AN: Not dead! ANs are boring. Excuses are boring. I won't bother you with them.
"Damn you, Rahji, slow down!" the old goatherd snarled as the younger man did a complicated dance step to avoid a crash at the corner of a street. The goat which lay at the end of the rope leash bleated in annoyance as one of Rahji's knees clipped it in the ear.
"Sorry, Master Ghavi… sorry, sorry!" he yelped, firing the last apology over his shoulder at the bearded man as he dashed away. He did not, of course, slow down - and if Ghavi knew he was late meeting Mistress Mallika, he'd probably encourage him to run faster!
Especially since she'd been in one of her moods lately. It was a cyclical thing, when she'd suddenly start quizzing him on material he'd thought they'd long left behind, making him cast spells he'd thought he'd mastered. She was always particular, but during these times it was a hundred times worse, and more than once she'd made him wonder whether he should just snap his wand and go raise goats alongside Ghavi. But these trials always heralded the next phase in his magical education. When it was all done, when he'd blinked away the tears of frustration and checked that he hadn't ground away his own teeth, she'd give him one of her nods: Good enough, where "good enough" was perhaps better than anyone else in the city could match. Then they'd dive into something new, some aspect of magic he'd never considered, and she'd expose him to wonders that reminded him again that it was all worth it.
At least, that's what he told himself. Sometimes he had to repeat it, like a chant.
People made way for him as he ran down the broad central street of the lower city. He'd grown tall over the previous few years, putting him nearly at a height with his father, and his long limbs ate up the distance easily. He passed a few godstouched men idling by the walls who knew him - and who he was apprenticed to - and grinned as they laughed and shouted encouragement as he passed by. He had to slow as he reached the outer gate, if only because of the amount of traffic passing in and out: ox-drawn carts full of wheat or firewood or fish, women with baskets of cloth or polished stones bound for the markets, and even a pair of men in full-length robes who barely seemed aware of the world around them as they vigorously argued over some point of commerce or spellcasting or philosophy. They flowed in and out of the main entrance to the city like a living tide, and it always impressed Rahji how they seemed to organize without ever speaking a word - the carts formed lines travelling in opposite directions in the center, while those on foot moved on the sides without collisions or impatient words.
Mallika waited just beyond the gate, her arms crossed but otherwise not showing any sign of irritation (thank the gods!) The warm winter day was just cloudy enough to filter some of the sun's rays, and she didn't feel the need for the hood on the scarlet robes she wore. It was easy to tell which visitors were new to the city as they eyed the pale, green-eyed witch, but she ignored the curious glances, untouched and untouchable.
The events of that mysterious summer night years before had never been explained or even spoken of, despite the strangely grim attitude both his father and Mallika had sported for days afterward. Rahji and Ayati had never worked up the nerve to ask, and the adults never volunteered anything.
Eventually, it was simply forgotten and time moved on, as it always did. Rahji had quietly served his sentence from his father and the city - the exact same sentence given to the other man caught brawling: namely, cleaning the sewage pits and pipes of the city. It was horrible, disgusting work… he vomited twice from the smell, much to the glee of his fellow "convict", a fisherman by the name of Gavaza. But it had to be done by someone, and remembering his promise Rahji kept his mouth shut and didn't complain. Gavaza caused him no trouble… in fact, he thought having to fulfill his labours alongside the son of the man who had judged him was the best thing ever, and maybe the First was a fair man after all. Rahji thought the other man was a bit dim and had terrible impulse control, but the two were good friends by the end of their sentence.
At the end of each day he'd scrub himself raw in the river, and then head over to Mallika's where she'd hit him with a cleansing and freshening charm so overpowered it felt like it stripped a layer of skin. Since he was forbidden his wand until his punishment was complete, Mallika ended up introducing him to arithmancy and runes. His lessons continued, Mallika and his father continued to work on their secret project, and the two young ones nurtured their secret romance. Rahji wasn't sure what had convinced Ayati to change their relationship, but he would forever be grateful.
Magic from Mallika, praise from his father, and illicit kisses from Ayati; life was perfect, and he never wanted it to change.
Now it was late winter, and he was late. Mallika raised an eyebrow as he skid to a halt in front of her, puffing. "S-sorry, Mistress. The streets are crowded and I didn't leave early enough." A weak excuse, but it was certainly better than saying, Ayati and I were kissing and we lost track of time. Although judging by the way her brow arched just that little bit higher he might as well have admitted it anyway.
"Fine," was all she said. "You have your potions kit?" He patted the linen bag that hung via a cord over his shoulder, containing his copper pot as well as his knife and pestle. She didn't need to ask about his wand, of course, which hung from a thin leather cord around his neck. "Good. Come now." And with that, she turned and began to walk away with Rahji obediently following behind.
They ended up walking away the remainder of the morning, well past the farmlands that surrounded the city. They encountered just a single man riding a cart pulled by an ox: a farmer from the outskirts, bringing in a late crop of wheat grain; he nodded respectfully towards Mallika and waved cheerfully at the First's son. Rahji grinned and waved back. The sun was high as they reached the forest, but the air turned cool as they passed into the shadow of the trees.
They continued a while longer, until they reached a clearing alongside a cliffside. Vines climbed along the rock, and the trees seemed to reach up to follow them, towards the grass that was just visible along the top. Rahji had once walked around the hillside so he could reach the top from the other direction, and he knew Karmanapura was only just visible in the distance from its height.
Mallika stopped in the middle of the sunny clearing and nodded. "This will do."
"What will we be doing?" he asked.
"Put down your bag over there," she replied with a jerk of her head. "I think I'd like to test your defence first."
He gulped and scrambled to pull the cord for his bag over his head even as he pulled his wand from around his neck, letting the leather cord wrap loosely around his wrist. He set his bag down behind a convenient rock, safely out of the way and protected, but kept his eyes on his mistress. She'd drilled it into his head: if someone says they want to fight you, believe them, and that meant keeping your guard up whether hostilities had begun or not. She'd stunned him more than once when he'd thought that just because she was giving him time to get ready it meant he could turn his back on her.
He didn't make such a mistake this time, and soon he was standing opposite her in the clearing, his wand up and ready. He hoped that was a glimmer of approval he saw in her eyes.
They stood there silently for only a moment before Rahji traced his wand through the air and sent a stunner flying her way. That was another way that Mallika differed from other masters: she had little time or interest for the "formalities" of dueling. Salutes, bowing, waiting for the other to move - that was dancing, she declared, and if he wanted to learn how to dance he could ask his father or Ayati. She was teaching him how to fight, and in a fight the person who attacked first had the advantage. Rahji was smart enough to know he needed every advantage he could get.
Mallika swatted the stunner aside with a small invisible shield over her hand, something Rahji - who hadn't yet grasped how to cast both wordlessly and wandlessly - wasn't able to emulate. Then a disarming charm was roaring toward him, and he had the chance to try his first new trick.
He dropped his wand, letting it hang from the cord around his wrist. The charm hit him.
Rahji could count the number of times Mallika had been surprised on one hand, and her expression let him add another to the tally. Expelliarmus was one of her favourite incantations, and she could cast it so powerfully that the violent separation of wizard and wand sent both flying. But Rahji hadn't been holding his wand! A quick twitch of the wrist and it was back in his hand, flinging spells, and for a brief moment the witch nobody in Karmanapura wanted to duel was on the back foot!
At least until her wand slashed a curving arc through the air, and it seemed like the entire clearing was filled with fire.
He cried out in fright, but somehow still managed to summon a gust of wind that split the raging fireball down the middle and direct it upward. She had never escalated so far with him before, but he couldn't even demand an explanation or demand she stop, because she was still casting spells that he was barely able to dodge or block. Nor were these jelly-leg jinxes or tongue-tiers… she was flinging cutters, bone-breakers, and even a spell that would have removed all his fingers! He was keeping ahead of them - just barely - but all the while he was thinking, What did I do to make her angry? She wasn't dueling him… she was fighting him!
The ground around him turned to quicksand, and she tried to force him to dodge into it with a powerful red bolt. He ducked under, returning spells that turned the ground to mud and animated the trees above her. Their branches groaned as they reached for her, and she spun to hit them with a hissed Finite.
Mallika had been the one to teach him the principles of layering spells, and not all the mud transfigurations had been aimed at the ground. Stripping the animating magic left behind the transfiguration she hadn't realized was there, only now it wasn't being held into a brown, branch-like shape - she squawked as it collapsed into a sticky cascade. Coated in mud, she still managed to deflect his desperate stunner, though seeing the furious outrage in her eyes Rahji couldn't really congratulate himself for his ploy.
Especially not after her side of the clearing erupted into a rainbow of colours, all of it bearing down on him. He'd never blocked, countered, or dodged so well in his life, but it was like trying to hold back the river; a blasting charm missed him by a hair, crashing against the ground. He needed room, he needed to get rid of the quicksand - a freezing charm would be faster than a dispel-
The quicksand exploded. The blasting charm hadn't been aimed at him. He was splattered with muck, reeling sideways, which meant he ended up sinking knee-deep into the goop beside him. There was a flash of red-
He blinked up at the cloudy sky, confused. When had he fallen?
Mallika's upside-down face dropped into his view as she loomed over him. Her skin and hair was caked with mud, and her expression was flat. She still held her wand from casting the innervate to wake him. He blinked stupidly up at her.
She spoke a single word: "Good." Then a gob of mud slipped from beside her ear to splatter in the middle of his face.
It probably wasn't accidental.
He staggered to his feet as Mallika stepped away. It took two tries to cast a scouring charm over himself, while his teacher cleaned herself up with barely a flick of her wand. Then she dispelled her quicksand as well as several other traps she'd laid around during the duel that he hadn't even noticed. The mud he'd transfigured was floated and flung into the forest - when the spell wore off it would revert back to a branch, one which had been literally smeared across plant leaves and the dusty ground.
Rahji had barely recovered his breath when Mallika spoke again. "Fetch your potions kit."
Sighing quietly, he brushed a leaf out of hair. It was the work of just a few minutes to put together a small fire and balance his copper pot over it as he set about her latest task: brewing a Babbling Beverage mixture. This, at least, he was able to do easily; he hadn't expected the need, but Mallika had brought the few ingredients that were either seasonal or needed time to prepare, and he was able to duck into the forest to get the rest. He was nearly stung twice finding the billywigs he needed, but soon enough he was stirring his potion (left-to-right, of course) and removing it from the fire. It just needed to cool before he could add the last few components.
"Good," Mallika said from where she'd been watching him silently. "While we wait, there's something else for you to do." Then she pointed at the nearby cliff face.
The cliff actually had a had a decent vein of quartz running through it, and she instructed him to pull the quartz out and shape it into a jar. He'd had to use a nastily exhausting chain of transfiguration and charms: turning the rock into water so it'd flow out, freezing it into a block of ice, shaping the ice using a cutting and drilling charm, and then releasing the transfiguration. When he was done (his wand-hand cramping so hard it seemed to burn) she'd held the tiny jar up towards the sun, examining the flaws in its shape and the impurities that marred its transparency. His reward for the effort had been nothing more than a nod.
It turned out the jar was to be used to hold his Babbling potion while he cleaned and reused the cauldron for the antidote. As he did so she fired questions at him, seemingly at random, one after another: how would he defend himself from a catoblepas if he'd blundered across one while gathering his ingredients? Which trees were likely defended by bowtruckles, and how would he lure them away if he needed to gather some wood? If he wanted to ward the tree to keep the bowtruckles away, what kind of stone acted as the best anchor, and where should he place it? What was the optimal rune arrangement? Using arithmancy, why would those runes work together in that way?
Finally, finally, he was done… and when he happily turned to her, jar in one hand and copper pot in the other, she sprung her final surprise on him.
"Very well. Now… drink it."
He blinked. "What?"
She indicated the quartz jar with a jerk of her head. "Drink the potion."
Sighing, Rahji set down his copper pot… very carefully, because apparently he was going to need the antidote in a moment. He looked pleadingly at Mallika, receiving only an expectant raised eyebrow in return. Stifling another sigh, he hesitated, then tipped the small jar of potion down his throat.
Ugh. It tasted like how old milk smelled.
"Well?" his teacher prompted.
"It tastes awful. Why did wall sprig flower ho ho verdant? Ox-tipping light weed-" He winced, hearing the nonsense spewing from his own mouth. He tried to shut up, but the potion fought him. "Not-not running task, dance winter mountain! Smell! Thoroughly wheated-"
"Well!" Mallika interrupted - he could see the corner of her mouth twitching; he also thought he heard a giggle, but Mallika never giggled. "Your first potion was brewed properly. How about the second?"
"Spoon!" He hardly needed to be prompted, diving for the pot of antidote. He remembered at the last moment not to use the crystal jar to scoop up the liquid - mixing a potion and its counter together could sometimes be a very bad idea - instead lifting the little pot to his lips to take a mouthful directly. It certainly didn't taste any better, but soon he could feel his mouth ending its little rebellion. "Pert-pert armadillo, sodden… green… Oh, thank the gods."
Again, the giggling. Or was that a bird?
Mallika was circling him, looking as stern as she ever had, her hands loosely clasped around the shaft of her wand. When she came to a stop it was directly in front of him, her chin raised, fixing him with a look that seemed fit to melt him.
"How long have you been my apprentice, Rahji?"
"Um… five winters, now? No, wait… this would be the sixth."
"Well, no more." He needed a long moment to process that. Surely he'd heard wrong… if not-
"I said, you're not my apprentice anymore."
"But… why?" he asked weakly. Before she could answer he tried to think what he could have done to offend her so terribly. "Were my answers wrong? You didn't-... I swear, I'll find out what I got wrong and-"
"It was the mud! I got your robes dirty! I can clean them-"
"Rahji." His jaw snapped shut. "Rahji, are you aware that you turned eighteen in the summer?"
He blinked. He hadn't been, not really. It wasn't something most people bothered to keep track of… after all, time was marked by the plantings and the harvests, and by the motion of the moon and the stars. He spent nearly all his days with Mallika, who never seemed to change day-to-day; she'd taught him the basics of astronomy and how to mark the times of the year that strengthened some magics and weakened others, and he was vaguely aware that he'd been born midway between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. That had passed, so yes, he'd be eighteen years old now-
"Then… that means…"
She smiled, and those odd, verdant eyes seemed to twinkle. "Yes, you're done. Congratulations… you're a wizard, Rahji."
She left him staring stupidly as she turned towards the trees. "You two can come out now."
Rahji received yet another surprise as his father and Ayati emerged from the bushes. A large basket hung from Rahn's arm as he trailed behind the young woman.
"That was mean," Ayati scolded her guardian.
"Don't blame me, he was the one jumping to conclusions."
"Well, no wonder," Rahn commented. "My own master never ran me ragged like that except when he was punishing me. Do all masters finished out an apprenticeship like that in Kemet?"
"No, just me."
"Well… bad luck for you, Rahji, but you survived," Rahn said. He embraced his son. "Well done."
Still in shock, Rahji could only nod, perking up when Ayati slipped in to hug him as well, standing on her toes to give him a kiss on the cheek. "What are you two doing here?"
"We're celebrating!" Ayati replied brightly. She began digging into the basket his father was still holding, pulling out a square of linen. "Moving on from an apprenticeship is a special thing. I brought food, and Mallika bought a jar of rice wine yesterday. We can sit and eat and be happy for you! Enlargement charm, please."
"But… we walked most of the morning!" he objected, even as he obediently cast the spell on the cloth. "You followed us all that way?"
Ayati was spreading the now-blanket-sized cloth across the ground. "Of course we did. We left a little while after you. Mallika didn't want us right on your heels."
"I was testing his defence first. I didn't want either one of you around while we dueled," the witch pointed out dryly. Ayati snorted.
"But all that distance! Ayati, you should-"
"Rahji. I'm. Fine." Her tone and her glare made it clear that he would continue nagging at his own peril. He winced; she may not have useable magic, but it was clear she'd learned from Mallika all the same. He could see the witch stifling a smirk. He sighed, sitting on his knees at one corner of the cloth, and when Ayati handed him a package of leaves containing boiled rice and fish, he simply nodded in gratitude.
The fragrance of the fish, spices, and leaves hit him the moment he split the bundle open, and he realized that Mallika's grueling test had left him famished. Somehow he managed to avoid shoving it in his face, instead taking a small amount in his fingers and chewing it slowly. It was delicious, as always when Ayati cooked; his father and Mallika made pleased noises, and the young woman nodded at the praise. They had no cups, so they passed around the jar of surā to take sips. Except for requests for the jar, they ate in silence.
Rahji's meal disappeared in moments. Ayati took a little bit longer, and when she was done she took his leaves, crumpled them into a ball with her own, and threw them into the trees where some forest critter could lick the last remnants of the food from them.
Rahn was still working away at his; of the four, he was by far the slowest eater. "So, Rahji, now that you're a full-fledged wizard, what will you do?"
"I… uh-" He blinked. "Well, I was hoping I could become a healer, like you. You're always saying you need more, especially ones who can visit the outer villages. I'd need to apprentice to you for a little while, but…"
His father nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. I know the western villages could really use someone who can visit more often… the other masters try to help where they can, but they have their own obligations and students." He tilted his head towards Mallika. "I've seen what Mallika taught you, and it won't take long for you to learn what you need to know… especially the way you apply yourself." Rahji blushed, but felt his heart swell at his father's words. "But no… what I actually meant what did you want to do with yourself? It's not unusual if you wanted to go on a journey or pilgrimage. You could visit Harappa, or visit the mountains like I did. Did you know Sakah voyaged down the river all the way to the ocean?"
Rahji glanced over at Ayati, who was watching him in return, her gaze merely curious. She was wearing her thickly-woven shawl, gathered around her shoulders to ward off the chill only she ever really felt. As far as he was concerned, she'd grown even prettier over the previous couple of years, though it was hard to ignore the dark circles that seemed to have set up permanent residence under her eyes. If he asked, he knew she'd encourage him to explore, to "spread his wings". But he knew what he wanted to do.
"No, I'm not interested in going far," he replied, glancing down at his hands, where he'd started to fiddle with his wand. "I want to stay here, and I want to learn how to be a healer." He swallowed. "I want to marry Ayati."
Silence met his words, along with wide eyes… except, notably, Mallika.
"Rahji..." Ayati murmured.
He pushed himself to a kneeling position, taking her hand. "I said I'd always be there for you, Ayati. I meant it."
She looked helplessly toward Mallika, who only shook her head. "It's your decision, Ayati. It's always been your decision."
The young woman looked down at her hand wrapped in his, and he saw his own emotions reflected in her face: fear and sadness, but also hope and desire. "Only," she spoke hesitantly, "only if Rahn allows it."
Rahji turned to his father, the one of the group yet to speak. Rahn looked at the couple, and Rahji recognized the First's eye when he saw it… the expression his father wore when he was trying to separate what he wanted for himself from what the people who'd come to him needed. It took a long moment, and Rahji resisted holding his breath.
Then, finally, Rahn nodded. "If it's what you both want, then you have my blessing."
Rahji turned to Ayati. "Is it what you want?"
She didn't answer, searching his face. Instead she seized his face and pulled him down into a kiss.
"I believe that's a `yes'," Mallika observed dryly. Rahn laughed beside her.
Now that Rahji had his answer, they didn't discuss it for the rest of the meal, instead only dwelling on his other future plans. He and his father spoke of what healing techniques he could learn first, as well as other healers in the city he might draw upon. They all complimented Ayati on the food, and Mallika commented on some interesting thoughts she'd had about the bond between a wizard and his wand, thoughts that Rahji barely followed but his father nodded with interest. All the while Rahji tried not to glow as Ayati laid her hand upon the one he had resting on the blanket.
Eventually they had to pack up and leave, if they wanted to get back to the city in time for the evening meal. Mallika helped Ayati gather up the basket and utensils, while Rahji took the copper cauldron over to a nearby stream to scrub clean. Rahn followed with the empty jug of wine.
He wasn't surprised when his father spoke as the two washed. "You've taken a leap into manhood today, Rahji."
"Are you going to warn me about moving too quickly?"
Rahn paused, then shook his head. "No. I know you understand. I just want you to know that whatever happens, you can talk to me or Mallika. We'll understand."
"If Ayati gets sick again, I'll take care of her. I'm ready for that."
"You're never ready," his father replied. "You can see it coming all the way from the horizon, but you'll never be ready when it arrives. Believe me, son. But I know you'll do your best. I have faith in you." Rahn reached out to squeeze his shoulder.
Rahji blushed, looking down at where his hands rubbed sand against the bottom of the cauldron with the ease of practice. "I thought you'd try to talk me out of it."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because…" He fumbled for the right words. "Because I know how much you miss Mother. And I think you'd spare me that if you could."
"I definitely would, but not at the expense of your happiness." He gripped Rahji's shoulder, his hand still wet from the stream. "If I'd known what was going to happen when I met Sumati… I would have gone ahead anyway." He stood and looked down at his son, his voice somber. "Live your life, son. Just don't let what might happen in the future paralyze you."
"I won't." He shook his head. "I'm going to learn everything I can, and then I'm going to save her."
Rahn's face was shadowed by the afternoon sun, and his dark eyes shone under eyebrows that were turning thoroughly grey. "Don't make promises you may not be able to keep, Rahji," he replied softly. "Especially not to yourself."
"I'm not," Rahji said. His voice was firm. "I'm going to save her."
Rahn watched his son for a moment, then nodded.
"Mallika?" Rahn knocked on her door once again.
"I can't come to the door! Come in!" her voice called from inside. The charmed door obediently swung open of its own accord. Curious, Rahn stepped in, wondering what Mallika had her hands full with such that she couldn't meet him at the door properly.
A few narrow beams of light leaked through the planks that formed the second floor. The tiny spears flickered, telling him that she was present; more interesting was the sound he heard: a low, gentle rumbling… like the wheel of a cart rolling down the street. Intrigued, Rahn climbed the brick stairs to the upper floor. As he entered the room, he discovered that his earlier thought was more accurate than he'd expected: Mallika did have her hands full. Specifically: full with clay.
She sat sideways on a wooden bench, a pot of water and another of clay on the floor next to her. She was fully intent upon her craft, not looking up as he entered. She was nearly nude, clad only in a small loincloth, but it wasn't unusual for women to dress in such a way - particularly when trying to escape the heat - and he felt no particular stirrings at the sight. Far more interesting was her wheel: animated by magic, it spun solidly at a far more steady pace than the hand-spun wheels used by the potters crafting in their stalls at the market.
He watched her gently squeeze the clay, raising the lip of the pot to the level of her eyes and higher. She stood to allow her hands access to the inside of the pot, and she carefully sculpted both the inside and outside. When she judged the pot to be of sufficient height, she shaped the lip, giving it a small, elegant curve; and then, using her fingernail, cut a few small decorative lines along the pear-shaped base.
Rahn said nothing to avoid distracting her. He was quite impressed - the ceaseless rotation of her wheel let the witch shape a pot that was as round and smooth as the best he'd seen presented by the master potters of the marketplace. After adding a few more decorative cuts and indentations, she lifted a pair of wooden handles tied together with spun oxtail hair, forming a wire with which she carefully cut underneath the wet clay. A few muttered words and a gesture, and the still-soft pot lifted gently into the air, while a command to the wheel slowed it to a stop. She lifted a small plank from the floor and let the pot gently lower on to it, whereupon she carried it over to a table in the corner of the room and set it down.
Finally she turned to him. "Sorry about that, I couldn't stop once I'd started."
He waved a hand. "That's fine, you weren't expecting me. It was very interesting to watch you work. I had no idea you possessed such skill."
She shook her head. "The wheel does most of the work. I can't imagine being one of the muggle potters, needing to spin it by hand."
"Yes, that's a very handy enchantment. A simple locomotion charm?" She nodded. "Very clever. If you sold wheels like that you'd own most of the city within the year." He laughed as she grimaced. "I'll take that as 'not interested'."
"It's just a hobby, something I do to relax."
"And your hobby is the equal of a master craftsman," Rahn said, looking at her new product admiringly. "As for relaxation, that's why I'm here. I was seeking a respite myself, and was wondering if you wished to join me visiting the market for the midday meal. There's a woman there - Minka - who makes delicious spiced lamb."
Her stomach grumbled quietly, making her blush. "What of Ayati?"
"She's resting at home. And threatened to dump the hottest spices she could find into the next meal she makes for us if I hover over her any more than I have." He shook his head in a mixture of consternation and amusement, and Mallika matched the expression… the young woman had suffered a fainting spell the day before and still hadn't fully recovered, but her impatience with coddling was as strong as ever.
Rahji was away visiting the villages to the west of Karmanapura, a three-week trip during which he'd left his wife in the care of his father and former instructor. The pair had moved into Rahn's house, though they'd selected a room on the other side of the courtyard. Marriages in the city were minimal affairs - a simple ceremony overseen by Rahn himself. Their pair practically glowed when they were together, a very happy couple indeed, and Rahji had thrown himself into learning the particulars of being a healer with as much enthusiasm as his father predicted. Within a mere two seasons Rahn had judged Rahji more than capable of treating patients by himself, to be sent out to treat the remote farmers and cattle-tenders as needed.
Such trips meant many days away from his new wife, but Rahji hadn't complained, and Rahn was proud of the implicit trust demonstrated in leaving Ayati in his care. One of his greatest fears was sending his son out to save a stranger, only to have the young man return a widower. Fortunately, Ayati's own innate stubbornness - and perhaps a bit of lingering phoenix magic - meant such spells of weakness were few and shaken off quickly.
He shook his head again. "That girl…"
"That boy…" Mallika echoed dryly.
"Do they reflect the people who raised them, perhaps?"
"I refuse to answer."
"Probably wise. Anyway… will you be going to the market like that?"
She looked down; she was caked in mud up to her elbows, and some had splattered against her chest and neck. There was even a large smear on the bottom of her left breast where she'd obviously scratched at an itch with her muddy hands. She blushed again. "Ah… yes. I'll wash up, just give me a moment." She fetched up her wand from a nearby wooden bench.
"Take your time, Mistress Potter."
It was a long moment later, as he examined her wheel, that he realized she hadn't actually left the room. In fact she was frozen at the stairs, staring at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were huge, staring at him. "Mallika?" he asked with concern.
"What did you call me?" she nearly whispered.
He hesitated, confused. "Mallika?"
"No, no… before."
"Oh. I… I called you 'Mistress Potter'. I hope it didn't offend you-"
"No, no… it's just… I know that name. No… not that name, the words… the language is wrong, but the words…" She lifted a trembling hand to her mouth, not realizing she smeared clay against her lips and chin. "Potter… Potter… Potter!"
"Pah-terr?" Rahn echoed. "What does that mean?"
"It means 'potter'!" she exclaimed. "That… that was my name. Or at least a portion of it. Maybe… maybe a title? Or a tribe?"
"It's not Kemetic, is it?"
"No, it's not. I…" Her hands clenched in frustration. "It's just out of reach!"
Rahn drew his wand, but didn't lift it. "Mallika, I could…"
She looked at him, face blank, and then squared her shoulders. "Do it."
He nodded, and pointed the wand at her face. "Legilimens!"
He was in her mind almost instantly. She still instinctively resisted him, but they'd practiced enough together that he could find his way past her defences. He focused on their conversation, their revelation of her name; he saw himself speaking to her, felt her own shock and astonishment at the familiarity of the word she'd used.
He took hold of that word - the memory of a name - and tugged on it as gently as if it was the thinnest strand of silk. To his surprise it didn't snap, pulling yet more memory forward. They flickered like flashes of lightning: strange places, strange words, and he was couldn't interpret much of what he saw-
-a tall man, black-haired but with strangely pale skin… "Miss Potter. Our new… celebrity."-
-"You'll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter," said a sneering little
boy, his hair yellow, almost white-
-"Ten points from Gryffindor, Miss Potter," squeaked a woman in strange pink clothing, who Rahn would have considered attractively plump were it not for that toad-like face and malevolent expression-
-A snake-faced man, his skin whiter than death. "Jasmine Potter. The Girl-Who-Lived." And then the man's arm pointed a wand, and a green flash struck out-
The images came rushing forward, more and more... too fast! He'd jostled a stone and triggered a landslide. Hundreds of years of memory collapsed upon him, and there was no hope of interpreting any of it-
-an impossibly old man, with a long, white beard-
-a pyramid of stone-
-a phoenix perched in a tree, looking down at them with pity. It chirped, but the notes became words-
"Rahn?" Head throbbing, he opened his eyes. Above him was Mallika - Wadjet? Jasmine? - looking down at him with open worry. He realized he was stretched out on her floor, and she was kneeling beside him, a wet linen cloth in her hand, pleasantly cool against his forehead. She saw that he was awake and touched his cheek. "Are you okay?"
"Your hands are still muddy," he rasped. Her jaw dropped. She glanced at her hands, and then growled, levering herself to her feet.
"Of all the things..." she grumbled. "Evanesco. Aguamenti." He heard the sound of rushing water, and then splashing. She was probably washing her hands in the pot of water… angrily if the sloshing was any indication. Well, it was hardly his fault. And it was bothering him. He reached up and pulled the wet cloth on his forehead down across his eyes.
A moment later the cloth was yanked away. He looked up at the woman over him, who was displaying her clean hands for his approval. "There. Better?"
She still had mud on her chest and around her mouth, but he knew better than to push his luck. "Much. Thank you."
She rolled her eyes and sighed, sinking to sit cross-legged next to him. He reclaimed the cloth from her and laid it back across his eyes, enjoying the silence as his headache faded.
"What did you see?" she asked softly.
"You saw everything I did," he answered.
"I know, but…" Her frustration was obvious. "I could barely hold onto any of it."
Rahn was silent for a long moment; trying to recall her memories made his head hurt again. "Walls of stone. A… cold climate. Men and women and children, most pale like you are, sometimes even their hair." He lifted the cloth to look at her; she was staring ahead blankly. "They knew you. They called you Potter. And… Jasmine."
"Jasmine," she repeated quietly. Emotions played across her face. "That was my name. Potter was my family. Jasmine Potter." She looked near to tears, more vulnerable than he'd ever seen her. "I'd forgotten my own name."
She blinked as she realized something. She looked at him, surprise on her face. "Or… maybe not? 'Jasmine' is a kind of flower. You know it as mallika."
He raised his eyebrows as he shared her surprise. Then he smiled through his headache, which had thankfully dulled to only a mild throbbing and was fading quickly. "The roads we travel leave footprints in us, Jasmine. We may leave them behind, but the marks persist."
She thought about his words briefly, then her eyes narrowed and a small smirk appeared. "That would be more profound if you weren't laid out on my floor like a teenager who indulged in too much surā."
"I'm 'laid out' here because of you, I'd like to remind you. Just for that, you get to buy us lunch."
"You're still hungry? After that?"
"More than ever. Help me up."
After helping Rahn upright, Mallika quickly washed up and changed into her normal white robes. Even after years in the city, she still was cautious about getting too much sun. He'd had to treat her twice for severe sunburn, and together the pair had managed to devise an improved burn salve to help. It sometimes amazed him that she'd come from an even brighter and hotter land.
Except... it wasn't her native land, he realized. A cold climate.
His headache was almost entirely gone by the time they stepped out her door and into the streets of the city. There wasn't too much foot traffic… it was near noon, and many people were indoors, indulging in their own midday meals or simply napping through the brightest part of the day. They stepped around a lone ox hooked up to a cart, happily munching on hay which had been piled into a basket in front of it. Bite marks and missing sections of the basket showed that the ox wasn't a picky eater.
As they walked they passed a young woman dressed in a loose orange robe, carrying an urn of wine or water carefully balanced on her head, steadied with one arm that wore several polished wooden bracelets. Despite her burden she curtseyed easily as she caught sight of them, the light brown of her skin tingeing toward cinnamon as she blushed with a small smile. She was likely the daughter of a wealthy merchant, as she was healthy and curvaceous; Rahn couldn't help the way his head swiveled of its own accord as she passed them.
When his neck obeyed his will again he noticed Mallika sporting a knowing smirk. "What?"
"Does Rahji know?"
"That his father is on the prowl."
He sputtered. "Where do you come up with these phrases? I do not `prowl'!"
"No? You were practically drooling on that girl."
"I was not."
"Why so defensive? Maybe she likes being drooled on. You can only ask."
"Mallika," he moaned, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
She ceased her teasing, only looking at him speculatively as they navigated the streets. "Has there been none since your wife?"
He shook his head. "No. Not that I think Sumati would mind, it's just that…" He trailed off. "Rahji's always been my primary concern. And by the time I didn't have to be concerned, it was years later. And now here I am, an old man."
"You're not old."
"No?" he replied, smirking as he ran his fingers through his beard, which had turned more grey than black.
"Remember who you're talking to."
"Oh, I remember." He grinned. "Remember when Ayati was trying to pair us off?"
"Please don't remind me," she said. Her stomach growled again, louder this time, and she laughed. "I'm too hungry to be put off my food."
He feigned offence. "I'll have you know that I am a treat."
She grinned broadly. "I'll run back and tell that girl." He groaned.
The crowds thickened as they approached the market, and soon it was difficult to talk over the din of shouted haggling, bleating of goats, or the chirps and clucking of fowl in reed cages. The pair made a straight line for the woman in one corner who had spiced skewers of lamb roasting over a small fire pit. Mallika happily handed over some polished beads in trade for four of the skewers… it was an expensive meal, but more than worth it in Rahn's opinion, as the smell alone was make his mouth water.
"Let's eat by the river," he nearly had to shout into Mallika's ear. She nodded, producing a clean square of cloth and wrapping the skewers up together.
They let themselves get swept up in the normal traffic to the main gates, the crowd carrying them along and out. They walked to where a few rough docks had been constructed from thick logs, choosing a discarded log on the riverside as a seat. From their resting place they could see men loading or unloading grain or pottery or fish, to be carried off to the market and sold or shipped downriver to distant Harappa. Sitting on one side of the dock was an old man repairing his fishing nets.
The pair sat together and ate, enjoying a companionable silence borne of long friendship. And trust… it wasn't as if Mallika allowed just anyone to view her most precious of memories.
The things he'd seen were giving him ideas. The notion of shaped stone used as bricks in the wall was brilliant, but would be difficult to implement… copper would be too soft, so they'd have to be shaped by magic. He could only think of the mountains as a source of proper stone, and those were many days of travel away. Hauling heavy materials so far would be impractical. Still, he let the idea simmer in the back of his mind.
"This is really good," Mallika remarked as she nibbled at one of her skewers.
"Told you," Rahn replied, taking another bite of his own. As he chewed he admired the old man repairing the fish nets… his eyes were clouded by age, and his nimble fingers traced the lines of the net, finding and patching holes, almost entirely by touch. His hands would follow a line, knot by knot, tracing the lines that stretched away from each joint. If he found a frayed or broken section, he'd gently pull the line, going around the hole until he found the matching side, tying in a new length of braided thread to repair it-
Rahn rose to his feet slowly, the mouthful of delicious meat forgotten, staring wide-eyed at the old fisherman.
Not streets, not a path you follow that gets blocked… a net! Lines, threads, all connected, and each one pulls on the next, turn by turn-
"Rahn!" He turned, seeing Mallika squinting up at him, concerned. "What's wrong?"
He tried to speak and nearly choked on his mouthful of food. He chewed hurriedly and swallowed. When he spoke, his voice vibrated with excitement. "I've just had an idea."
Rahji flicked his wand, muttering a quiet "Mobilicorpus." One of the redcaps he'd captured floated up, and a sticking charm attached it to a wide, bare rock he'd found in the middle of the field where they'd been nesting. A second flick brought the second up to lay beside it. Both of the nasty creatures were unconscious, though they'd put their best effort into stabbing him with small spears before he'd knocked them out. A small gash decorated his left forearm, and it'd been hard to avoid killing them outright when they'd scored that hit.
Fortunately he'd resisted… Mallika's tutelage served him well. And now he had a pair of reasonably-healthy, male redcaps to suit his needs.
He swallowed; now was the hard part.
The bright sun shone overhead, and he was glad of it - it made his task seem less… dark. The mat that he slept upon while journeying was rolled up and set alongside his linen bag, both placed far enough away that he didn't have to worry about them being stained.
With twitches of his wand, he cut away the filthy, stiff furs that the creatures used as clothing. He followed with a scouring charm; both Mallika and his father had drilled into his head the importance of cleanliness when dealing with open wounds, and he'd carried the wisdom into his own healing practice. The tip of his wand glowed as he traced it down the center of the left redcap's torso, splitting the skin open. A couple of flicks peeled the creature open like a ripe fruit; another spell opened the rib cage.
Now he could see the creature's heart, flexing away, tireless and faithful. He swallowed against his gorge. In his swift apprenticeship to his father, he'd had to cut open an actual person exactly twice: once to remove a shard of bone after a farmer had been gored by one of his own oxen, and another time to drain blood from the skull of a young boy who had fallen from a rooftop. In neither occasion had he cut so deep, or in such a dangerous area. He knew his father was hesitant to work anywhere near someone's heart. But if he was going to accomplish his goals, he couldn't be so timid.
A second series of spells flayed the second redcap in the same manner. Rahji took a deep breath; he hadn't dared to bring his note tablets with him, which were currently hidden under a brick in a secluded corner of Karmanapura - an excellent hiding place he'd discovered during his punishment years before. Not that many would understand the arithmancy written there - Mallika hadn't taught anyone but himself and his father, and Rahn had only just begun to teach it to some of the other masters. For the moment, Rahji was operating entirely from memory.
"Petrificus Totalis," he uttered, targeting not the redcap on the left, but its heart. The organ froze, and the creature shuddered briefly before going still. Working quickly, a series of cutters released the organ from its chest, and Rahji floated it over to sit in the open chest cavity of the other. He repeated the procedure, this time moving the heart over to the left, carefully placing it where the missing organ belonged.
Now the tricky part: his wand traced a series of runes in the air, and the cut flesh knit together, blending, in a modified version of a simple healing spell. He released the petrification and a few sparks jumped from his wand as he poked each heart. Each clenched as if in surprise, and he repeated shocking them until they began to beat on their own… firstly in fits and starts, then settling into the familiar steady rhythm.
He held his breath and merely watched. He knew his idea was sound - he'd practiced it already on rats, foxes, and even a pair of deer. Many had died, but the later trials had all succeeded. If Ayati's heart was flawed, then he'd replace it!
The problem was her magic. Ayati wasn't a muggle, as Mallika called people without magic… she was a squib, which meant she had magic, she just couldn't use it. It was passive, but it was there, which meant she could instinctively resist magical effects just like a wizard or witch could. It was a very weak resistance… but the magic Rahji needed to use would have to always be there, and if she threw off the spell - immediately or years later - she'd die almost instantly. Rahji couldn't bear even the thought of it.
So he needed to test on a magical creature. Fortunately, nobody would miss a pair of redcaps.
The swapped hearts continued to beat. Despite his own squeamishness, he found himself leaning in, the better to see. Time seemed to slow, marked only by the steady pulse of the organs in front of him.
Was that blood from the exterior wounds?
"No," he almost moaned. He lifted his wand and cast again, and the small leak ceased. But even as he did, the redcap on the left twitched, and then there was a squirt of blood, and another. He scrambled to renew the spell, but before he was even half-done the heart came loose completely, filling the exposed cavity with crimson fluid. "No!" The redcap on the right shuddered as its own replacement heart came loose, the creature's own magic unravelling the spellwork that kept it alive.
Rahji's wand thrashed through the air as he tried to keep it alive, abandoning the other. But every time he repaired the spell, it came apart even sooner. It wasn't long before the young man was standing before a pair of cooling corpses, beyond any hope.
"No. Gods damn it." He crouched, burying his face in his hands. He'd held such hope… but he wasn't going to give up! He just needed to work at it more. He just needed more time. But how much time did he have? How much time did Ayati have?
A long while later, he stood, his legs aching. With a sigh he waved his wand, carving open a pit in the ground. A flick sent the pair of bodies tumbling into the hole; a second wave filled it in again. After scouring the blood off the flat rock there was only an ankle-high mound to indicate anything had occurred there at all.
Rahji looked up. And stumbled back, his heart nearly freezing in his chest; he was being watched.
An old man stood on a rise across the clearing. He wore a trefoil drape, much like Rahji's father preferred, but the cloth was ragged and dirty. Long grey hair from a balding pate tangled with an equally neglected long beard, and the man leaned on a walking stick. At his waist the young man could see a small cloth sleeve tied with a simple cord, a kind of pouch some wizards favoured for their wands. The old man was magical, though he was certainly one of the most ragged godstouched Rahji had ever seen. Whatever his appearance, the dark eyes that stared at him were gleaming and intelligent.
It wasn't the wizard who was interesting, however; that honour was given to the two shapes on either side of the him. They looked like men… or things that were once men. They stood hunched over, one almost crouched, and their skin seemed by turns either too tight or too loose… like they'd been left out in the sun and had shrivelled. One had long hair that was falling out in clumps while the other was bald, and their eyes were sunken pits; only one wore a loincloth to preserve his modesty, while the other was completely nude. The way they stood, the way they occasionally looked to the old wizard for cues, made Rahji think less of men and more of animals… trained and eager.
One of the creatures hissed and made to move forward, and Rahji raised his wand. But the thing's path was blocked by the stick of the old man, who rapped it ungently across the chest. Cowed, the almost-man stepped back into place.
"Wh… who are you?" Rahji demanded past a dry throat.
The old wizard didn't answer. Instead he snorted dismissively, loud enough to be heard across the clearing. Then he turned and walked away, relying heavily on his walking stick, followed by his creatures. The one that had nearly pounced on Rahji only paused a second to give him a glare through cloudy eyes before trailing behind.
What in the name of the Gods were they? Rahji stood for a long moment, confused, his wand limp in his hand. Then his foot seemed to move forward of its own accord, then the other. He hurriedly snatched up his bag and mat. Soon he was following the old man, driven by his own curiosity.
He hung back, only barely keeping the trio in view. He wasn't particularly stealthy by nature, but he tried to avoid stepping on sticks or dry leaves as he followed them into a nearby forest. The trees closed in overhead, casting the path into shadowy twilight, adding to the ominous atmosphere.
He didn't know how long he trailed behind them, but they were deep into the forest by the time a small hut came into view. It was a simple wooden structure, set on posts in a depression near a steep hill. It was probably prone to flooding during the monsoon season, Rahji figured, though the ground was dry at the moment. The little house was thatched with straw and sealed with clay, and likely kept the rain out and little else. In front of it was a fire pit with a copper pot hung from a trio of sticks, and wooden racks had been set up on which hung strips of meat to dry.
There were more of the shrivelled creatures present - one was stirring the copper pot, again and again, without a hint of tiredness or boredom. Rahji watched from behind a tree as another entered the clearing, dragging the carcass of a freshly-killed wild goat behind it. The thing began to dress the carcass, though not with a knife, but with raw strength and fingers that seemed more bone than flesh; the goat's haunches were clawed and torn off, then its hide slowly peeled away in a grim, artless manner. The old wizard and his attending… pets?... entered the hut, ignoring the savagery.
What were they? They were too large to be ghouls… were they people who'd been twisted by a malicious charm? A magical accident, perhaps? Rahn had introduced him to one wizard who had a spell backfire on him… now he lived alone in a hut very similar to this one, his body twisted, his jaws and teeth far too large for his body, jutting out from his face in a grotesque manner. That wizard relied almost completely on a few kind healers for basic human contact, and Rahji had felt ashamed for his first reaction to the man's appearance. What he saw now could be spell-damaged people, but they acted more like animals, and there were so many… He didn't know what they were, but he knew that just watching them, just spying on the hut, made him nervous.
Rahji backed away… he'd have to ask his father if he knew what they were, though it'd mean coming up with a believable reason as to what he was doing in the area in the first place-
His breath fled him as he was tackled to the ground from behind. Cold hands seized his ankles while another pair took an iron grip on his arm and flipped him onto his back. Rahji screamed as he saw two more of the things had come upon him without his being aware. They were even uglier up close, and all thoughts of tolerance fled his mind as he got an up-close view of their shrivelled gums and rotted teeth.
"No! No! Get away!" He thrashed, but they were unbelievably strong. The one that had hold of his ankles was pulling as if to drag him along the ground. His wand was around his neck, but when he lifted an arm to grab at it the other creature grabbed it, nearly standing on his chest, pinning him.
"Expulso!" Rahji was not as good at wandless magic as Mallika, but he could do it, which put him ahead of almost everyone in Karmanapura other than his instructor herself. The ghoul-like creature was knocked off him as if kicked. He grabbed at his wand, but the second one abandoned his feet in order to leap at him. It crashed down, and his head was slammed backwards into the forest floor-
Stars danced in his vision, and his head hurt. When he blinked away the lingering darkness he found that both of the creatures had hold of him now, each seizing an arm with strength that was too great to be human. They were dragging him along, and he could hear their wheezing breath. Their hunched gait meant that he was nearly being dragged along on his belly, and he was too dizzy to get his feet under himself. He struggled, but he was like a child wrestling against the hands of a pair of grown adults.
They were dragging him towards the hut. He saw the creature that had been dismembering the goat, the ground around it soaked in blood, and a vision popped into his head of his own body being torn apart in the same way. He thrashed even more, but the none of the things even turned their heads toward him.
He was dragged across the stones that marked the threshold of the hit, through the hung linen that served as a door, bruising his knees in the process. The interior was dim, with only a little light from the shadows of the forest leaking around the thatched roof and a gap that could have been a window. Rahji saw the reed mat that was the old man's bed, and cracked pottery and wooden utensils scattered about. The center of the room held a small fire pit surrounded by stones, cold and dark; it probably did nothing to warm the home, but it was the only option to be had in such a tiny, flammable structure.
The old wizard stood on the other side of the fire pit, bracketed by the two creatures that had been his travelling companions. He looked over Rahji as he was held nearly prostrate in front of him, and the young man felt afraid. "What's this, now?" he demanded, and his voice was surprisingly strong for someone with such a ragged appearance. "A would-be hunter? You should have stuck with the prey you had, boy."
"I-... what?" Rahji shook his head, trying to clear away the last of the cobwebs from the blow to his head. The old man's meaning sunk in and he felt his face pale. "No! No… I'm not hunting anything! I was just passing by!"
"`Just passing by'," the man echoed mockingly. "Try again."
"I was only curious! I meant no harm!"
"No? Forgive me for doubting your moral standing, boy, but I saw what you were doing. Gutting a creature while it's still alive? That's grim, even for me."
"I wasn't gutting it!" Rahji protested. "I was experimenting! A magical experiment, I'm trying to design a healing spell!"
"Oh?" the old man questioned, his voice amused. He sank onto a wooden bench, settling like a judge in a trial… a thought that did nothing to ease Rahji's nerves. "Tell me more."
"I'm… trying to figure out a way to replace a damaged organ with a healthy one," he replied. "My wife… she has a weak heart. It will kill her eventually. I'm trying to save her."
The old man's eyes narrowed. "A healing spell."
"Yes! I swear to you. I know it looked gruesome, but I'm trying to do something good. I don't… I don't hurt people. I'm a healer."
The wizard snorted, a wheezing laugh. "You don't hurt people… an important bit of phrasing, but I suppose it's good enough." He gestured, and the creatures let him go. Released from their grip Rahji actually flopped down onto his face; after a moment he climbed to his feet, very slowly, wary of the two - or four, now - leaping upon him again.
Rahji looked at the things, which didn't seem to care one way or another about his scrutiny. "What… are they?" he asked nervously.
"Inferi," answered the other man. "Or at least that's what someone else named them. Which is interesting, since as far as I know I'm the first to create any."
"You made these?"
"In a way. These are my experiments. But we were discussing yours." The man flicked a finger. "You didn't seem pleased with the results."
Rahji rubbed feeling back into his arms, confused by the man's sudden turn in attitude, but he was perfectly willing to be talkative if it meant the… inferi… all stayed where they were. "I'm trying to compose a spell to blend flesh. It would let me exchange a flawed or damaged organ with another. It… mostly works, at least on mundane animals. I need to test more. I was using redcaps because they're magical. My wife is a squib, and if I don't get the spell right then it'll break and…" He left the outcome unsaid.
To his surprise, the other wizard nodded understandingly. "Definitely something to be concerned about. You'd have the same problem with a transfiguration and…" He trailed off, bushy eyebrows drawing together into a frown, his lips pursing. He looked at Rahji, and his previous friendliness had evaporated. "You are from Karmanapura?"
"And the girl you speak of… she is Ayati, Master Sakah's granddaughter?"
How did he know? "Y-yes…"
"You're Rahji… Rahn's son." The words were spoken in almost a hiss; the inferi shifted, coiling, picking up on their master's anger. The old man surged to his feet with a strength belied by his appearance. "Why are you here?" he demanded. "Are you here to spy upon me?"
"No!" Rahji protested. He took a step back, wondering if he'd even have a chance to cast a spell before the creatures tore him apart. "I have no idea who you even are!"
"Really? Rahn didn't spare a word for Master Durhmada, who he cast out of the city? For how he tried to destroy my work?" He stabbed a thin finger in the direction of one of the inferi. "Your own mistress named these! And here you stand, the son of the man who condemned me, trying to accomplish the exact same thing I was?"
"I'm trying to preserve a life!"
"As was I!"
The inferi were agitated now, on the cusp of snapping. Rahji shook his head, holding up his empty hands, wand hanging from its cord around his neck. "Neither Mistress Mallika nor my father spoke of you, Master Durhmada. I'm sorry. But for myself… I have no opinion of you, or anything you've done." Durhmada continued to glare at him, his hands tight around his walking stick. "T-tell me of your work."
"Why? So you can run off and report my doings to the First?"
"No," he replied, shaking his head. "I won't say anything, I promise. You're outside Karmanapura, it's not the First's concern. Besides," he added, shifting uncomfortably, "I'm not eager to explain what I was doing, either."
Durhmada stared at him for a moment, then snorted in amusement. "Each of us with a spear at the other's throat, then? Fine. Less trustworthy pacts have been made before."
The exiled wizard returned to his seat. "You want to know what I'm trying to do?" He gestured at the inferius closest to him. "You're trying to repair a body to prevent a death. I'm trying to cure death itself. What you see before you are the remains of men who have died, partially returned from that state. My work," he said, emphasizing the word, "is to pull them back completely." He sighed, slumping slightly on his bench. "I have not succeeded."
Rahji, feeling safer, eyed the mindless things which had apparently once been men. "Then… these aren't what you intended?"
"No, of course not," the old wizard grumbled. "They're definitely useful, don't misunderstand me… they never tire, they don't feel pain, and they're far stronger than they ever were in their mortal lives."
"So what went wrong?"
"Their souls have fled. The spark that makes a man a man is gone. That is `death', young Rahji," Durhmada stated, pointing with his stick. He thumped his own chest. "This? This is mere flesh… a thing, a house for the spirit. When it becomes too damaged, the spirit does exactly what you or I would do when our home is falling apart: it moves on." He shook his head. "I can repair the `house'. I can make the body live again. But I've not yet succeeded in calling back the spirit to it."
"Can… can you even do so?"
"I know it's possible."
Durhmada pursed his lips and was silent for a long moment. "I was raised near the mountains… it can get quite cold, there. Now that I'm old, I don't miss that at all." He blinked away the momentary distraction. "One winter, when I was still a child, I fell through the ice covering a lake and was trapped beneath it. I drowned. My mother, the local healer, used her magic to blow apart the ice and pull me from the water. I was so cold I was blue, and no breath was in my chest." He looked at the younger man, eyes almost glowing. "I was dead, they told me later."
The old man's eyes were unfocused, distant… perhaps remembering the sensation of death, of cold and darkness wrapping itself around him. "They told me that my mother refused to accept it. She warmed me, and drained my lungs of the water that had killed me. She cast spell after spell, trying to awaken me, flinging curses at those who told her it was too late, that I was gone. Finally, my sister came over to comfort me while my mother worked. She took my hand, and there was a surge of magic. And then… I gasped, my life restored. I was dead… and then I lived."
Rahji listened, utterly rapt; the tale was obviously embellished and told to the old man after the fact, but... "Accidental magic?"
Dark eyes fixed him. "Yes, accidental magic. Invigorating, because it shows what is possible. Frustrating, because my sister couldn't explain how she did what she did, not even later, when she was an accomplished witch in her own right. But she proved it was possible! I'm living proof that the spirit can be called back into the body."
"But… why would you want to?" He held up a hand as Durhmada's eyes flashed. "I don't mean to offend. What I mean is… we all die eventually. We all… ah… catch up, gathered together into the gods' embrace, don't we?"
"Think about putting your lovely wife into the ground, and then tell me that you're fine with the idea of `catching up'," the ragged wizard snapped. Rahji flushed, but said nothing. "No, I disagree, simply because I do not believe in gods. I have no reason to believe anything wonderful lies beyond the veil of death any more than you have to believe in something terrible. Why should we be forced to find out? Why are we all, mundane and godstouched, First or fisherman, slaves to the call of death? Why can we not tie our souls here, to this world that already contains all that which we know and love?"
His anger had vanished, and he waved a hand animatedly. "For that matter, why should we be forced to occupy these troublesome prisons? What if I should tie my soul to a bird, eh? To become the bird, to know what it is to fly over the mountains? For that matter, why could I not become the mountain?" He sat back as if tired by his own excitement. Rahji could understand - his mind was already chasing the most obvious possibilities… would he have more time to figure out how to cure Ayati, if he knew death couldn't tear her away from him before he succeeded? Durhmada shook his head. "But before I can think about putting a soul into something else, I need to grasp how to put it back into the vessel it came from… just as my sister did. And I've wasted years trying to figure out how."
"Mistress Mallika-" Durhmada growled, and Rahji frowned. "I understand you don't like her, but she's very powerful and very learned. She told me once that children are the most powerful wizards of all, because they don't know what they're not capable of. They simply want with their heart and soul, and their magic makes it happen. She said that learning magic is inherently a contradiction… because we tie ourselves down with wand movements and incantations, and then spend the rest of our lives trying to work around them."
"And what is your point? That is I simply wish hard enough, I can return Master Gavi's spirit to him?" the older man asked skeptically, gesturing at the hunched figure to his side.
Rahji shrugged. "Perhaps. But I think her point was that the basis of spellcrafting was convincing ourselves that the spell would work. Less about the outcome, and more about the… process?" He shrugged again; Durhmada sat in his chair, his eyes unfocused, stroking his ragged beard thoughtfully. "She's taught me much about how spells are made… and she says the first step is grasping that what you want is possible."
He'd taken a seat on the opposite side of the fire pit from the old man, letting the last of the dizziness fade away as the two spoke. Durhmada proved to be interesting to speak to - despite his obsession with death, he was quite clever and experienced. Before long the two were bandying ideas back and forth, discussing the theory of magical resurrection and even sketching runes into the clay ground of the hut. Rahji was surprised by how open the old man was about his experiments - most masters kept their research close to their chest - and wondered if Durhmada was simply lonely. What had he done, to cause the First to exile him?
He could feel himself responding in kind - it was a relief to talk about his own experiments with someone who was both experienced and non-judgemental. There was nothing strictly wrong about what Rahji was doing, but his father would be concerned about where it could possibly lead. His father was always concerned about causing the least amount of harm, not just to people but to the world as a whole; it showed in the way he guided the council in the city. It was a good trait in a father and a ruler… but Rahji didn't need to be second-guessed, not with so much at stake and so little time remaining.
For a moment he put aside such worries, looking over the runes Durhmada had sketched into the dirt. The old wizard didn't know arithmancy - which wasn't a surprise - so Rahji had to formulate the spell in his head. "Have you thought of replacing that rune with this one?" he asked, using his fingernail to etch the replacement. "It's one used in the spell for hair growth. I know it seems silly, but it's associated with renewal, and it might tilt the whole spell in the direction you want-"
"You're a spellcrafter?" Durhmada asked, bushy white eyebrows raised. "Actual spellcrafting, not blind experimentation?"
"Not as good as Mallika, or my father," he replied humbly.
"Still, that's a very powerful skill," the old wizard replied, and his gaze was calculating. He leaned forward. "You could help me a great deal, Rahji. And not just with spellcrafting - you think in interesting ways, and you're more… open-minded than your father. Our goals are not so dissimilar. We could work together."
"I-" He hesitated; wasn't this what he wanted? To save Ayati from the weakness of her own body, to prevent her from dying? His eyes flickered over to the shrivelled things that were once human; during their talk he'd almost completely forgotten they were there. Despite himself, he couldn't help but imagine Ayati in such a state, and inside he recoiled in horror.
He shook his head. "No. I'm sorry, Master Durhmada. My goals aren't as high as yours. I just want to repair Ayati's body. What comes after… I haven't had time to think about."
"Hmm," Durhmada rumbled, his gaze hooded. "You may find your hand forced. But I will respect your decision."
"Thank you." There was an uncomfortable silence; Rahji glanced behind him, and saw that what little light was sneaking into the hut was already starting to dim. How long had he been here? "I didn't realize it was so late," he said, rising to his feet. He sketched a shallow bow to the other wizard. "Thank you for speaking with me, Master Durhmada, and forgiving my arrival. I'll try to be more polite in the future."
"In the future?" the other man repeated, one eyebrow raised skeptically.
"Well… yes. I make regular trips among the western villages, and your home isn't far off the route. I can visit and make sure you're in good health. Unless you'd rather I didn't…"
"No, no," Durhmada replied. He seemed surprised and touched by the offer. "Your visits would be appreciated. Thank you, Master Rahji."
Rahji smirked ruefully. "Just Rahji, actually. I haven't had any apprentices, yet."
"A mere formality."
"Thank you. I must be going. Again, thank you for your hospitality."
"I trust neither one of us will speak of the other's project?"
"I promise, I won't."
Rahji nodded, then turned to leave. As he reached the cloth door, he paused, turning to regard the other wizard. "If I might ask… what motivates you in this? You know who I'm trying to save. Did you lose someone?"
Durhmada was silent for a long moment, then shifted on his bench. He nodded. "My sister." Dark eyes glittered in the shadows of the hut. "She called me back from beyond the Veil. I thought I owed her the same."
"I think I'm pregnant."
Mallika stared at Ayati, her mouth half-full of water. It was only when it started to run down her chin that she remembered to swallow. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and coughed. "What?"
The two were sitting on opposite sides of the table in Mallika's home. Though Ayati had married and resided with Rahji, she still had free run of the witch's house, and made it a point to visit often. They would drink cool water or surā and chat, like they had so many times in the past - speaking about womanly issues, or foolish men, or anything that crossed Ayati's mind. She'd learned that no topic was off-limits with the witch, no matter how taboo or uncomfortable. Mallika faced such things like she faced everything else: head-on, with overwhelming power and dry wit that often made the younger woman laugh.
For the first time, though, she was knocked for a loop. "What?" she repeated. "Ayati-"
"There's a spell to know, right? I need you to cast it."
Still baffled, Mallika looked at her hands as if only just realizing her wand wasn't present. A gesture, and it flew across the room into her waiting grip. Another few flicks, and Ayati's abdomen glowed softly with a white light before fading.
The other woman's wide eyes made asking for an interpretation unnecessary. Ayati pressed a hand against her belly as the uncertainty coalesced into fear… and excitement.
"How?" She looked up into bright green eyes (Ayati had always marvelled at their colour) staring at her with concern. She opened her mouth, a flippant word on her tongue, and Mallika raised a hand with a sigh. "Not that, I'm quite familiar with the procedure, thank you! But how? You're-"
"-Barren, I know. Or… I was. That's why I needed you to check."
"You're married to a healer. Why didn't you simply ask Rahji? This… involves him."
"I didn't want him to know," she answered softly.
Mallika was silent a moment, then nodded, though she still looked overwhelmed. "I understand. I can make the potion, though I'll need to visit the forest to get some of the components. We won't have long-"
"No," she repeated vehemently. "I didn't come here for that, Mallika. I didn't go to Rahji because I knew his first thought would be the same as yours. I'm keeping it… I want to do this."
"Ayati, bearing a child is one of the most arduous tasks a woman will ever endure! Women in perfect health perish every day from the strain of it. You… you may not survive this." The pale witch swallowed. "In fact, I'm almost certain you won't."
"I know, but it's my choice. Promise me." Ayati reached across the small table, taking the other woman's hand in her own - the witch's hand felt hot, compared to the chill, grey cast of her own fingers. "Promise me that if it comes down to a choice between me and the child, you'll save my child."
"Promise me. Please, Mallika… there's no one else I would come to with this."
The older woman stared at her. Then her shoulders dropped, and she closed her eyes. "Of course I promise," she replied quietly, as if the words hurt to say. "But why? Why would you take this risk?"
"Because… when we said that children were awful, and we were glad we didn't have them… we were both lying, weren't we?"
Mallika pressed a hand to her eyes. "Yes… we were."