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The Inner Abyss (Part Two)

—​

The tinnabulum chimes cascaded overhead, marking the hour of Belannos’s ascension and the alignment of the heavenly bodies. Vienne stood at the center of an old magister’s tower, stripped of all its furnishings to bare black bones of basalt and granite.

Everything was as she had imagined it would be. She wore her deepest-dyed robes, embroidered in blue and violet, her hair pinned in a net of golden thread. The materials of her Founding—raw marble, quartz, teak—were stacked around the perimeter of the echoing room. Everything was in order, save her own mind.

She no longer felt the cold grip of panic, only a strange hollow anticipation. Something hummed in the cavern of her head. She had spent another long, haunted night, and could not remember pieces of the morning, yet she stood here, somehow. And it would be over, soon. It would be over.

Grand Magistrix Elesendra spoke, from the center of the dais that held her judges. “Mage Adept Vienne of Lisau. Today you will raise your tower among the spires of Ascalon, and, in its circle, found your mastery. In this space you will study, work, and teach. Should you create a worthy structure, one that carries strength and beauty not only in its stones but in the wards and sigils imbued in them, you will be granted a place in the Magisterium.

“You may begin.”

Seven faces gazed expectantly at her, and sharpest of all were the eyes of the Grand Magistrix. At least she was not required to speak; she did not attempt it.

With utter resignation, Vienne closed her eyes and looked inward.

All was quiet. Ripples spread across the surface of the pool, and the water glimmered dimly like the sea beneath an overcast sky, a reflection of her state of mind, but no disembodied eyes greeted her from the darkness. She knew it would not stay that way, so she began to work.

First, the great sigil of balance, pouring out from her to stretch across the whole of the room. As it parted from her, revolving slowly through the shadows, she let out a pent-up breath. She could do something—even if it was slow and simple, nothing like the masterwork they expected. For all her life, disappointing her teachers had been tantamount to failure, but now that was the least of her fears.

The wards to seal and enclose the room’s magic came next, and when they were turning serenely within the greater harmonic ring, she extended her reach to the weight of the stone around her. The walls groaned; she felt the shift in her bones. Her upturned hands lifted slowly, through the dusty air around her physical body, and through the streaming magic within her.

Blocks of black and green marble began to rise into the air, light as smoke. She pushed them against the wall and pressed them into shape, into columns with unfurling heads. Sweat sprang up on her upper lip, but she had them in the palm of her hands. A hundred times she’d studied this, and practiced it a hundred times more. Thank the heavens, she no longer had to think—the silent impartial bookkeeper of her unconscious mind had taken over.

Then, as she balanced the sigils for elevation and transcendence atop the ring of columns, the low constant panting in her ears finally deepened to a snarl, and the pack rose to its feet in the darkness around her.

Her blood ran cold. But she did not stop in her work; she had come too far to run now. She stood with her feet planted, hands moving slowly through the air, and her magic poured upward ceaselessly.

Slabs of granite now, shoring up the narrowing height of the tower, lifting it creaking towards the sky. Light showed between the cracks of separating stone. The old ribs turned to half-vaulted arches, strengthening the framework. Weight settled back down on the foundation as she balanced on the balls of her feet. She had no attention to spare to the phantoms circling inside her mind, to their mewling and snorting.

Perverse determination seized her, to see this through as she had once imagined it, and with a flick of her wrists she sent cuts of quartz soaring upwards. They floated through a sigil of highest aspiration, and touched the dull distant roof of the tower. She poured power into them, and they glowed, then blazed, white-hot. Far away, she heard the murmurs of the magisters. As suddenly as it had burned, the quartz cooled under the pressure of her mind, to smooth and perfect glass. The ceiling opened upwards into a dome like the bud of a black lily, and she pressed all the petals of glass into it, and through.

It was then, as she gazed up into the translucent pattern of her creation, that the noonday sun reached down and touched her face. A column of light into the vast dark labyrinth of Ascalon.

Something deep within her shivered and blossomed.

Her sigils slowed and stopped in their orbits, and instead a warm shapeless rush of power flooded from her, clambering over the stone, filling every crack and cranny. It felt like release, after so long bound by discipline and wire. She sensed—so strange and close an awareness—not only the weight of the stone, but the trembling possibility of life in the wood and earth around it. This soft rich matter soaked up her magic far quicker than granite or marble, swelling and shining with it.

And in the corners of her vision, that light became growth. Dull lengths of teak and walnut and mahogany, destined for spars and rafters and paneling, sent up branching shoots that thickened to twisting limbs, doubling and breaking out in buds that burst into bouquets of soft green leaves, a dense trembling plumage unfurling into shade as the trunks beneath grew strong, crackling with bark, tall and taller still, until the glass-bright ceiling was brushed by a crown of verdant leaves. And the ancient oak doors and the very wood of the dais before her was gone, changed into living, pulsing trees that dug down roots into the floor and cracked the marble flags into radiant patterns, an upheaval of stone through which green things wriggled, seeds long-dormant in the foundation earth seeking the light and finding it in a spray of green and golden blossoms. Moss and lichen spread like color soaking into parchment, carpeting any still-bare surface beneath the trees. Water, sweet and cold, sprang up from a crack in the far end of the room and spilled down into a winding bed between the stones, glittering like a blessing. And she needed no more wards, for magic was blinding bright in every leaf and fiber, not coldly circumscribed but woven, veined, most deeply intertwined.

Arms outstretched, trembling with warmth and freedom, Vienne gasped for breath. She should have run out of power long ago. As that question drifted through her mind, the green and flourishing chamber faded from her vision, and she saw the quiet dark place within her head.

A shadowy swirl of fur and feathers breathed around her. The daemons no longer stalked her—they rubbed against her, full of eerie vibrating energy. They leaned against her back, against her shins, wings brushing her face, a damp nose on the nape of her neck, prickling whiskers against her palms. Their growls and exhortations ran beneath her skin. They were wild with joy. A low animal moan reached her ears, and she did not know if it came from a beast or from her own throat.

Her pool was empty. Its dark walls went down and down, into her own depths. Unwilling, she was drawn through the frenzy of creatures to its edge; she looked into the black abyss and saw how deep it went.

At the very bottom, through the last shimmer of her power, she glimpsed color and movement. A faraway primeval forest, where between massive trees dappled shapes slipped in and out of sunlight and shadow. She wavered on the brink and began to topple forward.

Vienne jolted back into her senses, sucking in a great lungful of air. But when she opened her eyes she was still in the ancient wood, lush and overgrown and full of soft shadows that twined around the trees, full of smoky wings beating at the air. She was in her own flesh; her hair had all come loose and clung to her sweat-damp skin. She had brought the forest and all its dark creatures with her.

Swaying on her feet, then, she stared at the magisters in their black robes, huddled beneath the entwined trees that had become of their dais, ringed in glaring sigils of protection, though they were meant to cast no magic of their own during a Founding. She stared at the shocked and livid faces and it finally, awfully, came home to her what she had done.

The light and warmth drained out of her like blood.

The Grand Magistrix hobbled forward, her mouth distorted as though she shouted, but Vienne heard nothing for the triumphant roaring in her ears, threaded through by a high-pitched hum.

She turned and fled, stumbling headlong over roots and mossy stones.

—​

Through the hole in the wall where the door had been, framed by curving tree-trunks now, leaves and trailing moss clinging to her. Out, into the silent austere dimness of the corridor. Her feet pounded across the shining marble floor, but she had nowhere to run. All these years of study, her life in Ascalon...it was over.

In that moment she looked up and saw a tall, thin figure standing before a golden window. Unprepared, she met the deep gaze of Grand Magister Oriolanis and quailed.

“Vienne! Steady, my child, what’s wrong?” He put out his hands and nearly caught her, but she staggered back, arms wrapped around herself as she trembled, uncontrollably.

“Master, I have failed my Founding,” she said, through chattering teeth. “I have seen the daemons in my waking hours. I have felt their touch. I have brought them with me into the light.” A strangled sound that could not be a laugh rose from her throat. “I—I’ve—”

“Shhh, now. Come with me. You’ll have another chance.” With a firm hand, he began to steer her down a side corridor. How could he be so calm in the face of what she’d done? “Come, Adept, there is something I should show you.”

Dazed, she followed, and how many steps it took she did not know. But they were at the alabaster door to the Grand Magister’s tower. He guided her gently into his study, but did not lead her to a chair, as she had hoped. Instead, his fingers stroked a mahogany panel in the wall, and it slid back to reveal a dim passage.

Within, a curving stair sank down into the foundation of his tower. Vienne leaned against the cold walls as she passed, bewildered and, at least, distracted. Her head ached abominably.

A spartan room of black basalt, lit by simple torchieres, lay below. Little furnished it: only a workbench with a few scrolls and papers scattered across it, and a stone pedestal at the center of the roughly-paved floor. A greater contrast with the ornate and lofty chamber above, she could not imagine.

“I failed my first Founding as well,” Grand Magister Oriolanis told her calmly. “This is the remnant of that attempt, that I have built upon. It serves me well as a reminder.”

“You…?” Vienne croaked.

“Yes. No interruption of daemons, I am afraid. My well of magic was simply too shallow, as it has always been.”

Vienne stared at him, straightening despite the thrumming pain in her head. “How can that be? You...you raised the bridge to Annumias, you crafted the wards of the...the royal tombs...” It was hard to get the words out; her tongue was numb.

“I keep my pool freshly filled.” Simple words, but she could not comprehend their meaning. He nodded towards the pedestal in the center of the room. “Look there.”

She moved forward, hoping for clarity. A book sat atop the pillar, bound in plain leather. With the willow-leaf mark of Lisau stamped upon it.

“This is my book,” Vienne whispered. “The Book of the Bosque.” Legends and sylph-tales, given to her by her grandfather when she left for Ascalon...given up again in her apprentice years, in repentance of misguided peasant ways. She stroked the worn cover, and opened it.

The pages were covered in black sigils. Dozens, hundreds of them, overlapping… Sigils of summoning. Scattered in were spells of paralysis, confusion, stupor… And summoning, summoning, relentless summoning.

With her fingers on the page, she felt the lines of magic connected to these sigils. A thousand fine strands, invisible, imperceptible, save here, at the focal point from which the web was spun. A discordant buzzing echoed through her head, compounding the blinding pain. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t breathe.

“A well-loved book carries not only the imprint of your hands, but of your mind. It is a way in.” Grand Magister Oriolanis shook his head, smiling to himself. “You never thought it possible, did you? Such is the problem with you peasant prodigies. You mistake raw strength for power. Far more can be achieved with subtlety and patience.

“This could have been over long ago, if you had only gone to someone and confessed the madness. Instead, because of your stubbornness, it had to be a spectacle...”

A loud grinding rumbled through the stones. Vienne dragged her head upwards, to see a space opening in the wall. In the shadows there stood a terrible shriveled shape, surrounded by rings and rings of intricate glowing sigils. A body so grey and dessicated that she could never have recognized it if not for the robes it wore in blue and red and thick white embroidery, Bosque patterns. A book was clutched in its skeletal hands.

“Corim,” Vienne whispered. He had always worn those robes to ceremonies, like the one where he went mad and vanished…

“You should last me far longer than he did,” Oriolanis said. “Don’t worry, Vienne. You’ll feel nothing.”

Fear found her at last in the distant place she had retreated to. She spun—off-kilter, her limbs heavy and disobedient—to see that there was no longer a door or passage in the wall, only smooth unbroken stone.

Shadow and torchlight reeled wildly. As she reached out, the floor rose up precipitously and met her with a hard blow. Numbness stole over her arms and sprawled legs. A thousand strands of magic, lodged deep in her skull—inexorable as poison. And she had no power left to fight.

As her mind dimmed, in one eye she saw Oriolanis standing over her, waiting. In the other eye she saw the dark and empty pool of her magic, as though she lay at its bank, dying slowly of thirst.

Glowing eyes blinked up from the blackness around her. The daemons still answered their summons.

They crept towards her, and closed in. The soft damp leather of a panther’s nose touched her skin.

Vienne gathered every last spark of energy she possessed, and forced her lips to move. She did not know, even then, if she truly spoke, or if her words were only a murmur in her head, an echo of childhood memory from the edge of the Bosque.

“Etorriame, sylphae. Adua arianatus...zurea amaluthidea...ema…” Come to me, night-beasts. My dreams be thine. Thy magic be mine.

She had no breath to speak inois vate, forevermore; the incantation hung in the air and faded, incomplete.

But it was invitation enough.

The beasts threw up their heads and bayed, and roared. Her heart opened to them again, but she had no fountain of magic to give, only a last faint pulsing. They gathered their power in furling wings and haunches, and lunged into her dim perception of the waking world. Oriolanis stumbled backwards, arms upraised in defense. She saw the panther leap, saw the antelope’s horns lower, and then her vision turned to yellow and black, then grey and black, and then there was nothing.

—​


Vienne woke slowly, drifting up through dark waters, conscious of having been near the surface many times before, of fragmented images: hands and silhouettes and bright magelight.

She could feel her face, brushed by a cool current of air, and could crack open her eyelids. The blinding whiteness beyond resolved gradually into an ornate limestone ceiling, daubed with pale morning light. She knew this place.

Someone moved at the edge of her vision, and she could look over and, after a while, bring their face into focus. A warm, sun-browned, familiar face.

“Master Llewyn?” she whispered. “You were in Invernia… How long…”

A smile deepened all the worried lines of his face. “I came for your Founding, Vienne. We’ve been three days untangling you from that spell. I’ve never seen anything so insidious.”

Her throat constricted. “Oriol—” She choked on the name. Master Llewyn reached for a glass of water at the bedside and helped her up to drink. The green blur of a healer’s hood hovered in the background as Master Llewyn spoke in a low voice.

“He’s under guard. He denies his role, but...there was enough evidence, enough witnesses to the workings of his spell. We’ll have justice.” His fingers tightened on the bedclothes. Vienne, lying back again, didn’t have the energy to move her own hand, but wished she did.

“I was waiting with everyone in the receiving chamber when the chaos became clear to us, in the form of Magistrix Elesendra,” Master Llewyn went on, with a wry twitch in the corner of his mouth. “Half of us magisters went looking for you, and found nothing, until a remarkably vivid bird-sylph appeared and all but drove us to Oriolanis’s tower. The sylphae had torn their way from the hidden chamber, through solid stone, and when we came down the room was full of them, keeping Oriolanis at bay. They wanted very deeply to save you. Whatever doctrine says of their natures…”

Vienne swallowed, uncertain. “And Corim?” she whispered.

Master Llewyn gaze fell. “We were far too late. I’m sorry.”

She stared up into the sunlight, feeling an echo of grief and terror pass over her like a spasm. It was a long moment before she could speak again.

“What am I to do now?”

Master Llewyn leaned forward in his chair, brow twisting. “Your tower—while it may be incredibly unconventional, it is beautiful, Vienne, and no one could doubt the strength of its enchantments. We’ll gather a new panel, of more open-minded magisters, and call for a review—”

Vienne shook her head. That wasn’t what she meant. “I...I have learned enough from Ascalon. Too much.” She barely heard the words tumbling from her mouth, but she felt them. “I want to travel through the Bosque for a while. I want to go home.”

She closed her eyes, holding back the threat of tears, and wished she hadn’t spoken. She didn’t want to hear the protestations and reassurance. But Master Llewyn was quiet. When she looked at him again, there was a bittersweet ache in his eyes.

“I understand,” Master Llewyn said, and she knew that he did. He rose from his chair to lay a light hand on her shoulder. “I’ll see to it that you can. Rest, now.”

—​


Blue mountains lay like a bank of clouds along the horizon, their peaks soft and bright with sun. The ancient forest slumbered at the foot of the mountains, its shade rolling down into the valleys, moss-green and deep as the sea. Hills thick with trees turned to patches of farmland, bounded by low stone walls. And down at the foot of a grassy field, almost close enough to touch, sat a sprawling farmhouse with white shutters and a roof in patterns of red and blue slate. It had been twelve years, but the moment she set eyes upon it, it felt as though she had left only yesterday.

“Go on,” Llewyn said in her ear. “I’ll take the horses by the road.”

Vienne looked back at him, shielding her eyes against the sun, and bit her lip against an irrepressible smile. “Thank you,” she said, and scrambled down the ridge into the haymeadow as though she were a child again.

The long grass rolled with the wind, and the scent of new flowers and sun-warmed green washed over her. Her cloak and her hair floated up around her as she walked, parting the grass with her teak staff.

A hawk called from nowhere, and as she lifted her hand, a bird-shape rippled into being, dark and brindle-brown and gold. Its feathers brushed her fingertips before it swooped away and vanished again. Vienne grinned to herself. They felt life through her, and now, as she looked down across the meadow and saw her mother’s red scarf bobbing through a wild spring garden, her joy was contagious.

The Magisterium still could not decide what to do with her, nor whether she was a victim or a madwoman. She wanted to be neither, and knew that this was where she was meant to be, right now: learning from tales and village elders, practicing a new way of magic, and listening to her own heart in the shadow of the Bosque.


—​

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