The first thing Lewin noticed was that people were willing to meet his gaze. In their eyes he still saw the fear and disdain of the intervening years, but at a second glance he saw only their hope. Moving between the two states was like being mad.
The guards of the Aroctet lead him further into the compound. Both of their strides were evenly matched and their heads cocked proudly. They made for poor beggars, but they had come. These two men who could be brothers in looks were both ripped from their mother’s’ teats as babes and raised as something closer than brothers. The elite guards who took no names for themselves, only the Aroctet. They had come into the woods where the damned are known to live and they had asked their questions and found their prize.
Lewin walked three strides behind as was appropriate for one about to be judged though the protocol was hardly necessary. They had found him and they had made their case. He was no one’s prisoner, though he could not but feel like one.
As they passed beyond the grand open spaces of the camp and into more secure territory, the staring faces and hushed murmurs fell away and the compound fell to quiet. The Aroctet lead him deeper still, through makeshift checkpoints guarded by yet other men in the crimson and gray of their order.
At the most defensible point of the compound was the tent. But to call it a tent was an insult to the thing. Perhaps a standing tapestry might have done it justice. The thick hide that made up its exterior was extravagantly dyed and boasted many posts extending it yards in every direction. It was staked carefully around the perimeter and treated with layers of translucent fat to keep the frost out and warmth in. The Aroctet came to the entrance of it and took a pose at either side. They were forbidden to enter, Lewin guessed, at least not without provocation.
Lewin marshalled himself and began to step past them when one whispered.
“Help him. Please.”
This, more than anything, rattled Lewin. That the unflappable Aroctet feared was proof enough that things were dire.
In the tent there was heat and light, also the tang of sage burning freely alongside other more arcane ingredients. At the center of the room on a long wooden bed was the unchallenged king of the seven realms. His face was gray and his skin paper thin. Even from a distance Lewin could see how much he had wasted away from his former glory. What life was left in him was faint. So very faint.
Lewin drew closer and marked the faces of those standing about him. Calidor, the youngest prince with his sullen expression and dark features. Roban, the king’s eldest ally and first minister. Then finally there was Yuul. Lewin had expected to see him, but his presence was deeply felt regardless.
“Greetings, honored men,” Lewin said, quite generally and then bowed to Calidor. “Prince Calidor, you honor me by being here.”
Calidor acknowledged the words with the merest of nods and returned his attention to his ailing father while Roban ignored him altogether. Only Yuul came to greet him.
“You came,” Yuul said.
“As if I would miss a chance to see your failure for myself?” Lewin replied acidly.
Yuul flinched. Perhaps he had thought the years would blunt the knife balanced between them. If he had, he would be quickly disabused of that notion.
“Have your treatments not borne fruit? The sage you burn hasn’t roused the king? Perhaps bleeding a chicken? Or hard wine with honey and lime?” Lewin pressed. “The priests all say prayer can help.”
Yuul’s face paled, but he accepted the mockery proudly. “I cannot offer the king what he needs.”
“So it falls to me,” Lewin said, his voice breaking slightly. He would have been embarrassed if the situation weren’t so grim.
“So it does,” Yuul echoed.
Lewin took a frank look at his old master. He looked nearly as withered and palsied as a corpse. He was not in much better shape than the king. His eyes were as big as boiled eggs and his skin was shiny with sweat. Lewin had no doubt that his condition had little to do with the heat.
“You attempted a casting, didn’t you?” Lewin asked.
Yuul’s look of contrition was answer enough. It had been a long time since the old man was an active practitioner. To intercede in the forces of life and death was deep delving. Yuul was likely no more capable of making a seed sprout at his advanced age and frailty than saving his king.
For the first time in a long time, perhaps in all of his life, Lewin felt pity for the old man. Still the feeling was quickly followed by disgust.
“So you told them to find me. To seek me out in my rat’s den and bring me back here. To succeed where you failed or to die trying.”
Lewin remembered their argument. The last they’d had. Yuul was a healthier man then and hot with his indignation. He was so sure in his prerogative and his political might that he would abandon the perils of casting, of delving into the deepness and wrenching out power. There were other methods, he argued. There were potions and poultices, surgeries with knives and searing irons. What Lewin recalled most was his fear. Yuul had dug deeper than any other practitioner in recent history and something in those depths frightened him.
But Lewin, little more than a child then, would not acquiesce. He would not abandon his studies. The thing for which others revered him and why should he? To take mash mint leaves into paste and distill ‘healing’ draughts?
Yuul made the case for his apprentice’s banishment with such fervor that the king very nearly decided on his execution instead. Lewin was made into a monster overnight and everything he had been fell away like the trappings of a dream.
Lewin turned away from his old master and left him behind to address the other men present.
“I need two strong men. Healthy men. Preferably without families to miss them if something goes awry. And—” Lewin made sure that Roban and Calidor were paying attention. “—I need everyone within a half mile of this place to leave. Everyone.”
The minister began to argue, but Prince Calidor spoke over him.
“You will have what you need, conjurer. But should you attempt to bewitch my father or offer any other hint of treachery, I will personally carry out the sentence that my father shied away from all those years ago.”
Out of all his brothers, Calidor most echoed the king. He was stern and serious, given to depressive moods, but too stubborn to ever submit to them. He was handsome, but distant. Lewin had always thought that he would make a selfish lover. Either way, Lewin ignored the threat. He was already preparing.
The three men filed out soon after, leaving Lewin to work. He made calculations and assumptions, positioning the stars in his mind’s eye and taking into account the current phase of the moon. The lateness of the season would complicate things. The deep winter was an unpredictable time, full of unexpected pitfalls and unseen dangers.
He was so involved in his work that he missed the arrival of his subjects. Both wore the crimson and gray, and both seemed deeply uncomfortable within the king’s chambers and even more so when they saw how grave their ruler looked. One of them was the man who had spoken to Lewin earlier, whispered in his ear. The other was not known to him.
“What are your names?” he asked.
Neither answered right away, but the one who had spoken earlier spoke again.
“It is not…we have no names.”
“How are you differentiated? Names have power and in order to do what I intend, I must have a name that is significant for you. That resonates with you. If you do not have a name then give me one that you wished you had, or the name of someone close, whose memory lives in you.”
The quiet one thought for a moment, then said, “Sparrow. I was told as a child that I was quick as a sparrow and clever for my age. I…I suppose that has always meant something to me.”
Lewin nodded and turned to the other man. “And you?”
He blushed. “Kaspar.”
It was the name of one of the king’s sons. Kaspar was the middle son and the most even-tempered of the five. He fancied himself a scholar and was currently in the far west studying the history of a long dead people. Lewin did not know whether the man chose the name out of reverence or desire for the prince, but either way it did not matter. Only the strength of the connection made any difference.
The next stage of the preparations involved rearranging things about tent. Carpets were rolled up so that the bare earth lay beneath their feet and all lamps were outed. A fire was started and a bowl of water set at the foot of the king’s bed.
When Lewin was satisfied with the room’s arrangements, he ordered Sparrow and Kaspar to shed their clothing and throw them into the fire. Both men balked at this, but Lewin explained that their crimson and gray uniforms were a powerful symbol, one that would interfere with the casting and add unintended meanings — and therefore consequences — to their participation. Eventually both of them agreed to do it. Sparrow, quick as his namesake, shrugged out of his tunic and leggings and fed them to the flames which roared as he did. Only when he was naked did he seem to experience vulnerability. He had the build of a soldier, but was slight with it. His wiry frame and lean muscle suggested he was an archer, but it was the deep calluses on his hands that proved it. Hands that went instinctively to his manhood to cover it.
Kaspar was by far the more deliberate. His stripped his tunic slowly and held it in his hands for a moment before tossing it into the fire. It took another long pause before he began unlacing and stepping out of his leggings. Once he was naked and his clothes burned, he seemed a man transformed. His stance did not waver, but there was something defiant in his pose. The fire light glinted off of the dusting of blond hair about his body and his cock and low balls hung heavily. If he felt shame, it didn’t show.
Lewin took off his own robes and fed them to the fire. He knew, objectively that he was still an attractive man, just over thirty years old and well-tended in his form, but his years spent casting and delving in the depths had robbed him of his youth. His hair was a muddy brown shot with veins of silver. His face was still unlined, but his practice had leached the rich blue from his eyes and made them pale.
For the next phase of the work, Lewin approached both men and drew a set of circles around each with a knife and sprinkled something potent smelling into the grooves. He gave two smooth, empty bowls to both of them.
“These bowls represent your offerings. In one you will give blood, which represents your devotion to this cause. In the other, your seed, which will represent your constitution. I will need to draw heavily on both. The quantity matters little, once again it’s purely symbolic.”
Kaspar perhaps had been expecting this. Or at least it did not seem outside of the realm of possibility for him. Sparrow on the other hand began to fret immediately.
“My seed? You don’t mean —”
“I do mean. And you will provide it, or I can force it out of you…which is less pleasant.”
Sparrow’s face turned red enough that it was obvious even in the room’s dim light. “I…understand. I’m…can I go in a corner?”
Lewin shook his head. “The lines have been drawn and you must not cross them again until the work is done.”
Sparrow looked defeated. He glanced over at Kaspar and then back at Lewin, before setting his gaze to the ground. Lewin handed them each a ceremonial knife and then began re-checking his calculations and the preparations he’d made.
Neither man had trouble providing their blood. Both kneeled on the ground and opened a small incision at their wrist and allowed a few splatters of blood to land in the bowl. Ceremonial bleeding was a part of the Aroctet initiation and injuries were a soldier’s constant companion, so neither man was particularly squeamish. The next part was a bit more difficult.
Almost as if by unspoken agreement both men turned away from each other. Kaspar closed his eyes and began touching himself lightly on the chest and stomach. It was too gentle and fleeting to be called a caress, but before long his impressive member sprung to its full length. He took it to hand without wasting time and began to slowly and rhythmically tug at it.
Sparrow was more deliberate. He muttered to himself and swore a few times. He even looked down at his soft cock and shook his head. Lewin caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye and scoffed to himself. It was clear that he needed assistance, but Lewin feared that directly interceding would only make matters worse. Instead he made a suggestion. It was a minor casting, something that a well-practiced child could do. Even still it sent a rush through Lewin’s body. It was an addictive, exhilarating feeling that spoke to the blood and tempted more. Another little casting, his mind whispered, and you could completely dominate him. He imagined the soldier writhing on the ground, forcing a spit-slicked finger into his ass and cumming all over himself in ecstatic blasts. Lewin had the power to make him do it, but he had to remind himself that he did not need to dominate the man, that there would be nothing to gain. Still his blood itched with the idea of it. Power for the sake of power. It had been the downfall of greater practitioners.
Sparrow had no idea that his mind had been touched. Only that suddenly his flesh was becoming slick with sweat and that his shoulders were relaxing. He shifted in his kneeling position to get settled and then found that it was his erection making him uncomfortable. It was hard and shiny at the tip were a pearl of precum had coalesced. He wondered what it was that had inspired him so, but there was nothing there. No fantasies of girls bathing by the river, no feverish thoughts of his fellow brothers of the Aroctet training half-dressed in the heat of summer. There was just him and his arousal and an empty bowl before him. He started touching himself in earnest and he groaned under the weight of his own, sudden need.
Kaspar, with more time to prime himself, approached orgasm first. His eyes still closed and his brow deeply furrowed he pushed himself to the edge slowly, tugging with utilitarian steadiness at his huge organ. When he did spew, it shot over the bowl and he had to quickly angle it down to catch a few hard shots in the bowl.
Sparrow’s orgasm was reckless and sudden. It was as if he had forgotten where he was and why he was masturbating. When the orgasm hit him, he hunched over, stomach clenched and abs rigged and his shots completely missed the bowl. Only when it was over did he realize his mistake and with further embarrassment reach down to collect some of his seed off the ground and scoop it into the bowl.
When it was done and the bowls prepared Lewin drank the contents of all four. It was less than appetizing, but the connection was necessary. Already he could feel the trace of power in the air, as if the depths were stirring for him. He forced himself to push down the excitement growing inside of him. He looked over at the king, barely breathing on his bed, and oblivious to everything around him. It was for the king that he was delving into the depths. It was all for this man who had banished him without a second thought. Lewin pushed down the sliver of anger, of hatred. He cleared his mind and began.
For a moment there was nothing and then there was a word. It was audible, even to Sparrow and Kaspar, but they could not make sense of it. They thought that perhaps it was the wind, or perhaps the king had made a noise borne of his severe pain. Only Lewin recognized it for what it was. It was an invitation. He took a deep breath and accepted.
Lewin found himself in another room watching another man die. It took time for his senses to assert that he was viewing a memory. His own memory.
This man was his father or had been. And he was dying from some perfectly curable disease that he was too poor to have treated. Lewin just watched from some distance as the child-Lewin unwittingly began to attempt a casting, to bring healing to the broken man. He would fail. Lewin knew because that’s how it had happened. That was the casting that would bring Yuul to his little dockside shack and give him his first gray streak. That was the final moment of his childhood.
“It is also when you drew our attention, son of man,” said a voice.
Lewin looked over at the direction the voice had come from and commanded, insofar as one commands the forces of the deep, that the voice take shape. What took shape there in the corner of his father’s shack was informed as much by the depths it hailed from as from Lewin’s own fears, hopes, and nightmares. It stood on two leg, but they were hooved and covered with hair. It wore a golden hauberk and had a fine human face and arms. It was handsome, but without human warmth. Like a sketch of human beauty drawn by something without a reference.
“What have you come for?” Lewin asked.
“It has been so long since we have seen your like. We have seen what you would ask of us and we can offer you the means to do it,” it said.
“And the price?”
Its smile made Lewin shiver. “Grows steeper by the moment. As we speak your liege lord has taken his final breath. He is dead, as your father died and you are impotent to save either without our help. Our price is no longer negotiable, it has become fact.”
It turned and watched Lewin’s father die. Child-Lewin was screaming and bashing his hands against his father’s chest. Lewin felt the old pain stirring, but he reminded himself not to let it rule him. It was could be lethal at the lower depths to let emotion cloud judgment and he had never been this far. Perhaps Yuul was the only living practitioner to have reached this far and even that was speculation. Lewin could not help the pride that came after realizing that he could be further than anyone had ever gone.
“What is your price?”
The memory shifted. Suddenly Lewin was standing in the grand court at the old palace. The king was on his throne, passing final judgement on the upstart practitioner who was deemed a danger to himself and to those around him. Yuul’s face was impassive.
Lewin forced himself not to look away as he was banished for a second time.
“You would save this man? Drag him back into his decaying body at the risk of your own consciousness, your own survival? How many years will he live even if you succeed? How much time does he deserve?” The creature asked.
“It is not my duty to ask. Only to do what is asked,” Lewin answered.
“And must you again sacrifice yourself to the scorn of others? Must you suffer?”
“Name your price, creature. I grow weary of talk.” Lewin said.
Again the memory moved. Lewin found himself in his shack in the woods, far outside of the city, many miles outside of the realm from which he was banished. He looked up at the shelves and saw his books. Many written in his own hand and filled with his knowledge. Lewin watched himself scribbling as the Aroctet knocked on his door. It was that moment that they told him of the king’s condition and begged for his aid.
“We ask only that you forgo the life of this one man. We will imbue him with some vestige of life, some token that the thing is done. It will seem to all as if your work has been done. Only later will he begin to fade. We will be clever and you will be beyond reproach.
“And instead we will give you power. Power that no human has known to use as you will. You will be as a god of men.”
Lewin found himself in the tent again. Kaspar and Sparrow were both still kneeling, their eyes closed. They were under the influence of his casting, both floating at various depths in the deepness. They were his tethers, his way back to the world.
He also saw his own physical form in the tent and that of the king. The man was utterly still. Expired. He seemed like a shriveled thing. A husk of a human. The remainder of a life completely spent. Why should he have more time added? What made him so very special? He had sons to succeed him, sons who had been waiting a long time to ascend to the throne. What difference does it make, Lewin asked himself, if one man dies.
“So what will you choose, human. What favors will you ask of us?”
Lewin looked away from the king.
“Power,” he whispered.
The creature’s smile spread. “And you’re sure?”
“Power,” he said again, louder this time.
“Then we understand each other, son of man.”
The creature approached and Lewin tensed. He didn’t allow himself to think about the bargain he had struck. He didn’t want to know what it would cost him in the end. It used a human hand to stroke his cheek. It was comforting and revolting.
“Let us in,” it demanded.
And he did. Lewin lowered his defenses for a moment and the creature or the multitude of forces it represented leapt inside his mind. Lewin saw himself spread on a stone table being mounted by the creature, hearing its hooves scratch the stone as it took him from behind. He cried out in the darkness as it filled him with a wicked member that prodded at his prostate and made him cry out in twisted pleasure. Then in another instant he was on top of it as it drove him down on its spike, threatening to rip him in half. Its face was any number of faces: his father, the king, Calidor, Yuul, Sparrow, Kaspar. But its expression was consistent: a savage leer that spoke of violence.
Lewin climaxed again and again, but the assault neither ceased nor slowed. The creature ravaged him until his body felt like it no longer belonged to him. Only the thought of the power that he had traded for kept him somewhat lucid.
When it was done, the creature disappeared and Lewin was left, half-broken, to climb up out of the depths and back to himself. He used the connection to the two soldiers to wander back through the deep like glowing lodestones in the dark. He was tired and weak, and the journey back was always more difficult that descending. But at last he reached the surface and broke away from the casting. When he awoke it was with a great sickness that rocked him and forced him to expel the content of his stomach onto the earth. Once their blood and semen was expelled, Sparrow and Kaspar roused from their trances and awoke as well.
The two soldiers glanced at each other and then at Lewin who was struggling to get ahold of himself. It was clear they were concerned, but loathe to step outside of their proscribed circles to help without the conjurer’s approval. At last Lewin’s sickness passed and he rose shakily. There was something in his belly that had not been there before. A pulsing like a second heartbeat that made him feel stronger than ever. Something was certainly different.
Lewin side-stepped his own sick on the way to the king’s bed.
The king was no longer dead. He breathed softly and his color looked vastly improved. Lewin put a hand to the man’s shoulder and the king opened his eyes. They were the same gray-green they had always been, but behind them was something else. Lewin saw the thing he had encountered in the depths behind those eyes.
The king took a single finger and put it to his lips.
“Sssh,” he whispered.
And Lewin knew the price he had paid. That the realm had paid. And he wondered if it had been worth it. Either way, he would never tell a soul.
“The king lives!” Lewin announced, and both Kaspar and Sparrow stood and broke their circles and ran over to see if it was true.