The young woman looks down at the two curved knives, one enameled white, the other black, that she has just been handed. “Are you sure about this, Uncle?” she asks, her voice small.
Margrave lifts the consecrated sword and adjusts his purple-black robe, and whispers a phrase in a language that predates Urbian by over a millennium, a phrase whose words are lost to time even for him. The meaning does not matter. It is the intent, the following of laid-down rules that create a necessary mental state in the summoner, and which satisfies the summoned as well.
Then he answers her. “Demons are the swiftest and surest path to the knowledge you seek, Trocia. Ever since the Death Clan’s crackdown on necromancy two centuries ago, knowledge on the subject has been suppressed. It has all been locked away or even destroyed completely.” These last words bear a strong hint of disgust. “The gods wish to keep for themselves the power with which they dominate us. I respect that. I would do the same. But the destruction of knowledge…” He shakes his head. “Self-defeating in the end. Now stand there, precisely there, and do not move a hairsbreadth until I tell you that you may.”
“Very well, Uncle.” She takes her place in the smaller circle, careful not to scuff the white paint. She glances at the life-sized golden statue in the corner, its beautiful form marred by half its head missing, sawn away smoothly.
“You are the one who begged me to teach you sorcery, Trocia. If you are not certain that this is the path for you, it is best to leave it now. I would not blame you.”
“No, Uncle…I-I do wish to learn.”
“Those who walk the path between the Insula and Hell must be iron-willed, Niece. Now…to begin.” He raises the sword in salute. He has forged it himself, just as he has forged the knives, carved the handles, cut and sewn the garments, even woven the cloth, all himself. The very wax of the candles is from his own beehive, extracted and processed by his own hand, mixed with his own bodily fluids. Everything involved in the ceremony, as much as possible, was made personally by him. It is this attention to detail, this traditionalist refusal to rely on others, that forges such a close bond with the demons he summons. Indeed, at this point he could summon many of them in a trice, with barely a few words and a gesture, but that he reserves only for emergencies. And he must teach his young ward the family business, after all. For he is her only remaining family, and she his.
She comports herself well, saying the right words in the right places, echoing him or chanting in counterpoint to him. Still, she makes a poor impression, a nervous mouse rather than a venomous snake. Her shoulders slump forward, her arms pull inward, her neck projects ahead like a cat’s instead of upward like a human being’s. Her whole being is contracted as if she is trying to disappear into a portal in her belly.
Perhaps, he thinks, this was not a good idea.
Still, no stopping now. Fortunately this is no great power of Hell he is summoning, but a sort of librarian he has used before. And it arrives with little fanfare, only a minor chorus of gut-roiling howls echoing through the atmosphere of the room. Suddenly there is a noisome mass of rotting flesh and machine parts in the summoning circle. Margrave hears Trocia gasp, and he commands, “Assume a shape more pleasing to the eye, Iapoziel!”
The demon sighs and reforms itself into a rather goatish-looking man, squat and potbellied, wearing half-moon reading glasses and an old-fashioned suit complete with a silk vest. “A pleasure to be called upon as always, Master. What can I assist you with today? Oh…is that for me?” The demon leers at Trocia, who squeaks and takes a step back, out of the circle.
Margrave sighs. If this had been a major summoning, or if he were a less accomplished diabolist, his niece would be dead now. Worse than dead. But he will save castigating her for later. “Why would I give you another soul, Iapoziel, when there is yet half a year in your contract? This is my apprentice.”
The demon looks at her over his glasses. “Hmm. She seems a bit timid for a summoner.”
“She wishes to learn necromancy,” he replies. “Niece, ask your questions.”
“H-h-how can I…” She pauses, gulps, then speaks again, trying to sound forceful and commanding like Margrave. “I seek knowledge of the art of necromancy. Is there a way you can make me a necromancer?”
The demon smirks. “Oh yes…yes, I can manage that. Just a moment. I have to go fetch something.” The demon fades from sight.
Trocia looks at her uncle for approval, but Margrave returns her look witheringly. “Phrasing. He’s probably going to build you a little necromancer…” he mutters, causing Trocia to shrink in shame.
The demon returns while both are not looking and holds a small box out to Trocia, who, in an attempt to look strong and assured, reaches out and takes it. “This should be just the thing, young death-artist!” Iapoziel says cheerfully.
Margrave shouts, “No!” but it is too late – she has already opened the lid ever so slightly. Black, palpable shadows pour out and wrap around her arms, making her shriek as they slither toward her shoulders. The noise makes them hesitate for a moment, the tips focusing on the source of the scream, and then they strike like snakes, invading her mouth, nose, and eyes. She drops the box and falls to the floor, struggling.
Margrave stays where he is, frowning, as the shadows disappear into his niece. His heart is pounding but he refuses to allow weakness to show. “What,” he intones, “in the names of all the Princes of Hell did you give her, Slave?”
“Oh, she wanted a shortcut, I gave her a shortcut. And a valuable object lesson, I daresay.” Iapoziel chuckles nastily.
“Is it harming her?”
“I don’t believe so. She has merely been possessed. An old sorcerer we’ve been torturing for a couple of centuries. I was actually going to bring a different one, but I was pulled aside and ordered to deliver this one specifically for you. Ordered by someone with a special interest, it seems.”
Margrave grinds his teeth as his niece’s body stops shuddering and relaxes. “Get that thing out of her this instant!”
“Are you sure, Master?” the demon asks coyly. “Only it seems to have specialized knowledge meant just for you. I was given it by Vetizzi himself.”
The name gives Margrave pause. Vetizzi is no demon, but a devil, one of the masters of corruption and, most importantly, the holder of the contract for Margrave’s soul. “I see.” He thinks for a moment, then pulls a slip of paper from his sleeve, licks the back of it, whispers a few words, and tosses it in the direction of his supine niece, who is just starting to rise. The paper flutters toward her, seemingly at random, but as it passes near her forehead it suddenly moves as if drawn by a magnet and smacks against it, sticking to it. The writing on the paper glows red and then fades away, and the paper falls to the floor, looking browned with age.
The woman sits up and blinks. She looks around intently, taking in every detail. She pauses when she sees Margrave, studies him extra-closely, then continues examining her surroundings. When she sees the demon, she merely sneers, then moves on. Then she holds up her hands and studies them, then her body, touching it, even squeezing it. She smirks. “The right gender, at least,” she says, then seems surprised by her own voice. She looks again at Margrave and unsteadily gets to her feet. “Oooh, legs. Nice to have legs. So who in Hell are you?”
“Your new master,” he replies drily. “And it should be obvious that you are no longer in Hell. How long you will stay out of it depends entirely on how well you serve me. Now who are you?”
Trocia – or Trocia’s body, to be more exact – stretches luxuriously, sensually, in a way that Trocia herself would be too self-conscious ever to attempt. “Mmm, that’s nice. My name is Nua…Master.” She sighs. “Look, when I was alive, I had summoned souls and demons calling me Mistress. Can I just call you by your name?” She grins and bats her eyes in an obvious mockery of seduction. “Pleeeeease?”
“Nua.” He says her name carefully, trying to recall it from his extensive reading of dark grimoires and histories. Nothing comes to him. “You may call me Margrave, for the moment. Annoy me in the slightest, and calling me Master will be the least of your punishments.”
“Yes, yes,” she replies. “I’m sure I’ll be licking your shoes clean. I’ve done that to a few souls myself in my day.” She looks down at her body, opening the robe a bit to get a better look. “Not bad. Needs a little exercise. Who is this? She sure is screaming a lot inside her head.”
“That is my niece. Do not harm her. You will be surrendering her body back to her in due time.”
“Oh sure thing, Daddy,” she says, standing closer and stroking his cheek. “I’ll give her back to you in better shape than she’s ever been in. And she’ll know everything I know about summoning the dead by the time I go meekly back to my eternal damnation. And all the fun things we can do with souls.” She leans in close as if she is about to kiss him. “Unless of course you decide to keep me around. Somehow, I think I’m going to be a bit more skilled than she is, no matter how much knowledge she acquires. Poor scared little bunny of a girl that she is. And we can think of some other things to do together.” Before he can reply, she spins abruptly and struts toward the door, her hips swaying. “Well, let’s get to work, shall we? If I’m only here temporarily, I want to make the most of it.”
Margrave watches her go, then glares at Iapoziel, who shrugs before the sorcerer viciously dismisses him.