Deon slammed the book down on the table, hoping to attract the attention of his friends with a satisfying thump, but in the merry bustle of the tavern the sound was rather feebler than he had hoped. The book’s cover read: Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking.
Ruald glanced down at the book, then back up at Deon, the drooping lids of his eyes suggesting nothing but boredom. “You’ve taken up cooking,” he said blandly. Tenny and Guimer chuckled.
“I can see why you might think so,” Deon said, failing to repress a grin, “but as of yet I have not taken up cooking—I think I’ll leave that to Tenny, since he’s been at it for ten years already. No—actually, it’s a fake cover.” He opened the little book up and pointed at the inside edges of the cover, which had been shoddily stitched together. He flashed each of his friends a glance under his wave of fair brown hair, a smirk still on his lips. He was certain he had them curious now.
“I see,” Tenny said, scratching at his wispy beard. “So what is it then?”
“I’m glad you asked, Ten. A wise question. What it actually is”—here Deon leaned in close and lowered his voice, as if someone in the crowded tavern might hear anything he was saying—“is a book of spells.”
Tenny half-chuckled, a broad grin creeping across his pudgy red cheeks. He waited for Deon to confess he was joking and tell him what he really meant. Deon held his gaze expectantly. That was what he really meant.
“A book of spells,” Ruald intoned, “this is very serious. We can’t have you messing around with spells, Deon—you’ve only had one ale and you’re already slurring your words.”
“Well, let us have a look at it then,” Guimer said, his rough voice rising above the din. He snatched the book from the table and opened it; it looked preposterous in his huge hands. “Where’d you find this eh?”
“Someone left it in one of the rooms at the Fairview—was lucky I found it before my brother got his hands on it.”
Guimer brought the little book right up to his face, so close it was touching his great red beard, and he said in a booming voice: “Devil come forth into this world! Into this very tav—”
“No, no, don’t read it!” Tenny shouted, frantically waving his hands. Guimer looked up from the book and laughed.
“I was making it up! I can barely even read the damn handwriting, you fool!” he said, showing Tenny a page of black scrawls. “Besides, you don’t really believe this nonsense, do you?”
“Well, not really,” Tenny said, smiling sheepishly. “But just in case . . .”
“Give it back here,” Deon said, “my eyes are still young, I can read it. I’ll only read a little so we don’t end up turning into boars, or something else horrible. You must hear some of this stuff—it’s all very strange.”
He opened the book and started leafing through, his features screwed up in concentration. With his fair hair and thin, pointed features he looked like a squirrel intent on opening a nut.
“Here--Bestow Misfortune, apparently. Seems rather tame really, when you think about setting people alight, or turning them to ice, or whatnot, the sort of things you hear from people who travel too much—anyway, so it says: Devil bestow misfortune upon thee, that your life may be long, yet bitter and sorrowful, and full of pain, and so on. Rather odd, isn’t it?”
Deon looked up and met Ruald’s gaze. The man’s face was blank—it was merely his cold blue eyes and upturned mouth that made him appear filled with distaste for everything around him. “And so on?” he said, “Finish it. Don’t say this stuff scares you. We already have one frightened pup at the table.” He motioned lazily at Tenny without looking at him.
Deon smiled and raised his eyebrows, the equivalent of a shrug, and said: “Just in case.” He took a swig from his tankard to avoid Ruald’s eyes.
“To hell with that,” Ruald said, “find something tame if you must, and read that. Then when we see that nothing happens we can read the rest, and laugh at you two for being so pathetic.”
“Alright, alright, alright. I’ll find something,” Deon said. “Gods you can be grumpy sometimes. I’d hate to see what you’re like when you don’t have an ale in front of you.” He leafed furiously through the book, muttering to everyone and no one.
It was an early Friday evening at the tail-end of summer, and The Viscount was filled with bodies. Still more were piling in through door just behind Deon, and as they passed him on their way to the bar they glanced down at the table. They had heard nothing, they merely knew from Deon’s lively mutterings and the intense interest the others seemed to be paying him that he was up to something strange.
“Summon gold—that sounds like a good idea. I’ll be almost out after another ale. Here we go--Devil summon gold coins within your purse, as lustrous as any in the land. Diyaban talan s’baa. Diyaban talan s’baa. Diyaban talan s’baa.”
Deon had spoken the words as solemnly as he could—he had always pictured wizards as old grey men intoning their spells with an air of melancholy—and despite themselves Tenny and Guimer glanced around, as if gold was about to fall from the ceilings of the tavern. Nothing happened. Ruald snorted contemptuously. “Check your purses!” Deon hissed, fumbling in his overcoat.
“Nope. Nothing,” Tenny said.
“Same here,” said Guimer.
Deon sighed, looked down at the table and shook his head. “Shame. I almost believed it would work for a moment.”
“How old are you, Deon?” said Ruald, his voice tired. He picked up the book from the table and began leafing through it, looking mildly amused.
“I’m thirty years the month next,” Deon said, “and don’t try and mock me for it, I know you’d give your left arm to be thirty again. You’re on your way to becoming a grumpy old man, Ruald—there, I’ve said it.”
Ruald couldn’t help but smile, as was often the case when he listened to Deon’s rambling. He passed the book back to the young man, open. “Try this one—I’ll buy you an ale if you read it, which I’m sure you won’t, you coward.”
“Well, that’s hardly fair. If you’re so brave and mighty, you read one, and we’ll see what happens.”
Ruald held Deon’s gaze for a moment, a sardonic smile crossing his face. “Alright then,” he said, and took the book back again. He flipped through the pages for a moment, looking no more excited than if he had actually been reading Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking. The eyes around the table watched him silently. Tenny gulped his beer. Finally, Ruald began:
“Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart—”
“Don’t!” Tenny shrieked.
Guimer and Deon fell about laughing. Ruald shot a tired look at Tenny, whose face had blushed red.
“Come on, you coward, let the man finish,” Guimer said. “Let’s see some spells flying about the tavern, eh? It hasn’t had much excitement in a long time, has it?”
“I don’t like it,” Tenny said, shaking his head, “what does it say this—spell—even does?”
“Nothing,” Ruald said. “It says nothing, and it does nothing, because it’s nonsense.”
A scruffy looking man standing behind Ruald leaned over the table, looking at Tenny. “I didn’t think anyone still believed those old wives’ tales,” he said, a thin smile spreading across his face. “I agree with this gentleman here”—he motioned at Guimer—“let’s scare some of the locals.”
“Well, there’s believing and there’s taking precautions,” Deon said. “I don’t believe in it, but what if I’m wrong? What if we’re about blast the tavern back to the stone age? I’ve never seen any magic, but I’ve never set eyes on the source of the Winterwind—or the sea for that matter—yet I’m sure they exist.”
The scruffy man held Deon’s gaze for a moment, his face severe. His skin was the color of leather, cracked and broken with age and covered with thick black stubble. A great mane of greasy black hair hung down his shoulders. “And I’m sure you’ve never seen a woman in the flesh, naked in a bedchamber neither,” he said, “but I assure you, they do exist.”
Guimer and Tenny roared with laughter, and even Ruald manager a slight chuckle. “He’s got you there lad!” Guimer shouted. Deon held up his hands and smiled, but his face turned pink.
“I have, actually, despite nature’s gifts in many areas, seen—that which you just mentioned. Regardless, it seems rather beside the point. If anything it supports my argument.”
The scruffy man glanced down at Ruald. “Come on then—read the damn thing in full. Nice and loud. Or shall I do it?”
“That’s alright,” Ruald said bluntly, and started reading again: “Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa. Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa. Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa.” The men held their breath. People standing around them peered down at the group, frowns crossing their faces. Glances were shared between friends. The volume of conversations dropped, the sound of the strange words Ruald had spoken troubling people’s minds. The colorful cheeriness of the tavern seemed to have darkened slightly, as when the face of a foreigner appeared at the door. Deon, Ruald, Guimer and Tenny looked around. Nothing happened.
“Well, I guess I’m a coward,” Deon said, “but it does pay to be one on occasions, so let’s not dwell on it. I’ll try another one.” He snatched the book from Ruald and started reading once more:
“Diyaban bamapan godaa d’bansaa karan ekato bibat jantu talan. Diyaban—”
“I would much rather you didn’t,” said a voice.
The voice had come from a man standing behind Deon. The eyes of the table looked him over: he was a gentleman, and he wore a fine grey coat with ruffled white plumes at the end of the arms. His skin and hair were almost exactly the same shade of grey, which was only a shade lighter than the grey of his coat. He looked as prim and cold as a corpse dressed for a funeral, and his eyes rested on the men at the table with unhidden disdain.
“And why’s that?” Guimer growled. “Don’t tell me you believe in this stuff. I don’t, and I don’t care if you do.”
“Whether I believe in it or not isn’t relevant,” the gentleman said, his voice imperious, “what matters is that you are using a vulgar language—the tongue of the barbarians from the south—which I happen to understand some of, and it is most unpleasant to have to listen to. I would rather you refrain from speaking in such a manner—after all, as you say, nothing will happen, so you might as well talk amongst yourselves properly.”
A quiet as close to silence as was possible had fallen over the tavern. Deon felt as if every eye in the room was turned in his direction, the sockets of the animal heads on the walls included. Guimer’s face flushed a deeper red than his hair, and his lips quivered. Suddenly he leapt to his feet.
“I’ll be damned!” he roared, “I’ll be damned! This is our tavern! We’ve been coming here, sitting on this table for going on fifteen years, you pompous bastard! And you come in and tell us what to say, what to do, acting like the lord of a damned manor! Your manor’s that way, matey! You don’t like hearing us—clear out!”
A number of cheers went up around the tavern. The gentleman’s face had remained as calm as a lake throughout Guimer’s outburst, his great forehead and crooked nose giving him a look of noble severity. He seemed completely oblivious to how out of place he was amongst the merry red faces of the tavern. For some reason Deon felt suddenly afraid.
“There is but one table available,” the gentleman began, his voice icy, “it is next to yours. That is where I wish to sit and drink my ale. I hoped not for a confrontation, but if you continue speaking in this vulgar language I shall speak with the barman, whom I trust is more respectable than the likes of you.”
“Read the damn spell,” the scruffy man growled.
He was staring darkly at the gentleman. The gentleman turned to him and held his gaze, and it looked to the men at the table like a demon facing a ghost: one man dark and wild, his black eyes shining, the other cold, white and reserved. For a moment there was silence—then Guimer leant forward, snatched the book from Deon and slammed it down before him.
“Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!” he yelled, his face pressed down to the book’s pages, “Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa! Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!”
The gentleman sighed in disgust, turned sharply and strode over to the bar. Deon watched as he spoke with the barman, who looked him up and down, glanced over at his regulars around the table, and laughed.
“They pay me well, they can do what the hell they like!” he shouted, laughing. All the while Guimer continued chanting, his voice rising louder and louder:
“Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa! Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!”
The table rocked with laughter. The dark haired man behind Ruald was smiling broadly, and he turned to Guimer and shouted: “louder! Louder!”
The gentleman grimaced, buttoned his coat vigorously, shot a dark look at the scruffy man, a darker one at Guimer, and then turned to go. Deon felt a slight pang of guilt, but he was enjoying himself too much to care. As the gentleman turned to the door Guimer’s shouting reached its peak, becoming a roar of exultant victory and a last insult towards his adversary. Every face in the tavern was turned towards the commotion, and most were laughing and smiling at the sight of the gentleman’s back.
“Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa—”
An ear-rending scream split the sounds of the tavern, silencing the mouths and chilling the hearts of everyone in the room. It was not the voice of one man, or even one entity: it was a chorus of horror, pure, breathless, never-ending. It was like the wind’s whispering had risen to a deafening shriek, and there wasn’t a mind in the tavern conscious of anything but a fear as pure and black as onyx. In the same instant a darkness such as could not be found in the deepest cavern descended, as quickly as the snuffing of a candle. Deon could make out nothing. It was not a mere absence of light: it was as if something physical had eclipsed his sight, erased his memory, emptied his mind, and left nothing but the terrifying screaming.
A point of light formed in the darkness. It began to grow, the colors twisting and changing from a searing yellow to a sickly purple. It pulled at the men in the tavern, drawing their sight and their bodies steadily towards it. They did not try and fight it, as they had all but ceased to exist: they had been reduced to nothing but the unholy screaming in their ears, the impossible blackness, and now the light that swirled before them, blinding and terrifying. The light continued to grow, until it had filled everyone’s minds.
Then they heard underneath the screaming a low, sonorous voice chanting. It was in the same language as the spell, yet somehow its meaning rang clear and true in their minds.
“Alor bisaa sen hayan,” they heard, and they knew that their world was ending.
“Apan ashaa yantan ekaa bisaa asak,” they heard, and they knew that all that awaited them was pain.
“Anantaa jan’kaa an taa bedanaa,” they heard, and they knew that it was to be eternal.
Suddenly a clear, booming voice rang out, and it sounded as if it was from another world—the world they had almost lost.
“Debilan tamat apanaa samabet!” The voice shouted, loud and defiant. “Debilan tamat apanaa samabet! Debilan tamat apanaa samabet!”
The screaming and chattering was twisted off and sucked away into the light. The light itself swirled inwards, shrinking, like blood running down a drain. Slowly the blackness resided, and dull light crept back into the tavern with all the caution of a panicked animal. The room stood aghast and silent. The candles had been snuffed out. The food and drink on the tables had been cast about at random. People found themselves lying on the floor, or across tables, or clutching the walls with their fingernails. The only man standing was the scruffy man with the greasy black hair. He held the book of spells in his hand and a sinister smile across his lips.
He turned and glanced down at Deon, his eyes twinkling. “I’ve been looking for this for a while,” he said, flashing a mischievous grin. Deon, sprawled on his back with his toppled chair still between his legs, couldn’t make a sound. The man stepped over him, then over the gentleman, and the eyes of the room watched him with silent horror. He opened the door and walked out into the evening air, the book safely back in his pocket.
© February 2017 Tom Lavin
Tom Lavin is from the United Kingdom and currently teaches English in Asia. Lavin is a newcomer to Swords & Sorcery.