Thank you for choosing to read Unfinished Wizard Business, an ongoing serialized story, featuring Animus and his dragonfly familiar Cedric, as they unravel a plot of magic, betrayal and revenge.
Here is some optional music to set the mood…
Now, on with the story!
To take a life is to force one’s soul to break the metaphysical bonds that tether another soul to this world. With each killing comes a sacrifice—a small part of your spirit is shucked away in order to escort the newly dead against their will into the nebulae. Once that piece is missing, a killer’s soul becomes blemished beyond repair. Despite this apparent self-mutilation of the soul, we still do not understand the complete ramifications.– The Eremite
It was still raining. Animus could hear the sound of trickling water on cobbled pavement emerge from the deafening silence. Basic physical senses returned, shaping reality into a palpable haze.
He became aware of the familiar aches that had inhabited his body for years, now amplified by the prolonged stillness he had endured while unconscious. The ground beneath him was frigid and wet, lightly reverberating from the torrent of raindrops. Mentally gathering himself and his dim surroundings, Animus scooped through the mud of his brain, trying to remember the reasons for all of these things.
His eyes opened. He was lying face down in the alley, his arms pinned beneath his body and robes. Breathing was difficult, as the air fought through water, stone, and beard to reach his lungs. These realizations sent a primal panic into his being and he finally sputtered out a wet cough of inhaled water that spasmed his muscles back into motion.
Rocking his body, he freed an arm to push himself away from the ground. It felt as though he was struggling against the strength of the world, as he peeled his face from the alley floor. A familiar scowl appeared in a puddle that gathered beneath him.
Animus glared at the reflected face of an old wizard, pale and obscured by soaked hair and ripples. His eyes looked lifeless—as if the underworld itself was reflecting back and forth between the dark pool of water and his pupils. He blinked. How long have I been lying here?
“Welcome back to life.”
The small voice startled him. He jolted up off of his hands into a kneeling position. He glanced around for the source of the voice.
Wisping between the raindrops, a speck of crimson floated towards the old man, eventually landing itself on a mound of crumpled clothing the wizard recognized as his hat. The red insect’s jewel-like eyes quietly examined the huddled man. Animus stared back.
“Cedric…” he spoke aloud, recognizing the red dragonfly. Pieces of memories seeped back to him.
He remembered the meeting (in hindsight, an obvious setup) and how he had let his guard down. An incredible sharpness of pain flashed through him, as he recalled the sword cutting into his ribs. Doubling over again, he clutched at his entrails and nearly fell back to the earth. The wound was bloody and deep.
“How is this possible…” the wizard finally managed, through death rattled coughs.
“That’s what I’m wondering,” Cedric’s small voice said. “It was an ambush. I… I’m sorry. I did not foresee this.”
“Clearly, ” the wizard wheezed, “but they failed. I should be dead. Where are they? Why didn’t Nereus finish it?”
Cedric became still, pondering the circumstances. After a moment, he said flatly, “Animus, they did kill you.”
He watched intently as the wizard’s face contorted into bewilderment. The old man’s eyes lost focus again.
“You’ve been lying there for a few hours now, with no pulse or breath. I couldn’t bring myself to leave, but just as I had decided to…” Cedric paused. “You began to move again.” Every word he uttered brought a small change to Animus’s demeanor.
Animus said nothing, allowing the wind and rain to fill in the gaps of the stilted conversation. The weather surged in loudness, blowing with a temperament that chilled the old man, piercing through his drenched robes. The dragonfly eased into a crease of the hat’s fabric, folding his wings as close to his body as the joints would allow. The smeared lines of rain flailed diagonally in the wind.
During a lull in the downpour, Cedric probed further. “Are you sure that you didn’t plan for this miraculous revival?” He took care in his words. “This wasn’t intentional?”
“No. If things are as you said, then I am supposed to be dead. I shouldn’t have survived this.”
Animus’s words nearly vanished in the resuming gust. It nudged his hat, prompting the dragonfly to leave his perch. Cedric buzzed his wings and landed, clinging to the wizard’s shoulder. “I don’t suppose we could find shelter to discuss this bizarre phenomenon more properly?”
“I don’t think it’s safe to stay in the city, Cedric. The guardsmen work for Nereus, and they will definitely know who I am and that I’m supposed to be a corpse. When word gets out—”
A spasm of pain ripped through the wizard again. In his mind, he could see the face of the man who had tried to kill him, the one who had swung the blade. Nereus Bight, sworn protector of the oath they both shared, had betrayed their Order. He tried to murder me.
Examining the severity of his wound, Animus felt that Nereus had succeeded.
Gradually the pain subsided, but his brain still swam with confusion. The dragonfly hovered above him, concerned. “Animus, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Cedric. Nothing’s wrong. None of this matters anymore.”
“It’s over, Cedric.”
“You’re giving up already? But we don’t even know why this is happening!”
Animus motioned to his chest. “Even if I outlive this cut—which is highly unlikely—where will we go? Nereus controls half the city. His spies are everywhere and all it takes is one wrong turn and we will be done for. And if we escape the slums, I could still be recognized at any moment in the city—” He interrupted himself with a sudden coughing fit. When he had regained his composure, he simply said, “Cedric, there’s just no way I am surviving tonight.”
“There’s still a chance, Animus,” Cedric pleaded. “We have an advantage. Nobody expects a dead man to still be walking about. We can still find help and, damn it, you’re alive, aren’t you? Against all odds.” The wizard could sense the dragonfly’s tone veering towards anger. “You’re alive and it’s a miracle! We can’t give up, especially when you’ve been given what no other man has ever been given: a second chance!”
The wizard let out a pained sigh. Cedric sees so much hope in this situation, but he doesn’t understand. Animus again gazed down at his abdomen. The wound sliced diagonally across his chest and stomach. He could see the unseeable viscera as it pumped and leaked blood and bits of unconnected flesh. Surely this is the end of me. If I can’t be treated soon, I won’t recover. Do I even have the strength to walk?
Animus shifted his body and, with great effort, managed to stand. He lifted his hat from the ground, and held it against his injury to contain it. He began to walk aimlessly, following wherever the twisting corridor of the narrow alley would take him.
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care anymore,” the wizard mumbled, echoing the dark thoughts in his mind. His body trembled from exhaustion with every step. He spat a mouthful of blood into the rain.
As he walked, the sound of rain mixed with something new: a deep rumbling emanating through the earth. He stopped at a fork in the passage. This was the underbelly of the city’s slums, where many of the lower streets merged and split off. The hub was wide enough to reveal the night sky above him.
The moon was obscured, a soft blur of dim light behind storm clouds. Pinpointing the direction of the new and thunderous sound, he turned down a pathway that led to a slick set of stone stairs. The rain continued its assault against his senses.
As he climbed haphazardly up the steps, the sound became louder, shaking the puddles and runoff that collected and broke on each step. Finally, the monotonous scenery of walls and puddles gave way and Animus stumbled out onto an open landing at the edge of a slick stone gulch.
The vast city of Estuary—an ocean of shingled rooftops and smokestacks—continued for miles in front of him. The artificial river nicknamed the Canal roared beneath him, dividing the city into halves. Several bridges of varying sizes spanned the water’s breadth in the distance. Animus recalled that he was on the western half.
The wizard’s eyes scanned to the right, following the flow of the waterway as it rushed south towards the sea. In the distance, as the Canal and city met the waters, an immense structure broached the mouth of the river like a giant stone butte.
The storm clouds seemed to be concentrating above its towers, making the castle appear hazy. Behind it, in the mist, a large square-rigged galleon was moored. Although the sails were furled, Animus could see in his mind the brazened sigil that represented the house of his attempted murderer.
The Drowned Castle, he thought. Nereus Bight’s island fortress at the edge of Estuary.
In that moment he knew that Nereus Bight was there, holed up behind the walls of his keep. Anger churned in Animus’s wound.
“Why do you think Nereus did it?” Cedric asked, when he realized where the wizard was looking.
Animus didn’t respond. His thoughts briefly turned towards her, but he pushed them away. It was too painful to think about.
“Animus, are you alright?”
The wizard had stopped walking. He leaned against the stone barrier that lined the edge of the Canal’s steep walls, watching the rain as it fell a few dozen feet into the river below him. Cedric’s hovering became more antsy.
Again the anger flared and he stoked this newfound hatred like a cinder that formed in his abdomen. He suddenly felt compelled to walk, and his legs started moving down the towpath without his conscious permission, towards the castle.
He had never killed anyone before, and he had never advocated for it during his time as the Order’s arbiter. Now, as he glared at the abominable structure in the distance, he wondered if he could finally muster the willpower needed to kill the man who had betrayed him.
His cinder seared.
“Animus, we need a plan. We need to find sanctuary so we can figure out what—“
“You keep saying that,” Animus muttered, “but I told you already.… This is the end for me.”
The dragonfly seemed visibly irritated. “We have to try something!”
The wizard sighed. “I’m dying, Cedric. With this wound, I am an enormous liability for your safety. Why do you even stay? It will be easy for you to slip away if you go now. I am of no use to you anymore, here at the end of all things.” The wizard coughed again. “It’s just a matter of time. Just go. Leave me to die.”
The dragonfly let out an exasperated sigh. “You can’t be serious.”
“Cedric, please just—”
“No! Absolutely not. I will not leave you! I care about you, Animus! And even if you are to die… I will not abandon my friend.” The voice hummed loudly in his ear. “We must find help and we must do something about Nereus. At the very least we must warn the rest of the Order of his broken oath. Is there anyone in the city? Anyone who has cause to align with us? I find it hard to believe we are alone in this matter.”
The wizard struggled to answer. Echoes of Nereus’s actions swirled around in his mind. He felt his nails digging into his palm, rage fueling the veins into a seething, shivering fist. His other hand gripped his chest, mixing blood and water with every ragged breath. There was nothing that could be done.
But then he remembered.
He had originally tried to cast the memories away, but the answer lay plainly before him.
A wave of emotions crashed into his resolve. He felt the anguish drain out of him, removing the weights that were dragging him down into the seething hate. His arms slackened, and he dropped his hat. “Cedric… she lives here, doesn’t she? In Estuary…”
The wizard’s demeanor was changing. It was as if a shimmer of moonlight had broken through the storm clouds and lightened the old man’s soul. His drive to hate had vanished as memories of her warmed the aches in his heart.
“Lucasta. She lives here in the south east, on the overlook by the sea. I had completely forgotten.” He searched the horizon for the landmark. “There! That must be it. The lighthouse!”
“Wait. You mean to tell me that all this time, she lives here?” the dragonfly blurted out, incredulously.
“I could never bring myself to visit her. But I can’t believe it. Now, of all times…” He shook his head. “Serves me right, for forgetting.”
“Would she turn us away?”
“Lucasta is the kindest person I’ve ever known. But I fear what the sight of me would do to her—especially in the state that I’m in.”
“It’s our only option. We have to go, Animus.”
The wizard coughed again. It stung, but the pain in his abdomen had diminished. “I suppose it’s the only choice we have.”
“Then it’s settled. Finally, a plan!” Cedric flew up into the air. “Gauging the distance…. It’ll be risky. We will essentially be walking in the opposite direction of safety and we’ll be right under Nereus’s nose, but it’s a shorter distance than the path through the slums to the edge of town. Maybe she can help us arrange a ship or safe passage through the city.”
The dragonfly fluttered excitedly in front of him. “You know, judging from the stories you’ve told me… the way you talk about her…”
“My feelings for her are not something we should bother her with.”
“Right, sorry. Okay, follow me. The quickest way to the bridge will be down this path, which turns…”
The wizard followed the dragonfly, but the words he spoke did not register. He was lost in the thoughts and the memories of his beloved Lucasta and he found himself finally breathing clearly for the first time that night.