Chapter Nine: The College
Bandric found a haggard and distraught Jalissa, huddled next to the horses in the stables the next morning.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he said. “What are you doing out here?”
Jalissa looked up at him with eyes dark and swollen.
“It has me,” she whispered. “It has me. I’m the monster.”
Bandric looked around and then knelt next to her, placing his hand on her arm. She recoiled, scrabbling back.
“Don’t! I’ll kill you, too! I’ll kill them all!”
Bandric looked hurt but didn’t move. He did something with his hands and a watery, wavering image hovered in the air.
“That… thing is the monster. Not you,” he said.
The image in the air was of them, on the cart, on the day they’d set out from Elenthia.
“I have a preservation spell,” he explained. “It’s a simple thing, as most of mine are. I’m not good for much else. I thought it important to preserve this moment because it was one of the few things I never wanted to forget. This, Jalissa, is you.”
In the image, she was laughing at something, one of his silly tricks most likely. The image was impossible to reconcile, inside herself, with the broken and beaten thing that she’d become.
“I killed her,” Jalissa hissed. “I killed a girl last night, Bandric. She was young. I took everything she was and everything she had the chance to be. I… I tried to kill myself for it.”
His face became a pallor as white as his hair. Jalissa met his eyes.
“It wouldn’t let me die. I can’t die!” she hissed.
“Then we need to free you of it,” he said.
She laughed and choked on a sob.
“Free? There is no freedom. There’s only death, only the monster, and I’m it.”
“Get on the horse, Jalissa. We need to go. Quickly,” he commanded. “If there’s any chance, don’t you owe it to them all to try?”
Despite her weariness and her hopelessness, the words rang true. If she sat here, the demon would simply exert its will, kill again, grow stronger, and then torture her with guilt until she gave in. With Bandric, there was still a chance that she might stop it. No matter how slim those odds were, she had to try. She took his outstretched hand, pulled herself up, and mounted the horse.
Today, there were no tricks or banter. There were no stories told and few words spoken as the two of them rode harder and faster than they ever had. They stopped to rest for an hour, only when Jalissa fell asleep in her saddle. Ignoring the soreness and their aches, they rode on after the rest and reached the city of Brille at dusk.
Unlious’s capital city was a massive sprawl cradled in a low valley and nestled on the banks of a great river that spanned the length of the continent. At the heart of the city stood the College of High Sorcery, itself a gigantic campus of squat buildings. At the center of those stood a crystal tower, the seat of the mage’s council, and the center of modern magic.
Jalissa hardly spared a glance at the structure as Bandric gained them entry to the campus. Her sense of adventure seemed to have been stripped away from her as everything else she was had been. Bandric felt sadness at the sight of her pale face and dark eyes. All of the life and curiosity that he’d come to care for these past days seemed to have been devoured by the evil that plagued her soul.
The tower held wonders that few ungifted people would ever lay eyes on and, before today, Jalissa would have been ecstatic at this opportunity. However, as Bandric led her into the place, she was only capable of giving it the most cursory glance. What did all these wonders matter, when soon she’d cease to be? Bandric led them onto a gleaming platform of blue crystal. At a word, the platform ascended, carrying them up the spire and depositing them on an upper floor.
The halls were the same crystal, glittering in the light of ethereal torches mounted in sconces on the walls. The flames within were magical, casting a pale luminescence throughout the corridors as they walked. They passed by other mages, each of them robed in different colors. The mages gave Bandric curt nods and looked at Jalissa with suspicion. Finally, they came to a heavy, iron-bound door and Bandric laid his hand on the wood. It glowed, briefly, and a moment later it opened of its own accord.
A rotund man with a ring of gray hair stood behind a table, which was covered in stacks of books and neatly-tied scrolls. He wore black robes, the symbol of dark magic, but his eyes were not unkind as he looked up from whatever he’d been reading.
“Bandric,” he said, his voice deep and powerful, belying his appearance.
“Amos,” Bandric greeted him back.
They clasped wrists and then the man turned to Jalissa.
“Jalissa,” Bandric answered for her.
Jalissa gave him a nod, but her thoughts were muddled and tired. Inside, the demon was awake and stirring. She could sense its curiosity now, like it was sniffing the air, studying the various powers in this place. It did not, however, seem threatened. Was that just its confidence, its certainty that these mages had no real way to extract it from her?
“Amos,” Bandric said, “do you have wards in place? Silence? Concealment?”
“Of course,” Amos answered, his eyes narrowing. “Why?”
“Seal the door. We’ll not want to be disturbed.”
Amos shrugged and worked his magic. The door banged shut and then glowed, brightly.
“You’re still doing research on the demons?” Bandric asked.
Amos sighed and said, “Yes, among other things.”
“Jalissa,” Bandric said. “Show him.”
He took a step back from the table as she strode forward, reaching into her pocket. The demon watched, and coiled, but it didn’t move. It made her anxious. Why wasn’t it trying to stop her? She pulled the demon chain from her pocket, unwrapped it, and the monster gave her free reign to set it on the table. Amos’ jaw dropped in horror and fascination. He, too, took a step back. The onyx and red gems pulsed with life.
“Gods save us,” he whispered. “It’s… you’re sure?”
“I am,” Bandric said.
“And you’ve touched it?” he asked Jalissa.
“How long ago?”
“Four days,” she said.
The mage didn’t touch the chain, but he did extend a hand toward it and whisper a word. The chain glowed, then flashed. The demon hissed in her mind.
“It’s well-bonded to you, certainly. And the compulsion,” he shook his head. “I’ve never seen one this strong. Never heard of one outside the stories. Young lady, if it hasn’t taken you fully by now, you’ve got some spirit in you.”
Jalissa tugged down her blouse and showed him the coin, bonded to her chest.
“Eldris Witchfire gave me this,” she said. “It’s warded, but it’s not… not enough.”
Amos’ brows went up at the mention of the warder and he gave a nod of respect.
“That was a fortunate thing,” he said. “I’d dare say that if it weren’t for that ward, we’d all be well on our way to being its slaves. Is it Succubi?”
“I suppose you’re going to ask me if I know of some way to free you from it?” he asked, and he already sounded sad.
“Is there nothing you can do?” Bandric asked with pain and desperation in his tone.
“I’d need time to study it,” Amos said. “Time I don’t imagine we have, by the look of you. I’d guess holding her back is taking everything you have?”
Jalissa nodded and began to cry. Bandric rounded the table and held her.
“Tell me you know of something,” he pleaded.
Amos thought as he stared at the chain.
“It’s not a solution,” he answered. “As I said, I need time. If we bind her, suspend her, I might be able to think of something.”
“Bind me?” Jalissa asked.
“It’s like a sort of magical prison,” Bandric explained. “Sometimes, we use it for the sick or those that might be afflicted by a fast-acting poison. For you, all time will essentially stop. It gives time for healers to concoct antidotes or remedies. It doesn’t hurt, I can assure you.”
“Do it!” Jalissa ordered. “Whatever you have to do, just don’t let it out.”
The demon laughed at her.
“Young lady,” Amos said, “I have no idea how long it will take to study it and devise a solution. I can’t even promise you that I’ll think of one. You likely know the consequences of unleashing something like that on the world better than we do.”
Jalissa nodded, wiping at her eyes.
He continued, “If there is no solution, I’m afraid that I can’t risk it getting out. I’ll destroy it, and you, if I have to. You understand, yes?”
Jalissa nodded again. Amos’ eyes flicked to Bandric, whose face was a study in sorrow. In a flash, the demon pounced, engulfing her mind as quickly as the viper that had bitten her horse. Jalissa couldn’t even register her surprise.
“If you have words to say,” Amos said to them, “I’d suggest you say them now. You might not have another opportunity.”
Bandric looked into her eyes and Jalissa wailed as the demon looked back. The days spent in her mind, going through her thoughts, had given it everything it needed to impersonate her perfectly. Bandric didn’t show the slightest hesitation as he reached up and put his hand on her cheek.
“If there is any way on this earth to put an end to this, to free you,” he said, “I won’t rest until I find it.”
“I know,” Jalissa’s mouth said and her eyes were filled with tears. “You’ve been so good to me.”
Jalissa struck at the thing, screeching, screaming, willing her lips to betray what was happening. It was useless. The ward flared but it was little more than a gnat biting an ox now. The demon put her hand on Bandric’s chest and her lips on his. The kiss was as tender as one that she’d wished to put on him herself.
His eyes were wet when she pulled away, but his look of pain slowly changed to one of confusion as her lips turned up. The realization came to him too slowly. Succubi’s magic pulsed through her palm, where it lay on his chest, and Bandric went flying backward with a startled cry. She reached out her hand and the demon chain flew from the table, into her fist, and she draped the thing around her neck. The ward on the coin shattered like brittle glass.
Amos cursed and drew a black ward in the air just in time to deflect the red tentacle that shot from Jalissa’s palm. He followed it with a flaring blue rune which caused a wall of cerulean light to encircle Jalissa. Bandric stumbled to his feet, drew another, and the blue glow around her intensified. Amos made a gesture and the air suddenly shrieked with a shrill chirping alarm.
“Again!” he yelled at Bandric, cast another rune, and the prison around Jalissa strengthened.
Bandric followed with his own. The demon’s smile never wavered. It placed Jalissa’s palms on the wall of light and the blue glow flared so brightly that the two mages had to shield their eyes.
“What is it doing?” Bandric cried.
“I don’t know!” Amos yelled.
The door of the room burst inward with a crash and two more mages rushed inside.
“Strengthen the barrier!” Amos shouted to them. “Do it now, fools!”
The two shocked mages cast their spell and the wall of blue light became tinged with red. Behind them, two more robed men piled into the room, drawn by an alarm that hadn’t been tripped in centuries. They added their magic to Jalissa’s prison. The demon pushed at the glowing wall with Jalissa’s hands, its expression one of glee and determination. The light flickered under her touch. The blue glow began to surge up Jalissa’s arms as if it were flowing in her veins.
“Gods!” Amos exclaimed, “It’s… feeding off of it! Stop!”
The mages lowered their hands, watching in horror as the demon gorged on the power they’d given it.
“Bandric,” Amos said. “She can’t be allowed to live.”
The demon turned toward Bandric and its expression softened. It lowered its hands and became Jalissa.
“Please,” it begged him. “You told me you wouldn’t let it take me!”
Bandric nearly crumpled under the weight of his failure as the sadness and the betrayal in Jalissa’s eyes bored into his soul.
“It isn’t her!” Amos shouted. “Don’t let the fucking thing fool you.”
Jalissa faded and the demon’s terrible smile appeared again.
“Live with your failure as they die,” it said.
It put Jalissa’s hands on the prison once more and pushed. The wall of light blasted apart in a billion sparks of rainbow light that blinded everyone in the room. Bandric heard the horrible screams of dying men before his sight returned, and when it did, he wished that it hadn’t. The demon’s glowing tentacles coiled around the other mages. Only he was left uninjured. In the time it took his mind to process the scene, Amos and all of the others withered and blew apart. The tentacles retreated and the demon stalked from the room without so much as a glance at him. More screams from the hallway ended abruptly as Bandric dashed out, following behind.
Jalissa could do nothing but throw herself against the demon. The effort was like a fly attacking a brick wall. It killed indiscriminately, lashing out and bleeding dry every mage that crossed its path. Their lives flowed into her so fast and with such potency that the cascade of emotion, of terror, would have been paralyzing, except that the demon did not drink it all in at once. The power flowed in and the thing held it, like a reservoir that it drew on in a continuous stream. She heard Bandric yell out her name but the demon ignored him.
It climbed on the railing and looked down at the ground floor, several stories below, and then it leaped. Jalissa felt the sensation, again, of floating. The monster fell like a feather on the breeze, its horrible, black magic surrounding it. Bandric followed, throwing himself over the edge, casting his own spell, and drifting down behind. The demon landed lightly on the floor as more mages poured out of rooms and hallways, drawn by the alarm and the cries of death. They flung their magic at the thing, pelting it with fire, and erecting barriers.
The lives of their comrades fueled the thing’s evil and no matter the obstacles they put in its path, it blasted them apart like twigs in a hurricane. And they died. Conjured entities of earth, water, and fire sprang up to meet it. Lances of ice rocketed from hands with blinding speed and unearthly force. All of these attacks failed as the monster walked, almost casually, through the halls of the tower, killing, consuming, and devouring.
Bandric realized, with growing terror, where the thing was going. It must have sensed the font of power at the heart of the tower, that wellspring of incredible, magical energy that the mages used to craft the strongest of spells. If it were to mingle its own magic with that, there would truly be no hope. It would be more unstoppable than it already was. He followed in its wake, brushing past piles of gray dust that had once been his colleagues, his friends, and his mentors. The vast majority of them had been far stronger, more adept at the craft than he. And yet, they had died. What hope did he have against it?
His failure ate at him, burned inside of him, and sat like an ache at his core. He’d been a fool to promise her such a thing as his help, to feed Jalissa that lie and give her hope. There was nothing left for him, except to give everything he had left to fulfill that promise. Or to die for it.
Chapter Ten: Jalissa's Rose
Far below the crystal spire, the font blazed with uncapped magical energy. After its discovery, nearly four centuries ago, the mages built their tower, and then their school atop it. There was debate as to whether it was the actual source of magic in the world, or merely something that enhanced that which already existed in nature. Whatever the truth was, to Bandric the only thing that mattered was that he stop the demon from reaching it, and that he force the thing to give up Jalissa. Neither of those things seemed possible.
He was tempted, again and again, to hurl his spells at its back. He’d seen the results of that all through the winding corridors of the tower, though, and knew that it was a waste of power. Instead, he trailed behind the demon inhabiting Jalissa, and scrambled for something, anything, that could stop it.
The demon took the winding spiral stairs into the bowels of the tower until it reached the bottom. Bandric followed. It paused at the set of great, stone doors that only a mage could open. Bandric prayed to all the gods that those doors would hold. The demon placed Jalissa’s hands on the stone and the doors blew apart like sand against the surf. It stepped inside. Bandric followed.
The gigantic chamber glowed with rainbow light from the blazing font, which blasted magical energy from the depths of the earth. This close to it, Bandric could feel his own power heightened to levels that he’d never experienced. Gods, he felt like he could shake the world itself apart with a snap of his fingers! He drew on it and threw up a prison around the demon. The wall of blue light glowed more intensely than that which the monster had shattered, and that thing had been the work of a half dozen mages.
For the first time since that moment, the demon turned back to face him. Jalissa’s face, that beautiful visage that had once held so much wonder and mirth, now showed only rage and hate. That look, the things that Succubi had stolen from her, cut deeper than all the death he’d witnessed today. He felt his rage equal to that of the monster before him as he looked upon that face.
Jalissa’s laughter at his ridiculous tricks echoed in his thoughts. Her playful, teasing smile as she flirted with him and made him blush like a boy, haunted him. The remembered warmth of her body next to him and the soft, sensual touch of her lips against his, drove him mad at the thought of losing her.
The demon laid her hands on his pathetic attempt to imprison it and blasted his magic apart like a dry leaf. The other mages in the room drew on the font for their own power, but the demon lashed out at them and coiled its tentacles about them.
“Stop!” Bandric shrieked. “Jalissa! Stop!”
The demon fixed him in her sight again, as it held its victims in its dreadful embrace.
“She is mine,” it said. “She will remember, for an eternity, how you failed her today. I can feel her loathing of you, her… disappointment.”
The thing’s face shifted, and it became Jalissa, taunting him with his weakness.
“You let it take me,” she cried. “It hurts, Bandric. It hurts so much! Why?”
Bandric couldn’t turn away from her, though he knew that it was only the demon’s tricks, its pleasure at seeing him suffer. Still, he couldn’t turn away from her. He needed the thing to kill him, to put an end to a suffering that weighed on him more heavily than any he’d ever felt. A trick it might be, but he knew that the pain the demon was showing him, Jalissa’s pain, was all too real.
She was in there, right now, fighting against it, refusing to give in. He knew it. He drew on the font again, without a thought as to where he’d put that power. Nothing he threw against it would stop it, but he had to continue. He’d made that promise, and he’d be damned by all the gods if he didn’t see it through. The demon would take her, and it would take him, but he would not simply surrender the woman that he loved without dying in the process.
The demon’s face changed again and it fixed him with that mocking smile. The answer came to him with that single thought. It was right. It must be. If it were not, then at least he would be with her in some form after it happened. Bandric poured his accumulated magic into one, final spell, something that he knew he’d never be able to cast without the font. He simply wasn’t gifted enough.
In the blink of an eye, he teleported across the room and into the path of one of the tentacles. The heart-stopping feeling of his life draining away was indescribable. He’d emptied himself of magic before, and it had made him feel hollow. He knew, however, that magic would recharge. This action, there was no coming back from. It happened so quickly that it was impossible to process it. One moment he was himself and the next, he simply was not.
There was a flash of utter terror like nothing he’d ever experienced, and then that terror seemed to stretch out for an eternity. He could physically feel his very soul being ripped from his body and then shoved into a pipe that was far too small to contain it. It was like a river trying to force its way into a straw. And then it did fit and everything that he was, flowed through that pipe. His consciousness burst through the other end with something that felt like a pop, and there he saw Jalissa.
It was her, the real woman. It didn’t make sense. The essence of what had been him, only an instant before, actually saw her, even though he knew that it wasn’t possible. An essence didn’t have eyes, didn’t have form. He couldn’t see, and yet he did.
Jalissa stopped in her battle with the demon and they looked at one another. No. It wasn’t a look. They had no eyes. They felt one another, knew one another, more truly and more deeply than any human should be allowed. In that one flash, that single thought, everything she was had been laid bare before him, just as all that he had ever been was bare before her. It was more passionate than sex, more intimate than any conversation in the dark. In that span of a moment, suspended in infinity, the two of them truly met.
As the demon drank him in, made him part of her, and devoured him, he felt Jalissa and she felt him. She felt, truly, what it was to be loved, wanted, and desired by someone else that had no hesitation to throw his own life at the mercy of a monster for her. For her. It was the antithesis of everything the demon promised, something that stood in total opposition to its very existence.
For all its cunning and all its temptations, the thousands of years of seduction and destruction, Succubi had only lies. Its gifts were lies. Its promises were wind and dust. Its pleasures were as fleeting as a human life against the cosmos.
What Bandric had for her, though, that was true. And that truth was more powerful and more destructive against the lies than the magic of every mage in the tower combined. As every memory of him became part of her, indelibly etched on her very soul, Jalissa held onto him in the darkness and clutched at him. She followed him downward, into that deep well, where the demon’s power imprisoned her.
She exulted at the feeling of the thing’s fear, its confusion, and then its own horror. This. This was not a power of unequal measure. This was a longing fulfilled, a desire more than satisfied. And it was a magic that Succubi had no defense against.
The demon crumpled to Jalissa’s knees, clawing at her throat, gripping its chain as it choked and spat. It retched up black bile on the floor before the font, and growled in hateful fury with her lungs. Her eyes sunk in, and just as its victims, her skin paled, grayed, and then the demon chain burst into shards of shattered gems and twisted metal. Jalissa’s body flew apart into gray dust as the long-contained essence of the demon exploded forth. The release of the magic, combined with the power of the font, set the entire tower shaking. The shaking became a vibration so powerful that the stone chamber cracked, crumbled, and then gave way.
The crystal tower, a monument that had stood for hundreds of years, fell in on itself in a cascade of destruction that sucked the ground around it in for half a span. The demon’s magic, now released, but changed, altered by that one moment of sacrifice, surged outward, carried by the font. It flowed over the earth, devouring the site where the tower had once stood, consuming it just as the demon had all those lives.
Like the Black Fields, it bubbled up like tar, coating everything it touched. Then, the black ooze began to still, slowly at first. It cooled and hardened. Deprived of the demon that had held it together, it became a lifeless mass of dry, black emptiness, devoid of power. But so it did not remain. When the dust of the destruction settled and cleared, something new sprung from that field of death.
In the center of it all, was a single rose, unlike any that had ever existed. Its petals were vibrant and red, tinged with indigo. Had there been anyone to see it at that moment, they would have witnessed what came next. All around that single rose, blooming with the life of a love that had destroyed the very essence of hate itself, came a dozen more. That dozen bloomed into a hundred, and then a thousand, springing forth from that place of black death, to cover the entirety of it in a sea of red and indigo.
Buried, far beneath that field of beauty, somewhere deep in the rubble, was a fine gray dust. That dust had once been a thing with dreams and desires, a woman whose only true wish had been for a love that was real. Such a thing, in a world like this, one filled with demons and monsters, didn’t seem to exist. But against all hope, she’d found it. And that unexpected, impossible love had saved millions, who would never know it.
One day, they’d come from all around. They’d look upon this miracle that had bloomed in the wake of utter destruction, and that would never die. They’d pick the roses and carry them home, give them away, and carry that love out into the world. They’d never call them Jalissa’s roses, but they wouldn’t have to. Sacrifice didn’t ask for thanks, and it didn’t ask to be remembered. The field would be like those she’d scavenged, perhaps worthy of being named, but with no one left to name it.
The bards would sing no songs of Jalissa the pilferer, nor of the middling mage whose greatest strength was to give all he was for an impossible love. The histories would never tell of their deeds, and they would not regale the world with their story. But the everlasting field, all that remained of an unsung love, would forever bring the light of that love into a world that held too much darkness.
As the warmth of the late autumn breeze sighed across the newborn field, the winds plucked away two of those gorgeous petals. They danced across the sky, swirling, touching, carried lightly on the world’s breath, bound for places unknown.
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