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Authors: Megan Derr

Tags: #General Fiction

Dire Straits (4 page)

BOOK: Dire Straits
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Combined with what Ezell had already given him, the large influx of demon blood was all the additional power he could ask for. He felt it course through him, overheating him, exhilarating, stirring the restlessness, the need to
the recklessness—

Class Six Priests were the only class allowed to supplement their magic by ingesting demon blood. The rigors of Exorcist duties required the supplementation, otherwise, Exorcists risked burning out their magic, even killing themselves. Drinking demon blood added needed power and strength and muted such things as fear and hesitation.

But it came with side-effects:  restlessness, aggressiveness, recklessness, cockiness. Demon blood came with demon attitude, and calm weed only helped so much. Experience had taught Bannick to curb the rest, but the temptation to let it get to him was never too far below the surface.

Prepared, Bannick pulled out his
Book of Prayers
and opened it to the chapter on warding. Earlier, he had drawn runes in and recited spell work to hold the dire demon for a few hours. It should have been sufficient. It hadn't been. He would not make the same mistake twice.

Extending one hand toward the stable, palm forward, fingers spread, Bannick summoned his magic, focusing it as he began to recite a prayer of warding, pouring out all his energy into it. He recited the words loudly, clearly, shouting to be heard over the noise of Ezell and the dire demon fighting, forcing strength into the ward, willing it to hold no matter what.

By the end, he was shouting loudly enough to hurt his throat, but then silence descended as the ward worked, and he and Ezell both collapsed to the ground, sweaty, panting, exhausted as hell.

"It won't last long," Bannick finally said. "Dires rot right through my work."

"I only need a couple of hours," Ezell replied. "Just need to build a suitable dire trap now we've got him caged in there." He pulled out a kerchief and wiped sweat from his brow then stood up with a groan. "I'm getting too old for this shit."

Bannick laughed and slowly stood up himself. "Don't say that, Ez. It you're anything like me, we don't get to retire."

"Just die dramatically getting eaten by something," Ezell finished with a sigh. "You got any juice left, Ban? We could use a kick start."

"Surely," Bannick replied and tossed his flask. "Wiped out, even fused?"

Ezell nodded and raised the flask in thanks before draining the contents. "We've been busy the past couple of months. Never really get a chance to rest and replenish."

"You shouldn't have given me your blood," Bannick said.

Shrugging, Ezell smiled and replied, "We wanted to give it."

Bannick's brows rose. "That is three times you've said 'we', Ez." He moved closer to Ezell, capturing his chin and tilting his head up. Little bits of yellow flecked his eyes, glowing ever brighter as more took over the hazel. "So … how much is you, and how much is the demon?"

"We're pretty merged," Ezell said quietly. "Like he said before, we're both always present. But when I have to use my magic, or when things get het up, he tends to be the stronger personality."

"What's his name?"

The yellow flared, took over, and a growly voice replied,
"We do not care about names. We are Ezell Underwood. One day, there will be no we, only I. Could you handle that, Father?"

Bannick let him go. "Do I look like I can't handle a demon? But we have other matters at the moment."

"True enough," Ezell said, the yellow abruptly dimming, reducing to mere flecks amongst hazel again. "Building the cage is going to take awhile, if you want to build a fire. If you happened to find some coffee somewhere…"

Smiling, Bannick withdrew to build the campfire and hunt out sustenance.  He went into the house and found coffee and food, leaving more than enough coin to make up for it. Then, remembering how the destroying the dire was going to end, he left enough coin to cover the stable that was going to burn down in a few hours. Back outside, he built the fire and set the coffee to brewing, watching Ezell surreptitiously. Curiosity was driving him crazy, and he hated waiting, but waiting was what he would have to do before he got any satisfaction.

Those born with the ability to use magic could focus it on one of five general categories then refine it down to a specialty within their chosen category. The five main branches were Rune (or Old) Magic, Alchemy (or Modern), Sympathetic, Transformative, and Necromancy.

Rune Magic, often called Old Magic, was the casting of wards, spells, incantations, runes, and other such things. Of the five branches, it was the most powerful and, alongside alchemy, one of the most laborious. It required extensive study, an ability to read Old Runic, the mastering thousands of runes, spells, and incantations—the sheer amount of information, and the amount of energy required to do it, had kept magic to very limited circles for centuries. It was too hard for any but the elite to have the time and money involved. Even with the advent of alchemy, Rune Magic remained the most elite of the branches.

Alchemy was new magic, modern magic. It was a melding of science and magic, requiring less magical energy to get greater results.  For centuries, it had been sneered at as peasant magic, simply because it required using as much science as magic, rather than simply relying on knowledge and the mage's power. But as it persisted, it became harder and harder to ignore as a legitimate branch of magic.  Like Rune Magic, it was powerful and required a great knowledge base. The only difference was the type of knowledge—Rune Magic focused more on runes, lore, history. Alchemy required a heavy scientific foundation. But without alchemy, such things as the silver and rune bullets and thousands of other items would not exist.

Sympathetic magic was often called charlatan magic. Empathy, telepathy, mind control, dream reading—these and other similar magic were the purview of sympathetic magic. Especially talented practitioners could even persuade the body to heal itself at an accelerated rate, and while it was nothing like the stories made it out to be, the healing ability had saved many a life.  But unlike Rune Magic and Alchemy, which required extensive study, sympathetic required training one's mind; it required strong control over one's mind, and then learning to handle the minds of others. It was also an imprecise art. Reading a mind, interpreting dreams, was not as simple as reading words upon a page. It was more like looking at a page that had gotten wet and caused the ink to run and trying to make sense of what was left.

In addition to mastering the mind, Transformative magic required complete mastery of the body; it required
one's body via magic, and it could be a brutal thing to learn. More than a few mages had died in the attempt to master transformative magic. But the prize for mastering it was the ability to shift shapes, to become something new. Transformative mages generally mastered two forms in their lifetime. The highly skilled could learn three, even four. Rare was the mage who had mastered more. Of the five, it was the most dangerous branch to master.

Necromancy was the most esoteric of the branches, almost more a subcategory of Rune Magic, than a branch of its own. Many described it as the shadow of Rune Magic. Certainly it was true that all necromancers started out as practitioners of Rune Magic and simply went down the path of contorting and twisting their energies, learning to see the shadows and the dark and everything that dwelt in them. Bannick had once met a necromancer who described necromancy as learning a terrible secret—it could not be unlearned, it could not be taken back; a necromancer had to learn to live with the knowledge, because once on the path of necromancy, there was no getting off it.

Though necromancers were held in awe and even fear, for they, more than any other magic user, came from a sordid history, they had a true and proper place in magic. Necromancers alone could interact with the dead, reading to some degree their final thoughts, final emotions, even occasionally the last things they had seen.  Ghosts, poltergeists, vamphir—these were the dominion of necromancers.

Then there were the dires. Any alchemist or rune mage could make a dire, but once made, only a necromancer could destroy it.

Bannick sipped his coffee as he continued to watch Ezell. Though necromancers had a handful of options when killing a dire, the dire cage was the most effective. It literally confined the dire to a space—the stable in this case—and steady unwove all the magic that had first brought the dire into being.

In lesser dires, this was a simple enough process and took only moments. The final stage of a dire cage burned whatever was left of the remains, along with whatever else was trapped in the cage, ensuring that no part of the dire remained.  In most cases, destroying the dire took only minutes. Bystanders typically only saw the capture and the burning as the unweaving of the magic itself was too quick and subtle.

With a dire demon, however—and one that had been growing in power for nearly a hundred years—it would take time. There were faster methods, but they were draining, dangerous. With much of their energy spent just to trap it, better to move slow and steady than risk screwing up by choosing a faster method.

So he let Ezell work, staying quiet and out of the way, but watching avidly as the work was done. It was rare he got to see a necromancer at such complicated work; most often he crossed paths with necromancers for minor matters—ghosts, the odd vhampir.

No one knew what made a good necromancer, and no necromancer could ever really say what tipped the scale for him. The dark called, was the most frequent answer, and Bannick could understand that well enough.  From the moment he had realized magic was not truly evil, he'd wanted to study Rune Magic. 

After his family—his town—had thrown him out, he had used what money he'd had to make it to Crown City. When he'd arrived, his options had been few, but he'd never forgotten the priest who had saved his life, the one who had made him question the belief that magic was wrong.

His family had already disowned him, told him never to come back—what was there to lose? So he had joined the Priesthood. He had worked his ass off, was fluent in Old Runic by fifteen, had finished his apprenticeship by seventeen, and practically skipped his white collar before gaining blue at just twenty-two.

He had never meant to go further than black, but when red had fallen across his path, Bannick could only heed the call.  There were days he loved it, days he almost hated it, but there were never days he regretted it.

It took nearly three hours, but finally Ezell motioned to him, drawing Bannick from his meandering thoughts. Bannick obediently rose and walked over to him, carrying a second cup of coffee that Ezell gratefully accepted. "Would you look over my work? I've never done a dire cage this complicated."

Bannick's brows rose at the words. "Now I know necros deal with dires now and again, but that sounds like you've dealt with more than your fair share."

"I've become something of an expert," Ezell replied. "They telegraphed me the moment they suspected a dire up this way."

Bannick nodded and looked over the Old Runic Ezell had used; it was a perversion of Old Runic, really, often called Black or Shadow Runic. It twisted magic toward the dead, and if Bannick tried to use it, it wouldn't work—his magic had not bent that way. "I think you're good."

"Then we simply wait and make certain nothing falters or breaks," Ezell said. "Your ward did its job; now even when it finishes rotting, he's trapped. Thanks." Ezell leaned up and kissed him softly.

"All in a day's work," Bannick drawled and nibbled at Ezell's lips, drawing out another kiss.

Ezell smiled and laughed suddenly. "It's so strange, hearing you speak
, where everyone sounds like you. I always wondered, every time I came this way, if I would see you or someone who knew you. I remember you never talked about your family much."

Pushing up the brim of his hat, Bannick said, "Back then, family was still hard to talk about." He pointed a finger to the east. "My kin are about thirty miles that way, a town called Sacred Moon. They're a private bunch; witch hunters to the last man."

Ezell's eyes widened briefly in surprise, and then he winced. "You come from Purists? I never would have guessed that, not as comfortable as you are with magic."

"Let's sit a spell," Bannick said and guided Ezell back to the campfire, pouring them both more coffee. "I was a priest 'til all of eleven, when I was out fooling around like only a young boy can. Nearly got myself killed falling into a canyon. A travelling green collar saved me, took me home. I was fascinated and appalled at how mean my town was to him. Two years later, I was driven out of town for being a blasphemer."

"Now here you are," Ezell said with a smile. "Even more impressive now than you were fourteen years ago."

"Che," Bannick said dismissively, ducking his head to hide behind his hat. "So what about you? How did a student with no interest in magic become a necromancer and fused with a demon?"

Ezell glanced toward the stable, studying his marks, listening to the snarling and wailing of the trapped dire demon.  He took a long swallow of his coffee then finally said, "A professor. He'd invited half a dozen of his 'finest new students' to his country home for winter break. We were all bursting with pride, lapping up everything he said and did. This great professor, spending his time with us!"

BOOK: Dire Straits
5.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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