(I just exploded this out in a day after thinking about it for a month.)
There was a flash of pale blue almost invisible light as the strand snapped, followed by a soft crack as my now flash frozen index finger broke off just below the second joint. I vomited forth a stream of invectives that I am not proud of as I hurried from the work table over to the kitchenette area of the loft. I needed to fix things before the rest of my body figured out what had happened.
I had prepared about a dozen or so shot glasses of deoch leighis for just such eventualities, but this morning had not been going well and I had already used three. I hurriedly drank a fourth while I dunked my finger stump into a fifth. That last bit was not the recommended means of application, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. I was wrong. It stung with the sting of a thousand stingy stingers. I toughed it out by slapping my undamaged hand against my thigh repeatedly till the worst of it was over. I would have done that thigh slapping anyway, as the taste of the deoch leighis is famed for its foulness. But, as my annoying canned magic witch of a mother used to say, that is how you know it is working.
Like she would know.
After about a hour and a half later, the finger was mostly restored, though still tender, so I went back to the work table to assess the damage. There was my previous attached phalange, covered in a thick hoar frost and seeming to plunge to absolute zero right before my eyes as a cold mist rolled off of it to spread ever so slightly across the table top where it rested. Flipping into Othersight, I could see that pale translucent blue strand had wrapped around my lost digit when it had snapped, short circuiting it to that place in the universe where all heat goes to die. I needed to sever that link before it began to consume my work table and chill the room, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to waste any more fingers on it. This called for a wand, and I only had the one.
It seemed fine. It was gently held by the vice as I had planned. The wood hadn’t split that I could tell, always a bad sign, so that was encouraging. The Othersight showed a different picture, the snapped thread had splintered into smaller threads, barely visible as brief glints when the light caught them just right. This was not ideal. I had no idea how this might work out. The plan had been to interweave the strand with the elemental fire strands and keep the blasted thing from catching fire as it tended to do from even moderate use. I would have cursed the person who built this phenomenal piece of crap that I had been saddled with, but since it had been my younger self that had done the crafting it seemed to be a poor plan. If not verging on a temporal paradox.
The fragmented thread was a wild card, which a wiser less desperate practitioner would avoid without a second thought. A person of even moderate means would simply write this off as a loss and start over, or better yet, enlist the aid of a professional. But I was in no position to do any of those things. I would just have to risk it.
Fortunately, risk was my wheelhouse.
Releasing my catastrophe of a wand from the vice, I gave it a wave. Nothing happened, but then nothing should so that was good. I tried something simple that wouldn’t conflict with my bungled patch job. Shifting into Othersight, I deftly plucked strands for light, dance, float, and a score others, spun them together with the wand into a bundle, pressed them together with my will and said “Scaoileadh” to form a Will o’ Wisp. It was a useless harmless spell, one that didn’t challenge the compromised strand work, and it worked flawlessly. The wand still worked, so that was something.
I moved the tip of the wand to the point where tangles strand was attached to my beyond frozen finger and gave it a flick. It seemed a bit stickier than usual, but the strand separated and the loose end floated off into the void beyond my sight. With the connection severed but the finger still entwined in what remained it would be hours, possibly a day before the cold bled off and the finger returned to room temperature. But at least it would not get any colder. This proved a second test for the wand. It was capable of grabbing, winding, collecting, and severing the strands that are at the spiritual heart of all things. This meant all the basic functions had not been compromised. That left the special features, which should also be unaffected, and my actual modification, the part I had bungled. Nothing left for it but to run a test and see what I had fucked up and if it was fixable.
Along the back wall of the loft I had already set up targets in anticipation of “success”, which might have been premature, or just cockiness on my part .I gave the wand a wave to collect errant strands of elemental fire, heat basically, and some elements of stone, density, solidness, and the usual. I aimed at one of the nearby paper targets and said “loisg urchair”. The wand briefly grew ice cold in my hand and tip of the wand glowed as it accumulated the ambient heat into a single point, and then launched a tiny flaming spheroid forcefully at the target. It punched a hole right though and went splat on the brick wall behind. The targets burned for a bit, then guttered and went out leaving only a whisp of smoke.
That was actually much better than the wand had been before. Sure the fire was not as hot, but it was just a solid and it didn’t deviate at all over the short distance. I tried several shots at various targets and distances with much the same result after which I paused and gingerly felt the tip of the wand. Formerly, after about a half dozen shots, the wand would have been too hot to touch and would smell smoky. Because of the smoldering targets I couldn’t tell how the wand smelled but to the touch the wand’s tip was still cool.
Holy shit, maybe I fixed the thing after all!
No… I couldn’t be that lucky.
One more test then. This time I would do some really hard core shit.
I put up a paper target, then a foot behind that salvaged piece of plywood, a yard behind that some scrap iron plate, then a stacked up cinder blocks. I would have liked to put a nice solid granite rock behind that, but where to you get something like that on short notice? The brick wall would have to do. I spun a web of various strands to temporarily try and make the wall more rock like and then I was ready. Like before, a wave in the air to collect strands, focus the will, and then declare my intent. I didn’t have to say it out loud, I just had to feel it. The flaming pellet burst from the wand penetrated the target and splashed into nothingness against the plywood.
Light, delicate, not nearly so crude as before. I began to wonder if real wandmakers (i.e. people who know what they are doing) broke strands on purpose to get this fine a level of control.
I gave it a double wave and fired again. This time it punched through the target and singed the plywood. I whipped it five times in a circle from my wrist and fired again. It had some kick back which was unusual, but it punched though the target, the plywood, and clanged against the iron plate leaving a small dent. The tip of the wand was still cool as a cucumber.
I smiled to myself and whispered, “Fuck it.”
I spun it full armed, from the shoulder, three times and fired one more time.
About a half hour later, I regained consciousness…on the balcony outside the loft.
I had a splitting headache from where I had crashed through the double doors and on top the balcony. Wasn’t there a counter between me and the doors? Ah yes, that would explain the pain in my legs. The paper target was gone. The plywood was gone except for splinters. The iron plate was now two blobs of mostly melted slag that had even dripped some to scorch the floor boards. The cinderblocks were broken and scattered everywhere, and the brick wall, despite my net of spells, was still cracked.
I staggered back into the loft, there was a ringing in my ears. There might have been a knocking at the door, but I couldn’t tell. But damn it, this wand was now fucking PERFECT!
I stuck it in my pocket and went to check the door. It was the police. They surveyed the wreckage silently from the doorway for a moment, and then looked to me for some sort of explanation. I must have been a sight.
He said something, but it was muffled so I quite reasonably said, “HUH?”
“NOISE COMPLAINT!” he said much louder.
“Ah.” I said.
“So,” the officer said and then glanced briefly at his partner who nodded. He looked back to me. “Anything you’d like to tell us?”
“Yes,” I said, probably too loudly but that’s what you do. Right?
“Never try to cook hard boiled eggs in the microwave. Just don’t.”
They were not impressed, nor amused.
Eventually they gave up trying to get me to incriminate myself, by which time my hearing was almost back to normal. I closed the door and surveyed the wreckage. This would require some effort, or at least thought. I chose the latter and decided that a beer might help. On my way to the fridge I went back past the counter taking the wand out as I went and tossed it onto the countertop.
The wand hit the countertop and went “POP”.
And a little ball of light like a candle flame shot out a few inches then drifted up about half way towards the ceiling.
I looked at the wand, then at the floating candle flame, then back to the wand. I picked the wand up and tapped it against the counter. “POP”… and now there were two candle flames drifting in the air about midway between the floor and the ceiling.
I tapped again. “POP” … three flames.
“Shit,” I said.
I scanned the wand with the othersight, crafted and impromptu diagnostic spell to reveal what was wrong that did nothing useful. By then the wand didn’t need to be tapped, it would spit out the little flames at irregular intervals which was bad because it was not only getting worse it was now casting magic on its own without will or intent. Something like that could destroy a city or at the very least bring down the wrath of the Inquisitor Squad. The inquisitors were just more warlocks like I used to be, clever, ruthless, and highly skilled. Unlike me, they were not as friendly, forgiving, nor excommunicated and cut off from almost everything that might be of aid in a crisis. If they were called in, I was screwed. I needed to fix this quick which meant calling on what few resources I had left and hoped I got lucky.
My duster hanging by the door had not been in the blast radius so it had remained unmolested. In it I found the one thing that every warlock needs in a crisis, a pocket mirror. I cross my free hand over the mirror and speak the word.
As I wait for what seems an eternity, I counted the hovering flames. There were twenty- three now. If you have even been to the temple of the virgin mother, then you know what twenty-three lit candles can feel like. It was only going to get worse.
Finally, the voice of the only person who could help me answered.
“What.” She said. Her tone sounded annoyed, but that was fairly normal considering.
“Hey, it me.”
“Who else could it be, I can see you in my mirror.”
That was when I noticed, “Strange, I can’t see you.”
“And?” was all she said.
“I need help.”
“Of course you do, that is the only reason why you call me.”
“That is not the only reason,” I said. Then when I tried thinking about an example I found it difficult to think of more than one. Oops. “There was that time I asked you out to dinner last week.”
“Which was just to soften me up so you ask me for help in person.”
Shit, she was right. I kinda felt like an ass, especially since I was just going to ask her for help again. “I kinda screwed up.”
“No I really mean it this time.”
“Shall I list the number of times you have said that?”
“The number has double digits….. HIGH double digits.”
There was a pause, then a sigh of resignation, “What is it this time?”
“Well, sort of a good news bad news thing. The good news is I think I fixed my wand.”
“I can’t wait to see how this is relevant. Did you blow up your apartment in the process?”
“Partially,” I admitted. “But that was more of a success than a failure. The problem now is that wand now had a slight hiccough.”
“So you really didn’t fix it, you simply modified the problem.”
“No, I definitely fixed it. When I use it to cast fire it no longer tries to catch fire. Only now whenever I tap it to hard on anything, it tends to burp flame.”
“So then, obviously, don’t tap it against things and pad your wand sheath. I don’t see why you had to bother me…”
“… or on its own when I am not touching it at all.” I interrupted.
“Like I said. I need help.”
“Let me see how bad it is.”
I held the mirror up so he cold see the flames floating around the room. There were about thirty –four now. It was hard to count them because there were so many and they kept moving about. It was also beginning to get rather warm.
“Tap the wand once for me so I can see it.”
I did as she asked. I picked up the wand and tapped it against the countertop and the wand went “POP”… 35 flames. I gently placed the wand back onto the counter and it was fine for a moment. Then it went “POP POP” and we were up to 37 flames.
“How long has it been doing that?” she asked.
“Uh… well it only just started doing the double pop part right now.”
“This is inquisitor level bad, isn’t it.” It wasn’t a question.
“Seal the doors and windows so they can’t escape. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
By the time she arrived we were up to 52 or more and it was getting distinctly uncomfortable inside. I had managed to patch the doors with cardboard and duct tape. It wouldn’t keep out a determined puppy, but it would keep the air currents from allowing any flames to escape. They were burning self contained with no fuel, some for almost an hour. If thy escaped they would be like errant flying matches that would set fire to anything flammable that the touched for too long. I had found that they could be herded slightly. The wand seemed to interact with them somehow like they were still attached to it, but nothing I could say, do or cast could seem to put them out.
She didn’t knock, she rarely did anyway. This time though she opened the door only slightly and peered in to assess the situation. She then stepped in quickly and closed the door behind her. She scanned the room, the flames, and all that. Then turned her eyes to me.
“Why is there a finger on the floor?”
I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction too soon, so I simply said, “Because the table fell over.”
“Uh huh… is it anyone I know?”
The jig was up at that point. I didn’t reply. I just held up my right hand. The recently replaced index finger had not seen the light of day yet so it was of a distinctly different color from the rest.
She smirked, “It’s good to see you haven’t lost your touch.”
Oooo, double entendre pun. “Nice.” I was all I said.
She bowed her head slightly. “Let me see the wand.”
“I found it can do this.” I said and I showed her how the wand could influence the movement of the flames.
“So they are still attached somehow?”
“It would explain how they have not gone out yet.”
“Isaac Bonewits’ third law of Thaumaturgical Thermodynamics, ‘every energy must have a cost or a source.’”
“That’s bad. We might have to destroy the wand.”
“I was hoping to avoid that since I can’t replace it.”
“We could kill you instead.” She wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell she was smirking again.
“You know, I have grown to enjoy these little flames.”
“I hope you enjoy the Inquisitors attentions too. I’ll be on a boat, someplace wet, drinking something sweet yet dry.”
“Fine, destroy the wand then.”
“Not so fast,” she said as she held out her hand. “Let me have a real look.”
I handed the wand over to her, which she took over to the kitchenette counter. She placed it there and drew out her own wand. A beautiful thing made of ebon wood from the dark forest and inlaid with silver runes. The runes were meaningless, pointless even, but they were quite decorative. She made a few passes to collect whatever loose strands were about, touched the tip of her wand to my wand and focused her intent by incanting, “Lowal mee dy akin beg rinkyn.”
“I think your syntax is off,” I said to be annoying. She didn’t even look up, she merely pointed to the hovering flames with her wand and then flipped me a bird with the same hand.
I was just being a jerk of course.
I would like to say it is an old and long running joke from way back. Though I suspect she might have another term for it. Back then I was a young know-it-all who had read a few books, made a few arcane devices, and a crappy barely functional wand. She was a total novice who had just come into her power. She look on me as though I hung the moon. It was beyond an infatuation. It verged on obsession. As she gazed adoringly at me I would pompously lecture her on how to properly use the secret “magic words” that often I had only taught myself maybe a week before. The world, dirty and smelly as it was, was still our oyster. Life was a free all you can eat buffet with an open bar. We firmly believed nothing would or could stand in our way along our journey to greatness.
Then I was recruited into the warlocks, and everything fell apart.
Technically you could say I abandoned her. Plain and simple. I lied and told myself I was doing it for us, without telling or even consulting her. I had a plan. I was going to learn all the secret ways and finally be the person I believed that she believed me to be. Before I left, I gave her my shit wand and a promise to come back. At least the wand was worth something.
Being a warlock hadn’t changed me, not really. If anything it freed me to be more me. What had changed me and made me turn my back on everything was the truth. It was all crap, everything that I thought I believed in. My finely crafted wand, garbage. My arcane devices, child’s toys. There were no “magic words” or spells that you could only perform when the twin moons were in the 3rd house of whosywhatsis. Worst of all was learning that if I had not enthusiastically volunteered to become a warlock, I would have been forcefully conscripted. I had a rare talent, one that the government didn’t want falling into the wrong hands. I could see the strands of the universe that tie everything together and manipulate them. They needed to me and others like me under their control because we were the wildcards. Love and loyalty were fine methods of control, my Grandmaster had told me, but fear and subjugation will work just as well. So I played the game, became their best and loyal lapdog because the lapdogs live in luxury, sleeping in the queen’s bedchamber and eating steak whenever you like. The hounds live outside in cages behind the castle and are only fed scraps as a reward for behaving.
I couldn’t go back. Sure, I couldn’t bear to see the look in her eyes changes when she learned the truth, not only about magic but about me. There was a better reason. She had only come into her power after they had tested us. As far as they knew, she was a null, an unrealized potential with a spark too weak to burn. She wouldn’t have come into her power at all if it weren’t for me fanning the flame. She was free, unless I led them back to her. So I turned away and never looked back, telling myself that I was saving her. The worst lie of all. She learned all of it anyway, from the other side. They told her all she needed to know, about magic, and about me. I am a sellout, a broken tool of the government, a fallen enemy that might prove useful someday so I am kept around in case the opportunity presents itself.
I broke my naïve childish promise and now she hates me for it. That’s ok, its better this way. Simpler.
“What is this wand made of anyway?” she asked.
“Wood,” I said.
“Ass, of course it is made of wood. What kind of wood?”
“The wood kind,” I said and then added hastily when I saw her face suddenly darken, “I was a teenager, and living is a desert region where only rich people who can waste water have trees. So I went to the importer’s place up by the trains, where they get pallets from all over the world. Pallets that are made of whatever wood grows the most in their area because it is cheap. I took pieces from several that came from different places. Whichever one looked best when smoothed and shined up is the one I used. So…. It’s made of wood. That’s all I know.”
Her faces softened a bit, “You know, Thaumaturgist say the best wood for wands…”
“Yeah well warlocks learn that any wood will do,” I said, my face suddenly feeling hot as I turned away flailing my arms. “There is no special magic wood, no special magic words. There is just the spark, the talent, and the focus of intent. I had no idea what I was doing then, and …..I…”
I had turned around and my rant ground to halt when I say her standing there with one hand cocked on her hip and the hint of a smile on her face.
“What?” I said, suddenly feeling foolish.
“Are you done?”
I didn’t say anything at first. I just stood there holding my breath till I felt my heart slowing. I let it out in one big blow, visualizing all the mental snarls going out with it. Closed my eyes, breathing in and out on each alternating number as I counted to ten. Then opened them and took stock.
Memories and guilt, they are a bitch.
“Yeah, I’m good now.” I said.
“Ok,” she said. “While it is true that essentially the type of wood does not matter…”
“Thank you for the pity acknowledgement.” I said.
“You’re welcome.” She said with a smirking nod. “Thaumaturgist do suggest certain woods are more resilient. If I were to guess, I would say that based off of the reddish-brown color, moderate hardness and superior density, yours is likely made of swietenia mahagoni.”
“One of the rare tropical varieties, and a particularly good choice for making wands out of.”
“Really good wood then.”
“And yet, you have somehow cracked it, lengthwise, right at the tip. How did you manage that?”
I looked about the wreckage of the room, my eyes falling on the large crack in the far wall before saying, “No idea.”
“Whatever, the point is that the resultant gap may be exposing the Unilpentium core of the wand which might be why it is misfiring when you tap it. Although that is rather unusual as even corrupted unilpentium is rarely that unstable, and it does nothing to explain why it misfires on its own with indefinitely sustained blips of elemental fire energy.”
Most of that sounded like ‘blah…blah’ though as I an ‘Uh Oh’ thought suddenly occurred to me.
“What if the core is not Unilpentium?”
“Don’t be absurd. The core has to be some form of Unilpentium or it wouldn’t magically charge the wood. The wand wouldn’t do anything.”
“It would if the entire wand acted like Unilpentium.”
She paused, then said, “No.”
“NO! No way!”
“My family were already doing some pretty serious jobs before I met you, and one of them might have been… a mining company payroll.”
“Well mom, she’s clueless. She brought me back a souvenir from their offices. A little glass box with the tiniest three in long sparkling blue thread…”
“I told you she was clueless.”
“You could have bought a city block in the capital with that.”
“Could have, if I hadn’t already bonded it into a poorly crafted shit wand.”
“Which means you could have also accidentally destroyed a city block.”
I pointed to the sixty or so hovering candle flames and said, “Still might.”
“This is bad. This is… really bad.” It must have been since she is usually more evocative in her descriptions.
“I said I needed help. Still want to destroy the wand?”
“I kinda want to kill you more,” she said, but she was smiling so it might have been a joke.
“So to sum up, we have a cracked unilpentium/mahogany wand with slight unilhexium core that is misfiring.”
“Your basic ticking time bomb,” she confirmed. “Fortunately I am good with those.”
“Defusing bombs was part of my Warlock training as well. So now we have a framework.”
She gave me an impish grin and said, “Cut the red wire?”
“I think cutting threads on an unstable wand is a recipe for disaster. I did snap a thread while placing a cooling engram on it though. Could that be the problem?”
She looked closely at the wand again with her magnification spell and then shook her head, “Not it, though the split fibers do give it an interesting fractionalization of the chilling matrix. I wonder if real wand makers do that on purpose.”
“I had that same thought. What else is there?”
“Freeze up or lock out the timer.”
“No good, we don’t know what the timing mechanism is.”
“Mechanism!” she said.
That was all she said.
I waited. She stood there staring off into space with one index finger up.
“Uh…” I said.
“Shhh…” she said.
A minute went by, and then she said, “Have you got any wood glue?”
I didn’t, but I checked with the maintenance guy of the club downstairs and he had some. I brought it back to the loft and gave it to her.
“Perfect”, she said as she took the bottle from me. I saw she had assemble a few other items while I was out looking for glue. She unscrewed the top of the bottle and stuck the wand tip down into it as far as it would go. She swished it around in the glue and then left it for a while as she went over to the sink.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I can tell you, or I can just do it and you can watch.”
I considered my options.
“I’ll be over there.” I said wisely.
She took the wand out of the glue bottle, and wiped it clean with some of the wet paper towels that she had brought from the sink. Then she wrapped the entire wand in duct tape, which made me cringe. Once that was done, she took it over to the vice and clamped it. She waited. Nothing happened. So she opened the vice, rotated the wand some. And clamped it again.
On the fourth try something amazing happened. The hovering candle flamed guttered and began to go out one by one.
“Ah, that’s got it,” she said
“What did you do?”
“I doused the wood in glue and clamped the end shut again,” she said and she gave the vice a light slap with her hand. “Just don’t take it out till tomorrow. Then you can take the tape off, but take it easy for a few days.” She pointed at the back wall that I had hoped she hadn’t noticed and said, “No wall cracking maneuvers.”
“It’s gonna be all stick after the tape though.” I complained like a child. Sure, she may have saved the world, and the city, and my life, but sticky wands are just so …icky.
“Wipe it down with rubbing alcohol moron, it will dissolve the residual sticky stuff from the tape.”
I actually knew that already.
I looked at the vice, in the gathering gloom as the hovering candle flames winked out one by one, and then looked at her. She was beaming , not at me but at the flames. She had conquered the disaster and was reveling in it. She looked beautiful like that, in that light.
Then, unexpectedly, she turned and looked at me, and her face slid into a frown and she said, “What?”
“Nothing,” I said and looked away towards the last of the flames as they went out. “I should thank you though, I think you really saved my bacon there.”
“Much longer and you would have been sizzling like bacon you mean,” she said. “Why candle flames I wonder?”
“Well I had been testing my patch to correct the overheating problem by casting various sized fireballs at targets. Maybe it was residual from the last one. I must have overloaded it and cause the crack.”
“Mmmm… Maybe,” she said. “Dinner?”
“I could eat.”
“You are buying, of course.”
“Well you did just save my life and all…”
“Again.” She said.
“Again.” I agreed.
She smiled for a minute, holding my gaze with her own for just a moment, then she turned away and headed for the door.
“Get your coat.” She said, and after a moment, I hurried after.