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This Rough Magic: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:30 EDT



    It was bitterly cold down here in the water chapel below St Raphaella. Marco felt it, even through the thick coat and fur collar. Father Mascoli still wore his simple light-colored habit. The fringe of gray hair about his ears was, if anything, thinner than it had been when Marco first met him. Old people were usually touched more by the cold than the young, but the priest's faith seemed to keep him warm.

    Warmer than Marco, anyway. He shivered.

    "You are afraid, Marco," said the Hypatian Sibling gently. "Don't be. God's will is God's will."

    "I know. But I still question the rightness of what I am doing. I do it for someone I love especially and dearly. This is not just a deed done out of love for my fellow man, or to serve a greater cause." Marco shook his head. "Kat and her grandfather must have been praying for the return of her father for years, and if it is God's will that he not return, so be it. All I want to do is find out where he is. If at least they knew what had happened to him, and where he is—or was—it might give them... not comfort, exactly, but..."

    He groped after the concept that he wanted, but he might have known that a priest would know very well what he was getting at.

    "I understand," Brother Mascoli said, soothingly. "Remember, Marco, there is nothing unChristian about asking creatures which are not human for their help, just as it is not unChristian to help them when they come to us for healing." He smiled. "Of course, no evil creature would ever approach us for help; their very natures would prevent them coming anywhere near here. And since you helped to heal one undine, all of the unhuman creatures are kindly inclined to you."

    Mascoli put a hand on Marco's shoulder. "If a stranger had asked this of you, you would have tried?"

    Marco nodded.

    Mascoli smiled. "It is not right to deny the same help to those one loves dearly. That too would be a sin. He who judges these things knows the intents of the innermost heart, and He is not fooled by the shallow and their pretences. In the presence of men it may sometimes be wise not to show favor to an especially loved one. In the presence of God... well, He knows already. And since He is Love incarnate, He will always look kindly upon a deed done out of unselfish love."

    It didn't seem quite so cold down here any more. Marco took a deep breath, and began to ask the blessing of the four great Archangels.

    The warded corners glowed. Heaven would forfend any attempt to venture evil here. Remembering Brother Mascoli's instructions, he intoned, "In nomine Patri, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus, fiat pace."

    Standing now within the veil of light lying weightlessly on the chapel walls, Marco dipped the wine cup into the cold, murky canal water. Discipline and concentration were called for, here. Marco held the wine cup until the water was mirror-still.

    He began scrying, building up an image in his mind, calling by their true names, the triton Androcles and his mate Althea.

    The images and response came quickly. Wait. We come.

    An image of winter waves curling and foam-lined danced across the wine-cup...



    And a brief moment of a circular sucker-like mouth full of long needle-sharp teeth. And a terrible roaring.

    The wards flared to an incandescent brightness, briefly, and there was a sense that something had impacted against them. Hard.

    The tall candles were now merely burning wicks in a dripping pool of wax.

    Marco nearly dropped the wine cup. He turned to brother Mascoli. "What happened?" he asked, afraid and angry at the same time. "What was that?"

    The Hypatian Sibling was already kneeling, ignoring the fact that the stones were wet. "Join me," he said hastily. "We need to strengthen the wards. Now."

    One thing Marco had learned: when a magician said "now" in that tone of voice, it was no time to ask questions.

    "What happened? Are Androcles and Althea all right?" Marco asked as soon as Brother Mascoli had finished leading the invocation. Marco's heart was in his mouth.

    "Describe exactly what you saw," the Sibling said, his usual calm considerably thinner.

    Marco did.

    Brother Mascoli nodded. "Yes." He let out a gusty sigh. "In my opinion, your merfolk are probably all right. In fact, they're probably completely unaware that anything happened. They were not the target of what you encountered."

    He blinked. "They weren't?"

    Brother Mascoli shook his head, and looked very grave indeed. "It is clear to me, Marco, that we need to work on your focus, and your defenses. You are very vulnerable when you are scrying like that, and I fear that this time only your bond with the Lion saved you. Part of you was outside the wards—and your ability stretches the window of vision. It is rare that one person can do that sort of scrying alone and unaided. As a consequence, you can see much more than, say, I can. Unfortunately, it also means you are then visible to anything lurking, waiting for the sign of your magic. You are at your most vulnerable under such circumstances."

    "And something attacked me."

    The information that he, and not the merfolk, had been the object of an attack made him feel a moment of relief. At least he had not been the cause of two innocents getting in harm's way.

    Brother Mascoli made the sign of the cross. "Something is definitely out there," he said quietly. "Something that dares not venture within the ancient boundaries of our current Venice, but knows what Marco Valdosta's mage-work feels like. Something that is so evil that the wards were called on to guard your very soul."

    Marco's relief evaporated, and he felt as if he had been doused in iced water. And now that he came to think about it...

    There'd been something very recognizable about that image, a feeling that he'd met it when they'd fought Chernobog's minions. He could almost taste the magic, foul beyond measure and polluted, yet with an edge of seductive sweetness—seductive, at least, if you were not aware that it was the sweetness of corruption.

    "But... I thought the Lion had defeated the evil that attacked Venice?" he whispered.

    Brother Mascoli was the gentlest and kindest of all the men that Marco knew. Right now he did not look gentle. "We have won a battle," he said quietly, sighing. "A battle, not the war. We need to go on being vigilant. And we need to remember that in this war it is love and care that are our weapons, as much as swords or magics. Our foe can match us sword for sword, magic for magic. But love and care are ours and ours alone. Our enemy cannot give those. They would destroy him if he tried."

    It was Marco's turn to sigh; he had given so much already, and now that things were settling down for him, he had hoped for a respite. "I'm just so sick of fighting. I thought... I thought we could give peace a try."

    The Sibling shook his head. "I am not a man of arms. But it is no use simply calling for peace when our foe takes our desire for it to be an opportunity to conquer brutally without meeting any resistance. We need swords, aye, and magic, beside the love and care. You and I and the Hypatian Order want to serve the latter. But we need the former, also. We need to support them."

    The still canal water, greenish in the pale light, was suddenly ringed. The mermaid and the triton popped up.

    The triton's voice boomed in the brick-walled water-chapel. "Greetings, Mage Marco. We had a sudden squall there. Very strange."

    "You are unhurt?"

    Marco's anxiety plainly struck the two of them as very funny. "Storms are to us what a fresh breeze is to you humans," said Androcles.

    "That was no natural squall," said Brother Mascoli, quietly. "Marco is right to be anxious about you. That was caused by some magic."

    "Weather magic is hard and expensive on the user," said Althea, her mercurial expression going from mischievous to somber in an instant.

    Mascoli looked grim. "The squall was little more than an accidental slap of some great force's tail. Be careful, beloved ones. It was magic of the blackest, and powerful."

    The two looked doubtful, and their tails beat the water behind them, in slow, measured waves of their fins. "Well," said the triton Androcles, "it wasn't trying to stop us reaching you with the news you asked us for, Marco. The truth is: We have next to none. If this friend's father is dead... he lies on land. But we will widen our search, and there are friends of fresh water, like the undines, that we can call upon the wide world over."

    The mermaid, whose aquamarine eyes sparkled with mischief again, had wrapped her long, wet blond hair several times around her upper torso, creating an effective "garment" to cover her unclothed breasts. Her companion, the triton, blond-bearded and long-haired, looked exactly like the creatures that adorned the borders of tapestries and the basins of fountains all over Venice. Like the mermaid he had a fish's tail; unlike her, he also had a fish's dorsal fin adorning his backbone.

    "Faugh! Magus Marco, how you humans can live among such filthy waters I cannot imagine!" The triton somehow managed to grin and grimace at the same time.

    "Because we aren't very bright?" Marco replied, cautiously. That seemed to be the correct answer, for Althea joined in the triton's chuckles.

    "Well, I cannot fault you overmuch for doing what we ourselves do," Androcles admitted. "You know, I have a friend Antonio, a netman. He drinks nothing but grappa and I asked him why he rotted his gut with the stuff. And do you know what he said?"

    Marco shook his head.

    "He said: 'What am I to drink? Water? After what you people and every fish in the sea do in it?'" The triton roared with laughter, which echoed in the brick-walled water-chapel and drowned out every other sound.

    "If he is there, in the sea, we will find him eventually," said the mermaid, smiling with confidence. Her teeth, unlike those of undines, were white, pearly, and exactly like human teeth. Althea was very pretty indeed; Marcus wondered idly if at some point his artist-friend Rafael de Tomaso would be interested in having her pose for him.

    "We can follow the source of a single drop of blood in the water for leagues; it will take time, a year perhaps, but we will find him. And when we do find him? What would you have us do?"

    Marco thought about the horror of Kat being presented with a body half-eaten by fish and crabs, or a skeleton—but then thought of the value of having something to weep over, something to bury, even if it wasn't much.

    "Please," he said, "Can you bring him home?"

    "We will, if he lies under the sea," the triton promised. Then, with a flick of tails, they were gone.

    After they'd left, Marco and Brother Mascoli found themselves standing and gazing into the water. Marco wasn’t certain what to think; perhaps at some level he had been so certain that Kat's father was dead and drowned that he had anticipated a quick answer to the question he had posed to the merfolk some weeks earlier.

    At length Mascoli shook himself. "Come, Marco. Let us go upstairs and get a little warmer. No news is good news, I suppose."

    Marco shook his head slowly. "It may be. But he could be dead on land. Or he could be a prisoner somewhere, or ill, or somehow lost his memory. It's the not knowing that is so terrible for Kat."

    "Well, perhaps. But where there is life there is also hope, young man." Brother Mascoli seemed to regain his calm; he took Marco by the elbow and led him upstairs. "And I must find someone who is more skilled in combative magic to instruct you in how to ward yourself. It is a shame that Eneko Lopez is not still here in Venice. He is a harsh man, but he is on his way to becoming one of the greatest of Christian mages."

    Brother Mascoli smiled wryly. "He has a belief in shared strength. That the brethren of Christ should unite, giving the powers of light a strength as of an army—while evil power stands as a tower alone, relying only on itself. Yet many of the Strega rituals are those of a bonding of power, so perhaps Father Lopez is mistaken in his ideas."

    Marco pursed his lips. Sharing himself with the Lion had broadened his outlook somewhat from the one which he'd held once. "Maybe the Strega are not evil."

    Mascoli laughed softly. "I might believe you. And truly, that is the opinion of most Hypatians. But you should always keep in mind when dealing with him that Eneko Lopez is not always as flexible in his ideas."

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