The Ten Million Demons
So it was in the dusty road from Erebai to the dead empire, a scholar of small spells drew his circles with grains of rice. He had about him the village children, those free from other work or who could afford to tarry a little while, and he spoke to them of the ten million demons that dreamed the world of sins. Long he spoke in his low whisper, and it grew late in the afternoon, when the archmagus of Erebai was wont to take his walk along that dusty road. In that circuit was an antique necromancy of subtle power, each step timed with a certain prayer and a certain thought, and the rumble of that step was as a giant. For such was the potency of the archmagus of Erebai. Whether it was some caprice of wizardly rank or else he was too concerned with his droning chant, the archmagus did not deter his step as he neared the scholar of small spells, and his tread ruined his circles and banished the shapes that danced along them.
Now whether there was wroth in the heart of the scholar then, or some more mystic wisdom that accompanied the contemplation of his shattered circles, none now can say. Yet it was for the first time in memory that some months later, the scholar of small spells entered the Tourney of Sorcery.
Some took note of this, for while the collector of cantrips was not known for the particular potency of his enchantments, nor to have accomplished any great feat with which to build a legend, his measured tread had crossed the breadth of the world for two generations of necromancers, through the dusty tombs of sorcerer-queens and the forgotten libraries of minor hearth-gods, and he had set more than a few of boys' and girls' minds and hearts on the path to sin and sorcery.
The first three days were for apprentices and journeymen, demonstrations of skill. The archmage was exempt and chose to rest and prepare; but the scholar took his place with the least skilled, and offered freely his advice and criticism. So more passed their trials of the first three days than in any tourney before.
The second three days were for masters in their three ranks, and here there were a few duels, for those who had something to prove, but most were set some tasks by the judges worthy of their rank, and it was up to the contestants to impress those earnest greybeards by their conjurations. This year the archmagus of Erebai called for a spirit from the far outer gulfs, beyond the circle of light that girdles this world, and whose name none save he could utter with safety—and so awed the judges, that they passed him on the fourth day, and allowed him the additional time to study and prepare.
By this time the rumor had gone up of a feud between the archmagus and the scholar, so that immediately after Erebai had retired the collector of cantrips was called upon. The scholar of small spells stepped in to the rune circle with his worn robes and his shepherd’s crook staff, and in that dry and serious voice recalled an ancient spell familiar to all of those present, for it recalled an antique demon who of long standing had its lot to answer the calls of journeymen who wished to prove themselves to their masters, and there was not a witch or warlock there that had not called that self-same demon from its cozy hell. Yet that scholar did show his mastery in the precision of his chant and movement, the time and tones as perfect as human throat or mind could grasp, and he did it in the old way now forgotten and abridged, with all the embellishments lost and forgotten in a thousand crumbling schoolbooks, so that when at last the song reached its zenith the old demon came forth in all the glory and majesty that had been its in the days of yore, when it sat on basalt thrones and defiled virgins offered by bloody-handed sorcerers. Those who had thought themselves long familiar with the goat-hoofed thing marveled at its panoply of black glass and black gold set with smooth black gems, and the things that squirmed at its feet, and where its shadow fell. It looked each of the judges in the eye, and they felt once more that tiny wound in their souls which was the demon’s price to appear before their masters, a hurt that would never more be long forgotten.
So it was the scholar was admitted to the next round.
Now the archmagus of Erebai had heard of this summoning, and some rumors reached his ears from his familiars of the feud supposed between himself and the scholar of small spells, and on the night of the sixth day the archmagus called the scholar to his tent. They dined in silence and spoke little save of the other challengers, who had risen through the lists and who had fallen, and as the evening wore on the archmagus came to the point.
“I have heard,” he said. “That I did you hurt when I broke your circles, and you seek vengeance on me in the lists.”
“I am a teacher, as well as a scholar.” said the small spells. “I have but come here to give a lesson.”
“To any who would learn it.”
“Very well,” said the archmagus. “I have spoken with the judges, and they have agreed to pair us on the morrow. You have never been to the tourney before, but I know well my competitors. I would not have your lifeblood on my soul for so small an insult.”
The scholar nodded, and withdrew. It was only then that the archmagus of Erebai noticed the lesser wizard had tasted nothing of the repast, which sat untouched.
On the dawn of the seventh day, the archmagus found the scholar of small spells waiting for him before the runecircle, which would contain their thaumaturgies. A crowd had gathered even at that hour, for much had been rumored of their respective performances. On the side of the scholar were many of the apprentices and journeymen he had helped in the first three days, and not a few masters who had known him in earlier years, and those few of his own age that knew and respected him. The archmage’s side was lonely, save for the betmasters and his servants.
As if by common thought, the men entered the circle.
The little girl swept her legs up and down, setting the swing a-swinging.
“There was no beginning,” she said “but sometime long ago there were ten million demons, and they dreamed the world.”
A man sat on the swing next to her, holding a dripping side, making a red mud puddle of the dust beneath him.
“They were really more than that. Maybe ten million was as big a number as anybody could think of so that’s how many there were. And each and every one of them was their own little sin.”
She swung higher, catching the dying sun and golden clouds between the toes of her sneakers on the ascent, tucking them under to scrape the dust and gravel as she came down. The man wheezed a little, and gripped the chain holding his seat a little tighter.
“Can you name ten million sins? There was one for letting the fire go out, and one for watering down the beer, and another for leaving a lover unsatisfied. There was a demon for leaving out your piss for another to step or sit in, and a demon for burning a child, and a demon for spoiling a story, and so many more.”
The man had sunk in his swing, and the girl slowed her gyration to follow the blackbirds waiting above.
“You may think it very silly for there to be ten million demons for such things, when they existed before children and stories, piss or beer, or any of that, but they dreamed all that into being. You cannot have children without their sins, or they wouldn’t be children at all.”
She smiled at that, and hopped off to take his hand. The man fell into the dust and gravel, head lolling against the ground, and she took his head between her hands and turned it to the sky.
“Now what if I told you every now and again one of the ten million demons took on shape and form and a name? It’s true.” The blue eyes in her hand saw the moon, and hanging right beneath it, three stars that should not shine ‘til evening. “Not murder or lust or any other thing you might think of as a sin, but something specific and terrible all the same, a familiar evil clothed in flesh.”
He opened his mouth, but no breath came out, and she kissed him on the forehead with thin, dry lips. “But there must always be ten million demons.”
The duel lasted until the ninth day, and the scholar of small spells leaned hard upon his staff, and his robes were little more than rags, but the archmagus of Erebai stood exhausted in his lonely corner, propped up only by those few familiars that remained. They had taken their turns casting spells and countering them, and for all the skill and learning and power of Erebai, there was no dwoemer or incantation that the scholar of small spells could not turn aside with some ancient word or name, by spirits so common they were nigh-forgotten, and one by one the powers the archmagus had painfully gathered to himself were stripped from him. So he sapped his strength and weathered the small, flitting curses of the scholar of small spells. At first the archmagus had dismissed these thin shadows at once, but as the conflict grew and resources became few, so did he wait longer and longer between cleansing banishments, and now could scarce mumble a counterspell. Yet somewhere he found once more that inner strength that had seen him through the ranks of necromancers to the summit of that dark mountain of power, and cast them off once again.
The collector of cantrips awaited his next gambit.
At last, he held up his hand—not in arcane gesture, but in hail.
“Brother magician, I would beg your forgiveness for shattering your circles.” said the archmagus. “Never in this incarnation would I have imagined such borrowed strength as yours; I fight not against a man but all the kingdoms of dead hedge wizards, every spell thief and apprentice who has lived and died on this small planet for countless centuries. Whichever of us falls today, know only that I am sorry to have ever crossed you.”
Then the scholar of small spells shook his head, and his face was dark as a thundercloud, and there was sorrow and regret in his voice. “Such hubris is unbecoming. Have you never learned of the ten million demons?”
The archmagus of Erebai said he had heard of them as the most minor of spirits.
“Then you have forgotten much that every apprentice knows.”
So saying the scholar of small spirits turned and left the circle, so forfeiting the duel, and his step did not falter ‘til he rested once more on the dusty road between Erebai and the dead empire, leaving behind him the smallest of ignorant sins to ponder his words.