I’d been working in Alethia for almost two years when I received the order from my father. I came to the gateway to the real world, worked through the perfunctory locks, and emerged to greet a young maga sent to act as my aide. She stared at me in shock, which she could not disguise.
“It’s all right, Augusta.” I said. “I am Mirarius. Surely they warned you about this?”
“No.” she flustered. Then she caught herself. “You look fine, Mirarius.” she lied. I did however, feel fine, and had been expecting this reaction, if not from her than from someone else. For her my sudden aging was a shock. Not so for me. I had lived the fourteen years that had passed in the regio. For her, I had been gone a time, but not a long one.
“My father sent me a letter. I am to await a Criamon magus in the pavilion commemorating the Battle of the Silver Peacocks. I have not missed her, I take it?”
“She has not arrived. Mirarius.”
“I do not know where this pavilion is. Please direct me.”
“Do you know it lies at another covenant?” she asked, noting my lack of luggage.
“No. I have been away.” I shrugged. I was wearing combat webbing that had some food in it. I could make shelter and keep my clothes clean magically. I didn’t need gear.
Her directions made little sense, until I actually saw the pavilion. It was an opulent tent, outside the Aegis of Lycaneon. It wasn’t for us. It was a place for visitors to arrive, and if they were not particularly clever, be dazzled by our wealth and taste. I thought the Criamon would probably find it so irrelevant as to verge on inexplicable, so I sat outside it. I fried some farina. I drew random shapes on it. I put them in in an artless design on a plate.
When the Criamon appeared, she spent a good minute staring at the food, before rearranging the pieces, and eating them in descending order of size. She smiled and said “Thank you.”
“Salve.” I offered. She knew who I was. I didn’t know her, but knew that Criamon magi generally have no interest in, and little capacity for, small talk. My opening “Salve” was mere form, but at least it was brief.
“I come to ask a favour.” she said.
“I come to grant your favour.” I answered, nodding.
“I have yet to ask it.” she crooked her head sideways.
“You have yet to ask it of me. ” I answered. “I grant it, nonetheless.”
“Your father knows none of the specifics of the request.” she countered.
“He grants it anyway, and I am his agent in this.”
“There is to be no negotiation?” She looked concerned, and crestfallen.
“You were sent with threats or inducements?”
“You wish to threaten or induce?”
“I was asked to.” Her body language and tone were completely neutral. I’d seen this in some Criamon before, when they were talking about their own motivations.
“You seem a poor negotiator. Why were you, particularly, sent to seek my assistance?”
“I am able to walk through the spirit realm, and carry others with me, swimming through the great fields of magic which bathe the world.” There was no pride in her voice.
“You have been asked to carry me somewhere?”
“It is the swiftest method of travel we have.”
“So, urgency is a significant motivator for you?”
“Then we have no time to haggle inducements. I am sorry. Where are you to take me?”
“The Island of the Adulteration of Apophany.”
“I do not know. I have not been instructed on the nature of your task.”
“My last question was essentially conversational in nature. I have said I will come. I am ready to depart.” I waved to Augusta and from her perspective I vanished.
We flowed through the world, skimming through the clockwork which lies behind the façade. I had seen the world this way before, in a Twilight episode, as a young child. That incident had warped my Gift and perhaps my personality. This was different and beautiful, but on some level, it felt like I was fighting a certamen duel with an enemy so far away our phantasms could not engage. We landed on a small boat which sat in a small circle of calm, ignoring the waves that tried to lap upon it.
“Did the adulteration have this appearance on your last visit?” she asked.
“Do you have a name?” I failed to reply. “It seems odd you’ve not told me a name to call you. Is this one of your riddles?”
“I don’t find a name useful.” A shrug.
“That seems a peculiarly selfish attitude.”
“I don’t agree with your opinion. Did the adulteration have this appearance on your last visit?”
“Not at all. No.” I answered, staring at the strange object. It was spiky, ellipsoid and twelve feet long. It appeared to be made of metal, but its lack of rivets, dark blue colour and oddly curved superficial markings convinced me that it was biological. It seemed like the seed from a great thorny briar, lying it wait for the passing herd of a giant.
“It has been like this for weeks. Our Intellego spells indicate that the Adulteration has liquefied within this carapace.”
“Why am I here?” I asked. “I have no skills suitable for field investigation of unique phenomena.”
“You are here because our Prima says you must be. You are to watch it, until it hatches.”
“Hatches? It’s an egg?”
“No, it’s a cocoon.”
“And I am its warder?”
“You shared some bond with Apophany. It avoided killing you before, perhaps deliberately. Your presence may prove useful.”
The cocoon began to flex, its spikes undulating in slow patterns.
“Ah.” the Criamon maga said “This has not previously been observed.”
“What is it doing?”
“Reacting to our presence.”
“Our Parmae prevent it detecting us, surely?”
“No. They merely prevent it harming us. The Parma is a wonderful little bubble in the tide of magic, but a bubble defines the water about it. Your Parma has your sigil in it, if you know how to look. Within the carapace the disgusting ichor is coming together into shapes. Disparate organs form and merge, and flex into new configurations. This is remarkable. It is so like the writings of Empedocles that it is either proof or flattery.”
It cracked open, and a pale jelly oozed from the hole. The hole became wider, as further pieces cracked away. Then I saw a tiny first, smashing into the shell, breaking it apart from the inside. It resisted, then gave in a great tearing, like a fruit torn in half, revealing the stone. She stood in the ichor and looked at us, a little girl of perhaps five years of age. The Criamon was immediately sick over the side of the boat.
I could feel it too, when our eyes met. There was a wave of disgust and horror that swept through the front of my mind. I am, however, an illusionist, so I demanded, and retrieved, control of my thoughts. “What’s causing this sensation?” I asked the Criamon.
“The mystical stench? It’s like the Gift, or the magical air some animals have, but stronger. Worse. I am perhaps more prone because of my training. It’s all I can do not to be blown back into the Magical Realm.”
“You are here in purely spiritual form?”
“Then be blown away, but first, explain what I’m seeing. This is an Adulteration?
“Perhaps. It might be something descended from the adulteration, a sort of spirit. It might be a parasite that has eaten the adulteration. It might, technically, be a faerie drawn by these odd circumstances, or a demon.”
“That was absolutely no help at all, in an executive sense.” I remarked. She looked annoyed at me, and then faded from view, like a ghost at cock crow.”
“Sir?” it said to me in passable Italian, with an accent I’d call Sicilian.
“Yes?” I answered, knowing that if this was a faerie that was precisely the wrong thing to do, and deciding to do it anyway.
“I am hungry and lost. Have you any bread?”
I decided to feed it, again, knowing that if it was a faerie, this was completely the wrong thing to do.
I went ashore, and took some bread from my combat webbing. I decided I’d tempted fate so far that I might as well demand it bite me. “I am Mirarius” I said, thereby opening an arcane connection if this was a faerie. Then I gave it bread, which linked us by the ancient rites of hospitality. “What is your name?”
“I have no name.”
“You speak well. How did you learn to speak?”
“I do not know.”
“What is the first thing you remember?”
“Breaking out of the darkness behind me.”
“Are you a human or a spirit?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Would you like an apple?”
“I’m still hungry.”
“That’s strange. Spirits aren’t generally able to feel hunger.”
“May I have an apple anyway?” I passed it that apple and watched it demolish it with glee. I made a tentative decision.
“Provisionally, let’s accept you are human and Gifted.”
She nodded then said “I don’t know what that means.”
“I am a teacher. I am taking you to my school. Do you understand?”
“You must have a name.”
“That’s a silly name, but once you graduate you may select it if you wish. I choose to name you Exuvia.”
“I am Exuvia?”
“Yes. Of Mycetias.”
It was at that point four Criamon arrived, and the arguments started, but I’d claimed her fairly. I took her home to Alethia, and trained her for what, to us, was seven years. She was one of my second batch of students. After that, we were forced to bring her to the Grand Tribunal, because House Criamon had engineered a confrontation. I proved she was human, but a Bonisagus magus demanded her service, and it was a year before she could return to us. When she became a maga, she called herself Pupilla.