I didn’t have time to run. I tried, but the thing that had been Apophany swelled enormously in an instant. It reached out a great, clawed hand for me, and grabbed my leg. The hand was covered in dark scales that reminded me of the carapaces of the pseudoscorpions that defend the Library of Durenmar. It hand six fingers, slender, multi-jointed and ending in sliverlike nails of the deepest blue. I felt the nail go bone deep, but they were so sharp they didn’t hurt much. The hand continued to swell as it lifted me up, and palmed me. It drew me in to its enormous face. It was eyeless, and had dark blue teeth. The head was shaped like a long tube, above a body basically still human. I cast a useless spell on the hand, trying to break the nail.
It sniffed me, with a long inhalation, then it roared. I use the word roar because I have no better. I have heard nothing else like it. Imagine a human scream, but magnified enormously, but more like pies of metal being tossed in a storm. Even that is completely inadequate. I decided to cut my leg off with my next spell, then roll free.
I didn’t really feel like my leg was truly mine. It had someone else’s sigil on it. After the war, I gathered enough vis to cut it off and grow a new one. A lot of veterans did that, I believe, when the faeries came back and we could hunt them again. Eventually I decided against replacing my leg. I have an illusion to cover Decimata’s ashmarks. The way I see it, my leg’s a gift from Achlys. Her death means more if it has some tangible result. I can’t just cut that off and burn it. Anyway…
It screamed again and threw me across the island. I curled into a ball to protect my head and fastcast The Dangling Puppet, concentrating on not hitting the ground. Apophany’s adulteration was ridiculously strong, and my spell prevented me from falling to the ground, so I smashed hard into the torso of the wicker man, and blacked out. I came to with Apophany shaking me. “Mirarius?” she said.
“Yes?” I said groggily. I was, at this point, relieved that it had all been a dream. Then the pain kicked in and I snapped awake.
“You need to wake up. There’s a battle.”
I was at an angle to the horizon, so I willed myself right way up. There was almost a mile of ocean between me and the island. Apophany was hovering slightly above the water. “Are you a hallucination?” I asked.
“You know that’s a foolish question.” she smiled.
“I’m happy you are here, but, you know, goodbyes and demons.”
“At the verge of enlightenment, my people can pause, to give counsel to others.”
“Oh, like Criamon?”
“Yes. I’m not suited for it. I’ll ascend. Tell my apprentices to find a better way to deal with the adulterations. Actually, tell them to sacrifice their Gifts. That’s my choice, actually. I can ascend or manifest a phantasticum and live as a human. A phantasticum is…”
“I know what that it. It’s a body made of magical mind meat.”
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, House Mycetias has some people who can make them.”
“You do? Why?”
“To kill magi with.”
She seemed surprised. “I should have guessed. I am me. My only business is to wake you up and warn you. You have been unconscious for two minutes. My creature threw you through the ritual space, but the druids don’t want to break off their sacrifice, so they have sent their familiars after you. They’ll arrive very soon.”
“Then why are we talking like this?” I said, scanning the air between myself and the island.
“You aren’t actually awake yet. We can converse quickly here. Do you know Demon’s Eternal Oblivion?”
“Do you mind if I possess you for two minutes?”
“Go right ahead.”
This time I really did wake up. She used Snap of Awakening to force it. Apophany then cast Demon’s Eternal Oblivion. I imagine that’s when the Criamon tattoo appeared under my left eye. I hide it with an illusion as well.
“Now, head back.” she said “This really is goodbye, Mirarius. Well…until next time.” and she was gone again.
The creature was eating the druids. I tried not to look. Benvolia and Malvolio were on the boat with what was left of Llewellyn of Diedne. Benvolio was holding a bloodied oar. I swam through the air in that silly way apprentices do, when they are using The Dangling Puppet to fly. I climbed down the mast.
“Is it done?” I asked.
Benvolia nodded. “I thought I’d use a plan I’d developed before we came into the Infernal aura.”
I started for a moment “You were serious?”
“No. Well, not really. I have these thoughts sometimes. I don’t intend to actually follow through.”
“I need his arm.”
“Which arm?” asked Malvolio, pulling out a knife.
“Is he right or left handed?”
Benvolia said “His bicep on the right is bigger.” Malvolio put Llewellyn’s hands together, lacing fingertip to fingertip. “His right hand is bigger too.” I nodded. He cut. I told the sailors to pull us to further from the island, to get our minds out of the Infernal Aura. It also meant that we were further away if Abomination decided to wade out after us. At the moment it was hurling everything off the island into the sea.
“Did you kill the druids?”
“No. The thing ate them.” said Benvolia. “They lost focus, their ritual failed, then it swallowed them whole. It didn’t even chew.”
“Oh, that was Apophany. Her spirit desstroyed their familiars.” The Adulteration had stripped the island down to bare rock and sand. Then it curled up and seemed to rest.
“So, one final con, and we are finished, I think.” I said. I told them the lie. They took it well.
It was so easy to do. People really wanted to believe the Diedne were not defeated. We were all tired of the war, and it gave everyone an excuse not to fight over the spoils. We set up commissions to find the last Druids. House Mercere goaded us into a new age of exploration. We were reassigned.
I was sent here, to Alethia. The House assessed me, and in their view, I had combat fatigue. I thought they were wrong, just that I was exhausted. I didn’t fight reassignment politically, though. Obedience is the highest virtue. I was good with logistics, so I was doing useful work, rebuilding the hospital as a school. I’ve been here now for thirty five subjective years. I know that outside it has only been slightly more than ten. I exchange letters with outsiders, particularly my students.
I’ve trained eight apprentices while I’ve been here, and am working with my third cluster of four. The oldest cluster graduated eighteen of my years ago, but for them, now in the mortal world, it has been six. My arts have stagnated, of course. My students are not necromancers, although most of them are not pure signallers. They aren’t powerful magicians, not by the standards of the great warriors of the war, but they are loyal, and cunning, and I hope that’s enough for whatever may come next.
The House has asked me to come to Council meetings again. I hold nine sigils, after all, and I’m bizarrely lucky at Certamen, as are my children. With my siblings, we make a formidable bloc, now. The House may have other challenges for me, and I will obey with a light heart, but I must say that I feel happy here. My school is my home. I wish all of the other veterans had found the peace I have here.