On the outskirts of Rooksnest, in the rainy land of Hylomoria, a ruined church of Gordash stood alone. Beyond the tumbled gravestones, all paths were lost in forest hills. Only the dead kept council here, but the misspent magic of some long-dead cleric lingered in the bell tower, and two deep slow bongs tolled the hour. The moon, nearly full, lit only the roofs of the high cold thunderclouds.
Variol of Babblebrook paced the sagging choir loft in the shadows of a single candle. Below, in the pews, the spiders held court; above, in the creaking rafters, ravens dozed. The bard slapped the birch-flute that swung at his hip, but he didn’t draw it yet.
The rain grew heavier. Variol strode in aimless loops, whispering bits of ballads forgotten by this weary generation. Then, down at the foot of the altar, a strange red light began to glow. He drew his flute.
The great bell tolled again, three times. The light rose above the altar, taking shape. Long, slender limbs, a graceful curving neck, and flowing crimson hair: a woman-shape, blue-clad, with shining cat-green eyes. Higher she rose, and stood on empty air.
“Hello, traveler.” Silken razor voice. “You must be so cold. Come, warm yourself in my arms.”
“Don’t squander your blandishments. I’m here to send you back.”
“Are you now.” A soft red smile, and fangs. “You don’t smell like a priest to me. But perhaps I’m wrong. It happened once before, you know. Long ago.”
“Oh, I’m no priest. But you’ve murdered enough wayfarers for one eternity. I challenge you to The Knowing.”
She clapped her hands. “What fun! I like you, little man. I may grant you a moment of rapture before the suffering begins.”
“We’ll see.” And he began to play. The music rippled in the emptiness, and filled it. In the resonating space between them, his true self stood stripped of armors.
She flung back her head and shrieked. Her shrieking filled the earth, filled the skies. Lightning blazed overhead, and the chapel’s rotten timbers rattled. In the shocked and trembling space, her true self stood revealed.
The bardic sorcery of The Knowing: an astral duel in which one naked soul confronted another with the convictions that defined them, the things they most deeply and truly Knew. For Variol, son of the harpstrings, those things were Music and Joy, Honor and Fellowship; for the ageless, nameless entity that haunted this once-sacred place, those things were Hunger and Hate.
Variol’s avatar speared forward at once. Whichever soul first entered the opponent’s body thereby imposed its Knowledge on the other. Variol sought to infuse the succubus with his reverence for life: he rode upon a tide of loving families, friends rejoicing, laughter and song. But her hatred blazed, a conflagration of beaten children, treacherous lovers, and poisoners gloating over ill-got inheritances. The foaming breakers of Variol’s attack smashed against her spirit’s flame and burst into smoke and steam, dispersing through the pillars of the church.
“You think I care for their tiny affections or fast-forgotten heartbreaks?” snarled her avatar. “Creatures of clay, all of you.” And she drove toward him with the wolves of insatiable gluttony at her back, frothing and yowling, pushing him back across the air.
“There is more than dung and dust!” he cried, and a cyclone of symphonic music crashed into life behind him. The chorus of the spheres, the orchestras of wind and wave, the unrelenting guidance of Creation the Conductor. The wolves reared like panicked horses, milled and swirled through empty space, and finally sat tamely to hear the triumphant melody.
Thus bolstered, the bard pushed forward, but his Music broke on the bedrock of her Hate. No tune could reverberate in that dense-packed citadel of malice. Her Hunger rekindled, and it forced him back.
“You are nothing but my meat!”
If she imposed that belief, he would give himself willingly to her. Gritting his astral teeth, he held her back with all he had, but her snapping soul was now only millimeters from his flesh. Time for his trump card: the astral flute of pure celestial silver, earned on a different adventure long ago. His avatar began to play, and his body—steered by pure muscle memory—joined in.
The church quaked and shards fell ringing from the windowpanes. Thunder blasted overhead, and storm winds blew the driving rain into the sanctuary. The ravens leapt from their perches and flapped through the darkness, wildly cawing. Variol’s candle fell from its sill and the floorboards of the loft ignited.
Her laughter echoed, shrill. “We’ll perish together, bard.”
“Not—quite—yet!” One last lunatic gambit: he broke from their deadlock and retreated into his physical body. Shaking himself, he sprang up onto the railing and hurled himself from the balcony. With a great bound, he sailed right over the spot where he knew her invisible avatar was floating, and collided in midair with her still-hovering body. Behind him, the decomposing choir loft went up in flames. And, clinging madly to her neck high above the marble floor, he left his body again and dove into hers.
Her screech of rage and despair reached his astral ears just as he disappeared into her corporeal form, and then all else vanished in the earth-shattering explosion of song as the life-affirming Music filled them both, filled the chapel, filled the heavens. The columns of the church caught fire about them, and a single shaft of lightning lanced down to meet the rising inferno. The ceiling collapsed.
Soft golden sunlight met his gaze; bluebirds and cardinals wove harmonies. The old birch flute was with him still; his fingers ached from clenching it. Of the demoness, there was no sign.
Rising painfully from the charred lumber of that once-perilous chapel, he hobbled to the yew tree where he’d stashed his wine the night before. A sip restored his smile.
This would make a damned fine tale.
— J.B. Toner