Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The End of the Matter

by Robert Moriyama


(Author's Note: This story concludes the long-running (or limping) saga of the wizard Al Majius versus the undead superwizard Aaron Morgenstern (who calls himself the Morningstar). A number of characters and spells introduced in earlier chapters play major roles; new readers (and even 'fans') of the series may want to read at least some of the "Materia Magica" stories by the same author before tackling this one. (Use the Back Issues search for "by Robert Moriyama" and select stories with the word "Matter" or "Matters" in the title.)

Githros na E'dran, demon, former familiar and now partner to Al Majius, brought one ham-sized, spike-festooned grey fist down on the polished ironwood table in the boardroom of Majius Magical Services. "By Gilgamesh, I think I've got it!"

Al winced as the darkly gleaming tabletop flexed and rebounded, expecting it to collapse as several of its predecessors had, but the protective spells held. Still, it looked like one of Githros's spikes had left a gash in the wood, even with magical shielding.

"Nothing contagious, I hope," Al said. "If I hit the table like that --"

"You'd break your little pink hand," Githros said, "which is why I handle the rough stuff. What I meant was, I think I know why Morgenstern is so anxious to kill you."

Al rolled his eyes and ran his fingers through the short sandy brown hair on his magically-disguised head. "Let's see now -- I dared to survive when he tried to kill me before, I've used the magic learned from the books he gave me to help me to defy him ..."

"You're missing the point," Githros said. "Points, actually. First, why did he try to kill you in the first place? After all, without your Summoning spell, his forty-nine deceased lackeys wouldn't have risen long enough to revive and supercharge him. And second, how did you survive?"

"Um -- to the first point, he figured that giving me the books was enough to balance any debt he owed me, so when I accidentally apported into his living room -- or unliving room, as the case may be -- I was a convenient and legitimate target. As for the second point -- beats me. I still don't know how I managed to apport us out of there. The spell he used to freeze me should have kept me from even thinking about escaping."

"Right," Githros said, leaning close enough for Al to count the scales on the demon's armored brow. "It should have. But it didn't."

Al sighed. "So what, exactly, is 'it'? What have you figured out that the combined wisdom and experience of all the Magisters has missed?"

"You're a threat to him, Al," Githros said. "Maybe the only threat. Your magic was the catalyst that brought him back -- your magic can put him down. The debt thing -- giving you the Morgenstern Grimoires may have seemed like payback in human terms, but it didn't sever the magical connection between the two of you."

"No, that can't be right," Al said. He pushed his chair back and stood. "I've hit him with the most powerful offensive spells I know, and barely managed to dim his aura --"

Githros shook his head. "Your sleeve, with a fraction of your spirit and power, hit him while your body and most of your soul were hidden in one of the College's dimensional hidey-holes. And I don't think combat magic is the key here."

"He blasted the sleeve to ashes," Al said. "If I'd been there in the flesh -- my own, not a conjured simulacrum -- I think he would have done the same to me. And anyway, if combat spells aren't the answer, what is? Should I conjure a nice surf-and-turf dinner for him? I finally got that one to work after a few months working with Morgenstern's Grimoires."

Githros grinned, exposing more fangs than should have fit even in his oversized mouth. "It's the Summoning, stupid."

"What?"

"You accidentally Summoned the spirits of his forty-nine flunkies. They then fulfilled the geas he laid on them in return for granting them power, and gave their strength to him.

"So ... what would happen to everybody's favorite green-glowing Morningstar if you Summoned them out of him?"

####

The doubly-warded sanctum of the Conlegium Magistris -- the College of Masters of the magical arts for the Americas -- was crowded, the normally dank marble-walled chamber almost uncomfortably warm. A dozen black-cloaked senior Magisters, Al in his normal slacks and shirt, and Githros, naked except for scales, spikes, and massive dignity, barely left room for the ancient, scarred mahogany table and enough chairs for all those in attendance -- except Githros. Githros, of course, was too large for most chairs at his preferred height of three meters. Even without a chair, he took up as much space as any three of the other occupants of the room.

Magister Sciavone, the pale, age-furrowed flesh of his face twisted in thought, said "Githros's idea makes sense, Albert. The College Masters have believed from the beginning that you and Morgenstern were inextricably linked, but Githros is the first to truly define the nature of that connection."

Githros chortled. "Hey, before I was Al's enforcer, I was his research assistant."

"Then we have the answer," Al said. "We have a way to bring Morgenstern down to a manageable power level."

"We have part of the answer, Albert," Magister Blackstone said. The Master of Combat Magic had recovered from the burns and broken bones suffered in his own battle with Morgenstern, but still moved hesitantly, without the effortless grace he had shown when tutoring Al.

"Go on, Alistair," Sciavone said. "I believe I know what you mean, but it is better if we all speak freely."

Blackstone leaned forward, wincing as he put more weight on his arms. "Albert can Summon the spirits empowering Morgenstern, releasing them from their bondage. Undoubtedly, this will weaken him -- even removing one spirit from his grasp will break the power of seven-times-seven that raises his strength to near-godlike levels. But he will still be more powerful than any of us individually, or even all of us together, until most of the forty-nine spirits have been stripped away from him."

"He'll feel it when his strength begins to diminish," Magister Cagliostro said. "And he will not allow it to happen without a fight."

Blackstone nodded. "If, as Githros believes, Morgenstern insists on killing Albert because he knows that only Albert can Summon away his strength, Morgenstern will do everything in his considerable power to find Albert and prevent him from continuing to unmake him. All his previous rampages will seem like single bolts of lightning compared to a hurricane..."

"I'll have to be there, where he can find me, if we want to limit the scope of the destruction," Al said. "No sleeves, no glamours."

"And we will have to protect you as best we can," Sciavone said.

"I think it's time to expand on that 'we'," Githros said. "Al has some favors he can call in -- allies outside the College and its European affiliates. And I think we're gonna need all the help we can get."

####

Al was surprised when the Countess Lamia, ruler of the vampires of Europe, responded to his message with an invitation to meet at noon, Bucharest time. His studies of Wallachian magic texts had confirmed the old tales about the vampiric aversion to sunlight and tendency to rest during the day.

He was even more surprised when he apported into Lamia's private quarters to find the heavy curtains and shutters that normally prevented even the narrowest beam of daylight from entering the oaken-beamed stone chamber wide open, and Lamia standing silhouetted by the sun streaming through the Gothic-arched window.

"Countess -- doesn't that hurt?"

The Countess turned away from the window and smiled. Aside from large and very dark sunglasses, her pale, preternaturally beautiful face seemed to be unprotected. She removed the sunglasses and raised one perfect eyebrow. "The old texts never mentioned it, of course," she said, "but surely you are familiar with sunblock?"

Al nodded. "Sure -- but I thought the purifying power of sunlight would be fatal to beings as, er, unholy as Wallachians even with --"

Lamia laughed, her voice as pure in tone as that of a coloratura soprano. "It is not ordinary sunblock, of course," she said. "It is very expensive, and frankly, the smell is unpleasant to us. But I thought I should learn to tolerate it -- unless you intend to confront Morgenstern at midnight."

"You intend to join the fight in person?" Al asked. He sniffed the air, wondering exactly what constituted an unpleasant smell to an undead immortal blood-drinker. There was a hint of a vaguely medicinal odor -- Camphor? Eucalyptus? Shaking his head, he continued, "I thought you might lend us a few of your more skillful warrior mages, but for you to take part in the battle -- Countess, we're not sure if any of us will survive this."

Lamia sighed. "I am aware of this. I have lived a very long time, and would like to live longer if I can. But Morgenstern must be stopped, and you must do it. And while all my people owe a great debt to you for preventing what might have been war between humans and Wallachians, my personal debt is greater still."

Al said nothing. He felt like a child granted a great favor by a queen, for reasons he could not fully understand. After a long pause, he said, "If you mean that duel I fought as your champion --"

"That, and your friendship," Lamia said. "Wizards and Wallachians do not often cross paths, even now when we have been at peace for many years. It has been -- refreshing -- to work with someone who does not curry favor out of fear or greed."

Al crossed the room and offered his hand. "I am honored to be your friend," he said.

Lamia took Al's hand between her own. Her skin was soft and cool (but not as cool as Al had expected) and her touch was gentle.

For a moment, Al forgot that she was a veteran of wars that had spanned human lifetimes, and he wanted to persuade her not to join the fight against Morgenstern. But she seemed to sense his thoughts, and began to tighten her grip.

"Ow. Ow! Countess --"

She released his hand, and said, "I thought you needed to be reminded that I am more than capable of fighting -- and of deciding for myself when I should fight. When you need me, I will come. I will bring some of my best -- what did you call them? Warrior mages. And I believe I have something that will be of use to you and your other allies, as well."

Al massaged his hand, trying not to whimper as the joints worked their way back into their normal positions. "I don't suppose you have a dragon we can borrow..."

She laughed again, shaking her head. "No, I am sorry, no dragon. But this sunblock I wear -- with Wallachian amulets to cloak your allies in shadow, it might provide some protection from the heat and glare of Morgenstern's aura."

"I -- damn, it might just work. If he's facing multiple attackers, Morgenstern will probably resort to cranking up the wattage to blind or cook them all at once."

Lamia winked. "Not only can you teach an old Wallachian new tricks, she can devise her own." She sketched a complicated symbol in the air, conjuring an impossible pool of darkness in the middle of the shaft of afternoon sunlight, and vanished.

Al apported back home with something that almost felt like hope in his heart.

####

Grwaarloom was still hot, still dusty, and still bathed in golden sunlight that Al thought would turn any Wallachian into vampire jerky in spite of whatever magic sunblock they might wear. He was somewhat apprehensive as he trudged from the unwarded apportation nexus into the compound of the Alpha and his family; after all, he was a medium-sized human in a world of intelligent lion-people, and it was entirely possible that he would be viewed as legitimate prey rather than as a friend of Grroolarrgrlar himself.

Fortunately, the adult lion-people he encountered still remembered him from his earlier visits, and only one of the cubs actually tried to bite him before his mother hauled him away by the golden-furred scruff of his neck. Lacking Githros's armored hide, Al was glad that the cute little tyke with the inch-long fangs had been intercepted before he could develop a taste for wizard blood.

A stalwart young lion-man ushered Al into Grroolarrgrlar's den. It was only when he saw both the Alpha and the younger lion-man together that Al remembered why Grrool was the Alpha: while the guard probably outweighed Al by a factor of two or more, Grrool was nearly twice as large as the guard.

"Magister Majius! I have been expecting you," Grroolarrgrlar rumbled. He did not smile -- Al recalled that displaying one's teeth was considered to be a sign of disrespect or even aggression among the lion people, and kept his own teeth covered.

"Grroolagla -- er, Grroogle-rrowr --"

"Please, call me Grrool, as I advised you before," Grroolarrgrlar said, his whiskers twitching and his molten-amber eyes narrowed.

Al forced himself to stand his ground although all his ape-instincts were telling him to run. Then he remembered that Githros had told him that whisker movement and half-closed eyes were a sign of amusement. Grroolarrgrlar did look a bit like a pleased housecat at that moment. Or maybe a pleased cat the size of a house...

"Er, thank you, Grrool. And you should call me Al," Al said at last. But it came out sounding like "Rrrrthagoo, Grrull... Unooshakalmuh Ull", since Al still couldn't bring himself to risk exposing his teeth.

Grroolarrgrlar's chin sank to his massive chest and his whole body shook. "Grrwaharrharrr! From what I have heard, I should be afraid of you, Al. All my strength would not protect me if you chose to use your magic against me..."

"After which I would be dinner for the next in line for the Alpha -- er, throne," Al said.

"True," Grroolarrgrlar said. "With you dead and -- digested -- it would appear that my rival had killed me in fair combat. Fortunately, no one has dared to use such subterfuge since your demon companion downed Rraagrraal with a single blow."

"Very fortunate for me," Al said. "I'm glad that our work has had a lasting effect on the, um, political situation here."

"But that is not why you have come," Grroolarrgrlar said. "The news is spreading across many Realms that you and your College plan to confront the Morningstar at last. And you seek help from all who have the strength and courage to stand with you."

"That's right," Al said, suddenly worried. If Morgenstern knew that they were gathering forces for a final battle, he might decide to strike first...

Grroolarrgrlar tilted his head to one side, sniffing the air. "This concerns you," he said. "You fear that the foe may know of your plans --"

Al nodded. "Yeah... if there are rumors circulating in your Realm, there are probably ads for pay-per-view coverage in the high-traffic dimensions. Which means I need to speed things up if we're going to take the fight to Morgenstern for a change."

Grroolarrgrlar said nothing, but looked at Al with one tufted eyebrow raised.

"Oh!" Al exclaimed. "When I said 'we', I didn't mean that I was assuming that you were with us on this -- I mean, I hope you'll join us, but --"

"Your enemy is my enemy, Al," Grroolarrgrlar said. "The Morningstar has never directly attacked Grwaarloom, but we have heard of his acts of destruction and murder elsewhere. We kill to eat, or for dominance, or for defense. He kills simply because he can."

He roared.

Al felt like his testicles were trying to climb back into his body. He cringed instinctively, his shoulders drawing inward to protect his chest, his whole body vibrating from the sheer power of Grroolarrgrlar's voice.

The young guard returned, accompanied by two females bearing polished wooden boxes the size of big-city phone books. Grroolarrgrrlar took the boxes and passed them to Al.

"Thornwood from our oldest trees," Grroolargrrlar said, "to be fashioned into wands, if there is time. I will be at the place you choose for the battle, along with my best magicians and shamans."

Still shaky, Al stammered, "Th-thank you, Grrool. The thornwood you gave me before made extraordinary wands -- able to hold twice as much mana as any I've ever handled, and better for focusing ad-hoc spells, too. And you and your wizards will probably throw Morgenstern off stride just by being there -- I don't think he's ever faced your people before."

"One way or the other, he will never face us again," Grroolarrgrlar said, his gaze steady.

Al shuddered. "One way or the other," he repeated. "We will send a messenger when it's time."

"We will be ready," Grroolargrrlar said.

####

"I can muster a pack of F.A.C.T.-infected, if it'll help," Billy Taylor said. "Those amulets you came up with that let us stay compos mentis when we go all fanged and furry have made life as werewolves a lot easier. Of course, most of us don't use the modified hex darts so we can change any time we want to instead of just around full-moon time, but for this occasion, I think --"

Al shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, Billy, but even with your brain working normally, your wolf form isn't very effective against Morgenstern."

Billy sighed. "Yeah, I know. Last time, I just bounced off his aura and got my fur singed for nothing. But Countess Lamia says her wizards can give us some protection from the lime-colored sunburn factor -- and we all heal fast."

Al refrained from pointing out that a pile of ashes -- which was all that remained of his magical doppelganger after Morgenstern got through with it -- didn't heal at all. "Maybe your guys can serve as a diversion -- not attacking, just running around and making noise. If he can't concentrate, it'll be harder for him to use any sophisticated spells."

Clearly disappointed, Billy nodded. "If that's what you think is best, Al," he said, "that's what we'll do. We -- I just want to be there for you."

####

"I have to be there, Al. It's not up for debate."

Al groaned and scrubbed his face with his hands, trying to direct fresh blood to his brain. "You could die, Janine," he said. "Even with the best defensive charms and amulets, you could die."

Janine Taylor Majius pulled her husband's hands down and locked eyes with him. "I know that, Al. And I know that with no magical potential of my own, all I can do is fire off some pre-charged wands at him. But I won't -- I can't ..."

Her eyes filled with tears, something that Al had only seen a few times in almost ten years of marriage. Oh, he'd seen anger there, and disdain, and joy -- but the last time he'd seen her cry, Janine had been afraid that Billy would be killed as a rogue werewolf. He and Githros had managed to save Billy, but this time, it was more likely than not that he and many of his allies would be injured or killed. He couldn't lie to her -- she was too smart for that, and too familiar with the situation -- but he couldn't think of anything but a lie that might ease the burden of fear and sorrow that was weighing her down.

"I can't just wait somewhere for you to come home," she said.

"With my shield or on it... Leonidas Majius, that's me!"

"What?"

"I don't know if there will be three hundred of us, and there's only one of him, but this is one of those Sparta-versus-the-Persians hopeless battles," Al said. "And that makes me Leonidas -- brave, noble, handsome, --" He struck a heroic pose, but pushed his shoulders forward to make his chest concave, and forced his stomach into a dome-like shape.

"It's not funny, Al," Janine protested.

Al stuck out his chin and glared at a spot on the far wall. "Hurry up and laugh, Janine," he muttered through clenched teeth. "Holding this pose really hurts."

She shook her head and embraced him, deliberately resting her head on his outthrust belly. "You've always been my hero, you know," she said. "Even when you were kind of a buffoon who never did anything right."

He kissed the top of her head. "Thanks, honey, you -- hey, you thought I was a buffoon?"

"Kind of," she said. "But you were my buffoon. And I'm going to be there when you take on Morgenstern, even if all I can do is make rude gestures and swear at him."

"Give him that look you used to give me when I screwed up. There's no defense against that."

She pushed him away and glared at him.

"That's the one!"

####

The meeting between the Magisters, Grroolargrrlar, and Countess Lamia was a tense affair, and Billy Taylor's presence didn't help. As soon as he entered the heavily-defended room at the Conlegium Magistris, Billy realized that lion-men, vampires, and werewolves didn't mix well -- it went against deeply-rooted instinct for predators of different species to cooperate.

When he explained this, the seating arrangements were adjusted to try to minimize the instinctive hostility. But even with the Magisters positioned around the table to separate the carnivores, there was a lot of snuffling as vampire scent irritated werewolf nostrils and werewolf musk triggered subsonic growls from Grroolargrrlar.

Billy's experience as a lawyer allowed him to control himself somewhat better than Lamia and Grroolargrrlar. He was, after all, accustomed to dealing with factions that hated each other (and him), to say nothing of working for people he loathed (Al, Janine, and Githros being among the clients he actually liked).

"I'm not an expert on magic," he said, "but I've studied a lot of treatises on strategy and tactics, and spent a lot of time with Al reviewing everybody's particular strengths and weaknesses. Boardrooms and courtrooms are, metaphorically at least, a lot like battlefields, so if nobody objects, I'll go over my suggestions for how we deploy our forces." No one objected -- the Magisters were curious about what (if any) insights he might have, while Grroolargrrlar and Lamia were still trying to suppress the urge to tear each other's throats out.

"Al has convinced me that my informal werewolf group should avoid any direct attacks on Morgenstern," Billy said. "He's right, mainly because in human form, we're -- human, and in wolf form, we don't have the dexterity to use wands or even amulets properly. We're durable, especially with passive defenses like the ones the Countess Lamia is supplying, and we're fast without resorting to apportation spells. So -- we will hang back a bit, run around, and make noise. If Morgenstern's aura gets snuffed, we may try a direct attack, but for the most part, we'll try to distract him."

Lamia raised one perfect eyebrow, surprised that such a rational suggestion should come from the most primal of supernatural beings. "This seems reasonable," she said. "By moving rapidly across his field of vision, you may draw his attention away from those apporting or using shadow gates. It will still be risky for your people, of course -- our amulets and protective ointment will not ward off a concentrated attack, and you may anger Morgenstern enough to draw too much attention..."

Billy nodded. "Al has saved my life more than once, and improved the lives of my F.A.C.T. buddies more than anybody can imagine. We're ready to take a hit for him if we have to."

Al found himself turning red. "That's -- thank you, Billy. I don't know if I deserve that kind of sacrifice--"

Billy grinned. "I said we'd take a hit for you -- or at least risk taking a hit. But rest assured we'll be doing our furry best to not get hit. We're grateful, not suicidal."

He turned to face the Alpha lion-man. "Now -- Grrool's people have some of the same natural weapons -- strength, speed, fangs and claws -- that my gang has, but they also have a magical tradition that Morgenstern probably doesn't know too well, and the dexterity to use any pre-charged wands and amulets as well. Al also says that their voices can be a weapon of sorts, too. So -- they can be shock troops, using shadow gates to pop in and out, launching their own spells and firing pre-charged wands, and once in a while, just letting loose with a roar. Morgenstern's aura seems to protect him from most things, but as far as we know, sound gets through just fine."

Grroolargrrlar rumbled his agreement, then added, "Like you, we will also welcome the opportunity to make close contact, should his aura begin to fail..."

Billy turned toward the Countess. "The Wallachians have strength, dexterity, and magic -- but may be more vulnerable to Morgenstern's aura, even with their sunblock and amulets. Countess -- you have a lot of options, but could be at greater risk than most of us if you try to get close. Your people could approach Morgenstern in mist form, but you might get burned as soon as you returned to solid form..."

"It may be best if our tactics remain unspoken," Lamia said.

"Are you suggesting that Morgenstern may have spies in the Conlegium?" Magister Sciavone, Al's mentor and sponsor for provisional Magister status looked angry -- but not entirely dismissive of the idea.

"It is possible," Lamia said. "Those who have seen Albert Majius's ascension to great power with Morgenstern's Grimoires in his possession might believe that they too could prosper with Morgenstern's help. And Aaron Morgenstern once convinced forty-nine lesser wizards to pledge their souls to him in exchange for less power than Albert has attained."

Before anyone could object, Lamia continued, "What I meant, however, is that Morgenstern might be observing us through magical means. Albert, the Grimoires you studied contained spells of this type, did they not?"

Frowning, Al nodded. "We allowed for the possibility that he was watching after he flambéed my Sleeve. But this room is in a dimension all its own, and it has wards tighter than anything I've ever heard of."

Lamia smiled gently. "Nonetheless, let me say only that we hope to surprise him, and our chances are better if only we know what we plan. You may rely on us to contribute to the battle in many ways, including a contingent who will launch Wallachian spells from a relatively safe distance. And our other contributions will not interfere with the attacks by the Magisters and Grroolargrrlar's people..."

Billy nodded reluctantly. "All right -- I guess. You have about four hundred years of experience in actual wars, so I have to defer to your wisdom on this. I guess we can proceed with the exchange of party favors." Seeing looks of confusion, he said, "Weapons and amulets and ointments, I mean!"

Lamia provided supplies of the special Wallachian sunblock and amulets to generate shadow cloaks and shadow gates. "These will provide some protection -- and mobility even through conventional warding spells."

Grroolargrrlar distributed wands that had been prepared by his shamans, charged with spells unique to Grwaarloom. Both Billy and Lamia could feel something like the magic of The Wild surrounding the wands.

"These should be held in reserve until Morgenstern's aura has at least been weakened," he said. "They bring forth a kraal of thorn trees that will entwine and entrap -- very strong and even resistant to heat and flame, but probably vulnerable to the aura at full power."

Finally, Al handed out bundles of amplifier-gem-studded blasting wands made from the thornwood wands Grroolargrrlar had provided earlier. "These will -- well, you know, make holes in things, so be careful of friendly fire if we happen to surround Morgenstern. They probably won't make much of an impression on his aura, but the flashes generated when the spells disperse should provide one more distraction while I try to Summon his flunkies' souls out of him."

"That's it then," Billy said. "We just need to pick the time and place, and invite Morgenstern to the party."

A green glow appeared in the center of the table and expanded rapidly, scorching the table and forcing the group back.

"No invitation is needed," Morgenstern said. "I believe the party should begin now!"

"Everybody out!" Al screamed. "Use the shadow gates! Go to Mount Avalon!"

"Fleeing will do no good, Magister-elect Majius," Morgenstern said. "Your foolish plan will fail, no matter when or where you try to carry it out. And you and all your pathetic allies will die."

Al looked around the room. Everyone had made it out, some using Lamia's shadow gate amulets, some apporting under their own power.

"Catch me if you can!" Al cried, and vanished with a thump of inrushing air.

####

The almost-level plateau that formed the peak of Mount Avalon looked much as it had when viewed through the eyes of Al's magical duplicate, aside from the scorch mark left by the incineration of that surrogate body. In addition to the Magisters, Countess Lamia, Grroolargrrlar, and Billy, several more Wallachians (identifiable by their oversized sunglasses) and lion-men had arranged themselves in a loose circle around the perimeter. Some faced outward, some faced the center of the plateau, anticipating Morgenstern's arrival.

"Al! Thank god you made it out! I thought that he --" Janine threw her arms around him, crushing him against the wand-and-amulet-filled pockets of her sheepskin vest.

Al felt his legs grow weak. "Janine," he rasped, "you're here..." The one good thing about the sudden activation of the plan had been that he had expected that those not in attendance at the meeting would not be able to get there in time. But somehow, Janine had learned that the battle was about to take place, and had found her way to the mountaintop.

"Looks like I'll be the only representative of the F.A.C.T. brigade," Billy said, patting Al on the shoulder. "I managed to use Lamia's shadow gate amulet to go get Janine, but there wasn't time to contact the other werewolves."

"Thanks, Billy," Al said, glaring at him. "I really appreciate your help."

Billy winced, realizing Al's meaning. Sorry, he mouthed. But -- he pointed at Janine, then at himself, then made a slashing motion across his neck.

Sorry, but she'd have killed me if I hadn't brought her here, Al interpreted. He rolled his eyes and nodded.

"Why is Morgenstern not here?" Grroolargrrlar growled. "Surely he must have heard you send us here." He shivered; his clothing (or lack thereof) was better suited to the endless heat of Gwaarloom than to a mountaintop swept by icy winds.

"Surely he is not afraid to face us," Countess Lamia said. "Even if he truly understands your plan, his ego would not allow him to acknowledge any threat to his power."

A bolt of green-tinged lightning struck near the center of the plateau, sending a hot spray of splintered rock into the gathered allies. One of Grroolargrrlar's shamans roared in pain and slapped one hand against a bloodied eye; others dabbed at blood oozing from a dozen minor wounds.

When the dust cleared, Morgenstern was there, hovering a few centimeters above the ground. His aura formed an ellipsoid shell of coruscating emerald light around his idealized naked form, so only his face could be seen clearly.

"I do not need to understand your plan," Morgenstern said. "The schemes of mortal men and wizards pose no threat to a god."

There had been no time to practice, but the essential elements of the plan and the tools that would be available had been known for some time. All of Al's friends and allies knew that they must distract Morgenstern at all costs to allow Al to perform his Summoning spells.

Without prompting, each Magister spun a Fortress spell around the handful of allies closest to him or her. The individuals inside these domes of protective magic then activated their shadow cloaks; those who had not already applied the Wallachian 'sunblock' slathered it over their exposed skin.

Morgenstern roared with laughter. "This is your plan? You gather a pathetic group of Magisters, vampires, and beast-men, and then all cower behind shielding magic?"

The shadow cloaks concealing the Wallachian mages collapsed as their occupants used shadow gates to change position. Morgenstern laughed again.

"Already your allies abandon you --"

A shadow gate appeared only a few meters in front of Morgenstern, and Countess Lamia emerged.

"I am Lamia, descendant of Vlad Dracul, ruler of all the Wallachians of Europe. Your madness ends today!" From behind her, red sparks appeared in the shadow gate, first two, then six, then hundreds. She stepped back, and a horde of rats poured forth and launched themselves at Morgenstern.

The attack had no chance of harming the undead wizard. Even protected by tiny amulets and well-coated with the Wallachian protective ointment, the little animals burst into flames as they made contact with the searing energy of his aura. But even as dozens perished, dozens more used their carbonized corpses to climb higher, and that had the desired effect: for the minutes it took for the thousands of rats to finish their suicidal charge, Morgenstern's attention was fully engaged.

Still within his shadow cloak, protected by a Fortress spell raised by Magister Sciavone himself, Al began to execute their real plan. "I Summon the spirits of the forty-nine who slumbered near Harry Finkel at Beth Israel Cemetery. By my power you rose to serve Aaron Morgenstern; now I call you forth to set you free!"

The last of the rats turned from living creature to living torch to charcoal and ash. Lamia withdrew into the shadow gate, but not before Morgenstern gestured and a tongue of green fire slashed across her face. The Wallachian ruler hissed and vanished through the gate, but she did not scream, although her perfect face had been ruined for all time.

Al chanted, "Avram Shiolkovsky, I Summon you, and set you free! David Abramowicz, I Summon you and set you free!"

Morgenstern grimaced. "What -- I feel --" He did not see the pale apparitions that struggled free of his body and faded from sight.

Another Wallachian wizard appeared behind Morgenstern, his shadow gate wavering in the increasing glare as Morgenstern instinctively increased the power of his aura. He made a complicated series of passes with an ebony wand, and retreated into his gate just as a cluster of clouds formed overhead and quickly condensed into a boiling black mass.

Lightning crackled down from the clouds, blue-white, and struck again and again at Morgenstern. None of it penetrated the swirling shell of green energy, but the noise and the glare served its purpose.

"Josef Roshinsky, I Summon you and set you free!" Al recited. "Marvin Greenbaum, I Summon you and set you free!"

One of the Gwaarloom shamans appeared to Morgenstern's left, shaking his head and blinking as he emerged from the shadow gate. He raised a horn to his mouth and roared.

Even twenty meters away and heavily shielded, Al felt the ground shake. Dirt and rock exploded into the air all around Morgenstern's aura, and inside the green glow, Morgenstern winced and raised his hands, as if to cover his ears.

But the lion-man waited too long to retreat. Morgenstern turned toward him and swept one hand across his body, fingers held bent into claws.

Curving blades of emerald fire carved blazing trails across the shaman's chest. He roared again, this time in agony, then fell to the ground, convulsing as his body was consumed from the inside.

Al bit back a wordless cry of rage and despair, and forced himself to continue. "I -- I Summon Adam Bronstein and set you free! Lev Sipowicz, I Summon you and set you free!"

Two more ghostly forms separated themselves from Morgenstern and vanished. Six down, forty-three to go, Al thought. And already two casualties, one maimed, one dead...

There was a pause. The death of the shaman had broken the momentum established by the allies -- it seemed that no one wanted to be the next to risk everything for the cause.

"I feel -- this is your doing, Majius, I can sense it," Morgenstern snarled. "Are you using your mana-draining artifacts again? They will not save you -- not again." Morgenstern thrust one hand toward the clump of shadow where he had last seen Al, and a tentacle of green light shot out and hammered at Magister Sciavone's fortress spell.

Sciavone grunted, muttering spells to reinforce his defenses. "Best hurry, Albert. He does not know what you are doing, but he knows enough!"

Al winced as another blow made the air inside the fortress spell reverberate like a bell. "Jonathan Perling, I Summon you and set you free! Adrian Singer, I Summon you and set you free!"

"Hey, Morning Sickness! Remember me?" Al recognized Billy's voice, and lost track of what name was next on the list. "Be careful, Billy," he muttered, then tried to recall whose name he needed to invoke. He'd memorized them -- forty- nine names were nothing compared to some of the longer spells on the Level Seven exam ...

"The werewolf," Morgenstern said. "I remember you helpless, your fur singed, your bones broken. I see you have recovered somewhat."

"The fur grew back, too. Here, let me show you."

Faintly, Al could hear the crackling of bones and joints reshaping themselves from lawyer (genus Homo) to wolf (genus Canis). Then Billy howled, a long, high, ululating cry that was somehow both a celebration of his lupine vitality and a challenge.

"Furry pest. I should not even waste my time on you -- what are you doing?"

Billy charged directly toward Morgenstern, skidding to a halt less than a meter from the verdant glare of the undead wizard's aura. Then he half-turned -- and raised one leg.

A sizzling noise and the stench of boiling urine made Al gasp.

"Impudent --! You dare to --!"

Billy ran, weaving back and forth, his tail wind-milling to reverse direction at incredible speed.

Morgenstern launched blast after blast after the nimble fur-clad lawyer, but was unable to strike him squarely. Billy dove back into the sheltered area behind Magister Lewis's fortress spell, panting, then gasping as he withdrew the hex dart from his forepaw and reverted to human form. There were several severe burns on his back and legs, one deep enough to show oozing blood between blackened edges.

It was enough to allow another of the allies to take center stage, and for Al to work his way back into his list of names.

"Magister Morgenstern! If you please, can you tell me the fourth Principle of Thautamurgy?"

"Magister Cagliostro," Morgenstern said. "I thought you had died long ago. In fact, I was certain that you died before I did."

"Such digressions will not excuse you from answering the question," Cagliostro said. "Surely a god -- as you claim to be -- can answer a query more suited to a candidate for Level Five certification."

Two more vaguely-formed sketches of Morgenstern's supporters dissipated in the mountaintop winds.

Morgenstern frowned and shook his head. "Something -- I do not understand what --"

"Your answer, please?"

Morgenstern lowered his head, as if in pain. "A change -- a change in Olam Yetzirah will bring about a change in Olam Assiah. That is -- by influencing a higher realm, one may achieve greater effects in the material world."

Cagliostro shook his head, the wisps of fine white hair on his age-spotted scalp fluttering in the wind. "Oh, dear. I'm afraid that is the Second Principle. You know, Aaron, it is lucky for you that you have the scroll confirming your status as Magister safely tucked away somewhere --"

His head still bowed, Morgenstern struck without warning. Cagliostro did not even have time to scream or raise his wand in defense before he was enveloped in a pillar of greenish-white fire. In seconds, nothing remained of the five-century-old wizard but a handful of grey ashes that were scattered by the next gust of wind.

Al dropped his shadow cloak. "You rat bastard maniac! You want to know what's happening to you?"

Janine, still inside a fortress spell raised by Magister Crowley, deactivated her own shadow cloak and screamed, "Al, no!"

But Al had seen enough suffering by others in his defense. "Forty-nine souls gave you your power," he said. "Forty-nine souls awakened by my Summoning spell, even if it was by accident. Here's a real question for you, Morningstar -- why should that matter?"

Morgenstern was surprised that Al had exposed himself again. "It should not matter."

Al laughed. "Wrong! You really are lucky you have your Masterhood sewn up, because I don't think you have the knowledge to earn it now."

The others gathered on the plateau waited for Morgenstern to destroy Al as he had his old teacher, Cagliostro, but the undead wizard was transfixed, his curiosity momentarily holding his rage in check.

"Then tell, me little wizard, why this matters," Morgenstern said.

Al smiled. "I Summoned them. I can set them free. And because your power stems from my spell, your powers never quite work on me."

Morgenstern shook his head. "Lies! You -- you have no such power over me! I have the power of a god, while you --"

"-- are still alive," Al said. "You tried to kill me once, when I was a lot weaker than I am now, and I got away. Since then, you've had a couple of opportunities to take me out, but you've never actually done it. I think maybe you knew instinctively that you couldn't do it."

Al nodded to Magister Sciavone, and his mentor let the fortress spell dissolve. Al started to walk toward Morgenstern, passing well beyond the range of even the most powerful Magisters' shielding spells.

"I destroyed your puppet," Morgenstern said. "If my powers can't affect you, how was I able to do that?"

"Laws of Similarity notwithstanding, a Sleeve and its original are not the same thing," Al said. Privately, he wondered if his theory was correct. If Morgenstern's failure to kill him had been due to his enormous ego and need to grandstand rather than any fundamental magical principle, he was about to die.

Morgenstern closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were pinpoints of intense green light so bright that Al had to squint.

"Everybody, get out of here!" Al shouted. "One way or the other, this is it!"

He looked around. Everyone was leaving -- except Janine, and Grroolargrrlar.

"Damn it, both of you, go!"

"One way or the other, this is it," Grroolargrrlar echoed. "Morgenstern killed one of mine -- now he owes me a life in return."

"I'm not leaving you, Al," Janine said. "I never thought that 'until death do us part' thing was meant to be literal, but when I said it, I meant it."

"How touching," Morgenstern said. "You claim to be immune to my power -- but your allies and your beloved wife are not."

Desperately, Al hissed "Se graubi, repede, repede, repede!" and the world seemed to freeze around him. He covered the distance separating him from Janine in perhaps a tenth of a second, swept her up (feeling her ribs crack and his biceps tendon rupture from the strain) and carried her to Grroolargrrlar's side, then activated his shadow cloak and screamed "Mibtsar!"

Even through the shadow cloak and his own fortress spell, the heat from Morgenstern's aura was already making his skin sting. Apparently his theory that he was immune to Morgenstern's powers was wrong. He could smell the reek of burning hair from Grroolargrrlar's mane. In seconds, they would all die...

But he was still living in accelerated time. Al ran through the remaining names in a fraction of a second, although he wondered whether his voice would be intelligible to the Summoned spirits at that speed. He got his answer when the glare and heat subsided, taking what seemed like the better part of an hour, but in actuality only a few seconds.

"Shamat," Al said, and allowed both the speed spell and fortress spells to dissipate.

"Ahhh!" Janine cried. "My ribs! Al, what happened?"

Grroolargrrlar sneezed as the scent of burning hair penetrated his nostrils. "Grraaoohah! How did you get so close, Al? And what has happened to Morgenstern?"

Al grunted, feeling his arm spasm as he tried to support Janine's weight. Then he turned to look at the man who had tried to become a god.

"What -- have -- you -- done?"

Morgenstern looked smaller, his spell-perfected body now that of a man in late middle age -- and not a healthy man, at that. His aura was gone.

"Your forty-nine boosters have moved on," Al said. "Now you're just another revenant, no more powerful than you were in life."

Morgenstern coughed, spat up something black and noisome. "Ungrateful," he gasped. "Without my books, you would still be --"

"A little wizard," Al said. "I know. Of course, if you hadn't forced me to work so hard by trying to kill me, I might still be a mediocre wizard."

"I was powerful in life," Morgenstern grated. "Even before -- more powerful than you are now."

Al shrugged. "I don't doubt it. But I also don't care." He shifted positions so he could support Janine with his good arm. "Janine, Grrool -- let's get out of here."

"I am still powerful enough to do this!"

Al tried to turn, but Janine's weight and his own injured arm made him too slow. He saw a blade of magical energy -- still green, for whatever reason -- descending toward his head --

And then a grey-green blur swept past him and there was the sound of old bones cracking under a great weight.

"Hey, Al, Janine, Grrool," Githros said. "Guess I missed the fireworks, hiding out in Al's ear again. But I finally got even with aura-boy, here, for nearly frying me way back when, so it's all good."

Al looked down -- not too far to the top of Githros's head, then down to the ground, where Morgenstern's arms and legs protruded from under the demon's massive hindquarters and legs.

Githros stood, wiping greenish-black goo from his buttocks. He raised one finger to his mouth as if to lick it, then shook his head. "I don't think it qualifies as blood," he said.

Grroolargrrlar leaned closer to the mess, then rumbled, "It -- he -- is not dead."

"Well, technically, he's been dead for thirty years," Al said. "But his soul hasn't left what's left of that body, if that's what you mean."

Grroolargrrlar nodded. "Leave him to me," he said. "He still must answer for the death of my shaman."

"Works for me," Githros said. "I would not recommend eating him, though."

The surviving members of the alliance began to reappear, exclaiming in wonder as they saw the pitiful remains of the creature who had terrorized so many for so long. Githros turned to Al and said, "You and Janine should probably go and get your injuries taken care of. I'll stick around and deal with your adoring fans."

And Al apported himself and Janine to his favorite Emergency Ward, where he still had a Frequent Victim discount card.

THE END


© 2008 Robert Moriyama

Bio: Robert Moriyama has been the Aphelion Short Story Editor for about two and a half years(?), following the retirement of the esteemed Cary Semar. Many of his stories have appeared in Aphelion (including many he has shamelessly "accepted" himself), including over a dozen stories featuring Al Majius and his friends and allies.

E-mail: Robert Moriyama

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