The following story originally appeared in installments on the Aura Storm mailing-list, over the course of a few weeks. It was written (hastily) as a dice challenge, set in a generic village and highlighting aspects of Aura, around the following plot seed: "a familiar (spellcasting jackal) seeks to avoid joining her wizard in undeath." I have edited it here slightly.
`Half a mile from the village, a jackal wailed.
She stood at the foot of the small mound, in the hill's shadow. A few feet of loose earth separated the jackal from her master, but her departed master may as well be on the moon. The villagers had at least performed a token burial rite. There could be no returning.
Though she could still smell him.
Shadows lengthened, and the wind carried the sounds of jackal's mourning to the village. Not that anyone dared acknowledge this. They had seen the signs. The wizard's coming had been foretold daily for a week: a child's fingers had turned to tentacles, sour milk had welled from the ground, a prized hunting lizard had gnawed its own leg off and strange fragile flowers had grown in a concentric pattern from the bare, unyielding rock.
When the wizard entered the village, there had been no choice but to kill him. To do otherwise would have allowed evil into the small community. If magic is not checked, the elders said, magic will run wild and bring only ruin. The wizard was killed without even being given a chance to speak or run away.
And so the jackal wailed.
Djehai stopped; sniffed. What was that?
The jackal stared at the mound. She must be imagining things; nothing had changed. Her master was still dead and buried. And then it struck her: her master was dead and she was still alive and reasoning and sensing the Aura Flow like smoke on the wavering breeze.
This should not be happening. The bond between wizard and familiar was severed. She also should be dead, or at least blind to the higher shades of reality. Her master had used their bond to draw upon the Aura Flow, enhancing his power; and as the Flow had suffused her being, each time a spell was cast, her life energy had altered. She had learned to speak; become sensitive to her surroundings as if her skin was a combined eye and ear as sensitive as her nose; remained as healthy as a pup long after she should have become dust. Djehai was more than a mere animal; she was a creature of magic.
But a familiar without a wizard should be dead. She was sure of this. Her master had explained to her once that if she died, he would suffer a grievous wound as the invisible bond snapped and tore at his life energies. So by all rights she should have died when her master did - or at the very least been wounded and diminished.
Fear crept up Djehai's spine to her hackles, like an army of icy fleas. This should not be happening. Her master was dead and yet she was still alive and whole. The jackal did not want to think about it; for the first time in her life, thinking was a curse and not a gift.
Shaking now, Djehai peered at the grave - with all her senses. Yes, the bond was still there. The earth seemed to shimmer and melt before her. She could see her master lying in the shallow trench, as if through a haze of shifting colours. Sparks of life energy flickered up and away from the body - but the hot, pulsing core of magical energy was almost blinding.
Djehai recoiled as if a great fist had hurled her away. Her master was dead and yet not dead. She fled from her master's grave, into the gathering twilight.
Darkness strangled the village.
Spirits danced invisibly, troubling the shaman. Normally the spirits flowed through him, blessing and protecting the village. At his request, the spirits would make crops grow or foretell the gender and destiny an unborn child; sometimes they even gossiped with him about who a child's true parents were. The spirits were the land, and he the hand that mapped them for the villagers.
The spirits had warned that a wizard was coming to the village. The warning had not been like clear speech or writing, but through omens and symbols. The shaman had felt the wizard's approach like a festering wound. Only, he had thought they meant a child to be born.
Warded by the skull of the shaman's predecessor atop it, the wizard's tome screamed in dark tones only the shaman could hear. The brass plates bound together by scaly unknown hide roiled with energy. The bulging knot of coruscating energies strained, unseen, at the fabric of reality. Spirits warped into written form and forced to dispense their magical energies, again and again for a master uncaring as to their plight, writhed and begged to be free. The book of spells was a foul perversion.
The shaman shuddered and forced his gaze elsewhere, anywhere but at that book. Not since his childhood had the village been forced to confront a living wizard. Killing the wizard had cost three of their best and bravest warriors. Not until next year's naming ceremony would there be sufficient spears to defend the village against creatures from the wasteland. But at least the village was safe from the ravages of a wizard.
The shaman shook his head wearily. The wizard's book should be destroyed, but safely - and how to do that, the spirits could or would not tell him.
Scents and sensations mingled in Djehai's consciousness. Hunting lizards dozed fitfully, dying flames licked meat on a spit, sand borne on the wind scoured her hide, humans coupled or slept - and the book called to her.
In its way the book was as alive as she, and as much a part of her dead master. The book was older than Djehai, in more ways than one. Whatever strange creature had furnished its binding had given also a spark of sentience. The familiar sensed this intuitively, and had assumed their master knew as well. Three years of careful study and stern toil under an unnamed master had granted the wizard the skill and power to weave the book into its present form. But, in some way, the book had existed somehow long before then.
Material shapes were translucent to one attuned so keenly to the Aura Flow, and the book's energies were a blazing beacon. It was as though the physical book were a shadow cast into the world, and true book lay within the magical currents. The book had gathered energy to itself over the years, granting more and more power to the wizard. Djehai had sometimes wondered who was the true master. Now she was being called, as if a hunting lizard to the huntsman's side. Bereft of a wizard, the book sought another vessel to channel its power through.
The closer she came to the book, the harder the familiar found it to resist the call. She had thought to merely snatch the book away and find in it some clue as to why her master rested uneasily in his grave. Now it took all her willpower to retain her own identity.
The walls of the shaman's tent were as a waterfall to the jackal. Infused with his spirit, the staff in the shaman's hands was as solid as a kick in the ribs. Startled, they circled each other and the book.
Dreams flickered and sifted through him. Were the memories his any more? He no longer knew nor cared.
As a boy, he had watched his father pray before the village shrine each morning before setting out fishing. Every child, at some point, runs off to play alone. One day, one a dare, he had taken one of the prayer candles from the shrine and hidden it in the bushes. A storm had brewed up from out of nowhere that afternoon - and his father's half-eaten, stinking corpse had not washed up for many days afterwards.
No one would apprentice the cursed youth. His own sister would not meet his eyes when she was wedded to his former best friend. He begged, stole, brawled and finally slunk away one night, swearing by all the gods that he would one day be treated better.
Many empty days and nights, wandering the wastelands. Too many months and years roaming the lands, seeing places forgotten and hiding among crowds. Terrible shapes passing in the darkness while he cowered, fearing the growling of his empty stomach would betray him. A knife of strange metal, spilling blood that did not look like blood - no, that was later. Learning to read the glyphs on a torch-lit wall; when did that happen? Abandoning a woman who could have given him a happy, if lowly, future. Voices, darkly whispering.
A staff carved from a tree struck by a bolt of lightning during an Aura Storm. He had ripped that from the liquefying claws of a defeated foe. Only to break it over the metallic head of an alchemical monstrosity. But wagering the clockwork innards on the outcome of a riddle contest had earned him the brief hospitality of a nomad tribe. The hospitality lasted long enough for a fine meal and a performance from the tribe's storyteller, who knew a curious tale indeed.
But that tale was forgotten now. The wizard also forgot how the tale had led him to the book, and how he had used the power he gained from it in the years that followed. He had forgotten so much. It was so long ago, and he was so weary. But the book - with the book, he could do so much. Where was the book? He never let it far from his grasp. He must see that it was safe.
A cloud scraped the moon, and it must have been a trick of the light that the fresh grave seemed to tremble.
"Beast!" he cried. "Abomination - leave this place!"
"I cannot," Djehai snarled. "I will not." No matter how much she wished otherwise, one or more of the three present - familiar, tome and shaman - would soon disperse into the flow between worlds. Perhaps if she and the book went, her master would not cling to this world so. Yet she knew, in every fibre of her being, that was not to be. Even if it would bind them together forever.
Her survival instinct was as primal as that of her more natural, wasteland kin. The shaman served the welfare of his village and not his own self-preservation. Unless his power was great indeed, he would die before she. As for the book - it had once floated unsinged down a lava flow. Djehai worried not for the book.
She worried what it would do to her.
"Then prepare to join your master. I will not let magic curse my village any longer." So saying, the shaman swung his staff again.
Djehai skittered to one side, away from the book. She leapt at the shaman's bare, tattooed legs- straight into the staff, planted in the ground between them. She rolled, and came up snarling. "You don't know what that book is capable of." She ducked as the shaman swung again. "Give it to me!"
"By the spirits of this place, I bid you to go rot eternally in the underworld! I-" He staggered, as the jackal crashed into his side.
Several things happened all at once.
The tentpole fell as the shaman brushed it. Trapped by the collapsing folds of cloth and hide, the shaman fell onto the book and skull. The skull rolled off the book. Children woke, screaming, on the other side of the village. The chief's remaining son, spear in hand as he rushed to investigate, was blinded to the end of his days by a bright ball of violet flame, shot through with green, enveloping the shaman's tent. In a forest a thousand miles away, a strange crystal glowed and a watching face dipped - whether in sadness or satisfaction, there were no onlookers to tell.
And, just beyond the village, a grave erupted.
Power, cold and terrible and alluring, pulsed between them in the darkness.
Heart frozen between beats, Djehai stared in terror. She saw the book clearly now, for the first time. Its energies illuminated the bones and internal organs of the fresh corpse laid atop it. Through the body she could see each individual page, swirling with trapped power. Not power - life force, glowing brighter as she watched. The book was eating the shaman's soul.
She could not move. Time seemed to have forgotten her. In a corner of her mind, the jackal wondered if this would be her fate, to be trapped for all eternity with a soul-devouring book. Trapped in a fold of the flow between worlds - like an oxbow lake, when a river changes course. By the gods, the river of time-
No mortal voice produced those dark tones. Those two words were like a boulder crashing down into a deep well. Or like a spear of burning ice piercing the soul. Behind those words lay something terrible, something the familiar desperately did not want to see.
Unable to move, Djehai was yet able to look away in her despair. Her spirit or awareness seemed to revolve in her body, and she gazed upon the outer darkness. Glowing winged shapes, orange and green, spiralled in the silvery distance. Vast runes hovered and throbbed - thoughts or spells given form and fed upon countless generations of reverence and use. Were these the servants of the gods in their true forms? Were those the customs and ideas that sustain a culture through time?
Was her physical body destroyed, and she now sensing reality purely in terms of thought and magic? Djehai shivered - or she would have, had she felt her body. A transformation had occurred. No longer what she had been, Djehai did not yet know what she was.
And then she felt the tug of an unbreakable bond, and time remembered where the familiar was hiding.
Death walked into the village.
The wizard could hear -no, feel - the book calling to him. He had to have it back. He had to protect it.
He wondered where his familiar was. He called, but she did not answer.
Screams in the night. The wizard ignored them. The village was nothing. These mortals were nothing. It was not even worth expending any of his power to be rid of them. The wastelands would devour this place, soon enough. All that mattered was finding what was his.
The villagers fled before the walking corpse, and only partly out of fear of it. For something else had risen that should not have. Hovering over the village like a miasma, the spirits of the place swirled and wailed. The shaman - their link to the villagers - was dead. Now they could no longer guide and protect.
Now there would be only vengeance.
The wizard neared the collapsed tent. Yes, he could feel the bond with his familiar now. He reached out invisibly, and began to draw power.
Energy flares spiralled inwards and downwards. Red, yellow, blue - spirits swarmed and ripped and flailed. A circle of energy formed about the wizard, and began to draw inwards. There was a mounting roar.
Then, suddenly, darkness - and silence.
Dawn crept unsuspectingly towards a blasted scene. Amid the ruins of the village, the wizard confronted his familiar.
"Master," the jackal whimpered. "This should not be."
"No," the walking corpse replied. "It should not. I never thought you would betray me, Djehai."
"I did not betray you. The book betrayed us both."
The book was gone. At least, its physical form was no long in range of either magical being's enhanced senses. For that matter, there was very little they could sense. All the magic had been sucked dry from the land for miles about, and the surviving villagers had fled into the wastelands.
Stiff from the grave, his head rather jerked sideways than shook in dismissal. "My spellbook never ran away at the first sight of a shaman. My book-"
"-ate the shaman's soul," she finished. "Master, you don't know what happened while you were in the grave. And I didn't run away - there were two spearmen moving to block our escape."
"Escape? Why would we have wanted to escape? All the village had to do was tell me where to find-" he broke off and sniffed the breeze. Then he tried again, remembering he had to inhale for his nose to work. Interesting, he thought, how quickly the basic life functions fall into disuse.
"I sense it too," Djehai sent along their mental connection. Out of habit, the jackal licked her lip. "The villagers are preparing to bury their dead."
The wizard stood lost in thought. Against the shakily lightening sky, he seemed an oddly carved pole amid the ruined village. He was a totem of power and death.
"Come here, Djehai," he said at last, almost regretfully.
"Master?" The jackal went to nuzzle his thigh, then remembered it was cold and dead.
"There is something I need you to do," were his last ever words.
As a magical creature, Djehai did not hunger. There had been a time when she was not magical, however, and so the jackal remembered the enjoyment of a good bone.
This was not a meal she relished. Absorbing the flesh and bone into her spirit came naturally. That did not stop her from thinking about what she was doing. Nor about the task that still lay ahead.
Her master's soul was released. The knowledge was comforting and jarring at once. He was at rest. She would never touch his mind again. The wizard had passed beyond, and his familiar was left to right his wrongs.
He could have remained one of the walking dead. They could have found a way to restore him to life.
The book was still out there, waiting to re-form.
Djehai glowed and changed and grew as she absorbed the magical essence. By the time she had finished eating, the jackal was almost the size of a man. She stood semi-upright, her forepaws now crude hands. Raw power sheeted off her - roiled, crackled, flowed. Her form was an open channel to the Aura Flow. She had become a worker of magic without need for a spellbook.
Yet she could still sense that book, as a raw wound upon her soul. She would find it. Destroy it, if she could. Protect the world from it, if events proved otherwise. Too much had been lost because of one dark tome.
Wind stirred the ash, dust and sand in her wake, as Djehai stalked off into the waking wastelands. There was so much to do, starting with learning more about the book. The jackal-wizard did not know where to start. That did not worry her - nor did the prospect of endless centuries upon the hunt. It was who she was.
Having accepted her fate, only the journey remained.