Ama looked at the shifting bands of light and dark within the decanter. “Jodus was kind and wise, and more adept than you give him credit for, Macule. With whispered arcana he set my broken arm as a child, and the bone never pained me after.”
Bean nodded and looked away from the bottle’s eerie glow, casting a stern look at the unperturbed face of the exciseman. “Jodus may not have been the king’s magician, but you’re no wizard at all!”
Leaning forward, Ama peered at the luminescent blue fluid that wavered with a living quality. “Do you even understand this magic?”
Macule opened the bundle in his hands, revealing a fist-sized bowl of aged ceramic and flecked enamel. “I’ll admit to lacking an arcane talent. The magic lies in this bowl, however. Within its oil catalyst, and in the contract itself.”
In the shadowed room, Macule’s black clothing made him appear like a disembodied face while his floating hands gently placed the bowl by the decanter. He then took ahold of the King’s Ledger, sliding it back inside the brandy colored satchel before withdrawing a thin, ragged folio from the bag.
“The old wizard’s notes were written in plain scrawl unequal to your elegant quill-strokes, Mame Ama. But it’s no alchemist’s hen-scratch… I’m confident in my understanding and ability to execute the ritual.”
Ama slowly shook her head at Macule’s smirk while Bean crossed stout arms. “Bean has his pardon… That’s what I wanted, and what he needed. Beyond that I’ve given my word to participate in this pact even if it kills me, Macule. So it really doesn’t matter if I think you’re a sage or a fool, does it?”
“No, it does not.” Macule said placing the thin book on the table. He then began to collect the loose papers that remained, sliding them neatly into the satchel.
As he busied himself with the bag, Ama looked at the bowl sitting humbly next to the glowing crystal decanter. It was a modest half-sphere with several chips on the indigo glaze with white flecks that colored the pottery. Her eye became drawn to a silver band encircling the bowl, and tracing its path around the vessel she discovered it was actually a serpent in relief devouring its own tail.
Macule dropped his heavy bag onto the bench beside him with a bang that drew the peasant’s eyes back to him. They watched him turn to the thin folio on the table before flipping through loose, yellowed pages.
Macule removed a sheet of folded vellum concealed at the heart of the book. “This is the contract.”
He handed the document to Ama over the table, who took it with a tremble in her long fingers. The surface of the vellum was smooth and stained with age as she regarded it.
Bean squinted looking at the folded calfskin in Ama’s veiny hands before turning to Macule with a raised brow. “You said there was magic in the contract itself, but if you lack a wizard’s talent then how did you set its terms?”
Macule smiled again. “Open it.”
The men watched Ama unfold the vellum, then she nearly dropped the contract as a weak glow from the opened page illumed her face and fingers.
The exciseman thrust his hand between the drooping document and the beeswax candles below it. “Careful, you cretin! Without the contract the ritual is useless! ”
Ama pulled the vellum away from the burning wicks and showed it to Bean. “These aren’t words as I know them, Macule! What are they? What do they mean?”
Bean’s eyes saw a page filled with fine, hair-like lines that intricately radiated out from two goose-egg sized ovals that sat on opposite vertical ends of the vellum. One was the color of azure, the other indigo.
Macule tapped the ink-stained page of the open folio before him. “What you see is an arcana commissioned and inscribed six centuries ago for the Voranic king Saer by his youngest son, Saermin.”
Leaning in to get a better look at the labyrinthine lines sprawled across the contract, Bean’s hand reached out but stopped short of touching their gently curving arcs. Within the combed flow between the colored ovals were slowly moving strings of blue luminescence, like the oil of the decanter. They inched with pulsing, vascular motion through the spiraling waves meandering to and from the opposing pools of color.
Drawing back his hand, Bean looked to Ama and matched her gaze. “It’s like an elfin sigil, but alive!”
Macule nodded. “Jodus noted that it was an arcana of elven origin, but inscribed by the human hands that also set the contract’s terms.”
“Terms?” Ama said looking to the man in black.
“The ten-thousand days, Mame. Ten thousand days of life to be transferred from Saermin the son to extend the life of King Saer, his father ailed with age.”
Ama ran a worn finger over a luminescent line of the contract. “He must have been a great man, for a son to offer such a sacrifice.”
Shrugging, Macule lifted the decanter and removed its glass topper. “One could assume. The notes allude that the contract functions like a key… It unlocks the magic in the oil and commands the bowl to preform the transfer with that untapped power.”
Macule carefully poured the luminescent blue oil into the bowl. “The contract is consumed as the arcana within it is invoked, so for whatever reason it was never used for its intended purpose. I’ve chosen not to waste my time pondering why. It passed though many hands before coming into Jodus’ possession along with the bowl.”
Ama and Bean watched as Macule tapped the last few drops of oil from the crystal decanter into the vessel and restoppered it. Now pooled and rippling in the bowl, the spiraling bands of luminescent oil fought with the candlelight for dominance of the shadows while the exciseman placed the bottle aside.
“I had to procure the oil myself at the cost of a strongbox of silver ducats paid to an Ozmanaic alchemist … A princely sum, I assure you! But the purchase of life and time is a unique commodity worth nearly depleting coffers for…”
Ama placed the contract flat onto the table and leaned over with a heavy sigh. “Alright, Macule. Do we just sign it?”
Macule’s eyes drifted towards his quill knife on the table. “Blood. We endorse it with blood.”
“We what? ” Ama said over the heartbeat in her ears.
Straightening his chaperon as he looked down at the folio, Macule ran a finger over a line of text in the yellowed notes. “We place thumbprints of our blood in the ovals of the contract. The one forfeiting their days endorses the azure oval, and the recipient of them endorses the indigo. The vellum is then lit aflame, touched to the oil in the bowl and… the rest invokes itself.”
Bean’s hand touched the Ama’s arm. “You might not have ten thousand days to give…”
Ama stood up straight and embraced the thick young man with arms that wrapped around him like a vine. “I may not, Bean, but long years run in the family. I could still have a few to come after this!”
“Mame Ama, I—”
“—No more talking, Bean. If this is my end, I want you to go far away from here. Have an adventure! Take your carving tools and make a new life elsewhere!” Ama said relinquishing her embrace and pulling herself away.
The grey-haired woman ran a sleeve across a moist cheek before her hardening gaze fell to Macule. “Find a young flower looking for a good man, Bean. Make yourselves merry. But whatever you do, don’t be bitter. Don’t stay here… and don’t seek revenge! ”
Macule watched Bean nod to the woman, then back away to leave the pair facing one another across the table. “Sound advice, Mame Ama. Are you ready?”
“Let’s get it over with.”
The exciseman grabbed the black handle of his quill knife and held it aloft. “The instructions say that each should place the cut on the other.”
Ama presented her left hand to Macule and could feel the warmth from the lit candles on the tabletop below. After a moment of squeamish hesitation, he raked the blade across the worn pad of the woman’s thumb.
She winced slightly before pulling away, keeping the dripping blood contained to her palm. “Thank you for the gentle cut, I’ve given myself worse trimming potatoes.”
Ama reached out with her right hand and Macule placed the long handle of the quill knife into it. With a nod of acknowledgement, he then presented his own left thumb to her.
A hard, satisfied smile came to Ama’s lips as she gripped the tool then swiped the blade without warning into his flesh.
“Bloody peasant!” Macule cried out as he recoiled and hot blood ran to his wrist. “Who do you think you are?! A surgeon?!”
Bean chuckled and shook his head behind Ama. Still smiling, she dropped the quill knife to the table with a rolling rattle. “My apologies, master Macule! These old peasant hands, you know.”
Scowling, Macule grabbed the contract with his unbloodied hand. Studying the document for a few seconds, he flipped it around and thrust it at Ama. “This end! Endorse the azure oval with your blood!”
Ama snatched the vellum from his fingers. Bringing her bloodied thumb forward, she pressed it into the azure oval amid its flowing, fine lines. Withdrawing a shaking hand she saw the bloody stain on the calfskin become absorbed by the luminescent strands, taking on a greenish hue of mixing color.
Macule banged a fist on the table, knocking over one of the beeswax candles to pull Ama’s transfixed eyes from the changing light of the contract. “Give it to me!”
She handed it to Macule with half the page diffused with the green lines flowing from the formally azure oval at the bottom. He took it with a harsh yank before laying the contract flat on the table and pressing his thumb into the indigo oval.
With excited breaths, he removed his hand to look at his crimson endorsement and grinned. Ama watched while the blue-green glow flowing through the labyrinthine lines of the contract took over the entire pattern and touched Macule’s oval.
Then she gasped as the vellum flared red, like the embers of her hearth, and pulsed in time with the racing heartbeat in her ears.
Still grinning, Macule rolled the contract into a tube. Its new red light turned inward but still beating within either end of the scroll, he touched it to the open flame of a beeswax candle. Stale smoke rose as fire climbed the side of the ancient document and Ama stepped back from the table. She shook and looked to Bean as Macule plunged the burning contract into the bowl that bore the serpentine Ouroboros.
The luminescent oil exploded into a jet of blue flames that shot up from the container.
Macule screamed, flailing the hand that formerly held the contract behind the column of blue fire that now rose up on the table.
Ama shrieked and stumbled backwards as the narrow vortex of howling flame danced toward the ceiling, casting an eldritch and shifting blue light that filled the room. Dazed but reaching to pull Ama to safety, Bean braced himself for a flash of heat against the intense illumination. Instead, he grasped empty air before a wave of numbing cold washed over him.
Roaring blue flame leapt from the bowl, extinguishing the candles and causing the wooden table to snap and groan at its frigid caress. Shouting Ama’s name half-blinded, Bean caught sight of her silhouette as the bowl ejected a stream of fire that mushroomed against the timber planks above their heads.
Macule stood with mouth agape as the bowl shattered in an explosion of ceramic fragments that flew in all directions. Bean felt an icy shard sting him under the eye, then lost sight of Ama and Macule in the moment it took him to recover. He heard Macule cry out, and turning towards his shout he caught sight of a swaying banner of blue flame departing the table like a rising tail.
Bean looked to the ceiling and coiling above them was an immense, luminescent worm floating against the timbers. Comprised of translucent blue fire, the thing slithered in twisting loops larger than Macule’s horse. Its touch left patterns of ice in its wake, and Bean knew not if it was the featureless worm’s tail or head that swayed past Macule from above.
The exciseman in black dodged backwards, avoiding the frost-bearing touch of the thing as he fell onto the rushes covering the floor. His chaperon hat dislodged and missing, Bean saw an expression of abject terror on Macule’s face.
The opposite end of the coiled worm lurched toward Bean. The stout man threw his arms up in defense, but realized too late that it was Ama only a few paces from his side who was its intended target. Bean was too slow to intervene as the thing whipped past as a blurry blue streak. It grazed Ama, and she fell to her knees hard enough to knock the grey hair from her bun.
Her wide-eyed gaze met Bean’s as the worm slammed into the western wall of the cottage with an explosion of sparks and ice. The young man scrambled to reach her on the earthen floor while the thing rebounded towards Ama’s back, but the translucent coil of azure fire impacted upon her back with a hollow roar an instant later.
Her agonized scream filled the room as Macule made a frantic dash for the door.
Screaming breath became chilled mist as Bean was knocked back by a blast of cold force. The worm’s remaining length uncoiled and darted down from the ceiling, phantasmaly passing through the woman and erupting from her midriff.
Worming blue flame flew over the table towards Macule. It struck him as he grasped the door handle, exploding into a sheath of azure fire that rolled over his black doublet. Yet his bloodcurdling scream didn’t pull Bean’s eyes from Ama, and he watched the woman collapse with the tail of ghostly fire finally passing out of her.
Somewhere in a corner, lapping blue fire flowed over a writhing Macule. He cried out a second time, then was silent as the eldritch light faded with an empty roar. The room was surrendered to darkness as Bean’s dazzled eyes left him temporarily blinded.
Bean groped on his hands and knees as the last of the arcane flames vanished from existence with a snap. His vision struggling to adjust to the shuttered cracks of daylight that remained to poorly light the room, he cried out for Ama. He heard no reply in the cottage that had been left as cold as a winter’s night by the supernatural event he had witnessed.
Crawling and feeling his way along, Bean coughed at the hanging acrid odor the burned oil had left behind. The stench overwhelmed the sweet smell of the rushes and lavender that he brushed aside sweeping the dirt floor with his hands. Then he touched a thin forearm whose flesh was chill, but not frozen.
Bean grabbed the shoulders of the willowy woman lying facedown on the floor and pulled her upright. “Mame Ama! Can you hear me!?”
Her clothing was dank with frost as he shook her limp body in the dark. His callused hands touched an icy face then covered her nose and lips to check for breath. Then Ama coughed weakly into his palm before gasping for air.
“Bean!” she choked out before drawing another breath.
The young man’s stout arms enveloped her. “Thank the Gods!”
Ama shivered as she was pulled into his lap and the warmth of Bean’s embrace began to counteract the wet chill of the frost coating her clothes. “By the Seven Gods, I thought that was the end…”
His hug tightened to nearly painful proportions. “Me too.”
She squeezed his hand with icy fingers, then gave a coughing laugh. “Bean, stop it you bear! You’re going to crush me!”
“I’m sorry, Mame.”
His grip loosened, and Bean helped her pull forward and sit with strength slowly ebbing back into her body. “Where did it go, Bean?”
“It passed right through you like a ghost! Then headed straight for Macule… Honestly, I didn’t see it hit him, but there was a flash and it was gone.”
Ama nodded in the shadows that cloaked them both. “It’s like an ice house in here… and that smell, Bean! Could a troll’s reek be as foul!?”
The young man’s big hand gave a reassuring grip to her shoulder. “I doubt it. Do you feel strong enough to stand, Mame? I think the stairs are nearby… Can you can hold onto them while I open the windows?”
“I think I can if you help me rise,” Ama said sliding her arm over Bean’s broad shoulders and bracing herself on him.
They rose and stumbled through the shadows toward the dim and dusty shaft of light filtering from the loft above. Coming to the stairs moments later, Ama gripped the rough wooden post alongside them before shifting her weight off of Bean.
“I’ll be fine here, get the door open so we can see.”
Nodding, Bean left Ama silhouetted in the moted light. The toe of his boot banged the threshold with a curse after a series of half-blind footfalls, then the door was cast open. Warm spring air and late morning sunlight dispelled the darkness. Ama raised a hand to shield her eyes.
“That’s better,” Ama said squinting at the open door and the trio of peering chickens gathered just outside of it. The fresh air reached her, and she smiled as both the malignant stench and the chill in her limbs began to lift.
Bean opened the shuttered windows to either side of the door. “Good! This will help more, is your strength returning?”
“I’m still freezing, but it’s getting better… Actually, I’m— Merciful Aeanna! ”
Bean stopped mid-stride on his way to the next window after her exclamation. “What?!”
Ama placed a hand over the enormous hole burned in her linen chemise and the apron above it. The gap was the width of the translucent blue worm that had passed through her midriff, and touching her stomach with wavering fingers she expected to feel the crunch of seared flesh. Instead, she found only chilled goosebumps.
Turning her back to Bean, she hid her exposed navel. “I, I’m alright Bean. But my clothes are ruined…”
Bean sighed and shook his head before reaching for the next window. “I think that’s the least of our worries!”
“I know, but…” Ama bundled the sides of the gap together to close it, noticing her apron was practically ripped in two. Its lower half hung by threads dangling to the left, and as she looked down at it her other hand discovered a reciprocal hole on the back of her chemise above the waist.
Bean turned after opening the window and walked up behind Ama as she remained transfixed on her smooth, long fingers holding the gap in her clothing. Somehow they seemed wrong, and she turned her left hand upwards to find no trace of the cut Macule had placed on her thumb.
A hand touched her shoulder and Ama swung about, pelting Bean’s broad face with long chestnut hair as the remains of her prim bun gave way. Unbound, her hair fell to her waist and Ama’s free hand covered her lips before reaching over to brush off the long brown strands clinging to his face.
“I, I’m sorry, Bean! I’m practically indecent and… d, don’t feel right! It’s like the cloth was burned, but it, it isn’t and—”
“—It’s fine, Mame Ama, it’s fine!” Bean grinned as she brushed away hair to uncover his dark, squinting eyes.
“—A, and where the hell is Macule? Is he—”
Bean’s wide-eyed stare stopped her mid-sentence.
Ama paled looking at his expression. “W, what? What is it?”
Struggling with shocked lips, Bean managed to speak a word. “…You’re…”
“I, I’m what? Am I decrepit? Did the magic leave me ogre-touched? What!?”
Bean shook his head. “You’re… young!”
…The next chapter of A Contract in Azure and Indigo, To Give and to Receive, will be be posted on Saturday, April 16th.
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.