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In a dark cellar underneath a decrepit house, Ahmed put the last line in the magick emblem round the cauldron. He coughed and spluttered from the fumes of the cauldron and when he put his head close to the floor his head swam. The ink of the emblem was a rarified form of phlogistonated mercury. There was more than a grain of truth behind the common belief that sorcery led to madness. “Stand back now that you’ve finished you little wretch!” came his master’s nasal voice, full of contempt with an edge of menace.
Ahmed skipped back from the cauldron as his master began the incantation. Ahmed’s master was Sameth, the sorcerer. Sameth was about to try and summon a demon. It had to be a case of fifth time lucky or Ahmed would face Sameth’s cat o’ nine tails, which was lightly wetted with vitriol, to make the boy’s back red for a week. The sorcerer continued to incant. The spell should be working right about… right about… The broth in the cauldron began to bubble and emit faintly luminescent smoke. The silver of the emblem started to glow. Then, to Ahmed and Sameeth’s horror, the glow of the emblem suddenly wavered. It waned and died. The cauldron bubbled and spat before emitting one big GLOP of fluid and settling. A stench of putrefaction filled the cellar. “You wretch!” yelled Sameth, “what witless blunder have you made now!” Ahmed was terrified. Sameeth was sure to douse his ’tails with extra vitriol. Not for the first time, he cursed the course of circumstances that had brought him into Sameth’s tutelage.
Ahmed had grown up as a street urchin. Skulking in the alleys of Sal’Drath, he got by pickpocketing the noblemen with their flowing robes and flitting out of confrontations with Sal’Drath’s thugs. Ahmed had a certain way of getting lucky. He had also developed peculiar powers. For example, he found that if he tensed just so and willed it just right, he could walk through the wide, bright promenades of Sal’Drath’s main streets unnoticed in his rags. Ahmed was feverishly excited when he found that he could make off with valuables in broad daylight without a trace of suspicion from the people around him. So it came as a dreadful shock when, just as he was cheerfully removing the earrings from a noblewoman, a hand touched his shoulder and he had been brought round to face an old man with a white beard in an embroidered red robe.
Ahmed had been apprenticed – he privately referred to himself as bound – to the sorcerer for three months now. The floggings and the vitriol were wearing him down. The fumes from the cauldron were corrupting his thinking substance. The sorcerer had waved the promise of the magicks in front of Ahmed as an irresistible bait with omnipotence and omniscience as the prize. Now Ahmed just thought the magicks were stupid. He thought they would let him do anything. Instead they stopped him from doing anything.
His back was one great surface of pain after Sameth’s flogging. It would continue to be for a week, if he was lucky. There were tears in his eyes but he was too numb to actually cry. The pain and the knowledge of the futility of his apprenticeship brought Ahmed the understanding that there was little point showing his master deference and respect. Having nothing to lose, he voiced his heretical doubts.
“Why do we need all these formulae and potions and rituals? You said the powers would be limitless. Why can’t we just cast a spell?”
Sameth dismissed the question with, “you rave, wretch!”
“No!” Ahmed retorted, “when I was on the streets I just had to will it, just so, and the good folk of the city did not see me for a wink.”
“Ignorant fool. That was but a cheap trick. Proper use of the magicks requires one to know the arts.” But the sorcerer belied his own glib answer. Ahmed saw his countenance flash troubled, just for a moment, but it was enough. “When I was on the streets,” Ahmed began, “I could –” Ahmed was cut short by a blow from the sorcerer. He staggered back into some glass instruments which splintered under him, the shards cutting into his waist and back. Ahmed though, had struck home, and he was not about to trade his advantage for some broken glassware. He made to strike home again. “You’re a fraud, aren’t you? You can’t really do any magicks. I could run away from here and make plenty with my powers on the streets. You would have nothing.”
“What makes a wretch think I can’t turn him into a rat and squash him!”
“You’d have done so if you could. But you have trouble summoning a demon. Or are all the demons who won’t come wretches too?”
“Wretch! I’ll make you suffer!”
“Just you try! Turn me into a rat, or a bat, or whatever you claim you can do!”
Sameth’s face was red and he was trembling with rage, but he did nothing. Instead, he began to speak in a low and icy voice. “Ahmed,” he said, using the boy’s actual name for the first time he could remember, “I speak truly when I say it is within my power to turn you into a lowly brute. It is within my power to do a great many things to you. A great many things. Which I am not going to do. Which I can’t do, even though I can! Now so that you don’t be an arse and have us both dragged before the emperor for heinous crimes against the natural order, I will tell you why I am not going to turn you into a rat or a bat or any other such thing.” Ahmed was dumbstruck. When he found his voice again he stammered out a single word, “Why?” Sameth paused, and then he laughed. “It would be great wouldn’t it? You could vanquish all your enemies by turning them into rats! Tell me Ahmed, if everyone turned their enemies into rats, what do you think would happen?”
“A great plague of rats sir?”
“I suppose, but then one could simply vanish the rats with another use of magick. No, what would happen in the last?”
“I don’t know sir, but not everyone can turn people into rats. Only a few have the power to use magicks –”
“There would be no people left wretch! Everyone would have turned everyone into rats and the rats would be unable to get themselves back to people. Now do you see, if darkly?”
“Sir I don’t –”
“Ahmed, you complain that I can’t summon demons. You are contemptuous of my power to annihilate you. Yet you do not see my most obvious failing, this house! You neglect also the other failing, why do I keep my old and decrepit body when I could have a young one like yours?”
Ahmed reeled inwardly as the import of what Sameth was saying sank in. Sameth could make himself a lord, an emperor, he could – “Why aren’t you a God? The magicks let you do anything without limit so you should be able to do anything, transform anything, be anything.”
“You are not completely barren of the thinking substance. I should make myself a god. In fact, perhaps I ought to make all men gods. A race of gods! Ahmed, suppose all men were gods, what would happen then?” Ahmed struggled to think. He quickly figured out that the world would not be as he knew it. There would be no need for horses, or for carts, there would be no stonemasons; palaces could be erected by fiat. But Sameth seemed to be implying that he could… “Why haven’t you done it? Why don’t you make yourself Lord of the world?”
Sameth spat, “Why do you think wretch?” Ahmed put hot irons to his thinking substance. Sameth would come to the notice of the Emperor, but he could null the Emperor. He would be mobbed, but he could vanquish the mob. What was stopping his master? “Do you not realise that a world of gods would last barely a few grains of the hourglass. Given unlimited power, infinite destruction is as good as infinite creation.”
“But,” said Ahmed, “this isn’t a world of gods, that wouldn’t apply to you –” Then it hit him and he allowed a smile to cross his lips. “Don’t you get any ideas,” snapped the sorcerer and Ahmed let go of his smile. He screwed his face up in irritation and foreboding and said, “So you want to do away with me but you can’t be seen conspicuously using the magicks. You can’t sate your lust for power because then I’d get wind of your plan and try my hand at the game. And you’re not easy about that because I’m quite a talent.”
There was a pause while Sameth paced back and forth, twisting and wringing his long beard. Then he turned to Ahmed and asked quietly, “Do you know how the world began?” Ahmed may have been a street urchin, but every child knew his scripture. Before the World the Gods lived in the Chaos. The Gods brought order from the Chaos and it was the World.”
“Very good Ahmed. Do you know what happened in the Chaos?”
“I thought… the Gods brought order –”
“Before the “world” was an infinity of gods! That is what was created in the beginning. The world – for the so-called ‘order from Chaos’ was not the beginning, just a moment in history – was inhabited by an infinity of men with infinite power. In the beginning, anyone could do anything they wanted.” Ahmed gasped, “The scripture says –”
“What the scripture says is empty of meaning! Let me tell you something else. Do you know how big the world was in the beginning?”
“Infinitely big. Any two points, no matter how close together, were infinitely separated.”
“Sir, how is that possible?”
“Do not be surprised that the beginning of days contained mysteries which you cannot comprehend! The world then was infinite in magnitude and was inhabited by an infinity of gods. It contained wonders you cannot even imagine. Do you know how long it lasted?”
“Not long sir, or we’d still be like that.”
“It passed in a flash of our time perception.”
“Our time perception sir?”
“Fool! Do you not think the first one could, in their power, control the flow of time? What to us is a fixed blink, they could draw out into a million alternations of the seasons. Ahmed, what do you think happened to them?”
“They turned each other into bats sir?”
“More than that wretch, they vanished each other out of existence! Nay, they tortured each other, robbing their enemies of magick! And once they were bereft of power, they could not magick it back; they had no magick to do so.”
“But what happened to the world? If the beginning of things was infinite, then where did the rest go?”
“Even you must know that the world has gotten smaller.”
“Yes, but I thought that was because it was more modern now.”
“Fool! The world shrinks because sorcerers magick parts of it out of existence. If they carried on unchecked there would be none of it left! The first ones vanished most of it and after their number were razed the magicians continued to annihilate parts of it in wars.”
“But if that’s the case, why don’t we notice the disappearings?”
“The same as people not noticing you mugging noblemen on the streets of Sal’Drath, magicks happen that way. But you can see the results; parts of the world get magicked away and the surroundings, unsupported, suffer a collapse. Why, did you think the world was made this uneven? In the beginning it was flatter than a polished mirror! But it’s not just physical land and men the first ones annihilated, you wonder why our potions are so noxious, our formulae so complex, our rituals so tortuous. It’s all we sorcerers can do to utilise our atrophied powers; the ones that weren’t nullified by the whims of the first ones. Add to that the forbidding of magick in the empire which means any effects we produce must be strictly limited lest the Emperor’s soldiers get wind of what we are doing. Given what I have told you, can you blame the emperor? And of course, without the use of magicks to erect our buildings and take us from place to place we are reduced to what you see in Sal’Drath, stonemasons, navvies, slaves, animals. The artisans can do neat tricks with the materials of nature and we call this Mechanical Art.” Sameth suddenly stopped and Ahmed stayed crumpled on the shattered instruments, blood dripping onto the wooden floor and staining his brown trousers. But Ahmed’ mind was elsewhere. It may, he was thinking, have been true that the first ones annihilated some of the powers of men near the beginning of the world. But he was not near the beginning, he was not even old. There was no reason that the diminution of magickal potency should apply to him. Thus he was engaged in figuring out how to vanish Sameth by will.
“Now,” said Sameth, “back to work you ignorant wretch. I should make you work double for that precious glassware that you broke.” If Ahmed just stiffened his body like that and concentrated… “Well what are you sitting there for clean up my damn glass!” Ahmed continued to will. “I said –” There was a loud pop and a crash. Sameth had disappeared along with the cauldron and an instrument stand. The glass on the stand had come crashing to the floor. Ahmed stood up, ignoring his cuts and flexed his limbs. His powers had unlimited potential. In this society – which Ahmed now knew to be hopelessly primitive – no-one could stop him, not even the Emperor. He would make sure to become Lord of the World before his thirteenth birthday.
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