Seven men, robed and hooded, stood in a circle. Drawn between them was a seven-pointed star. They chanted in unison, their hands held forward as if pressing against an invisible wall.
Varigor, The king’s grand wizard, looked on with his mouth drawn tight. Everything was going smoothly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t necessarily good news for their chances of survival. The king himself sat next to Varigor on a cushioned chair, nursing his third goblet of wine with a dour face.
The chanting of the robed men reached a crescendo. There was a rumbling noise. The castle slowly began to shake. Then, with a crack and a hiss of smoke, the demon lord Baharam appeared before them.
It was an ugly thing: large but squat, bulging with muscles and stooped over like an ape. Ram-like horns curled from its forehead. Its beady eyes surveyed the room, locking on to the king past the swirling wisps of smoke.
“WHO DARES?” the demon asked, its voice painful to the ear. The robed men looked to Varigor, who turned to look at his king. The king returned Baharam’s unblinking stare. Slowly, he took another sip of wine.
“I am King Aernion of Vallar. I have summoned you, demon, to do my bidding.”
“AND WHAT IS IT YOU DESIRE, MANLING, TO TRIFLE WITH ONE SUCH AS ME?” the demon asked.
The king nodded as though to himself. “My kingdom is dying,” he said. “The crops do not grow. The people starve, rebellion stirs, and our enemies grow bold. I desire this situation be remedied.”
The demon began to laugh, a slick hissing sound that didn’t seem to match its heavy face. “YOU MUST BE DESPERATE INDEED,” it said, its voice quieter but no less painful to the ear. “I AM NO HEALER, DOOMED ONE.”
The king wrinkled his nose. “I am aware. You weren’t exactly our first choice. But you are the most powerful being written of in our archives. And so here we are. My wizard assures me the spell is binding. You cannot return until my task is fulfilled.”
“INDEED,” the demon said. “FORTUNATELY FOR YOU, THERE MIGHT BE A WAY.”
The creature leapt. Varigor braced for the impact of its enormous mass against the barrier, but the seven-pointed containment zone popped like a soap bubble when he hit it. He careened through, snatching one of the robed men up in his enormous hand and biting into his neck.
The others ran screaming for the door. Varigor himself stood, frozen in horror. The king took another sip of wine beside him, looking resigned.
The demon did not turn on them however. He sucked the unfortunate man’s blood from his neck like he was wringing juice from an orange slice, then tossed the limp body into a corner, where it lay umoving. Then the creature opened its mouth, a mixture of human blood and black bile pouring out to coat the septagram. The liquid seemed to roil with a life of its own as it seeped into the floor.
“I AM NO HEALER,” the demon said, “BUT YOU ARE RIGHT THAT I AM POWERFUL. ELERIEL, ANGEL OF THE HEAVENS, MY ANCIENT ENEMY, I CALL TO YOU! AS I AM BOUND, SO I BIND THEE, IN SERVICE OF YOUR CHARGES!”
There was a blinding flash of light. A moment later, a tall woman dressed in a long white dress appeared in the center of the diagram.
“Baharam! Why have you summoned–ew. Wait. Is this blood?”
The angel lifted her dress slightly, pulling its hem out of the pool of corrupted blood and ichor. She wrinkled her nose, the expression giving her otherwise elegant face a touch of childishness.
“What the hell, Baharam? And how did you get topside anyway?”
“FOOLISH ELERIEL. THESE CHILDREN OF MAN HAVE SET ME FREE.” The demon began to laugh again, rearing its head back.
The woman turned an accusing eye toward Varigor, who suddenly became quite interested in his shoes. The king stared back, however, unflappable as ever.
“O angel of the heavens,” the king said. “My kingdom is dying. The crops do not grow. The people–”
“Wait, this is about the famine?” the angel interrupted him. She tiptoed to to the edge of the septagram, trying her best to avoid getting her dress dirty, only to encounter the edge of the containment zone.
She bonked her head on the invisible wall, muttering something rather un-angel-like under her breath, then rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers. The containment zone vanished for the second time that day, and she stepped across onto clean stone.
“Yes,” the king said, skipping the rest of the speech. “The famine. Can you help us?”
“YOU ARE BOUND,” the demon added helpfully. “AS AM I, BY THE ANCIENT ACCORD OF SYMMETRY.”
The angel sighed. She let go of her dress and began trying to fix her long blonde hair, which had been mussed somehow by the summoning. “I’m afraid I can’t help. The heavens are forbidden from interfering directly in such things.”
“YOU ARE BOUND,” the demon repeated.
“Yes, you are bound,” the king agreed with a firm nod. “Isn’t she, wizard?”
Varigor paled as all three of them turned to look at him. He swallowed heavily. “Er…it certainly appears that way, your majesty.”
“Yes, yes it does. So we’re all stuck here until the problem is fixed. Right, wizard?”
“Er, yes.” Technically Varigor and the king could leave at any time, but the likelihood of that seemed to be shrinking rapidly.
“What do you want me to do, then?” the angel asked in a petulant voice.
The other three still seemed to be looking at Varigor for some reason. He wracked his brain for something to say. “Well, um. Perhaps if you cannot interfere directly, you could interfere indirectly?”
“A GOOD POINT, MANLING.”
“Yes, a good point wizard. Can you interfere indirectly?”
The angel finally finished fixing her hair. She tossed it back over her shoulder, turning and looking at the blood-soaked septagram. She sighed, the sound somehow both put-upon and condescending.
“I suppose I could summon a champion of the heavens. It’s better than being trapped down here for however many years it takes for this to work itself out. But I want to be remembered for this, alright? I want a shrine in the capitol, a nice one by the town square. Make sure it’s bigger than that garish shrine to Ezerella. She’s been insufferable since you put that thing up.”
“I ALSO WOULD LIKE A SHRINE,” the demon added.
There was a short pause. “I’m not sure my people would be comfortable with that,” the king said calmly.
The demon snorted. “THEY NEED NOT KNOW. BURY IT IN A FORGOTTEN TOMB. MY FOLLOWERS WILL FIND ME.”
The king thought for a moment, then nodded. “Very well,” he said. “Two shrines.”
The angel rolled up her sleeves, flexing her hands. “Alright,” she said. “By the power vested in me by the heavens, I bid thee summoned, hero…from another world!”
She snapped her fingers, and a shining white circle appeared above the blood-soaked septagram. A moment later, an old man in blue robes fell through and landed in the diagram with a splat.
The old man looked confused sitting in the puddle of ichor and blood. He slowly pushed himself up with a gnarled stick, looking around and muttering under his breath. His eyes landed on the angel, who smiled at him.
“Hail, hero,” she said, her voice light and musical. “You have been summoned to aid this kingdom in its hour of darkest need. In the whole of the cosmos, you are the most capable of…um…”
She trailed off. The old man had lost interest in her and wandered over to the edge of the septagram, seemingly unconcerned with the muck soaking his clothes. He began tapping the edge of the containment zone with his stick and muttering to himself under his breath.
“Hero?” the angel said hesitantly. He ignored her and continued muttering to himself.
“YOU HAVE OUTDONE YOURSELF, ELERIEL.” The demon snickered.
The angel made a sour face. She marched over to the edge of the containment zone, hands on her hips. “Hero!” she said. “You are being very rude. Now, I have summoned you here to–”
The old man waved a hand, and the angel’s voice disappeared. She continued talking, seemingly oblivious to the change, but nobody else could hear her.
“A wizard,” the king said. He sounded unfazed, but Varigor noted he took a rather long pull from his goblet of wine. His eyes darted over to catch Varigor staring.
“Wizard, go talk to him. You lot understand each other.”
Varigor’s back stiffened. “Your majest, I am not sure if–”
“Just do it,” the king said, waving a hand. “And magic me up some more wine before you do.”
Varigor sighed, cursing his lot in life. He waved a hand over the king’s goblet, wiggling his fingers and filling it to the brim with sweet wine, and turned to make his way to the septagram. Maybe if he walked slowly enough…
The old man was staring at him. Wonderful. Varigor slowly approached the edge of septagram. The old man held up his hand and wiggled his fingers, like Varigor had while filling the goblet.
He was curious about the magic? Varigor drew to a stop at the edge of the containment zone, and summoned more wine, letting it splatter onto the corrupted diagram. The old man watched intently, nodding to himself.
Next to Varigor, the angel seemed to have figured out that nobody could hear her. She was gesticulating wildly with her arms, her hair once more in disarray. Her face was red from silent shouting. Varigor marked that as a problem for a few minutes from now and turned back to the old man.
The old man wiggled his own fingers, in much the same way Varigor had. Wine poured from them this time. The old man’s shot up to meet Varigor’s, and the court wizard felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.
The summoned hero waved his hand again. Verigor felt a strange tingling in his ears. Then the hero spoke, in a strange guttural language that Varigor nevertheless understood perfectly. “How can I summon something from nothing?” he asked, sounding annoyed at the very idea. “It violates conservation of Phlogistinium!”
“Er,” Varigor said. “What is Phlogistinium?”
The old man’s eyes widened. His hands began to shake on his staff. “You do not have Phlogistinium, on this plane?” he said. Varigor opened his mouth to ask again what it was, but the man spoke over him. “Unthinkable. But it makes perfect sense. The portal, the gaps in the weave…”
“Wizard!” the king called from behind him. “You can understand him?”
“Er, I can, your majesty,” Verigor called back. “He seems somewhat distressed by the nature of our magic.”
“Distressed!” the old man said, sounding affronted. He spat on the ground. “This is the discovery of the century. Of the millenium! A plane without phlogistinium. Old Mercutius will eat his heart out…” The old man trailed off into muttering.
“Ask him about the famine!” the king called again from his seat. “Tell him my kingdom is dying!”
Verigor cleared his throat. “Erm,” he said, interrupting the old man’s muttering. “I’m terribly sorry, but we actually summoned you for a reason. You see, our kingdom is dying. The crops do not grow–”
The old man waved his stick. “Pfah! I don’t do applied work. You are speaking to the dean of the theoretical interplanar phenomena department of the Unwatched University, Professor Veridium Snotwick! I study mysteries beyond your reckoning. ‘The crops do not grow’ indeed! Like I’m some sort of arborist…”
“What is he saying, wizard?”
“He says he doesn’t do applied work, your majesty.”
“DO YOU HEAR THAT, ELERIEL?” the demon crowed. “HE DOESN’T DO APPLIED WORK! A FINE SUMMONING INDEED.”
The King was unmoved. “Tell him he had better, or our holy lady Eleriel will be very cross with him.”
Verigor snuck another glance at the angel. She was sitting on the ground with her arms crossed, clearly sulking.
“Er, Mr. Snotwick–”
“That’s Professor Snotwick!”
“Professor Snotwick, you see, our holy lady Eleriel summoned you specifically to help with this whole famine business. She said that in the whole of the cosmos, you are the most capable–”
“Well of course I’m the most capable! It doesn’t mean I’m going to exert myself on your behalf. Why, the nerve. You and that jumped-up theology elemental ripped me from my nice cozy study, why should I do anything for you?”
Verigor was beginning to suspect that this whole summoning business was getting away from him. “Your majesty,” he called over his shoulder. “He says he won’t help. He doesn’t seem terribly concerned about our holy lady being cross with him.”
The king pondered on that. “Tell him nobody is going home until this is solved, one way or another,” he finally declared. “And then offer him something he wants. A shrine perhaps?”
Verigor sighed, and repeated as much to Snotwick. The professor snorted.
“Go home? But I have so much I need to study! I’ll tell you what. I’ll do you a favor, from one practitioner to another. If you help me study the strange magics of this plane, I’ll summon you up a solution to your gardening problem. I know just the entity. It’s from a different metaphysical plane, but I don’t forsee any problems.”
Verigor’s eye twitched. He had served his king for many years, however, and had learned much of self control. “We graciously accept,” he said. “I will be happy to answer any questions you might have.”
“What?” the king called from his chair. “Verigor, what is he saying?”
“He’s going to summon something that can help, your majesty!” Verigor called back. “He just wants me to assist with a little research project.”
“Well that’s alright then,” the king said. He drank again from his goblet. “Well done wizard.”
“HE SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THE SHRINE,” the demon opined. Verigor glanced over to see him squatting next to the angel, patting her condescendingly on the back.
The professor tapped his stick on the edge of the containment zone again. Thin blue lines raced out from the point of contact, drawing fractal arcane diagrams into the barrier. Verigor’s eyes crossed as he tried to read them, and when he managed to focus again the professor had crossed over to stand next to him.
The professor raised his gnarled stick high and began to mutter. Verigor sighed and turned to face the center of the septagram. With no fanfare of any kind, a small blue cube appeared in the center.
I am the solution cube, said a voice in Verigor’s head. He jumped, looking around, but was unable to find the source. What solution is required?
“Wizard!” the king called from his seat. “What is this voice in my head?”
“It appears to be telepathy, your majesty.”
“Can it hear us?”
I can, the voice said. Please state the requirements for my solution.
“My kingdom is dying,” the king said solemnly. “The crops–”
Statement is proceeding too slowly. Simulating mental state and projecting requirements…
The cube winked out of existence, appearing at the king’s elbow. If Verigor was still alive tomorrow, he was going to design a new containment zone from scratch.
Projecting…projecting…requirements found. Solution found. Deploying solution.
The center of the septagram began to shimmer, like the air over a hot stone. Verigor leaned closer to see what would appear. To his surprise, it wasn’t another difficult guest, but a book. It floated through the air, over the muck and out of the useless contaiment zone, then flopped down at Verigor’s feet.
The book was thick, perhaps two inches, and the cover shone in an odd manner. Not magical, just glossy. The book was bright green, decorated with strange images so precisely drawn they looked almost lifelike. The title was incomprehensible gibberish.
The blue cube appeared out of nowhere at Verigor’s side. It pulsed with light, and his eyes began to itch. Suddenly the book’s title was comprehensible, the same way Snotwick’s words were.
The title read “Applied Agricultural Science”.
“What is it, wizard?” the king asked. “A talking book?”
“Just a normal book, your majesty.”
“I see. So no more summonings?”
Verigor hesitated. It seemed too good to be true. He tried nudging the book with his toe. It didn’t move.
“No more summonings, your majesty.”
“Excellent, excellent. I’m late for the gala.”
The king stood, draining the last of his wine and tossing the goblet onto his seat. “I’ll leave the rest to you, wizard. The kingdom is in your capable hands! Consider it a quest.”
“AND WHAT OF US?” the demon asked. “WE ARE STILL BOUND BY YOUR CURSED SPELL.”
The king shrugged as he walked toward the door. “You can help if you want, I suppose. Might get you back where you came from a little faster.”
Verigor turned to survey the room. The angel mouthed something nobody could hear, red in the face, as the demon grinned beside her. She seemed rather upset.
The professor had completely ignored all events since the summoning of the cube, and was tapping his stick on the cobblestone wall like he expected it to dispense the mysteries of the universe. His robes were still stained with blood and ichor, and he was splattering it all around the room as he walked.
The solution cube levitated up to rotate around Verigor’s head. Projecting meaning of word: ‘quest’… Verigor heard in his head. Projections acceptable. This solution cube has never been on a quest before. Useful knowledge and good times are anticipated. This solution cube will accompany you. Please begin questing immediately.
The king made his exit, door shutting behind him with an ominous click.