Why visit the sewers at all, you ask? Believe it or not, the sewers are a great source of spell materials.
Now don’t go getting the wrong idea. There is a stereotype of female practitioners that says we keep jars of disgusting things like eye of newt and tongue of frog on dusty, cobwebbed shelves. That we combine these nasty ingredients in waist high cauldrons and mutter silly rhymes under a full moon all while cackling maniacally. That’s one hundred percent bullpucky. I’ve never uttered a silly rhyme in my life (Dr. Seuss doesn’t count as he’s “literature”), and I’ve never even seen a real cauldron. I do have jars of things on a shelf, but those jars are all filled with herbs (that I mostly use for cooking) and the shelf is immaculate as I wage an almost obsessive war against dust in my house. (I am winning, but the dust is persistent.) What, then, was I hunting in the sewers if it wasn’t eye of newt?
Seriously. I mean it. There is true power in something that has been lost. Power I can draw on to fuel my magic. The same cannot be said for something intentionally thrown away. When a person disposes of something, they sever any emotional attachment they may have to the object. It becomes worthless to them, and therefore it is worthless to me. A lost object is different. In many instances, emotional attachment to lost objects are intensified. A person spends a lot of energy in worrying over and searching for something they have lost--especially if that item is dear to them. Since the object is the focus of the emotion, it becomes the repository of the expended energy. This translates into power I can use. Something like a child’s toy provides a very limited supply of such energy; children often forget the item quickly, making their use a fickle thing. Items of great sentimental value, however, that are dear to multiple persons--such as a wedding ring--can be virtual dynamos, providing large amounts of power for years.
Unethical practitioners have been know to steal such items. I’m just not into that. Taking the items in such a way has a negative effect on your magic. The willingness to cause someone emotional distress or pain in order to strengthen your power is the true essence of black magic, and I want nothing to do with that. So, I spend some of my free time walking Cleveland’s beaches or parks with a metal detector, or like I was doing that day, traipsing through the sewers in search of lost treasure.
I had reached a junction where the drain line I was following merged with another when I saw movement in the passage up ahead. I shone my flashlight in that direction. Rats and other vermin weren’t uncommon down here. I had seen my fair share, and most of them scurried away when the light beam hit them in the eyes.
This wasn’t a rat. It resembled a large opossum, but something about it was off. I couldn’t decide if it was the thing’s proportions, or the fact that its eyes reflected the light back with a red tint rather than the typical yellow. I was on the verge of shouting at it to get it to move away when my nose started itching.
Let me stop here to tell you about my nose. My nose is nothing out of the ordinary, at least not in any physical sense. It’s not too big and not too small, in fact I think it fits my face rather nicely. I don’t have some supernatural ability to perceive or identify odors, but my nose does have a nifty quality that serves me well. Around active magic, my nose itches. Not some tiny little “scratch and forget about it” itch. We’re talking a monster “scratch it raw and the freaking thing is still there” itch. This itch hit me square on the schnoz as I looked at the opossum thing.
Now, the sewer is not some place I expected to encounter random magical effects. Had we been in a hospital or meat plant, somewhere where life or death occurred regularly, this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. But in the sewer? Something was up.
I did the only logical thing. I opened my third eye.
Some people call it “the sight” or “the inner eye.” Regardless of its name, the third eye allows you to perceive magical energies. Every practitioner opens their third eye in a way that’s unique to them. For me it involves squinting my eyes tight and then rubbing the spot between my eyebrows. No it’s not elegant, but it works for me. Can YOU do it? I didn’t think so.
I gave the creature a second look. It was actually harder to see this way. A large cloud of gray energy swirled around the thing, obscuring its form. The energy wasn’t anchored in the physical world and I didn’t see the telltale thread that indicated its source was the astral plane. That meant the creature was generating it itself. I regarded the spell more closely. It was a complex piece of magic, woven with a certain amount of skill. If the creature could do this, it was intelligent. I closed my third eye and addressed the thing.
“You can drop the cloak. I don’t know what you are, but you aren’t an opossum.”
It regarded me for a moment and sighed. An actual audible sigh. Then it raised up on its hind legs and made a gesture with its right paw. There was a blur, and the cloak fell revealing the thing’s true form.
It was large, about the size and shape of an opossum--which was probably why it had chosen that form for its disguise--only twice as ugly. Its face was vaguely human shaped, but the mouth elongated into a short muzzle with needlelike teeth. Its ears were paper thin and pointed with small tufts of hair sprouting from the tops. Its body was covered in rough, black fur, save for its hands and feet which appeared surprisingly dainty and delicate, until you noticed the wicked cat claws at the end of each finger and toe. Its tale was rat like, mostly bare with hairs here and there along its two foot length. Its most noticeable feature, however, were the pair of leathery wings that extended from its back. As I watched, it folded the wings around its shoulders like a cloak, a move that made it seem self-conscious.
“You won’t turn me in, will you?” it asked. Its voice was surprisingly deep for coming from such a small body.
It began wringing its hands. “He’ll be here for me soon. You won’t let him take me back, will you? You’ll protect me?” It moved toward me.
I held up my right hand, palm out, and gathered a small amount of energy there. The creature stopped immediately.
“Hold it, furball. I don’t even know what you are, let alone what you’re talking about.”
“He’s an imp, and he’s in an amazing amount of trouble.”
The voice had a cultured British accent, vaguely reminiscent of Hugh Grant, and it was coming from further down the tunnel. I aimed the flashlight that direction. A thin man in a suit was walking my direction. He held up a hand to keep the flashlight beam from hitting him in the eyes.
“Now, there’s no need for that,” he said. “Let’s make this a bit easier on everyone.”
He moved his hand in a complex little gesture, and then flipped his fingers forward as if he were tossing a frisbee. A small ball of light arched away from his hand and took position at the apex of the sewer pipe. It brightened as it hovered, until the entire area was pleasantly lit in a warm light. My nose itched.
“Ah that’s much better,” the man said. “So much easier to carry on polite conversation when one can see the person with whom one converses.”
I gave the guy the once over. The suit that I had only glimpsed in the beam of my flashlight, was of the three piece variety, obviously tailored and much more expensive than I expected of one wandering in the sewers. The man himself was rail thin and young, maybe in his mid-twenties. His face was chiseled, all angles and planes, and he wore a well-trimmed goatee. His hair and beard were a light brown, as were his eyes. He smiled, but the stiff way he held his head, tilted back slightly so he could look down his nose at me (though he was slightly shorter than my five foot eight) gave the expression a haughty cast. He held a gentleman’s cane in his left hand, and as he stepped within ten feet of me I recognized the silver ring with the pentacle embossed on its face that he wore on his left index finger.
As my acquaintances in England would say: Bloody hell.
The man was a Mage. Yes, that’s Mage with a capital “M.” Practitioners of magic go by many different names. Generally those names represent a particular magical tradition. For example, shamans tend to use ancient tribal methods in their magic, chants and vision quests and the like. Alchemists are concerned with changing one substance into another. Witches, of which (no pun intended) I am one, are generally descendants of the celtic druidic tradition. Any practitioner could rightly be called a magician, or mage, as that term refers to one who practices magic, rather than a particular tradition. With one exception.
Mage, with the capital “M,” is the title that a very elitist group of European practitioners use to describe members of their “club,” the Magisterium. I call it a club because in most ways the group resembles the stereotypical gentlemen’s club of the late 19th century: in order to get in you have to be from the right social circles, you have to be male, and you have to be filthy rich. They were infamously conceited, looking down on less “refined” practitioners. They also had the reputation of being highly skilled, but as I had never before met one, I couldn’t verify either claim. Regardless, I wasn’t about to let this guy get any closer to me before I could figure out what was going on.
“Stop,” I said, my hand still held out. I let the energy there pulse in warning. The man took another step, then stopped. He looked me up and down, appraising me as if he were judging a dog competition. His eyes narrowed and a smile touched his lips.
“Ah. You found yourself a witch, Eglund. How very droll.”
The way he said witch made it sound like a dirty word. Mages conceited. Check. All thoughts of civility in my head went on sudden strike, giving my snark free reign.
“What do you want, Mage?” I practically spat the capital “M” word. Hey, Mage is a four letter word, so I made it sound like one.
He drew himself up to his full height and sighted me down the length of his nose. “I am William Silverlight of the Magisterium, and I will not be spoken to in that manner, witch.”
“I’ll speak to you however I want, Willie. This is my sewer, in my town, and you’re the trespasser. So either you tell me what you want or you get your bloody arse off my turf.” I don’t usually say “bloody arse” but seeing as how he appeared to be British I thought it appropriate.
He blinked a few time, clearly unused to people talking back to him. Then he sniffed.
“Anyone who claims a sewer as their ‘turf’ is welcome to it. I will take my property and leave you to your odors.” He crooked a finger at the imp. “Come along, Eglund, before the stench of this place seeps too deeply into my pores and I begin to smell like her.”
The imp threw me an imploring glance. All I knew about imps came from folklore. They were fairy creatures, notorious pranksters, and generally considered pests. Some people viewed them as evil. I should have just let the Mage take the thing and wash my hands of the matter, but Eglund looked so...mortified. And the Mage had insulted my sewer.
Through connections long ago made with the city I drew power into me.
“Sorry, Willie, but Eglund is under my protection.”
“He asked for my protection. I’m giving it to him. Now leave, before things get ugly.”
Real anger flashed across the Mage’s features. “Listen you whore,” he spat, all semblance of civility gone, “I will take what I wish, when I wish it, and no urban witch is going to stop me.”
He raised his cane, pointed it at me, and spoke a phrase in what sounded like Latin. Lightning, sharp and quick, lanced across the space between us. I had my shielding charm at the ready. It caught the incoming energy and grounded it harmlessly into the earth, but I felt the magical bindings tying the charm together unravel at the strength of the attack. I was defenseless should he strike again.
Mages highly skilled. Check.
What was I supposed to do? Combat magic is not my forte. I’m a witch, not a sorceress. My strength lies with the land.
Willie seemed to sense my hesitation. “What’s the matter, witch? Never felt power of this magnitude before?” He sneered, his lips curled in derision. “Release your feeble reserve of power now before I end your miserable excuse for an existence this instant.”
I held up my hands and let the energy I held release slowly back into the earth. The Mage chuckled.
“You finally show sense, whore, a decision which has saved your life. It does not, however, exempt you from punishment for defying me. Kneel and receive your retribution.”
Eglund cringed, hiding his head beneath his wings. Evidently he had felt Willie’s retribution before.
“I don’t think so.”
“What?” Willie reddened and his anger momentarily stole his voice. I imagined I could see actual smoke coming from his ears.
“I may not be skilled in pretty light shows,” I said, my voice hardening with each word, “but that does NOT mean that I am powerless. Witness true power, Willie.”
When I had released my magic I had Called. Nature answered.
The water at Willie’s feet erupted as a mass of silt, mud, and refuse surged upward between the two of us. It solidified into a vaguely human shape, but much more fluid. It reached for the mage, its arm simply elongating as its hand shot for his head.
Willie responded with a high pitched squeal and a quickly muttered spell. Fire leapt from his cane, destroying the hand and scattering bits of muck into the air. More than a little rained down on his pristine suit. The sewer spirit gurgled in rage, a new hand forming on its arm.
“You disgusting creature!” Willie howled. “I shall end you, and then you will get yours, witch.” He raised his arms and gathered energy.
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” I replied, my voice calm amazingly calm. “You may defeat the spirit before you, but I doubt you’ll have time to do much more than scream before his friends at your back have their vengeance.”
Willie whirled about, just then noticing the other two spirits my spell had summoned. One was formed of leaves, trash, and other assorted detritus spinning in a miniature cyclone in the air. Glowing orange lights that could only be eyes focused intently on the Mage. The other was human in form. It wore the clothing of a nineteenth century dock laborer and held a spectral chain as big around as my wrist in one hand, a large gaff in the other. It waved the gaff back and forth in a menacing fashion.
Willie swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “Perhaps I was a bit hasty,” he said, his voice a notch higher that it had been previously.
My mind swirled with a multitude of nasty insults, but I kept the conversion civil. Mostly.
“Listen, prick. You are going to release whatever hold you have on this imp, and then you’re going to get your sorry butt out of my town before my friends here decide you’re better off as a smear on the side of this sewer wall. You have until the count of three. One.”
“Don’t you think we could talk this through?”
I raised my hand. “Thr...”
“All right, all right!” He gestured at the imp. “You are released from my service and hereby remanded into the custody of this witch.” Then his eyes turned to me. “Enjoy your victory, witch. You’ve earned it.” He twisted his Magisterium ring, and with a flash of light he was gone.
I took a deep breath and let the tension I was feeling flow out with the exhaled air. It had worked. I had won. The Mage’s light had disappeared when he did, so I held up my flashlight.
I turned my attention back to the three spirits that had answered my call for help. I had spent a great deal of time cultivating relationships with the denizens of the spirit world around town. It was nice to see that my hard work had paid dividends. “Thank you,” I said, bowing deeply to them. “You honor me with your assistance. Return to your demesnes with my gratitude.”
Each acknowledged me in its own way, and then departed. I played the flashlight beam across the sewer and found the imp, once again crouched against the sewer wall. The fact that he was still present surprised me.
“Eglund. You’re still here. I would have thought you headed home.”
He shook his head. “Would that I could, mistress.”
Mistress? “What are you talking about?”
He eyed me with arched brows. “Do you really not know?”
“I am still bound. The mage released me from his service, it is true, but he did not undo my bond. He simply transferred it to another.”
“What in the world are you....” Realization hit me. The mage’s words: “remand you into the custody of this witch” took on new meaning.
“I don’t suppose you know how to break a mage binding,” the imp said.
“Uhm, that would be a no.”
“Then I guess you’re stuck with me.”
A gleam came into the Eglunds’s eyes then, and I recalled again what I knew about imps: notorious pranksters, and generally considered pests.
“How long is this binding going to last?” I asked.
“How long do you think that pompous twit is going to live?” Eglund responded.
I grunted. What was I going to do now? I hadn’t the slightest bit of knowledge what was involved in a mage bond. Well, I wasn’t going to solve anything simply standing around in the sewer.
“Come on,” I told Eglund, “let’s go back to my place and see if there’s something that can be done.”
I headed toward the manhole I used as an access point. I noticed that Eglund wasn’t following me.
“Well come on. What are you waiting for?”
He looked at me sheepishly. “Would you mind carrying me? The sewer water is so unsanitary. My fur will stink for weeks.”
“You can fly.”
“But the tunnel is so narrow. What if I scrape my wings on a sharp stone?”
I was starting to get angry. “Get over here now.”
“Is that an order, mistress?”
I gritted my teeth. The sludge near the imp’s feet began to bubble. He shrieked and took to the air.
“No need to get violent,” he said as he flew to hover over me. Water from his feet dripped on my head. I cursed under my breath and wiped filth from my eyes.
I stalked off down the sewer, trying to reign in my temper. Eglund kept pace in the air above me, chattering incessantly. “Do you have food at your place? I’m starving.”
If I ever saw him again that bloody mage was a dead man.