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A Rap On The Skull

A solid crystal. A huge, solid crystal. With an eye, enlarged and distorted by the facets of the rock staring through it and into the flame of the candle on the other side. The flame shattered into a display of patterns on the face of the old man gazing intently into it. The pink glow of the crystal itself adding a strangely blood-like lustre to the hue. The old man clucked.

“No good. No good, I tell you. It’s flawed. Just like all the others. Flawed.”

Tim wrote that down in his book. “Just like all the others” he repeated. “Do you want to try another?”

“Bah, what’s the point?” said Aurelius folding back his ocular enhancer and sitting back on his stool. “They’re all flawed. The whole batch. A month’s work for nothing. What a waste of time. Bah.”

Tim stood up from the desk and wandered over to the magician’s table. He scratched at his beardy stubble and stared at the soft pink crystal, that for all its flaws was still a beautiful sight to behold.

“Well, it’s certainly pretty anyway,” he said. “At least there’s that. I could sell them at market for a good price, I would think.”

“Sell them, sell them,” Aurelius sighed. “Maybe we can buy some food with the coins. I’m hungry all the time now.”

“You’re not hungry,” said Tim. “You’re depressed. Food is just your neurotic compensation.”

Aurelius looked at him for the first time in a while. “Food is what?” he asked, mystified.

“Neurotic compensation. You just want to eat because you’re sad. Lots of people do that.”

“I’m not sad, Tim. I’m worried, very worried…” Aurelius drifted off into thought. It was true, he was worried. He certainly wasn’t getting any younger and this apparent decline in his abilities was troubling. Even the simplest pieces of magic; creating these focussing crystals for instance, was becoming increasingly difficult. Almost impossible. But why?

Could it be the raw materials? He didn’t think so. He had been receiving the same lode stones from the same small mining operation in the dwarven hills for nearly forty years, with no problems at all. Besides, it wasn’t just the stones. Spells that he had been casting since his early training days were either failing outright or becoming strange aberrations of what they once were. Just yesterday he had tried a simple transmogrification of a cat into a dog only to end up with an ugly two-legged creature that spat up disgustingly putrid green hairballs as it chased squirrels relentlessly around the house. Aurelius had had to disintegrate it entirely to get it to shut up. So, he had lost a cat and a dog for no reason whatsoever. The customer who had paid for what he thought was going to be an excellent mouser that came when it was called, was furious and angrily demanded his money back, which, of course, Aurelius had to give him. Hours wasted for nothing.

But then, on the other hand, he could turn around and make Tim invisible with no problem at all. A simple incantation and an arcane movement of the hands and, poof, invisible Tim. Why? Was it truly his age and the gathering cobwebs of his central sight? And Tim had stayed invisible for eight days instead of the usual four. At least, that was what he thought until he found Tim pouring mead down his throat with a bunch of his cronies at the Bull and Hog tavern. He had to hit Tim with his stick. He didn’t like to do that but every now and then it became necessary. ‘Spare the staff and spoil the Apprentice’ wasn’t that the old saying? Still Tim was quite contrite for a day or two.

Point being that something was wrong, and he had sent out several pigeons with urgent messages to some of the nearby magical brethren to see if they, too, were having trouble lately with their spell-making and magical constructs. He expected answers any time soon and then there would be a convention and the least that would come out of it would be that they would laugh a lot and tell some gruesome stories about the old days. A sort of school reunion.

Aurelius didn’t get out much these days. His knees were bothering him quite a bit and he couldn’t walk very far. Any trip into town meant that Tim had to hitch the trap up to their one remaining horse and Aurelius would climb aboard for the bumpy ride along the roads that were increasingly poorly maintained. Nobody seemed to care about infrastructure anymore.

Tim was preparing some bread and cheese at the counter and Aurelius went out the small door and into the garden. He walked among the many bushes and brilliant flowers, drinking in the sweet smells. Truth be told, he gained more enjoyment from his gardening than he did from magic these days. He looked down and sighed to see that one of the hydrangea was sagging and looked like it might not last the rest of the fall. Could he not even rely on this pastime?

And now that he thought about it, he couldn’t remember a time when things weren’t looking glum. And not just for him. The crops had been poor for a couple of years now, the fish catch was short all the time and hunters, returning from the forests, were as often as not, empty handed. Some didn’t even return at all.

It was as if the entire world was gripped in a sort of malaise that made everything seem pointless and dull. Like an ever-present dark cloud had descended over the land and had taken all the joy out of it. Oh, people still found cause for merriment of course. Weddings and festivals still occurred, for instance. But even these seemed hollow representations of what they used to be.

There was a sudden flutter of wings and one of his messenger pigeons lit upon the gate down by the road. Aurelius whistled a low note and the bird flew to his shoulder and remained there as he untied the notepaper from its leg. Then it whooshed off to join its feathery fellows in the coop. Aurelius looked down at the note. It was from Magan, the Elementarist from the next town over.

“Dear Aurelius. Good to hear from you. Experiencing similar issues. We should meet. How about two weeks from now at Habblestone? Let me know and I will alert the others.”

Well, that was a relief. He wasn’t alone in this then. Perhaps, collectively, they could come up with some answers. Answers that would help themselves and possibly others at the same time. The thought of meeting up with his cohorts made him feel particularly buoyant. He would wear his Emerald Cape, he thought. The one he wore at his Emergence. Make a bit of a special occasion out of it.

And he would take Tim. It was about time that Tim met these others and perhaps come to have a bit more regard for the lengthy traditions that he was undertaking albeit slowly.

“The food is ready, Aurelius,’ Tim shouted through the door.

Aurelius looked up and saw that another of his pigeons was just now spiralling down towards the garden. It was coming down very fast, too fast, and Aurelius shuddered as the bird crashed into one of the fruit trees and fell to the ground. He rushed over and retrieved it, but it was too late. The poor thing had broken its neck. Further examination revealed that it was missing a lot of tail feathers and some blood appeared under one wing, not a result of the crash. It must have been attacked by a hawk or an eagle, Aurelius thought. He carried the bird inside and laid it gently on the counter. He carefully unwrapped the note from its leg and read it aloud.

“Aurelius. Take care. There is great danger. Cannot say more at this time.” It bore the seal of Grippalang the Blue and it too was stained with the blood of the bird. At least, he hoped it was the bird’s blood. Tim came over and looked down at the note.

“What does it mean?’ he asked, curiously. “What danger?”

Aurelius looked up at his young apprentice with a grave countenance.

“It means that I have been looking in the wrong place to explain these recent failures, Tim. There is something else going on. I should have realized it before. We shall have more to go on in two weeks as we are going to meet at the Gathering Place with the others. Until then, we must be wary and keep our eyes open for any more signs.”

“Signs?” Tim said.

“This could be an omen,” Aurelius repied.

“An omen?’ Tim said.

Aurelius reached for his staff and gave Tim a rap on the head with it.

“Yes, an omen. Go look it up in the big book.”

Tim wandered up the stairs to the library, rubbing at his sore head. Aurelius sat down at the table and began to eat.

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