Spell Defusal by Cody Eckman
Spell Defusal by Cody Eckman
Defusing bombs isn’t much like what you see in movies or on TV. There is very rarely a timer counting down in your face, any beeping or ticking noises, and I’ve never once had it come down to just snipping a single wire. Is it nerve wracking? Sure, in a clinical way—no, really. You get used to it. It’s a tedious, intricate—and yes, deadly—sort of business and I don’t have much to do with it anymore.
Defusing magical bombs, however, is freaking terrifying. And I find myself doing more and more of it these days.
I’m Alex Henry and I work in acquisitions. That’s a nice word. A pretty word. I like it so much more than graverobbing, historical site desecration, or flat out thievery—all of which probably describe what I’m called on to do in much more real terms than acquisitions.
I like pretty things.
But it was my line of work that found me in deep Sri Lanka in the middle of a sticky, awful summer, completely drenched in sweat. That single bead of sweat they show on the brow of the guy defusing the bomb in the movies is actually pretty accurate, assuming you increase it by a few orders of magnitude.
I was seated at a beaten-up-but-still-sturdy desk in the attic of a home that hadn’t had human inhabitants in what I guessed was a decade or so. Judging by the smell, a ghoul or something just as icky had only recently given up residence in the basement. I’d ditched my suit coat on a chair somewhere behind and to the left of me, rolled my shirt sleeves loosely up my forearms, tucked my tie into my white shirt, and donned the rose-tinted glasses I’d had made precisely to allow myself to decipher the greater intricacies of spellwork that had been laid on objects. In my left hand, I held a silver rod roughly the size of a golf pencil which I used to carefully navigate the edges of a rather impressive aura being given off by an old cuckoo clock that sat in front of me on the desk while my right hand held a pen, scribbling down various formulae in a small notebook I’d brought along.
“Henry? Are you close?”
Aarav had stopped pacing the small attic and was now looking over my shoulder as I worked. He was a short, balding man and he was twitchy. He spoke English with a slight accent, but had a better grasp on some four or five languages than I had on the only one I knew to fluency. He looked ready to get out of there.
I sighed and carefully set the silver rod and pen down, then took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. “No, Aarav. Not really. Look, man—this is a process. It’s going to take however long it takes. Speeding through the deconstruction of the spells tying the clock to this mansion could cause the entire thing to, well. . .” I let it hang there.
“To what?” His voice was almost shrill. He looked to be sweating nearly as heavily as I was.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “You familiar with King Tut?”
“What does that. . .” He trailed off, comprehension and terror flooding his eyes.
“Exactly. Curse of the mummy. I can’t be sure what this thing might put off—could just be an explosion that’d level this mansion plus a few hundred square feet of jungle, but I bet we aren’t that lucky. Near as I can tell, this clock was built to keep whoever claimed ownership of this home in a state of endless vitality and youth. The spell degraded over time and it’s possible that whoever owned this place last didn’t even know what they had—but it’s still got a ton of mojo for such an unassuming piece.”
“So. . .”
“So, if this thing gets set off because I’m sloppy, we’d be lucky to walk away with the years we have left on us. Time magic is nasty, nasty stuff. So, please—just let me work.”
I said it with finality and picked up my rose-tinted glasses again, wanting to get back to work in peace.
He swallowed hard and nodded. “Okay. Yes. Okay. . . I’m just not sure how much longer we will have in the house.”
That stopped me cold. I snapped my head to the little man and rose from my chair, rounding on him.
He paled. I’m not much a threat to anything that goes bump in the night, but I had at least a foot on the little guy and he hadn’t worked with me long enough to know how bad I really was in a fight.
“I do not know, Henry.” He said. He seemed to be twitching more and more violently with each passing moment. “But something is still living here—something with a big magical footprint. Can you not feel it?”
I sighed. “No, Aarav. I can’t. My third eye is completely shot. What do you think it is? A ghoul? A revenant? It stunk up the basement something fierce.”
He shook his head. “No, not that. Whatever was in the basement has been gone for a few weeks—but yes, it was probably a ghoul.”
I snapped my fingers at him. “Okay, okay, stay on topic. Why haven’t you mentioned this before now?”
“There was a light footprint when we entered, but I assumed it the echo of something that had since passed.” He gulped. “I was wrong.”
“How much time do we have?”
“I do not know! Its presence has been getting more, well, present for the past hour or so. When will you be able to remove the clock from the house?”
I looked down at the notebook and its formulae. “Hard to say. I still have an hour or more of examination before I’d dare tearing out the spells tying it here.”
Aarav chewed on his lip. “I’ll start warding the room. Maybe it will be enough to stave off whatever is coming.”
I sat back down and put my rose-tinted glasses back on. “Good call. How are your wards?”
“They are decent. I am best at defensive workings—but I am no magus.”
No, he wasn’t. Magi are too damned expensive to bring along—no matter how useful they might turn out when things go south—so I settled for lesser talents like Aarav for any real spellwork that might come up. They were usually enough for the task.
I got back to work and tried to block out the sounds of scribbling and chanting as Aarav laid up layer after layer of defensive wards around the door in the floor that lead into the room.
The aura of the clock shifted from greens to yellows to oranges. As I prodded at it expertly with silver rod, I was able to just barely make out the seams of competing spells operating in unison. I noted the runes I could make out and tied them with lines and arrows to ones I had previously taken down. Workings as intricate as the clock were laid out like a quilt, if quilting were done in three dimensions using the essence of the universe instead of scraps of cloth. To say they were complex was understatement of the grossest sort.
The first step involved understanding the formulae and runes used to build each individual piece of a layered enchantment. That’s where my little silver friend—a Prod, if you want to get technical—came in handy. By slowly manipulating a spell’s aura, one could find the edges of it and perceive exactly what it was and how it fit with the others woven into the pattern. From there, someone with the knowhow and the right tools could pick through them backward until they dissipated more or less harmlessly.
Picking them apart wasn’t a quiet process, magically speaking. The various workings would dissolve stitch by stitch, but each successive bit that unraveled leaked more and more magical energy out into the environment at large. With large enough workings—like the clock sitting in front of me—the energy leakage could be pretty massive.
And that would be bad if something nasty was living nearby. Imagine chumming shark-infested water with the sweetest blood you could find. While you were swimming in it. Covered in the stuff.
But we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. With as much work as I’d already done on the clock and as big a payout as it promised, I wasn’t about to leave it behind. I guess I’m stubborn like that.
Or maybe I’m just a tad suicidal. I’ll let you decide.
After about forty-five more minutes of painstaking writing prodding, observation, and written notes, I was pretty sure I knew enough about the spells tying the clock to the mansion to begin picking them apart.
“Okay, Aarav. From here, it should only take me about 15 minutes. How are we doing?”
I looked up at him and felt instantly sorry for the little man.
He was absolutely drenched in sweat and the twisting pain on his face made me sure that he was going through a migraine the size of the Sierras. Around him swirled torrents of blue energy, no one working very thick, but piled upon each other a dozen times over or more. It was solid work.
“It is touching the edges of my wards, Henry, trying to decide what they are.”
“Any ideas what it is?”
His eyes looked resolute. “A lifeling.”
That wasn’t good. The elemental spirit called a lifeling thrived on the energy given off by the last trickle of life left in things—and it wasn’t above ushering things along if it hadn’t fed in a while. The energy the clock naturally gave off had probably made it feel right at home in the mansion—the thing was practically leaking time magic set for the sole purpose of extending life. And we’d been stewing in it for hours.
“Can you hold it back?”
“Do I have a choice? Hurry, Henry. I cannot be sure how long we have.”
I reached into my leather messenger bag and pulled out a small, brown, rune-covered case and picked out what looked like a bone white crochet hook. I replaced the Prod, shut the case, and set feverishly at the seams of the spellwork in front of me.
Each seam puffed away under the touch of my Pick released a growing amount of fine magic into the air all around me. Each time one puffed away, I imagined the lifeling outside thrashing about and trying to find the source of the magical odor. The sounds coming from the other side of it backed this notion up.
I had been working for maybe five minutes when I heard Aarav give a sharp gasp and collapse to the floor. I wasn’t even halfway done. I glanced at the man and saw his wards threatening to burst. It had gotten through almost every layer.
I heard wood splinter and saw the door begin to bow toward us.
There was no time. It was us or the clock.
So I chose us.
I grabbed my case from the desk and pulled an onyx stylus from it. Delicacy was out the window. “Aarav!” I shouted at the man “Do you have enough in you to blow a hole in a wall?”
He turned his head groggily to me. There was no comprehension in his eyes.
I stood, stuffed the stylus in my pocket, and tapped my watch to the tune of shave and a haircut. It burst with red light and I felt my wrist grow hot. Not wasting any time, I bounded across the small room and willed the energy in my watch out toward the wall in front of me, shaping it wide and blunt to give me the biggest hole possible. The watch delivered the blast with a violent jerk of my arm and I felt my left hand go numb. A hole about five feet by five feet gaped in front of me and I felt a rush of humid air come in as the sunlight streamed through. It was around midday and about 25 feet to the ground.
Behind me, the door burst inward and I looked to see the lifeling bursting through. It was huge. I’d never seen one so well-fed. It stood at least seven feet tall and had taken the form of a ghoul—presumably the one from the basement that I now knew it had consumed.
Ghouls are something that I hope you never have to see. Because they’re supposed to be creatures of the night, they’ve evolved without any visible eyes. The black space where two sockets should be is taken up by an overly large mouth, wide enough to swallow my head whole and lined with row on row of sharp, shredding teeth. They have roughly the shape of a man, if you squint hard enough and have only ever seen men in cave drawings. Their shoulders are broad and meaty and their legs are thin and too-long. Their arms end in spindly claws around eight inches long that were built skinny enough to fit between the ribs of a human.
This one glowed with a sickly green energy that sloughed off its form in undulating waves. That was new. I assume that bit of it was the lifeling. I also assumed by the terror-inducing noises it was making that it was hungry.
My watch hung on my wrist, its single use spent. I had no other weapons—no other tools that could possibly hurt something this big.
Except the clock.
I ripped the Stylus from my pocket and returned to the desk, looking at the spot where I had last unpicked a rune and found what I needed. Once a spell had begun to be unpicked, it was only a matter of time before it violently ended itself. Stopping partway through was a very dangerous and very unpredictable proposition.
The clock had dozens of spells interwoven to make it perform the way it was meant to. The ones tying it to the house were the least of its magics. At the core of it was a spell that I doubted I would ever be able to fully understand. A spell of greater renewal. A spell that let one ignore the flow of time. A spell I’d have never touched in a thousand years.
So, I carved a single rune into that spell, tied it to the ones that I’d only partly unpicked, picked the clock up off the table, and hurled it as hard I could at the face of the lifeling-ghoul.
It missed. Because of course it did.
It soared by the thing’s massive head and down into the hallway that granted access to the attic. The lifeling-ghoul spared it a passing sniff before turning to Aarav and opening its mouth.
“No. You. Don’t.” I shouted through gritted teeth. I closed the small gap between myself and the little man and put myself in the path of the thing. It made an ungodly noise that I took to mean “Alex Henry is on the menu tonight.” It took another step toward me, mouth open and tasting the air.
And I flung my Stylus at it.
Ensorcelled ebony isn’t dangerous, per se, but it can have some odd effects on energy. See, it’s built to touch and change energy with which it comes into contact. Without a hand and a mind to guide it, it’s really not going to do much, specifically. But chaotic changing of the energies in something can be a bit disconcerting and as lifelings—no matter how ghoulish this one might look—were mostly energy, swallowing a chunk of ensorcelled ebony didn’t agree with the thing’s stomach.
It reeled backward and fell back down into the hallway where the clock had landed. I pulled Aarav up into a fireman’s carry and dashed for the hole I’d created in the wall.
I should note here that it’s easy to forget just how fast things really happen in a fight. The time from when I had carved the rune into the clock until the time the lifeling-ghoul had fallen back into the hallway took up less than twenty or thirty seconds. Which is important and fortunate, because the rune I’d carved was about to set off a chain reaction that I didn’t want to be anywhere near.
I clicked the heels of my shoes together twice in rapid succession and leaped through the hole I’d made earlier. They flashed with a soft white light and slowed my fall so that I barely felt it when Aarav and I crashed into an old chicken coop. Honest. Look, the shoes were built to carry my weight plus some gear, not two fully grown men. I think they performed plenty admirably. I didn’t even break my rose-tinted glasses.
I dusted myself off, picked Aarav back up, and tried to dash into the jungle grounds that surrounded the mansion. It was more an awkward side walk, but I assure you—it was very debonair.
From inside the mansion, I heard the lifeling shriek and then felt a surge pass through me like a low-flying jet. For something magical to set off my third eye, it had to be throwing energy around on the level of a freaking volcano.
We were far enough away from the epicenter and the lifeling was enough of a magic sponge that the wave that washed over us didn’t seem to do anything particularly nasty. I set Aarav down and sat down hard in some shade. It was quiet. No more shrieking.
Somehow, we’d survived.
Copyright Cody Eckman 2021