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“Help me,” the stranger demanded in strident tones. He stood tall and strong, dark haired with bushy eyebrows and a long thin face deeply etched with pain and fatigue; a man who looked as though sleep was elusive. His cold, flint coloured pupils glinted feverishly and his grey skin indicated a man near the end of his tether.
Paranor had barely heard the tinkle of the small bell at his shop front door, so swiftly did the man enter. Paranor stood, “You look terrible. Let me give you some tea. It’s a special tea with the ability to take away pain.” he stepped away from his small desk and made his way to the fireplace.
“Pah!” the other man replied. “Nothing takes away this pain.” However, he watched with fevered hope as Paranor took the kettle from by the side of the open fire, holding the metal handle with a teacloth. He poured steaming water into a cup and then sprinkled herbs into the cup, completing the ritual.
The other man watched and then said, “You are a healer according to your sign outside.” He was pale, gripping the back of a chair, standing in a way that suggested pure agony. His words came in a torrent and he panted when he had finished as though having run a great errand.
“Yes, I am a healer. Amongst other things,” Paranor answered proudly. He had a good reputation and earned a solid living in the town. His premises were small but he was content.
“I will give you three hundred gold pieces to cure me,” the other man demanded. His eyes were wide and Paranor nearly dropped the cup in shock. He passed it to the other man who sipped the steaming contents, wincing at first and then showing signs of calming; his shoulders losing their hunched appearance and deep lines falling away from his brow.
“Three hundred gold?” Paranor asked, unable to comprehend such wealth. The other man nodded and sipped more tea. “This is good. The pain has eased somewhat.” He looked genuinely pleased, which contradicted Paranor’s first impressions that this man was going to be difficult if not impossible to help.
“What are your symptoms?” Paranor asked, indicating for the other man to sit. The other man did so, his eyes cold and no indication of gratitude.
“Symptoms? It is more than that. I have a demon that has latched on to me,” the statement was made almost in challenge.
Paranor was shocked to say the least. “A demon? Is that possible?”
The other man nodded, “I know not how, but my dreams are haunted with fear. It whispers to me in the night, plaguing my dreams with terror. It feeds on fear, I think. When I wake – it is no better. In the middle of the night it finds a nerve in my skull and picks at it. I have needles of fire in my brain at all hours, day or night.”
“But, a demon? That hardly seems possible,” Paranor arose and went to his fire. He sprinkled herbs on the flames, filling the room with a sweet smelling scent. He took a piece of chalk and drew a symbol on the table top between the two men.
“You are a wizard,” the other man choked, setting his cup down on the table. “I had assumed you were a sorcerer.”
Paranor looked up from his drawing. “Yes, I am a wizard. Sorcerers are rare and I doubt that you would find one anywhere hereabouts. You sound displeased.” There was something about the other man that was causing Paranor some disquiet. To announce he was possessed was alarming, but his manner was bordering on hostile. He seemed aloof and gratitude seemed difficult to fall from his lips.
The other man froze as though weighing his words. “It matters not. What are you doing and what is this symbol you draw?”
“This is a rune. It is a spell of seeing. When I cast it, it should reveal something about your illness,” Paranor explained.
“Will I feel anything?” The other man asked.
“No. I treat a great many people and they rarely feel anything. Now sit back and relax.” Paranor spoke the word of the rune. He peered intently at the other man before sitting back, stroking his nose and softly saying, “Hmm.”
“Anything?” the other man asked.
“Yes, but not what I was expecting. That spell is quite useful and it shows an aura around a person that reflects their illness. You described a migraine and the aura for that is blue. Your aura is green, however” Paranor shivered. “Has it gone cold?” he asked.
The other man shook his head. He massaged his brow; the pain obviously returned. “Can you help me?” he gasped. He sounded deflated and that pained Paranor. He genuinely liked to help people and didn’t like to see anyone suffer.
Without answering, Paranor arose and went to a dusty bookshelf, too small for the many volumes stacked in disordered array. He selected one volume and returned to his chair, placing the volume on the table where he opened it reverently. He skipped through several pages until he found what he wanted, using his index finger to follow the lines of text as he read.
“There’s a spell of banishment here. I have never used it before, but it must exist for a reason. If you don’t mind, let me try this and let’s see what happens.”
The other man had been leaning forward, but now he sat back, sighing softly. His eyes flickered upwards as though exacerbated.
“It’s worth a try,” Paranor suggested upon seeing his look.
“It does rather seem trial and error to me,” the other man complained. “But, I suppose anything is worth trying,” he looked defeated as he slouched uncaring in the chair.
Once more Paranor sprinkled herbs on the fire before tracing a rune in chalk on the tabletop. He spoke the words of the spell and then fell silent.
“How do you feel?” he asked of the other man.
He shook his head by way of answer. “I do not know.”
“No. No – it is gone.”
Paranor wanted to ask about the gold, but he was too uncertain whether the spell had worked. “Come back tomorrow and tell me how you feel then,” he suggested.
The other man arose woodenly, holding on to the armrest as though expecting pain to cripple his next move. In silence and without even a backward glance he stalked from the room. The door closed silently and the small bell tinkled gently as he passed.
Paranor had expected something by way of gratitude; a thank you perhaps. He shrugged and went back to preparing his herbs.
Paranor turned in early that night. Almost as soon as his eyes closed he fell deep into sleep. A green glow swept into his mind, a premonition of the fear to come. His dreaming mind imagined scratching at the door. His heart raced. It sounded like rats, giant rats at that. He looked about for a weapon and in the way of dreams his mind latched onto a rope lying on a chair in his room. It was an ineffectual weapon, but his fingers clutched it with a fierce intensity. Glancing down, he saw that his knuckles were white and rigid, the veins standing up along his arm like a blue maze, the hairs standing on his skin.
Then the door exploded in a crash of splintering shards of timber and with a cry of horror he jumped back onto the bed, his rope raised like a whip. Something scuttled into the room and he gasped in terror as talons appeared on the bed’s edge. Lashing out furiously with the rope he beat madly at the talons, desperately trying to dislodge them, but to no avail. Terrified, he lashed out again and again, trying to exert greater force with each blow. A creature arose before him and he screamed as he beat it. It was rat-like with a long snout, but the teeth were not that of a rodent’s. They were sharp and more akin to fangs which only served to add to the horror of the visage. The creature’s eyes glowed green; baleful and hate filled. There was little doubt that the creature was intent on his demise.
Paranor turned to flee but his feet tangled in the sheets and he fell. River water cascaded over his head in torrents of sloshing, freezing liquid. He never questioned why he was in a river; nightmares didn’t work like that. Instead, he struck out wildly, trying to swim to the surface. A claw bit into his ankle and he instinctively exhaled, a clear sphere of air drifting from his gaping mouth. Frantically he kicked out and tried to swim upwards, but could not as the creature held him fast.
With mounting horror he realised that the dark waters were changing, blossoming with dark crimson. Water dribbled into his mouth and it tasted hot and of iron. The water was turning to blood, staining his hands and stinging his eyes, his hair billowing behind him like a dark, unfurling banner. Kicking out one last time, his muscles flagging and his heart sinking, he suddenly felt his body rise, his leg released.
Reaching the surface, thrusting through it in a sparkling shower of blood, he sucked air deep into his lungs. Droplets fell like red pearls, landing softly around him and morphing into rose petals that spat and guttered as though on fire. A throbbing pain abruptly split his head. A pain of such intensity that he wept, screwing his eyes tightly shut. Something flashed before his eyes, a visage of a snarling, inhuman face, twisted and slavering.
He awoke, but the pain in his head remained, intermittent stabbing needles of ice like flame. His mind racing, he thought about the stranger and his tale of possession. No. It was impossible. He staggered from the bed, his head pounding, and made his way down the rickety stair to his work room. The fire needed stoking and even that small effort made him retch. He put the kettle in the flames and waited for the water to heat, his hands shaking and his flesh cold and clammy. He felt weaker than at any time of his life. His heart beat and with every beat his head continued to pound. “By the Kalanth, stop!” he shouted out in prayer, but the pain continued unabated.
That was how the stranger found him in the morning; hunched over the fireplace, a cup of boiled herbs held tightly in both hands. A small smile lit up the stranger’s cruel, pale features, his eyes glittering with joy. He was cured, his skin changed in the night to a healthy pallor and seeming to stand taller than before, his lips ruby red and his eyes shining with new found vitality.
“Here is your money,” he said in a voice injected with elation, throwing a small weighty sack on the table with a clunk. “I must say it’s the best money I have ever spent.”
“What have you done to me?” Paranor gasped between bouts of agony, his fingers trembling uncontrollably.
“A succubus, I think,” the stranger answered matter-of-factly.
“Succubus?” Paranor asked in mounting horror, his vision swimming.
“It’s demon spawn, I believe. Not fully a demon, but very much one of their minions. It feeds on pain and I can’t thank you enough for what you have done. I am a sorcerer and dabbled a little too closely in the spirit world, freeing this nasty little creature.” With a final grin, he turned to leave.
“Wait! You can’t leave me like this. You are a sorcerer, help me. Please!” Paranor implored, spittle flecking his white lips, his stomach burning.
The stranger paused and turned around to face the ailing man. He hated to see weakness and especially a man begging. He waved a hand at the money, “Dupe another magic user as I have done. Seek one out and get him to cure you. Keep the money. You will be surprised how willing people are to help for a sizeable sum. I won’t get involved. Once banished it needs a host and leaps to anyone available. I would hate to ne caught out twice.” Again he turned to leave.
“Wait! I tried a spell of banishment. I tried several spells. My magic has failed me,” Paranor said with a whimper, his eyes pleading with the stranger.
“Yes, nasty creature isn’t it,” replied the stranger with a callous laugh. “While I was possessed it fed on fear and magic. It somehow blocked my spell casting too. It is a creature of the spirit world and has access to elementals and all manner of other creatures we can only dream of. You’ll meet some of those in your nightmares. There are lots of them as well; invisible to us and hidden by a fabric of magic.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”
Paranor’s scream of pain and frustration followed the stranger from the shop. He shut it off, closing the door firmly. The sky was blue and the air smelled fresh, for it had rained in the night. It was going to be a glorious day.
By David and Andrew Burrows
Author of the Prophecy of the Kings
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