Caster Unbeholden by Nicole DragonBeck

For Desiree Matlock. This probably went in a different direction than you were expecting, but I hope you like it.

 

She had been absolutely positive she was here alone, but apparently not.

Fortunately for the Caster, there were only a limited number of men or creatures that could invade her private study without her noticing right away. A hint of mint and sunshine quieted her paranoid instincts, and she set the silver knife back on the desk.

“Herlicle?” she called.

A small hissing sound and a small man with silver wings appeared, floating over her head.

“Took you long enough,” he said. “I’ve been watching you for almost ten minutes. What do you hope to find in that horribly boring tome that you didn’t find the first seven times you read it?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Almai snapped. “What do you want?”

“There have been a few magical bumps and bruises, or as the Healers say, concussions and contusions,” Herlicle reported.

“Damn,” Almai said. “How many?”

“Three. An explosion of a magical nature, some poor fellow in a free fall with a Dragon on his tail, and an idiot playing god with a crew of morons, I mean pirates.”

Almai gripped the edge of the desk. “All that? What have you been doing?”

“I was out for a morning stroll,” the elf said snidely. “Are we going?”

“Let me get my things,” she sighed.

Her things consisted of a black cloak and her Caster’s staff. A claw of rough silver gripped a gold orb which held frozen lightning. Few things more powerful existed in this world. Even the elf gave it a healthy respect.

“Where to first?” Herlicle wanted to know.

“How bad is the explosion?”

“No deaths yet,” the elf shrugged.

Almai gave it half a second’s thought. “Dragon first, then the sorcerer, then the explosion.”

“As you will.”

Herlicle offered her a tiny hand, his wings beating hummingbird fast. Almai gripped her staff and held out one finger. As soon as the elf took hold of her digit, they were floating a mile over the University of Great Mage Roterlamb, the Magnificently Benign. A young man clutched an unconscious giant eagle for dear life just next to them. Somewhere behind them unseen but most definitely felt and heard, a dragon belched hot anger at the world.

Using her staff, Almai opened a passage in front of the dragon and sent it tumbling through to the icy cliffs of the Fangdom Mountains, a thousand leagues from the University. Once the dragon was gone, only the whistling wind and the flapping of her cloak broke the serene stillness of their freefall.

“The eagle is hurt,” Almai said, noting the peculiar bend to one wing. “Fix it, will you?”

Herlicle saluted and vanished, reappearing on the broken wing. A bright flash of light enveloped the appendage, and it was whole. The eagle didn’t awaken.

“Lost too much blood,” a voice said in her ear, scaring her for a second.

“I’ve told you not to do that,” she swatted the impertinent elf. “Help me.”

Using her staff, she wove a gentle web of magic light around the great bird. Herlicle grabbed Almai’s cloak with both hands and slowed her descent, thereby slowing the bird’s fall. The bird touched down featherlight and the strands of Almai’s web dissolved into silver sparkles.

“You can open your eyes now,” Herlicle told the poor lad still gripping the eagle for dear life.

The youth did so, one eye at a time. When he saw that he was safely on the ground, he began to frantically unbuckle himself. He fell from the harness and stumbled to his feet. Some color returned to his cheeks, but he still shook from head to toe.

“Thank you so much,” he began to say to Herlicle, then his eyes fell on Almai.

“Who are you?” the youth asked. “What are you doing here?”

“My name is Almai,” she said. “And I am a Caster.”

The youth’s jaw fell, and he said nothing articulate for some moments. “But…Casters haven’t been seen since…since…since forever!”

“There are few of us left, it is true,” Almai acknowledged. “Fewer still with the will or heart to act as we were bid. But a Caster I am, and you, my friend, have been messing things up!”

“What did I do?” he said.

“Now, Desmond, show the lady some respect,” Herlicle said. “She isn’t one of your pompous professors, you know.”

“Explain this,” Almai demanded. “Harnessing this majestic creature like some mundane beast of burden?”

“It was part of the class…” Desmond stammered, losing any color he had regained under her glare.

“I trust that you will set that straight after you have fetched a Healer to see to the eagle’s wounds?” Almai said. “Or I will be back and you will wish that dragon had eaten you.”

“Yes, but…”

“I do not have time for buts,” Almai said. “See that it is done, mend your ways, and pray that we do not meet again.”

She lifted a hand above her head. The icy pinprick of Herlicle’s touch whisked her away to a ship adrift in a flat, grey sea. Both the sea and the ship appeared deserted.

“Where is the sorcerer?” Almai said.

“How am I supposed to know?” Herlicle grumbled. “I just saw the magic was tangled worse than your hair in the morning and went to fetch you.”

Almai sighed. Although it was an ego trip every time she fixed the magic, sometimes it was a pain being the only one able to do something.

“Alright, let’s see what’s happening.”

She began to search the ship. It was as empty as it first appeared, until she heard voices. They led her to what must be the captain’s ready room. She stumbled over a thick rope laying in her path and fell into the wall. Cursing softly, she shoved herself upright and walked to the door. As she passed the window beside the door, the voices inside fell still.

Without knocking, she let herself into the small, dark room. A heavy book came flying at her face. She swatted it away with her staff, and then swung it smoothly in the opposite direction to clothesline the man coming at her with an oar. With a wave of her hand, bright light flared in all four corners of the cabin.

Two men sprawled at her feet, blinking up at her.

“What did you do to the crew?” one said. “Are you going to do the same thing to us?”

“Kcin!” the other hissed. “Shut up.”

“What happened here?” Almai asked, ignoring them both. “Speak, quickly.”

They both started talking at once. Tapping the closest on the head with her staff promptly silenced him. The other gulped and fell silent as well.

“Speak,” Almai commanded.

“My name is Kcin, please my lady,” the man spluttered. “He’s Pristin. We’re just galley help. In god’s name, please don’t spell us!”

“I’m not going to…spell…you,” Almai said. “I have to know what happened here.”

“Everyone disappeared,” Kcin said at once, looking pleased with himself for knowing something.

“Not too bright, is he?” a tinny voice commented.

“A blinking fairy!” Kcis made a trembling gesture to ward off evil as he scooted back until he hit the navigation table.

“Elf. I’m an elf,” Herlicle said in a biting tone. “I followed the knotted trail of magic. It leads into the water.”

“The merpeople,” Almai said.

Herlicle nodded. Almai turned to Kcin. “Were you hunting them?”

Kcin gaped at her, and she realized he truly was as witless as he looked.

“We’re just galley help,” he said again, as if that explained something.

“Fetch the merKing,” Almai said to Herlicle. “I’ll straighten up this mess.”

Herlicle was gone before the last words were out of her mouth. Untangling the magic took all of her concentration. The two men did not bother her, even after she restored Pristin’s ability to speak. Iridescent strands shone in the sunlight like spider’s silk. Using the staff to pull apart each string and put it back in place was nerve-wracking in its delicacy yet somehow soothing at the same time. Almai had just set the last line into place, muscles shaking with the effort, when Herlicle materialized in front of her face.

“After some thought, the merKing has decided to grant your request for an audience,” he said, grinning wickedly.

Almai rolled her eyes at the elf, leaning on her staff for support as tiredness threatened to pull her down. “Wonderful.”

She leaned over the side of the ship. The merKing and his court stuck their heads out of the water. The mermaids all wore stunning shells and strings of pearls. The merKing carried his legendary trident, blood brother to the Caster’s staff.

“Translate, please, Herlicle.”

The elf did, as the Caster offered an apology for the disrespect the merKing was offered by these pirates, but he could not just disrupt the magic like that. The merKing listened, his eyes fathomless as the sea itself, then responded with the proper courtesy due a Caster. He apologized for his rash action and promised to be less so in the future. Almai asked that the pirates be returned to be dealt with properly. The merKing acquiesced with a nod, several of his strongest mermen throwing the pirates onto the ship like large boned fish.

One by one the merpeople disappeared into the depths of the water. The last to go was the merKing. He fixed a piercing gaze on Almai. Even with the Caster’s core of stone, Almai was disconcerted. He spoke in Almai’s tongue, his accent flavoring the words with riptides, tsunamis, and the haunting call of seabirds.

“Though the Casters have forgotten themselves, the world yet remembers. In the dark places where the righteous fear to swim, dark things are stirring. If the Casters fail to unbury their memories and regain themselves, the darkness will take hold and cast the world into eternal night.”

The sea swallowed him.

“Well, that was cheerful,” Herlicle said. “What was that all about?” His bright eyes widened. “Oh! So that’s what you’re searching for when you hole up in your secret room!”

“Let’s go,” Almai said.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” the elf pointed to the pirates.

“Right,” Almai said, pulling her remaining strength into a tight ball in her stomach and putting on her sternest Caster face.

She stepped over three of the prone pirates and strode to the two cowering in the doorway of the captain’s cabin. “You two are in charge now. I trust you to make brighter decisions than that lot did.”

“But we can’t sail,” Pristin protested.

“Learn quickly,” Almai said. “These pirates are to be turned over to the city guard of Methterril. There they will be dealt with, and you will be duly compensated.” Almai shrugged. “Or you’ll drown and go down to join the Lord of the Waters.”

Pristin and Kcin gulped and clutched each other.

“I’m holding you personally responsible for the upstanding conduct of this ship and whoever crews her,” Almai waved a finger at them. “Understand?”

They nodded. The last Almai saw of the pair was them scrambling for the shelves of the captain’s cabin, arguing about who was more qualified to steer.

“I don’t know if that was wise,” Herlicle said when he and Almai had appeared at the site of a recent battle. “How can you know they’ll do right?”

“The merKing used magic,” Almai said with a shrug. “Those two were left untouched by his spell. The magic is never wrong.”

Herlicle didn’t look convinced, but he said nothing more on the subject.

“What have we here?” Almai asked, wrinkling her nose at the stench that washed over her as she took a step closer.

A blackened crater several lengths in diameter still smoked. Bits of metal, deformed glass, and charred wood were scattered about. The magic here was not only tangled in places, but snapped through or burnt to a crisp in others.

At the edge of the carnage stood a young man with curly blond hair. The sleeves of his shirt were singed off and soot covered most of his suede pants, but the rest of him was alright; the only damage was a slightly shell-shocked expression. It faded slightly as Almai walked up and addressed him.

“What’s your name?”

“Jert,” he managed to get out. “Where did you come from?”

“That’s a long story,” Almai said. “Hopefully yours is not as long. I have my work cut out for me here.”

Jert looked at the wreckage. “This wasn’t me. Some guy selling a potions mixing contraption. It exploded. This is what is left.”

“And where is this salesman?” Almai asked. “He will have to be dealt with.”

“Somewhere there,” Jert pointed to the epicenter of the explosion.

“Oh,” Almai said. “That simplifies things.”

She hefted her staff, which had inexplicably grown heavier. Picking her way through the debris, she began to fix the magic as best as she could. Her heart sank as she realized that it was too broken in places for her to do anything about it. A more skilled Caster might be able to, but those had been killed or subverted by the Circle. After a long moment attempting to rejuvenate a shriveled and splintered strand of magic to no avail, a wave of weariness overcame her and she sank to her knees. Her cloak was indistinguishable from the ground. She let despair envelop her like an old friend. A minty pinprick on her shoulder made her lift her chin.

Almai hated when her companion got all cryptic, but it was an inborn trait of most of the fae creatures.

She surveyed the disaster and her shoulders sagged. “How can these people manage to misuse something so simple and intuitive?”

“Probably because these people aren’t Casters, and they see magic as something arcane and intricate,” Herlicle said.

You’re a Caster?” Jert practically yelled and stumbled back several steps. He tripped over a piece of splintered wood and landed hard on his rear end. Looking up at her, he waved a hand beseechingly. “Please don’t kill me.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” Almai said.

“So, the Circle didn’t sent you?” Jert said.

“No, the…how do you know about the Circle?” she asked, rounding on him.

“The Circle order the Casters,” Jert said.

“This Caster is beholden to no one,” Almai said, and turned her gaze back to the mess of magic in front of her.

“She must be really tired,” Herlicle said in a stage-whisper. “She usually catches when people sidestep her questions.”

Almai sighed. She was tired. She back at Jert who was carefully getting to his knees. “The Circle?” she asked, her voice hard.

“They came to me,” Jert said.

“And?”

“And I refused,” Jert said.

Almai’s eyes narrowed. “One doesn’t refuse the Circle.”

“You did,” Jert said with a sly smile. The smile faded quickly. “I pretended less skill than I had.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Jert said. “Something told me it would be a good thing if I didn’t leave.”

“What do you see here?” Almai waved at the offending blemish in the earth.

“Magic,” Jert said. “But it’s faint, almost gone.”

“You see threads? Woven lines?”

“No. Shapes of light,” Jert said.

Impossible. “What do you know of magic?”

“Not much. Information like that is jealously guarded.”

“First lesson: magic runs in straight lines. When it becomes crooked or tangled, bad things happen.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“No more than any other power or energy. Given the proper understanding, proper handling, and proper respect, it behaves in an orderly way. Can you fix it?”

Jert shook his head. Almai hesitated, then offered him her staff. He accepted, though held it out as though it might bite him.

“I don’t know how to use it,” he said.

“It knows how to use you,” Almai whispered, watching the the staff pull magic out of the man to repair itself, lines twisting back into place, blackened ends reforming into hale threads. Jert was only half aware of what he was doing, but his eyes widened and he held one hand up to shield them like he was staring into the sun.

“I guess you can stop pouring through that hellcursed tome of yours,” Herlicle commented.

Almai could only nod.

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