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C. Dale Brittain

The Witch, the Cathedral

PART ONE — THE CATHEDRAL

I

That morning I thought my main problem was the three drunk newts. But that was before I got the telephone call from the chaplain. He was not in fact the chaplain any more, but then a minute ago the newts had been three drunk students.

I had been sitting in on Zahlfast’s class at the wizards’ school. He paused in his description of the basic transformation spell to explain the dangers inherent in its use. Any magic spell, even illusions, can have repercussions far beyond the expected, and advanced spells if not done properly can lead to loss of identity or even life.

The three drunk wizardry students, sitting together and laughing quietly in the back, had apparently decided to test for themselves what these dangers might be.

We dived for the newts before they had a chance to disappear into cracks in the floor. “Hold onto those two, Daimbert,” said Zahlfast. “I’ll start on this one.”

The newts wiggled in my hands as I tried to hold their smooth bodies gently. The loss of a tail or a leg as a newt would mean permanent damage to the student as a human, and if they escaped as newts we might never be able to return them to themselves. They were quite attractive, light green with bright red spots, but their tiny newt eyes looked up at me with human fear.

The rest of the class had retreated to the back of the room. Zahlfast glared at them. “What are you waiting for? This is all the demonstration you’ll get today.” The students left in some confusion, and he returned to his spell.

It is harder to undo someone else’s spell than one of your own. As I started on one of the newts I was holding, Zahlfast finished with his, and suddenly a student stood before him, or rather slumped. He was slightly green, but I think that was from feeling ill rather than the after-effects of being a newt.

I finished with mine and handed the third to Zahlfast. “How can they be drunk so early in the day? I didn’t think the taverns down in the City were even open yet.”

Zahlfast spoke the final words in the Hidden Language to break the spell. “Bottles in their rooms,” he said as the last dazed and frightened newt became a dazed and frightened wizardry student.

“We never had bottles in our rooms when I was a student here,” I said self- righteously.

Zahlfast looked at me sideways, a smile twitching the corner of his mouth. “As I recall, you had plenty of trouble at the transformations practical exam, even perfectly sober.”

I preferred not to recall all my embarrassment with those frogs, even twenty years afterwards, so I loftily ignored this comment. I had, after all, become a perfectly competent wizard in the meantime-or at least had managed to persuade the wizards’ school of my abilities enough that they had invited me back for a few months as an outside lecturer.

“Now,” said Zahlfast to the students. “Are you sober enough to listen to reason?”

“Spill a spell, spoil a spell,” blurted one and collapsed on his face. I was interested to see that they still excused themselves for magical mixups with the same catch-phrase we had used years ago.

At that moment one of the other young wizards came in. “Telephone call for you, sir,” he said to me. I excused myself and followed him out and down the hall.

I felt as I always did a stir of pride in using a telephone with a magical far-seeing attachment, allowing one to see as well as hear the person at the other end. Although I had invented the attachment essentially by accident, as my first and only success in technical wizardry, it had over the years become widely adopted.

The view-screen lit up, showing the face of the man waiting to talk to me: gaunt, with deep-set eyes over high cheekbones and a mouth that looked as though it rarely smiled. It was Joachim, dean of the cathedral of Caelrhon.

His dark eyes looked at me unseeing. Without a far-seeing attachment on his own telephone, he could not tell I was there until I spoke. The bishop, always dubious about magic, had doubtless considered it enough of a concession to institutionalized wizardry to allow the installation of even an ordinary magic telephone.

“Hello!” I said. “I haven’t heard from you in ages!” Although traditionally priests and wizards never get along, Joachim and I had been friends, at least most of the time, since I had first taken up the position of Royal Wizard of Yurt and found him Royal Chaplain there.

“I’m glad I was able to reach you, Daimbert. I need your help.” Joachim had never been strong on social chit-chat. “As you may have heard, we’re just starting construction here in Caelrhon on a new cathedral. But now something very odd is happening-something which may involve magic.”

I was flattered but surprised. Since Joachim had become dean of the cathedral, he had studiously acted as though wizardry had nothing to offer a priest. “What kind of problem is it?”

He hesitated. “I would just as soon not explain over the telephone, especially as I haven’t talked to the bishop yet. Is there any way you could come here?”

It must be serious, then. “I would, Joachim, but there’s one difficulty. Caelrhon’s not my kingdom. You need to talk to your own Royal Wizard. He would be furious to find another wizard interfering in his kingdom.”

I didn’t mention that long-ago incident, when I had been in Yurt only a year, when the king of Yurt had told the king of Caelrhon that if his wizard couldn’t install a magic telephone easily he could offer my services. I had innocently assumed that Sengrim, Caelrhon’s wizard, knew all about it, but he had come home to find me seated like an invader at his desk, his books scattered all over his study. When he burst through the door, I was so startled I dropped and smashed the glass telephone I was working on-the spells hadn’t been working right anyway-and gasped, “Spill a spell, spoil a spell,” which hadn’t helped. Neither had sending him as a peace-offering an inscribed copy of Zahlfast’s new edition of Transformations for Beginners when it came out the next year. He had returned it with a frosty note saying that he had no books for beginners in his library. Ever since then, Sengrim had done his best to suggest that I was incapable of even the simplest illusions.

The dean lifted an eyebrow a fraction. “I would have asked for that wizard’s help,” he said dryly, “except for one thing. I officiated at his memorial service last week.”

“He’s dead?” I demanded with a rather slow grasp of the obvious, and feeling instant remorse for all the times I had thought of Sengrim as a bitter old man who wasn’t nearly as good a wizard as he wanted to be considered. “Nobody here at the school has heard about it! Do you know what happened?”

“He seems to have blown himself up in his study,” said the dean slowly, “taking half the tower with him. Apparently he had just had some sort of a quarrel with his crown prince, and most likely his anger made him careless with his chemicals and herbs. There was not enough left of him to bury …”

I had to tell the masters of the school about this at once. They avoided checking up too often on all of us Royal Wizards of the western kingdoms, but they would certainly want to know that Sengrim was dead. And the royal court of Caelrhon would doubtless be asking soon for a new Royal Wizard.

“So,” said Joachim, “can you come?”

“The series of lectures I’m giving will finish this afternoon,” I said, dragging my attention back from the image of Sengrim blowing himself up in the royal court of Caelrhon to the question of magical problems in the cathedral city, ten miles down the road. “I’d been planning to return home shortly, but I can visit you first. Would tomorrow be all right?”

He did smile then. “Tomorrow would be excellent.” He rang off, and I hurried away to find Zahlfast again.

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