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The Illusionist

by Elaine Cunningham

To Oyamba, High Sun-Mage of the Magaambya, from apprentice and sojourner Bonali Kwazeel.

My lord,

I am well settled at Korvosa's Acadamae, in good health and most grateful for this opportunity to learn the ways of foreign wizards. Most of the first-year magic is familiar ground, but an unexpected lesson was taught to me yesterday by a fellow scholar. Though the story does me no credit, I will nonetheless report it faithfully.

My first impression of the Acadamae was, admittedly, not very favorable. The compound itself is impressively large, a walled city within the city, but the buildings are scattered about in random fashion rather than arranged in a sun-circle to focus power. It is strange to walk streets more twisting and contrary than goat paths, to see water contained in wells rather than free-flowing through the dreamwalk patterns of ancient cisterns. There is no symmetry in the Acadamae, and little beauty. It seemed incredible that magic could be called to such a place.

Still, the school is world-renowned, and I felt one might reasonably expect a certain breadth of knowledge in its scholars. To my surprise, little is known of the Mwangi Expanse. We are all one to these northerners. When they express admiration for my gold ornaments and the thread-art on my garments, their manner suggests an expectation of jangar-skin loin clouts and necklaces of monkey bone. On the whole, however, I found my new peers to be cordial and curious, if only in the hope that I might share some bit of exotic magic, or perhaps some jungle spices more potent than those they currently smoke.

I was assigned quarters with one Jamang Kira, a young man of Korvosa. If you can envision a strutting kimboda rooster, endlessly crowing and preening at his black-and-red plumage, you need no further description of the man. Despite his small stature and irritating ways, he stands near the head of our class and shows promise of becoming a powerful wizard. He is a first-year student, no older than my twenty years, but he spends much of his time ingratiating himself with older, more powerful scholars. One of them is Asmonde Avari.

Rumors flourish in any school. I had thought the Magaambya scholars worse than village gossips, but in the Acadamae whispers wander the halls like the unquiet dead. More than a few of them speak of Jamang's mentor.

Shortly after the dinner hour, Jamang, whom I seldom see before midnight, burst into our shared room. "Asmonde is casting a summoning in his chambers tonight," he announced with great excitement. "He allows a few friends to observe. You should come with me."

I put down the herbs I was grinding for the morrow's potions class and turned to face him. "Were I tired of living, I would gladly accompany you."

A smile bent one side of his mouth. "Asmonde is ambitious," he admitted, "and he does tend to overreach. Even so, his reach is long. We could learn much from him."

"The Korvosans have little knowledge of the grand traditions of southern magic."

With difficulty, I suppressed a shudder. The summoning of demons and devils is bad enough, to my way of thinking. For a mere student to summon devils more powerful than most wizards can contain is hubris. Rumors whispered tales of earlier failed attempts. It was said that most of his family's wealth had gone to shielding him from the consequences of these failings. That Asmonde kept on with these summonings, despite the devastation he'd already wrought, was incredible to me.

To my surprise, Jamang did not press me. He reached for the small pot of herbs I'd just crushed. I caught his wrist before he could raise the pot to his nose.

"That is zumalli," I explained as I carefully reclaimed my property. "It is like mosswort in tincture, but far stronger."

Enlightenment flowed into his small black eyes. "No wonder you best me in potions class," he murmured. "You've access to plants most of us have never heard of. Stronger than mosswort, you say?"

I nodded. "Had you inhaled the volatile oils, you would have become confused and sleepy."

Jamang strode over to the little cabinet where I kept my pots and vials. "And this one?" he demanded, pointing to a jar of snakevine sap.

"Greatly diluted, it is a powerful restorative. In its current state, it is green-death. Deadly poison."

He stared at me, clearly puzzled. "Aren't you concerned that someone might use it?"

A moment passed before his meaning became clear. Horror swept through me like venom.

"That would be... most unwise," I said carefully. "The use of any Mwangi medicinal would swiftly bring the Acadamae's masters to my door."

"My point precisely," he said. "It would be an easy way for a rival student to implicate you."

"Or you." Some instinct I did not quite understand prompted me to add these words. Jamang did not take offense. If anything, he looked amused.

"In that case, we are both safe enough. If Mwangi poison were suspected, a magical enquiry would quickly establish our innocence."

I thought that would be the end of the matter, but Jamang reached for the setoli sitting atop my cabinet.

"This is a spirit house, yes? A protection against evil?"

The observation surprised me, since Jamang had shown little interest in Mwangi customs before. The reason for his inquiry came to me suddenly.

"I am not sure whether it could contain a devil," I said candidly. "That is not its intended purpose."

He nodded as if he'd been expecting this answer. "If I thought it would come to that, I wouldn't ask. Asmonde promised he would take every precaution known to him. Asmonde is good, but I'd feel better if magic not known to him were guarding the perimeter."

This was a side of Jamang I had not seen. It was clearly difficult for him to ask this favor of me, but his concern for his friend outweighed his pride. I'd dismissed him as vain and shallow, concerned about no one but himself. He was a better man than I'd credited him, and I was ashamed to have judged him unfairly.

All the same, I locked up my medicinal cabinet before we left.

∗ ∗ ∗

Asmonde Avari met us at the door. I saw at once why Jamang followed him like a hound. Power surrounds some men like shadows and mist. Asmonde stood in a dark cloud of his own creation. He was nearly as tall as me and quite handsome, with the dark hair and pale skin common to Korvosans. There was something about his eyes, however, that I did not like.

Still, he greeted us cordially and showed us where we should stand. His chamber was larger than the one I shared with Jamang, as befitted his years and higher standing. The furniture had been pushed back against the walls, and a circle surrounded by elaborate runes had been painted onto the floor. Painted, not drawn—a permanent work of art and magic, clearly the product of considerable time and effort and study.

This was unusual, but I must admit that I breathed a little easier. Clearly Asmonde was not quite as reckless as rumor suggested.

Six of us had gathered to observe the casting. At a gesture from Asmonde, we fell silent.

He began the casting, chanting in a voice as resonant with power as an oracle's as he strode slowly around the circle. When he came to a stop, I noticed that there was a small gap in the circle and an empty place where a rune should have been drawn.

Asmonde drew a small knife from his belt and pressed it to his arm. A line of blood welled up. He knelt, still chanting, and closed the circle with his own blood.

I lack the words to describe what happened next. Imagine that thunder and lightning struck simultaneously, yet without sound or light. There was no roar or flash. There was only the devil.

Several moments passed before I recovered from that first shock of power, and even then my mind could hardly encompass what my senses perceived. I have a half-memory, like something from a fading nightmare, of great size and glistening hide and twisted black horns.

I glanced at Jamang. He stood calmly at my side, meeting the devil's gaze without any apparent difficulty. For some reason, that disturbed me more than anything I'd yet seen. I tore my gaze away. It was easier to watch Asmonde as he intoned the chant that would bind the foul being to his will.

But his words faltered. A strange look came over his face, the expression of a man confused, not by some failing of will or intellect, but by some enchantment. Or perhaps even by green-death...

My gaze flew to the knife in Asmonde's hand. It was small and silver, identical to the blades most scholars carried for magical purposes. Substituting another knife—a knife touched with zumalli—would be a simple matter.

Asmonde continued to chant, but he no longer controlled the spell. Blood spattered the floor as words of power tore free of his throat. He rocked back and forth like a man retching himself dry. Closer and closer to the circle he rocked.

Too close.

A great, black-taloned hand snatched Asmonde by the hair. The devil dragged him into the circle and tore his head from his body.

All of us stood frozen, too horror-stricken for thought or action.

Jamang was the first to recover his wits. He slapped the shock from my face and pointed to Asmonde's body, lying half in the circle, a bridge of mortal flesh.

"The spirit house," he shouted. "Contain the devil now, before it crosses over!"

Whatever Jamang's part in this catastrophe might have been, his reasoning now was sound but for one thing: I was not sure my magic could reach into another wizard's circle.

Nor could I risk setting that devil loose.

I gave a curt nod, more to steel myself than to respond to Jamang.

"When I step into the circle, pull the body out," I said. "Then run for help."

Not waiting for a response, I leaped into the circle, brandishing the spirit house and shouting the word that would activate it.

At least, I think I shouted it. Any sound I might have made disappeared into the devil's shriek. A terrible wind buffeted me with blistering heat and a roar like the screaming of tortured souls. How long it went on, I could not say, for when two of the Acadamae's masters stepped into the empty circle and lifted me to my feet, my ears still rang with the hellish sounds.

One of the masters took the spirit house from my hands and raised it to peer into the window. A look of wonder crossed his face, as if the thing captured within were no more than a pleasant toy. He looked upon me with new respect and said something I could not hear. The other master pointed to his ear. An expression of chagrin crossed the first master's face and he handed me a small amulet.

The cacophony died, suddenly and completely.

"You may keep the amulet," the master said, lifting the spirit house meaningfully.

"A fair exchange," I agreed.

Jamang reached up to place a hand on my shoulder. "That was the most astonishing act of courage I have ever beheld," he said solemnly. "As is custom, Asmonde deeded his personal effects to a younger student, but I think he would want you to have this."

He pressed something into my hand.

Asmonde's knife.

Without thinking, I raised it to my nose. There was no trace of zumalli. For a moment, I knew shame for my suspicious thoughts.

And then I realized that there was no trace of blood on the knife, either.

∗ ∗ ∗

The first thing I did upon reaching my room was to empty all of my Mwangi herbals, every pot and vial, into my jug of asperengi. I did it quickly, before Jamang could return and learn that I possessed a nearly universal solvent. I did not like to imagine what use he might make of such knowledge.

He came in late that night, flushed with self-satisfaction and laden with Asmonde Avari's books and scrolls. I made no move to help, nor did he seem to expect it.

I meant to keep silent, for what good can come of barking at a jackal? And I might have done so, had he not smirked at the sight of the empty zumalli pot on my table. Temper overcame me. I snatched up one of the books, a slender volume bound in blue leather, and hurled it against the far wall.

"I will go to the masters," I promised. "I will tell them everything."

Jamang made a show of yawning and stretching, as if he could barely hold himself awake for such inconsequential threats. "And what exactly is 'everything,' Bonali?"

"You killed Asmonde Avari!"

"A devil killed Asmonde Avari," he corrected me. "Several people bore witness to that fact."

"But the knife—"

"The knife in your possession?" He shook his head in the manner of someone gently chiding a boy too slow of mind to learn simple runes. "If anything is found on it, who do you think they will accuse?"

I was about to remind him of our earlier conversation about our shared access to my store of green-death when my gaze fell on "Asmonde's" spotless knife. I had no doubt that the knife Jamang gave me was not the knife Asmonde had wielded. If dangerous herbs were found on it, it could only be because I myself put them there. Any magical inquiry would reveal this. No one would believe that I did so to bring another man to justice. If I accused Jamang, I accused myself. Bringing the spirit house to the summoning, destroying my store of Mwangi herbals after—these would not be construed as the actions of an innocent man.

But perhaps the masters might listen and believe, if the motive were sufficient. "Are those books so valuable?"

Jamang glanced at the slim blue volume, which he hadn't bothered to retrieve from the floor. "Asmonde's books? I doubt it. He comes from a family of innkeepers. Even his knife—and you do have his knife, by the way—is of middling quality."

A great confusion fell over me. "Then why? What did you gain that was worth a man's life, even such as man as Asmonde Avari?"

He picked up the empty zumalli pot and placed it among the other empty containers in my cabinet. The smile he turned upon me was something I will not soon forget.

"Ask me again," he said pleasantly, "after tomorrow's potion class, when I stand first in the student rankings."

∗ ∗ ∗

Master Oyamba, I am mindful of your desire that I learn the art of abjuration, but with your permission I would like to devote myself to the study of illusion. Perhaps knowledge of how falsehoods are told with magic might prepare me to better perceive the illusions built with words and deeds. That ability, I suspect, might hold me in better stead than anything else I might learn from Korvosa.

Respectfully,
Bonali Kwazeel


Coming Next Week: Erik Mona introduces us to the etiquette of cannibalism in "Two Pieces of Tarnished Silver."

Elaine Cunningham is the New York Times best-selling author of numerous novels in such varied settings as the Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, EverQuest, Spelljammer, and Ravenloft. Her other contributions to the Pathfinder campaign setting include the Pathfinder Tales novel Winter Witch and work on Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Guide to the River Kingdoms

Art by J. P. Targete.

More Web Fiction. More Paizo Blog.
Tags: Elaine Cunningham The Illusionist J. P. Targete Pathfinder Tales Wizards
Qadira

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

That was a great read!


I agree. Tightly written, very entertaining. I'd be sorry there's only one part to it, except that one part handled the whole story very well. I look forward to Elaine's next contribution!

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Modules Subscriber

I really liked this.

If I were Bonali I'd seriously be considering a transfer to Theumanexus College. ;)

The description of Magaambya's layout just makes me hungry for more Nantambu. Loved the imagery evoked in the comparison to the Acadamae.

Contributor

Thanks for the kind words, folks.

I was very impressed by the Mwangi game product. Lots of great story hooks there, and Nantambu struck me as an interesting culture, well worth revisiting.

As for Bonali, I'd prefer to think that he eventually repaid Jamang in his own coin. :)

Contributor

Oh, I strongly suspect he will. People like Jamang don't last long, which is a good thing.

Very fun tale, and a lovely use and contrast of magical styles.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Modules Subscriber
Elaine Cunningham wrote:

Thanks for the kind words, folks.

I was very impressed by the Mwangi game product. Lots of great story hooks there, and Nantambu struck me as an interesting culture, well worth revisiting.

As for Bonali, I'd prefer to think that he eventually repaid Jamang in his own coin. :)

So a Mwangi-oriented novel is coming soon then? ;)

And is it wrong to hope the Bonali/Jamang conflict escalates to The Prestige levels across the Inner Sea?


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Awesome, I have enjoyed you work for years. Can't wait to see more of it.

Contributor

Mikaze wrote:


So a Mwangi-oriented novel is coming soon then? ;)

Not to my knowledge. It may be that Paizo has one in the pipeline, but if so, I'm not aware of it. All I can see with absolute certainty is that I'm not currently working on a Pathfinder story.

Mikaze wrote:


And is it wrong to hope the Bonali/Jamang conflict escalates to The Prestige levels across the Inner Sea?

That's a satisfying notion to comptemplate. :)


An excellent read, left me wanting more but with the story wrapped up well.

Qadira

Wow! I enjoyed Jamang's deviousness and Bonali's naivety. I'd love to read more of his adventures in further letters home.

Grand Lodge

That was fantastic! I very much enjoyed it.

Contributor

I'm curious: Would anyone be interested in a rematch between Bonali and Jamang? If so, who, in your opinion, should come out ahead?

Also, would you prefer another one-part story, or something longer?

Contributor

A rematch would be fun. Length would depend on the needs of the tale, but anything from one to three parts sounds about right.

As a reader, I'd certainly want to see Bonali come out ahead. Not without danger and difficulty, certainly, but you never want to see the villain win twice.


I would also enjoy a rematch between Bonali and Jamang. I would like to see Bonali win, but not by Jamang's method. Jamang's conniving and scheming should be his own downfall with only a little encouragement from Bonali.

Or, even better would be if good advice from Bonali is interpreted by Jamang as political maneuvering so he does not follow it, which leads to his own downfall.

Silver Crusade

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Modules Subscriber

I wish I had seen this earlier, but I'd definitely be interested in more stories following this one, either as a one-shot or a longer story.

Pretty partial to a longer format, or even a novel, since that would mean more background goodness for those of us interested in Nantambu. ;)

Also, go Team Bonali!


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Campaign Setting, Companion, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Perhaps I skipped over it, but where did illusions happen?


Cheapy wrote:
Perhaps I skipped over it, but where did illusions happen?

You did not skip over anything, Cheapy. This is the story of why Bonali decides to become an illusionist.

Last Paragraph:
"Master Oyamba, I am mindful of your desire that I learn the art of abjuration, but with your permission I would like to devote myself to the study of illusion. Perhaps knowledge of how falsehoods are told with magic might prepare me to better perceive the illusions built with words and deeds. That ability, I suspect, might hold me in better stead than anything else I might learn from Korvosa." [emphasis mine]

Contributor

Mikaze wrote:

I wish I had seen this earlier, but I'd definitely be interested in more stories following this one, either as a one-shot or a longer story.

Pretty partial to a longer format, or even a novel, since that would mean more background goodness for those of us interested in Nantambu. ;)

Also, go Team Bonali!

Thanks for the response, Mikaze. I'm leaning toward a short story set in the Acadamae.

I agree that a closer look at Nantambu could be interesting. At this point I have no plans to head in that direction, but I'd certainly read a story by someone who did! :)

Contributor

Aaron aka Itchy wrote:

I would also enjoy a rematch between Bonali and Jamang. I would like to see Bonali win, but not by Jamang's method. Jamang's conniving and scheming should be his own downfall with only a little encouragement from Bonali.

Or, even better would be if good advice from Bonali is interpreted by Jamang as political maneuvering so he does not follow it, which leads to his own downfall.

You, sir, have a devious mind. :)


Elaine Cunningham wrote:
You, sir, have a devious mind. :)

innocently:Me?

spoiler:
I enjoyed Bonali's innocence and naivete' in this story. I like to think that despite knowing Jamang's devious nature, if Bonali saw Jamang going down a path that Bonali knew would lead to Jamang's downfall/death, that Bonali would warn Jamang. Jamang is devious and ambitious enough to completely misinterpret Bonali's warning. I think it would be even more awesome if Bonali were able to save Jamang, earning Jamang's eternal hatred.

I enjoy seeing stories where evil brings about its own downfall. It reinforces the "lesson:" be good because in the end, good conquers evil.

That's not to say that every story should be written to be a moral lesson, but most every story has a base level of morals that it conveys, and thus contains a moral message of some sort.

Okay, I'm starting to feel like the Duchess, so I'll stop now. And the moral of that is: "Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves."

AAAHHHH!!!! *collapses weeping*

Osirion

Aaron aka Itchy wrote:
I enjoy seeing stories where evil brings about its own downfall. It reinforces the "lesson:" be good because in the end, good conquers evil.

And yet, your scenario is even richer, in that, to defeat evil, good just has to stand back and generously offer it enough rope with which to hang itself. Self-conquering evil, the best kind.

If only it was considerate enough to clean up after itself.

Grand Lodge

I miss alias and elaith but im hoping to read your pathfinder novel soon.

Contributor

fasthd97 wrote:
I miss alias and elaith but im hoping to read your pathfinder novel soon.

Thanks, fasthd97! I hope you enjoy WINTER WITCH.

I can't speak for Alias, since she wasn't one of "my" Forgotten Realms characters, but I hope we haven't seen the last of Elaith. :)


Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Charter Superscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

Well done! Would definitely like to read more.


I just read this and I will forward it to everybody! Great tale!


artificer wrote:
I just read this and I will forward it to everybody! Great tale!

Completely agree since it is 3:50 am here and I should of been in bed but, oh how I love to read!!


I like

Grand Lodge

This was a great read and now I remember why Elaine Cunningham's work in FR was some of my favorite. This short temptress of a story has me wanting more.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Charter Subscriber

Wow, I cannot believe I missed the comments section earlier.
(Time is my excuse, I usually just make time to read the fiction then move on to my work.) :(

I loved the story.
I have always enjoyed your characterizations. Deep enough for depth of interesting character development, not so deep as to leave the reader treading water trying to get to the story. (As this well-wrapped up single-chapter short story proves!) :)

Another vote for Yes, I would love to see a rematch between Bonali and Jamang.
Perhaps along the lines as mentioned above, where evil is self defeating. However, a story where Bonali learns simply not to be manipulated (at least not quite so easily) might be simple enough to prove Jamang's undoing as well.

Looking forward to it! :D

Oh that reminds me, I still need to go pick up Winter Witch!
,... <Starts packing his work stuff>


I would definitely love more.

Yes, a rematch could be nice. In that case I obviously go for team Bonali.
Or maybe a different part of the history of him.

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