for five days, eventually entering a small, open lea. He unsaddled the horse and slapped it away, giving it at least a small chance of survival. Then he turned, brushed aside branches, and sidled into the alders. Thirty yards in, the undergrowth gave way to dimly lit open spaces between the boles of huge trees. Massive roots gnarled over the ground, making his way forward as much a clamber as a walk.
His remaining water, dried meat and bread would last for two days. But he wouldn’t be eating it. He would fast until achieving a mystical state that would hopefully help keep him alive. He sat on a trunk-side knurl and induce-vomited up what little remained in his stomach. Then he settled in for motionless meditation.
Within minutes the mosquitos also settled in. They were expected. Their bleedings and itches pushed Malame well inside himself. Once semi-conscious he retrieved the Old One’s chant.
This thing can be done
You are come to slay It
I have killed Its kin
I use Its skin as bed cloth
You use Its power against Itself
You are the source of Its death
You are Its ordained killer
You are the light which burns It
the arrow which pierces It
the rock which crushes It
Toward dusk a black bear emerged from its lair and shuffled off after a spoor of carrion. It then scented Malame and slowed to consider fresher meat, closer in. It swerved in its lumbering sashay and moved toward him.
That lone facet of Malame still on watch perceived its approach. To leave his trance would destroy a day’s effort, and he reacted in an adder-strike response. The bear stared down at its left front paw lying in the ground, then at the bleeding stump at the end of its leg. It bawled and limped off, blood trailing behind it. It tumbled down a ravine into a creek bed, where it bled out and died. Malame had held his trance.
Timber wolves found the bear in the pre-dawn hours, tore open the hide and began to feed. Malame, his hearing sensitized by a night of almost silence, heard but did nothing. The sated wolves would have no desire to fight for more food.
Tree feeding insects continuingly explored his body and rejected him as unsatisfactory. A wayward tick set up camp on his inner thigh. All ignored. Another day passed. On the third morning Malame staggered as he arose, joints screaming.
He was sideways to this world, half in it and half in an even more unforgiving place. He could die in either. He shook off the bugs ,circled the tree several times to loosen his limbs, picked up his kit and moved further into the forest. He knew the spoor of the beast from the Old One’s bed cover, and allowed his nose to lead him.
It dreamt. Not as men do, of things hated and desired. It dreamed of being a roaring wind that rent forests and towns, of being the unquenchable under-earth fire, of being airless darkness. And then It sensed – something.
The oblivious and briefly living were food, infrequently taken, but in great quantity. But something partially aware was approaching, a moron, a defective intelligence, yes, but at least capable of knowing of Its existence. It stirred.
Many man years had passed since the last conscious visitor, and It had played too roughly with the woman, ripping her apart much too soon. Softly, softly, It thought, and focused on the approaching young man.
It had not spoken aloud in an old man’s life, and cleared Its throat with a cough that charred an acre and announced its presence. It held off forming and coiling and rehearsed the games It would play.
Malame carried a sword with powers and a dagger with poison but doubted either would be of any use. Might had failed others. Guile had failed. Spells had been deadly to the caster. He settled his essence, making of himself a still mountain pool, clear down to its bottom, the better to see It’s reflection.
The mosquitos had flown away and the tick dropped from its perch. There were no sounds of animals. Other creatures weren’t tolerated here. A whisper noise of crushed plants came from just behind him.
Malame turned around. There was nothing to be seen, but his goetic senses were almost torn loose. There are no smells in dreams, but are in visions, and the rank odor of still-rotting spirits filled him. A dirty gray shimmer blob held against the ground, wider and deeper than his inner eye could encompass.
The questioning was not in spoken language but must be recorded so. “So immature. Have the magi made the mistake of losing respect for me? Speak, slug.”
Malame compelled his body to step up against Its shimmer, then abandoned his physical presence and twisted himself completely into his other. “You who know so much must know that the fear is unabated.”
Its purr was sandstorm rasp. “Perhaps I will review your pathetic little life before consuming it. You are not yet a master, what had your magus hoped to achieve with your sacrifice?”
The clear water clarity of Malame’s mind allowed for no lying. “We wish to share in a small portion of your vast powers.”
An immense snout briefly materialized and snorted. “Prepare to be violated acolyte, and then eaten.”
The Old One’s melded chanting was in Malame’s inner ear-
Fight in spirit not in form
If a lizard you are doomed
If a wraith you may escape
Become of It and hide.
Absorb what you will steal
Only It can hurt Itself.
Ever moving, ever without aim.
“Or perhaps the reverse, oh marvelous one.” Malame’s transparency showed him that It was preparing to take form, to become fire lizard. His death would immediately follow. Malame’s presence thrust itself into the translucence, and, wriggling, passed within. It screed, bursting the eardrums of Malame’s discarded body.
Malame slithered furiously, without aim, for to have purpose would be to be found. He moved randomly, like an askaris roundworm, feeding on Its sensitive spirit tissue. And what he ate he retained, as knowledge offering to Hastet and Old One. Twice, three times, he randomly doubled back, gaining nothing, but forcing It to guess in all directions.
He paused too long at a ganglia of knowledge, and It found him and pounced. Malame wriggled sideways, but It seared open his flank and left him dripping psychic entity. Randomness brought him to a quadrant already stripped of concealment, and It reared up to strike, but lost traction in the vacuum of Its own absence.
It slashed through Its own being, knowing where Malame was but not where he would go. It severed Its own fibers in the chase, losing memory and power. Twice again It charred Malame’s elongated being as It overshot, burns that also trenched Malame’s body.
There was no measured time. The shimmer blob, not visible but present, quivered and shook as the two beings burrowed through It. Malame worm-slithered to no discernable purpose, gobbling ectoplasmic tissue and absorbing the knowledge it contained. It’s presence shriveled, but could not leave to feed. Malame’s body also began to shrivel, voiding itself. His body would soon die.
It began to lurch, destroying more unintended parts. It tried to become the fire lizard and fight on as It’s body, but that ability had been destroyed. Its thrashings weakened. Sensing the death, Malame asked his first and only question, and It was compelled to answer. At the end of the sixth day of measured time, It expired.
Malame rushed to discover more, but the blob was in rot, and that which he found was tainted. He slithered out of the decay, his flanks still burning from Its charring of his presence.
This presence had no eyes to see nor ears to hear with. He started writhing in increasing circles around the deflated remains of the blob until encountering his own body. As he reentered, both halves screamed with the pain, but only the body could be heard.
An hour later he recovered the use of his senses and muscles. Vermin had eaten his food. He was able to call small animals in to him and drink their blood. A day later he began to consume their muscles.
A day after that he was able to stagger up and totter his way out of the forest. And that night, Malame’s mind clear, the Old One reached out to him.
“So it is done.”
“So was it ordered.”
“Your true tests will begin.”
“You have instructed me.”
“The vomitous shrew will try to trick you.”
“I am prepared.”
Malame continued on, eventually clearing the forest and stepping onto a two-rut trail. On his third day of walking, two mounted men accosted him. It was their last error. Malame performed ritual on their remains. Sunset was approaching and he considered dinner. The men were already dead and easier to butcher than a horse. But the goetic complications of eating man flesh were too time consuming. He sliced off the head of the weaker horse, cut open its back, carved out a steak for dinner, and butchered enough meat for the trip.
Four days later he had returned to Hastet.
“That raw scar on your neck, does it run down to your scrotum?”
“Merely to my belly.”
“Are you come with knowledge or attempted excuse?”
“Knowledge. Some of which you demanded, some of which will over-amply replace that which was not obtained.”
“You sport with your death. We shall see. Come with me.”
Hastet led him into an inner, windowless chamber. The walls and ceiling were covered with tapestries embroidered with minor and major arcana. “Your disease-riddled, decrepit master cannot sense us here. Tell me first of your actions, then of your treasures.”
Malame recounted his actions, then described in detail the goetic capabilities he had absorbed during his random flight through It. Hastet listened in silence, memorizing as he spoke, then shrugged.
“I am bound by my oath to Ishtal to release you. You have fulfilled your quest. The man child is his after birthing. When you come to receive it I expect you to repeat your connubial performance.”
“That is parlay between you and my magus. And my condolences on losing your daughter to It.”
Her eyes were hot. “You have yet to lose a child for our art. I have, more than one. And ask yourself if he who preceded you as chela was of the Old One’s blood. And how he died. And who really fathered you. The most bitter sacrifices are in your future.”
Hastet’s expression altered. “Go to Charlong and your child. You leave tomorrow.”
Malame bowed and left, then walked over to Charlong’s hut. She and Saccul were again kneeling, but broke off when he entered.
“So the inept beast didn’t kill you.”
Malame’s smile was wry. “I couldn’t die without seeing you again. And talking with Saccul. May I kneel next to you both?”
Charlong nodded and he did, facing Saccul. “My child, you and your mother would not have known that I also practice necromancy.”
The girl swung her head to look at her mother.
“Manipulation of the dead.”
“The attempt on my life after I left the forest was a simple plot to catch me in a weakened state. I would be prevented from further inflictions on a loved one, perhaps a loved one who hated me. The attempt failed, and I had a nice little visit with two dead villagers. Future efforts should probably be better thought out.”
Charlong had tensed as he was talking, then realized there would be no vengeance to protect against. Saccul’s face reddened and she began soundlessly crying.
“There, there, my child, no harm done to me. We all have to remember that we are scorpions and must take care when we play together.” Malame glanced at Charlong. “May I?” She nodded, and Malame shuffled over next to Saccul and hugged her, then whispered in her ear. “next time you must remove the conscious memories from your agents.”
A fractured-smile cracked across her wet face. Malame stood up and turned to Charlong. “Will you come with me to my horse?”
She nodded and the two went out side by side. He leaned toward her.
“Incredibly talented child we have.”
She whispered back. “And protective. Thank you for your forbearance.”
“Hastet wants even more children.”
“She’s told me so.”
“I can delay my return for a year or two if you wish.”
“Delay will not lessen my pain, but at least until after the boy is weaned.”
“Please don’t try to kill me on my way back.”
Charlong nodded. “Not this time.”
They stood near but not close. Malame mounted his horse and left.
Except for a hail storm the return ride was uneventful. Once back at the Old One’s encampment, after food and a wash down, Malame knelt facing the Old One under the lizard skin blanket, speaking in the dead tribal language.
“You performed somewhat better than I feared.”
For Ishtal this was high praise. “Thank you, my magus.”
“And you were able to discover Its name?”
“As It died.”
“And with that name you will be able to summon It from the dead?”
“Yes. I am of It now.”
“And obtain further powers from It?”
“Assuming I demand the right answers.”
“And learn how to counteract the spells you gave the wizened hag?”
“I believe so.”
The Old One nodded. “Acceptable. Rest. In three days, you leave to cripple a simpering nobleman.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred fifty stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of six review editors. https://twitter.com/bottomstripper