Cursebrand – Chapter 17
This is the seventeenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday (except for that bit around Christmas where we skipped a couple weeks).
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Brand hauled the skiff loaded with bars of brimstone down the mountain with enthusiastic anticipation. Callidus had given his word that he would show him some proper wizardry, and the excitement of it overwhelmed his fear of the dark arts.
Brand was, of course, disappointed. At the base of the hill, he was handed a mortar and pestle and given very specific instructions on how to grind the brimstone and firesalt. As the others loaded the carts and chatted and played, Brand chanted, as per Callidus’ instructions, as he worked the pestle in a slow rhythm.
“Don’t speed up!” shouted a furious Callidus. After several hours of labor, Brand’s tempo had increased and the grumpy wizard had noticed. He stormed over and thrust his cane in Brand’s face. “Go too fast and you’ll ruin it. The tempo is everything.”
Brand returned to the ponderous pace that had been set for him and Callidus shuffled off. As the wizard brought his flask up to his lips, a thought struck him and he turned, snarling, “and don’t let them mix!”
Tedious hours passed and he longed for Jaymes to read him another story, but nothing could interrupt the chanting. The incantation, the rhythm, and possibly the boredom as well were all parts of the spell.
Finally he finished. He had two large bowls, one of finely sifted powder of firesalt and the other of brimstone. He stretched out his cramped hands and looked around for his master. He was startled to find that Callidus was directly behind him with a small wooden keg at his feet. “You’re done? Good. Now do the same with this.” Callidus handed him yet another container, this time filled with a black, sooty mess.
“What?” sputtered Brand. “What is this? Where did it come from?”
“Charcoal,” replied Callidus, “Trees.” Without another word the crotchety old mage left Brand to spend the remaining daylight crushing charcoal and getting covered in soot.
Upon completion, he cautiously looked about. Callidus, this time, was not waiting with yet another ingredient. He had instead, set up a table with a delicate looking set of weights and scales. He guided Brand through the meticulous measurement of the powders into a copper pot then watched from a distance as Brand mixed them slowly with a wooden spoon.
Finally, Callidus poured out the powder onto the ground, pointed his cane at it and grinned. It burst into a massive flash of smoke and flame.
Brand failed to be impressed. He had lost all enthusiasm for the wizardry. He had spent days of misery gathering the ingredients, all for a bucket of dust, just to have it disappear in a cloud of smoke. No demons were summoned, no great wonders accomplished. Moreover, he could see the yet untouched barrels of firesalt and stacks of brimstone and despaired. He knew that he was in for a week, at least, of tiresome labor and mind-numbing chanting. “That’s it?” he groaned. “That’s not magic. That’s… baking.”
Callidus took the comment in stride. “Perhaps you misunderstand baking. A baker is able to turn milk and eggs and flower into breads and cakes. Can you explain how that is done?”
“Well… no. But it isn’t magic.”
“Are you certain?”
Brand suddenly wasn’t.
Callidus started to circle the boy as he lectured. “Perhaps bakers are simply sorcerers that have been deemed acceptable by society because their conjurations are delicious and healthful.”
“Is that true?”
The wizard did not stop to answer, “Or is it the case that wizardry is the careful application of uncommon knowledge? I have taught you a spell, a powerful spell, a spell that could destroy civilization if it fell into the wrong hands.”
Brand was unconvinced. “I don’t see how a burst of foul smoke could ruin much of anything.”
Callidus’ eyes grew dark. “Then you lack imagination.” He thrust his hand to the sky and snapped his fingers.
Thunder roared and Brand spun to see the side of the nearby mountain burst. A shower of rock exploded out and massive boulders hurtled down the steep slope. He turned slowly, eyes wide with terror, back to the self-satisfied wizard and the soot-filled bowl on the ground. “You summoned an avalanche?”
“I suppose I did.” A wry smile crept across Callidus’s creased face. “But how did I do it?”
Brand had theories: perhaps the smoke had been a sacrifice to a god… or a demon… one that allowed Callidus to call on their powers; perhaps…
“You are mistaken.” Callidus interrupted Brand’s speculation. “It is far simpler than you imagine, and far more difficult.”
Brand felt betrayed by the invasion of his thoughts, and annoyed at the impossible riddles spouted by the dark old man. “You aren’t making any sense.”
“I gave you two rules before, what were they?” Callidus demanded.
Brand was unsure of the relevance, but he repeated the paradox by which he had been told to live his life. “Never lie, and never tell the truth.”
“And why did I give you those rules?”
“To protect me,” Brand replied apprehensively.
Callidus sneered. “Have I given any indication that I care about your personal well-being?”
Brand thought for a moment and realized that he hadn’t. The others had come to have some empathy towards him, even friendship, but Callidus used him to do chores and spoke with him only enough to get accomplished what he wanted done. His heart sank briefly, until he considered that this was precisely how Callidus treated everyone in the troupe. “Only when it suits your purposes,” he replied with a cynical smirk.
Brand thought that he saw a flash of amusement in the wizard’s eye, but it quickly passed. “You follow those rules to protect me, to protect us. That ‘us’ just happens to include you now.” He waved at the assembled troupe eating and laughing by the wagons. “Our secrets are our lives and our livelihood. To give them up, to even admit that they exist, could destroy us. You are one of us, now, but that means you have the power to ruin us.”
Brand nodded, starting to comprehend.
“You have started to learn our secrets, and that makes you dangerous. You are to speak to no one of what you know. If ever you do, you will have a short conversation with a long knife.” Callidus’ cane burst in smoke and fire and was transformed, leaving a gleaming sword which was levelled at Brand’s nose.
A movement behind him aroused Brand’s animal instinct, but the point of the wizard’s blade made it clear that he was not to move. A hot breath on the back of Brand’s neck chilled him. A delicate hand with an indelicate blade snaked its way up his body and rested the gleaming steel against his neck. “Just give me a reason.” Felisia whispered with seductive malice.
Callidus shuffled off as he spoke. “Felisia will be your minder for the next while, while you learn, until we know you’re safe.”
As the wizard wandered off to find his dinner, Felecia pressed the side of the knife against Brand’s cheek, encouraging him to turn and face her.
To Brand, the tiny girl seemed enormous. In her menacing glare his demon fled. He could see in her eyes a dare, a wish that he would break the rules.
“You need a shave,” she said.