She knew the spell was beyond her, and she knew that even reading a spell, focusing on the words with the elevated intent mages used to commit them to memory, was dangerous in and of itself. It was the very first lesson her Master had taught her, drumming it into her head over and over until one could say it was the first spell she’d learned: the invocation against possession. What those who stood outside the esoteric realm did not realize, seeing only the outcome of a magus working their craft, was that spellcasting meant intimacy with forces beyond the ken of the natural world. Forces that, unlike the mindless and uncaring elements of wind and fire and gravity, were not entirely random in their interactions with each other and with the mortals whose desire for power led them along the narrow and perilous Path of Shadow.
A magus looking into the abyss of the esoteric world had to know that the abyss was always looking back, often hungrily.
Aryanna knew this, and she knew the spell was beyond her. But desperate times called for desperate measures. She’d slipped something into her Master’s nightly draught—something he’d showed her and, she suspected, used to pacify her more than once—and waited until he was snoring senseless in his armchair. She stole into the cellar below the cellar, the place where they worked their craft, and used the pilfered key alongside the appropriate cantrip to open the locked bookcase.
The volume she needed was on the top shelf. She stood on a chair to reach it, and her concern over falling felt ridiculous to her, made her laugh, in the face of the real danger she faced if she opened the book and tried to deal with its alien contents.
The tome was almost the size of Aryanna’s torso, the cover dyed a rich blue that had grown pale with age, and the edges were bound in gilt steel; fastened, like all such books, with a mechanism that locked in the centre of the cover. Aryanna pulled a pin from the intricate web of her hair and stuck it in her mouth, mumbling the correct words as she coated it with her saliva, coaxing the magic to surround the sliver of metal with the power she needed. In her mind’s eye she saw a delicate lattice of purple light surround the hairpin, and she felt confident the spell had succeeded. Taking a deep breath that she couldn’t help holding, she slipped the pin into the lock.
She braced her body by reflex, not sure if her chest would seize with deadly electric current or if acid would melt the skin from her hands and arms, but her spell held true and the trapped lock—all such locks on all such books were trapped, her Master had taught—clicked and popped open. She lifted the latch away and opened the book to its index, written in a cipher she knew. It would not do, with such a powerful spellbook, to flip idly through the pages looking for the spell she needed and, though she knew from her studies which tome contained the spell, no hint had been so specific as to say where in the book it was recorded.
Aryanna ran her fingers down the index, digesting its contents and grimacing at the temptation she could already feel at some of the spell names she saw. Power was the undoing of those mages whose fates were the worst, her Master had always said. It was too easy to become addicted to the abilities or to the sheer power that high-level magic gave you, and Master always said it was best to approach magic in a workmanlike fashion: see each spell as a tool, a solution to a specific problem, use it for such, and put it away. Thus would you avoid corruption.
She’d learned that true words could drip from a hypocrite’s mouth.
Even her neophyte’s experience confirmed it: each spell was like a living thing that taunted and teased and then seduced and caressed. The first time she’d succeeded in casting, levitating a small chest a foot off the floor and moving it about the room with her thoughts, she’d felt something entirely new, not even known in the arms of her most passionate lover, something which could become the root of a devouring obsession.
The spell she needed, needed desperately if she was ever to be free, was on the next-to-last page. She carefully found the place that would be roughly correct and hoisted the bulk of the book aside. There was a spell for turning water to wine. No. A spell for politicians to convince a crowd to believe in their cause. No. Aryanna felt a tingle, the words on the pages seeming to squirm as the power contained in the book reached out to her. She flipped the page again and smoothed down the thin parchment. There it was. The spell to switch places between Master and Apprentice. She whispered another warning to fortify herself, and began to read.
In the third year of her tutelage in the Green Tower she’d discovered what became of her Master’s other female students. It was a testament to the inequalities of power his predations weren’t common knowledge. Though every mage guarded their own secrets outside the boundaries of the Master-Apprentice relationship, rumours of malpractice inevitably became known among the small, loosely-knit community who practiced the esoteric craft. Aryanna had come upon records never meant for her eyes: though it seemed that her Master had fewer apprentices with longer terms between their study than was usual, in fact he would occasionally take a promising young girl as an apprentice and she would never be heard from again.
The harem was hidden both physically and magically; a passageway was concealed in her Master’s chambers and led deep into the earth, under the mountain crag that bordered the Green Tower and made it defensible against common assault from all but one direction. The narrow tunnel, its walls perfectly smooth as nothing cut by human hands could ever be, was guarded by illusions and traps enough Aryanna knew she’d never reach the other side alive. It seemed certain she was destined to disappear into that tunnel one day, kept hidden and enslaved for some grim purpose.
Aryanna turned her every free moment, what she could spare from the rigour of her studies, into finding a means of escape. She could not simply leave the tower, for she was under the geas accepted by all students of the esoteric art: she would remain in her Master’s presence until dismissed or graduated from her course of study.
In time she found the spell, rumoured at first and then a certainty, that could allow a mage to seize the power of another in trade for their own. This was dark art, not practiced lightly, and Aryanna had not even been sure her Master possessed the book containing it. Then he had shown it to her, in an unrelated demonstration, and she had contrived the sleeping potion and made her attempt. When her Master awoke the next day he would surmise she had betrayed him somehow, and so she had only this chance.
The spell was complex, but it was beginning to come to her. The words became a catechism, something to repeat as the shape of the magic took form in her mind. The fragrant lamp she’d lit on the study table was guttering, but Aryanna was too lost in spellcraft to notice hours had passed, nor her need for water or food. Nothing intruded on her need to master the spell that would take her Master’s powers and make them hers.
The more she studied the more the spell welcomed her. She could feel the energy taking shape in the air around her, the heat licking at her skin, and she let her robes fall open to let it surround her completely. She whispered the words and they seemed to whisper back, beckoning her deeper into the whirlpool of power whose currents ensnared her.
There was only one direction she could go. Aryanna went, plunging eagerly deeper, lost in whispered promises of limitless power.
Her eyes were open, but she saw only the luminous currents of magic drawn to the book and to her lips like iron filings to a magnet, stretching between her and every object in the physical world and beyond. Captured by this beauty, Aryanna felt a growing awe and a lightheadedness overtaking her, mouth speaking the words to the spell more and more loudly with each repetition as all thought vanished from her mind. She became no more the caster of the spell but its vessel, the channel through which its immense power would enter the world.
Soon, when Aryanna was no more, her body would emerge naked from the cellar beneath the cellar. Her Master would burn in his robes and his tower would crumble, and the abomination that had been Aryanna the Apprentice would walk into the world, free at last.