The central chamber of the Royal Arcane Society was a large circular amphitheater, where the few hundred sorcerers, wizards, arcane physicists, and theoretical magicians squeezed past one another to get to their assigned seats. Some of the men (and it was mostly men, even these days) had held their seats for over fifty years. Doctor Oberon Müller was the current senior member, having sat on the Governing Council for seventy-seven years. Despite his profound age, he still sat perfectly upright, and wore a stern, unimpressed expression at all times.
Seamus Kerry was only thirty-six, making him one of the society’s youngest members. Twice annually, members of the society were called to appear at the headquarters, to discuss new advances in the field and how best to apply their talents to current events.
Last year’s meeting had been almost entirely devoted to the fog that had isolated Retrein from the rest of the world. Despite all the wonderful crafting of theories surrounding the mysterious fog and its equally mysterious dissipation, Kerry knew that its true impact was on the economy, and that in the long run, it had not done much to shake up the field of arcane studies.
One lecturer spoke on the subject of the bombing in Entraht over two years earlier – a subject that Kerry wished would go away. It had descended into the pantheon of obsessions for the bored and the paranoid. Next, there was an engineer who spoke on the use of solid-state xenogravity fields to create more fuel-efficient airships.
Kerry had grown to dread these tedious meetings. Many of these men had made their greatest contributions half a century earlier. The few youthful, energetic members of the society were generally relegated to Listeners, like Kerry himself,
Yet every time he heard one of his cotemporaries spout off about shaking things up, creating a new society or traveling down to Narcia to work at the University of Carathon, he reminded his esteemed colleague that the Society had been around longer than even Queen Elona had, and would persist long after they had gone from stuffy old men to simple names engraved on the walls for future arcanists to ignore as they made their own complaints.
Kerry shifted in his chair. He had grown too accustomed to his own office, with a modern chair composed of soft fibers and squishy foam cushioning. The chairs here were old, nearly flat pieces of wood. Some of the older members – the Speakers, who were allowed to give lectures – had customized their assigned seats, even building makeshift offices within their opera-box-like spaces, but to do so required a degree of status within the society that Listeners usually lacked. Kerry had only gotten his assigned seat a year earlier; before then, he had been forced to jostle for a good position with his fellow Listeners.
While there was no explicit requirement that a member attend the meetings, it was seen, as the Hesaians would put it, to be a faux pas. Circumstances could arise, certainly, and if there was a decent excuse to be had, a member’s absence would be met only with gruff disapproval and not humiliating shaming.
So it was quite a scandal that Sir Roderick Candel was nowhere to be seen. A man who somehow managed to be mysterious yet warm and friendly at the same time, Candel was a prominent Speaker and sat on the Governing Council. All Kerry knew about the man was that he wore six coins, slipped into his shoes and sewn into his coat and pants. Kerry imagined the coins had some sort of warding or protective property, but Candel would, of course, never speak on them, seemingly pretending that the coins were not there.
After the airship lecture, Kerry saw a young aid, perhaps an intern, jog over to the Council table and whisper something into Doctor Müller’s ear. The ancient man, whose eyes had sunken and seemed like two tiny black spots, and whose mustache was the only hair that seemed to grow on his head anymore, appeared surprised, and when the intern leaned away, he shakily rose to his feet and banged his gavel as hard as he could on the table.
“There has been…” his jaw shook as he pondered his next words,” a change. We have an unexpected…” another jaw-shake. “There is a guest lecturer... that we are to hear.” Müller nodded to himself, satisfied, and lowered himself carefully back into his chair.
The man who walked in was dressed in a black frock coat, with a pair of round spectacles and a wild beard to match his hair.
“Esteemed masters, gentlemen, and ladies,” the man began. There was a strange air to him, as if he was not alone in the center of the amphitheater. “I am Richard Airbright.”
The room erupted with chatter. The Airbrights were as infamous a family as any of them had heard of. It was Paul Airbright, down in Narcia in the Royal Era, who had invented necromancy as it was known today. No Airbright had ever been allowed to join the Royal Arcane Society. To have one speak here today was an insult to everyone present.
“By your reaction to my presence, I take it that I am not a welcome face in these hallowed halls, but nevertheless, propriety and convention are small prices that you must pay for what I am about to tell you. First, so that you should see I do not hide any truth from you, I will reveal my familiar. Whispering Jim, make yourself seen.”
With those words, a cloud of smoke seemed to appear out of the air next to him. Yet upon taking a closer look, the smoke actually had the form of a man – approximate and distorted, but this being was clearly alive in some manner.
“This is a demon, who I entrapped using ancient and forbidden methods. I humbly apologize if his presence in this hall goes against your ways, but he is a tool. A means to and end, and this end is one that I expect most of you will agree is imperative.”
Already, some members began to get up from their seats, walking out of the room in disgust. Kerry considered doing it himself, though less out of disgust and more out of a practical fear. Demonic magic was a most dangerous endeavor, and even a bound demon could be a real hazard. Still, he was far from the floor, and he reassured himself that if the demon were to get loose, it would be the crusty old Speakers who would take the first blows.
“Gentlemen, there is a man named Henry Thall, though he is not a man in the strictest sense anymore. Thirty years ago, Henry nearly destroyed this very building, and the final tally of his rampage left forty dead. It was only with great effort that this being was defeated and exiled from our realm. Henry was held, incorporeal, in Faewatch, a small town on the northern coast that most of you, I expect, will not have heard of. Six months ago, the Tomb of Eschalesh, to which Henry Thall had been bound, was destroyed, and erased from the world through means I have as of yet been unable to discern.”
“He has escaped. Consider yourself warned.”
Airbright took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. Smiling, he looked up. “Questions?”
A Listener whose name Kerry could not recall stood. “How do you know of this man and his imprisonment?”
“I was among the practitioners who bound him there.”
A Speaker, one Sir Lyle Marbury, rose. “You spoke of an imperative end, Mr. Airbright. What end is that?”
“To kill him, of course,” he responded, and moved on to the next question without a moment’s hesitation.
Lady Morgana Clarke, a junior member on the Governing Council, rose. “Why have your brought this to our attention? Did you not, first, go to the Enforcement Ministry?”
Airbright nodded. “I intend to do so immediately after I have finished here.”
“Why did you come to us first?” she followed.
“Because I believe that the very first thing Henry will do when he is ready to make himself known to the world is to kill every last one of you.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)