Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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A Matter of Form

by Robert Moriyama


Janine Majius squeezed her eyes shut but could not prevent the tears from burning their way down her cheeks. "This is my fault, Al," she said. "I thought he would be grateful--"

With a gesture, Al Majius shut down the big-screen viewing crystal in the Majius Magical Services boardroom. He had to lean on the ironwood table -- which they hoped would last longer than its predecessors -- to even pretend to be unaffected by what they had just seen. "Janine -- Morgenstern was doing things like this before you -- before we decided to remove the mana-draining stuff from his face," Al said.

Stuff like this was the destruction of a school, this time with most of the students and staff still inside. Hundreds injured, dozens confirmed dead... The reporters on the newscast had demanded to know what the Conlegium Magistris planned to do about Morgenstern's renewed campaign of terror. Worse, they demanded to know what Al planned to do, since Morgenstern's one non-negotiable demand was for Al to be handed over for 'appropriate punishment'.

"He never killed children before," Janine said. "Before you hit him with the mana sinks -- mana drains -- those things, he wasn't angry enough. And while the splinters in his face were depleting his strength, I think he was afraid that the College might be able to defeat him in battle. But now that I've fixed his little problem, he's as strong as ever, and he hates us, Al, you for hurting him, me for seeing him at his weakest and managing to get away from him."

From his specially-reinforced, puncture-proof chair on the other side of the boardroom table, Githros, Al's demon partner, said, "You let yourself think he was sane, that he was still human. But he's more like the scorpion in the old fable -- even if he was sincere when he agreed to negotiate a cease-fire, it's his nature now to be a murdering son-of-a-bitch."

As a demon, Githros had been responsible for countless deaths over his long existence, women and children among them. Of all the executives of Majius Magical Services, he was the only one who could view this latest action by Morgenstern -- or the Morningstar, as the resurrected wizard called himself -- with anything less than horror. But he had come to care about Al and Janine, and their pain stung him now as nothing else had for millennia. Unfortunately, his personal store of comforting words had started out empty, and had not improved with time.

"We have to end this," Al said. "We can't -- I can't let him hurt anyone else."

"Facing him now would be suicide, Al," Githros said, then winced as he realized that brutal honesty was not what Al needed.

"I know that," Al hissed. "All the spells I've learned, the strength I've gained, mean nothing in a one-on-one duel against him. I can channel more mana than most wizards, probably twice as much as any of the flunkies Morgenstern absorbed when I accidentally triggered his make-me-a-god spell. But that still means he can sling twenty or thirty times as much power as I can."

"Then you can't just surrender to him, Al," Janine said. "The Masters all agree that you hold the key to beating Morgenstern, but nobody has figured out how it can be done. If you throw your life away now, then he'll just keep killing whomever he wants to kill whenever the whim strikes him."

"I know that, too," Al said. He sat down and buried his face in his hands. "All I wanted was to be a good enough wizard to make a decent living. And things were going all right -- the work was coming in, a Summoning here, a minor exorcism there. Then I did one simple job in the wrong place, and everything changed."

"On the bright side," Githros said, "You've moved up from a Level Four to provisional Masterhood, and business has been pretty good. Being linked with you has made me a thousand times the demon I was, and --"

"And maybe a hundred people have been killed by his grand imperial nutbar, the mighty Morningstar," Al snapped. "Janine and Billy almost got fried -- hell, you almost got fried protecting me from him."

"Almost," Githros said. "Al, this isn't your fault either. If you hadn't taken that job, someone else would have. And that wizard might not have had your potential for growth."

Al laughed. "Potential! Start with almost nothing and you have lots of room to grow!"

Githros leaned across the table, the spikes on his arms digging into the ironwood surface, and grabbed Al by the shoulders. He straightened, dragging Al out of his chair, and then stood holding Al almost a meter above the floor.

"Knock it off, Al! Just knock it off!"

Janine pushed herself back from the table, fumbling for a blasting wand. "Githros, have you gone crazy? Is it Morgenstern? Is he controlling you somehow?"

Githros paused, turned to look at her, and grunted. "Keep it in your pants, Janine. I'm just trying to talk some sense into your husband."

Janine blushed, withdrawing her hand from the waistband of her slacks where the concealed wand holster had worked its way down out of reach.

"Al, I thought you were over this self-deprecating crap," Githros growled. "You used to be kind of a loser, but that was a long time ago. You always had the potential to be a major player -- I still don't think you've maxed out your mana-handling capacity -- but it so happened that it took this colossal load of trouble to push you into developing that potential. Now you're more important than you ever wanted to be -- well, deal with it!"

"Githros," Al said.

"Yes, Al?"

"I can't feel my arms."

"Oops. Sorry, Al."

Al stumbled his way back to his seat, arms flopping loosely as he tried to restore circulation.

Githros made a makeshift kazoo from a sheet of paper and played a few bars of vaguely-familiar music. "March of the Toy Wizards," he said, snickering. "You know, like 'March of the Toy Soldiers'?'"

"I'd applaud if my arms were working," Al said. "But we need to figure out what I --"

Janine glared at him.

"We need to figure out what we should do, now that we've ruled out surrendering and doing nothing."

####

Magister Edwin Lenthos cooled the still-smoldering remains of a book case with a muttered spell, then levitated the blackened wood and sent it floating towards a dumpster positioned just outside what was left of an outer wall. He swallowed hard as the scent of scorched hair and flesh rose in a choking wave.

"There are two more here," he said. "A child, and the librarian or one of the missing teachers."

One of the several crews from the Coroner's Office responded to his call with a stretcher and body bags, and Lenthos backed away, his head spinning and his knees unsteady.

"I think you have done enough, Lenthos," Magister Sciavone said. He placed a steadying hand on the younger Magister's shoulder, willing an infusion of calming energy through the momentary contact.

"Morgenstern was one of us, once," Lenthos said. "How could he have done this?"

Sciavone shook his head. "He was ambitious, proud, impatient. Death and resurrection did not cure him of his faults, but stole whatever compassion he had for others, and especially for those without Talent."

The two wizards made their way out of the ruins of the school to a rest area with a few chairs and a table bearing an urn of coffee, water, and sandwiches. Lenthos collapsed into one of the chairs, waving away Sciavone's offer of food and drink.

"We have to do something," Lenthos said. "Majius has to do something, before Morgenstern decides to strike again."

Sciavone scowled. "Magister-elect Majius is not at fault here. We cannot ask him to die -- and die he would, if he faced Morgenstern alone, or even with our aid -- no matter how much danger there may be to us, and to innocent lives."

"I think he's a coward," Lenthos muttered.

Sciavone drew his hand back to slap the younger wizard, but managed to control himself. Lenthos looked at Sciavone's quivering hand with fear and surprise, his own hands rising in instinctive defense.

"Have you faced the Morningstar?" Sciavone hissed. "Majius has, to save his wife and her cousin when the revenant cornered them in their own home. And he went again, to bring her back from the mountain where she had gone to --"

"To restore the monster's strength," Lenthos said bitterly. "To make him able to murder and destroy with impunity."

"To try to persuade him to stop this madness," Sciavone retorted. "Was she a coward? Morgenstern forced her to discard all her defenses in order to approach him. He could have erased her from existence with a word or a gesture, but still she went inside his wards, where no one could help her."

"It doesn't matter," Lenthos said. "Coward or hero, Majius is the only one who can do anything to end Morgenstern's killing spree."

"But the College Masters cannot demand that Majius sacrifice himself!" Sciavone said. "We cannot order him to die..." The ancient wizard's voice trailed off and he frowned, centuries of lines and wrinkles making his face look like a crumpled piece of yellowed parchment.

"Magister Sciavone?"

"I have had a thought, Magister Lenthos," Sciavone said. "I will not tell you what it is just now. Go home. Rest. If my thought turns out to be a good one, you may never again have to face horrors like the ones that have so darkened your aura today."

####

Al, Githros, and Al's mentor and friend from the Conlegium Magistris had gathered in the Majius Magical Services boardroom to discuss Sciavone's new stratagem.

Sciavone had requested that Janine be excluded from the meeting, and now Al was beginning to see why.

"You want me to what?" Al sputtered.

Magister Sciavone smiled. "I want you to die in battle with Morgenstern, as soon as we can settle on a suitable location. But before Githros attempts to fillet me like a dried up old trout, let me explain."

Githros, who had quietly positioned himself behind the white-haired wizard, reluctantly lowered his huge, razor-taloned hand upon seeing the look in Al's eye.

Al slumped in his chair, shaking his head. "I can't wait to hear what kind of location you think I might find suitable for my death. I can't think of any 'suitable' locations off hand, except maybe my own bed, in about fifty or sixty years..."

Sciavone sighed. "Fifty or sixty years? You may live much longer than that, with your power and skill --"

"But Janine won't," Al said. "I can probably extend her life by quite a bit, but most longevity spells depend on the user's own ability to channel mana. And once she's gone -- hey, how am I supposed to live a ridiculously long time if I'm going to die soon?"

"That is what I must explain to you," Sciavone said. "You must appear to die in battle with Morgenstern -- it is the only thing that might blunt his rage, at least for a time. But of course I would not ask you to sacrifice your life --"

"At least not if there is another option," Githros said. "You noble types probably expect Al to volunteer to throw himself on his wand if you can't stop the Big M any other way. Personally, I'd tell you to go to Hell -- and say hello to my cousin Nergal while you're there."

Al scratched his head, wincing as he saw several strands of his already-thinning hair fall to the tabletop. "So you think we can fake my death convincingly enough to satisfy Morgenstern? That seems risky. For one thing, I can't think of any way to not die for real if I go head-to-head with him. For another, if he sees through the ruse, he'll be even more psychotically pissed off than usual."

"That is why the Al Majius who faces Morgenstern must truly die," Sciavone said.

Githros snorted. "You think there's another Al? And the other one is willing to die for the cause? You Conlegium masters have all the best drugs."

Al frowned. "You're talking about a simulacrum, a conjured doppelganger. There's no way one of those things could put up a good enough fight to convince Morgenstern it was me."

"It is true that the usual type of simulacrum could not duel with Morgenstern with anything approaching your power and skill," Sciavone said. "But a Sleeve could."

"A what?"

"A Sleeve, Al," Githros explained, grinning. "Kinda like a very sophisticated and life-like golem, except that a wizard projects a part of himself into it and -- wears it. The Sleeve has at least some of the wizard's power, and it moves just like the wizard himself (or herself, or itself)."

Al shook his head. "I gather this is one of the things I missed when you granted me my Level Four without attending all the classes."

Sciavone chortled. "No, no, this is something quite unusual, my boy. I doubt the spell has been used in centuries. And more to the point, I am quite certain that Morgenstern will not recognize it."

Githros snorted again. "He might not recognize the spell, but he'll know the Sleeve ain't Al, unless somebody else conjures it up. I mean, you remember what Al's golems looked like."

Sciavone laughed. "Mud everywhere. And the poor things could barely walk -- Al always made the legs too short and thick!"

"Very funny," Al said. "I'm a wizard, not a sculptor. So -- how do we do this? And why is the location important?"

####

"It's like looking into a mirror," Al said. "Except my nose isn't that crooked, and my gut doesn't stick out like that."

"Yeah, your gut is rounder, and sort of lopsided."

"Shut up, Githros."

"I think it has more hair than you do, too."

"Shut up, Githros."

The Sleeve stood in the middle of the Majius Magical Services boardroom, in the space cleared by pushing the ironwood table and leather chairs (in the case of Githros's chair, dragonhide) against one wall. It was dressed in clothing and shoes from Al's closet, and aside from a lack of expression, was Al's exact double.

"There is one way to be certain that it can fool anyone," Magister Sciavone said. "And in any case, it is time you tried it on for size."

Al sighed and sat down in his usual chair. He closed his eyes and chanted "Ego non ego sum... Ego non ego sum..."

After several repetitions, Al fell silent, but the Sleeve's lips began to move, and a whispery version of Al's voice emerged from the simulacrum's lips. "Ego non ego sum... I don't think this is working. And my voice sounds funny --"

The Sleeve's eyes opened, then its knees buckled.

"How come I'm standing up? I sat down before I started the spell, didn't... I..."

The Sleeve looked over at Al, now sitting with head bowed and mouth hanging open, and sighed. "Okay, I guess it did work. And my nose is that crooked. And would somebody please wipe the drool off my chin?"

Someone knocked on the closed boardroom door. Sciavone muttered a hurried spell and Al's seated form faded from view.

The Al-animated Sleeve and Githros exchanged puzzled looks, then tried to look innocent (easy for the Sleeve, since it was guilty only of looking like Al, not so easy for a demon).

Janine pushed the door open enough to peek around the edge. "Is the top-secret strategy session over? Can a mere mortal come in?"

"We are finished with our 'top secret' business, my dear," Sciavone said. "It was mostly rather dry and obscure magical minutiae, not so much secret as --"

Janine opened the door and stepped into the room, her eyes filled with anger. "Over my head? Fine, I get it, I'm the only one here that needs pre-charged wands and charms to use magic. But I'm an executive and I'm Al's wife, so I have a right to know what's happening!"

"Janine, please -- there are certain aspects of this plan that must be known to as few people as possible," Sciavone said.

"And you don't trust me to be one of them," Janine growled. "Wonderful. Just -- just try not to kill my husband." She backed out of the room and closed the door firmly enough to make the Sleeve's teeth rattle.

"Suddenly I'm very glad that I have a couch in my office," the Sleeve said. "Or rather that Al has a couch in his office."

"Actually, that went very well," Sciavone said.

"Easy for you to say -- you're not married to Janine."

"Janine didn't notice that Al was not in his own body," Sciavone said. "And she does not know that the Sleeve exists."

"Then -- when the Sleeve is destroyed --"

"Janine will believe that Al has been killed, and she will react accordingly. And that should convince Morgenstern that Al is really dead."

####

The 'suitable location' turned out to be the same mountaintop where Janine had removed the mana sink fragments from Morgenstern's face. Since Al was to face Morgenstern in a duel (expected to be one-sided, but a duel nonetheless), this time Morgenstern's wards would not exclude magical powers other than his own. They would, however, prevent other wizards from using apportation to enter the area and join the fight.

Janine, her cousin Billy (Majius Magical Services' lawyer and resident werewolf, currently in the form of an 80-kilogram grey timber wolf), and Githros were perched on an oversize magic carpet some twenty meters away from the edge of the plateau on which the battle would be waged. This was close enough to see the action, but beyond the jumping range of demon or lycanthrope.

"This is insane," Janine said, her shoulders hunched against the bitterly cold wind. "It's suicide -- Al knows it, and Magister Sciavone knows it. Githros -- why are they doing this?"

Githros, who knew that the Al who now stood near the center of Morgenstern's chosen arena was Al in spirit only, grunted. "If Al didn't do this, Morgenstern said he was going to hit another school. He leveled a toy store -- in the middle of the night, so nobody was hurt -- just to make his point."

"Is there any way Al can win this?" Billy asked, briefly reverting to human form by pulling the Baldy hex-dart from his paw / hand. "Did the Conlegium come up with some spell or weapon that can take Morgenstern out?" Shivering, he jammed the dart back into his arm and re-grew his thick lupine fur coat.

"Not that I know of," Githros replied. "But they've been keeping their cards hidden -- as Janine found out."

"At least you know they have cards," Janine said. "For all I know, they might be playing chess."

Githros blushed, his cheeks turning moss-green. "I think it's starting," he said.

####

The Sleeve, with Al's mind and soul in control, stood perhaps ten meters away from Morgenstern, an unadorned thornwood wand held loosely in his right hand. He hoped that the Masters assigned to guard his real body were taking better care of it than they had done during the last practice session, when they had left him unattended for almost an hour. The body he had been born into still bore faint traces of the moustache that some practical joker (Githros swore he wasn't the guilty party, but Al had his doubts) had drawn on his face.

"I applaud your bravery, Magister-Elect Majius," Morgenstern said. "To face me at all shows that you do not value your own life above all else after all."

"Hey, at least I'm not planning to come back from the dead," Al retorted. "Talk about valuing your own life --"

Morgenstern laughed. "Insubordinate to the end. Very well, little wizard, if you wish to die a clown, let us end this now."

As expected, Morgenstern resorted to his usual tactics, simply increasing the strength of his aura until the entire plateau was saturated with intense green-white light. The scattered patches of grass and weeds went from frozen to smoldering to ash in seconds; Al would do likewise if he did not act.

"Mibtsar! Obscuritate!"

With a flourish of the thornwood wand, Al raised a fortress spell and then overlaid it with a Wallachian shadow cloak. The Sleeve vanished inside a zone of darkness that soaked up the searing glare from Morgenstern's aura as if it was infinitely deep, instead of only a meter or so in diameter.

"Hiding will do you no good, little wizard," Morgenstern hissed. "Your shields will melt soon enough, and then you will burn." He traced an odd, angular symbol in the air, and writhing tentacles of emerald light extruded from his aura and wrapped themselves around the utter blackness that surrounded the Sleeve and squeezed.

Inside the layered defensive spells, Al could already feel the air growing warmer. His ears popped as the fortress spell reacted to the constricting pressure of Morgenstern's new attack; needles of green light were already beginning to pierce the protective shell of darkness, stinging him wherever they touched the Sleeve's skin, filling the fortress spell with the reek of seared flesh. Al grimaced. "He's already breaking through, damn it. Time for Phase Two."

"Deveni fuma."

The Sleeve dissolved into mist -- actually a cloud composed of microscopic solid particles suspended by magic and subject to Al's will. Then Al let the fortress spell collapse as the last of the shadow cloak burned away.

As the full force of Morgenstern's aura struck the living cloud, Al was stunned by the sheer power of it. The molecule-sized component bits that made up the cloud were supposedly impervious to almost any kind of physical force, including heat and light, but he had to fight to keep himself from being scattered beyond the radius of his control. And he could swear that he could still feel himself starting to burn...

The Masters had raised a shield that blocked most of the glare generated by Morgenstern's aura, so the trio from Majius Magical Services were able to witness the collapse of Al's defenses.

Janine screamed. "Al! Oh my God, Githros, he's gone!"

Githros raised one hand. "No, look again," he said. "See that cloud -- looks like smoke, but it's moving toward Morgenstern, while the ash from all the incinerated foliage is going the other way. I think that cloud is Al in Wallachian stealth mode."

Morgenstern's aura dimmed as he tried to decide if Al had succumbed to his attack. "Dead already? I am disappointed. I would have expected better from the Conlegium's favored son, and the holder of the Morgenstern grimoires--"

With temperatures around Morgenstern back below lethal levels, Al coalesced from cloud to solid form within arm's reach of the undead wizard. "Shelach!" he cried, and a blade of blue-white light sprouted from the tip of his wand. Then he brought that blade down on Morgenstern's head.

There was a flash of mingled blue and green light as magic met magic and both shattered in an explosion of energy that sent Al tumbling backwards and even brought Morgenstern to his knees.

Morgenstern stood, shaking his head. "A sword of Azrael. And that must have been a Wallachian mist spell -- I should have recognized the darkness you raised to diminish the effects of my aura. Much better. But not good enough."

A ball of light even more intense than his aura had been formed around Morgenstern's right hand. Even through the Masters' shield, it stung Janine's eyes to look at it.

Then Morgenstern flicked his hand toward Al, and Janine screamed again as flesh and bone caught fire and were consumed in a pillar of green-and-red flames.

####

In a hidden chamber deep within the pocket universe where most of the Conlegium Magistris's buildings resided, Al's body spasmed and tumbled off the bed where it had lain since Al had transferred his mind into the simulacrum. Magister Blackstone conjured a cushioning spell that prevented direct contact with the rough stone floor, then rushed to help Al to his feet.

"Burning! I'm burning!" Al choked. His arms flailed blindly, forcing Blackstone to back away.

"You are fine, Albert," Magister Sciavone said. He stepped inside the radius of Al's frantically-swinging arms and laid a comforting hand on the younger wizard's chest. "The Sleeve was destroyed, but you are fine."

"But I feel -- I felt -- I didn't know it would be like that," Al gasped. "I can smell my hair burning, my skin --" He gagged, his arms rising in instinctive defense.

"You were stunned by the reaction between your sword spell and Morgenstern's aura," Blackstone said. "Otherwise, you might have been able to return to your body before the Sleeve was damaged. As it was, I'm afraid that you were in the simulacrum when --"

"When it died," Al said. "When I died, as far as Janine and Billy -- and Morgenstern, we hope -- know."

"I believe that Morgenstern was fooled," Sciavone said. "You put up a quite creditable fight, Albert -- you stung him again, when he thought he was once more untouchable. He should be satisfied that he has destroyed you, and less prone to his noisy shows of force."

"Less prone to killing innocents, you mean," Al said. "I hope so. I hope this buys us time to figure out how to neutralize him once and for all."

"You should rest now," Blackstone said. "This body has been idle for several hours, but your mind and soul have undergone a terrible ordeal."

Al nodded and climbed back onto the bed. "Yeah. And there's worse to come. I'll be lucky if Janine doesn't kill me for real when she finds out we used her to make my death scene more convincing."

Blackstone shuddered. "I think I will be somewhere else when that moment comes. Lovely woman, your wife, but quite formidable, even without magic of her own."

"Hah! Master of Combat Magic, but a coward at heart," Sciavone said, chuckling. "Come, let's let Al rest up for tonight's main event." The two Masters left the room, and Al let exhaustion pull his eyelids down like the lids of twin coffins.

####

Janine buried her face in the fur of Billy's wolf form, her fingers tangled in the tough guard hairs and the softer fur within. "He's gone, Billy, Morgenstern killed him."

"Speaking of Morgenstern," Githros rumbled, "we have company."

Billy growled. Janine felt it as a vibration that radiated from his wolf-form throat through the rest of his body, then felt the muscles of his chest and back tense as if preparing to spring.

"Your husband fought bravely," Morgenstern said. His green-glowing, too-perfect form hung in the air a few meters outside the shields surrounding the flying carpet. "He had no chance, of course, and delayed the confrontation for too long, but in the end..."

Janine looked up, her eyes hot with tears of grief and rage. "I wish he had killed you," she said. "I wish he had killed you the first moment he saw you rising from your tomb, before..."

"The blood is -- was -- on his hands," Morgenstern said. "I killed only because he would not face me when I commanded him to do so."

Billy's growls grew louder and deeper. Now Janine wrapped her arms around his neck to hold him back, not for comfort.

Githros laid a huge, scaly hand on Billy's chest and said, "Not now, Billy. Don't give him an excuse."

"Not now, and if you are sensible, not ever, werewolf. I am glad to see that demons, at least, recognize their superiors and show them proper respect."

Githros's free hand curled into a massive, spiked fist. "I respect your power, I'll give you that much. As for the -- man -- holding that power..."

Morgenstern frowned for an instant, then regained his composure. "I will allow you some latitude, demon, because you have just suffered a loss. But if we meet again..." He turned, his body simply rotating in place in the air, then flew away at a speed that left the magic carpet rocking in his wake.

"Bastard!" Janine snapped. "Blaming Al for -- Githros, what are we going to do now? Without Al, how can we even hope to fight Morgenstern?"

Githros shrugged. "Without Al, how are we going to pay the bills? I mean, we can't have Majius Magical Services without Majius the wizard, can we?"

Both Billy (who had shifted back into human form) and Janine gasped.

"How can you be so callous?" Billy shouted. "Al was -- he was your friend, wasn't he?"

Githros looked around and asked, "Are we clear? Any signs Morgenstern is eavesdropping?"

Magister Tobias, who had been controlling the carpet and shielding its occupants from any fallout from the battle, said, "I can detect no scrying spells or creatures that might be under Morgenstern's control."

"Al is my friend," Githros said, grinning. "Janine, Billy, there's something you should know."

####

"You're a dead man."

Al snorted, grimaced as his nose brushed against the saliva-soaked pillow, and sat up. His eyes took a moment to focus on the owner of the very familiar voice.

Woman. Petite. Shapely. Dark hair, "bigger" than the current fashion. Extremely annoyed.

"Janine. Hi. Sorry..."

"You let me think that green-glowing flying ego burned you to charcoal, and you say 'Sorry'? Sorry doesn't begin to express how you're going to feel."

"We had to do it," Al sputtered. "It was the best way to convince him it was real!"

Janine glared at him. For the thousandth time, Al thought that the tests that said that Janine had no magical potential had to be wrong, because it felt like she was drilling holes through his skull.

"I heard the explanation," she said softly. "Githros explained it. Master Sciavone explained it. Master Blackstone explained it. You won't be hearing from any of them for a while."

"Deveni --"

"No! You are not misting your way out of this," Janine said. "Why couldn't you trust me? I can lie -- I was in sales, for god's sake -- and I can act -- I had the lead in our senior class play --"

"Yeah, about that performance --"

"This is not the time for jokes," she said. "Githros knew the truth, but you couldn't trust your wife?"

Al sighed. "Morgenstern would have been able to tell. He's empathic -- not in the good sense of being able to see things from someone else's perspective, but in the sense that he can read emotions."

"But Githros --"

"Githros is a demon. Morgenstern would never expect a demon to have any real feelings for a human, especially one that used to be his master."

Janine's shoulders sagged. She moved to the bed and sat down, letting her head rest on Al's shoulder.

"It hurt, Al," she said. "It hurt when I thought you died, and it hurt when I found out that you were alive, but that you had all deceived me."

"I know, Janine," Al said. He tilted his head to rest his cheek against her hair, savoring the faint flowers-and-fruit scent of her shampoo. "But maybe -- just maybe -- we have some time to find a way to stop him permanently, time when he isn't hurting innocent people."

"You'll have to hide," Janine said. "People can't know that you're still around. So Majius Magical Services will have to close -- and you won't be able to come to the house, either."

"A se schimbari forma," Al muttered.

Janine frowned. "What are you doing with your face, Al? It feels weird."

"You should feel it from my end," Al said, his voice oddly muffled.

She lifted her head and looked at him.

"The moustache has to go," she said critically. "And the blonde curls are just -- just -- wrong."

Al closed his eyes and muttered a few words in a guttural language punctuated with clicks and trills that sounded like an expresso machine crossed with a calliope.

"How's this?"

"A little too movie star for my tastes. I mean, how can you breathe through a nose that straight and narrow?"

Al grunted. "Yeah, I guess I should have known that handsome isn't what you go for."

It took several more attempts for Al to find a face and body that Janine pronounced to be acceptable. When he stood, it was in a body an inch taller but slightly softer around the waist than his own, with short, salt-and-pepper hair, muddy green eyes, and a roundish, pleasant face.

"Completely forgettable," she said. "Even if Morgenstern sees you, he'll ignore you."

"Now the hard part begins," Al said. "We have from now until Morgenstern either figures out that I'm alive, or he just gets bored enough to make trouble for the hell of it to find a way to neutralize him."

"Or kill him," Janine said. "I definitely think that killing him should stay on the menu."

Al shook his head and smiled. "My wife, the Homecoming Queen of Death. Gotta love it."

THE END


© 2008 Robert Moriyama

Bio: Robert Moriyama is a 27-year veteran of the aviation industry (9 years with a charter airline, almost 18 years with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority). He has been writing stories for most of his life, and serving as Short Story Editor for Aphelion for (about) 3 years. Most of his recent fiction output has been stories in the "Materia Magica" - Al Majius series, all of which have appeared in Aphelion (the previous entry being A Matter of Trust, February, 2007).

E-mail: Robert Moriyama

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