Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
I never wanted to get older. When I was barely ten years old, my mother sat me down in our cramped apartment, touched my face, and said, “There’s a man that wants to take you away and give you a better life. Do you want that?”
And of course I didn’t want that, I was ten and I loved my mother, and she loved me too, which was why I went to live with Master Wynd in Lower Sound.
I learned Link sigils and the theory of Link magic in the morning and helped Master Wynd with his experiments in the afternoon. He was quiet and kind, well-liked by his neighbors and his clients, though there were few of both.
We shared a small cottage on the edge of the Sound River, and every morning I did our wash as the sun rose, and every evening I bathed myself as the sun went down.
Life went on that way. I got a little bit older. It came as a surprise.
Tower Six was packed at midday. Master Wynd liked the market on the twentieth floor, said it was filled with character. He browsed a junk shop for some new objects to experiment on: loose brass pipes, old paintings, broken chairs.
“Look at this, boy,” Master Wynd said, raising a small chipped glass ashtray into the air. “Could be a nice specimen.” He pursed his lips then shoved it into my hands. “Go get a good price for me, will you?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I headed off, and he was already stooping over to inspect the junk pile.
The proprietor wasn’t in the mood to negotiate and named an absurd price. I tried to haggle, got nowhere, and returned to Master Wynd with the bad news, but stopped short. An old man stood next to my master, speaking in low but animated tones, a look of confusion on his face. Master Wynd glared at the man, leaning back away from him with a grimace, like the man was infected with plague. The dynamic was bizarre—Master Wynd wasn’t shy about telling folks to move on, and yet he seemed rooted in place, halfway between panic and rage.
“It has to be you,” the old man said. He was thin with stringy gray hair combed sideways over his shiny head, a wrinkled gray button-down shirt, and brown trousers with a hole in the knee patched by bright orange cloth. “But it’s been twenty years and you look incredible. How’d you do it, Gales?”
My Master shook his head then noticed me hovering—and his demeanor changed in an instant. He drew himself up and faced the man, eyes narrowed. “I don’t know you, sir. My name is Fatern Wynd. I don’t know this Gales.”
“But it’s got to be you,” the old man said, pressing his hands against his chest. “I’m Phian, we worked together in Halfhill on that mining operation. I know it’s you.”
Master Wynd’s face relaxed. “Halfhill mining you said?”
“You were the doctor. Whatever happened to your apprentice? That little girl? Maya? Mayna?”
“My father was a doctor in Halfhill. You must be thinking of him.”
Phian shook his head. “That can’t be right.”
Master Wynd laughed. “I barely knew my father. Did you call him Gales? I had no idea he went by that name.”
“Your father,” Phian said, sounding hollow. “Of course, it must’ve been your father.”
Master Wynd put a gentle hand on Phian’s shoulder. “Why don’t you leave me your address and I’ll come calling on you? I’d love to hear stories about my old man. Like I said, I barely knew him.”
“Of course,” Phian said. “The likeness is incredible, it truly is.”
Master Wynd laughed as the old man gave him directions to an apartment near the top of the tower in the poorest neighborhood.
“The likeness,” Phian said, walking off and mumbling quietly to himself.
Master Wynd watched him go. The amiable smile disappeared into a scowl before he looked over at me. “Well? Did you get a good price?”
I shook my head. “He wouldn’t budge.”
“Of course not,” Master Wynd said. “Now, help me dig, I think I see something interesting in the bottom there.”
The cottage was kept neat and orderly, except for his workshop. Master Wynd took up the third room, the entire back of the structure. Workbenches lined the walls and were packed with objects, vials, writing implements, books filled with Linktheory, experiments gone wrong, experiments gone somewhat right, and various messes. I was tasked with keeping the chaos in some semblance of order, which wasn’t easy considering Master Wynd periodically blew the whole place up.
He was in a good mood. Eventually he’d gotten the shop owner to come down on the ashtray’s price, and it was unceremoniously tossed onto one of the tables and left there for some future work. I cooked a simple meal, took my evening bath in the river, then returned to find him sitting in front of the fire with a tea service on the table beside him.
“Master,” I said, still slightly damp.
He looked over. “Come sit.”
I hesitated, but took the easy chair beside his own. He rarely invited me to join him. There was a short, uncomfortable silence as he stared into the flames.
“I’m not easy on you Harri, I know that,” he said finally. “But you’re learning well and you’ve been quite helpful.”
“I don’t find working for you difficult, Master.”
He smiled distantly and only nodded. “Good, I would hope not.” He seemed almost sad. “I wonder if I’ve neglected you these past months, however. It has been very busy around the shop.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said carefully. “Perhaps I could take on some of the client work. That way I’d learn by practicing, and you would have more time for your experiments.”
Master Wynd sipped his tea. “It’s not a bad idea” He laughed softly and poured some tea. “Here, drink this.”
I took the cup gratefully and sipped. The tea was strong and robust, but had a strange, bitter aftertaste. “I believe I’m ready Master,” I said, clutching the teacup in both hands. “It’s been years, and I’m proficient in all the—“ I stopped and blinked, suddenly dizzy. The fire seemed to flicker in front of me, the flames bending. “Sorry, I meant to say, I’m skilled with—“ The world lurched and I groaned. My stomach twisted like I might be sick.
Master Wynd took the teacup from me. “I’m sorry about this, Harri,” he said.
“Sorry?” I asked and the word came out like sludge. “I don’t feel well. I think I feel—“ I wavered sideways, slumped over in the chair, and the room dimmed, then darkened, then turned black.
I woke up in a haze. My arms and legs wouldn’t work. My mouth tasted like rotten water. I licked my lips and tried to lift my head, but I nearly passed out again.
Familiar ceiling. I coughed and narrowed my eyes. It was still the cottage then. The workshop? In the back? I tried my arms, and again they wouldn’t budge. It took me a few more tries to realize I was tied down to a table, the hard wood biting into my back. My wrists and ankles were bound, and more ropes were wrapped around my thighs and chest and knotted tight.
I was naked. Not a stitch of clothing. The humid breeze from the Sound wafted through the open windows. I heard someone moving and tried to turn my head, but it pounded like hammers on my skull.
“You’re awake.” Master Wynd’s voice, but somehow not. The gentleness was gone, leaving a raspy husk in its place.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“The sigils are all painted,” he said, almost as if speaking to himself. “The first few times, it took me hours to get them all right. But lately it’s easier. I don’t know what that says about me.”
I turned my head and looked around the room. It was the workshop, but it wasn’t the workshop. Half the experiments were packed away in small boxes, like Master Wynd planned on moving them.
“I don’t understand,” I said groggily, my tongue heavy like a slug.
Master Wynd appeared in my field of vision. He was naked, his body covered in tiny black and gold sigils, curling down his chest, around his crotch, down his legs.
“I really wanted more time with you, boy. You were very promising, very talented. It’s a shame, but I have no other option at this point. I promise it will be fast at least.”
“What will be fast?” I struggled against the bonds. “Master, please untie me. I feel better.”
“It was Phian, that damned bastard. Never thought I’d see anyone from those days again. He was the Company inspector, sharp as a knife, smartest man in the place. If anyone else spotted me, I think I could lie my way through it, but Phian? He’d figure it out, gods damned Phian. You can blame him for this.”
“That old man?” I grunted with strain. “But he knew your father.”
“He knew me,” Master Wynd said. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Phian was always too clever. I really did hope I’d get another ten years before I moved on, but I can’t complain. I think you’ll buy me three decades at least. I don’t remember the last time I was that young.” He laughed, and I struggled again.
“What are you talking about?” I felt dizzy and wild, and when I lifted my head, I stared down at my naked flesh, and nearly screamed at the sigils covering my skin, the Links marked in my Master’s unmistakable hand.
“Don’t worry,” he said softly and lowered his brush down against my chest. “It’ll be over in a moment. You were a very good apprentice, Harri. I’m sorry to lose you.”
But he wrote the sigil, a sharp scratch of three lines crossed by four, and I felt the Link magic take hold.
It was like being sucked into a vortex beneath the Sound. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t scream. I felt my master’s hands on my shoulders holding me down, but I wasn’t in there anymore, not inside that body. I floated up to the ceiling and stared down at him, at the glow between us, the flash of the Link he created between our bodies, and I tried to push him away, but I was pulled from the ceiling by invisible claws, away from whatever was there for me—beyond, above, wherever—and down into his flesh.
I sank beneath his skin like falling into mud.
Another flash, more spellwork. I had seconds to marvel before I drifted into the furnace of his soul, and felt my awareness dimming, but in the final seconds of whatever life I had left, I saw all the other souls bound to my master’s body, girls and boys down through the ages, and I opened my mouth to scream, but I had no mouth, no air, no lungs, and there was only silence.
ps, Today’s prompt was on aging and I ended up with a sort of Dorian Gray type deal—homage, rip-off, whatever. If you liked this, please share it and smash that heart button, and I’ll see you next week! - DC