“What in the hells are you doing out there, Mac? You keep playing around like this, you’re gonna get yourself killed!”
The words floated in from what seemed like very far away, cutting through a haze of pain and disorientation. A slap on the cheek and a splash of cold water brought Macdillowon back to the present. He was sitting on a cheap plastic stool, leaning heavily on the polyester ropes that made up his corner of the ring. The incongruity of the nomenclature buzzed at his brain like an insistent mosquito. Calling it a “ring” suggested that the obviously square arena was circular, and as any idiot with a kindergartener’s understanding of geometry would know, a circle had no corners. Details were important. Details were everything.
“Snap out of it, Kid!”
The voice, clear and crisp now, croaked at him from a point somewhere below his chin. Macdillowon knew that voice, it was—yes, it had to be.
He looked down to see his coach, Lurgurlp, who looked back up at him with luminous green eyes the size of dinner plates. The little frog-man (he’d always preferred the term Froggrmanna, the most fastidiously correct appellation for his people) was slick with mucous and sweat, his bulbous tongue flicking in and out of his mouth with such manic aplomb that Macdillowon was afraid it might go wandering off on its own. A sleeveless white tank top stretched perilously over the scaly expanse of his belly, covered so thickly in sweat stains that it nearly blended in with the rest of him.
“You shoulda had him six ways to Sunday already! His hexwork is sloppy, and he can’t conjure to save his mother. The hells are you playing at?!”
Lurgurlp punctuated the last question with a sticky smack to Macdillowon’s shin, the smell of old cigars and dead flies thick around him.
“I am finding it quite difficult-” began Macdillowon, speaking thickly through a tongue that had swelled to half again its size—a creative, nasty curse— “-To concentrate over the sound of your constant yammering!”
If it were possible, Lurgurlp’s eyes grew bigger.
“Yammering?! I’m yelling out the basics, kid! Keep your hands up, keep your feet moving, empty your mind of all distraction and hold your focus on the unfolding of the single lily petal, EASY, SIMPLE STUFF!” In his agitation, his tongue shot into the air of its own accord and snatched a fat fly from beside Macdillowon’s head. Lurgurlp barely seemed to notice he was chewing as he raged on.
“This guy’s a chump! He’s a hedge wizard barely out of his apprenticeship! He was supposed to be your WARMUP!”
Yes yes yes, Macdillowon thought peevishly, all of that was true. But arrangements had been made. Era’Macdill’owon Flametongue, keeper of the Seven Rings, guardian of the seals of Anda-Thoran was one of the most talented sorcerers the world had ever seen. His opponent was some unknown gutter trash hardly a step above stage magician that should have been dispatched three rounds ago. But magic was a subtle, complicated thing. Here, among the flashes and bangs of New York City’s most prestigious underground arcanist’s dueling club, it was easy to forget that real magic ran deeper than mere conjurer’s tricks.
“I will thank you, frog-man, not to tell me my business.”
Lurgurlp’s webbed fingers closed around his arm, the grip surprisingly firm considering the slime. He looked Macdillowon in the eyes, the sideways slits of his enormous pupils contracting as he searched his face.
“Are you takin’ a dive?!” The old frog’s eyes were feverish in their intensity.
Macdillowon looked back at him evenly.
It wasn’t technically a lie. Details, details.
Macdillowon levitated himself painfully up from the stool, feeling every burn, bruise, and flesh-melt he’d taken in the last twelve minutes. He swept his long white beard over his shoulder as his feet touched the ground, smoothing the folds of his crimson robe with age-gnarled hands. His opponent, Luther the Luminous, was lounging perfectly at his ease in the opposite corner. Macdillowon scoffed at the puerile name. Of course it was alliterative. Every idiot who learned to light a candle at five paces got it in their head to give themselves a name like that. The man was muscled like an ox, though, and the sleeves of his spotless white robes had been torn off to showcase his not inconsiderable biceps. Luminous indeed.
Macdillowon felt an old man’s pining for days gone by, when arcane duels were conducted with a modicum of decorum instead of the infantile spectacle they had become. His grey eyes flicked over the crowd—a sea of pointed hats, horns, and fur-tufted ears swam over faces human and non-human, fae and demon and the rest. An entire row of ringside—no, arena-side— seats was taken up by a quivering mass of tentacles and teeth, capped with hundreds of darting eyes. All the better to have those eyes on him, he supposed. For whether he wanted to or not, Macdillowon would give the waiting crowd the spectacle they so desperately desired.
Lurgurlp roughly pressed a water bottle into Macdillowon’s hands, grumbling.
“Keep out of reach of that stupid firewhip thing he does, and watch for his left cross. He’s got the sigil of the evil eye branded into his wrist, and unless you want seven more years of bad luck, kid—"
“I am well aware, thank you!” Macdillowon snapped, his voice sharp with reproach. Under his practiced testiness, a wave of fondness for the frog-man washed over him. Macdillowon was a healthy few years over eighty, but next to Lurgurlp’s nine hundred and three, he had always been ‘kid’. His only regret in this, his last, his greatest fight, was that he might not see the cantankerous old toad again.
As Lurgurlp croaked to himself about ungrateful young’uns and a wasted career, a horned incubus with skin of beaten bronze rang the titanic gong suspended in midair above the arena. Fire blossomed in the air, twisting like a thing alive to form the words “Round Four”.
Macdillowon took a swig from the bottle—mineral water with an infusion of nightshade—and handed it back to Lurgurlp.
Luther the Luminous bounded from his corner, his arms raised in triumph even before the round had properly begun. The crowd went wild for him—and why not? This novice, this barely-qualified whelp fresh from pulling rabbits from hats had gone up against the greatest duelist of the age, and he was winning. Macdillowon studied Luther as he turned to face his adoring crowd; his perfectly chiseled jaw, his rippling muscles, and his immaculately coiffed hair. Attractive, young, and above all else, the underdog. Everyone loved the underdog.
He was perfect.
Macdillowon’s eyes flicked briefly to the owner’s box, high above the hastily conjured stands. A single shadowed figure sat inside, obscured by a haze of reddish smoke. Only the figure’s eyes were visible, two glowing embers suspended in the fog. For an instant, those red eyes met his grey ones, and an almost imperceptible nod told Macdillowon it was time. Round four, as agreed. Four for the seasons, four for the elements, four for the winds. An auspicious round, and just long enough to make the crowd feel they’d gotten their money’s worth. Macdillowon took a deep breath, steepled his fingers, and began.
He lashed out with a torrent of lightning from his fingertips, aiming carefully wide of Luther, who was still basking in the adulation of the crowd. The idiot ducked too late by half, but Macdillowon’s careful aim made it look like a near miss as the lightning sizzled against the wards around the arena. The stands went wild at the hair’s-breadth escape, and Luther bounced back up, twirling his wrists in a sinuous pattern until a lute of pure light appeared in his hands. He strummed a single chord that echoed through the arena, harmonies reverberating through the stands until they rang like the cries of a thousand gently singing nightingales—the Chord of Sleep, best for putting fretful children to bed. Literal child’s play, thought Macdillowon ruefully as he played at being affected by the sound. He let his eyelids droop just so and stumbled to the side, carefully scraping the floor of the arena with the shard of obsidian he’d hidden in heel of his left boot as he did. Some in the crowd laughed, others gasped in shock, Lurgurlp just groaned.
Luther came on, the lute in his hands twisting and changing into his signature fire whip. He fumbled with it for half a second, grimacing as the flames licked at his fingers. As he did, Macdillowon broke a chip of bluestone tucked in his sleeve, muttered a few words under his breath and let time slow to a crawl around him. Finally, Luther managed to snap the whip in Macdillowon’s direction, a day late and a good deal more than a dollar short. As the firewhip crawled through the air toward him, Macdillowon briefly considered letting it hit him. It would be impressive, no doubt. Very impressive indeed. Out of the corner of his eye, Macdillowon caught a glimpse of Lurgrulp. No, he would do the old frog at least this honor.
He pressed the pieces of bluestone back together, and launched himself out of the way just as the firewhip cut a scathing path through the air in his wake. As he did, he took care to slice yet another line into the padded canvas floor. Would Luther notice what he was doing? The thought was laughable. From the look of concentration that furrowed the oaf’s face for even the simplest of spells, the better part of the man’s brains had leeched into his muscles. He had no eye for detail.
Macdillowon thrust a hand toward the ropes on the opposite side of the arena, hissing the Word of Being for “Serpent”. The top two ropes shook and twisted of their own accord, then sprang to life as twin pythons that lunged for Luther’s ankles. They were on him in seconds, slithering up his legs and around his body in satisfactorily dramatic fashion.
Luther, bringing all his knowledge of the arcane to bear, decided to wrestle with them. It was quite the spectacle, watching him pry one snake off only to have the other twine back around him. It left Macdillowon free to pace a wide circle, scratching the seal of power into the floor one dragging step at a time. With two sickening crunches, Luther broke the neck of one python and then the other, then flung them into the stands with a flourish. The crowd roared their approval, and the whole arena thrummed with their love for the beautiful newcomer. Their excitement was almost palpable, and with every line Macdillowon carved into the floor, it became even thicker. A few more lines on the seal of power, and he’d be able to touch it.
Raising his arms above his head, Luther waved for the crowd to cheer him on. Their bellows of delight rolled over him like a tsunami, and he began moving his arms like a conductor. The roar of the crowd seemed to swirl around his hands, vibrating in the air until they became visible, forming into two enormous, pulsating fists. Subtle as a brick, Luther pelted forward, flailing fists of compressed sound like a drunken prizefighter. Macdillowon gave a hiss of annoyance—he had avoided Luther for too long; it was time to take a hit. He only wished it could have been something that wouldn’t rupture his eardrums. As the fists flew at him, Macdillowon began tracing out a silencing charm—a bare instant too late, naturally—before his world exploded into a storm of noise. He clapped his hands over his ears, but to no avail—the sounds of the crowd punched at his eardrums, magnified a thousandfold. He staggered, not needing to fake a reaction as he crawled away from Luther’s sonic onslaught. Only his iron will kept his left foot on course, carving the last line of the seal as his right foot spasmed and jerked. He left the seal just barely open, only a finger’s breadth between the carefully etched lines. When he had it just as he wanted it, he finally let go of his concentration and let himself writhe freely.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sound-fists finally petered out. Luther stood over him, his shadow blocking the light from the lamps swinging overhead.
The crucial moment was coming. The crowd was in a frenzy, their excitement churning like a tempest above the arena. Macdillowon could almost see it, a golden haze swirling and pulsing, growing stronger by the second.
Luther took a deep breath and halo of light began to form around his head. Rays of sunshine erupted from every one of his pores, and suddenly the dim warehouse grew was bathed in brilliance. Even through the ringing in his ears, Macdillowon could hear the crowd chanting:
Luth-er! Luth-er! Luth-er!
Brighter and brighter it grew, radiance pulsing in time with Luther’s breath. He was preparing, no doubt, for some flashy finisher—the kind of childish display that Macdillowon had abandoned thirty years ago. The light grew until it was nearly blinding, then Luther lifted his hands to the sky. The crowd’s chanting devolved into inarticulate screaming.
Macdillowon gouged the last line of the seal in the floor with his fingernail. As he did, the golden haze of excitement above them solidified, congealing into streams of honey-colored wind. Closing his eyes, Macdillowon did something so dangerous, so fantastically illegal that greater mages than he had been cast into the twisting void even for attempting it.
He forced his mind out of his body—simple, first year astral projection—then took hold of the silver cord that tethered his flesh to his soul and snapped it with a single enormous tug.
His disembodied consciousness was whipped away, carried on the golden wind of the crowd’s excitement. His mind reeled, buffeted by a vortex of emotions, spiraling downward toward the object of their adulation—
Macdillowon’s mind slammed into Luther’s body so suddenly the oaf didn’t have time to react. In an instant Luther’s essence was knocked out of him, squeezing out of his eyes like sausage through a meat grinder and tumbling into the only available vessel, into the half-broken shell of a man beneath him.
Opening his young new eyes, Macdillowon looked down at the crumpled old man below him. The old man’s face lit up in sudden alarm, but too late—
The crowd wanted a finisher, and Luther the Luminous would provide.
Macdillowon brought Luther’s—his—arms down, and a torrent of light rushed out of him. For good measure, he added a healthy dose of flame to the mix, and the withered form below him was charred to dust in seconds.
As the light faded, all that was left of old Macdillowon were motes of ash floating in the air. The crowd fell into shocked silence. Such things were known to happen, every arcanist that stepped, hovered, or slithered into the arena knew they might not come back out again, but an upset like this was unheard of. Impossible. Sensational. The crowd went wild, shaking the rafters as they stomped and howled their approval. Lurgurlp collapsed, pounding the floor with his rubbery fists. Macdillowon—no, Luther—basked in their adulation, flexing a physique worthy of a Greek god.
Hours later, after the chattering crowds had filed out and the featureless acid cubes had happily dissolved the discarded bags of popcorn and beer cans, Luther the Luminous slipped into the owner’s box carrying a chest of finely lacquered African blackwood. It would have been far too heavy for the late Macdillowon to lift on his own, but Luther the Luminous had muscles to spare. The owner’s box was wrapped in a haze of reddish smoke that smelled vaguely of sulfur, the furniture several decades (and some cases, centuries) out of date. Luther set the chest on the owner’s desk and opened it with a reverential hand. Inside, on a silken purple cushion were seven rings, each one a handspan across. They were ornately made, chased with gold and silver and precious stones, vibrating gently under his touch. From the haze of smoke, the shadowy figure spoke, its voice echoing far more than it should have in the dingy little room.
“A little obvious, don’t you think? I thought you a better actor than that.”
Luther smiled ruefully, running his finger over one of the rings.
“With such a prize idiot to work with, it’s a miracle it didn’t turn out worse. Besides, I think your patrons were perfectly happy with my performance.”
“Fools are easy to fool. But I expected more from you. Prize idiot or no, your specifications were very demanding. It took a great deal of effort to find Luther.”
“For which I’m eternally grateful.” Said Luther, flexing hands that looked like they could crush stone. “Now, I trust these will suffice as payment?”
There was a sound like a dam breaking, like a thousand wordless cries of terror, like the screaming winds of a hurricane, and a shadow passed in front of Luther so fast it might have been a trick of the light. As it did, the rings disappeared.
“As we agreed.” Said the voice.
“Then our business is concluded.” Luther ventured, not daring to look too long into the smoky haze.
The room grew silent save for the metallic clink of rings in the shadow. Finally, the figure spoke again, a tinge of amusement in its voice. “What will you do now?”
Luther paused, unsure.
“I hadn’t really thought about it.”
All the meticulous planning had led to this moment. He hadn’t given the rest much consideration.
A thought occurred to him, and sudden smile broke over his new, perfect face.
“I’ve been told I have a bright future ahead of me in the arena—”
He stopped, catching himself. Details.
“—In the ring. Perhaps I’ll find myself a coach.”