Before the Divinity convened the Council of Conjuration in 1725 and abolished magic, incanation, cantrip, and overt miracle from the world, many who had studied the arcane had chosen to impart some (or all) of their innate magickal energy into inanimate items. The most powerful of these were rounded up by the priests, ministers, imams, and other authorities who made up the Council. Items such as the Endless Soup Tureen of Tiruchirappalli, the Eviscerating Epee of Saint-√Čtienne, and the Cursed Calabash of Canton were confiscated and transubstantiated.

However, the Council’s bylaws explicitly allowed those artifacts not confiscated to continue in their function as long as their powers remained in a sort of grandfather clause. Reportedly the Purifying Pit of Pradesh, which cleaned the water used by an entire city, had persuaded a Councilman to press for this clause; the others, mindful of similar cases at home, agreed.

For many years, such grandfathered pre-Council artifacts were highly sought-after, and none moreso than the legendary Last Cantrip of Harry Culbertson. Culbertson, the legendarily lazy and laconic master of the last functioning magisterium school in Britain, had reportedly imbued a single object with the greater part of his formidable powers. He’d hidden it shortly before his death from hypergout in 1717 and many a treasure seeker had wasted a life in pursuit thereof. For what other than an artifact of immense power could have consumed the better part of the old arch-wizard?

That was the thinking, anyhow, until 2002 excavations near Cavendish Square to expand a parking garage unearthed a metal casket bearing Culbertson’s name and a magical seal. The seal was broken using modern magic (12 kg. of C4 from the Royal Engineers), and the legendary Last Cantrip of Harry Cavendish was revealed.

It turned out to be an indestructible pillow that retained its shape and fluffiness regardless of any external force. Apparently the legends regarding Culbertson’s love of leisure had undersold the matter a little bit.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Aureliana Aldalgisa came not from the aristocratic Old Families or the plebian Newtowners but the grey space in between, people with enough of the Gift to succeed in the bureaucracy of the Sorcerous Republick but without the connections or influence to make that possible. Her ancestors included a member of the Council, albeit one who had served only briefly and resigned under a cloud, as well as a prominent revolutionary in the failed Newtown Uprising. With a father in Republick service as a clerk, a mother who taught basic cantrips at a local finishing school, and three older sisters, Aureliana would have seemed destined for a minor teaching assignment, a civil service post, or a life as a homemaker.

One wouldn’t have expected her to become one of the most notorious sorcerous criminals in the Republick.

A voracious reader with natural talents in the Gift that far outstripped her family and peers, Aureliana was frequently left unsupervised and had little opportunity to distinguish herself without powerful connections. She turned inward instead, researching arcane lore and eventually various forbidden arts, mostly in the areas of divination and transfiguration. Investigators from the Republick Bureau believe that Aureliana’s original plan was to abduct a member of an Old Family and assume their place, using her increasingly sophisticated and dark skills to maintain the charade.

Working out of a squalid apartment she had purchased, Aureliana’s first attempt apparently met with disaster. Rather than allowing her to assume the aspect and knowledge of victims (mostly members of minor Old Families who had fallen from grace and were eking out livings in Newtown), they were instead reduced to incorporeal shades with only the barest connection to the material world in the form of a small quantity of “essential salts.”

Based on the Bureau’s investigation, they believe that Aureliana became obsessed with the unintended consequences of her sorcery and the absolute control it offered over the shades of her victims. There were 35 vials of “essential salts” in her possession when she was apprehended after a lengthy investigation; while the disappearances had piqued the Bureau’s interest, it wasn’t until she attempted to send a shade out into the city that Aureliana was discovered. Her ultimate ambition, it seems, remained the same.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Jameson huffed on his cheap, mean cigarette. “It was a mystery for a long time, but now it’s pretty much an open secret: the royal family has a genetic predisposition to acute bufomorphic osculitis.”

“Acute…what?” The strong local Cinnibarian liquor was making Cartyr’s ears buzz, but he was still reasonably sure that the last thing Jameson said would have come out as gibberish to the stone-cold sober.

“Did they just throw you into this assignment out of grammar school, or what?” the elder journalist groused. “Acute bufomorphic osculitis is when someone with massive inborn magical potential–specifically, for alteration or mutaremagicae–and can’t control it. Different families have different strains of osculitis, probably dating from whatever forebear had the mutation in the first place.”

Cartyr sipped his local firewater. “That doesn’t explain why the princesses can never marry.”

“It’s sex-linked, so only the ladies can get it. Men are just carriers.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s something in the big book of reporting about getting to the damn point,” Cartyr cried, thrusting his pencil at his blank reporter’s notebook. “You still haven’t told me what buffomoronic occultis is!”

“Guess you never had any Latin in grammar school either.” Jameson ground out his coarse smoke and lit a new one from the ashes. “It means that anyone the Cinnibarian princesses kiss turns into a toad, and that any toad the princesses kiss turns into a man. Or, I suppose, woman.”

People have said that if you know where to look and who to ask–and if you can pay for it–you can find anything in the city.

That’s how Courtniee came into a wish in a box.

An old cigar box, to be exact–worn out, faded, flaking, bound up tightly with twine. The kind of cigar box you found in people’s garages once upon a time, filled with odd screws or sparkplugs. Nowadays you mostly see them in estate sales, still bearing that rusty cargo.

Maybe that’s how the wish box came into circulation. It’d been bought in an alley from a creaky old woman, who traded it for a handkerchief that had five years of Courtniee’s live wrapped up in it and a wheat penny once touched by both Teddy Roosevelt and John Schrank. There was, of course, no way of knowing that the wish was genuine without opening the box; the old lady strongly cautioned against this. Untying the twine and opening the box would leave only seconds to whisper the wish before the opportunity was lost forever.

Courtniee did have the presence of mind to ask why the old woman had never used the wish for herself. “There were two boxes once,” was the reply, and that was enough.

Estaban appeared in the subtle way people appear in dreams: one moment he wasn’t there, had never been there, could never be there.

The next, he was and had always been.

“You can’t fool me, Esteban,” Jan whispered, fighting whatever sorcerous glamor suffused the area. “I know what will happen if I shatter the crystal, if I read the spell.”

“Yes, you do.” His hands were on her shoulders now, a gentle caress. “You’ll have the power that you’ve always dreamed of, from your first days in that Lat√≥nian gutter to your appearance at court mere weeks ago. The power to reshape the world, to remake it in your own image–a more compassionate, more just image.”

Even as the rational part of her mind cried out that Esteban was employing his most powerful sorcery, Jan felt her instincts move in the opposite direction. Esteban was a snake, a traitor…but even treacherous serpents could be right once in a while.

Culbertsen had laid a chain of spells about the summoning circle, which Anya perceived as glittering spiderwebs in the air. Glancing at each filled her mind with images of what snapping that gossamer string would bring, brought into her waking consciousness by the gentle, patient voice of the brooch. One would open up a fissure around the circle; another would call down a discharge from the stormclouds circling overhead. Still another would rouse the dead buried as part of the circle’s construction, murderers all slain in cold blood and buried with silver arming swords.

But Culbertsen hadn’t reckoned with the brooch.

Anya snapped each thread as she crossed it, and the brooch hungrily devoured the magical energy stored within each trap and contingency. Even the circle itself, which would normally present a barrier impassible to all whose blood was not part of its phylactery charm.

Culbertsen turned as Anya penetrated the barrier. The physical component of the summoning was clasped in one hand, but in the other was something wholly unexpected–something against which the brooch had no power: a handgun.

Legend has it that the Saudeleur grew to resent the power of his nahnken, who wielded power absolute over their own weis but were bound to give tribute to their lord and master. And so it was that the idea of Nan Madol came to the Saudeleur in a dream: a great city of stone islands, where the nahnken and their saudeleur would reside. He could keep an eye on them by controlling the boats that plied the stone islands and even keep an escape tunnel ready under the coral to the edge of the reef should his overthrow be imminent.

Thus bound and determined, the Saudeleur had a problem. Though the isle of Ponape had stone and coral aplenty for quarrying, it lacked the manpower to move the stones once they had been hewn. It was to this end that the Saudeleur sought out the magician Isokelekel, who lived in seclusion on the north of the island. Isokelekel, said to be the son of a woman from the isle of Kusaie and the thunder god Daukatau, had sworn to hold himself and his powers separate from other men. But the Saudeleur prevailed upon him, and Isokelekel agreed to move the stones as the Saudeleur saw fit, breaking his vow.

Knowing that to do so would anger his father Daukatau, Isokelekel extracted from the Saudeleur three promises which would secure the magician’s future. First, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s totem of Nahnisohn Sahpw, the god of agriculture; his request was granted. Second, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s throne…in 1000 years. The Saudeleur readily agreed to this condition, thinking such a promise impossible to enforce. Third, Isokelekel asked for the isle of Ponape itself…in 2000 years. Again, the Saudeleur agreed to what he saw as a mere flight of fancy.

True to his word, Isokelekel used his powers to move rock and coral to build the magnificent canal city of Nan Madol. He then vanished with the Saudeleur’s totem, never to be seen again. One thousand years later, a man claiming the name Isokelekel led a band of 333 rebels to topple a corrupt and decadent descendant of the Saudeleur, founding a dynasty that lasted until the pale men in boats arrived 900 years later.

Of the last promise the Saudeleur made Isokelekel, nothing was heard…until now.

It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

“You understand, the translation will have to be approximate,” Smiths said. “A lot of heiroglyphs is context and inferential.”

“Just read it.” The revolver was argument enough.

“The Aten had no form, no voice, only will. Arising from the darkness of all which exists outside the Maat, the divine order of the cosmos, it first manifested as a weak and guttering spark. Only by associating itself with the bright disc of the sun was the Aten able to attract the notice of mortals, who came to view it as an aspect of their sun god, Ra. In this way, the Aten was first able to whisper into the ears of the chief priest, the Pharaoh. Over a generation, the whispers grew strong enough for the Pharaoh, and by extension his people, to allot the Aten a place in their great pantheon of deities. And when an aged and infirm ruler gave way to a young and impressionable one, the whispers grew ever louder.”

“Keep going.”

“In those days, the Aten was possessed of a great love for those whose belief had allowed it to escape from the darkness of the Duat, the underworld, but also a terrible jealousy. Through the Pharaoh, it insisted that the old gods were to be swept away–the whispers so insistent that the young ruler soon came to be preoccupied with his new religion alone, to the ruin of the nation. The Divinity, which existed in the guise of the many local gods at that time, reacted by withdrawing itself from the land. The Aten was unable to cope with the subsequent widespread famine, plagues, political upheaval, and general chaos, great though its powers had become. With the death of the Pharaoh from illness, the Aten was cast down from its lofty perch, and the light which represented it faded once more as successive rulers ought to erase it from their history.”

Smiths paused. “S-shall I keep going?”

The gun again, flashing in the torchlight. “Please do.”

“Cast once again into darkness, the Aten grew bitter at its fate, and came to resent the mortals on whom it had depended and whom it had once tried to love. It gathered its strength once more, slowly, and resolved to complete what the long-ago Pharaoh had once begun – the sweeping away of the old world for a new. Rather than co-opting, it would create anew. But although its strength returned, the Aten could not set its plan in motion.”

“For it yet needed mankind: its beliefs and its aid.” The words came from the darkness before Smiths could translate them.

“They call this creature the Mana Cricket, even though it’s really more of a grasshopper,” said Spinelli. “It feeds off of arcane essence ethereally siphoned from other living beings.”

The insect alighted on Gibbons’ arm and began crawling around. “Hey! That tickles!” she squealed.

“Now, one Mana Cricket obviously isn’t going to do much, and is easily squashed,” said Spinelli, adjusting his uniform cap. “Happily, they’re rarely seen in groups of less than 1,000.”

Dozens more large blue grasshoppers descended on Gibbons, causing her to emit a series of shrill not-quite-screams, not-quite-laughs. They crawled over her, apparently benignly; she didn’t reach for the pistol in her holster or attempt to summon a fireball.

“Of course, even a thousand–or hundred thousand–Mana Crickets can’t kill you,” Spinelli said.

One by one, the grasshoppers alighted, leaving Gibbons alone and swaying. “I don’t feel so good,” she moaned.

“But what they can do is drain you so completely that it will take days for your natural arcane essence to rejuvenate, and in the meantime…”

A door in the arena opened, revealing an immature ghast which promptly charged Gibbons, its knuckles dragging through the dirt. She gestured with her arm, apparently expecting a fireball to spring from her fingertips; when none was forthcoming, she could only utter a startled “Ugh!” as the ghast tackled her.

“Don’t worry, it’s been declawed and defanged.”