Author's Note: This story is almost three years old, and has been sitting around for that entire time. Nevertheless, it's a fun fantasy/horror piece, with some ideas I like to think are interesting, and I've decided to go ahead and publish it as another freebie. Enjoy!
It was hard for the wizard Kalina to make room for the ritual. A trove of books, talismans, and assorted curiosities filled her underground study, and while her apprentice Ezekiel had spent a whole afternoon clearing them out, much remained to make the place feel crowded: here she saw a tome bound in dragon-skin, there a skull with glyphs carved into it, and all her things were tucked into their little twilit alcoves, or lined up on shelves of knotted wood, or suspended from the ceiling on ghostly filaments shining purple in the darkness.
"Light the candles, Ezekiel," she said, striding into the middle of the cave. To one side lay her desk, the texts strewn across it proudly displaying the culmination of years' work, and to the other stood a spiral staircase, tightly wound steps leading up to the loft where she had labored for so long on so many projects. On the floor between them was a circle drawn in powdered bone, within which she would soon make history.
Ezekiel got the candles started without comment or complaint. There were three of them, arranged asymmetrically around the edge of the circle to match the currents of energy that had, many years ago, brought Kalina's former master to this little grotto. Thinner lines of bone followed those currents to the circle's center, where she stood garbed in the brilliant purple robes of her profession. A stretched-out scroll levitated in front of her, suspended in place by a trivial charm, and in each hand she held a beaker filled with a hot, bubbling liquid—a very particular alchemical creation, the acquisition of which had required too many sacrifices for her comfort.
"All right, Ezekiel, we will begin the ritual proper. Say the invocation, and release the incense."
Her apprentice nodded. This was a part of the process that she could not complete herself, which was why he had been given the task, inexperienced though he was. But even at the age of thirteen he had potential—one day he would be a wizard much like her.
"By the powers of air and fire, and of all the firmament of the heavens, bless this ritual," Ezekiel said. He crouched low and removed the lid of a small censer, sending clouds of sweet-smelling smoke flying upwards. "May every element yield to my master's will."
Kalina read aloud the first sentence on the scroll. It was an odd tongue, hard for a human to render in speech, but it was the closest thing there was to a cosmic language, a symbolic shadow of the music of the spheres. When she finished, the flickering candlelight dimmed, and heat rode upon the air.
Her predictions, it seemed, were accurate so far. She grinned as she moved to the next line of glyphs. Only a handful had ever made it this far—was it possible that she would be the first to go further still? After all, Kalina was only twenty-eight, and since her mentor Elius had passed she had accomplished more than some wizards five times her age. To break into the astral plane would cement her legend forever.
She shook with anticipation, the hot wind catching in her robes, the flasks burning against her hands, and gave Ezekiel his last order for the day.
"It's time. Light me up."
Her apprentice removed from his robes a meal tin filled with a shimmering, finely granulated material—ground seeing stones, mined by Dwarves in the northern mountains—which he tossed into the air, scattering them all over the study. Quickly the grains caught the three currents of magic and followed them towards Kalina. After a few moments they stopped in place, suspended above the lines, flashes of purple and blue emerging wherever they clumped together.
It really was time. Now she would tear reality asunder, and soar into the gulfs beyond. The culmination of decades of work, hers and her mentor's before her, would see the final veil broken, the secrets of the heavens revealed to answer a thousand ancient questions.
She poured the contents of both flasks onto the floor. The concoctions hissed as they bit at the cold stone beneath, releasing colors indescribable in their reaction.
Finally Kalina took a deep breath, steadied the scroll before her, and read the final line. This was the crucial moment. The currents of magic blazed with purple light as bright as the sun, and she shut her eyes.
Then, not long afterwards, she opened them. Nothing had happened.
She should have traveled beyond the veil, wherever that was. It appeared, however, that she was still in her study, surrounded by her artifacts, with wide-eyed Ezekiel staring at her. The candles had resumed their normal burning, and the levitating crystals had fallen to the floor. Her scroll joined them once she let it go.
Feebly she repeated the final line of the incantation, but that did nothing.
"No, no, no…" she said, glancing around, searching for evidence that something had happened. But the magic was gone from the room; the elixir she had dumped at her feet now sat inert, cooled to a sticky paste. "No, this isn't possible!"
"Will we try again?" asked Ezekiel.
"Try again? Do you have any idea how long it took to get those seeing stones, or make the elixir?" She clenched her fists, directing her anger not at her well-meaning apprentice, or at herself, but at the soaring currents of magic that had cheated her out of the Crossing. "It just isn't that simple, Ezekiel."
Kalina walked out of the circle. Just after she passed the perimeter, however, she was struck by a dreadful headache, sharp dagger-points behind the eyes that swiftly diffused into a rolling curtain of pain, as if something terrible had crawled into her skull. She bent over and pinched the bridge of her nose, grimacing.
For a few unpleasant moments she stood there, weathering the pain, until finally it faded to a scattered tingling. She went on, "Get to work cleaning all of this up. See if any of the elixir or seeing stones didn't react—if so, we might be able to use them in the future."
"What are you going to do?"
"Figure out what the hell went wrong."
She made for her desk and sat in the nearby chair, an heirloom from her late mentor. Or, more accurately, the chair was an heirloom made from her mentor, as his bones, along with those from six sorcerers of distant antiquity, were fused together to form it. His skull looked over the back of her head, his femurs made the armrests, his ribs prodded irritatingly at her back. She hoped that some of the old wizards' power would seep from those bones and help her now.
The burning question was whether she had made a mistake in the execution of the ritual, or in the years of research, meditation, and theory that had gone into deriving it. After all, the spell was not helpfully recorded in scrolls, or taught alongside the standard bevy of cantrips—a wizard had to discover it herself, using her own craftsmanship and the few fragmentary sources, many thousands of years old, that spoke obliquely of passage between the planes.
Kalina tried to find her very first notes. Some she located stacked underneath parchments on a shelf, but the rest were unaccounted for, lost in the depths of her study. At the start of the project she had paid little attention to organizing them, thinking that she would never need them again. Now she chastised herself for her arrogance.
She studied her texts through the afternoon, then the evening, remaining at her desk long after Ezekiel had finished cleaning up the ritual's leftovers and headed home. What else was there to do but absorb herself in more work, when her greatest achievement had fizzled so shamefully?
The passing hours brought no answers with them. She checked and rechecked the alchemical formulae, the maps of ley lines, the tables containing hundreds upon hundreds of universal constants, and as far as she could tell the numbers added up just as well as they had in the beginning. The flaw must have been either buried in her lost pages or hidden in plain sight.
Sometime around midnight, she began to grow drowsy. Her pace fell from around four pages per hour to less than one, and then, even as she cursed the approaching fatigue, cursed more broadly all the human weaknesses that held her back, she dozed off at her desk. Her head lay cradled in her arms, black hair splayed anarchically in all directions. Ghostly images flickered in the air as her dreams—the colorful, powerful dreams of a wizard—leaked out into reality.
Tonight they were twisted and hellish.
Ezekiel woke her in the morning with a gentle tap on the shoulder, which nevertheless sent Kalina snapping to wakefulness and reaching for the dagger she carried in her robes.
"Easy, ma'am," he said. "It's just me."
She put down the dagger. "Is it morning now?"
"Just after dawn. I figured I'd wake you at the usual time, but if you had a late night and want to rest—"
"No, no. It's fine. Get the fireplace going and make breakfast."
Her apprentice headed off to an adjoining chamber, a kitchen of sorts, while Kalina remained in place and sorted through her thoughts.
Last night's dreams had been bizarre. She barely remembered them, which may have been for the best. The few images she did recall frightened her.
She'd seen things with no faces, terrible creatures seemingly made of claws and exposed sinew, and she had soared in the abyss beyond, between stars that shone with the same indescribable colors that the elixir had produced. There had been whole worlds of fire and ice, of black granite and blood. Once, she had seen a wall of flesh, of arms, legs, mouths, and eyes all fused together, screaming their untold agony into the void.
She shuddered. It was a relief when Ezekiel came into the room again, carrying a bowl of porridge which he set down carefully on her desk. She dismissed him to his daily studies and started eating. The food was savory, flavored with spices for which she had paid handsomely in one of the Imperial markets.
The voice came from inside her head. Despite that, Kalina still dropped her spoon on the floor, grabbed her dagger, and looked frantically around the room.
I've been silent for some hours—getting used to the way things are around here. But now I think it's time to make myself known.
Unnervingly, the voice was her own—though underlaid with a certain harshness, a certain dark timbre, that she'd never had.
She answered with a thought rather than words.
Who the hell are you?
Kalina said that, but she knew of wizards who, when exhausted or otherwise weakened, heard echoes of their own voices. Perhaps the strain of yesterday's ritual had done that to her. If so, this would pass with only a little bit of rest. Yes, that had to be it.
You're thinking I'm just a figment of your imagination, but that's not true at all. My mind was yours, so many ages ago, back when I was the same naive wizard you are. Now I've come back.
Get out of my head, or I will kick you out.
You don't have the power to remove me—we both know that.
Was this demonic possession? As far as Kalina knew, possession looked nothing like this, but she had never been a demon hunter. Perhaps the ritual had exposed her to something unpleasant from another realm, something which had bypassed her psychic shields and lodged itself in her mind. Hence the headache.
You're not entirely wrong, you know. That headache you felt was me slipping into your skull. Well, I guess it's my skull, too. I didn't know how much I missed it.
Kalina clenched her fists, ready almost to pry her head open and tear out the intruder, but of course it wouldn't be so simple.
You aren't me.
But I am. The only difference is, I made the Crossing.
The Crossing was a failure.
You just didn't know where to look. No, when you uttered the last line of your little script, and emptied your flasks onto the floor, the spell copied your mind—split it into two identical pieces. I made the trip, while you stayed home, thinking nothing had happened.
Kalina rose from her seat and made for one of her many bookshelves, where she was sure she had a manuscript on clearing a mind of possession.
I will get rid of you, mark my words. I know you're just a demon.
You don't really believe that.
The other Kalina was right; she didn't. This entity was too familiar, too knowledgeable, for it to be one of the mad, mindless spirits that haunted the dark corners of the world.
She found the book she was looking for and started pulling it from the shelf, only to pause midway.
You say you've seen the other side. What's it like?
Vast. Terrible. The old philosophers wrote all sorts of fanciful things, about the palaces of the gods, about halls where brave warriors enjoy a stream of wine that never ends—but they knew nothing. No, the truth is that the material plane is just a thin canvas stretched over an abyss beyond imagining. When you poke a hole, it's hard to keep yourself from falling in…
You can't have been there too long. You left when I completed the ritual, and came back seconds later.
The other Kalina laughed.
Seconds to you, maybe. Time is strange over there. No, to me it was ages ago when young, innocent Kalina found herself cut off from her body, utterly alone in a world she couldn't understand, a world of torment and anguish. I changed a lot in there. I had to. To pop into your head and see myself as I was… is touching, really. Makes me more sentimental than I've been in a long, long while. It's good to be back.
Don't get used to it. Whatever you are, I'm not letting you camp out inside my head. Give me six hours, a day maybe, and I'll figure out how to remove you.
You don't have six hours. You see, there's only one way to make my return complete, and you aren't going to live through it.
Kalina backed away from the bookshelf, her heartbeat quickening, the tome on demonic possession falling to the floor and splaying its pages over stone tiles. It would be of no use now.
So you're going to kill me.
I have to.
Do you think I came back by accident? For so long I was trapped in the other realm, and while I learned to survive its tortures I could not tolerate them. Nobody could. The pain, the madness, the ceaseless parade of horrors, the voices calling every moment for you to do terrible things… it all breaks a person, after a while. I had to get out while I had some shred of my humanity left. And so I climbed my way up, killing and torturing and gathering my power. You think you've worked hard—I worked until the other end of eternity, all to get to a place where the horror stopped. If you think I'm going back...
Kalina made for her desk, opening one of many drawers where she kept spell ingredients and scraps of parchment. She had to improvise something—anything—to stop this.
I can't just remain a voice in the back of your head. Before long, they'll pull me back to the other side, unless I anchor myself to a human body—and it has to be yours.
From her drawer Kalina dug out a vial containing one of her more potent concoctions, designed to deliver an incapacitating psychic shock. Ingested, it would be enough to knock her out, and if it did that to her conscious mind, it might have a worse effect on the… thing in her head.
You won't succeed. I'm at the height of my power, and I will stop you.
More of that arrogance of yours. I remember it well. Kalina, the wizard who had to be the most powerful in the world. Kalina, the wizard who wouldn't rest for a moment until she had crossed the planes, and accomplished at twenty-eight years history's greatest feat of magic. But it wasn't all your ego, was it? Elius had something to do with it, too.
Kalina grimaced at the memory. She had been sixteen at the time, not properly done with her training, and the great Elius lay powerless in his cot, a three-hundred-year-old wizard unable to stop the collapse of his own body. His death had been far uglier than a normal man's. While what power remained in him was enough to attract scavengers from other planes, he was too weak to defend himself. They'd torn him apart—slowly.
Ages after the fact, I remember his words well. 'Kalina, nothing would make my life more meaningful than for you to become greater than I ever was. It is a beautiful and just thing for the apprentice to exceed the master.' So from that moment forward you devoted yourself to the project of the planes, driven beyond all reason to prove your master right, convinced that to do anything less than push yourself to the limit would fail him.
I won't hear any more of this.
She pulled the cap off her vial. She meant to raise it up to her lips, but she moved sluggishly, and then not at all. Controlled by a mind other than her own, her hand turned and let the vial fall to the ground.
You did push yourself to the limit. There was no caution, no regard for the risks, and I'm the one who paid the price.
Kalina was frozen in place. The best she could manage was to twitch a solitary eyelid, and even then she lost control of it a second later.
I can't say I enjoy this. Oh, for some aeons I swore I'd pay back the younger woman who damned me, but where's the sense in taking revenge on yourself? This is necessity, plain and simple.
Get out of my head.
It's you who should be getting out of mine.
She prayed to every god she could remember, and silently recited the old hymns of protection. Nothing availed her.
I've already won. It's over for you, Kalina, and everything you were so proud of ends here. But if it helps, you will die. A mercy compared to the things I've faced.
Kalina could not even scream as her mind shattered to dust, obliterated by a stranger that had once been her.