Wizard’s Bane, a short story that crosses the fine line between Halloween and Christmas

Coriander gently lifted the sleeping child’s curly, golden locks and pulled the ancient quilt up to her chin. He tried hard not to wake her. Coriander feared earlier in the evening that his golden, three-year-old girl might be too excited to sleep, it being Christmas Eve and all. He bathed her in warm water and dressed her in her warmest flannel nightgown to protect her from the worst chills in the old, stone castle. He read her a bedtime tale about Santa and the elves, and all of the reindeer, which he remembered by name. And without any prompting, he thought, proudly. Then he kissed her goodnight and sat up in the dark to contemplate what was to come. He feared to think about it.

While he watched her sleep, his little golden haired wonder, he considered his options. He had no a caste bedroom 1friends, no family, no neighbors he could call on. No one would help him in his time of need. He exhaled a heavy sigh. He could not blame them. He was not a good man—and he knew it. But he was far better than the cruel and wicked witch who had vowed to destroy him and who even now was coming to steal his joy.

Coriander sighed when he recalled that bright Sunday morning in June when this innocent wonder that lay sleeping in his bed entered his life and changed it forever. He realized, on that day, this child was his one chance at redemption. He would love her with every shred of love that was in him, however little that might be, and he would protect this child from the cruelty of the world—the same world that taught him to be cruel. He leaned over the sleeping child and kissed that precious forehead once more before he stood and walked ever so slowly to his study.

Through all of his years, his worst enemy was the witch, Moria of Avila, a powerful sorceress filled with the most noble and magical blood and able to practice the most powerful, ancient and cruel magic. Coriander had little hope against her, but he had to try, because the witch had vowed to take the child from him. It took no prophet to know she would come on Christmas Eve in order to sting his heart in a witch 2the worst possible way and leave him bereft and alone on Christmas morning.

Coriander stepped into his study. Despite the December chill in the stones, he opened a window for fresh air. He breathed deeply several times while he contemplated exactly what he would do. He looked around the room at the walls filled with books, but there were no answers in those tomes. The tables were filled with magical equipment of all sorts, but these simple tools of the art would not stop this wicked witch. She would brush them aside like play toys.

He considered the lab where he kept his ingredients, his cauldron, and other tools to make potions, but there was no potion that would solve this problem. He knew, as he had always known, that this would come down to a battle of wills and magic, and Coriander wondered if he had the will to keep her out. He wondered whose will would prevail—who would end up with the child and who might be destroyed.a wizards study 3

Coriander shook his head before he brushed his gray streaked hair back out of his eyes. His were eyes that glowed as red as his anger, determination, fear and power that surged up from his innermost depths. Those eyes could turn a man to stone, like old Medusa, and they could pierce the armor of the strongest knight quicker and cleaner than any sword. They could set a whole forest ablaze in seconds, but would they be enough against Moria? Not likely.

He heard a commotion in the courtyard inside the castle wall and turned to the window quickly to focus his attention on what he could see. It was Moria, he was sure of it. He could sense her presence. He could smell her musky scent. He could not quite see her, but by his power, he saw the golden shield she projected against the arrows from the wall; arrows that were shot in a half-hearted manner, he noticed. That was a fault that would be corrected, assuming he survived the night.a castle

“Moria is clever,” he admitted to himself. She must have expended some power to fly over the castle wall, and now she stood at the very gate of the inner house. He hoped that expenditure would tire and drain her, but he doubted it. As he turned from the window, he did not give it another thought. He had to settle his mind and heart to focus on his work, to employ whatever magic he could contrive to stop her.

The crystal on his desk lit up with a wave of his hand. He would stop her at the gate where he had a whole squad of the undead ready to guard the door. He saw them first as they came to mind when he looked into the crystal. With a surge of the power that was within him, he animated that decaying flesha zombie guard.

Then Moria stepped into the picture, and with a wave of her own hand, there came a flash of golden light against his red magic. Thousands of worms and maggots sprayed across the steps toward the doorway, attached themselves to the undead and literally covered the zombies from head to toe. The rats that came swarming up from the cellars and dungeons in answer to Moria’s pied piper call were almost superfluous. The flesh of those zombies got stripped in a few short moments, but Coriander still smiled. Though not as strong as their flesh covered cousins, skeletons armed with swords and shields might still be sufficient to a skeleton guardkeep out the witch.

“Betsy.” The crystal in the study conveyed Moria’s word and it showed something else which made Coriander swallow hard. A massive, reptilian head came into view, and Coriander saw the fire in its snake’s eyes. It was a dragon, and in one breath, his skeletons went up like a bonfire doused in oil. That was the weakness of skeletons. They burned like kindling. In a few moments, there was no longer anything to prevent Moria’s access to the house. What is more, Coriander realized that the witch must have flown over the wall on the dragon’s back, so it cost her nothing in the way of energy. Coriander shook his head and brushed back his hair once more while he repeated his words.

“Moria is clever, and resourceful.”

He concentrated on the crystal and sent an illusion, a glamour to make the entrance hall appear to spin in an hypnotic fashion. He knew there was no hope of hypnotizing the witch, but he thought he might disorient her and perhaps cause her to get sick or pass out. There was a slim chance, he told himself, even as he sent his real spell and the room below very quickly filled with dust. The dust was not enough to notice, unless Moria looked real close. If she did, she might catch the glimpse of the faint red glow of his magic attached to each little particle. Even if she saw it, though, he imagined it would be too late. He sent enough dust to be effective, and that was all that mattered.a dragon

The front door exploded and the picture looked very real and very close. Coriander jumped back from the crystal. When he took a breath and returned to concentrate again on the crystal orb, he praised himself for his forethought. He had found a better lock. Even the witch could not simply unlock it and walk in.

Coriander watched as the dragon head butted against the door until it was no more than scrap metal. Coriander’s smile broadened. The door was fireproof too, even against dragons. Moria had to expend herself to gain entry.

He watched as she stepped in and immediately put one hand to her head. She stretched out her other hand as if trying to gain her balance. He watched as she pulled a pair of spectacles out of her bag and slipped them on. After that, she appeared to have no trouble with his illusion, and again he cursed the fact that she did not have to expend any of her energy to overcome his hard work.

a crystal ball 3“Clever and resourceful,” he shouted into the crystal.

“Coriander! Bring me Alicia!” Moria shouted back, but Coriander did not hear as he was busy mumbling.

“Stupid, despicable, horrible creature.” He kept it to a mumble because he figured there was no point in enraging the woman. “Such strength of mind and magic should not belong to such a one as this,” he said to himself, and paused. He wondered how often others had said that about him. He quickly convinced himself that he was not such a terrible man. He had no one who would help him because not one would dare lift a finger against the witch lest they too face her wrath.

He shook that thought far away as soon as his mind was settled on the lie, and he peered ever closer into the crystal. Moria was already beginning to itch and scratch herself. Good. He took a real close look and noticed, not for the first time, how stunning she was. It made him pause and wonder how one could be so gorgeous on the outside and so rotten on the inside.

“No! You will not have her,” he shouted into the crystal in response to Moria’s demand for the child, a crystal ball 2even as the first boils began to break out on Moria’s skin. Coriander kept his giggles to a minimum, but it got hard to stifle himself when a pimple appeared on Moria’s face, followed by the proverbial wart on the nose.

Moria screamed. “I’ll give you no!” A flash of brilliant golden light, strong enough to make Coriander blink and take a step back, suddenly lit up the room below. Coriander felt his knee itch. Then his cheek itched, but he refused to respond. His study remained well protected, even against his own spells cast back at him; but his chin itched all the same.

Coriander looked again into the crystal in time to see Moria cast an illusion of her own. There were three Morias in sight of the crystal, and it was a masterful glamour. He had no way of knowing which was the real one. They split up and he reached for a rendering of the castle to quickly calculate where they would have to be rejoined. “A-ha!” He shouted, grabbed a vial off one of the shelves, and raced out of his study.a castle stairs 1

They would be close, he thought, as he arrived at the spot where an upper hall met a stairway that came up from below. Moria would be close to the goal, but this should do it. He grinned. He took three giant steps back from the spot, uncorked the vial and splashed the liquid all across the floor between him and the stairs. When he was satisfied that the area was well covered, he stepped back around the bend in the hall to wait and watch. He also thought of ways to negotiate, just in case.

One of the Morias came down the hall before a different Moria reached the top of the stairs, but then the one in the hall did not stop and wait for her sister-self to catch up as Coriander had expected. It came on, and his red magic a flashed as the potion took effect. The Moria in the hall stopped, frozen like a well carved block of ice, unable to move, even the least polished pinky.a caste room 1

“Clever.” The Moria on the stairs spoke and the voice grated in Coriander’s ears, not the least because he knew he trapped the wrong one. Moria waved her arm and a touch of her golden magic revealed that the frozen Moria was only a cellar rat, temporarily transformed. It was not entirely an illusion, which was why Coriander could not tell which was real and which was the illusion. Of course, the poor rat would stay frozen in place for several hours before the spell wore off and it could return to the dungeon.

Fortunately, Coriander was not frozen in place, and he currently ran with all speed back to his study. He wracked his brain to think of something, anything! But all he could think was Moria had been cleverer. “Bring me Alicia!” He heard Moria yell. He did not answer.

In the end, there was nothing else Coriander could think to do. The study was to his left hand, but Alicia’s room was not much further along on his right. He had put her to bed in the room he sometimes used to rest from his studies. He did not want her to be far away. He had thought if she was close he would be able to protect her better, but now he wished he had secreted her away somewhere; not that Moria would not have pierced his secret. Now, there was nothing to do but wait. He gave himself little hope. He felt kind of glad that he did not have to wait very long.a castle hall 1

“Coriander. Bring me Alicia.” Moria spoke as she came around the corner.

“No.” Coriander was defiant, but Moria did not hesitate. Her golden magic poured from her hands and Coriander answered with his red magic, and barely in time, but it was enough. In this way, the witch and the wizard stood like statues. They kept each other at bay for a long time. When they stopped, it happened suddenly, as if by some unspoken agreement. Both needed to catch their breath and take a respite from the exertion, like boxers between rounds.

“Coriander.” Moria spoke again.

a witch 1“But it’s Christmas,” Coriander countered and watched carefully as the conflicting emotions ran across Moria’s face. At first, it looked like she might say she did not care if it was Samhane, Beltane and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one; but then she seemed to relent and a look of understanding flashed ever so briefly behind those eyes. Coriander got caught up by the look, but maybe he knew better. He had been fooled by that look once too often.

Moria struck again, and this time, Coriander struck right back with all of his strength. Where the red and golden magic met, there was an orange barrier. It gave off orange sparks like an arc welder at work, only these sparks were much more powerful and much more destructive. The priceless painting on the wall got burned and scratched beyond repair. The very stones in the wall smoked wherever a spark touched as if vaporized in those spots. The floor beneath their feet trembled, and the ceiling above their heads sent down streams of dust as if caught in an earthquake and in imminent danger of collapse. The witch was determined to take the child. The wizard was equally determined to keep the child, and neither made headway; and neither gave up.a magic battle

At last, the magic subsided when both witch and wizard collapsed to their knees, exhausted and worn to their last ounces of strength. Coriander then heard the squeak of the door behind him. He could do nothing about that. He no longer had the strength.

The little girl with the golden curls came out into the hall and blinked because of the bright light. She rubbed her sleepy eyes. “Has Santa come?” Coriander knew the noise would wake her, and he was not at all surprised to hear the girl’s next word. “Mommy!” The girl ran right past Coriander as if he was a slug on the floor, and she dashed into Moria’s waiting arms. The woman found strength in that wonderful hug.

a witch 3“Alicia, darling. It is time to go home.”

“But it’s Christmas.” Coriander whined. He sounded like he had a frog in his throat, like his magic had streamed out of his mouth and rubbed his vocal chords raw. Both he and Moria struggled to their feet, Moria holding tight to her precious child.

“You agreed to every other weekend.” Moria spoke in a voice as uncertain as Coriander’s. “You pull a stunt like this again and I’ll see you get no weekends.” Coriander looked ready to speak, so Moria added, “I’ll get a restraining order!”

“But mommy, it’s Christmas.” Alicia mouthed the words she had heard. “Mommy, I’m cold. Can I have some hot chocolate?”a girl

Moria looked up, but Coriander merely shrugged so Moria spoke. “Of course, sweetie. I’ll make it.”

“Oh, so you don’t trust me?” Coriander spoke at last.

Moria turned and started toward the kitchen. Coriander expected her to say something nasty and cutting in response to his remark, but she said nothing. Maybe she was too tired, and anyway, Alicia aChristmas starspoke into the silence.

“Daddy,” she said, and she held out her little hand and looked at him with those great big eyes. Coriander felt obliged to shut his mouth. He lowered his own eyes and came up close so those little fingers could wrap around his big finger and she could drag him along with them.a christmas star

They say that Christmas is the most magical time of year, but when it is combined with the heart of a little girl with a golden curl, well, there is no greater magic in all the universe.

************************

Beginning Monday, look for The Elect: Freshman Year, posted as a serialized novel:

The elect are one in a million, maybe one in ten million. They are women chosen at birth and empowered from ancient days by the goddess of old, originally, to protect and defend the home when the men went away, to hunt or to war. Emily Hudson is an elect who has no idea how gifted she is until she arrives at New Jersey State University, in Trenton, and meets another elect—a police Detective, Lisa. Together they find a third elect, Latasha, a high school freshman, and realize that three elect in the same community, maybe even three in the same state, defies all odds. There are not very many elect in the whole world. Then again, maybe three together is by some divine design, because there are things going on in Trenton and around the university which will take every gift they have to give, and then some.

This is a serialized novel, to use the classic term, but neatly divided into “episodes” like a television show. It is jam packed and fast paced to where I have been accused of squeezing three seasons worth of material into a single season. The emphasis is on dialogue and relationships, with enough showing, but a fair amount of telling which on film would be showing…so don’t write and complain about the telling, please. Also, there are quite a number of characters, but again, you must imagine them on film where they would be easier to remember by matching a face with a name. All you really need to remember are the three elect, Emily with her college friends, Detective Lisa, and the local girl, Latasha. Everyone else is either family (mom, dad, brother), friend, co-worker (detective, police officer, teacher) or antagonist of some sort. Oh, and then there is Heinrich…e NJSU 1

The pilot episode will post the first two weeks in November 2015, M, T, W and Th of next week, and then M, T, W and Th of next week. After that, each of the 22 episodes will post weekly (M, T, W and Th) over the next 22 weeks. If you wait until Thursday, you will find all posts for the given episode on the right side of the blog under “recent posts”, plus the last post of the previous episode to help set things in context. Some might want to wait until Friday, or even the weekend to read the whole episode at once. That is fine.

If you miss an episode, or find your way to this story somewhere in the middle, feel free to click on the archives button and select November, 2015. The pilot episode begins it all at the beginning of November 2015. Happy reading. Lets see how good your visualization skills really are.

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