They brought Nabybee before the court in shackles, guarded by drawn witchfire and bound by a petrification weave so complex it made my head spin. He might as well have been crucified with the way they had his arms and legs strapped to the rack. Leave it to a magistrate of the High Court to make a martyr out of a monster.
We all stood to honor the magistrate, regardless of the trial’s outcome.
Magistrate Apocaplex guided Nabybee past my row. His eyes, so filled with hate and bloodlust, snapped to me, his lower lip quivered. He shouldn’t have been able to do that. Not with the number of protections they had in place. He should have been dead-frozen while they paraded him across the courtroom floor, but this man, remember, was Nabybee.
Bastion. His voice, like the hiss of a thousand serpents or the last sands of an hourglass counting my final hours, penetrated my mind. It wasn’t his voice; I’d heard his true voice every evening in my dreams since that night on the cliff side. It was the voice he wanted me to hear. Bastion, stand against me and you’ll regret it. This trial won’t change a thing. Your life and the memory of your little girl are the only things at stake here. It’s not too late to do the right thing.
But it is, Nabybee. It was too late as soon as you unleashed the storm. If anything, you brought this upon yourself.
He couldn’t hear me; I wasn’t cursed with the Gift. I didn’t hold such heresies above the Great Good. I wasn’t trapped by the same preconceived notions of power. I still feared God and his sway over the forces of the earth and thought nothing of the so-called Four Powers.
Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire. And, to men like Nabybee, Life and Death. Those were the pillars of their profane existence.
When the dark wizard first came to be known, everyone in the kingdom had an opinion. Even my wife, despite my position, joined the conversation. But I don’t blame her. The news, and the rumors, spread like wildfire to all walks of life.
“Bastion, it is our right by birth to wield the Gift. Why would we squander such pure, arcane power when it’s done so much for the prosperity of the kingdom?” Julianna asked. “Sure, your kind has helped in your way, but nothing like what we’ve provided.”
My kind. Giftless.
If she’d been there…If only she’d stuck around long enough to see what the Gift had wrought upon those poor villagers…upon our sweet, precious little girl. My wife had other plans; she experimented with one too many dark magics and lost herself to a fate worse than death. When they took her from our cottage in the dark of night, I hadn’t the energy left to save her.
“I’m not saying we should completely eliminate magic,” I told her. “I’m only saying…”
But everything to follow was moot, as I was now weak in her eyes. Why would those with the Gift ever relinquish it? There was no way I could possibly understand, and she refused to take the time to teach me. After the magic took her, I took it upon myself to study with one of the masters—a man I found through patient inquiry and dumb luck. I wanted to understand; I wanted to see it through my wife’s eyes. What I learned added strength to my convictions. Magic was dangerous and needed to be restrained.
It was not, however, until Nabybee that I fostered enough courage to step forward.
Crimson magelight flared behind the magistrate’s bench. Three nodes, representing the third day of the trial—three days of disappointment for the only real victim present. The only one left alive to tell the story, at least. Apocaplex astral projected, first to the stands to convene with the jury, then to his head bailiff, while he in the flesh organized the messy array of parchment laid out before him on his lectern.
As he snapped whole again, he boomed, “Please, have a seat. This court is now in session.”
Silence fell thick as fog. The familiar ringing in my ears came screaming back.
“Release the weaves from the defendant. Order the prosecution forward.”
Tendrils of blue-green energy poked their heads from the veins around Nabybee’s wrists and neck, retreating from his bloodstream and back into the air to rejoin themselves to the veil of power I did not—could not—understand. The shackles around his ankles, there mostly for show, snapped open and clattered onto the marble floor before disappearing in a sizzle of silver sparks. Nabybee gasped, hoarse and shallow, and fell to his knees as if he were taking his first breath. Four Prima Magi, wizards gifted solely with the ability to augment others, surrounded him before he could stand, staffs armed and eyes alert. The head bailiff ushered him to a crystalline dais in the center of the courtroom, summoning an impenetrable bubble of static around him.
“Is all this really necessary?” I heard him mutter, an arrogant half-grin on his face. “It’s not as if I can go anywhere with you people breathing down my neck, is it?”
The head bailiff could not answer even if he wanted. They rent his tongue from his mouth upon selection for High Court, but a look from him was ten times more persuasive than the most eloquent speech any practiced orator could muster.
Nabybee bowed. “Very well, then. Proceed.”
And the third day of Nabybee’s trial, my day to speak out against his many atrocities, officially began.
As Magistrate Apocaplex went through the mundane proceedings, my jaw chattered, and a terrible palsy came over my hands. My fingers shook so violently I worried they might shake straight off their knuckles. I worried my neighbors might sense my agitation and judge me not a credible witness. “See this fidgety Giftless?” they’d say. “Who is he to dictate our ways?” But no one noticed; they were all mesmerized by Nabybee.
The double, oaken courtroom doors swung open. The crowd turned with hushed anticipation towards the commotion. In swaggered a tall, white-haired man with flowing, emerald robes. Matching green tattoos swirled in perpetual motion across his cheeks and peaked above his piercing, silver eyes. He clanked his staff rhythmically on the tile as he approached the magistrate. To Giftless and Gifted alike, he needn’t an introduction.
Because of this man, Nabybee’s guilt was undeniable. On the first day, the inquisitor, Mace Balladuex, one of the most ruthless and efficient of his order—and the most arrogant—was called to the stands. I’m still not sure exactly what I witnessed, but there was fear—close to the level of fear I feel every day Nabybee and his like roam untethered—in the dark wizard’s eyes. Much like the magistrate’s astral projections, a black, demonic silhouette removed itself from the inquisitor’s body. With fingers like icicles, the shadow moved about Nabybee’s mind, prodding his hippocampus, awakening his darkest memories, until, scene by scene, the ritual replayed itself before our eyes. It had been so real I thought I was there.
Deep in the Great Mountain, down below into the depths of Hell we traveled. There, standing alone in a chamber forged by lava no larger than a common privy, but with a vast rocky ceiling higher than the clouds, he played. Surrounded by bones, covered in streaks of blood and flesh, Nabybee chanted. The timbre of his voice resonated throughout the courtroom. We could feel it in our hearts, hear it in the vibrations of our teeth. A young villager, snatched in her prime, was tied to a stake, hanging over a bed of spikes fashioned of bone. On her face, resignation. In her eyes, horror. She’d drowned herself in tears but had no more water to give. It was the end of her, this once beautiful, innocent young thing, and she knew it. We of the court knew it, too.
A roiling cloud appeared above them. Purple lightning flashed, tethering itself to Nabybee and to the woman. He cried out in pleasure. She screamed in pain. Columns of electricity built themselves into a living storm, striking the walls and the floor of the chamber. Her skin began to char, to peel from her bone. This is when I lost my breakfast and when I knew it had been too late for the girl and my village as soon as Nabybee had made up his mind.
All that was left was to show them my side of the story, to convince them something must be done to stop this from ever happening again. I’d have to face Mace Balladuex, open myself up to him completely. I’d have to abandon my convictions and everything I’d fought so hard for, if only for a few, vulnerable moments. It was up to me to show the world of magic how serious their problem had grown and how much worse it could get if they continued to do nothing.
“Ser Bastion James,” the magistrate called. I gulped sharp rocks. “Take the stand, please. The court would like to hear your testimony now.”
I felt like a ghost as I rose and inched past the anonymous family sitting next to me. The ringing amplified. Sonorous whispers from the crowd surrounded and battered me as I took the spotlight. The closer I drew to where Nabybee stood, the more pungent the aroma of his static ward became. It was singed hair and melted iron.
I remembered watching my grandparent’s cottage burn as a child. The woodsy vapors of the timber, and the sickly, sweetness of them left a lasting impression on me. Now, in his presence, the horrible loss of two people who had always been a staple in my life came rushing back. They too had been taken by a power-maddened wizard like Nabybee. An abomination. A false god.
Nabybee winked at me. You’ll never see them again, you know?
If I were a braver man, I would have lashed at him then, strangled him with my bare hands in front of everyone. Then again, I knew not the properties of his ward. It was likely they were designed to keep others out as much as him in.
But it was not the dark wizard who frightened me the most.
There he was, in all his splendor and gold embroidery, sneering at me from the magistrate’s side: Mace Balladuex, the most dangerous man in the room. But he wielded his power for the right people, the people who wrote the history books. So, no matter the consequences, his powers were celebrated. His Gift was for the “greater good.”
He spoke reassurance to me, but his exact words were garbled by the thrumming in my ears. My mouth was barren, my palms moist. The closer I got to him, the further away he seemed to stretch. Maybe if I kept walking, he would fade into the distant courthouse walls. Maybe he’d fade out of existence altogether and this whole experience would turn out to be a fantasy.
There was no ceremony to it. The demon shadow separated from the inquisitor, floated like smoke towards me, and stabbed its formless fingers into my mind. A shout caught in my throat, suspended in time. Spasms gripped my every muscle. Ice spread through my veins, hot and cold at once, and inescapably empty. Then, like living it twice, every agonizing second played in my head in vivid color, projected also to an audience of disinterested strangers.
“Come on!” Natalia said, grabbing my wrist and pulling me towards the cliff. Her eyes twinkled in the morning sunlight. “They’re going to start without us.”
Clouds like cotton balls lazed across the sky. I followed her. The lapping of waves from a hundred meters below, the familiar call of gulls, and the taste of sea salt on the tip of my tongue reminded me how it felt to be alive. Our planting was done. The Spring Festival, one of two times each year we celebrated the glory of life, was upon us, and the others had already sewed their seeds in the valley, built their cairns along the cliff’s edge, and prayed for the bountiful times to come.
I, of course, had done the same. I had also spent the better part of the year studying magic, trying to understand. Maybe that could be a thing of the past. Now, I got to spend time with my daughter, reveling in the miracle of her being, and that was all that mattered.
But she looks so much like her mother. In her eyes the most.
“Dad, we’re going to miss the whole dance!”
Once a year, we danced for the soil and for the rain. We danced for our cattle and for the strength of the trees. We danced for the newborn children who graced our village over the last year. This year, we had a lot to dance for. It had been a joyous season of plenty.
The children were always the first ones to arrive at the cliff side. They ran circles around each other, trailing streamers of every color of the rainbow. When they tired of their dancing, they sat cross-legged in circles and clapped hands or played selkie-selkie-siren until the elders arrived. We were up to thirty-four children now, more than there’d ever been in Unndover, and that was all the magic we ever needed in this world.
It was too bad Julianna wasn’t around to see them. She would have cried tears of joy at the opportunity to teach so many little ones. Alas, some lessons are learned too hard and too late.
Natalia and I were managing, though. Sometimes I lost sight of everything we had to be grateful for. The Spring Festival was exactly what I needed—what everyone needed. An opportunity to put the past behind me, forget about the scarlet-robed men who came and took away the love of my life, and simply enjoy my daughter’s company.
As the day grew old, and the moon rose in the sky over the sea like an heirloom platter, the festivities moved into full swing. There was face painting, magic tricks, storytelling, and acrobatics. We even had a contortionist from the great city Donne, who awed both the children and adults alike. The elders came, gave their speeches, and offered their appreciations. My eldest cousin, Alexa James, was honored for delivering her fourteenth child last week. She’d been born infertile, but her purposes went beyond her own body. Without her midwifery, any number of the thirty-four might not have seen the light of life.
When the elders left, the instruments and mead came out. Old Man McCann carried the tune on his flute, while the Santarro sisters played along on lutes. Before long, the impromptu band had everyone, myself included, stamping their feet and clapping their hands. I let Natalia try a sip of my mead. She scrunched her nose—that was also her mother’s nose—and spit the honey-hued liquid onto the grass.
Around midnight, I took my leave from the festival. We’d been at it for quite a few hours and it was high time to relieve myself. I chose the relative protection of the Wednesday Willow and thought myself the luckiest man in the world.
Looking upward to the sky, my reverie was abruptly ended by a sudden angering of the night.
A clap of thunder boomed across the sea, rattling the branches hanging loosely around me. Lightning flashed blue, close and sinister. Suddenly, the clear sky was covered in thick, black clouds. They rushed towards us and the waves below could be heard breaking high on the cliff face. The hairs on my arms stood straight up. A tingling sensation crawled across my skin, burrowing into my flesh like sand fleas.
I heard Natalia’s scream first and buttoned midstream. I sprinted up the hill towards the festival, calling her name, but she didn’t answer. The screams of my loved ones, my neighbors—my kin—echoed.
When I reached the top, I saw what had elicited the wails and nearly fainted. But I kept my wits for my daughter’s sake. In the sky, well above the surface of the sea, an insidious visage was forming. First the body, lithe and larger than any vessel I’d ever seen, then a maw of sharp, thirsty teeth, and finally two horns like wheat scythes. The Devil, because this spirit could be no other, unleashed a guttural laugh from its belly as it stretched its arms towards us. It plucked one of the Santarro sisters off the ground by her pigtails and tossed her to the dark waters far below. Then, it crashed bodily upon the cliff, shrouding us in an impenetrable fog.
Desperate, I felt around in the darkness. “Natalia. Natalia! My sweet Natalia, where are you, girl?” I shoved my way around faces I no longer recognized. Faces twisted and disfigured with fright. “Natalia!”
“Here, father,” she answered, but I could not pinpoint where her voice had come from. “I’m scared, father. Please, help me.”
I never found her, for the next unimaginable thing to happen was the worst horror I’ve experienced in all my life. Where the darkness had settled, tiny sparks of electricity began to pop and sizzle. They’d start in one place and spread through the darkness before burning out. Where they traveled, the mist cleared enough for me to witness how the village of Unndover was wiped from history.
Old Man McCann, pale-cheeked and red-eyed, slammed into me. I held onto him, keeping him from tumbling off the edge of the cliff, but sensed something wasn’t right. His skin seemed to bubble, and the whites of his eyes were visibly throbbing. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words formed. A bolt of lightning shot upwards from his throat. Layer by layer, his skin charred, cracked, and sizzled away. Thinking of my daughter, I tossed him from me into a crowd of people. When they caught him, he exploded, and forks of lightning pierced the others and started an abrupt, violent chain reaction. One by one, everyone I had grown old with turned inside out, burned away, and exploded in thunderclaps. The force of the cataclysm sent me flying backwards, over the edge of the cliff and into the dark waters below.
The waves tossed me ruthlessly about like some piece of flotsam. There was an unnatural persistence to these waves. I had always been a strong swimmer, for we used to visit the Southeastern Bay on market days where we’d swim and eat exotic fish and breads and forget about the coming labors. For a time, I managed to overcome one colossal wave only to be plummeted below the surface by the next. They sent me flailing into the depths of the sea, desperate breaths burning in my lungs. What brief glimpses I caught above the surface showed the turbulent waters pushing me ever closer to the cliff face, where I might find purchase on a happenstance outcropping or more likely be dashed against sharp rock.
As I saw my life coming to a swift end, a geyser of water shot me straight up alongside the cliff and held me there, defenseless and scrambling for something to keep afloat. The water passed me from side to side until I found balance on my back. I was face to face with the same insidious visage that had wiped the village of Unndover off the map.
Its upper lip curled. “Go now. And spread word of what you’ve witnessed here. This is the beginning of a new era of magic with me, Nabybee, as its herald. Whisper my name. Shout my power from the rooftops. Let the people know. Go and tell them I’m coming.”
I blacked out; the silhouette of his face was forever emblazoned in my memories.
I found myself writhing on the floor, gasping for empty breaths like a snapper washed ashore. My body felt cold and tight, and the taste of iron soaked my throbbing gums.
“I will have order in my court,” the magistrate yelled, sending a bolt of blue into the domed ceiling that made me whimper and the courtroom shudder.
The hushed whispers from before had broken into riotous outrage. Everyone was trying to be heard at the same time. Only two people in the courtroom remained collected: Mace Balladuex and Nabybee, himself.
The latter once again fixed his blood-boiling eyes on me. This, you know, is not what I meant. These are not the people you should have told. His glare sent ice through my veins. It’s a shame, really. I would have spared your life, in the end.
“Ser Bastion, do you testify to the accuracy of the scene we’ve witnessed here this afternoon?” The magistrate banged his gavel to be heard over the crowd. “Ser Bastion!”
I recovered my wits and, hoarse and stammering, said, “I do, Your Excellency.”
“And do you have anything to add to the testimony?”
Gathering my remaining strength, I drew myself to my full height. My knees rattled and my body felt heavy and lifeless, but the ringing in my ears had finally gone away, leaving me with only my dubious convictions.
Before saying my piece, I turned to Nabybee and, for the first time since the beginning of the trial, stared him dead in the eyes. He looked pallid and worn, the antithesis of the arrogant tyrant brought in three mere days ago. I could tell that my memory was the first time he had seen the carnage his infernal ritual had wrought.
Locked in with the dark wizard, I said, “I do, Your Excellency. If it would please the court, I’d like to make a case for total proliferation of such magics.” A susurrus of dissent followed. “Aside from this man’s most recent genocide of the entire village of Unndover—and I call it genocide very much deliberately—dozens of similar incidents have occurred across the east coast of Lann. No one should wield this sort of power without, in the least, some regulation.”
“These types of magics are paramount to our way of life, Ser Bast—”
Emboldened, I said, “With all due respect, Magistrate, they are paramount to your way of life. They’ve become so ubiquitous that you are blinded to the truth: Untethered magic is not only criminal but blasphemous. Protections must be put in place. Power must be removed from the hands of those who seek to use it to destructive ends. Men like Na…Nabybee—monsters like Nabybee—must not only be punished for their atrocities but castrated before the atrocities can be committed.”
“We Gifted call it nullification, Ser Bastion. And we do not turn lightly to such harsh and final measures.”
“Call it what you will, Your Excellency, you don’t practice it nearly as often as you should.”
Apocaplex sent an anticipatory wave of invisible energy at the crowd to silence their growing unruliness. Their admonishments were stifled with enough force to blast their chairs backwards. After which, no one besides the magistrate dared speak for quite some time.
“Ser Bastion, you do realize if this court limits the rights of magicians, those like Nabybee seeking to use their powers for ill will have free rein over the hearts and minds of the masses, don’t you? Why take magic from the hands of those willing to fight for commoners such as yourself, when those very powers are what brings the hammer of justice? This court will not be the paragon for your movement. The Gifted will not be swayed by the desperate begging of a Giftless. One who is still clearly struck with grief, nonetheless.”
“Your Excellency, you saw what—”
“While I am sympathetic for your loss, I have nothing more to say on this matter. You, and your village, have already been compensated by the Academy for what happened.”
“There is no village left to compensate, and coin won’t bring my people back.”
Somewhere behind me, Mace Balladuex cleared his throat. All attention shifted to the Emerald Inquisitor. He carried himself across the courtroom with grace, a golden specter in the dark, and bowed to me as he approached the bench.
“If I may?” He tipped his hat to the magistrate who grimaced.
“Go ahead, Inquisitor.” I knew he had no other choice. Even in the High Court, the magistrate held no authority over Mace Balladuex.
I could sense his subtle manipulations of the court as he spoke, felt him prodding at their wills, breaking down their walls. Along with many other cerebral talents, inquisitors had the ability to sway people’s thought patterns, alter their virtues, if not completely control their minds. He could not flaunt such power openly in the magistrate’s presence, but it was there, bubbling silently on the surface of every word he spoke.
“As many of you know, I come from Donne, a mere pauper of a cook’s servant risen to a station well beyond what I deserve by hands holding more strings than my own. But that’s not important, we’re not here to talk about me, are we? We’re here to bring justice to Nabybee’s countless victims. To make right where we Gifted went so wrong.
“Donne is a rather progressive city, always has been. About three years ago, we banned all dark arts such as necromancy and blood magic. Death rates have dropped and, if you look at the numbers, it has become one of the safest cities this side of the Howling Wastes. And one of the most prosperous, might I add. All walks of life exist in harmony, working together to ensure a better tomorrow. For everyone, not just those in power.
“I met Nabybee in passing while he was but a Neophyte at the Academy of Magicians. Even then, amid an atrocious attack on the Academy by like-minded dark wizards, his masters begged this court to intervene, to do something about his growing power. After little consideration, you demanded his Nullification and sent him on his way, doing nothing to address the underlying problem: unrestrained magic. Specifically, magic beyond the Four.”
I gasped. Nabybee had been nullified once before? The sneer on his face showed he knew exactly what I was thinking.
“You know full well what horrific deeds wizards have committed in the pursuit of magic’s full potential. We needn’t look further than the Wastes to the north. That was once a fertile land, a veritable paradise expansive enough for Gifted and Giftless alike to share in its bounty, but power-hungry, careless wizards, some backed in secret by members of this very court, unleashed the fury of heaven and earth on one another, ripping those lands asunder, burning the forests to ash, and laying waste to the lives of millions of innocent people. They will never recover; those people are essentially lost, trapped in the pages of a dusty history book. These crimes—these genocides, as humble Ser Bastion articulated—aren’t the only accounts of the horrors of untethered magic, but they are among the worst.”
“Your point, Inquisitor?”
Mace Balladuex regarded me with a child’s smile. I couldn’t help but smile back. This was the push I needed. Here was my champion.
“My point, Magistrate, is there might be some validity to Ser Bastion’s concerns. Maybe we should look to some of these more progressive cities as examples of what we ought to strive for. Don’t our wonderful citizens deserve as much? I beg you, good sirs and madams, to heed this young man’s words. Stop this madness before it drives us all insane with grief and loss. I’ll likely lose my position taking such a strong stance, but someone must do something. I implore you, reconsider before there’s no one left to grieve these horrible—yet preventable—tragedies.”
The courtroom erupted, no longer bound by the magistrate’s gavel.
“How will I protect my family?”
“What about defending our city against the barbarians to the far north?”
“If you take magic from the right side of the law, the wrong side will have free rein over us! We’ll be more vulnerable than ever.”
“We must do something! We must protect the Giftless.”
“Down with Nabybee!”
“Praise the Four Powers.”
And so on, and so forth.
Nabybee, resigned to his swift fate, cackled loudly, a sound that overpowered even the most adamant complaints from the crowd. He tilted his head back and rocked with pleasure. Through the pain, through the burning, the dark wizard laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
Drawn by his psychotic cackling, I hazarded a glance in his direction and knew he’d had enough of this charade of justice. He was standing, despite all restraints against him, and mumbling under his breath. The ground beneath my feet began to rumble, tiles splitting down the center and broken fragments of marble levitating from the destruction. The four columns of justice, each standing for one of the Four Powers of the Earth, broke apart in splintered chunks.
Throughout the stands, the defenseless onlookers fell silent. Their veins bulged, throbbing red, and blood swam to the whites of their eyes. I could feel their pain through their silent screams as if it were my own, but somehow—I presume because he wished to save me for last—I avoided the writhing agony placed on them by a desperate man.
The head bailiff, his powers enhanced by the Prima Magi, squeezed his hands into fists, crushing Nabybee’s bones with the circular walls of his static ward. As Nabybee died, his maniacal laughter boomed throughout the courtroom.
Only death could silence him, in the end.
What happened next was a blur. My wild protest fell on deaf ears. The Prima Magi constrained me with invisible binds and dragged me kicking and scratching out of the courtroom.
The last thing I saw, before being locked in this cage, was Magistrate Apocaplex and Inquisitor Mace Balladuex engaged in a heated debate, the crackle of latent magic swirling around them.
I hope my plea for mercy, for sanity, fell on the right ears. I hope, for my daughter Natalia and the village of Uundover, for all those innocent families destroyed by magic, for all those lost souls left alone in the aftermath, that someone, anyone, who can do something about this madness heard reason in that courtroom. But I am not optimistic. I will likely die in here, chained at the neck and ankles, safe from a world gone crazy, trapped in a cage of my own making.
Please…please…I beg you…Come and see my vision realized.
Maybe it’s the inquisitor. Or maybe it’s someone else. I don’t care, as long as they are willing to stand with me.
One silver-lining remains, however. Nabybee, and his devilish devices, has been forever silenced. I like to think my daughter can find solace in that, but I wonder what Julianna would think of all this.
The inquisitor has visited me on more than one occasion since the end of the trial. He has ensured me great progress is being made. I expect him next week. Hopefully, he will bring me the final retribution I deserve—the retribution we all deserve.
Maybe he can even free me from this false imprisonment. If not, at least I know he is working to right the wrongs of his kind.
Originally published in Sword and Sorcery Magazine’s January 2020 Issue. Visit www.swordsandsorcerymagazine.com for a bounty of additional fantasy stories.