By Ray Bossert
The spirits had been reveling for five days.
Five full days of dancing concentric circles in the clear night air, prancing masques in the mossy earth, tripping along the bubbling streams, skipping atop the tongues of hungry flames.
Five days singing their choruses and their catches, blowing ditties through the husks of plants (committing petty violence to small life for the sake of art).
Five days of feasting on sweets and nectars, just to please their sense of taste (gross matter provides little nutrition for an immaterial body).
Five days–no less–they mingled, commingled, intermixed their weightless shapes–incorporeal but sensitive: bound to space but unbound to form.
The spirits of the isle enjoyed all this (and many games and sports besides) in ways that only spirits could. Joy, unheard upon the isle for many a day, at last ruled the island. They had no master (save the master of revels), no order (the meter of song excepted), and no direction (other than the inclinations of each individual’s will).
So all the spirits were free and reveled in their freedom.
Well, not quite all.
One spirit, small in stature, who had long ago claimed the appearance of a maiden, kept still, silent, and apart. Her ghostly pale features glowed beneath a golden shroud of unbound hair. A daughter of a stream: she was a water nymph known for her quick and graceful steps. But through all five nights, she stood more like a forlorn spectre haunting the woods than a thing of grace and beauty. Obstructed by the branches of trees, the festive lights speckled her skin. Sometimes a dancer saw her in the distance, and the sight would slow the dancer’s pace… much to the disruption of its partners.
Another spirit, in the form of a portly man with a beard intertwined with old leaves, walked to the side of the spirit-maid. They called him Ficus. His voice bellowed.
“Coris, how now, little sprite? Even the gnomes and salamanders dance with us tonight! How can such a nymph as you sit idle by? I don’t think I’ve seen a finer feast in all my memory – it being what it is. I find I have so few recollections before the time of the… of our…”
“You can sport, old tree, but–oh, alas, how should I? For each finds a partner to share their joy. But I can naught but worry whither my partner wends and wherefore he should abandon me.”
When they worry, spirits are fond of worrying in “whithers” and “wherefores,” and will “wend” sooner than go anywhere. If a spirit is to worry, they find it best to worry dramatically.
Ficus stroked his beard with thick, knob-like fingers. He was unworried. He didn’t have a strong enough vocabulary to ever be distressed, but he could, on occasion, look vaguely grave; the leaves in his beard crackled (but did not crumble). “Still no word of him, then?”
“Not since the day the Master… since the Magus left.”
Ficus began to stretch a great arm around her small, bare shoulders. A rousing huzzah was heard. “Oh,” said the bearded spirit, distracted. “Well, I’m sure he’ll turn up soon, lass…” (His eyes began to dart beyond the trees.) “No doubt he’s just lost among the mummers. Till then, join us! You were missed in the aqua-drille!”
“I cannot dance with him absent,” she said, as tears began to brim. “What if the… Magus… what if he was summoned…”
“Tears?” Ficus’s leafy beard shuddered. He plucked a folded, leathery leaf from his beard and offered it to her. “Dry your eyes! Tears are not for spirits, and certainly not for creatures of water like you.” (Another huzzah turned his speech into a droning.) “You’d cry yourself out of existence.” (She had his attention again.) “Tears are for the sons of men. Prick them ever so slightly and some humor or other leaks out of them.” (Another huzzah, and his speech became a murmur.) “Men are nothing but walking wineskins of tears, and guts, and blood, and hearts…”
“But we are not heartless creatures,” she asked. “Are we?”
He could no longer refuse the call of the pipes and timbrels or the jigs and gambols. He stood up and bounded through the trees into a throng of dancers. His grin grew wide; he took a place between two exquisite spirits, and each led him in and out of the circle, time and again. He glowed and laughed and hallooed loud.
The halloo was echoed by a howl behind the trees.
Ficus laughed again, “That’s the spirit! Someone’s really letting go out there!”
The howl had disturbed a bat in a tree. It brushed by Coris’s ear as it flew by.
Then she saw the pack race by, fleet of foot, and fell of face–hounds–muzzles frothing. Their charge was quick; she had no time to shout or call. The creatures, large and unnatural, broke through the trees and set upon the circle. Chaos reigned. Music failed. Singers screamed. Spirits wailed as canine teeth shredded their throats and torsos, tore at wrists and calves. Tumult. The air grew thick with mangled bits of spirit, floating in mid-air like gauzy streamers.
Ficus, panting, looked down at his disemboweled stomach–a hollow cavity spilling ether and ichor in bulbous globes. He cursed a mortal curse, one he had heard from a pretty, young, and carnal mouth some years ago. The rest of the spirits cried, retreated; the dancing circle now widened to a defensive posture, hemming in a hostile foe.
The hounds lapped at the insubstantial gore, unsatiated.
The spirit-maid stepped out from the trees towards a growling fiend.
“Timessiel,” she said.
And one beast raised an ear.
Once the beasts had been subdued (the more martially-inclined of the spirits eventually conjured spears and shields to the purpose), revelers improvised a Council to determine what to do about the intrusion. Five of the wisest-seeming spirits sat on tall stones and made stern faces at a motley assembly, still in their party clothes, but all brooding over the places where they had been bitten or torn. (Although those places had all since healed completely, many spirits swore they could still feel the wounds. A cacophony of “alases” and “alacks” could be heard, occasionally punctuated with a “welladay.”) The Council, as a representative body, was attentive to the will of the assembly, and invited the spirits to offer their suggestions as to how to deal with the rude hounds.
“Drive them off the island!”
“Drown them in the sea!”
“Bury them neck deep in sand!”
“Hang them from a tree!”
What the spirits lacked in judicial experience, they made up for with awareness of punitive measures.
“Let’s drain their blood and grind their bones into pastries for their bitch-dam to eat!”
The assembly fell silent, and all turned to stare at the bald little gnome who had just spoken. “What?”
“That’s sick, Hopper,” a tall thin spirit beside him said.
“There’s precedent!” Hopper said with closed eyes.
“Will never happen, Hopper,” Ficus interrupted, his hands trembling slightly, but looking none the worse for someone who had been torn apart by dogs. “This litter had a father, but no mother. Look.”
Ficus pointed to the maid, who walked safely among the hounds, now leashed in magical cords.
“Those are no mere dogs.”
“Indeed, no mere dogs could have torn us like that.”
Fiero, a Council member with a long red beard, sighed, “They are our lost friends.” The spirits reflected, and he continued. “Recall before the Magus left… recall his last summoning.”
Not even Ficus’s mind was so addled as to forget that great day when the Magus left their island home. His departure had sparked their rapturous celebration. But before he left, he caused a great commotion, issued urgent commands, shipwrecked a crew of men, and terrified them all–men and spirit alike. Few knew what it was all about, since the Magus only confided in one spirit–the mightiest of their lot, the Wind-stepper. Ariel. But even he was kept on a need-to-know basis and could only guess at some of his master’s intentions. And what Ariel did know, he did not often share. He refused to fraternize much with the other spirits, partly because they envied him for being chosen for the master, partly because he was an egotist.
In the last moments before the Magus’s hasty departure with the very men he had shipwrecked on the island (rumor had it they were a rather nasty cross-section of Italian tyrants, murderers, thieves, and drunkards–it was possibly some kind of prison ship), the Son of Setebos had attempted one last bid to murder the Magus and claim the island. It was a scheme the Son had first hatched after meeting the Magus’s daughter. She was, the spirits concluded, a bad influence. Before the Magus and his daughter arrived, the Son was merely a nuisance. Certainly crude, ugly, and given to playing strange games with his excrement, but a kind of benign mole on the island’s otherwise pristine face.
After seducing two of the sillier of the ship’s crew to join his party, the Son of Setebos plotted an outright assassination on the Magus himself, but fled with his accomplices once their plot was discovered. So the Magus sent some of his swiftest spirits to fetch them and bring them back for justice. He had transformed those spirits into the shapes of hunting dogs–the very hounds that had set upon the dancing spirits.
One of the Council spoke up, a sea-sprite called Maressa. She took the appearance of a war goddess bearing a trident and wearing a brazen dolphin on her helm. She said, “As he left, he made one of those speeches he was inclined to give. The kind where he just stared out into the distance and none of us could tell if he was addressing us or not.”
“Ugh, I hated those speeches… they went on for-eh-ver…” said Alytes, elected to the Council mostly on the basis of her long, captivating, golden tresses. No one really could remember which of the elements Alytes belonged to. But she was very, very pretty, and would have been thought painfully simple-minded if any of the spirits paid much attention to conversation.
A spirit that answered to the name “The West Breeze” returned to the topic at hand: “He swore he would abandon his magic.” He spoke in a monotone.
“By the tree that bore me… do you think he abandoned his magic before releasing those poor fellows from his spell?” said Orgullo, the last of the Council. He appeared as an aged man with a tightly shaven white beard.
“He was distracted…” said Alytes.
“He was rushed…” said The West Breeze.
“And it wasn’t like he was going to need them again…” said Maressa.
The Council and its audience grew silent and looked to the hounds.
“That’s a bitch,” someone in the crowd said.
“Four brachs and a bitch, actually,” they were corrected.
“Either way,” another added, “they are certainly an a-cur-sed lot.”
“I’m a-pawed by your wit.”
“A tail told by…”
“That’s enough of that,” barked Fiero.
Standing to the side of the crowd, Coris had, for the moment at least, tamed the spirit-dogs. One in particular, a muscular mastiff with a red glow about him, fawned over her.
“Timessiel, my poor, poor Timessiel,” she whispered into his wide ear.
“Well, I guess that rules out drowning them,” said Orgullo.
“Then what?” said Alytes. “They’re less civilized than the Son of Setebos at this point. And someone needs to groom them. Look, they are already shedding ethereal hairs everywhere.”
Fiero stroked his red beard. “A Kennel. We must construct a Kennel.”
Maressa concurred, “Until we know they are safe.”
“We will have to post a guard,” Orgullo said. “Sentries, in case they break lose.”
Fiero looked at Coris. “And to keep others from foolishness.”
“Who knows,” added Alytes, combing her golden hair, “perhaps the spell will wear off in time, and our once friends will resume more… humane shapes.”
Coris spoke softly, “We shall find a way to restore you, my love…”
“It’s agreed then,” said Orgullo. “That was easy.”
The Council assessed that the response to the incursion by the spirit dogs was much more swift and efficient thanks to the Council’s own management skills and cunning wisdom. Therefore, they appointed themselves permanent seats of authority over the affairs of the isle, each of the five spirits having jurisdiction over their own, unique domain. They spent the night deliberating their various roles and summoned all of the spirits of the isle to another assembly on the next morning.
Several spirits were confused about the nature of the event and were disappointed by the lack of breakfast (such as spirits eat for delicacy, not necessity, as mentioned previously).
Orgullo was appointed Lord of Festivals. His task was to arrange all matters pertaining to the spirits’ nightly dances, including their music, comestibles, decorative furnishings, lighting, and all other sensual delights. To uphold his duties, he requested a subcouncil of spirits to assist in his designs and implement his grand visions. The request was immediately approved.
The West Breeze was hailed as Lord of Disputes. His was the office assigned to resolve any conflicts between spirits. He was a particularly ancient spirit, and therefore reverenced, but prone to longwinded speeches in a dry, unfluctuating voice. It was believed that the mere threat of hearing his chides would sufficiently deter any criminal behavior. And, of course, the Council as a whole assumed there could be little cause for conflict among free spirits. With each so well-suited to his or her own element on the isle, why would any trespass into another’s? The West Breeze was granted a small group of volunteer spirits to function as his sheriffs and bailiffs.
Maressa was declared Admiral of the Shores. Her task was to patrol the perimeter of the isle, warding off any new shipwrecks or curious sailors. She was made for such a role. This duty would require her to assemble a force of strength–the most war-like spirits to serve as her coast guard.
Alytes was granted the title of Officer of the Continued Liberation of Spirits and Purgation of Offensive Reliques. Her task was both to consider new freedoms that the spirits did not yet realize they should have as well as ways to enact those freedoms. Additionally, the Council determined that the spirits’ freedom would be more powerfully felt if all reminders of their former subjugation were removed. Thus, Alytes was granted authority over a band of spirits who were to seek out any remnants of human belongings, whether articles of clothes, stores of food, cultivated land, or any other structures or entities not naturally occurring on the island. Any such phenomena were to be destroyed, purged, or restored to their original, natural state. No one was really sure why they gave her the job. Perhaps it seemed a fairly straightforward affair devoid of any real decision making.
See house. Destroy house. Not much to it, really.
Finally, the Council agreed to appoint Fiero as Councilor Sagacious and Vox Ultimate. The first was a more or less honorary title, but the second granted him the ability to be the deciding vote should the rest of the Council be deadlocked in a tie. Although Fiero was proud of his titles, he did notice that he was the only member of the Council not to head his own subcommittee of spirits.
After the Council announced their new titles to the audience of spirits, Ficus bristled, “Ho, ho, my newly appointed lords and ladies. Perhaps we should write all of these fine titles, duties, and possibilities down on parchment for the sake of posterity… or at least for those of us with splotchy memories.”
The crowd laughed.
“No,” snapped Fiero. “Those are the old ways. Words spellbind. Never again shall a spirit be bound by word, neither writ nor spoken.”
That ended the laughter.
“You would do well to keep in mind, Ficus,” added Maressa. “The Council and its members are not to be mocked.”
Ficus rubbed a wrist, as though it chafed. And with that, the spirits all felt a familiar weight.
Alytes stopped her comb, midway through a brush. “So what was my title again?”
Fiero announced that the meeting was adjourned.
Coris had not attended the morning meeting. She had spent the night beside “The Kennel,” a magic circle that contained the spirit-hounds within its perimeter. It was meant to keep them from disrupting the rest of the island. A gruff gnome called Rockbottom was appointed their warden. He was promised a percentage of any treasure that washed ashore so long as he held the post (and he had a very liberal definition of “treasure”). As Coris stood by the Kennel, one dog sat opposite of her. Both kept still, eyes locked on the other. (Spirits can do this for hours without getting fidgety or bored because they don’t have musculo-skeletal or nervous systems. Spirits who do get fidgety or bored get that way because they want to.)
“Seems to me, missy,” Rockbottom said to Coris, “there ain’t no use of a perdy little t’ing like you pining away over some mongrel.”
“Please,” she said. “He’s not what he seems. Don’t you understand? These are our friends.”
“Not no more,” the gnome harumphed. “Just some dogs now.”
“That can’t be. There must be a way to change them back.”
“Why so concerned?” the gnome said. “Mayhaps one of them mutts used to be your beau?”
“Well, your Too-Messy-Eel won’t be much of a gentleman caller, now, will ‘ee? Not much fun for a young lady on a roh-mantic, moonlit night in that state…” Rockbottom pouted. “Well, guess that all depends on yer personal tastes, s’ppose.”
Coris shook her head. It made her hair wave like the arms of a jellyfish. “Gnomes,” she said. “What else would come from dirt but filth.”
“Now, now, missy. I’m not the one judging here. Mean, it sartinly wouldn’t be the first time there was a bit of inter-special cross-pollination goings on this little patch of land we float on. The Son of Setebos, for instance. He was a mutt.”
“Please, sir, stop…”
“And he would have mated with that dainty princess, and made a litter of mutts just like ‘im. Lawd, ‘elp us all, had that ‘appened.”
One of the other hounds came over to smell Timessiel. He began to sniff the other hound back. Soon, they were in a seemingly endless dance of sniffing each other’s rear-ends.
“Oh, ho,” laughed the gnome. “Seems you have a rival to your affections, mayhaps.”
“He doesn’t know what he is doing.”
“Y’know, derlin’, if you never do find a way to change him back to his fine form… and a gallant, strapping lad I’m sure he made… then…”
“Then, what?” Coris said, her eyes glowing a dangerous yellow, like the sun glinting from a sword hilt.
“Then maybe you should learn to transform yourself into a hound.”
“At least you’d be together, and I wouldn’t have to look at you standing there all pathetic like. La’, it’s enough to depress… well… even a gnome.”
“And I would become a dog. I would, if it meant I could be with my Timessiel.”
“Strange talk from a spirit. I’d ask you what it is that would make a creature so free and light want to bind herself of her own accord to another… but I’m sher I don’t want t’know.”
“I wouldn’t expect a gnome to comprehend love.”
Timessiel was now busy trying to pry a stick from another hound’s mouth.
“Well, let’s not be hasty. There’s plenty of things I lerv. I lerv the shiny things I find in the earth. I lerv a nice hard rock to sleep on. I lerv watching worms chew through a cadaver and show a man is nothing in the end but a walking calcium deposit. I lerv lots of things.”
“That is not love. You are merely describing affections, things that act upon you. Love is an action. Love is something you do.”
“Meh. Now, she’s a feel-osfer. I tell ya, Mercury needed none of his music to put Argus to sleep, just a bit of Airy-stoddle. Is that your game? Put me to sleep and run off with your brach-friend? If you were hoping to steal away with your favorite pup, you’d do better for us both if ya just outright bribed me, lass. Make it something in the rare gems family. I wooden know what to do wif ya even should ya try t’seduce me.”
“Oh, my Timessiel… I could stand here an eternity, if it were not for this wretched gnome. But he puts me in mind that I should not be so idle, for what does it avail us for me only to stand by your side in your state? Though it befits me to partner in your suffering, better still to seek out some remedy, be it an herb from furthest Ind, or supplication at the foot of the Ruler of the Highest Heavens. I will seek it out, for you, my Timessiel.”
Timessiel was busy licking his crotch.
“Think he got all that, missy?” the gnome hooted as Coris turned and marched away. “He seems to have found it very moving indeed!”
Was it permanent? Was he doomed? Decades and even centuries meant little to spirits. But “forever” could strike them as ominous as any mortal, if not moreso because spirits understood what forever meant.
A party of spirits came towards her. They were wearing bright, spangled feathers, ornate doublets, and outrageous pantaloons. Their faces had the appearance of being painted on–she would have thought like the courtesans of Italy, had she known what such things were. Although ignorant of the comparison, the effect was no less grotesque or absurd.
“Hail, Coris,” one said, in a voice far more effeminate than its body. “Dancer of the streams! We hope you will join us tonight, now that you and your Timessiel have had a chance to reunite!”
Coris replied, “I am flattered by the request, but I humbly decline. I cannot dance while my love is… infirmed.”
“There are other partners that would suit you as well,” said another, hanging limply on a mate.
The party grew restless at the conversation, and its members began to primp one another.
“None, though, that will suit my heart so well. But so long as he remains in the Kennel, my feet are bound.”
“What if I told you that Timessiel would be among the revelers tonight?”
“Have you a spell to set him free? Do not jest with me, spirit, t’would be a cruel jest.”
The spirit tossed a weak arm over Coris’s shoulder and pulled himself close to her face. “I promise you, little one, he will be there.”
“Then you give me the greatest joy!” she shivered. The other spirit patted her cheek, and the party moved on.
Her thoughts ran wild with memories of the days before the Magus. When she first met Timessiel, at the place where her father poured out into the ocean: the low, fiery sun had painted the water’s edge golden–and, it seemed as in a flash, there he stood. It was the long courtship of innocents. But for spirits long is much longer than how the sons of women reckon time. This was a courtship across ages. The world beyond the island had become the home of humankind, had been tamed into farmland, then bloodied in their battles. The world had seen empires rise and fall and plagues decimate nations, it had been crossed a thousand times by sailors who reunited long separated kin–only to slaughter their forgotten cousins for gold. An unknown world around them had long since lost its own innocence before Coris and Timessiel had even known what pleasure it was for two spirits to kiss. They didn’t know they were in love.
This they learned in the Age of the Witch. Sycorax was deposited on the isle by the Power known as Setebos. The isle was to be her safe haven, and then a nursery to the half-breed she had made with the Power. It was the first direct encounter between the spirits of the isle and a human, if a creature such as Sycorax could be classified among the daughters of men. Sycorax could speak the binding words–she could force spirits to do whatever she said. Some complied willingly, but many lived in shame. Pleasures became toils. Coris was forced to dance for the Witch when water was needed in her den.
Separated against their wills, Coris and Timessiel learned what they were to each other. They buried their feelings, though. Sycorax was greedy. She was jealous. And she had many spies. Worse yet, she had a special guardian, the Daemon (who was far too careful to let his real name out among the lesser spirits). The Daemon was a servant of Setebos, left behind to protect his infant son. Those spirits that might have refused Sycorax on principle, consented out of practicality. That’s how magic often works.
But fear of the Daemon had its limits. For some spirits, there were things more terrible to lose than freedom.
Such a thing resided in Ariel.
Brave, little, mighty Ariel–the most abused of the spirits.
He was the first to prove the Witch could be resisted, at least to an extent.
No one ever learned precisely what the Witch had commanded Ariel to do. He felt it too debauched for him to even utter. But it offended him to the core, and he rebelled. For his disobedience, she trapped him in a tree (or, rather, she ordered the Daemon to do so), and no Hell can be worse for a spirit of air than to be parted from the sky’s infinite space and confined within a nutshell. Still, despite the severity of his punishment, the Witch’s will had been denied in something. Whatever Ariel’s fate in the end, he had not done what he did not wish to do. The spirits could still claim some inner freedom to protect what they most cherished; and this is what inspired Timessiel to disobey.
Sycorax had many uses for Timessiel’s kin, the Tribe of the Salamander. For instance, they were tasked with keeping the fires of her laboratory burning so that her various cauldrons and potions maintained their proper temperatures for conjuration. And, indeed, this was one of Timessiel’s many chores. One day, Timessiel planned to sneak away at noon–the hour most hateful to the nocturnal Witch (and thus good for her naps). Anticipating the witch’s sleep, and perhaps out of his own excitement, Timessiel burned through his wooden fuel at an exceptional rate. Thus, as the sun pitched near its zenith, Timessiel’s fire was nearly spent–his richly dark skin turned ashen. The Daemon noticed that his fire was waning and called to him: “Little Salamander, your light is almost extinguished. Whatever will the Witch have me do to you if she sees you unfit for your task?”
Timessiel replied, “But what will she do to you, Wanderer, if her potions spoil on your watch?”
The Daemon grumbled. “Fetch more firewood. And be quick about it.”
Timessiel took his opportunity, not to escape, but to find Coris, whom the Witch had last tasked to irrigate a garden full of weeds and noxious herbs–a nursery to provide the ingredients of her deadly brews. So Timessiel found her, begrimed and befouled, spending herself on these bad medicines. Her fair appearance was blackened in dirt and filth. Without words, he took her in his arms, kissed her a first time among the poisons. It was a meeting of fire and water, and a cloud of vapor rose from their incorporeal faces. Then he fled back to his post (by way of the woods to seize kindling).
When her labors were spent that day, Coris had refreshed herself by the tree in which little Ariel was bound. She paid him homage.
Those were her memories. Now, she found herself standing by the Ariel Tree, again.
Spirits, being all mind, can dream awake, but not having a body, they have a harder time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Intently recalling a memory such as this, a spirit can easily become like a sleepwalker. Thus, transported through recollection, Coris had come here.
The tree was cracked in half, but still grew. If you peered into the center of its fissure, you could see, on either side, one half of the outline of a youth, curled tight like a fetus, pressed into the tree as if it were a mold.
“Ariel,” she whispered into the hollow mold. “Ariel.”
A bat chirped nearby as it caught an insect zig-zagging midair.
The sky had turned dark–the time for island revels. But why was she standing here whispering to the Ariel Tree? Ariel was fled, sure not to return after all that had passed with the Magus. And the spirits had said that her Timessiel would be cured of the spell tonight! Why wasn’t she with him? There was a little brook by the Ariel Tree, and she slipped one of her feet into its waters. A nymph, this was her element, and at once she bounded across its surface like a deer giving chase. Plumes of water splashed high behind her as she coursed her way back to the Kennel, cutting through champaigns, past the dilapidated cottage of the Witch and its fallow garden, through the woods… until finally reaching…
The Kennel was empty. Beside it, Rockbottom played with an amber stone.
“Pretty this,” he said, waving the amber. “Plenty of little crawlies trapped in there.”
“Where are they,” panted Coris.
“Oh, already taken to the games.”
“They say ‘t’will be quite a sight. Don’t much care for such things myself. Too much commotion.”
Coris raced again through the trees, a ghostly sprite through an increasingly dark forest… until she returned to the clearing that the spirits had chosen for their pastime.
The dance was orgiastic. The music crass. The spirits extravagantly attired (as if compensating for a reduced number of revelers). A ring of translucent bodies passed through each other with little attention to the pipers or strummers. Libertines caroused beneath blazing blue fires. Bestial shrieks echoed.
Towering above it all sat Orgullo–master of the feast–on a throne carried by four burly-looking earth spirits (gnomes by nature, but in the appearance of well-oiled and naked Spartans). “Yes, yes!” he shouted. “That’s the way, my spirits! Feast! And dance! Hi-day! Ho! Freedom!”
Coris scanned the crowd. She now hoped not to see Timessiel… but the spirits had said he would be here.
“Perhaps I’m out of fashion.”
The voice came from beside Coris. The spirit was leaning against a tree. His old face was painted like a fool. He had attired himself in barely anything, and a round gut hung low.
“At your service, little nymph.” He attempted to bow and stumbled. “Too much nectar…”
“Ficus, what’s happening here?”
“Orgullo has revealed to us new revels.” Ficus struggled to erect himself, and leaned again on the tree. “I’m afraid they are too much for me, though.”
“These are but a few spirits… where are the others?”
“Oh, Coris, much has changed in the last day. Many of us have responsibilities now. That dwindles our number. Many of us were… unsummoned to the feast. That dwindles our number. Many of those summoned could not stomach Orgullo’s taste. That dwindles our number more.” Ficus looked bleary-eyed. “Of which, it seems, I account myself one. Though others failed without trying, the rest of the Council among them. I’m not sure if they are the wiser or the coward… li… er? Strange that through pleasures I should have greater pains than any torture under the Witch, n’yeah?”
Coris crouched and lay her hand by the root of the tree Ficus rested on. As watery element passed through her, Ficus seemed slightly revived.
“Thanks, m’dear,” he huffed, “ever good to your elders.”
“But, Ficus, have you seen my Timessiel among these? Some festooned spirits said he would be here, tonight. I hardly imagined…”
From the other side of the clearing, spirits like those that carried Orgullo’s throne dragged the hounds on leashes.
“Friends,” called Orgullo. “Though inexhaustible spirits, refresh yourselves awhile from your active merriment, that you may be entertained more passively. You see here those recent interlopers to our revels. But this night they come not to break our pleasures, but to please us as best their kind can.”
There was a low growl from deeper in the woods.
Orgullo assumed mock terror.” What beast is that! By Jove’s thunder, my friends–a monster!”
Four more spirits emerged with a bear, upon which had been fastened false wings and a head-dress like a beak.
One of the four spirits proclaimed, “Transported from a far away land, summoned by the mystical powers of Magus Orgullo–behold the terrific…”
“Terrifying!” Orgullo snapped.
“Terrifying Griffin!” the spirit resumed.
Coris whispered to Ficus, “What are they doing?”
“I don’t know,” he told her. “But that spirit has horrible delivery.”
“Now, my sweets,” Orgullo continued. “I ask you, which of these mystical creatures possesses the greater might? The Faux-Griffin or the Canis Spiritus? Whose claw the sharper? Whose bite the stronger? Whose body the more endurable?”
Spirits started to call out in favor of one creature or the other.
“I see, even our higher intellectual powers and logic cannot reason out the conclusion of such a conflict… we must settle this question through empirical observation! Let us try this experiment!”
The spirits shouted in delight as the fight began.
The Faux-Griffin, it turned out, never had a chance.
Coris shook. “Timessiel never so much as singed the wing of a fly. He would never harm a dumb brute, let alone take its life.”
“Well, he did tear my throat out just the other night…”
“This was wrong, Ficus. We must do something.” And Coris moved towards the orgy.
A burst of energy made Ficus grab her arm. “No… no, none of those spirits are fit company for you at the moment. Let’s… let’s seek out The West Breeze. The Council has made him some kind of judge. Let’s tell him what Orgullo has done.”
“And so,” Alytes pronounced, a torch raised high. The flames accentuated her aura. The other four members of the Council stood behind her, and a crowd of spirits watched as an audience. Many seemed wearied from the prior night’s festival. “Our first act as Officer of the Continued …” (an assistant whispered in her ear) “… Liberation of Spirits” (more whispering) “and Purgation” (whisper) “of Offensive” (whisper) “Reliques, is the razing of the abode of the Magus and his spawn!”
Alytes pressed the firebrand to thatch on the roof.
The straw smouldered for a bit. Nothing much was happening.
“Some assistance, please.”
A short, squat, fire imp with a slightly deranged look in its face wobbled up to Alytes.
“May I? May I? May I now?”
Alytes rolled her eyes and flittered her fingertips towards the imp.
“Mahoo!” cackled the fire spirit, before leaping twenty feet in the air and landing on the roof of the hut. He stamped and stomped and rolled about on his back, spreading flames wherever he went.
“And so today we begin to erase our past, so that we might look to a brighter future.”
The spirits applauded, and Alytes dazzled as the fires began to grow. But as their clapping subsided…
“I demand an audience with The West Breeze!”
Alytes, less dazzling, took a step toward the crowd. She was now backlit by the fire, though her eyes still seemed to shine.
Fiero answered the voice, “Who calls The West Breeze?”
“I, Coris, daughter of the Northern Stream, have a dispute with Orgullo, Lord of Festivals.”
Fiero, now stepping in front of Alytes: “Will The West Breeze answer?”
“The West Breeze will always heed the call of justice. What is our sister Coris’s grievance against our brother Orgullo?” The West Breeze droned as he stepped forward. The conflagration continued to burn behind the councilors, and so did Alytes.
“The abuse of our changed brethren! He set them upon a bear at last night’s revels!”
Orgullo balked, “A bear?!? By the beard of Zeus, wherever should I get a bear on this island?”
“Orgullo,” was all Fiero needed to say.
“I am the Lord of Festivals. It is my affair,” he pleaded. Then, whispering to The West Breeze: “And who this little nymph thinks she is to question my authority is another matter. I don’t even recall seeing her at our revels. Most likely she is merely offended by the lack of invitation.”
“He compelled our brothers to take innocent life,” she yelled.
All of the Council (but Alytes) stared him down.
“What? It was just a bear,” Orgullo tried. “They do it all the time in the human cities.”
“Witchcraft!” cried an anonymous voice in the crowd (it was Ficus speaking in falsetto).
“I never…” Orgullo stammered.
“Compelling a spirit to harm a living creature,” The West Breeze said, “is, technically, witchcraft by law.”
The crowd began to murmur.
“We will hold trial,” The West Breeze continued, without emotion. “A real one.”
“This is absurdity,” Orgullo said. “And… I wasn’t alone. There are other spirits…”
The crowd grew restless.
“Then we will try you all,” The West Breeze added.
The trial lasted only slightly longer than the bear thanks to Orgullo’s confession during the burning of the Magus’s hut. Still, The West Breeze didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be professional. There were many robes and wigs, and The West Breeze frequently hammered on a make-shift gavel (several of the spirits thought it was some kind of percussion instrument). Other spirits were sent to investigate the crime scene. Some non-native feathers were recovered… and a large, bloodied, papier-mâché beak. Not much of the bear could be found, however.
“Orgullo, I, The West Breeze, as adjudicator in all disputes between spirits on this island, find you guilty of the crime of witchcraft. You are condemned.”
“Please… have mercy… I was merely doing my job! The Council ordered me…”
“To coordinate our revels,” Fiero inserted. “Not to abuse our cursed brothers.”
The West Breeze resumed, “The verdict is issued. What punishment does the Council recommend?”
“Hmmmm… oh? I say we set the hounds on him. It would be poetic justice,” Alytes recommended.
“Then we would be guilty of the same crime he committed,” Maressa added.
“Shall we confine him, then? A tree perhaps? Or stone?” Alytes compromised.
Maressa considered: “Or in the cave of the Daemon?”
“No, no! My sister! How could you even…”
“Still your tongue, Orgullo. It has wagged too much already,” Fiero said. “No, my fellow councilors. Those were the old ways, the ways of the Witch and the Magus. I would be loathe that we, the protectors of this island’s freedoms, should then revoke those freedoms… even in punishment.”
The West Breeze said, “Then, perhaps, let us make freedom our rod as well.”
“Banishment?” asked Maressa.
The West Breeze nodded.
“For him, and his crew,” Alytes said.
“Let us vote on a sentence, then. Who on the Council is in favor of banishment for Orgullo and his minions?”
“Aye,” said Alytes.
“Aye,” said Maressa.
“I’m on the Council. Don’t I get a vote?” pleaded Orgullo.
“Not this time,” said Fiero, adding “Aye.”
The new moon stealthily crept into the night sky, dodging between stars in its dark camouflage. It was a looming giant that no one saw.
Coris stepped along her stream, making her way to the Kennel after watching the expulsion of Orgullo and his minions. She didn’t like what Orgullo had done, but, somehow, justice did not sit well with her either. This was the spirits’ home. It was their birthplace (even if some of them had not been born in the strictly biological sense). Exile was the curse of wandering–it was the life of a daemon. Orgullo and his minions were not cut out for that. They would soon fall prey to other supernatural creatures or seek the protection of another magus–the shelter of new slavery. She was sure they could not last long fending for themselves. They did not have strong wills.
She thought it might have been pity that she felt–this nagging sense that the banishment was as wrong as the bear bait, or even worse. If not pity, then it was at least doubt. She wondered how those mortals dealt with such feelings–if they might not find these questions so irresolvable that they just abandoned the whole project of courts, and judges, and sentences altogether. She ducked beneath a broken branch. That gave her pause. The branch was snapped. The tree might continue to grow and thrive, but this particular limb was lost for good–unless a spirit like Ficus mended it. In that way, humans were actually more like trees than some of the tree spirits she knew. Human wounds were permanent. Their bodies showed scars. Their limbs, once hewn, were lost forever. Perhaps those perpetual mementos kept the shock of crime fresh for their imagination, whereas, for a spirit, injuries were bound to fade. Would she even remember what Orgullo had done to Timessiel? Would she even remember there was an Orgullo before long? The past is often lost in an eternal present. And yet Timessiel she had never once forgot. There was another kind of witchcraft in that.
As she turned between trees to reach the Kennel, she heard yelling. Light seemed to shine from inside the woods. It was a steady glow, not the pulsing of a fire. She shuddered as a large shadow passed over her, and then realized it was just that a small bat had passed between her and the light.
“Let us out, you little cretin,” came a familiar voice, with an arrogant air.
“Now jerst a moment,” Rockbottom gruffled, twitching fingers in his beard. “Dat’s not a friendly tone, dere.”
“Release us at once!” said another voice. “You aren’t a gaoler. Or are you?”
The light was brighter, turning every tree into a thick, black bar. Finally, she had a clear view.
There, in the midst of the Kennel, stood naked spirits, human in shape, though exotic in appearance.
And among them, a dark-skinned hunter, his fire-red eyes searching beyond the circle.
Rockbottom could not be persuaded, under any terms, to free the newly transformed spirits from their barrier. Eventually, however, Coris was able to convince him to trudge off and send word to the councilors for permission to release the captives.
Fiero arrived almost instantaneously, banished the power of the barrier, and began to shake hands with each spirit: “Florimel, Peapod, Augustollo, Morris Longfang, and Timessiel! What joy to see you yourselves again! Oh, and, Timessiel, you don’t know what Coris has done on your behalf!”
“I do,” spoke Timessiel. “Mostly. We all have half-recollections of what has fallen since we were changed into those wretched beasts.”
“Wretched? Speak for yourselves,” said Morris Longfang. “I was clearly a pedigree line.”
The Council summoned the spirits whose memories were deepest in lore, eager to discover the cause of the sudden change. Was the spell broken, and what might have broken it? They conjectured that the Magus might have finally died. Perhaps the books that he had sworn to sink had finally dissolved in the salt water. Maybe the spell was weaker than they thought and had simply dissipated, like an overcast sky, or the spell was always designed to be temporary.
The key thing that the Council learned was that the lorists really didn’t have any idea what they were talking about.
In any event, it was clear to everyone that Timessiel and Coris, if not the rest, were eager to make the most of their new freedom, so Fiero dismissed all of the victims early from the meeting of minds.
That night, the old revels resumed–the merry sort of meetings before Orgullo’s reformation. The spirits were jolly and mirthful at the sight of their companions’ return. They played their ethereal music, and Coris danced for Timessiel. Even Timessiel had forgotten the full delight of her dance, the grace of her arms, the swiftness of her feet. It was the dance that dancers dream of, when their minds are freed from the material limits of body, mass, gravity, and the finer points of physics. It was the dance of impossible echappe, batterie, and grand jete. Every spirit burned with desire for her that night, but she only danced for one of them.
As the festival continued, the two spirit-lovers drifted off into the wilderness, and all eyes watched them depart. Coris and Timessiel walked like the first parents of humankind in their Paradise, lords of all they surveyed. Neither knew what to say, so they said nothing. Nor did they have to. Spirits, lacking those massy barriers of skin and bones, can merge mind to mind. Fire and water passed the night in a cloud of mist. They thought each other’s thoughts more completely than any mortal pair, relived millennia of memories (the ones they still possessed at least) in mere moments, felt each other’s fears, digested each other’s desires, held each other’s hopes. Countless other cogitations passed between them like blood coursing back and forth through the network of veins and arteries in a single body.
The night passed on, and, to Coris, the stars seemed to wheel about the sky at all too dizzying a pace. She and Timessiel sought out the eastern shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sun rising in the morning. The first sunlight on the sea’s waves would make Timessiel’s skin glow like their first meeting. But as the first band of light began to bleach the night sky, Timessiel began to slacken his pace. As they neared the sea, he paused, and once or twice doubled over as if he were a sick mortal.
Coris feared the worst. “Timessiel…”
“‘Tis nothing, sweet,” he smiled. “I’ve spent so long on all fours, that I seem to have lost my sense of balance, is all…” Then he groaned, and dropped to his hands and knees.
Coris knelt beside him. “Don’t be… don’t be…”
Hairs began to shoot through his skin as the rosy dawn touched him. The water before them turned a fiery red, and his snout had already grown; his arms and legs shrank into a dog’s. Before Coris knew what was happening, he was yelping and playing in the waves like an overgrown puppy.
Coris wailed so loudly that sea captains altered their course.
There had been a spot on the sand where Timessiel had laid down with unusual force. It still bore his imprint. After she had returned Timessiel to the Kennel, she came back to this spot. But waves had washed it away.
The moon that they could not see had vanished in the West.
The sun, heartless, went on rising and setting.
After the banishment of Orgullo and the general disappointment felt when Timessiel and his crew resumed their canine forms, the island almost grew sullen. The nightly revels dwindled to an end. Spirits went about their affairs with little time for chat or gossip. But spirits, lacking the spongy brains of men, often have difficulty retaining thoughts that displease them. By the next full moon, the feasts resumed, smiles were exchanged, and the daily chatter of gossip echoed across the enchanted island. Even the hounds themselves, which at first returned to their Kennel with much resistance and then with tails despondently between their legs, seemed to forget they had ever not been dogs.
Once, Coris saw that a sort of side-Kennel had been constructed, a smaller ring which housed a single spirit.
“Rockbottom, why has that dog been separated?”
“Oh,” said the warden. “She-hound. She was getting the he-hounds all in a tizzy, y’know.”
“Timessiel… he didn’t?”
“Dogs will be dogs, little lassie.”
“You are wretched, Rockbottom.”
“Now, now, twarn’t you the one that was spouting off about lerv?”
There was a grotto by the sea, hewn out of jutting rock–perhaps by some unexpected storm long ago. In the grotto was a ramshackle hut, an emergency shelter erected in the event that old enemies came seeking out the island’s inhabitants. Saline air had warped its wooden walls. Wind and rain bored holes into its balding thatch roof. Crabs scuttled about it, and the occasional scorpion. It was dark green with lichen and moss, and grey where they had not yet colonized. The grotto cast a shadow over the structure. It never had to know the heat of the sun.
At the moment, it was occupied.
If you looked within one of the many chinks in its walls, you would have seen what looked like a woman–exceedingly beautiful–but slouching in an old, broken seat. That it could support her would seem an impossibility; the fragility and rottenness of the antique chair would most surely give way under the woman’s weight. But it did not. She would look like she was stroking something, perhaps petting a cat. But if you took a view from a different hole in the wall, you would see that what she was stroking was the decapitated head of a man with a red beard.
You might be relieved to know that the scene was not so gruesome as to have her stroking a decapitated head that was dead. She wasn’t that morbid. No, the head was quite alive, and it might even have been saying something since its mouth was opening and closing, while the eyes looked ferociously at the woman’s face.
From yet another angle, you might have thought you saw a small child standing at her side, one hand cautiously gripping the arm of her seat as he tried to peer at the head, the other hand fumbling with his own lips. You would come to recognize that this wasn’t a child at all–its proportions were too top-heavy, its face too feline.
Eventually, you’d see the woman raise the head up with one arm, to look at it in a different light (although by now you realized that the head emitted a faint red light of its own). She would have said something, and her gaze would fall on the creature standing beside her. The creature’s already grotesque proportions would begin to change, it would grow in stature, take the form of a strapping man, and its face contort itself into that on the severed head.
You’d watch the new man take account of his limbs, and titter, hunching his shoulders like a delighted boy.
A darting look from the woman, and the new man would resume an erect posture. She’d offer the creature the head, which it would take with relish and place into an old, iron cauldron, dropping the lid on top, and then binding the whole with shimmering chains.
Completing the scene, the leathery wings of a dormant bat could just barely be made out from a dark corner of the ceiling.
But, of course, you didn’t see any of this. It was secret.
Elsewhere, along another of the isle’s shorelines, Maressa rode her hippocamp atop a tall wave. It shook its mane in the crest and slapped its long, scaly tail behind her. Her troops assumed a defensive formation along each side.
“Turn back, mortal!” she called.
Far below her, adrift in the trough of the wave, a bedraggled, sunburnt man clung to a piece of driftwood.
“Madre de Dios…” he muttered, looking at the majestic spirits standing guard along the wall of water. He might have excreted fluids, had he not been critically dehydrated.
And only a few moments ago he had been thanking God when he realized that he had heard music in the distance. And he had thanked God’s only Son when he had seen the speck of an island on the horizon. And he had thanked his patron saint when he realized the current was leading him straight to the island’s shore.
“I said, turn back!” Maressa warned.
The man looked about. He had barely the strength to cling to his wood, let alone propel himself anywhere.
“So be it,” Maressa declared, holding a trident aloft. The wave grew larger, the hippocamps of her crew neighed fiercely. The wave came to a point, like a watery fist, and crashed down on top of the helpless sailor.
“Lady General,” a rear patrol rode up to Maressa. “Councilor Fiero asks for an audience on the shore.”
Seaspray dripping from her stony face, Maressa faced the island. Indeed, there stood Fiero and a small nymph. “Keep watch,” Maressa said. “Other survivors may also be drifting.”
When she reached the shore with her elite guard, she thought Fiero seemed to fidget. This must be pressing.
“Ma… ressa,” he said, somewhat grimacing. “A word please. But… a word alone is best.” He looked to her guards.
“They are as good as extensions of myself, Fiero. I trust them to be discreet.”
Fiero looked to the nymph, who nodded slightly.
“Yes, then, yes… well, here’s the thing. I’ve been talking to this little nymph. Cor…”
“Coris,” the nymph said.
“Indeed,” Maressa acknowledged. “You were familiar with one of the hounds before their change.”
Coris bowed her head.
“Well, this Coris came to me with a special plea. See, we’re all so very, very, very, very upset over the loss of Orgullo.”
“It was a loss to our number,” Maressa said.
“And we had been thinking how it was largely because of these dogs that tempted him. And, I understand, they have been tempting others to follow his lead. Indeed, I’ve even heard rumors that you were considering… uhm… recruiting, shall we say, these poor afflicted spirits to assist you in your patrols.”
“It was a consideration,” Maressa said. “They are hunting dogs, after all. They were made to track and retrieve.”
“And, of course, The West Breeze also has an interest in them, I hear.” Fiero licked his chops. “We really ought to take some action on these dogs. They are bringing out the worst in us.”
“Might I ask that my respected fellow Council member advance to his point. You said the nymph came to you with a plea.”
“Restoration,” Fiero continued. “She asked if we might not send out a search party for the Magus’s lost books. You recall, he said he would toss them in the sea.”
“That seems a dangerous proposition,” Maressa replied. “To bring the books back… if they were to fall into the wrong hands…”
“You said yourself, you trust your spirits completely.” Fiero looked askance.
“But with this… the temptation is far greater than anything the dogs themselves might lead us to.”
“And this is why we sought you. Only you among the spirits are strong enough to resist the draw of its power. Only you have the martial discipline to deny yourself the allure of magic.”
Maressa looked to her guards. “No, Fiero. I cannot leave my post.” She turned to Coris. “I am truly sympathetic to your plight, maiden. But the risk is too great. To leave the shoreline unprotected and hazard the safety of the many for the comfort of the few–it is not wise.”
“Lady General.” Coris dropped to her knees on the sand and covered her eyes. “Please, hear me. If ever you honored chivalry, if ever a knightly deed you sought to achieve, if ever a poor maiden in distress could have moved you with pity…” And at this, Coris began to weep. “If ever tears of pure love had any potency to those who bore lance and shield, relieve my suffering by restoring my love to me. This is the only way to undo that vile necromancer’s enchantments.” Coris shuddered with grieving.
Fiero gave a helpless shrug as if to say, “See why I’m here?”
Maressa looked to each of her guards. Fiero tried to scan their eyes: they communicated in a silent, if not telepathic code.
“I will undertake this quest,” Maressa relented. “Myself and a select handful of my knights.”
Coris lowered her face even further. “Thank you, thank you, my lady! You are truly gracious!”
“Enough of that,” Maressa sternly replied. “To your feet maiden. You must be strong for your lover.”
Maressa took Coris’s hands and helped her to rise.
“Now, as to the command of your remaining forces,” Fiero said. “If I might recommend The West Breeze…”
Maressa squinted. “The West Breeze… would take them from the shore to use for martial law. And you, my friend, the Council decided to leave without numbers.”
“Then,” Fiero began.
“Alytes seems the most reasonable Council member to oversea the safety of the shore. After all, her commission is to eliminate traces of outsiders from our midst. My forces do the same pre-emptively.”
“Pre-imp-tively,” Fiero laughed. “Yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. So it is settled.”
“I will address my troops, and set off at once. I promise you, maiden Coris, our search will not be long. All will be well.”
And so the Lady General and her guard saluted Fiero and turned back to the sea.
For their part, Fiero and Coris returned back to the mainland. Once out of sight of the shore and its waves, Fiero seemed to swell like a bladder, eventually bursting into a sulfurous cloud–leaving behind only his head, which seemed to pad about on two cloven feet. The false head wobbled side to side, until the fire imp inside it managed to cast it off, kicking it away down a hill. Meanwhile, the spirit that had appeared to be Coris shimmered in a blue light as she changed back into Alytes.
The West Breeze had ordered a Hall of Justice to be erected on the island. It stood in a grassy clearing along the western shore of the isle. Here, The West Breeze judged the disputes between spirits and issued commands to his bailiffs to summon those who stood accused. For the most part, his task was merely conflict resolution. The lack of material possessions greatly diminished opportunities for miscreants or the criminally-inclined.
A spirit of air blew into the hall. “Murder, ho!”
The West Breeze rose to his feet. “At last.”
One of the bailiffs stepped forward. “Impossible! Murder a spirit? Who can exhaust the life from these immortal minds? It can’t be.”
The West Breeze waved a hand at the bailiff, and said, “Such a murder as might befall a spirit demands a full investigation. Ready the constabulary. Where is the evidence?” (Although he spoke in a dry monotone, he was actually quite excited.)
“The body? A body.” The West Wind shuddered in titillation. “Take us to the body.”
The constabulary was assembled, a somewhat foppish, motley crew balanced from each tribe. They formed a more or less miniature of the primordial chaos as they rolled across the island. The spirit of air led them to the scene of alleged violence. Eventually, they came to an ancient, black, igneous rock, bulbous and weathered. Fiero’s rock.
There, beside the rock, hovered the headless body of a spirit. It tried to keep its footing on the ground, but was being roughly buffeted by the slightest puff of wind. It was already becoming indistinct, fading into the deep red of a dying ember. Its features and form were blurry, as if seen through a thick, filmy glass. It was hunching over, trying to dig its index finger into the ground.
“By the eternal essence,” a sylph proclaimed. “It’s Fiero’s body…”
“An assassination,” The West Breeze droned. “What luck.”
“It’s trying to write something,” said the bailiff.
The spirits cocked their heads left and right trying to read the words. The letter forms were indistinct. Composition was proving difficult without eyes.
“Is that a ‘B’… or maybe an ‘R.'”
“No, I think that’s a footprint.”
“A riddle. Most intriguing, indeed.” The West Breeze, never given much to excitement, was absolutely stimulated at this point.
“What could that mean?”
“Maybe it’s an Asiatic spirit.”
“Maybe it was a type of spirit, and there were eight of them?”
The spirits continued to try to decipher the runes. Focused on the ground, none took note of the shadow surrounding them, at least not until an irrepressible cackle cracked the air.
Sea hags. A pack of them. Shaped like old women with sickly green amphibious skin. Tusked like boars. Supernatural in essence. The bane of island spirits. Their scent eventually reached the investigators, who instinctively stood on guard.
“Impossible!” said the bailiff. It was a day for impossibilities. “How could they get past the coast guard?”
“No matter how, little sprite, we’re here now,” a hag chortled.
“Ah, the culprits, then, no doubt,” The West Breeze said, flatly.
“Oh, that’s not our doing,” a hag spat in mock-defensiveness. “He was like that when we got here. But… he’ll look downright comfortable, compared to what we have in mind for you. Ladies. Sic ’em.”
And with a terrible howl that shook the whole island, the pack of sea hags fell upon The West Breeze, his constables, the spirit guide, and what was left of Fiero’s body. The tussle was brief. The spirits were not experienced fighters, nor were they accustomed to holding their own against fell denizens of the deep. The hags, on the other hand, found this much easier than a typical morning’s work. When the spirits were overpowered, the hags stuffed their remaining essences into magic sacks designed just for such purposes and slinked off back to the sea with their booty.
“My beloved fellow spirits,” Alytes proclaimed. “It seems that our Council has failed. Orgullo is banished. Maressa lost on some mad quest–a quest to reclaim the binding book of all things–a memento I should be strictly bound to destroy the second it should return to the island. The West Breeze and his entire strength, sadly, taken by sea hags, or so witnesses claim. And Fiero… one would think it impossible… Fiero seems to have abandoned us wholly. No doubt the weight of rule bore too heavily upon such a light spirit. This leaves only me to guide you.”
“Perhaps we should replace the Council members by elec…” Hopper began, but then he snapped his mouth shut. “By the Rock of Gibraltar… the sea hags have returned!”
The spirits began to make a commotion. One squealed like a baby. Several of the air spirits attempted to take flight–but Alytes muttered some word or two, and they found themselves frozen. She muttered again, and they fell to the earth.
The sea hags lined up behind Alytes. They were being led by her fire imp.
“I come on behalf of the Maidens of the Deep.” So the sea hags fashioned themselves.
“You have taken members of our community,” Alytes said firmly. “Do you demand a ransom?”
“No,” the sea hag implored, with ingratiating embarrassment. “That was a horrible mistake made by sisters of our clan. We have come to make compensation.”
“Then return our comrades.”
“Sadly, that is impossible,” said the sea hag. “We cannot. But we have come to offer ourselves in exchange. We know the powers of this isle and fear retaliation. We have come to serve you.”
Alytes turned, somewhat dramatically, to her fellow spirits.
“What say you, friends? Shall we admit these sea hags as our servants as due compensation for their sisters’ injuries among us?”
The spirits looked to one another.
Then, Ficus began to applaud. Slowly. Intentionally. “Brilliant performance,” he shouted. “Bravo!” He seemed to be drunk on nectar. “Please,” he continued. “Invite the sea hags to live among us as our new mistresses. You might have done so without all of this trumpery.”
Alytes shifted her stance.
Coris pushed through the crowd to Ficus. “Not now…” she whispered.
“Or what? They’ll stick me in one of their bags and drag me to the deep?”
“The old tree wounds us,” said one of the hags. “We came to apologize…”
“Pay him no mind,” said Alytes. “He is foolish. And has no sense of the times. We are without our coastal defenses, and now without our civil protectors, it is good for us to live in amity with your tribe. I accept your service on behalf of the spirits of the isle.”
Ficus let out a laugh.
Alytes nodded to her imp.
“Now, we have some business to attend to. We shall have to issue new rules if we are to live with our new neighbors, and maintain the peace among ourselves.”
Ficus began to stagger away.
“First, the Maidens have a great sensitivity to noise, being creatures of the sea. Therefore, it will be important that we reduce the sound of our revels. Feasts will no longer contain music.”
“What?” a random spirit guffawed.
“Secondly, the Maidens do feed on spiritual essences at least once every fortnight. Therefore, as an act of hospitality, it will be courteous for thirteen spirits to offer donations of their ichor. They have a leech among them precisely for the purpose. Obviously, the donors will be on a rotating basis to prevent fatiguing our own people…”
These were only the beginning of a long list of new rules that Alytes declared. Evidently, the spirits had not been living nearly as freely as they had thought, and they needed quite a few more restrictions on their daily activities in order to relish fully a more complete liberty.
Not long afterwards, Coris began to notice the changes in her fellow spirits. Those who once went about their “affairs” now went about their “business.” And there was much business to be done. Alytes was ceaselessly discovering some rune on a tree, some discarded tool, some scrap of clothing, all belonging to one or another of the mortals that once roamed their island (or so Alytes claimed). These all needed to be destroyed. Plus, there was construction. Barracks were to be made for the sea hags. Rocks and trees moved for better passage across the isle, although it was clear to many that they were in fact being arranged concentrically–into some sort of giant circle spanning the circumference of the island itself.
Coris had consulted with Ficus, and they were agreed that Alytes was exerting a power beyond her own, that she herself had become a spellcaster.
Every day, a new spirit took on the same preoccupied, vacant stare that they had during the reign of the necromancers. They would seem to look through you as you talked to them, and their voices took a distracted, empty tone. Not only would they seem to look through you, but you could see more readily through them. As the sea hags fed on the spirits, their victims’ forms weakened and became more transparent. Coris thanked the stars that she had yet to be drawn (the sea hags found her stream useful for travel and needed it flowing), but she knew she could not evade the duty forever.
What was she to do? She tended to her stream, and she kept company with Timessiel. She had contented herself with that. Whatever Alytes was up to, she concluded, there was little she could do about it anyway. So she minded her own business, until the day Alytes finally struck at the one thing other than Timessiel that mattered most to her.
Alytes had long been troubled by the Ariel Tree. Spirits had venerated it as a shrine. They would leave garlands on its branches, fill its hollows with nectar, or just peer into its rift for what seemed eternities. Given the public opinion, she had, for a while, thought it best to destroy the thing quietly, secretly, before anyone could express disagreement. But then the spirits might grow distrustful. Ficus, for one, was already spewing discontent. He’d have to be dealt with, as well. If only he had been on the Council. The Council members seemed so easy to remove. Maybe it was because they had already been removed in a sense, by being distinguished from the common lot. Either way, no one seemed to care much when officials disappeared. Or if they did care, it was not in a way that made anyone do anything about it. Going after a private spirit, however, and a popular one at that, would have ramifications. There seemed to be a philosophical principle in this that Alytes would want to theorize about later.
Ultimately, Alytes decided to destroy the Airel Tree in full public view, with all of the pomp and ceremony she could muster. Spirits carried escutcheons from their various tribes. Trumpets were blown. Alytes was dressed more like a queen going to coronation than a spirit conducting its business. She thought such a display would show she had nothing to hide (well, nothing to hide other than what was already well-hidden). It would be a sign of strength. And, she concluded, by having everyone present, the spirits would hopefully feel complicit in the act. “You were there,” she could say later. “If you were opposed, why didn’t you say something then?”
Except someone did say something.
“No!” Coris screamed, as the fire imp hobbled toward the tree.
“It is a reminder of our slavery,” Alytes explained.
“It is a reminder of our freedom!”
“Enough! Burn it to cinders!”
And the fire imp did his work with relish.
As the fires made their way to the hollow of the tree, a bat, which had apparently been nesting inside unseen, flew away to safety.
Coris, who was a water nymph after all, summoned every bit of moisture she could muster. She propelled it through the air like a dragon, and directed towards the fire imp. But Alytes raised a hand, and the liquid was dispelled, casting a small shower over all nearby. The imp devoured the tree unimpeded.
The sea hags that guarded the perimeter of the congregation stretched their talons, the knuckles cracking like shells underfoot. The spirits began to murmer and shuffle in their places.
“Coris… little Coris,” said Alytes. “So pretty, and graceful… so self-righteous and so quick to set herself above all the rest of us. Never joining in our games. Always driving wedges between us. And why, one might ask?”
Coris had not gone unnoticed in Alytes’s scheme. She had, perhaps, underestimated the nymph’s loyalty to the tree… a pathetic sort of pantheism, no doubt… but Alytes had reserved some rhetorical weapons for the occasion.
“Why, but because you are bound to that dog of yours. And what is that dog? Your lover? Perhaps once he was. But what is he now, other than a four-legged perversion of our nature. What is he now but a shackle to you? A shackle to us all, in a way. The last reminder of the Magus’s power. Have you already forgotten the danger those hounds posed to our peace and tranquility? Have any of you forgotten how, like wild beasts, inconsiderate of who you were, they tore your limbs? They are not only a painful memory; they are dangerous. And I say it is about time we removed them permanently from our midst.”
“You can’t,” said Coris. “No one will stand for it. Would any of you?”
The sea hags were inching closer. The spirits would not look Coris in the eye.
“Mahoo!” said the fire imp.
“Steady, pet,” said Alytes, then turning to the crowd. “So, then, who among you resists? Who thinks it unwise to remove these last vestiges of the Magus? Anyone? Not one?”
“Rather, who believes we should be rid of the dogs?”
The silence continued.
“Let’s try that again. Who believes we should be rid of the dogs?”
“Aye,” the spirits consented in unison.
“The ‘Ayes’ have it,” Alytes laughed. “Now, Coris… you are known for being so speedy despite those dainty little legs. I wonder if you are faster than fire.”
“Mahoo?” said the imp.
“‘Mahoo’ to your heart’s content,” Alytes allowed.
And the fire imp sped off, streaks of smouldering grass following him behind.
Coris took flight, but veered off; she would lose ground, but she needed to find running water if she had any hope of outpacing the mad fire imp.
Coris reached the Kennel, glistening in her element. The hounds all turned their heads in unison at her approach. Rockbottom lifted his head from a nap.
“Miss me so much, lass,” said Rockbottom. “I’ve already told you my thoughts on the matter. Ya’t’aint the girl for me, despite all dat gold on yer head.”
“If ever, ever there was someone that you cherished, someone whose gaze you craved at least a little like the glint of a gem; if ever there was a longing in you to converse with a like mind, to hear a voice familiar, to feel the…”
“Git on with it, missy,” Rockbottom urged, resting his head back down on a toadstool. “Enough of yer oratication. Just tell me what you want, and I’ll say no.”
“Please, you must release them.”
“But Alytes has sent the imp. He’ll be here any second.”
“Then certainly, no!'”
“We’ll pay you, anything you want.”
“You have nothing to give worth risking what I already have.”
“We’ll find it, any treasure you request; we’ll find it and bring it to you.”
“That would be a foolish trade for me to make.”
“Please,” Coris fell to her knees. “I beg, if not for the sake of love, or for wealth, then for the sake of your conscience.”
“Ne’er had need of such a ting as conscience nether.”
“Rockbottom,” a voice grumbled from the trees. “Perhaps it’s time to take a holiday.”
“Says who?” Rockbottom was undeterred and unthreatened.
Ficus stepped out of a tree. His knobby hands were charred, his mossy beard dried up and two-thirds burnt away. His prodigious belly black, seared, as were his cheeks and nose.
Even Rockbottom rose to his feet.
“Have you ever seen what happens to a rock that gets caught between a tree’s roots?” Ficus lumbered closer. “It doesn’t do much at first… but eventually, over time, a long, long time actually, the roots find the weak points.” Branches began to creep out of Ficus’s forearms, wriggling like worms towards the gnome. “They breach the little cracks in the rock.” Ficus was practically on top of him. “And then they pulverize it into a million pieces.”
Rockbottom darted away, disappearing in the distance.
“Ficus!” Coris said. “We must hurry, the imp is on his way!”
“He was,” said the ancient tree spirit. “We met. He is no longer coming.”
“What did you do?”
Ficus sighed. “It will be some time before his appetite returns.”
“But without the warden, or one of the spirits who made the magic barrier, how will we help Timessiel? They can’t get out, and we can’t get in.”
“Those are the rules. Those are the rules.”
Ficus thrust his hands into the ground, and a network of tree roots grew up in the center of the magic circle. The dogs barked and skittered away from the roots which reached like tendrils towards the circumference of the magic circle. Sparks flickered where the roots began to bunch up along the edges, and Ficus’s color began to fade.
“What are you doing, Ficus? Your power is almost all spent!”
“The sport is at its best. It’s time to go. Besides, I’m old and done, Coris.”
He groaned as a tip of a root pushed its way through an invisible barrier, followed by another close by. Like sharp, skeletal fingers, the roots wrenched open a small portal through the barrier; one hound squeezed its way through, then another. Soon, they were all about Ficus and Coris, fawning, and lapping at their knuckles.
Then the earth rumbled, and the dogs barked.
“A magic circle can’t be broken, but,” Ficus panted, “it looks like its contents can be exchanged.”
The earth beneath them began to sink. Coris and the hounds backed away, but Ficus couldn’t move. Suddenly, he was pulled into the soil, and the earth spewed him back up within the center of the Kennel.
“Now, you and Timessiel should go. Go and seek out the Daemon. He might have the lore to free Timessiel.”
Coris could not move away.
“But, Coris… be careful… the Daemon is like a magic circle… he will demand an exchange.”
“Now, go… if you are still here when they come… it would be bad for us all.”
Coris stirred. Her eyes tearing up, she thanked Ficus: “You were never an old spirit… just an old soul.”
Perhaps they should have hid. Perhaps they should have cut their losses and fled the isle altogether. But here they were, at the mouth of the Daemon’s cave. One might have expected it to be particularly foreboding, littered with detritus or other signs of death or corruption. Yet, it was little more than an outcropping of moss-covered rock conveniently curved to form a sort of lintel into a steep decline into the earth. Much steeper and it would have been better described as a pit.
The descent was dark. Before long, Coris had only her own evanescent golden aura by which to see her way. Timessiel frequently sniffed the cavern walls and air. He was on edge. Eventually, she could smell it, too: a putrid, rotten odor that would have triggered a gag reflex, if she had one, or have at least induced nausea. For a spirit, however, it was merely the festering scent of a mortal form, spoiling in decay. The cave took a sharp turn to the left, and Coris imagined that there must be a dead body, a recent corpse. Timessiel began to bark, his hair raised.
Coris paused. She listened. Timessiel’s barks were loud. She hushed him. He padded the gritty floor of the cave.
She thought she heard a clink.
She slid her back against the wall opposite of the turn. She tried to peer around the corner, inching further along. Darkness. Nothing to see. She turned back to look at Timessiel, he was growling.
Another clink… then another… then a rattling of a chain.
She crept further along the wall; there was something shuffling against it. It almost seemed like living rock. Then, an arm stretched out, gnarled fingers clutching towards her.
“Who are you?” Coris tried. “What do you want?”
“Hello,” Coris tried again, and stepped closer.
She could make out more of its shape now; human in form; thin, frail, hunched over, bound by chains to the wall. It was clear now that this was where the stench came from.
“Are you… are you the Daemon?” she asked, stepping towards it.
Broken, rotten teeth glimmered in her reflected light. They gnashed.
Timessiel followed Coris as she slipped away around the corner. He barked as the creature pawed towards Coris, looking at her with pale, sunken eyes.
“You poor, tortured soul,” she began. “Are you mortal? Did the Magus lock you down here? He’s gone now. Let me help you.”
But as she neared the creature to look for locks, its claw-like hand swept at-and passed through–her. Timessiel barked again, and the creature seemed to hiss at him.
Then she heard a groan, and another clink. There, on the opposite wall was another such creature, and further down the cavern path was another, and another. Maybe a dozen or so, like living corpses, were chained to the walls, in varying states of decay. They began to rattle their chains and reach for Coris and Timessiel.
Coris was horrified.
“Please, little spirit,” a deep voice came from within the cave. “Free them. Free them all.” The voice laughed and said, “I’d love to see what would happen.”
“Who’s there,” called Coris.
“Father Christmas,” the voice replied. “I have some sweets to put in your shoes.”
“What are these poor creatures? Spirits? Or men?”
“Neither. They are experiments. Or they were once men. Or parts of men. They were found unsuitable for domestic use. But also surprisingly indestructible. So they were cast aside, here, the Gehenna of this little island paradise.”
Coris and Timessiel passed the creatures, causing quite a stir among the denizens of the cave until they reached a wider chamber, where the voice seemed loudest. Here, there was a magic circle, like the Kennel. In the midst of the circle was a shadow resembling smoke in a jar.
“You are the Daemon, then.”
“Please, you flatter. I am not the daemon. Just a daemon. But to what do I owe this diverting visitation by such a lovely little nymph?”
“It’s Timessiel, this dog. What appears to be a beast is a spirit. The Magus cast a spell on him.”
“Ah, yes. I remember Timessiel–the pot-warmer. Then you are… I see. Well, you look much prettier than the last time I saw you oozing through the garden. Yes, I was well aware of your trysts. Did you think you were both so clever? No. I let you meet. Call me a romantic. Now I suppose you want me to change him back to a more… compatible form. I’m afraid that’s not within my capacity. Certainly not as I am.”
“But you might know some lore to help us.”
“Tell me, little sprite. How long has he been like this?”
“Almost two moons, by my reckoning.”
“And has he ever changed back on his own?”
“Then I believe I might have some advice to give. But know that my service comes at a price. If one seeks to benefit from my wisdom, one must pay.”
“What can he have to offer you?”
“Indeed, he has nothing I want… not as he is, anyway. Had you come on a new moon, perhaps things would be different. You, on the other hand…”
“Are you afraid what I might ask for, whelp? Fear I should ask for a sacrifice of her melodious babble, or her glamorous mask? Would that displease you?”
“But I would. I would surrender those, for him.”
“Are you so certain that you would retain his favor if you were a mute or a brute?”
“Your kind never understood the bonds of the heart.”
“As if you had a heart… or ever knew true bondage.”
“I meant no offense, Wanderer… I merely…”
“Keep your charms, little sprite. They are no use to me. But you are a daughter of the stream… and, if I mistake not, you are the swiftest of your sisters.”
She was silent.
“Surrender your speed, and I will give you my counsel.”
“You say my other gifts are no use to you, but what use could that be to one in your…”
“State? It’s certainly stationary. But, oh-ho, you should well know that all things change, pretty droplet. Even the course of rivers. And when my essence is no longer confined by this spell, I will make haste to depart this accursed cell no less than this wretched island, thanks to you. And you have even less need of it than me! What is speed but the attempt to move from one place to another. Where have you to go? Your love, if you even know what that word means, is beside you. Why should you seek to go beyond this isle? If your love does bind you, then is this space not sufficient? Is he so impatient that he cannot wait for you to cross a few leagues, with steps just a bit more beleaguered? No, from what I know of lovers, their desires are not for flight, but to remain still, and steady, like slugabeds in each other’s arms… or whatever extremities you things might care to project from your vaporous being. Love does not fly, nor soar. Love stands firm. It is a weighty rock that does not move.”
If Timessiel was here, what else did she need? The Daemon perhaps did know something of her attachment, after all. She saw herself beside her love, free to be bound to each other again, to play again along the banks that were her home, to sit amidst the shimmering light and shadows beneath the palms, to simply be in the same space, no distance between. What good was speed in a world without distance?
Timessiel was still. His head was hunched, his hairs bristled. What did he think?
“If you have the knowledge, Daemon–and if you will tell me how to undo the effects of the wizard’s power–then take my swiftness.”
“Your wish, as they say, is my command.”
And with that the earth began to swell beneath her, like a bubble of mud. Timessiel barked fiercely, and leapt back. The soil and its rocks oozed over Coris’s toes and feet, crawling with a capillary action up the legs she had formed in her mind, now over her torso–her body became heavy–she struggled, not to flee, but simply to move; the earth reached her shoulders and divided its approach, climbing up her neck and down her arms. Finally, her face was coated in a mask, her once billowing hair became caked and stiff. She stood like a figurine in clay, in slow-motion, as if she was about to fall forward. Timessiel whimpered, his tail between his legs. Then, abruptly, the mass of earth reversed itself completely, racing down her body leaving not so much as a crumb of dirt.
She blinked, she touched herself; she knelt down on one knee and clasped Timessiel’s head to her bosom.
“Not so bad, was it?” muttered the Daemon. “Do you feel any different?”
“No… not at all,” she said. Then, standing, “Now, you have claimed your wages, but I have not been given my service.”
“On the night of the next new moon, your dog must follow it. The moon may change, but he will not… so long as the moon is overhead. The moon’s rays will keep him in a humane form. If the moon dips below the horizon, he will be a beast again. He is lunatic now, and must keep moonwatch.”
It would be several days before the next new moon, and Coris was anxious to find hiding places on their island, which now seemed such a small place. For the most part, Timessiel stayed by her side, which made their concealment easier. On occasion, some small rodent or lizard would distract him, and she’d have to chase him down and drag him back under whatever nook or log she was using as their shelter. Midnight, however, was always the most dangerous time.
One night, she heard a whispering voice in her ear. A female voice. It was sweet, and sad. Like a mother… or a nurse… beckoning Coris out of her hiding place, like one might do to a small child playing a game. She might have gone, too, if Timessiel hadn’t, at just that moment, put a paw on her knee. It was a spell. Alytes.
Another night, she heard a voice again. This time, it was a male voice. Ficus’s voice. He needed help. They had caught him in the magic circle of the Kennel. They were doing things to him. He needed her to bring one of the dogs, any of the dogs, not necessarily Timessiel. One of the dogs she didn’t care about. If she brought the dog, they could exchange places again. It wouldn’t matter to her, would it, some other dog?
She wasn’t sure if this was Alytes imitating Ficus’s voice, or Ficus himself. Had they finally broken him? It was maddening.
The third time she heard the midnight voice, it was the Stream. Her father. He was angry at her. She was disrupting peace on the island. It was beneath her dignity. She had a duty to keep the waters flowing. The voice shouted suddenly, and she shuddered and stood up, shivering, perhaps like a mortal waking from a dream.
Standing in the dark, she looked about. She could see, in the distance, the crooked outlines of sea hags glowing green. The red eyes of one fell on her. The trick had worked. They were exposed. Coris ran, Timessiel barked.
“No, Timessiel,” Coris shouted. The dog wanted to stand its ground to defend her. “With me!”
The dog tossed its head back and forth, weighing which direction to go, but eventually settled on following the prettier of the two ladies.
The sea hag, greedy, didn’t call out to its mates.
The chase was on. Coris had lost her celerity, and could move with only mortal speed, but she and Timessiel had an advantage that they could pass through the branches and bushes that got in their way. Still, the sea hag seemed to gain on them with its monstrous strides. As Coris bounded by a rock, she heard a whistle behind her. She could barely risk looking back–but there she saw a gnome, waving to her. With his other hand, he was pushing away the snout of Timessiel, who was sniffing him close.
“Lassie,” the gnome hissed. “Hurry!”
It was Rockbottom. He had opened a little magic door in a stone and was offering entrance.
Timessiel had already squeezed through the opening, more out of doggish curiosity than anything. Coris didn’t trust the gnome for an instant, but she was bound to follow now. She shrank herself to Rockbottom’s height and descended. They heard the thudding tramp of the sea hag above ground just as Rockbottom sealed the stone. Purple crystal shone on either side of the stairway; everyone appeared submerged in wine.
“Mind yer head,” he muttered following them down. “Ind don’ touch nuthin’!”
At the bottom of the steps was a chamber, littered with stacks of polished pebbles, mounds of reflective metal nuggets, and towers of discarded trinkets–bits of mortal flotsam and jetsam washed ashore and blown inland over the centuries. Rockbottom was proud of his loot and very wary that Alytes would someday root it out and destroy the pieces made by human hands. From the ceiling, stalactites hung in bulbous, organic shapes. Rockbottom had fastened bits of ribbon to some of them for ornament.
“Thank you,” Coris said. Timessiel merely sniffed at a narrow tower in the corner; fortunately for Rockbottom, it was more out of instinct than need.
“Ne’er mind tanks,” Rockbottom said. “I’m not the kind er gnome tat is known fer haspitableness. Ant dis arn’t no permanint solurshen, nedder. But we’ll be safe fer da time bein’.”
And they were, for a number of days, although Rockbottom had much ado rearranging his treasures to make room for his guests. Nevertheless, Timessiel still tended to knock things over. Coris was concerned that Rockbottom would grow impatient with them before the new moon could rise; she feared he would throw them out, or turn them over. He left every day to perform his obligations, although he didn’t tell them what those obligations were now that all the hounds had been free.
When Rockbottom was gone, and she was left alone with Timessiel, away from all of the natural sounds of bird and breeze and breaker, she had at first experienced a profound silence. Coris couldn’t quite tell how Rockbottom knew what time it was, being beneath the earth and secluded from the heavens. She suspected that one of the mortal trophies might have had some ability to measure time. Then she heard it… a little metallic click, over and over and over and over… like someone with tin shoes keeping time with music. It seemed to cast a spell over her, making each moment a small eternity as she waited… for… the… next tick. There it was.
No wonder Rockbottom was so irritable.
Then, after more ticks than Coris could have ever counted, Timessiel went into a seizure. His lips curled back baring his teeth, as did his eyelids, revealing white spheres beneath. It was a gruesome site, his face ferocious while his frame lay helpless. He began to contort, his limbs twisted, his spine seemed likely to snap, springing into convex and concave curves.
He was changing.
His fur seemed to leap off and dissipate into the air; his limbs fattened; his snout pushed down towards his chest and shrank into a face. He was hunched over, cramped in the gnome’s close quarters, lurching over Coris like a giant. It took him a moment to assess the situation and reduce his stature to hers.
“Coris,” he said at last, taking her hands.
“It must be the new moon. You must fly, now, away from the island,” she said. “Always keep the moon in sight. Never let it descend.”
She was dragging him by the hand up the steps towards the magic door. She tried her other hand on the stone, and it passed through. “Come along. Make haste.”
“No time. Take flight. Never come back. Alytes has given the isle to the sea hags, and she seeks to destroy you.”
They were above ground now, beneath trees. It was midday. The moon could not be seen, but the blue sky pierced through.
“Go east, so as not to lose the moon. Then to the frosty north or burning south… and follow the pace of the moon. Be wary you don’t outpace it or fall behind. But do not come back here,” Coris barely looked at him. Her eyes twitched about for spies.
“You’ll come with me,” Timessiel said. “I’ll take you!”
Of course! She thought. Why couldn’t she? She was as light as a droplet! Why should she stay behind? She felt herself a silly thing.
He hoisted her in his arms, but the faster he tried to fly away, the heavier she became. He could not take her more than a few yards before she began to slip from him. Timessiel stopped and descended back to the ground with her.
“It seems,” Coris said, “the Daemon was very exacting in his price.”
“Then I will stay with you, come what may.”
“That I know you would is enough,” she sighed. “But that I would know you had would be too much. Be free, for I bought your freedom dearly.”
“I can’t leave you.”
“Then don’t leave me. Go seek out the Magus. Perhaps he has power yet to restore you fully,” she said. “And perhaps even to restore me. Do it for me.”
“For you, then,” said Timessiel.
They shrouded themselves in mist one last time, and he soared off on a beam of the sun.
“Dat it den?” came a gruff voice behind her. Rockbottom leaned on his stone.
“I pray that it is not,” Coris said. She turned to Rockbottom. “Why did you help us?”
“Ya know,” Rockbottom blushed. “Missed our talks, such as dey were. Nerbuddy talks t’ ol’ Rockbottom but ta give erders nowadays.”
“I knew there had to be more to you.”
“Well, I dunno ’bout tat. But, come back inside. Tarn’t safe.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Coris. “And that’s why I cannot hide any longer. Thank you for your kindness, and your protection. Now, however, I must go. Someone must confront Alytes, for the sake of the other spirits.”
“She’ll make an example of you.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
It all seemed to go by so quickly for Coris. Alytes’s hags and spirits had been spaced out evenly across the island in a grid, like knots in a net. Getting captured was relatively easy. Far more frustrating, her loss of swiftness seemed to affect her captors’ ability to drag her to their mistress, who herself seemed quite annoyed that so much time had passed between being alerted to Coris’s surrender and her actual arrival.
Coris found herself standing near the blasted remains of the Ariel tree. Beside it was a new oak, surprisingly tall given its lack of existence only a few days prior. It had a powerful aura. Coris could see Ficus swaying a few paces away. His eyes were vacant. Alytes had summoned all of the spirits of the isle in a throng. She extended an arm towards Coris. In her hand, she held a polished branch. She whispered words that Coris could not hear and yet she did.
Coris saw Alytes differently. She was surrounded in a golden halo, with a majestic, jewel-filled crown. Seraphim appeared to surround the spirit-queen, clad in billowing purple silk. She was pointing at her with a mighty scepter, an iron rod of justice.
What had she done that such a figure of magnificence would deign to even look upon such a lowly creature as herself? Nothing seemed more natural to Coris than a desire to kneel before the vision of power. Its face seemed wise, but stern. All-knowing, yet prone to wrath. So why wasn’t she kneeling? There was something off. She had been here before, or maybe just dreamed she had been here before. The majesty, the power, the look of condemnation. The tree.
There should have been a tree here. She remembered a tree.
Coris looked for the tree. She found one. It was imposing. It seemed to arch over and want to menace her. This was not the right tree, not the one she remembered. And yet it would do.
Coris shook herself free of the queen’s gaze, and she turned to see the broken wills surrounding her. Spirits with faces in vacant adoration of the royal One.
“No,” Coris said at last. A short, abrupt negative. Turning back to the queen, “No, I will not.”
“Then get thee into the tree!”
With that, Coris disappeared, and the oak grew a knot on its side, vaguely in the shape of a little damsel, curled up like a babe in the womb.
“That business is finished,” said Alytes. “Now, let’s see if we can’t find a ship or two to lure to our coast. I have some transmutation spells that I’ve been just dying to try out.”
A bat had been hanging on nearby. When Coris disappeared, it set flight through the woods. It found a cave in the ground and slipped within. A myriad of gnarled, decomposing hands each made slow, feeble attempts to grasp it. These were easily dodged. At last, the bat approached a circle, hewn into the rock on the floor of the cave. There was a pillar of smoke within the circle, but no fire. The bat set itself on a stone and began sniffing about.
As if from nowhere, there was suddenly a male youth walking the circumference of the circle.
A guttural voice rumbled from the smoke: “Ariel, the betrayer.”
“Still here, then, old wanderer?” said Ariel, floating to the ceiling. “Tell me, if you were free, what would you do?”
“If I were free right now, I’d make you wish you never existed.”
“You’d have to catch me first!” Ariel said as he dashed a dizzying circle around the pillar. “Come now, Daemon. Can you blame me? I never shared your devotion to your master. I’m a free agent. Emphasis on free.”
“From what I’ve heard,” the Daemon said, “you served your last master with particular distinction. Some might say you even relished the role.”
“We had an agreement. The contract was fulfilled. End of that story.”
“You and the rest of your kind were nothing, until the Power called you forth.”
“Setebos, was it?” Ariel asked. “Was that the name of your particular deity of choice?”
“Use that name carefully, little vapor… you might call him from the depths.”
“Actually, I was rather hoping you would do that for me.”
“I’d be all too happy to oblige you,” the Daemon growled.
“And why’s that?”
“Sycorax’s familiar,” Ariel said. “Brought with her from the southern mainland. She’s grown quite powerful, you know. Runs the isle. She learned quite a bit from her mistress. But as beautiful as the day she tricked you. Maybe more so. Anyway, she’s pretty much got all of the spirits enslaved.”
“Sounds like poetic justice to me. Setebos summoned your kind to assist that damned witch Sycorax.”
“That’s not quite historically accurate. We were doing just fine before any of you showed up. But the point is: you want revenge. I want my friends freed. I let you go. You get Setebos. He takes care of both our problems, and then everyone lives happily ever after.”
“Friends? And since when have you cared so much for common rabble?”
“Psshh. Who said it was for the common rabble? Anyway, do you want out or not?” Ariel produced a weathered bone. “Sycorax’s finger. Don’t ask. It wasn’t a pleasant business.”
“By the infernal flames…” the Daemon’s voice grew lighter. “You’d have made a fine daemon.”
Ariel smirked mischievously as he dragged the rotting finger across the magic circle, and at the place where he dragged it, the smoke began to leak out.
Ariel moved away quickly. “Oh, and, Daemon, mind the oaks, will you? I should be most cross if anything were to happen to them.”
Ariel rapidly shrank, and his bat, which had begun to doze from the roof of the cave, set off at an unnatural speed. The smoke, once outside of the circle, appeared to contract into a small sphere, and vanish.
Shortly thereafter, a terrible thunder was heard. The island quaked. Trees were uprooted (but not the oaks). And the mighty Setebos, cloven-hoofed, bat-winged, and with a scarred, beastly countenance, roared. The first wave of sea hags were reduced to cinders in a single wave of his flaming sword. After that, the remainder leapt into the sea. Alytes called the spirits of the island to her.
“Alytes, you trifle with me. These spirits I summoned to serve my ends.”
“You lying dog!” Alytes replied. “My mistress, Sycorax, summoned these spirits!”
“By my power,” he retorted.
“You arrogant devil! Mine was the power she wielded. I was her familiar.”
The spirits, had they the capacity at the moment, would beg to differ on both counts. But they were not in the position to do so, and thus remained silent.
“And I bested that oafish daemon, your mightiest as you called him, that you left behind to spy on us,” Alytes added.
“I left him to guard the Prince of this island,” said Setebos. “The son of your mistress. And where is the Prince? You neglected your duty to her there.”
“The Son of Setebos. Half-man, half-spirit, yet less than either. Hardly a demigod. I would not serve one so… vile. So I made arrangements to have him transported. Don’t worry. He’s quite safe among the mortals. He’s probably making quite a fortune for his owner as a grotesque entertainment by now.”
Setebos roared again. It had been beneath him even to address this lowly familiar.
Alytes assembled her spirits into fighting ranks, armed with magic spears. Standing behind them, in a blaze of false glory, she commanded them to go forth and demolish the invader.
Setebos was offended.
“Return, you island spirits, to your elements. Dissolve into air, ye sylphs. Melt into water, ye nymphs. Calcify, ye gnomes. Graft, ye trees. Return from whence ye came, all ye spirits else.” And each and every spirit of the isle vanished in a cloud of dust and vapor. They resumed their primordial states, forgetting who they were, what had passed, or that they were spirits. Even Rockbottom, who had been minding his own business in his own little cave, found himself suddenly drowsy, and then fell headlong into a particularly gnomish-looking stalagmite.
Only Alytes remained, arrayed in martial attire, since she was not from the isle.
Shaking in her spiritual armor, she tried to flee, but a dark cloud rose up around her. It smelled of brimstone. The Daemon. It enveloped her. She could not move. Setebos reached down, grabbed Alytes out of the smoke, and swallowed her whole. He crossed his arms and closed his eyes, sinking back into the ground. The Daemon had already disappeared.
The island was silent. Even the small stream that once ran swiftly with fresh water, now seemed still and quiet.
Days came and went. A crescent moon crept over the horizon, faded against the already pale sky.
A bat, flying erratically in the earliest daylight, finally settled on the branches of an oak, still standing tall amidst the topsy-turvy of broken trunks and split rocks. The creature at last contented itself by eating a caterpillar that was making its way along a branch. Below them, the oak bore a protrusion, uncannily like the shape of a woman, curled up as if expecting a hateful blow.
The arc of the moon rose higher, smiling down through passing clouds. Or maybe it was frowning. Or hanging opposite of the sun as it was, one might think the sky was winking. The mood of the heavens depended on the direction you were facing.
By now, the sun shone on the opposite side of the tree. At its current angle, its light reflected strongly off of a glistening curve, perhaps damp from the humid air. The reflection shone brighter and brighter, growing hot, drying up the bark, releasing steam at first, then smoke, then, spontaneously, sparks flew from the trunk.
The knot was on fire. The bat flapped its wings, but continued to clutch the branch.
With a sound like a kernel popping, the knot split in two, a flow of water quenched the fire, and evaporated in a mist. The outline of two lovers formed in a little cloud as it drifted away from the tree.
Finally, the bat was allowed to find a cave and sleep.
The pirate ship had been caught in a mighty storm, some thought a hurricane. Under its English captain, the crew had hoped to sell some of their plunder at a port along his native coast. Now, with the compass confused and the chronometer smashed and the ship turned round-about who knows how many times and the skies black with clouds, there was no telling what sea they might even be in. No one even seemed to be able to tell how long the storm had raged. It was a strange sort of weather. Some of the crew had begun to conjecture that there might be a witchdoctor among their captives. They had taken a band of savages from the West Indies as an investment in case their other commodities had dwindled in value.
A horrible, bone-rattling thud knocked everyone down. The ship had crashed on a shore, bursting a wide hole in its hull. The captives had been chained to wooden beams, but those beams were now cracked. As the pirates panicked, the captives took their opportunity, thanking the spirits that must have looked over them.
They could make out trees in the distance. Cover. They scrambled. One of the captives paused slightly before entering the woods. Beneath the sand, a line of stones seemed to stretch in an arc across the beach. Some old circle, laid down long ago. Voices in the ugly foreign tongue were yelling, possibly after them. The pirates would not let their prize go so easily; this voyage was turning more expensive for them by the minute. The captives quickened their pace, their chains clattering. Deep within the forest, they stopped by a stream. Fresh water. They drank.
Among the captives was a young maid, an infant on her back. As she stooped down to take water, she paused. The reflection in the water did not look familiar. The skin was paler, as was the hair. She turned to call one of the men, but as she did, her infant looked down in the stream.
The infant laughed. Whether it was out of ignorance of the peril, or a heroic bravado, or something it saw in the trickling stream, the infant laughed.
The infant laughed, and the laugh echoed, shattered among the trunks of trees and hollows of caves. And ever so slightly, the vibrations of sound stirred a thousand sleepers out of a long slumber. They crept out of flowers, dragged themselves from beneath rocks, leapt themselves out of the sparkle on a stream. They had forgotten much in their sleep, but they knew the world seemed much larger, or perhaps they were much smaller… much, much, much smaller than before.
The stone circle, which in fact stretched the entirety of the island, seemed to faintly glow beneath the feet of sailors as they hurried over its threshold. And the newborn fairies watched as the lost members of the Piguinyeri tribe slipped silently into the bushes, a pack of pirates on their trail.
When the Forever Boy eventually arrived with his ragamuffin orphans, they renamed the Piguinyeri a new, less hospitable name; but they also made war on the pirates, so an uneasy alliance grew between them.
Ray Bossert is currently a visiting professor of English at Loyola University Maryland. His research has appeared in Mythlore and Early Theatre, and he has written several chapters for Open Court’s Pop Culture and Philosophy series. He is also a bedtime bard to a three-and-a-half-year old.